The Winter of ’44

CHRISTMAS is a time of good cheer, and all that; but also, perhaps, of more sombre reflections. What follows is the first of two posts to set against present light and laughter. How many of you out there (fathers? Grandfathers?) remember?

The sunshine in which we watched the first act of the ill-fated airborne operation, code-named Market Garden, did not last long. The defeat at Arnhem marked both the end of any bright hope that the war might be over by Christmas and the beginning of what, in the far and backward view, seems to have been a drama for winter scripted by Thomas Hobbes set in a landscape by Pieter Breughel or Hendrik Averkamp,

The crusade to liberate Europe, upon which many men of the Allied nations embarked with real idealism in June 1944, had degenerated into a series of sodden local manoeuvres”, says military historian Sir Max Hastings in his monumental Armageddon. “Far from the triumphant, non-stop advance that Montgomery, yearning for the victor’s laurels, had schemed for, the months went by in a savage and relatively parochial skirmishing where many lives were lost but not a yard of Germany gained”.

The enemy in the north of Holland, beyond the Rhine, were fighting with a ferocity that gave our own infantry their worst experiences since Normandy. Some were battle-hardened veterans. Enhancing the characteristic and unsurpassed military virtues of the German army was an awareness that ‘unconditional surrender’ was the declared policy of their adversaries and that they were part of the last line of defence of their homeland.

It was a different war from the one that had been fought in summer and a very different country from the one that we in the British 21st Army Group had left on the far side of the Seine. The civil population of occupied Holland had suffered far worse than that of France, and although they were neither indifferent to their liberation, nor slow to recognise it, those who had delivered it could hardly fail to be aware that real hardship, or worse, was never far away.

The history of my regiment of field artillery from the end of  September to the second week in December records the following different locations occupied for widely varying periods of time. Riethoven – Veldhoven – Eindhoven – Wintelre – Middelbeers – Nijmegen – Berchem – s’Hertogenbosch – Week – Kinroy – Bree – Swartbroek – Baexam – Heijhuijzen. Fourteen moves in eleven weeks. A night or two here. a few days there. The guns in action at this place but not in the next. A bed indoors on one night, but not on another. Lorry, jeep, motorbike, in daylight or darkness. A few days of sunshine, but overwhelming and abiding impressions of fog, mist, rain, mud and bitter cold. Trying to rouse a recumbent sentry outside the ruin of a thatched cow byre one December dawn, I found him dead.

There is  much wistful speculation about leave. The kind that will take us back across the Channel is beyond hope, but opportunities for 48-hour furloughs to Antwerp are meanwhile presenting themselves. Even without the menace of V1s, now targeted on Belgium’s premier port as well as on London, the prospect of spending two days and nights in a servicemen’s hotel or hostel in a foreign city has only limited appeal; consequently, there is no competition for passes. By contrast, I am eager. Back in September, when we were briefly in Antwerp, I had made friends with Léon and Yvette Namier, a Belgian professor of dentistry and his wife ,who had insisted that I would always be welcome to visit them. Their 13-year-old daughter, Jacqui, who played the piano beautifully, had taken a childish shine to the very young officer, cried when I said good-bye and flung her arms round my neck in a way that was as unsettling as it was innocent. “Promise you’ll come back”, she had sobbed. And as countless young men in uniform have done since war began, I had promised, but known that it was a vow I would probably never be able to keep.

Now I do keep it. One of my seniors is told by the colonel to have a rest and a change of scene. He, too, made friends when we were first in Antwerp and now proposes that we drive there in his jeep. The suggestion is as good as an order and one that I am not slow to obey. The other officer is almost 30 and  very good looking. Our Belgian friends will later always refer to him as le beau major. In Antwerp he will  be accommodated in the apartment of Simone, an independent and bounteously companionable young woman of twenty-three whose indulgent father owns one of the country’s largest breweries. I met her briefly back in September and fully understand the beau major’s enthusiasm for a reunion.

By now, Antwerp is under more or less daily attack from flying bombs and rockets, but, courageously, the brewer’s daughter and the Namiers are still there, so on an evening in December I am back with Yvette and Léon, drinking champagne. My hostess is a superb cook and supper is truly epicurean. Quite soon I am a little drunk with the joy if it all. Because of the bombs and rockets, Jacqui is now living with her grandparents in Brussels, to whose large mansion off the Avenue Louise Yvette and I go by train next day. There is a Steinway grand in the drawing room, so that still I cannot hear a Chopin waltz without seeing Jacqui perched on the piano stool, hearing her protests about going to bed at ten o’clock (“mais ce n’est pas toujours que Nigel est avec nous!”) and wondering if I could have been falling in love with a child of thirteen.

Only a few days later, our brief leave over, the beau major’s forward observation post is pinpointed by an enemy 88, fatally wounding his signaller and his driver, a V2 falls on a crowded cinema in Antwerp, killing some 600 people, several hundred of them Allied servicemen, and leave to the city ends.

Next post on Christmas eve: WHEN THE DANCING STOPPED


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