CH8 Pt1 Meeting Irena

After I had been back in London four days, I took the tube train across the city to Willesden to look up Iris’ friend, Miss Irena S. I did it from a sense of duty without any great enthusiasm. I was back in civvy street, still on leave, trying to find my bearings. But I felt like a fish out of water and I was very unsettled and unhappy. Much as I had detested the army, I could not see how I would ever settle down to a civilian job in London. The very paving stones shrieked to me of the days I had spent walking them when I was a poverty-stricken boy. The aftermath of war did not promise any greater prosperity. Taxes were high, everything was enormously expensive, while wages were low. I began to see more years of dismal struggle ahead. Had we all been through the war for nothing beyond this? How was I to find some avenue of progress?

I came to Willesden at lunchtime, and knocked at the door of a suburban house. It was opened by a spectacled, middle-aged woman.

“Irena?”

“Certainly.”

“Irena!” she screams up the stairs, and in a few moments Irena comes clattering down. She is in her early twenties, straight-haired and long, fine features in which I can somehow sense her Polish ancestry. I notice that she has a very good figure. She addresses me in excellent English with a faint accent that I found difficult to place.

“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?”

“I’m from Iris. I’ve just returned from Palestine.”

“Oh, yes. I received a letter from her a short time ago. How is she?”

“She’s in good health, and sends her best regards.”

And so on and so on, until Miss Irena suddenly says, “I have to go to work now. This is my lunch hour. Couldn’t we meet tonight and talk?”

Meet and talk? The whole night long? Oh, but I can’t. I am absolutely browned off and fed up, and the last thing I want to do is make polite conversation with Iris’s friend. Anyway, the girl is Jewish. So it’ll be a platonic emotionless exercise from the start, because Jewish girls don’t go for goyim. I just couldn’t stand up to such frigidly polite protracted make-believe in my present poisonous mood.

“You can’t make it?” Miss Irena is saying. “Why? Have you got a date?”

I can see that she is prepared to argue the toss, but before I can stop the words, I have admitted that I haven’t got a date.”

“I haven’t got a date either,” says Miss Irena. “So I’ll meet you outside the underground station at six.”

She gets ready for work, and I take a train back to the west end. Miss Irena is apparently a forceful character with a way of handling things. Oh, well, I suppose if I’m with somebody else it’ll leave less time for introspection.

At six o’clock a train from the west end redeposits me at Willesden where Miss Irena, with her hair newly set and her nose daintily powdered is waiting for me. Where shall we go? Back to the west end, of course, decides Miss S, and I agree with that, because that’s where the magic of London resides. So back we go, and I begin to think that maybe it’s not so bad. I’ve been out of the army four days, and it looks as if I’ve already got myself a girl friend. We spend the evening arm in arm walking through the cool London night, listening to the never ceasing rumble of the traffic, and talking interminably.

Near Victoria Station, on the way to Westminster, Miss Irena suddenly discovers that her high-heeled shoe is pinching, and stands on one leg to adjust it. By God, what lovely slim ankles and shapely calves she’s got. I really like that in a woman! As she adjusts her shoe, she leans on me for support. Hmm! A figure as slender as a reed, but as feminine as the Venus de Milo. I like that too!

The cool breeze lightly touches our faces. It is October, and the northern winter will soon be with us. The traffic rumbles. The twinkling lights of the great city are echoed by the twinkling stars in the cloudless night sky above. Later, as we approach the Houses of Parliament, Miss Irena feels tired, so we sit on a bench near the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Later still, Miss S remarks that it is turning rather cold, and moves closer to me for warmth. I put an arm around her, in a fatherly, protective fashion. But somehow this seems inadequate. And finally, beneath the yellow, illuminated moon face of Big Ben, I find myself kissing Miss Irena with unrestrained and very unfatherly enthusiasm. She is wearing a ruby red lipstick that tastes as sweet as sugared strawberries. By gee, I like that in a woman!

All good things come to an end. As we rise to go, Irena says, “The very first moment I saw you I knew you were the man I was going to marry.”

I seem suddenly to have jumped six feet in the air. Whoa!! Hold your horses, Sis! We were just having a matey smooch. A simple kiss between friends. Nothing more.

Shut your noise, Foxon, and save your breath. You have just had your first experience of the steel trap Irena mind. You clearly don’t know it yet, but Miss Irena has already crossed her Rubicon, and that means that you’ve also crossed yours.

I capitulated shortly afterwards, and we were married in April, 1947, at the Willesden Registry Office in north London. This was the last day of the income tax year, and I got a taxation rebate for supporting a wife for the whole of the preceding twelve months. Irene and I were equally happy about such a good bit of business. Several years later, when my brother got married, he worked it the same way. Nobody in our family likes paying taxes.

Irena had been in England just over a year when I met her. On arrival in the country, although she had picked up a great deal of English in the Middle East, her grasp of the language was still not perfect. German was her native language, Hebrew was still her second language, and English number three on the list. However, she insisted, as always, on speaking only the language of the country she was in. As a result of this, at the time of our meeting, her English was fluent, apart from minor errors such as saying “mit” for “with”, or ……..”putting a spook in his wheel,” or …….”screaming like a horse on fire…….”

“Like a house on fire, darling, not a horse on fire.”

“But why not? A horse would scream if it was on fire, wouldn’t it?”

How can you beat feminine logic?

Irene was born in Berlin of Russian-Polish parents. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a Polish rabbi from Cracow. He studied Torah and Talmud, preserved the Faith amongst his congregation, and sought with reverence to obey the will of the Master of the Universe. Later the family moved to Berlin where Irene’s brother Heini was born, followed soon after by Irena. Her father was a fine-featured man whose face clearly showed sensitivity and intelligence. He had been an officer in the Russian army during the war. He adored his small daughter, and lavished kindness and affection on her. He liked to go to boxing matches, and whenever he did so, took Irena with him. She loved her father above every other person in the world. On Irena’s birth certificate, her father’s profession is shown as “Kaufmann” – buyer.” The whole family was engaged in the garment trade, mostly in the sale of dresses in shops. They seem to have led a reasonably prosperous and happy life in Berlin, where they apparently had relatives, until the sudden death of Adolf S when his daughter Irena was seven years old. He had seen the rise of Hitler’s Brownshirts and survived the ruinous period of monetary inflation after the First World War. Mercifully he did not see Hitler’s final accession to power in 1932; neither did he have to suffer the terror, heartbreak and foul murder of the holocaust.

But to Irena the death of her beloved father was a terrible blow, which all but broke her heart.

Irena’s mother, Berta, was a strong-minded, attractive woman, who came originally from Cracow in Poland. She spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish and German. When she came to London in her early forties, she added English to her list of linguistic accomplishments. She might never have passed a degree in a University, but she never failed to know what was going on in any of her several languages, neither did she ever fail to make her point of view known to other people, no matter how fractured her grammar might be. She was a strongly built woman, but was always carefully corseted. If one applied the description “handsome” to her, it would be appropriate. She had very fine features, not a bit like the “Jewish” features of popular imagination. She dyed her dark hair blonde, and piled it artistically on top of her head. She looked exactly like one of Hitler’s fantasy “Aryan” maidens. The notices forbidding Jews to sit on certain seats or to enter certain public places never bothered her. She treated them with the contempt she so rightly thought they deserved. Her own mother, Esther, continued to live in Cracow in Poland, and Irena’s mother never failed to visit the old lady regularly and to look after her, even though, with the approach of the second world war she began to risk her life in so doing.

On September 1st, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and on September 3rd Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. With the German forces nearing Warsaw, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland. On September 28th, with most Polish resistance suppressed, Hitler and Stalin signed an agreement dividing Poland between them. Germany took the western and central part of the country, including Warsaw and Cracow. The Germans treated Poland with the utmost brutality, exterminating the educated class and more than 3 million Jews. Bearing this in mind one can only make the most pessimistic assumptions regarding the fate of “Grandma Esther” 

Ch5 Pt3 Paddy, cruelty, Freedom.

Paddy and I were loading a clay-tub at the quarry one day when he suddenly took off the old felt hat which he was wearing, flung it in a puddle, and with an unprintable expletive, uttered in a rich Irish brogue, announced that he wasn’t going to work anymore.

“But you must,” I said. “Otherwise they’ll clobber you.”

“Be Jaysers I won’t,” said Paddy, and threw himself full length upon the clayey earth. 

The Maestro saw us from afar and came hurrying over to our section of the quarry.

“Mensch! What’s the matter?”

“Ich bin krank,” said Paddy, holding his hand to his stomach. “I’m sick. Fetch a doctor.”

The Maestro was at a loss.

“You had better come with me to the hut.”

There was a hut at the end of the quarry, where we always ate our lunch. The Maestro helped Paddy there, and subsequently Wingy, looking more like the villain of the piece than ever with his slouch hat and evil smile, came hurrying towards the quarry to find out what the trouble was. Paddy complained of vomiting and pains in the abdomen, and suggested that he might have appendicitis. Wingy was sceptical. But after he had unsuccessfully tried to cure Paddy by kicking him several times in the ribs and other parts of the anatomy with the toe of his jackboot, he had to accept that a cut in his work force was inevitable.

Paddy was sent into Halle. There a South African doctor, himself a prisoner, who ran a clinic for POW’s, diagnosed appendicitis. Paddy went into hospital, and a fierce discussion raged for some days between learned English, German and Polish doctors as to whether his appendix was inflamed or not. Finally he was given a local anaesthetic, and he was able to watch with interest as the offending organ was removed. Of course, there was nothing wrong with it. But the operation was rather more extensive in those days than it is today. So Paddy now had a good rest in hospital until the incision healed.

In spite of everything, however, his plan miscarried. He had hoped that the war would be over in three months and that he would never see Wingy or the quarry again. Unfortunately the war was to last much longer, and Paddy returned to the quarry as a very reluctant labourer in Wingy’s workforce. 

“Flaming one armed penguin,” said Paddy, vengefully. “But I still conned the bastard, didn’t I?”

Our chief pastime when work at the brick factory was done was discussing rumours of the allied invasion of Germany. Thanks to my knowledge of French and some limited German, I became the chief purveyor of rumours. In the quarry were several forced labourers who, having given their promise not to escape, were allowed to go about more or less as they pleased. One of these was Stefan the Pole, who had not seen his wife and son in Warsaw for five years. He had access to a wireless set whose owners tuned in to London, and every morning he gave me news which he, in his wishful thinking, probably garbled somewhat, and which I, not always fully understanding, undoubtedly garbled even more. After each recital of Anglo-American and Russian successes on their respective fronts, I would ask:

“Stefan, are you sure this is true?”

And Stefan would answer: “Yes, it is true. Every word.” Then, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “English radio. English radio speak.”

Two other informants of mine were Piccolo and Mario, former Italian soldiers, now pressed into the unwilling service of the Reich. Piccolo and Mario both spoke good French, albeit with a strong Italian accent, and under the jealous eye of Wingy, who understood only German, they would pass on to me all the news they had picked up in the town.

Sometimes, too, they would bring me cooked sugar beets to eat. Sugar beets, indeed, threatened to become the staple diet of all of us.

At this time the sugar beet harvest in Germany was in full swing. Often Polish ex-soldiers used to drive ox carts loaded with it past our billet towards the railway. Then we would rush to the barred windows.

“Psst! Kamerad!”

Quickly the Pole would dismount, grab an armful of sugar beets and thrust them through the bars to us before the guard in the adjoining annexe had seen him. These sugar beets we used to bake in the barrack stove. A black crust would form on the outside which, when chipped off, disclosed a soft, sweet core. Unfortunately, too many sugar beets gave one a distended stomach and excruciating pains, for which reason Wingy had strongly forbidden their consumption. Thus our guards were always on the alert for the sound of an ox cart on the cobbles outside.

One day in the quarry I got a piece of grit in my right hand. The hand turned septic, and the inflammation spread up my arm. I was in considerable pain, but Wingy would not let me go to the doctor, telling me when we met in the factory one day, that I would shortly know, as he did, what it was like to lose an arm. As luck would have it, there was a new Feldwebel in charge of the Arbeits-kommando. I was finally sent to the sick bay in town with Pop. A grey haired old guard who was friendly with us all, although I never entirely forgot that he had joined in with everybody else in beating us up after the four of us had escaped from the lager. From the sick bay, I was sent immediately to hospital, with the message that I could possibly lose a finger. However, the German doctor who operated did a good job, and today the only souvenir I bear is a small scar joining the third finger and the palm of my right hand. The result of this operation, however, was that I spent several weeks with my arm in a sling unable to work. 

Soon after my return, a skipful of clay came off the overhead rail in the quarry and fell on my right hand, crushing my thumb and obliging me to spend several more unproductive weeks in the billet. Wingy, who heartily detested me, and whose feelings I reciprocated in full, therefore took the opportunity of transferring me and one or two other unsatisfactory characters, including Paddy to another brick factory on the other side of Halle. I guess it makes sense, if you have rotten staff, to transfer them to the opposition.

I never saw Wingy again, but later, when I was free, I passed through the town in an American truck. The Polish flag floated lazily over my former prison, and I wondered whether some foreign worker, ill treated for years by Wingy, had seized his opportunity and taken just vengeance.

The new brick factory to which I had been sent stood on a main road leading out of Halle, and differed very little from the one I had left. One morning, shortly after I had been transferred there, the town received its first serious air raid. The sirens wailed, we heard the spluttering of guns in the distance, and then the attacking aircraft came roaring in. They were American, and they flew over continuously for about ten minutes, never breaking formation. Bombs began to fall from their silver bodies just as they passed over the factory, and we could see little trails of vapour as they hurtled diagonally down to the centre of the town. There were many French forced labourers working beside us whose first sight this was of allied revenge, and they went wild with delight. After several minutes, the last bomb sped shrieking to earth, and the last aeroplane disappeared into the blue sky. But an immense pall of grey smoke was rising from the centre of Halle and spreading over the town.

That night, and on subsequent days, we were marched into town in a quite hopeless attempt to repair some of the damage which had been caused. For instance, they gave us shovels to fill in bomb craters that would accommodate a small house. Evidently the railway station had been the central target, for overhead electric cables had been ripped down, and the steel tracks were twisted fantastically above gaping bomb craters. But other parts of town had been hit also, and in one street we saw the mutilated corpses of men, women and children laid out by the civil defence authorities in neat rows along the pavement. Many years later I paid my first and only visit to the killing room of an abattoir, where the bodies of beasts are carried on meat hooks around the work floor while men skin them and then carve up the bloody carcases in transit. Only then did it occur to me that the expressions “charnel house” or “slaughter house” are the only terms to describe accurately the scene of bloody murder we saw that night by naphtha flares in the town of Halle.

Such is the nature of modern warfare.

A few days later, when we were working some way away, in the quarry, another alert sounded, and we retired with our guards to the little hut where the men ate their lunch until the all clear should go. Grimly I recollected London’s baptism of fire. Then I remembered how the inhabitants of Halle who had previously ignored the sirens now scuttled like bevies of startled farmyard hens for the nearest cellar marked “Luftschutzraum.” 

Suddenly Paddy’s voice broke into my thoughts, saying, “D’you mind moving away from the stove?”

He was speaking to a thin, irregular-toothed Czech, a volunteer worker who was regarded by everyone as something of a collaborator. The Czech had planted himself directly in front of the iron stove so that nobody else could see the fire.

“D’you mind moving, please?” asked Paddy a second time.

The Czech affected not to understand.

“D’you mind moving so that we can get warm as well as you?”

Paddy repeated, and made signs so that the other could not fail to understand, and was obliged to shift very slightly to one side.

“Thanks,” said Paddy, sarcastically. “It’s very kind of you, I’m sure.” He had never liked the Czech, who was a great tale-teller to his German masters, and I could see that his Irish temper was rising.

Suddenly the Czech said: “Ah, this terrible war. So many people are dead in Halle. Men, women and children.” 

“That’s the way war is,” said Paddy. “Dies ist Krieg, Verstanden? War is bad. Men, women and children – no difference in war. Impossible to make any difference – verstehen? The Germans have bombed us. Now we are bombing the Germans. It cannot be helped. Krieg – War.” 

The Czech looked at him through half closed eyes. Paddy was a small man, not physically imposing. The Czech spoke in clear, good German, thinking perhaps that Paddy with his mere smattering of the language would not understand him.

“What terrible destruction.” A sneer revealed his ugly teeth. “But then, what can you expect? Alle Englische Leute sind Schweinerei! All English people are swine!”

The last words, hissed spitefully, brought a sudden stillness throughout the hut. Everybody had understood perfectly. But while the rest of us were letting it sink in, Paddy was on his feet, his face chalk white with anger.

“What’s that? What’s that?”

The Czech was uncertain of himself. He continued to sneer, but looked towards the German workers and the guard for support. Suddenly Paddy punched him wickedly in the face. Crack! Like a cricket ball meeting the bat.

“What’s that you say?” Again he hit him. The Czech stumbled against a table.

“What’s that you say?”

Beside himself with rage, Paddy smashed his clenched fist again and again into the other’s face. Blood was trickling from the side of the Czech’s mouth.

Then the guard interposed himself and we were pulling Paddy away. 

“OK, Paddy. Leave the lousy collaborator alone. You’ll kill him.”

“Kill him? Too true I’ll kill the bastard if he doesn’t stay away from me.”

The unfortunate Czech was not at that moment in a position to stay away from anyone, having collapsed in a daze against the table.

A second guard came bustling across, opened a tin and offered it to Paddy.

“Eine Zigarette?”

Paddy looked at him, composed himself, then carefully took a cigarette, rather as if he were selecting a choice Havana cigar.

“Thank you kindly. I’m obliged to you. Dankeschön, Posten.”

“Bitte,” said the guard, politely. “Don’t mention it.”

He took a cigarette himself, produced matches, and with assiduous attention gave Paddy a light.                

The Czech had picked himself up and slunk to the back of the barrack. The guard proceeded to address all and sundry.

“This man,” said the guard, placing an affectionate arm around Paddy’s shoulders, “is a good soldier. He did well to strike that other person. He was defending his Fatherland. In his position, I would also have defended my Fatherland. Everybody must defend his Fatherland.”

We English looked at each other in amazement. We might almost have been transported to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, or to the Theatre of the Absurd, although that had not yet been invented. Here were the Americans belting the tripe out of the Germans in Halle, an Irishman belting the tripe out of a Czech for insulting the English over the Americans, and the Germans praising the Irishman for supporting the English……..Une drôle de guerre……A bloody funny war………

It must have been a fortnight later that we heard the rumble of artillery in the distance. It continued for two or three days, growing rapidly louder. Then, one night, we were roused from our beds in the barrack, lined up outside, marched through the factory grounds and out into the main road. All the French prisoners had been paraded as well, and our two columns merged into one as we poured into the street.

“Bon soir, camarade.” 

“Ca va?”

“Ca boume. Et toi?” 

“Il paraft que les Boche vont trinquer.”

At the gate stands a Russian forced labourer. It appears that only prisoners of war are being evacuated.

“Cheerio, Russky.”

“Sheeri-o, Kamerad.”

I look around for some Italian friends of mine – black marketeers who have connections among the farmers in the country, and whose billet is normally stuffed with food of the kind to make the average German worker’s mouth water. They are not to be seen, and the word is that they have sneaked away into the countryside to await the advancing American troops.

Suddenly, in time with our marching feet, a song begins. The Frenchmen who for years have suffered bullying, hardship and separation from their families are beginning to sing the Marseillaise. The melody starts softly at first, then bursts full throatedly through the German streets. Even the English, who do not know the words, hum the tune.

“Allons, enfants de la Patrie,

Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

Contre nous de la tyrannie,

L’étendard sanglant est levé……….”

It is triumph. Triumph! Who can explain the joy in the hearts of people who have been degraded prisoners, and now suddenly smell freedom. Democracy and decency have triumphed in spite of everything. Soon the English will return to their foggy island and the French to beautiful, incomparable France.

Tramp, tramp, tramp. We march right through Halle, which, with its bombed buildings and derelict trams, now looks very much like Arnhem after the battle there, and into the countryside beyond. Presently the first joy of approaching liberation disappears. We have all been slowly starving for several months, and we are thin and weak. Conversation flags, the column loses step and begins to straggle. On either side the guards, themselves tired and dispirited, shout at us to get a move on.

“Los! Schneller! Schneller!”

At five o’clock in the morning we are only too pleased when a halt is called and we are all of us able to throw ourselves down on the frost covered ground, just as we are, and sleep. At sun-up, cold and stiff, we are roused, and the stumbling, staggering column makes its way forward again. There is no food. From now onwards we must fend for ourselves as best we can. Some of us have an odd tin of cocoa or coffee saved from the occasional Red Cross parcel which got through to us. These will be exchanged at farmhouses on the way for a loaf of bread. If we come across a potato field, we will plunder it. Sometimes, when we pass through villages, the German inhabitants will appear at their doors and offer us slices of bread.

In one village, as our column straggles through the main street, a German woman calls me into the back and gives me a glass of milk and a sandwich.

“I am very grateful to you,” I tell her, knowing how desperate the food situation is becoming for everybody. “Danke vielmals.”

“Bitte,” she says. “You are welcome. My son is also a soldier – in the German army.”

At another village, where I beg a glass of water from a grizzled old woman, I receive a shock.

“President Roosevelt ist tot.”

President Roosevelt is dead.

“What?” It is unbelievable. It cannot be. How will the world go on without this great American, the one true statesman who wanted to bring peace to mankind.

“……Are you sure?”

“Ja. The English radio. It is terrible. He was a very good man.” 

This is a tribute indeed from a German.

I tell my friends. The French prisoners, seeing their expressions of stunned surprise, ask me what is wrong. I tell them, and they, too, are shocked.

“Non. C’est pas possible. Pas possible.” One cannot believe it. 

The news spreads along the column and gloom grips all of us. The German guards shake their heads when we tell them about it.

“It is bad…bad.”

In later years history dealt harshly with Roosevelt’s judgment at Yalta. The occupation of much of Eastern Europe by the Russians was laid largely at his door. But I think that the respect in which he was held by so many diverse people, was a tribute to his honesty of purpose. If honesty has no place in international politics, well, that is another thing.

As we marched slowly through the flat fields of Middle Germany, we became less capable of effort. Soon we were stopping every twenty minutes or so for a ten minute rest. Then the guards would rouse themselves and us also, and we would struggle on for perhaps another mile. Sometimes we heard the sound of guns behind us. Once, in the evening, when we were camped in a large potato field, we saw the glow of a big fire somewhere on our flank. Presently allied aircraft appeared in the sky and began to shadow our column. They aroused a faint flame of hope in our hearts, but really we were becoming too exhausted to care much about anything except the next hundred yards or so of road and how it was to be covered. Many of us as the day wore on, would collapse on the road as it became too much of an effort to continue. This happened to me on two or three occasions. I remember a German officer coming up and standing over me for a few moments, perhaps giving me time to recover, then making a show of unbuttoning his pistol holster and saying, ”Na, los!” Would he have used his pistol on me had I been unable to move? I have no idea. Somehow I always struggled to my feet and struggled on.

Finally, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Leipzig, we came to a huge half completed camp. Here, in a forest encircled by barbed wire, English, French, Polish, Yugoslav and Sikh prisoners of war gathered together to await they knew not what.

Fires were forbidden, but we all began cutting down bushes and making fires just the same. The camp was so huge and the guards so few that they could do nothing about it.

In any case, from the frequent appearance of English and American aeroplanes overhead it was obvious that the allies were aware of our position, that they had complete control of the skies without any opposition, and that the German Reich was in its death throes. All that we had to try and do now was survive just a little bit longer.

We were roused early one morning, and in a milling, mixed column, poured out of the main gate. All sorts of rumours were rife. The first one, apparently believed emphatically by the German guards was that the war between Germany and the Anglo-Americans was shortly to be called off, after which we should all become allies and fight the Russians. This was so incredible that we didn’t give it a moment’s serious thought. It was quickly superseded by a more likely rumour that the Russians had begun a push towards Leipzig, and rather than have us all fall into their hands, the Germans had decided to move us westwards in the direction of the American lines.

Before coming into the countryside, we passed through a small village. Every house was being evacuated. Horse carts and oxen carts were loaded with chairs, cupboards, beds and sheets. These were the accumulated possessions of years for which people had worked out their lives. These desperate families were seeing a lifetime of toil destroyed in a matter of hours. Sometimes an old man would be sitting ready to drive the cart away, but mostly it would be the woman of the house who was in charge, her children gathered about her or perched on top of the piled up household goods. The younger men – even at this stage the young teen-age boys – had, of course, been called up for the army. We pitied these people. Who knew what wanderings and miseries lay before them, or if and when they and their menfolk in the military would see each other again. On the other hand, what mercy had the Germans shown to refugees crowding the French roads in 1940. And what mercy had been shown to untold numbers of people murdered in concentration camps because, by an accident of fate, they had been born into Jewish families? Or they had some tenuous connection with Jewish families which, according to Hitler’s mad philosophy, made them less than human.

These were sobering, saddening thoughts, and the dull, cold morning made our mood even more sombre. But as the day wore on, the sun came out. And with the warmth of its rays, a new hope tingled within us.

The wildest rumours now rippled through our ranks, the most unbelievable of them being that a temporary armistice had been declared, and that all prisoners of war in this part of Germany were being marched straight into the American lines. At about mid day we noticed – simultaneously, it seemed, as if by telepathy – that our guards were no longer with us. Suddenly a Frenchman beside me pointed excitedly across the fields.

“Look. The American flag.”

I strained my eyes in the now bright sunlight. In the distance a patch of cloth fluttered above a farmhouse.

“That’s not the American flag. That’s a white flag.”

There was the murmur of an engine in the distance. Then, with a sudden roar, a small artillery observation aircraft passed overhead. No sooner had it disappeared than we heard the stuttering of a motorbike, and a soldier in the uniform of the American army came riding along the column. A few moments later he returned and went pop-popping into the distance.

We were now passing through a village. White flags hung from all the windows, and silent groups of people stood at their doors, staring at us as we went by. Tired as we all were, we stumbled on as fast as we could. There was an indescribable excitement about the column, bordering on hysteria as pent-up emotions were released. Like a troop of thirsty horses smelling water, we were smelling freedom. Nobody can really know what a sweet word that is unless they have experienced imprisonment.

Finally we came into the town of Wűrzen on the River Mulde. White flags hung at all the windows. The column broke into a stumbling run. From the distance came the sound of cheering as men ahead of us realised the incredible fact that they were free and gave vent to their feelings accordingly. On the street corners German soldiers stood in bedraggled grey-green groups, their rifles stacked in neat heaps. American infantrymen, looking like cowboys with their low-slung revolvers joggling at their hips and tin hats pushed to the back of their heads, lounged nonchalantly on guard.

Cloud drifted across the sky and obscured the sun. A faint drizzle began to fall. But we did not heed it. We too began to cheer, hysterically, with breaking voices. We scattered all over the street, stopping every American soldier we saw, shaking hands with them, embracing them, even.

“Good afternoon, good afternoon. Glad to see you, chum! Glad to see you, mate!”

Freedom, freedom! In two days’ time I shall be twenty three years old. Never in all my life have I received such a marvellous birthday present as this.

Sitting on the kerb is a tough, stocky little man whose tartan shoulder flashes proclaim him to be a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He looks up as I pass. His eyes are filled with tears; and tears of unashamed joy are streaming down his unshaven cheeks.

Ch5 pt 2. Capture. Escape. Recapture.

We spent that evening in a disused factory just over the German border, sleeping on a little straw we found there, which may or may not have been provided for our especial benefit. We were beginning to feel extremely hungry, but received only four small potatoes each. Had we but known it, by the German standards of that time, this was an ample meal. The following day we had a little potato soup. Then in the evening we received two doorstep size slices of brown German bread, a piece of margarine as big as one’s thumb, and an equally meagre amount of liver sausage. This was to last us, we were told, for forty-eight hours. In actual fact it lasted for the next four days.

We were split up into parties, taken outside to a railway siding where cattle wagons of the “eight horses, forty men” variety were waiting, and after being counted several times were bundled into them. The doors were locked and, in pitch blackness, we were left to our thoughts. We could feel straw on the floor, but due to the crowding of the wagon there was little room to sit down, and none at all to stretch oneself out full length. A subsequent count revealed that fifty-eight men had been crammed into our wagon, one or two of them with fairly nasty wounds.

We were being taken to a prison camp near the country town of Limburg, which we gathered was not far from Cologne, although in actual fact it was probably closer to Frankfurt. However, allied strafing of the railway system and general disorganisation prolonged our relatively short journey from forty eight hours to five days. During the first four of these we received no food other than that which had been originally given to us. We had been very hungry before, and at the end of this final four days were ravenous and starting to feel weak. We sat hunched up against each other in a dull stupor most of the time. One or two of us who stood up too quickly felt their heads spin and had to grab something for support.

Our difficulties were aggravated by lack of water. When the train stopped, we had to attract the attention of one of the sentries. 

“Hallo! Posten! Bitteschon! Komm’ hier.”                                                   

Slowly the sentry would stroll towards us, his rifle slung over his shoulder, his grey-green forage cap with the small red white and black concentric circles at its tip perched ridiculously on his head. (The English, too, wore these forage caps, with regulation khaki colour and slightly different cut, but equally stupid).

“Was wollen Sie?” he demands. 

“Wasser, bitte. Water.” 

We hand him out mess tins and tin hats through a slit that has been left between the sliding door and the wall of the wagon. However, there are several wagons, and the sentries do not hurry themselves. Sometimes the train starts up and we miss out, losing the receptacles we have given out. We hope that our supply of tin hats will last till the end of the journey. But the result is that to our hunger is now added a very considerable thirst.

We were not allowed out of the train to relieve ourselves. So we had to urinate through the narrow slit where we passed out our mess tins. Or we used our steel helmets and subsequently emptied them through the same slit. Probably through lack of food not very many wanted to defecate.                                                                            

At the beginning of the fifth day, a Luftwaffe officer from a neighbouring air force prison camp visited the train and ordered that the men be let out to relieve themselves. He also conjured up some loaves of bread, which did not allow much for each individual but were nonetheless very welcome.

The following day, our train pulled up in a siding, we stumbled into the open air, and our guards began to march us across a series of mud dunes towards a road and a railway crossing. Around the railway crossing were gathered gabled houses, reminding one of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. This was Limburg. We turned our backs on it, and straggled along a slowly rising cement road, passing on the way a couple of carts drawn by dull eyed oxen. We were to discover that oxen transport was a regular part of the German rural wartime landscape. 

Finally we reached the summit of the hill. The road dipped, and rounding a corner, we came upon barbed wire and a towering wooden gate with a carved German eagle surmounting it. 

This was Stalag X11A at Limburg. Like sheep we were driven into the compound.

The Germans had never expected such a huge influx of prisoners, and the timber barracks were already overcrowded. We were therefore banished to the other end of the camp where half a dozen outsize tents had been erected. Straw was on the ground, and here the survivors of the Arnhem operation found themselves billeted with sundry other British, American and Polish prisoners taken during the recent push through France, Belgium and Holland. The tents were overcrowded, but we did not mind that. The weather had turned extremely cold, and at least the fact that there were a large number of men in the tents ensured that the temperature there was warmer.

We were now really introduced to German food, and the meeting was not a happy one. In the morning, each man received a slice of bread and a little treacle, plus half a mess tin of ersatz coffee. At one o’clock in the afternoon a pail of cabbage, carrot or spinach soup would be brought up to be divided between twenty to thirty men, giving each about half a mess tin of vegetables and water. In the evening every man received three or four small potatoes, boiled in their jackets and very gritty. This was to be the best food ever given to us in Germany, but our stomachs rebelled against it just the same. Diarrhoea very near to dysentery became rife, and because there was no room in the improvised hospital a few minutes’ walk away, men lay drawn and weak about the tents, unable to move. The British medical officer gave them binding potions, but could do no more. The lavatories became stopped up, and finally the whole area around them turned into a stinking bog, not helped by the rain that now began to fall.

Then there were disputes about the fair division of food. Some NCO’s who had been supervising this were accused of putting out extra for themselves. Eventually we took it in turns to share out the pails of vegetable swill, optimistically called soup, also the evening meal of potatoes. No sooner had this squabble ended, than fights developed for the odd bit of potato peeling or cabbage leaf remaining in the pails after everything had been shared out as fairly as possible amongst us. Most of us stood back, but a minority fought. On the other side of the barbed wire, German guards laughed heartily at this, and even American and Polish prisoners looked on with undisguised contempt. Slowly the realisation of their shameful conduct and the miniscule amount of the prize came to the English, and the savage battles around the near empty food pails ceased.

At Limburg I met many acquaintances from my division who had been captured on the bank of the Lower Rhine as they waited for boats to ferry them across. The Germans’ idea seemed to be to split us up as soon as possible, and after three weeks about four hundred of us went to a Stalag near Muhlberg, somewhere in Middle Germany. Although Stalag IVB was large, the township of Muhlberg must have been small. The journey was by cattle wagon again, but this time it took only two days. Furthermore we had been liberally supplied with Limburg cheese to refresh us on our way. This cheese is made in long, sausage like rolls, and is quite the strongest cheese I have tasted or smelt. Such was our hunger, however, that we soon had no compunction about eating the stuff without bread and by the mouthful. However, I did not become a connoisseur, and after the war my aversion to this type of cheese returned. If presented with Limburg cheese, I would take the tiniest piece, just for old times’ sake, but that was all.

By International agreement the rule regarding prisoners of war was that all ranks under that of sergeant should be obliged to work, and Muhlberg was evidently to serve as a transit camp where it could be arranged to send us to various “Arbeitskommando” or working parties.

A favourite trick of prisoners was, of course, to sew three stripes on each arm and call themselves sergeants, thus avoiding the obligation to work for the enemy. Unfortunately I did not become aware of this minor dishonesty until my identity as a private soldier was established. In any event, I had no assets, such as cigarettes or coffee, which I could trade for a set of sergeant’s stripes.

Everything was highly organised at Muhlberg. The food was similar to the Limburg variety, but our stomachs were becoming used to it now, and diarrhoea was not so frequent. Furthermore, our diet was augmented by extra comforts from British, American and French Red Cross parcels. The prisoners were mostly British, and many had been there for four years. They seemed to be well in the saddle, more or less running the camp by themselves. There was a well-organised black market where one could buy almost anything if one had the necessary cigarettes, chocolate or coffee to pay for it. The camp had its own amateur theatre of good standard, and there were several secret radio receivers. The Gestapo were in the process of pulling the theatre to pieces when we arrived, believing that one of these radios was hidden there, but they did not find anything.

The most eagerly awaited part of the day at Muhlberg Stalag, apart from meal times, was the early evening. At about a quarter to seven regularly, unless it was found necessary to disarm the suspicions of a guard, a runner used to make the rounds of the various huts in our vicinity. Then the hut leader – the “confidence man” as he was known – would call us all together, look-outs would be posted at the doors, and the six o’clock news from the BBC in London would be read out. The whereabouts of the radios that received this news was kept a strict secret. The ordinary British prisoner was as ignorant of their hiding places as were the German guards and prison establishment.

Most men in the camp were equally unknowledgeable of details concerning the “Escape Committee”. This was a committee of prisoners who had contact with the outside world – undoubtedly through a corrupt guard – and could arrange for especially important prisoners to be smuggled out to freedom. Cases were cited of people who had got away and whose escape the Germans in this huge camp had not discovered until months afterwards. These tales – whispered conspiratorially into one’s ear – may have been true, although from the frequent roll calls which were taken, I was sometimes inclined to attribute them to wishful thinking on the part of homesick prisoners.

One evening a German officer came into the hut. The confidence man called us on parade, and the German read out a list of some thirty names, helped with the pronunciation of the more difficult ones by the confidence man. I was on the list. Tomorrow we were to march out of the high wooden gates of Muhlberg Stalag and across the fields to the neighbouring gabled railway station. There, amid the elegantly dressed German citizens, we would stand in our dirty uniforms, stared at by the wondering children in peaked caps, children who might almost be our own, as we waited for the wooden seated train to Halle. 

Halle was a town south of Berlin, straddling the River Saale. It had a population in excess of a quarter of a million, and was the birthplace, I was later to learn, of the composer Handel. We were to commence work in a brick factory on its outskirts, thus helping indirectly to reconstruct German buildings that the Royal Air Force and the Americans were busily engaged in knocking down. 

Loufoquerie de guerre!  (The madness of war!) But such was the game that we were engaged in.

From the first time that I saw them, I never liked the two men who ran the brick factory at Halle. One was in his sixties, small, plumpish, grey moustached and Homburg hatted. The other, his son, was jack-booted, slim and dark, with a slow smile, which discovered beautiful, white regular teeth. He had long black eyelashes, like a girl’s, and he wore a black trilby hat with the brim turned down slouch fashion. He had been an S.S. officer in the German army, and had lost an arm on the Russian Front. The realisation of this deficiency seemed to sensitize a mind already sufficiently wicked, and he revenged himself on the prisoners working in the brick factory, smashing his remaining fist into their faces on the slightest provocation, and taking a savage delight in kicking them with his pointed jackboots. The French prisoners called him “Le Manchot”. We called him “Wingy”, which by a not so strange coincidence, was just about an exact translation. He was detested by foreign prisoners and German workmen alike. 

The day we arrived at the brick factory, we were lined up for inspection by Wingy and his father. 

The old man came up to me.  “Beruf?”                                                                                                                     

“Bitte?” I did not understand.                                                                                 

“Beruf! Profession!”  Ah. He wanted to know my trade. How should I translate

that into his language?                                                                                                                     

“Clerk. Schreiber.”     

An evil smile wrinkled the skin about his hard eyes, and he said slowly in German, so that I could pick out the words:                                                                                       

“A clerk. So! We shall have to find some extra hard work for you. You will go and dig clay in the quarry. Eine sehr schwere Arbeit, Mensch. Understood?” Oh, yes. I understood him very well.

The quarry lay in the open fields, some distance from the brick factory. Here clay was hewn from the gaping earth and loaded into tubs. These tubs, running on an improvised overhead rail, were pushed to a machine at the end of the quarry. From this machine a never ending moving cable connected the quarry with the factory. All day long the moving cable captured one tub after another, and a continuous chain of clay filled buckets moved across the sky, supported by monstrous pylons and the endless cable that joined them. 

The brick factory was a long shed-like building of timber and corrugated iron. On the top floor, clay from the bucket chain was poured continuously into a mixer. Men then sped the empty buckets through the open end of the platform on their return journey to the quarry. Other ingredients were added, the mixture was compressed by huge rollers, and then forced downwards through a sieve to the ground floor where it emerged from a chute like a never-ending square sausage. A man stood by the hole from which the clay was extruded, cutting it into oblong pieces of the correct size with a device, which looked like an oversize wire cheese cutter. A further two men loaded the wet clay pieces on to a conveyor belt which would take them to a kiln to be baked into bricks.

After we had been working in the quarry for a week, a small party of us decided to escape while we still had the strength left in our bodies to move. For the food we received was more meagre than ever, and the bullying meted out to make us fill more and more tubs with clay had become unbearable.

Paddy was the acknowledged escape expert of our group. He had deserted from the Irish Army, breaking out of detention barracks in order to join the English. Then there was Jock, with a broken nose, broken teeth and a broad Scottish accent, and small, crafty-eyed Dave from Birmingham. I was the fourth member of the party.

We were billeted in a large hut close to the brick factory, watched over from an annexe by three geriatric soldiers from the German Home Guard and their sergeant major. Outside the billet and the annexe, in a small area of ground surrounded by a barbed wire fence, stood the lavatory. One evening we dollied up our beds with broomsticks and rubbish to make it appear that we were sleeping. Then we slipped out separately and, when we were all gathered by the lavatory, squeezed through a gap in the wire. Unfortunately a guard came out at that moment. He saw us, gave a shout. A shot was fired and we scattered. Paddy and Jock dashed in one direction, Dave and I in another. 

When we had got well away from the billet, Dave and I stopped for a consultation. It now seemed that we had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, and we had no idea what we were going to do. We noted a railway line running across country. that we had persuaded ourselves went in a more or less northerly direction. We decided that if we could jump a train we might finish up close to Berlin. We would jump off before we reached Berlin, then strike westwards. We would lie low close to some small village where we could steal food from a local farmhouse, and wait for the advancing allied armies to pick us up.

Unfortunately this grandiose plan was proved abortive almost as soon as we had conceived it. For the goods trains which travelled along the line at this point went at a fair speed, far too fast for us to have any hope of boarding them. We therefore decided to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the brick factory. We struck out across country, both of us plunging up to our knees into a small hidden watercourse on the way, and getting fairly well soaked. It must have been early morning, as we were walking, cold and shivering along a railway track, that two shadowy figures suddenly appeared behind us, guns were rammed into our backs, and a hoarse voice shouted: “Hande hoch!” 

Recovering from our surprise we put up our hands. We were marched ahead for several yards, then one of the shadowy figures went forward and opened the door of a wooden hut whose interior was lit by an old fashioned oil lamp. We now had a chance to see our captors. One was a tall man wearing jackboots and what seemed to me to be some sort of a naval uniform complete with blue peaked cap. After a moment’s reflection I put him down as a local railway official. He kept us carefully covered with a large revolver while his colleague, who was dressed in the grey-green semi military uniform and tall helmet of the German police and had a rifle slung over his shoulder, picked up the telephone and asked the exchange for a number.

The policeman seemed very pleased with himself. He swaggered up and down while awaiting his telephone call and addressed sundry sentences to us in a harsh Middle German dialect that we were totally unable to comprehend. I thought that he would probably get a mention in dispatches for our capture and was letting off steam. The telephone rang. We heard the words “Prisoners of War” repeated several times. Then he hung up abruptly and made a sign. “Hande”. We held out our hands, and in a moment were manacled together. “Komme mit. Come with me.” At the door, however, he stopped. He thrust his face close to ours and burst into a torrent of incomprehensible words at the end of which, however, occurred one we could not fail to understand. “……….geschossen.” Dave looked sharply at me.                                                         

“Did he say they’re going to take us out and shoot us?” 

I do not know. The Germans had recently posted up notices stating that certain areas of the country were “forbidden”, and that any escaping prisoners of war found in them would be shot. Moreover, the two men, in spite of their bravado, were obviously as afraid of us as we were of them, and they handled their guns in a far from reassuring, trigger-happy fashion.

We marched through a sleeping village and across a dark, sloping heath. It seemed an ideal spot for an execution, and we were aware that some of the more fanatical Nazis had carried out this kind of deed from time to time with no compunction whatsoever. If they were going to shoot us, this was the obvious spot to do it, out of hearing of the houses behind us.

And now a strange thing happened to me. If I was going to die, I felt that it would be a matter of deep regret. But peace had descended upon my mind, and suddenly, in a way that I could not understand, I was no longer afraid. Moreover, it came to my mind that it was important that I give no indication of fear. My executioner should remember for the rest of his life that an Englishman knew how to present himself when the final moment came.  

In retrospect it is difficult to understand how these thoughts came to me, for normally I am anything but chauvinistic. But it is completely true that some force outside myself gave me a serenity and courage to accept that I never knew I possessed. I believe that Dave had the same feeling, for we both straightened our backs, lifted our heads and began to march firmly and in step. But our manacled hands were rigid as we waited for the sudden report and the paralysing, punch-in-the-back entry of bullet into flesh and bone.

Suddenly I heard the bolt of the policeman’s rifle being drawn back and then thrust forward. He had put a round up the spout ready to fire. This was it. In another moment all would be blackness. There was no escape now.

Seconds passed. The conversation of our guards had stopped. The only sound was the swish of our boots through the grass. Suddenly I could not bear the suspense any longer. I looked round. And as I did so, the click of a bullet being forced up the spout was repeated. The policeman had sharply knocked out the ashes of his pipe against the breech of his rifle. I had heard nothing more than that. My inflamed imagination had done the rest.

After an hour’s march during which we met several other policemen — evidently the whole area had been alerted about our escape — we came to the little cobbled village of Teicha. Here our captors knocked at the door of a farmhouse. A sleepy soldier eventually appeared, and we were taken upstairs and thrust into a small cement cell. About half an hour afterwards, Paddy and Jock were pushed sprawling through the door to join us, and we spent the rest of a very cold night huddled together for warmth.

The next day brought our guards from the brick factory and a thorough beating up, administered the moment they entered our cell. This beating was repeated when we returned to our billet. We were stripped naked, forced into a cupboard and thrashed with canes. The sergeant major, firmly believing me to be the ringleader of the break, gave me a special punch on the jaw, which made me see the stars and put out of my head for all time any ambition to take up boxing as a career.

Then we were sent back to the quarry. Wingy gave us his special attention for the next few weeks, and the benefit of the toe of his boot. Additionally, we were sentenced to spend several Saturday evenings and Sundays, when there was normally no work, in the jail at Teicha with a small hunk of bread apiece and a communal jug of water to sustain us for the forty eight hours until we fronted up for work at the quarry early Monday morning.

However, it turned out that several Polish prisoners were billeted at the farmhouse. Moreover, the German soldier in charge of them had himself been a prisoner in England during the 1914-18 War, and had some sympathy for our position. The Poles were favourably disposed because the entire conflict in which we were engaged had arisen as a result of Britain going to war following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Thus this very kind German soldier provided coal for the little stove in our cell and also collected potatoes for us to roast. He brought straw mattresses into our empty cell with its bare cement floor. And in the evening he let the Poles in to our cell, allowing them to make us gifts of sandwiches and of Polish cigarettes, smoked through long cardboard holders. All signs of this unseemly comfort were removed very early Monday morning before our guards came to fetch us. And, of course, we were most strictly enjoined not to say a word to anyone, not even our comrades. For in prisoner- of-war conditions it is regrettably true that there is always someone who will sell his grandmother for an extra slice of bread.

Eventually all good things come to an end. Wingy decided one day that we had paid for our sins, and thenceforth we were no longer allowed to spend our weekends in what had become our happy little jail at Teicha.

Another German who showed considerable kindness towards us was the foreman in the quarry. To the Polish forced labourers who toiled beside us and to the German workmen, he was known as the “Meister”. Of course, it went against the grain for us to call him “master”. So we compromised with the word “Maestro”, which did not make us feel inferior, and was near enough to the original pronunciation to satisfy all concerned.

The Maestro was tall and thin, wore little muffs like wireless headphones over his ears, to keep them warm, and cultivated a small black toothbrush moustache of the Hitler variety. Here, however, all resemblance to Hitler ended. The Maestro detested the Fűhrer’s master race theories, and said so in no uncertain terms. In broken German he and I used to discuss the eventual unity of mankind and the abolition of war.            

“Das kommt, Foxon.” 

“Ja, ja, Maestro. Das Kommt. In einer entfernten Zukunft. One of these days, one of these far-off days it’s coming.” 

Every Monday morning, when we returned to the quarry from Teicha jail, the Maestro used to say:

“Langsam, Mensch, langsam. Take it easy. No food, no work.”

And when the pail of vegetable soup was brought up for the men at midday, he would always arrange for us to have an additional helping. Of course, we did not tell him that we were receiving extra rations from the Poles at Teicha.

Work at the factory was pretty hard, and for the recently captured prisoners the rations were totally inadequate. A large loaf of bread of the spongy, light variety had to last a man nine days, and he received in addition only half a bowl of vegetable soup each day. We received a second bowl of watery carrot soup after work when we got back to our barrack in the evening. This diet was quite inadequate for heavy manual labour. Everybody lost weight and became physically very weak. 

One of our number – irrepressible, rubber faced Simmo from  Birmingham – one day put the index finger of his right hand in front of the wheel of a heavily laden clay-skip, and ordered Jock the Scotsman who had escaped with us to push the skip over it. Jock obliged, and Simmo got six weeks off in a Berlin hospital, a permanently incapacitated finger, and a violent tirade from the German sergeant major, who accused him of being a saboteur. Simmo’s unpopularity with the Feldwebel dated from the time when the two of them were having a political discussion in the barrack one night after work. The sergeant major was explaining very slowly in German to Simmo how all the troubles of the world were caused by the Jews, and how everything would be one hundred per cent if only one were able to get rid of them. Simmo listened carefully, an expression of strained attention on his face, a disciple at the feet of his master.

“You must understand,” said the Feldwebel, wagging a kind but didactic finger, “that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin all have Jewish blood in their veins and are the tools of international Jewry.”

Simmo’s tortured concentration became even more intense, then suddenly cleared as understanding dawned on him.

“Verstanden, Herr Feldwebel. I understand. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin are all Jews.”     “Richtig”, cried the Feldwebel, all smiles. “Ganz richtig. You have understood. They are all Jews.”  

            Never had Simmo and the Feldwebel been so close. It seemed that at any moment they would throw their arms about each other and embrace like long lost brothers. Simmo put his elbows on the table, and bringing his face close to that of the German sergeant major said:

“And did you know, Herr Feldwebel, that Hitler, the man who has caused this war, is also a Jew?”

Dead silence. The smile disappeared from the Feldwebel’s face to be replaced by an expression of incredulous horror turning slowly to livid rage. Springing to his feet he thumped the table and screeched a flood of strangled invectives, which the Fűhrer himself would have been hard put to emulate. We only understood the words “Englischer Schweinhund” which seemed to be repeated several times.

Simmo retreated to a safe distance, a somewhat aggrieved expression on his face. 

“I don’t know what he’s upset about,” grumbled Simmo. “We were having a political discussion. He told me that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were bloody Jews, so I told him that Hitler was a bloody Jew. What’s wrong about that?”

So Simmo finished up by mutilating a finger, which was rather a drastic way of getting a holiday. But Paddy’s was even more so.

CH4 Pt7 Deep Sorrow on Anzac Day

Somebody told me that my comrade Lofty had just been killed. Lofty was a regular army man who had served several years in India. He came from the English Midlands, and had a strong regional accent. After a mortar stonk, he lifted himself out of his slit trench to stretch his legs and look around. But the mortar stonk came on again unexpectedly, and Lofty could not get back quickly enough. He received the exploding metal from one of the first mortar bombs full in the stomach and died face down at the edge of the slit trench. This had actually been close by, though I had not realised it at the time. Thereafter, on every occasion that I peeped over the top of my sandbags, I saw Lofty, grey faced, whiskery and lifeless about twenty feet away. 

How is it possible to explain the deep sorrow that those who have witnessed these things feel when they are remembered on Anzac Day? 

Poor Lofty had injured his ankle in England just prior to our parachute drop, and was not obliged to accompany us. However, he volunteered notwithstanding. Although a regular, he failed to observe the most fundamental of all British Army credos: “A good soldier never volunteers for nothing!”

We were surrounded as far as we knew on all sides by German forces. (This was not quite true, but it was our belief at the time). There seemed to be little danger of a mortar landing on me from my left side, with the hotel in the way of such a trajectory. The main danger was from my right hand side where the thin pile of sandbags protected me from flying shrapnel. With some misgiving, therefore, I edged over closer to these sandbags, reasoning that I would be better protected from any shrapnel flying diagonally over the top and piercing the thin woodwork of the verandah above me. In between times I tried to get something on the radio sitting on the ground in front of me, but with conspicuous lack of success.

During the hours and days that the explosions continued, I buried my face in the earth and hoped that in the event of a direct hit my round paratrooper’s steel helmet would protect my head. However, I was painfully aware of the lack of protection to the length of my spine, and a hundred times and more I was shiveringly grateful when a deafening explosion announced that someone else had copped it and not I.

I later learned that the Germans called our painfully small perimeter “Der Hexenkessel”- “The Witches’ Cauldron”. I can only say that the name was extremely apt, and they certainly kept the cauldron on the boil.

A couple of days prior to the end of the action a young dark haired signalman whom I did not know crawled under the verandah beside me. He had no equipment, but I was not surprised. It was clear by now that our wireless sets had some defect and were useless. We were simply waiting there, slowly being wiped out until some military genius told us how to extricate ourselves from the slaughter.

My companion lay next to me and politely asked if I minded the fact that he was next to the hotel wall, which from one direction appeared to give more shelter, and did I want to change places? As I had been there first, it was my choice. I said, “Thank you, no. I would take my chances where I was.” All this time the usual mortar stonk was going on, the explosions seeming only a few feet away – which in fact they were. Thus we lay side-by-side, our bodies almost touching, each praying silently for survival as all hell screamed and roared around us.

After about an hour it happened. There was an explosion of enormous intensity, which absolutely scared the wits out of me. Simultaneously the whole area was filled with dust so that I could hardly see or breathe. Right next to me I heard a blood-chilling yelping such as an injured dog gives when he has been run over by a motor car. It was my companion. He articulated no recognisable human word – just a series of high-pitched animal yelps. A mortar bomb had crashed through the verandah, and my companion had taken the contents in the back. By some miracle, which I have never been able to comprehend, I was completely unscathed. 

Within a minute or two stretcher bearers were crawling under the verandah and taking him away. He was still yelping as they carried him into the hotel and down to the basement. This had now become an overcrowded, makeshift hospital, bursting at the seams with bloodied, grey faced British and German wounded. I knew that my companion was very seriously injured. But I never learned whether he lived or died.

A little later I descended into the basement myself to report the incident to the signals officer in charge of local operations. This was a baby-faced lieutenant with a petulant lip. In England he had been very much an expert at teaching us bayonet drill and putting people on charges for minor misdemeanours. He also liked to shoot crows from about twelve feet with a three-0-three rifle.

I told him what had happened. He was nicely ensconced in the deepest shelter – one couldn’t even hear the mortar stonk. I was shaken and no doubt looked it. After I had spoken he fixed me with his eyes for a moment and said, “Get back to your bloody post, Foxon, at once.” I turned and went, without saluting, up to the symphony of explosions on the top deck.

When the retreat from Arnhem was signalled, that officer left his men and was one of the first ones across the river. I heard that he was severely reprimanded for dereliction of duty, but was never able to confirm the rumour. I was glad I never met him in civvy street. In England he was a bully who took advantage of his position. In action he was a first rate bastard who sent other men out to die while making sure that he lived.

I swore that if ever I met him after the war, I would punch him in the nose. Fortunately for both of us it was a promise that I was not able to keep. But I learned a lot about human nature and survival during that brief action at Arnhem.  

Ch4 Pt6 The Hartenstein Hotel

Beneath us the green, square fields suddenly became sandy beaches. Then the beaches dipped into the water, and we were out over the sparkling sea. Cheerio, England. How often I’ve dreamt of leaving you. But I never thought that it would be in such a strange fashion. Opposite me the company sergeant major, lean, blue-jowled and black-moustached laughs gratingly.                                                        

“You’ll have something to tell your grandchildren about now, Foxon”. 

I smile automatically, thinking …….”If I ever have any grandchildren……..” 

Today approaching danger makes us all friends. Even with the sergeant major. I cannot help wondering how many of us in a few hours will still be alive and able to think of any sort of posterity at all.

As we near the coast of Holland, an American major who is in charge of the aircrew comes in from the forward compartment. He is stepping into some sort of an armoured suit that protects his genitals and lower part of his body. 

“To protect my crown jewels against shrapnel,” he explains cheerfully.

“Don’t worry. We won’t get much.” Absentmindedly he chews gum.                                                                                                        

“Waal, I hope we’ve given you fellows a good ride. We’ll drop you plumb where you’re wanted. We’ve got it all teed up. Any of you fellows airsick? Never mind. You’ll soon be getting off.” 

He turns to rejoin the crew in the front compartment. 

“So long, boys.”

 Soon we were flying over Holland, and for a long time see nothing below but flooded fields. The Dutch have opened the dykes and let in the sea, spoiling their land to harass the Germans. The watery desolation is unrelieved except for an occasional tree or a house sticking up here and there. Later, when we are flying over land again there is a tremendous rattling, which finishes almost as soon as it has commenced. It sounds as if a team of carpenters made a brief and sudden attack on the fuselage with hammers. The American major comes in from the crew’s compartment. 

“Everybody O.K. here?” 

“Yes. What was that noise?”                                                                                            

“Flak.” He points out of the windows. “Look”. 

In each of the neatly riveted wings of the aircraft there are now several smallish, irregular holes. 

“We shan’t get any more of that,” says the American, reassuringly and surprisingly enough, he is right.

 Shortly afterwards the engines are throttled down, a red light flashes near the door, and we stand up. Then the green light glows, and the first man is away, his parachute whistling out behind him. Come on, boys. Faster, faster. Try and step on the head of the man in front of you as he falls into space. I swing my right foot out of the door – I have a rifle strapped to it in a felt, shock-absorbing case. The slipstream tears at my body, robs me of my breath, flings me about the sky. Then I am floating down towards a stubby, recently harvested field. I let my rifle down on a piece of cord so that it shall reach the earth first and not impede my own landing. The ground rushes up at me, like a boxer’s fist gathering speed for a knock-out punch. A jolt. All the breath is knocked out of my body. Then I am struggling to divest myself of my parachute harness. The sky is filled with a thousand descending parachutes, and the dropping zone is crawling with men who have already reached the ground.

Thank God the enemy have not yet woken up to what is going on. It seems we shall get off the DZ without facing hostile fire. Following the general direction of exodus I make my way towards a small wood. Further along the dropping zone the ploughed ground has become the graveyard of dozens of gliders which have crash-landed everywhere with their cargoes of men, jeeps, and small artillery pieces. 

Scores of paratroopers are passing through the wood. One or two parachute harnesses are hanging up in the trees, but their owners seem to have gotten down all right. We pass a lunatic asylum. The inmates watch us through a gate. Some are bandaged and appear to have been wounded, I don’t know how or why. One poor, unfortunate crazy woman lifted her skirts and exposes herself to us as we pass by. We find ourselves crossing open fields. A couple of Dutch farm labourers greet us gruffly, and then pass on, as if this kind of thing happened every day of the week.

We reach a bitumen road, and climb aboard a slowly moving convoy of jeeps. I do not know it, but we are now on the road leading from our dropping zone at Wolfheze to the town of Arnhem.                                                                          

After a quarter of an hour of slow progress we come to an intersection. Here a heavily camouflaged German staff car has been shot up and is slewed across the road. A German officer lies half out of the open door, his feet still inside the car, his head and the lower part of his body resting on the road. He has been riddled with bullets and the dried blood from his wounds has congealed on his face. It is obvious from his uniform that he is of high rank. However, we pass on without comment. It is not until many years later when reading about the campaign that I learn that his name was Major-General Kussin, in command of the town of Arnhem, who had been caught in Sten gun cross fire, while reconnoitering the extent of the British parachute landings north of Arnhem.            

A little further down the road a solitary German jackboot stands upright by the side of the road against a background of bright green grass, sunlit bushes and blue sky. The fleshy blood-stained remains of a leg project from the top of the jackboot. The rest of the body has disappeared, apparently blown to the four corners of the compass, leaving the jackboot and its bloody residue standing freakishly upright.

We come to an inhabited area with clean high-gabled Dutch houses by the roadside. Local people are waiting in small groups, waving and cheering. Perched nonchalantly on our slow moving jeeps, we smile and wave back. Somewhere in the back of my head a profound uneasiness starts to scratch at my mind. This is too simple. We are in the heart of enemy occupied territory. The Germans are first class soldiers. Somewhere we shall strike resistance, and when we do it will be difficult to overcome.

Finally we pull off the road, our jeeps cross a patch of green sward, and we park in front of a large building with the name “Restaurant Park Hotel Hartenstein” printed in large letters across the frontage. The building has a large glassed-in verandah and other protuberant extensions with high windows and rounded architraves breaking up the basically square design. Other windows of the white two-storeyed edifice are oblong and Georgian in character. A wide flight of stone steps leads up to the front entrance. It is a typical luxury hotel of the 1920’s era for the reception of wealthy tourists.

We are now on the very outskirts of the town of Arnhem, but the road and houses are a few hundred yards from our view, and most of us believe ourselves still to be in open country. The Lower Rhine lies several hundred yards to the south of the Hartenstein Hotel, but none of us have the slightest idea of this. We only know that we are somewhere in the Dutch countryside and that the Hartenstein Hotel is to be the Divisional HQ of the 1stAirborne Division. This lack of understanding of the overall picture was to prove an enormous handicap to many of us and to have a profound effect on our futures before the Arnhem incident was concluded.

For the moment, we began to set up a perimeter and to dig slit trenches. Within the hotel a switchboard and various telephone paraphernalia were installed. That evening I slept soundly in a slit trench which I had dug for myself just outside the hotel, determined to get as much sleep as possible before the battle which I felt sure was to come. I wore my uniform and jumping smock, and had wrapped myself in my oilskin gas cape. I was surprisingly warm and comfortable.                                                                                                           

The initial calm at the Hartenstein Hotel was of short duration. The Germans rapidly realised that the object of our attack was the Arnhem Bridge over the Lower Rhine. The small force that eventually reached the bridge was isolated from reinforcement by the concentration of enemy troops in the town itself. The urban nature of the field of battle and the superior strength of the enemy effectively cut the British 1st Airborne Division into small units of limited strength.

By a fortuitous circumstance, from the German point of view, there were two German Panzer Divisions in the immediate area with large numbers of fearsome Tiger tanks. The English Divisional Headquarters at the Hartenstein Hotel itself became rapidly isolated and was subject to heavy and continuous mortar fire over a number of days. A major help to the Germans and a major hindrance to the British was a complete breakdown in wireless communication between the British brigades and headquarters. I personally experienced this breakdown and I have never read a satisfactory explanation anywhere to this day. This caused General Urquhart, the Officer Commanding, to become lost for two days while making a personal visit to outlying brigades. His headquarters staff at the Hartenstein Hotel thought that he had been killed, and the following loss of control was not helped by a quarrel between Brigadier Hicks and Brigadier Hackett, as to who was to command the division.

At the Hartenstein Hotel the relatively quiet period, first experienced while everybody dug slit trenches, rapidly came to an end as the battle came closer and a few shells were sent over with devastating effect. Then the mortar stonks came down on our increasingly contracting perimeter, and they lasted every day from daybreak to evening virtually without cease.   

Of course, the overall strategic picture was a complete mystery to all of us. We had no idea where we were or what was happening, only that Jerry was mortaring the hell out of us, and causing an enormous number of casualties.

The best way to avoid fear in a battle is to have some task to accomplish. You cannot avoid fear entirely, but if your mind is occupied with a job that must be done, then fear is lessened because it can threaten only a part of you.

 I lay on my belly under the exterior verandah of the Hartenstein Hotel trying with complete lack of success to get into radio contact with somebody – with anybody. But communication by wireless was a complete failure everywhere. Underneath the verandah a small hummock of sandbags protected me from the open ground where mortars howled and exploded from dawn to dusk almost without pause. The flimsy timber flooring above my head was a protection only against spent falling shrapnel. However, the bulk of the hotel about four feet away on my left side was protection against anything except direct shellfire, so I had little concern from that quarter. But the mortar bombs fell so close that they were deafening, and I felt terribly exposed from above and right next to the sandbags. During the occasional lulls I lifted my head and risked a peep through the slit between the top of the sandbags and the bottom of the verandah. In the sudden respite men’s heads would slowly appear out of slit trenches.                                                        

I remember that in some of these lulls some enthusiastic artilleryman from the opposing side decided to send a high explosive shell over. It landed on two jeeps on the other side of the clearing with a scream of air and a terrible explosion, killing a couple of men and turning the jeeps into a mass of twisted, burning rubble. We fortunately received very little shellfire which otherwise would quickly have reduced the whole enclosure to devastation. However, the mortar stonks were heavy and virtually lasted all day. They did the job of killing and destruction less quickly than shellfire, but they were noisy and consistent, and over a period of days their effectiveness, from the enemy point of view, was excellent.

Ch4 pt5. False starts to the armada.

Then overnight came a development. The Allied forces attacking the Normandy town of Caen had been unable to make much headway, and it was proposed to drop airborne forces behind the town to demoralise resisting German troops. We were confined to camp, maps were studied, and detailed plans were made as to what each company, even each platoon, had to do. Although I spoke French with ease, I had never been to France. Now that I was going, I felt that I would be a very useful fellow to have around. We were all of us keyed up to a fine tension when word came that the whole scheme was cancelled and we could all stand down.

We cursed, and large quantities of wallop were consumed to calm jangled nerves. Subsequently we learned that German anti-aircraft defences around Caen were considerable, and had we gone, the chances were that our slow-moving transport aircraft and ponderous, heavily loaded gliders towed two or three in a line would have been blown out of the sky.

The next place we were to attack was Rambouillet, a small town south west of Paris, but once again the operation was called off. American armor, racing forward, reached the town the evening before we were due to drop.

Plans for operations now came thick and fast. Every other day we were due somewhere else, every other day the project was cancelled. One day we were issued with French money, the next it was withdrawn. One day a party would go out and load jeeps into gliders, the next they would sally forth and take them out again. Now we could go into the village, now we were confined to camp. All the time aircraft were waiting at aerodromes, ready to take off, and the parachutes with which we were to jump over occupied Europe were packed for us to put on. What the hell were our smart-alec brigadiers and generals playing at? It really began to get rather nerve wracking.

Then one morning at about ten o’clock, three RASC lorries whined down the drive, and instead of carrying out our usual task of cleaning the camp, we found ourselves packing up spare boots, shirts, battledress into sleeping bags and loading them on to the lorries. The lorries coughed and moaned away. Jeeps were stacked with equipment. The next morning, at 4 a.m., we were queuing up for breakfast, the cookhouse serving-hatch throwing a cheerful light into the cold, chatter-filled yard where the troops jostled each other. Then the parachute party boarded three trucks, bound for a transit camp some hundred and thirty miles away. The support force would follow later. We were bent double beneath our equipment. We carried lifebelts (in case our plane crashed into the sea), rations (two twenty-four hour packs), small valises (on the hip), rifles, grenades, Bren magazines, bandoliers, and all the accoutrements to delight the heart of a Chicago gangster. Additionally the trucks, which were bulging with sweat-uncomfortable men, carried containers of cable, parachute kit-bags, and a light weight para-motor cycle in a protective frame. Our journey was to last nine hours, and we were most uncomfortable.

The glider party was travelling to a different airfield later, in jeeps, and we rather envied them. Still, in spite of our discomfort, we of the parachute party were glad to crowd to the back of trucks and wave to the townspeople as we passed through populated areas. I guess, when they saw us in our green smocks and great heavy ammo pouches, and noticed the sinister, well-scrimmed steel helmets swinging from the lorry framework they thought (especially the old ladies): “Ah, our boys. Our boys off to France.” And they weren’t so far wrong.

The talk was unusually animated, excited and silly. Everyone felt it was his duty to grin. Corporal K related how he had been winning pounds at cards in the NAAFI, and would now be unable to spend them. Someone else was bemoaning the fact that he had missed out on the issue of his cigarette ration coupon. 

“What do you want that for?” queries the sergeant. “You won’t see the canteen for a long time now.” 

“We haven’t got any French money yet,” murmurs someone. 

“No,” says the sergeant. “Still, you’ve got some francs left from the last scare, ain’t you, Bill? We can sponge on you.”                                                                                            

“Francs?” says Bill. “No, francs very much.” The sally is greeted with gales of laughter. 

”Kill that man,” a voice is heard to demand somewhere from the jumble of blue and white cylindrical “Signals” parachute equipment containers and a heap of camouflage netting. 

“I shall defend myself,” warns Bill. 

“Christ,” ejaculates the sergeant. “You ain’t got no bayonet.” 

“Never mind about my bayonet, says Bill. “I’ll tie me table knife on the end of me gun and look daggers at everybody.” 

Eventually we reached the transit camp, a huge field littered with tents and marquees. Stocks of blankets and paillasses awaited us on the grass. We each drew our share, staggered away to our respective tents, and dumped our stuff in a suitable spot before anyone else got there. I slept next to the door of a big marquee. I liked the open air, with just a bit of canvass to keep off the rain and the dew.

Meal times were a problem at the transit camp. There were three serving tables outside the cookhouse, and food was prepared in bulk by the bathtubful. Breakfast consisted of porridge, bacon and bread which was already partially stale, because it had been cut in such large quantities. For dinner we invariably had gritty potatoes boiled in their jackets, greens and meat, all soggy and becoming rapidly cold in the open air. The sweet consisted of rice and dough masquerading as pudding and soaked in a suspicious yellow liquid called “custard”. The queues for meals were often a hundred yards long and several persons deep. There were many thousands of men in the camp, and it took two hours to serve dinner, which for us was the midday meal and the biggest one of the day.      

The worst meal was tea. This invariably consisted of bread and jam – cheese if you were lucky. The tea was brewed in huge tin canisters half the size of a man, which were normally used as swill bins in the army. We had this drink with every meal of the day, and if one sank one’s scruples it was not too bad. It was welcome, anyway, for the weather was torrid.  

Despite the lack of frills, and remembering that it was wartime, and our seaborne supply routes were constantly under threat, we were fed well in the British army, and I suspect that we did considerably better than the strictly rationed civilian population.

On the day after our arrival at the camp, the lorries took us to an airfield some miles away, where we drew parachutes from a store, fitted them, sweating afresh beneath the weight of our equipment, and then drove to the runway, where our aircraft “P” for Peter was waiting. She was a Stirling, with a hole in the floor like a Whitley’s aperture, only bigger and rectangular instead of circular. Furthermore, you could stand up in a Stirling, so when the time came to get the hell out of there, you just did a conga towards the tail and fell into space, one after the other. We had a lightweight motorbike with us, but it was rather troublesome to throw it through the hole, so we decided to leave it. We could get a bike from other sources if necessary.

The Stirling was what in those days was considered to be a huge kite, and had four engines. Indeed, it seemed to be all body and engines with just a couple of stubby wings added as an afterthought. It always amazed me how Stirlings flew at all, and I never failed to be astonished when I saw one leap into the air at take-off. Actually, Stirlings could not fly at speeds much less than a hundred and thirty miles an hour, so parachutists had to waste no time getting out of them when the green light flashed. Stirlings carried twenty men, and with an interval of a hundred yards between each one, the final result would have been a stick spread out over two thousand yards. On the ground they might have been strung out across fields, rivers, roads and woods, but for mutual safety and effectiveness would have had to get together in very short order. Speed of exit became the essence of the exercise.

We loaded equipment containers into bomb racks, took out our bike, and stacked our ‘chutes in readiness. We did a little “synthetic”, for none of us had jumped from a Stirling before. Then we returned to the transit camp.

This was the moment we had awaited so long. We had subjugated our fears. We were all keyed up to go. Tomorrow we proposed to clamber into the kites, roar into the air, and leap out over German occupied France. As the lorries made their way back, we sang raucously and profanely. This is it, boys. 

On va en finir! Hooray!  

The OC called us together after we had dismounted and spoke to us. Laughing faces suddenly changed. Savage ejaculations broke out and argument was general.                                                                                        

The operation was cancelled. But it can’t be. After all this preparation it can’t be. It is not amusing to be put on and off the rack like this. 

No argument, boys. The thing is definitely cancelled. This evening we go back home.  Oh, hell. Hell, hell, hell!

That night we piled our kit on to the lorries and they took us back to our own camp. This was just one of the sixteen operations which were planned and cancelled between the invasion of Europe and the time, just over three months later, when we finally took off for the continent.

One day in September 1944, we were told that we were to drop in Holland. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the operation would come off or not, and in the long run we were given four days leave, with strict injunctions to keep our tongues between our teeth about military matters.

The security seemed to be lousy, but four days leave was not to be sneezed at, and I was out of camp the moment I received my pass and hitch hiking to London.

I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to see my girl friend of that moment in time. Unfortunately the meeting was not a particularly happy one. She told me that she had just got herself engaged to a merchant seaman and that in these circumstances the passionate sonata for two which we had been playing would have to wind itself down to pianissimo, with me on a solo instrument. I was somewhat shattered. Chagrin d’amour! I took gloomy leave of my family and returned to the First Airborne Divisional Signals unit.

Back in camp we learned that the operation to Holland was still to take place and that we were to drop to the north of a town called Arnhem, on the lower Rhine. At that time the British Second Army, pushing up through Belgium, had invaded Holland. It was now proposed that the American 101st Airborne Division was to make a corridor north of the advancing Second Army between the Dutch towns of Eindhoven and Grave. The 82nd American Airborne Division should continue this corridor still further north from Grave to Nijmegen between the River Maas and the River Waal, while the British First Airborne Division was to drop north of the American 82nd Division and seize the bridge to Arnhem across the Dutch part of the River Rhine. The Second Army would then be able to advance rapidly, crossing the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine without difficulty, swerve east and pour into Germany.

It was a daring plan which would shorten the war by many months if it succeeded, but it was perfectly obvious to us of the First Airborne Division that unless we were relieved quickly we should be in a hell of a mess. We were to be the extreme tip of a finger, pointing north up through Belgium and Holland, and we were given two days to hold out. Unless the advancing allied forces reached us in that time we should be cut off, surrounded by Germans and annihilated. Yet nobody worried.

We were issued with Dutch money, twenty-four hour ration packs, bombs and ammunition, but still nobody worried. It had all happened before and nothing had come of it. This would be another false alarm – another cancelled operation. At any moment now we would receive the order to take everything off and return to camp. It was only when aero engines thundered into life and the ground sped away that we realised that this time we were flying to meet our destiny.

As our aeroplane roared onwards through the sky, I could see opposite one of the C47’s keeping us company. It rolled a little like an obese and slightly drunk goldfish. I found it hard to believe that it was racing neck and neck with us through space at nearly two hundred miles an hour. By twisting my head I could look over the parachute strapped to my back and out of the window behind me. There I could see part of the wing of our own kite. How fragile it seemed; how incapable of lifting our immense weight. Beyond that was the tail of another aircraft in our formation. This was all that was visible to me of the armada, which was carrying thousands of men to Holland.

Ch4 pt4. Sonia Dresdel and Caythorpe

After the Salisbury Plain episode we returned to Caythorpe and the dreary life of an army camp. Our boredom was reduced a little at the weekends. On these occasions there were a couple of army lorries at our disposal to take us into the beautiful city of Lincoln with its cathedral on a high ridge standing out against the sky like a painting.

These lorries were known as “passion wagons.” However, there was strong competition for the favours of the local lassies from the thousands of well-heeled American troops stationed in the area. This led to occasional bloody fights that were quickly broken up by the military police. However for the most part things remained peaceful, and with female companionship scarce, our fellows addressed themselves to the local wallop, which they found palatable and “not a bad drop.”         

Under the influence of this potent brew a member of the Signal Corps one Saturday evening expressed the desire, round about chucking out time, to cast himself into the Lincoln Canal, and thus end his misery. A comrade bet him that he wouldn’t dare so much as wet his big toe, whereupon he threw himself from the bridge into the somewhat stagnant water. Fortunately he had removed his boots before attempting to commit suicide, and was able to swim to the bank, where his waiting mates dragged him out.

News of this exploit spread through the camp, and the following Saturday night at ten o’clock, some twenty Signals personnel, all more than slightly stung from a surfeit of Lincoln wallop, assembled on the banks of the Lincoln Canal. At a command from a self appointed sergeant major they sprang to attention, “got on parade”, dressed from the right, and then stood still and silent in a perfect line. At the command “Off with your BOOTS”, each man knelt down and divested himself of his boots, then resumed his position of attention.

The self appointed sergeant major then addressed his troops. 

“When I issue the command ‘Strip to your pants’ you will remove all clothing except your pants. The word of command will be ‘pants’ and any man who moves a finger before that word will be on a fizzer. Understood? Right, strip to your……..PANTS.”

Every man divested himself of his clothing, then stood stiffly to attention in his underpants.                                                                                               

“Very well done,” bellowed the sergeant major. “You are a fine body of men. Now on command ‘Dismiss’, you will all jump in the canal. And the syllable of command is ‘MISS’. Understood? I want you all to jump together with good discipline, and the object of this here exercise is that you all hit the water at the same time and make the maximum splash, thus soaking these here civilians who are standing watching you on the edge of the canal. All understood? Parade….. Parade…….Dis……MISS!!” 

Twenty men jumped in the canal at the same time, to the amusement of a couple of dozen civilians, most of them young females, who had come to witness this interesting sight.      

The exploit was repeated the following Saturday evening, but this time the crowds were enormous. Everybody in Lincoln seemed to have turned up for the spectacle, and almost everybody in the Airborne Div. H.Q. Signals seemed to have volunteered for the nighttime swim in the near-nuddy.

Alas, the police were not amused, and communicated their displeasure to our OC, Major Anthony. Anthony informed us, with a businesslike twirl of his large ginger moustache and a quick flash of his horsey-looking teeth that, although he appreciated the humour of the situation as much as we, he would in future be forced to award severe punishment to any sporting enthusiast who swam anywhere outside the public baths.

The following Saturday a large crowd began to gather by the canal as early as an hour before chucking out time to get a good position to view the Airborne Signals Aquatic Display. However, Anthony’s stern warning had been taken to heart by most of the unit. Moreover, stalwart policemen paraded the towpath, and the one or two who commenced to shed their uniforms were discreetly but firmly hustled away into waiting passion wagons that had been ordered this particular evening to take off early for Caythorpe. Thus ended a ceremony that, if properly developed, might have come to rival the ancient Lincoln Cathedral as one of the city’s great tourist attractions.

In the village of Caythorpe we had a pub called “The Eight Bells”, but commonly referred to as “The Clangers”. This was the preferred rendezvous for the Airborne Sigs fellows on Friday and Saturday evenings, just after they had been paid and were flush. For the rest of the week when everyone was biting everyone else for the price of a char and a wad, the NAAFI canteen was the common social meeting place. There were thousands of these canteens scattered amongst units throughout the British Isles, and I doubt that we would have won the war without them.                                                                                                                                 

I have spent hundreds of hours in NAAFI canteens all over England, writing letters, reading Spanish books, which used to come from the Argentine, or old dog-eared second hand French novels from Foyle’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. (There were no imports from France during the German occupation). Or else I would sit with a char and a wad or a pint of beer batting the breeze with my comrades. Yes, the NAAFI canteens were great morale boosters, and no permanent army camp was without one.

One morning, I came into the Caythorpe canteen for the ten-thirty break, feeling in the pocket of my denim fatigues for the wherewithal to buy a cup of tea and a piece of cake – a “char” and a “wad”. No sound came from the door as I approached. The usual chatter of voices was completely absent. I pushed open the door and entered. The canteen was crowded. Soldiers in work-greasy overalls, in battle dress, in brown-green camouflaged jumping smocks, in all kinds of attire, occupied all the chairs, lounged around the wall and sat on the counter. They were listening to the battered radio, and all were completely silent. 

“In the early hours of this morning,” said the radio announcer; “airborne troops were dropped at different points within French territory, followed by reinforcements from the sea. A heavy battle is now continuing to establish a bridgehead on the continent of Europe.”

Airborne troops! We knew who they were. They were members of the Sixth Airborne Division, our friendly rivals, and they were fighting on French soil. The invasion of Europe had begun. But why hadn’t we been used? Might we not go tomorrow, or the day after? Or were they saving us for something else?

An anxious time now began for all of us. We read the newspapers avidly and listened to the radio with greedy ears. The Sixth Airborne Division, their task successfully fulfilled, was eventually withdrawn, and after an initial desperate struggle on the beaches, the invasion of France went on apace.

Still we received no hint of what was to become of us. To add to the anxieties of those of us who lived in London, we learnt that the city was being attacked by flying bombs, launched from sites on the western European coast not yet reached by the advancing allies. These flying bombs had wings like aircraft and were powered by a small engine in the tail. The engine was supplied with just enough fuel to take it to London, and then it would cut out. As soon as it did this, the flying bomb would nose dive, explode on impact, and cause considerable damage. These bombs were nerve-wracking because one could hear each one coming over, and one’s ears were always alert for the sudden cessation of its engine and the explosion which resulted a few seconds afterwards.

My mother narrowly escaped losing her life through one of these missiles. She was walking along a street close to the family flat in Upper Clapton when she heard the hum of an approaching bomb. Nearer and nearer it came until it was directly overhead. Then the engine stopped. My mother had the presence of mind to fall flat on her face. There was an explosion. A house, a few yards away was wrecked, and my mother, choking in the resultant dust, found that she was unhurt. It was a very lucky escape.           

When on leave in London a few weeks later, I was at a theatre just off Leicester Square for an evening performance of the play “This Was a Woman” starring the actress Sonia Dresdel. Miss Dresdel was at the beginning of a particularly dramatic scene, the climax of the play, in fact, when we heard the bomb, very low down, coming straight for the theatre. A few people got up nervously as if to make for the exit. A few disappeared under their seats. I looked around the theatre to see what was going to happen, sensing that the mood was delicately poised and could quite easily turn into pointless panic where people might be injured.

Sonia Dresdel, up on the stage, did not miss a beat. She continued with her scene, her tour de force, as if absolutely nothing was happening. Of course something was happening. Miss Dresdel had also sensed that this was a moment of crisis, and by her superb acting and fine display of courage, she had actually taken control of the audience and forced them to be as fearless as she was and remain in their seats while the bomb passed overhead. The bomb was very close, and its engine cut out and it exploded very shortly afterwards. By that time, the audience was on its feet giving Sonia Dresdel the ovation which she so thoroughly deserved. In a musical show, where there is a fine rendition of a song, the performer may sometimes “stop the show”. This was the only time in my life that I have ever seen a straight dramatic performer “stop the show” by the sheer strength and inspiration of their performance. It has always been a very pleasant memory for me.

Our Spitfire fighter aircraft developed a neat trick to counter the flying bomb threat. They would fly beside the missiles until they got one wing tip just under the wing of the bomb. Then they would lift their own wing and topple the flying bomb off balance so that it crashed harmlessly into a vacant paddock. This was a delicate manoeuvre and regrettably could not be carried out with sufficient frequency to make any significant impact on the flying bomb menace.

Our air force gave the launching sites regular poundings, and eventually they were captured by the advancing land forces, and immobilised. Shortly afterwards, however, London began to be hit with giant rockets able to penetrate even to deep shelters, and to wreak formidable damage. One did not hear them; one did not even see them. Huge explosions just occurred suddenly and without warning. Buildings simply seemed to explode in the air. People began to sense that we were experiencing the pattern of future warfare when large cities would be attacked mercilessly with ever increasingly lethal explosives.

However, as far as we soldiers were concerned, by a grotesque irony, we found ourselves evacuated to the country, leading an idle life, untroubled by the enemy attacks.

Ch4 pt3. Peeling potatoes and Salisbury.

After our jumping course Tony and I had fourteen days’ leave. Then we were posted to the Headquarters Signals Section of the First Airborne Division and stationed just outside the picturesque village of Caythorpe. Caythorpe sits half way between the country town of Grantham, hometown of Margaret Thatcher – the first woman Prime Minister of England – and the lovely cathedral city of Lincoln. Close by was the air force base near to which Lawrence of Arabia had been killed in a motor bike crash in the nineteen thirties. For a few short months we enjoyed living in a lovely corner of England.

Our Officer-in-Charge was Major Anthony a man of considerable personal courage, but intellectually an upper class twit who didn’t know what time of day it was. He made a career of the army, and eventually became a general. Fortunately for the troops under his command a long period of peace ensued and Anthony never had to plan a campaign of action for his troops under conditions such as we experienced during the Second World War.

I recall that when we were going on a firing course to York, I accidently left my greatcoat and mattress roll in the billet when I should have taken them on parade. Instead of allowing me the twenty seconds necessary to retrieve them, the sergeant in charge ordered me into the waiting truck, and we were on our way to York. I was there paraded in front of Anthony who accepted no excuses but sentenced me to seven days CB for disobeying an order. I was therefore confined to quarters for seven days after being out all day on the moors firing live ammunition. It was bitterly cold, and I slept with no blankets, greatcoat or anything. I will never know how I avoided getting pneumonia. What annoyed me more than anything, however, was that I was prevented from making a pilgrimage to the beautiful York Minster. This was a holy of the holies to that wonderful Yorkshireman, my father, and the capital of the universe as far as he was concerned. In actual fact, I had to wait another thirty years – until I made a return trip to England from Australia in 1974, and until I was fifty-two years old – before I ever saw the city, which was of such great importance to my father and his side of the family.

Major Anthony thought it was all very amusing. He had an idea that no soldier was really a soldier until he had been put on a charge and clobbered by his OC. Several weeks later, I went on a few days’ leave with my mate Tony. We overstayed our leave by two days, and when we came back were paraded separately in front of Anthony to explain our absence. Tony, with far more cunning than I, said that he had become engaged to a local girl and had taken the extra two days off because he was besotted with love and could not resist her charms. Anthony awarded him seven days’ CB, saying that he understood the position but couldn’t have his Signallers absenting themselves whenever a beautiful girl beckoned.

When I was paraded before Anthony, he asked me what I had to say for myself, and rather stupidly, instead of concocting a plausible story and thus pulling the wool over his eyes, I told him shortly that I was sick and tired of being mucked about by the army, and when I found myself in such congenial company at Tony’s place at Stoke-on-Trent, I had decided to stay for a while and have a rest from it all.

I had expected a reaction, but not the one I got. Anthony went red, white and purple and seemed as if he was about to take a stroke. Frothing slightly at the mouth, his voice rising to a squeak, he told me that I was a horrible bloody man, irresponsible and unreliable, and ought to be ashamed of myself. His rage was so great that I thought that I had gone too far and would cop a month in the glasshouse. However, he eventually calmed himself, and after a few moments’ silence said in an almost normal voice which shook only slightly that I should be confined to barracks for seven days with my friend Tony T and that we should both peel spuds for the whole of the camp and do other various nasty chores such as cleaning out latrines for that period.

I felt with some satisfaction that this time I had got something back in return for being put on a charge, that I had in some fashion evened the score for my unjust incarceration at York. But Tony was glum and dispirited. As we sat peeling potatoes at night, he would pick up a spud, look at it moodily, then suddenly jam his knife into it savagely, saying as he did so, “You bastard!” I knew that he was talking about Major Anthony.

“I’ll get even with the bastard,” said Tony.

“But how will you do it?” 

“I’ll work something out. You’ll see.” 

About a month later Tony came to me one day all smiles. “I’ve caught the bastard.” 

“Who? Anthony?” 

“Yes.” 

“How?” 

“He’s given me four days’ compassionate leave.” 

“How did you wangle it, Tony?” 

“I told him I wanted to get married. I got one of my girl friends to write me a letter. So he’s given me four days compassionate leave ….. or should I say ‘passionate’ leave?” asked Tony, with a wicked, dissipated leer. 

“But you’re not going to get married, are you?” 

Tony put a finger to his lips ……”Ssshhh.” After four days he returned to camp full of beans and as chirpy as a cricket.                 

“Did you get married, Tony?” 

“Of course not.” 

“Anthony will find out. He’ll expect you to make a pay allotment to your wife. When you don’t do it, he’ll have your guts for garters.” 

Anthony was not long in calling Tony into the sanctum sanctorum to question him about the married state. We watched Tony follow the sergeant major to the company office with fear and foreboding in our hearts. But in a quarter of an hour he was back, chirpier than ever, and smiling broadly. 

“Did you get jankers, Tony?” 

“Jankers? Of course not. I fooled the bastard. I nailed him.” 

“What happened?” 

“I told him that she jilted me,” said Tony. “I told him that I spent the whole four days trying to get her to change her mind. But she wouldn’t budge, so after my leave was up, I returned to my unit, broken hearted and deeply unhappy, but conscious of my duty to my comrades, my country, and to the Airborne Div and Major Anthony. I’ve outwitted the bastard, boys. There’s nothing he can do.” 

In point of fact, there was nothing that Anthony did do. He must have known that Tony had worked a swifty. But he preferred to say nothing and let the matter rest.                                                                                            

During the next several months we spent our time going on exercises, which we called “schemes”, operating wireless links and attending lectures which we had already heard a dozen times over. We went on route marches, hid from the sergeant major, cleaned out the latrines and swept up the barracks. We did everything possible to avoid that black and frustrated state of mind that is the enemy of all soldiers too long in barracks. The French express the feeling by a phrase untranslatable except to a soldier: “Avoir le cafard.” In English it is known as being browned off. This period was enlivened by four parachute jumps, all of which were carried out from DC 47 aircraft. In these a score of men sat in the plane, the static line of each parachute hooked up to a common rail running from one end to the other. When the red light went on, everybody stood up and faced to the rear. When the light turned to green we all sashayed along to the rear door near the tail as fast as possible and stepped out into the slipstream. The dispatcher at the door would be urging each soldier to tread on the head of the man who disappeared in front of him. Although the kites throttled back to about a hundred miles an hour and creaked and shuddered in the process to the point where they seemed about to disintegrate, it was still necessary to jump out with maximum speed. Otherwise the stick of parachutists when they reached the ground would be so strung out that there was a good chance of losing touch with each other. Additionally the enemy would be given a good opportunity to pick us off one by one. So with this in the forefront of our minds and with the dispatcher screaming and bawling at us all the time to “Go, go, go!!” We never wasted a moment in getting out of the aircraft.

Of these four jumps, I remember particularly the one we made over Salisbury Plain. We took off from an airfield near Caythorpe late one evening, flew around all night, and prepared to jump over the vast empty expanse of Salisbury Plain just after dawn came up and flooded the beautiful English countryside with early sunshine.

Now Salisbury Plain has been used for army manoeuvres since time immemorial. I am sure that even the Romans must have used it to practise tactics and outflanking movements. For, apart from the town of Salisbury tucked away in one section and the monolithic Stonehenge in another, Salisbury Plain is empty. We parachutists always had a fear of coming down in a tree or descending on a multi-storeyed house. So I thought to myself, “You’re right this time, Foxon. Nothing can go wrong on Salisbury Plain”. But I reckoned without the ability, which I seem to have on certain occasions, of doing everything wrong.       

We were not jumping at night – everything was clearly visible. We seemed to be at about a thousand feet – plenty of time for a nice ride down to earth. We all got out of the plane at maximum speed – it was a copybook parachute jump. After the first frightening blast of wind from the slipstream which always seemed to blow one all over the sky, and the ever accelerating free fall which snatched the breath from one’s lungs, my canopy opened with a satisfying snap, and I had a few blissful moments to enjoy the ride down and the lovely view of the deserted Plain beneath.

But wait, what is this? There is a bitumen road crossing the Plain, and at the side of the road are telegraph poles with wires strung between them. And the massive timber tops of the poles are sharpened to a wedge shape with a metal cover to deflect the rain.             

The poles are like huge up-pointed spears. I am falling at the same speed as if I had jumped off a fifteen-foot high wall. I get the idea that I am falling bum-first on to the top of a pointed Indian stockade. I shall be neatly impaled up my anus. Ouch! Oh, my God!

But suppose I miss the poles? Then I shall crash through the telephone wires and I have no idea what kind of voltage they are carrying. Perhaps I shall fry. And again if I miss both the poles and the wires, the way I am falling I shall hit the hard bitumen road and break a bloody leg. Oh, Christ!

Furiously I reach up and start to juggle with the rigging leading to my canopy, trying to spill a bit of air to guide my descent. But I must be careful. If I collapse the thing I shall plummet to earth and break my neck. Also I have very little time to manoeuvre – in fact I have no time at all. For suddenly the telegraph pole, the wires and the bitumen road rush up to strike me in that familiar last minute burst of speed.

            I miss the sharpened top of the telegraph pole by a whisker. I feel a series of prickly electric shocks as I crash through the wires, bringing some down and no doubt cutting off several telephone conversations. Now is the time when I shall crash on to the bitumen and break a leg ……… But no, I am suddenly brought to the gentlest of stops, and find myself loaded as I am with heavy equipment standing on tip-toe on the only bitumen road for miles, like a pantomime fairy. As I crashed through the telephone wires my parachute was caught on the sharp top of the pole, and this and the elasticity of my harness enabled me to make the gentlest and most unexpected landing in my entire brief but spectacular career as a parachutist.

Not every jump finished as happily. I was distantly acquainted with a tall, rather well spoken Signaller who jumped from another plane on this day. I never saw him again, but they told me that he had jumped just a little bit too late when his plane was approaching the outskirts of Salisbury, hit the roof of a house, fell off as his parachute collapsed and broke his back. Apparently he was not killed, but he was seriously injured and out of action for a very long time.

Ch4 pt2. Parachute training.

At peaceful Penrith we hoped that our 79th Armoured Division would be posted to some busier position. The trouble was that the 79th Armoured was a secret and experimental division. We had all had to sign an Official Secrets Act undertaking not to reveal anything about our divisional operations. The Division contained a number of experimental tanks of various types, but the type we saw most of was a tank with a searchlight mounted on its turret. Several tanks would advance in darkness on a broad front. Suddenly each tank would switch on its searchlight, and the lights would begin to flash on and off with enormous rapidity between one tank and the other. The ground in front of the tanks was illuminated as bright as day. But to enemy gunners facing the approaching tanks the effect was dazzling and the fantastic speed with which the synchronised lights changed from one tank to another made them an almost impossible target to hit.

Behind the tanks came masses of infantry. When these strange tanks eventually came close to the enemy positions, hordes of infantry would appear from nowhere, and the effect was quite shattering.                                           

Because of the experimental nature of our division it was based more or less permanently in England and any transfer out of the division was almost impossible to obtain. Tony and I had at various times volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment, the Commandos and the Merchant Navy, but our applications had never got past the OC’s desk.

At this time it was becoming obvious that an invasion of Europe either from the Mediterranean area or across the English Channel would be attempted in the close future. Posters called for volunteers as parachutists. They showed a strong-jawed, smiling man in a parachutist’s round steel helmet standing confident and strong in a camouflaged jumping smock, pulling on the harness of his parachute, after having just landed, preparatory to collapsing the chute. Every time I looked at that poster I thought what tough-minded men those parachutists must be. Equally I thought that I should never have enough courage to jump out of an aircraft. And the more the thought came into my mind, the more an urge nagged me to have a go at it, just to prove to myself that I could do it. 

One afternoon as Tony, Basil and I sat peeling potatoes outside the cookhouse, I said, “Why don’t we volunteer to be parachutists?” 

“H’mm,” said Basil. 

“Th’ moost be daft, lud,” said Tony in that excellent simulation of a Yorkshire accent which he always used when he wished to demolish one of my arguments.

“They drop you miles behind the enemy lines, and if you don’t break your neck on landing the enemy machines guns finish you off when you get up. Of course, if you fly in American aircraft as likely as not you won’t even get to your target. The navigator’ll make a mistake and they’ll drop you in the sea.”    

“That’s as may be”, said Basil. “But as I see it this war is essentially a fight against evil, and it’s up to us to do what we can to see that we come out victorious.”

“For crying out loud,” said Tony, throwing a peeled potato into the bucket of water, “think straight, Basil. The trouble with Jimmy here is that he can never rest content with what he’s got. He’s always poking his nose into something else and, mark my words, he’ll end up in a mess. Think of all the things we’d miss in this town. We know the people. We’ve all got our feet under the table somewhere. We’ve got nice little jobs on the telephone switchboard or running a wireless link. What more could anybody want? Why, I even get free beer at the pub where I know the barmaid.” 

“All you think about is free beer at the pub, you rat,” grinned Basil. 

“And what is there to think about that’s more important?” queried Tony. “No, no. Forget this silly scheme, James, and don’t upset my mental equilibrium by putting foolish ideas into my head.” 

Basil made some remark about Tony’s complete lack of mental equilibrium, and the usual banter resulted, in which the original subject of discussion was forgotten.

Tony and I went down town that night for a couple of beers while Basil stayed in camp. I don’t know whether Tony got his for free from the young barmaid that he knew, but I’m fairly certain that I paid for mine. When we got back, Basil was waiting for us with a piece of paper.          

“Sign this.”                                                                                                      

“What is it?”                                                                                        

“An application to join the parachute battalion.” 

“On a night like this I’ll sign anything,” said Tony, and did so with a flourish. This left me with very little alternative but to follow suit.

The application went to the OC’s office next morning. Three days later Tony and I were ordered to a selection camp for parachutists near the town of Chesterfield. (They have a church there with a famous leaning spire). Here we were to be examined by various medical men and psychiatrists (known to the rough soldiery as “trick cyclists”). Having successfully passed this lot we were then sent on to a neighbouring camp that boasted the toughest battle course in the whole of the British Isles. 

“When I think of the comforts I’ve left behind,” said Tony, “I could shoot that Basil.”    Basil had not been released from the unit. He stayed behind to preach more sermons and meditate upon the inscrutable ways of Providence.

We survived several weeks of battle course toughening up during which we climbed trees, walked tightropes, waded through rivers, and crawled through muddy subterranean tunnels. Then we were posted to Ringway Aerodrome, near Manchester, where we were to undergo our actual jumping course. Soldiers of many nationalities besides our own were training there. We found Frenchmen, Norwegians, Danes, Poles, each of whom was waiting for his own personal opportunity to go back to Europe. The instructors were R.A.F. sergeants – pleasant, friendly men, who leapt out of aeroplanes as casually as the average man catches a train to go to work.

We were to make three jumps from a static balloon – one at night – and five from aircraft. Before we tackled the first balloon, however, we had to do several days of “synthetic” training.

Paratroops were generally carried by Douglas C.47 aircraft, with an exit door in the side near the tail. But we were jumping from Whitley bombers through a hole in the centre of the flooring. We therefore spent day after day jumping through similar apertures that had been rigged up in the huge hangars, which served as gymnasia. (Tony likened these apertures to outsize lavatory seats). This was called “synthetic” training. One sat on the edge of the hole, one’s head raised. Then one pushed off, trying to maintain a position of “attention” as one fell. Woe betide the person who gave way to the temptation to look down. The weight of his head would tumble his body forward and he would catch his head a nasty blow on the opposite side of the hole. This was known as “ringing the bell,” and anybody who did it was supposed to buy his comrades a pint of beer. Of course, in the gymnasium one merely landed sprawling on the mats below, but if one “rang the bell” when jumping from a balloon or Whitley aircraft, it might have meant turning a somersault in mid air, with the consequent danger of becoming tangled in the rigging lines of one’s parachute. Some of the synthetic training devices were very ingenious. I well remember one of them. We would jump from a platform forty feet up in the roof of the hangar, a harness and rope attached to our shoulders. As we fell the rope set in motion a huge fan that, with a noisy whirring sound and by its wind resistance, reduced our acceleration to the ground – a real fun machine.   

Our parachutes were packed by girls of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in a special room with long tables that nobody else was allowed to enter. The ‘chutes had to be packed carefully in a certain fashion, and a man’s life depended on the care and accuracy with which these girls carried out each job. Failures were almost non-existent but no girl ever knew who had been allocated ‘chutes which she had packed.   

After a fortnight of synthetic training, we were due to make our first parachute jump from the basket of a captive balloon. The day after I completed this jump, I wrote an account of the experience while it was still fresh in my mind. I have never changed a word of it, and present it here exactly as I wrote it, for I think that it truly recaptures the mood of that moment.

We are due to make our first parachute drop. In the half dark of a cold, early morning, we draw our ‘chutes, holding them like delicate, newly-born babies, and then crowd into the trucks which are to take us to the dropping zone. The instructor tells us that a cold day is always better for jumping, since the parachutist falls more slowly to earth and makes a softer landing. But the frozen ground looks hard enough to us, and subconsciously we think that if our ‘chutes fail to open we shall hit the deck with a hell of a jolt. Still, even if it were midsummer and the fields were ploughed soft, we should come a pretty cropper just the same. So why worry? 

Somebody tries to start a song as we hurtle through the countryside. 

“I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

‘Cos I ain’t gonna jump no more  ………                                                            

Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die  ……………” 

But his efforts are not appreciated and silence grips us. It is said that the truck ride to the dropping zone is the most dangerous part of a day’s jumping, but we do not entirely believe this. We only know that every minute brings us nearer to our task, and the blueness of our flesh and the shivering of our bodies are not entirely due to the coldness of the weather. We feel like men condemned to commit suicide.

We reach the dropping zone at last, tumble out of the truck, and with half frozen fingers fit on our ‘chutes. The first jump is to be made from a balloon at eight hundred feet. 

“Look,” cries somebody, “There’s one of ‘em.”           

A voluptuous, bell-shaped ‘chute is descending through the morning mist with a small, bent figure suspended beneath it. It is a beautiful sight, and our eyes go automatically to the balloon whence the parachutist came. The balloon hangs in the air like some tremendous sky-slug, its silver vastness turned gold by the first rays of the morning sun. Soon the whole world will be warmed by those rays, but for us on the ground the shivering and cold queasiness will not cease.

Looking around we notice that there are three balloons working and the sky is filled with drifting figures. One continually hears the satisfying snap as the ‘chute opens, the crackle of the silken canopies as they are dragged through the air, and the owner is airborne. 

With our harnesses fitted tightly, and our packs heavy on our backs, we waddle across to our balloon. Parachutists! Men of iron! What bloody rot! Right now we feel like men of jelly. We have to line up for our balloon behind several others, and watch them go up five at a time and then come falling out of the circular aperture in the bottom of the balloon cage. 

One of the lads tells a funny story and we all laugh like hyenas. Another chap strolls past us with a ‘chute rolled up roughly under his arm. He has just done his jump. 

“Piece of cake,” he tells us, and sticks out both his thumbs.

“Sure,” we say, grinning at him, and giving him the “thumbs up”. 

“Piece of cake”. But our knees are like water.  

Finally it is our turn. The balloon has been brought to earth, and its fat, flaccid expanse drifts just above our heads. We clamber into the cage, and all tremble with cold and apprehension. The winch begins to grind, we rise, and looking through the aperture realise that the people on the ground are suddenly ridiculously small. We have no feeling of height; it is just too stupid that that fast receding matchbox is a hut, that that winding ribbon like a snail’s track is a path. But nevertheless when the cage sways a little we all hang on like mad, even though in a moment we are to fling ourselves into space. It is nearing Christmas, and the cheery-faced instructor with us starts a carol as we go up. Grinning inanely we bawl “Good King Wenceslas” at the top of our voices, until abruptly the grinding winch stops, the balloon stops, and the carol stops too.

The cage sways a little. This is it, boys. It’s a piece of cake. Courage. And to hell with them.                                                                                                           

“Action stations number one,” orders the instructor, briskly. “Feet in the hole, head raised.”                                                                                                          

I am number one, and do as I am bid. I am going to jump, and nothing will stop me. I will not look down. No reason to. It is only the gymnasium floor beneath me, six feet or so below. There is no need to worry. 

“Go!” screams the instructor, and I find that, discipline having come to my aid, I have jumped.

Rushing wind. Ground still far away and unreal, swaying dizzily. Kaleidoscope. Huts, snail’s track paths swinging to meet me. I put up my arms in a subconscious attempt to ward them off, but discipline intervenes again. I must maintain a position of attention, and I force my arms to my sides. The static line rips from the back of my ‘chute and strings break with little jerks. I am helpless. I gasp in involuntary fear. Oh, God!

Then I am suddenly suspended between sky and earth. Looking up I perceive taut rigging lines stretching up to my canopy, and I realise with dumb, inexpressible relief that I am airborne. I murmur a prayer of thanks to the dear, sweet virginal WAAF who packed the ‘chute, and then hear an instructor’s amplified voice floating up. 

“Prepare for landing. Prepare for landing.” 

So far I have had no sensation of falling, or even floating down. But abruptly the figures and shapes on the ground become real and rush up. I watch the ground, timing it, and then find myself lying down. I have hit the deck. I’ve landed.           

I do not feel scared any more; neither do I feel wildly exhilarated. I am merely mildly curious to know how it all happened. I am quite warm, and this is surprising, since we were all freezing a few minutes ago in the balloon. 

The balloon. 

I glance up at it, floating high; high above. Did I really jump from there? Of course I did. It’s a piece of cake.

Ch4 pt1. In His Majesty’s Service.

I got up early in the morning of 21ST October, 1941, ate a hearty breakfast, then caught a bus to take me on the first part of my journey to join the army. The bus was held up in a traffic block in the cobbled Essex Road. Slowly it crawled on to “The Angel” public house and then accelerated downhill and arrived quite rapidly at King’s Cross railway station.

I boarded my train with a few minutes to spare and found myself a seat as we began to move out of the dim, curving platform. The sun shone through the windows and foretold a fine day. There were several soldiers sprawled about the carriage, but they did not talk much. Mostly they sat and read with quiet, serious expressions on their faces, or they lay back and slept.

I did not feel any regret at leaving home. I now detested London. At one time, as a boy during the peace, I had thought it romantic to trudge through the dimly lit streets of the dock district and watch the big ships arriving from strange lands; or to stand on Tower Bridge and gaze at the magnificent display of light from up river. However, I had now come to perceive clearly that there were two Englands: the haves and have-nots – and my people belonged to the latter. I saw equally clearly that the war had to be won, for Hitler’s philosophy of the superiority of what he was pleased to call the “Aryans” and the inferiority of everybody else was intolerable and would have led to the ruination of all of us. Yet by the same token I was as sure as I had ever been of anything that the successful conclusion of this war would have to be followed by a radical change in English society.

I was thus entering the army as a young and very inexperienced lad who already had an inbuilt suspicion about the competence of the officers in charge of that army to lead it. As for London, I saw it as a huge repository of working class industrial cannon fodder with mansions, sumptuous restaurants, limousines and theatres for the fortunate minority who had mostly inherited their wealth. For people of my class, the city was an ugly, petrol stinking ganglion of streets; a prison that had confined me since childhood and my mother’s people for generations.

But I was escaping from the prison. The sun gleamed brightly through the windows, and the train clattered merrily along the rails. Escaping! Escaping!

The small Yorkshire station became quite crowded as the train ejected a disproportionate number of passengers, all carrying cases like myself. I surrendered my ticket at the gate and walked into the street. I felt that I would have known this was a Yorkshire town if I had been dropped there out of the blue. Half a dozen coal-begrimed miners passed, and the small, box-like houses were built in long parallel rows.

The young men with cases were milling together into something like three ranks under the direction of a lance corporal, and I squeezed myself between them and shuffled into line.                                                                                            

“Atten……shun!”  

A scrape of feet.                                                                     

“Right turn!” 

Clumsily the line faced to the right.            

“Gawdelpus,” barked the lance jack in charge. “What a sloppy lot. You’re a shower ….. What are you? Pull your stomachs in! You look like a bunch of pregnant ducks.”      

This sally was followed by what might have been described as a pregnant pause while stomachs were duly pulled in. 

“Quick march! Left, right, left, right.”                                                           

The line moved off. A group of young men in khaki grinned sardonically as we passed. They had been in the army five weeks, and considered themselves old sweats. Someone in the front started to sing, and soon the song spread along the whole column. The lance corporal barked encouragement.                                            

“That’s the ticket, lads. Sing up. Swing those arms, now. Straighten your backs. Bags of bull.”                                                                                                

We lengthened our stride and duly straightened our backs. We stopped walking and began to march. We were passing through the town centre, and people turned to stare as we swung by. We held up our heads and sang lustily. Stare, you civvies, stare! We’re in the army now. We’re soldiers of the King! 

At the small Yorkshire town of Osset we were subjected to six weeks of intensive foot and arms drill commonly known as “square bashing”. We were also instructed in the art of firing the three-0-three Lee Enfield rifle and received some instruction in the working of the Bren gun and Thompson sub machine gun. We were all then very relieved to be sent to various technical training battalions in and around the drab, cotton-spinning town of Huddersfield – ‘Oodersfield’ to the locals. This was where my Yorkshire grandmother had been born and bred. We were now members of the Royal Corps of Signals, often abbreviated to “Royal Corps of Sigs”, but known to its irreverent members as the “Royal Corps of Pigs.” I was to be initiated into the mysteries of wireless operating, and found myself with several hundred other men billeted in a huge disused factory filled with rows of double-tiered bunks. We were split up into squads, and I became a member of 93 Ack Squad, composed of nineteen year olds like myself.

We were a noisy, unruly squad, and since the accent was now on technical training rather than on discipline, we got away with our unruliness. We were young and did some silly things. I remember the occasion when, as some sort of a gesture of independence we got together and all agreed to grow moustaches. Beards were forbidden, but moustaches were permissible. Thus after a few days every face in the squad – and there were some most unlikely ones – began to sprout whiskers. They called us the Clarke Gable Squad.

Tiny Mac, who was barely nineteen years old, grew the best moustache of the lot. Despite his small size, he had a fierce beard, and grew a huge black walrus moustache that practically covered his mouth. Poor Mac. He was wounded in an engagement with the Japanese at Imphal in Burma, and later they came and blew up the hospital where he was a patient.                                                                                    

Good luck, Mac. You are not forgotten.       

At the end of our course, the whole squad was sent on draft to India, but some star guiding my life decreed that I should catch mumps. For a couple of weeks I mooched about the isolation hospital with a face swollen grotesquely to twice its normal size. Then came convalescence. But when I was ready to face the world again, Squad 93 Ack was on its way to the Far East.                                           

I envied what I considered their luck in being sent abroad, but could do little about it when I was posted to an armoured brigade stationed at Staines, on the River Thames, just outside London. I was consoled by the fact that I got regular weekend leaves from here, but after a month the unit suddenly packed up in the perverse way that army units have, and we moved north to the Scottish border. We cruised around aimlessly for a week or two, then settled down at the village of Clifton, three miles outside the small town of Penrith, in the Lake District. Penrith itself was about twenty miles south of Carlisle, close to the Scottish border. Here we were to remain for two years as part of the 35th Tank Brigade of the 79th Armoured Division.       

In many ways I enjoyed my stay here. I came to appreciate what life was like in a very small town as opposed to a very large one, and the hospitality of English north-country folk to strangers came as a revelation to me after the indifference of Londoners. I also had the opportunity of getting to know the beautiful Lake District of north England. I saw Ullswater in shifting mist and Ullswater in sparkling sunlight. I marvelled at the glorious views from windswept Hellvelyn, and I tasted the cold water of clear mountain springs. All this I much appreciated, even though my travels by lakeside and over steeply rising fell took place during the course of gruelling battle training arranged by a diabolical O-C.

I had two special friends in this unit. One was Basil, a black haired, blue-jowled, slim young man, the original Mr Nice Guy. Basil was studying theology and trying to make up his mind whether he was divinely inspired to take up holy orders. (He finally decided that he was not, and contented himself with lay preaching). Basil was always sincere and ready to help others in any way he could. Some took advantage of him at first, but his honesty and friendliness eventually gained him the respect of all who knew him. Basil was a Methodist, the first I had known, and for the rest of my life I was always predisposed to look upon any Methodist of my acquaintance with favour until such time as they gave evidence to the contrary.

My other friend was Tony. Tony was the same age as Basil, but was notwithstanding rapidly losing his hair. He was smallish in build and rakish in character. His intelligence was considerable and his cynicism unbounded. He had a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty young women, having in this latter connection a way of leavening a searching stare with a flattering compliment. We made fun of him by attributing the bags under his eyes to dissipation, but nothing could annoy Tony

“Eat, drink and be merry, comrades, for tomorrow we die. Jimmy, are you going to buy me a pint of beer?”                                                                      

Tony had been a journalist in civvy street, but had given it up to go into the Post Office. Like me, he still had a hankering for scribbling and, like me, he doubted his ability to make a reasonable living out of it. 

We had a good time during our two years at the little town of Penrith. We got to know all the people and we were well acquainted with the local pubs. We scraped acquaintance with one or two of the local girls and “got our feet under the table” at their homes – that is, we were welcomed and treated like members of the family. Every Saturday we visited the local hop at the large hall in the centre of town with its rustic orchestra. I even started to attend a Penrith evening class to brush up on my shorthand and learn a little bit more about English literature and the French language.

My principal dislike was for the army discipline that became increasingly pettifogging and irksome. This discipline seemed to mirror the class structure of English society. You simply did not become an officer in the British Army unless you had received instruction in a certain type of accent, which betokened your superior class. In addition, you behaved with arrogance to those below you and made it always clear that they were expendable, at the best slightly idiotic, and always beneath contempt. It was the “them” and “us” syndrome we had known all our lives. I had no illusions about it, and found it completely unacceptable, although there was nothing that I could do.

We were all becoming restive, and would have welcomed transfer overseas and some concrete task to help finish the wretched war, rather than the necessity to continue vegetating in England.

At the time that we were in the Lake District, the Germans and the Russians were locked in bloodthirsty and seemingly interminable battles on the Russian Steppes, costing each nation the flower of its manhood. In North Africa the British Eighth Army under Montgomery had broken out of Egypt and chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps westwards across Libya. The Americans, who had invaded Algeria had raced in the other direction to close the jaws of the trap, and the German North African Army had been evacuated across the Mediterranean back to Europe. The Anglo-Americans had then invaded Sicily, crossed the Straits of Messina, and were now engaged in pushing the German-Italian armies up the boot of Italy.

In the Far East there was another war. This was much less publicised in England. There the British had finally secured the gates of India against the Japanese, and were forcing them back into Burma. One saw occasional film clips of Australian troops in action in New Guinea. And the Americans were doggedly thrashing the Japanese on land and sea in the Pacific wherever the opposing forces met. 

In the Atlantic, the German U-boat menace was being met and mastered. And now the combined English and American Air Forces were beginning to mount horrendous bombing strikes against German cities. The Allied superiority in men, material and technology was plain for all to see. Victory was not yet within our grasp. But it was clear that this terrible conflict, now working up to a murderous crescendo, would see the final victory of the Anglo-Americans and their allies.