DARK ROAD TO THE RHINE. sequel to A Dutch Treat, posted 0n 21st January

‘IT WAS THE GRIMMEST BATTLE in which I took part during the war’, said General Horrocks, commander of  Operation ‘Veritable’ the British attack on the Reichswald which had started on 8th February. ‘No one in their senses would choose to fight a winter campaign in the flooded plains and dense pinewoods of Northern Europe, but there was no alternative. We had to clear the Western bank of the Rhine if we were to enter Germany and finish off the war’.

‘Probably no assault in this war has been conducted in more appalling conditions’, said the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower.

“On 9 February the Regiment moved to a position in very boggy country where every house had been almost completely destroyed and it was difficult to find any firm platform for the guns or cover for the gunners. It was probably the worst position that was occupied during the whole European campaign”.

 The uncharacteristic vehemence of the regimental history introduces a scene for which Wagner at his darkest might provide the music. Day after day, the weather – rain or sleet – was appalling, the ground a quagmire, the dense forest itself hardly less hostile than the bocage. On our front, only one metalled road ran eastwards through the Reichswald and it had not been improved by the RAF or by our own shelling. Unmetalled ones had additionally suffered from the almost unrelenting rain. Urgently, a number of traffic controllers were briefed, each of us equipped with a signal truck, a driver, a wireless operator and a Bren gun, our purpose being to get as far forward as possible and through an imposition of movement discipline try to relieve the problem of congestion.

Selective memory is of rain, mud, cold and moments of fear when the sound of enemy tanks was heard during the night, and fear of a different kind when wounded survivors of our infantry engagements emerged from the forest (“There, but for the grace of God…”). While my driver and wireless operator, swaddled in blankets, slept in the back of the truck, I sheltered underneath, cocooned in ground sheets and my valise. For the five days and nights of our special (“vital”, the colonel said) duty we were sustained by rum, cigarettes and frequent brews of tea.

During the next few weeks there are numerous – perhaps eloquent – blanks in my diary.  For many a man, what became known as the Battle of the Reichswald was the worst battle since Normandy. As usual, it was the poor bloody infantryman who had most to complain of and my laconic scribble  “Infantry scare” betokens and absurdly belittles what until now had been no more than an occasional anxiety: something that one knew could  happen but which, were it to do so, would be so awful that the theoretical notion had been thrust far back in the mind. Though the statistics were not then widely known, it was a common and accurate perception among us that the expectation of life for a junior infantry officer was little, if any, better in the current European campaign than it had been in the notorious killing fields in which our fathers’  had fought on the ‘Western Front’. As far back as the end of the battle for Normandy the War Office had been obliged to trawl for replacements among the other front-line formations. By the beginning of the battle for Germany the need had become urgent. Most at risk were those whose age and demobilisation numbers signified that even with the end of hostilities they would still have a year or two to serve. On both counts I was a prime candidate.

It was now that the upgrading of occasional anxiety to something not far short of terror was achieved with the adjutant’s ‘this hurts me as much as it hurts you’ announcement that on a day a fortnight hence I was to be returned to England for transfer and a month’s retraining; if he had donned a black cap before making it the gesture would not have been inappropriate. Only two months, perhaps, before I would find myself leading foot soldiers into the attack either here or in the jungles of Burma. I had sometimes wondered how a platoon commander found the courage to face his next patrol or a member of a bomber crew to climb aboard his Lancaster for another flight over Germany. Soon, I would need to find out. Less than two months before a nightmare would come true.

Was it some power from the unfathomable depths of the mind that now took control? Was what my diary recorded as a ‘severe gastric affliction‘ in truth a psychcosomatic disorder? If the mind supposed that so trivial an inconvenience might gain me sympathy or ameliorate fear it was in for rude enlightenment. This was neither the time nor the place for tender loving care. Changes of location varied from the disagreeable to the unspeakable. “Move again. Command post filthy and freezing and no means of heating. Dead weary. Slept in greatcoat at bottom of trench. Horrible position in ruined farmhouse, said the diary.Semi-starvation and massive doses of the new wonder drug, sulfaguanidine, were the M.O’s effective aids to soldiering on.  Helpful, too, was the certain knowledge that not far away were men who would have given everything they owned to have been half as comfortable as oneself, and as safe.

On 16 Feb the regiment was ordered forward and was in action by 13.45 hrs. A week later it moved to Goch, where it came under small arms and artillery fire. On 8 March, after fighting continuously for one month, the Division was withdrawn to rest and refit until 21 March, when the regiment moved to a hide within the gun area prepared for Operation Plunder and the crossing of the Rhine.

That more than a month had passed and I was still with my battery when we crossed was so wondrous, unexplained and priceless a thing that thereafter and for the rest of the campaign I hardly dare acknowledge it for fear that it might not be true.  After the war I asked the adjutant if he knew what had brought about my reprieve. Not a clue, he said.  Most probably just a slip of the pen somewhere.

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THE LAST VOYAGE


THE GUNS FIRE EVERY MINUTE. Under the bare mottled plane trees opposite Cradle Tower the crews of the Honourable Artillery Company serve their 25 pounders in ceremonial drill. We hear orders barked, see the smoke a split second before the explosion. With each report pigeons and gulls take fright, wheeling in scattered confusion over the bridge and the anchored barges and the black and white walls.

It is cold here on the bridge, bitter cold. The wind, like the tide, is coming from the east; coming up from the North Sea past Tilbury and Greenwich and Woolwich and Wapping, past the places where the bombs dropped and the crowds shouted “Good Old Winnie” to the man we are waiting for.

Apart from the guns, it is very quiet at the Tower. Officers with swords at their sides walk slowly up and down, glancing often at their watches. It is so quiet that we can hear the water eddying about the pier. Time passes. Time moves, sad and grey with the dun-coloured river. The gulls, more cautious than the pigeons, whirl high above us. Police launches hover in the current. It is half past noon and Winston is on Tower Hill.

And then they come. Down the slope, over the cobbles, under the trees come the pipers, playing their lament. If the pictures are true they will show purple-grey and green and brown, and the black of bearskins, and if the memory is kind it will let us keep this hour for the rest of our years.There is no turning away now, no show of not caring: it is nothing to do with the wind that there are tears in our eyes. Opposite the wharf the Trinity launch drifts, recovers position, edges closer as if in anxiety. The guns are still. The watchers on the bridges are still. Even the current itself, checked at high water, turning, hesitant, joins the rest of this grieving January world.

It is almost over. The bands have stopped, the bosuns’ pipes have shrilled. They have put the man on the afterdeck. It is the water that has him now. Some say that the river route was a matter of convenience, but we prefer not to believe it. We like to suppose that Winston himself would have chosen it. Winston, this Former Naval Person, First Lord of the Admiralty, Elder Brother of Trinity House, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Winston, always a little comical in his military guises, but never in peaked cap and reefer. Winston on his wartime naval occasions at Spithead and Plymouth and Portsmouth and Dover. Winston on the Prince of Wales. Winston on the Vanguard. Winston on this launch, under that flag.

The Havengore moves. The Trinity House Landward fusses and shifts and takes the lead; then, unannounced, unexpected, the great dockside cranes that have been keeping giant sentinel above the river dip slowly, bow to the procession in a gesture of indescribable eloquence. And then, out of the east, the fighters come; they dive, swoop, roar as if defying the mortality that has claimed what we half believed to be immortal. Three launches carry Winston towards Westminster. Three swans, sedately, arrogantly, follow them under the bridge.


How it was done

ON SUNDAY  I intend publishing a piece  that may call for an explanation.What follows here today is by way of an introduction.


THE LAST SUNDAY IN JANUARY, 47 years ago,was a historic day for newspaper and magazine publishing. Five days before, Winston Churchill had died, and after three days of  lying in state in London’s Westminster Hall his funeral was to take place in St.Paul’s Cathedral.

The Berry family, proprietors of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers, had long been devoted supporters of Churchill and now decided that no expense should be spared both to honour the great man’s passing and to outdo their Fleet Street rivals in coverage of the event by publishing a special edition of The Weekend Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph’s colour magazine. The consequence was Farewell to Greatness, the special supplement of which a million copies were distributed on January 31st, 1965, the day after the funeral.

The usual time require for producing an issue of the color magazine was 8 weeks. The special issue had to be produced in less than 24 hours; moreover, the colour magazine was printed in Germany, a circumstance which significantly complicated the hugely intricate organisation that would be required for the whole editorial and production undertaking.

The story is admirably told by George Harrison at http://www.photohistories.com/Photo-Histories/45/farewell-to-greatness?)

No fewer than 36 of the best photographers in the business were signed up to cover the event for the special supplement. To apply the same epithet to the 3 writers who were commissioned to supply the words that went with the pictures would be to verge on the immodest. One was the poet, Laurie Lee of Cider with Rosie fame, who observed the lying in state in London’s Westminster Hall. Second was Lady Asquith of Yarnbury, formerly Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Churchill‘s lifelong and closest female friend and the grandmother of actress Helena Bonham Carter, who was in St.Paul’s for the funeral service. The third writer, allotted a prime position on Tower Bridge, was myself. I offer the account which follows not to brag, but because I think it may interest others who aspire to earn a living or indulge a fancy by putting words togther for publication, and may even embrace a lesson or two.

Observers were obliged to be in their allotted positions long before the action was scheduled to begin. As I wrote in the piece itself, it was bitter cold on Tower Bridge. I don’t drink when I work, and seldom drink vodka at any time, but in one of the pockets of the naval duffle coat that I was wearing for this assignment I had a sandwich and in the other a flask of Stolichnaya from which I swigged when I started to feel too cold or restless, and now and again when almost overcome by emotion. By the time the funeral launches had pulled way towards Westminster pier the flask was not far from empty, yet I was sober enough to get to the waiting car and to my desk and  (another anomaly for me) without benefit of a preliminary longhand draft start putting words directly into the typewriter.

Writing for a newspaper or a magazine, one usually has a good idea of the number of words required and tries to work to it if only to lessen the need for a sub-editor to cut or otherwise tinker with one’s composition. On this occasion it was not only length that concerned me, but the indispensable necessity of achieving the emotional note that would suit the whole unique, meticulously planned and calculated publication; a necessity that could not admit the risk of editorial interference by another hand.

I happen to be a very slow writer. Normally, to produce about 600 thoughtful words on any given subject would take me at least several hours, even a whole day or more. For this assignment a finished piece had to be on the desk of the sub-editors within 2 hours of the event

Some days after publication I teased Laurie Lee with having drawn the longest straw with the luxury of three days (the duration of the lying in state) in which to write his composition. Not at all, he said. He always hated having to get down to a job of work whereas I had hugely benefited from the discipline of the deadline.

He had a point.

To be published on Sunday, Farewell to greatness.


A DUTCH TREAT

Before mid-January 67 years ago the Wehrmacht’s last great offensive was spent, the Battle of the Bulge over and the Ardennes front secured. Reliable casualty figures are not easy to come by, but upwards of 15,000 of the Allied forces (the overwhelming majority American) had been killed and possibly three time that number of the enemy.  With the additional loss of some 800 tanks and 1,000 aircraft Hitler’s final throw of the dice had been made at a cost of disastrously weakening the Russian front.

“The Division was withdrawn from operations in this area on 11 January, 1945, and the regiment went into a rest area near Liège”, says the history of the 81st Field Regiment R.A, 53rd Welsh Division. “From there it moved to Helmond, in Holland, to refit”

Some of us made vigorous use of our leisure time. Skiing equipment was found in Liège and lessons were given by the Battery Commander on snow-covered terrain close to our billets. “An exhilarating sport and quite easy to learn as regards simple runs” observes my diary, naively.  For “simple runs” understand pushing off from the top of the slope and stopping after a straight descent not by design but because of exhausted momentum. It was the birth of an unhealthy delusion. Subsequently, in another country, it abetted a repeat performance, and when that too was blessed by beginner’s luck encouraged a dangerous belief that boldness might be a dependable friend. The day was to come when, still untaught but not wanting to be upstaged by younger companions, I applied the philosophy to a late afternoon run on a steep slope in the Vorarlberg when pistes were in shadow and icy. The following week saw me on crutches.

Whatever was supposed to have constituted the “refit” at Helmond, the process remained a mystery to my diary: nothing to indicate a comprehensive renovation or replacement of our essential equipment. We seem to have had good billets (“slept well in proper bed with sheets”) and to have been well catered for (“after 2 gins and large dinner, too sleepy to write letters”) and although there are mentions of snow there are few about being cold. Nearby was a Canadian unit that was to be involved in the forthcoming Rhine offensive. I visited it in the hope of finding an officer I had met in England, found him, and returned richer for gifts of a kerosene camp stove,  toilet soap, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Canadian Club whiskey and winter underwear that included hugely comforting long johns.

It my be that the absence in almost three weeks of any chronicled references to a refit indicates a Freudian forgetfulness. Or perhaps their priority was insufficient for the limited space of a chronicle restricted to three or four days-to-the-page.  Speculation regarding home leave, anxiety about a possible transfer to infantry and diversionary trivialities such as novels, card games and pseudo-intellectual arguments all appear in passing. Repairs and re-equipment do not get a look-in. Frequent comments on the swift progress of the Russians towards Berlin (“amazing, wonderful, terrific”) strongly hint at an ever-increasing desire for an end to the war.

There was also “The party”.  Though the diary had little space for it, memory  is more respectful. It was I who was appointed to organise it and I wished that I had had the help of my R.A.F brother,  a past master in such things. Instead, a local hotelier almost entirely relieved me of the task. Three months after Montgomery’s catastrophic strategic errors of the early autumn, the port of Antwerp was at last open, furnishing us with better than basic supplies at no detriment to the welfare of the half-starving Dutch people.  The battery officers mess possessed a handsome stock of champagne which with typical prowess in such matters the Battery Commander had secured through the good offices of the brewer’s daughter in Belgium (See December blog, The Winter of ’44). That it was still largely intact was already remarkable and there was general agreement that now was the right moment for making hay while we still had the sunshine. That it should be put to the hazards awaiting us on the far side of the Rhine seemed a risk too far. Oysters came from Bergen-op-Zoom. There was a three-piece local band and a radiogram. There were comely Dutch girls. Though it fell a touch short of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of Waterloo, it was in no less incongruous a contrast to what came after.

“During the night 3-4 Feb 1945 the regiment moved to Nijmegen where it concentrated with two other field regiments of the Division and in cramped and uncomfortable quarters remained until moving into battle positions. On 7 Feb, ammunition was dumped in a forward position in the village of Groesbeek and preparations made to open fire at 5 am.”

Thus, the eve of Operation Veritable, intended to clear the enemy from the Reichwald (the German Forest) and the outposts of the Siegfried line on the western banks ot the Rhine, preparatory to crossing that river and driving on into Germany itself. “The build-up was awesome in its magnitude”, says the biography of its overall commander, General Sir Brian Horrocks: “200,000 men; 25,000 vehicles; 1,300,000 gallons of petrol; 10,000 smoke generators …”.  Every available heavy bomber of the Tactical Air Force was to be in support.

“Slept well in tent until woken by heavies going over”, says a diary scrawl for the night of the 8th. “Counter-battery fire from 5 am for two hours, then smoke, then all hell let loose”.

It was a hell that turned the forest to matchwood and before noon sent shell- shocked enemy  survivors, many pathetically young, streaming back past us to the prison cages with shuffling steps and staring eyes. “Look at ‘em; f—–g master race”, muttered one of the battery sergeants in whom, as with the great majority of the soldiery by that time, pity was not to be found.

Adapted from a forthcoming serialisation of  The Fading Margin. To be continued.



A TASTE OF WINTER.

There were moments in Parma when we would look at one another and laugh, simply because in this was the overflow of our contentment. I had hoped that a weekend there during the opera season might be rewarding, but had not dared to suppose that it would prove unadulterated joy.

Driving from Genoa, we arrived soon after dusk and were embraced by the warmth of the Hotel Stendhal.  A good hotel in the centre of an agreeable city provides for a feeling of instant belonging. In Parma this sense of participation is especially valuable, for it is a tight little, intimate city. Down the last of your breakfast cappucino and within a few hundred yards you can be looking at the Correggios of the National Gallery, the magnificent Farnese Theatre, the Baptistery, the campanile of San Giovanni, the Church of the Steccata, and on Saturday mornings the brown–faced peasants from the rich surrounding countryside exchanging their news and making their bargains in Garibaldi Square.

All these things we saw. All memorable.  And then, the Teatro Regio. We walked its red-carpeted corridors, stood with the chattering crowd in the Empire Room, admired the burgundy and gold and white of the tiers of boxes and the gallery, saw the house lights dim on the gold candelabra while all eyes turn to the great stage.

Opera is part of Parma life. From the end of December for a few weeks nothing is more important in the city. Papers are full of it. People live for it. Men whistle arias in the streets. Opera audiences here are said to be more knowledgeable and critical than any in the world. Verdi’s Il Trovatore filled the bill that evening and when the curtain rose upon a scene which by tradition depicts a castle courtyard but which, at the whim of its designer, was now dimly lit with mere symbols where a recognisable wall should have been the hisses and groans rose in protest. In the gallery strangers appealed to one another for help in understanding what manner of fool had done this thing.

Nothing else about the evening was avant-garde. Our host was one of Parma’s leading citizens. In the intervals, in our little withdrawing room behind the box, were elegant women, costly fragrances, champagne and paper-thin Parma ham on crisp, Parma bread.

And withal was January. Winter brings to Parma contrasts of cold and warmth, of outdoors and indoors, that are exquisitely beautiful. Outside were flat fields with pollarded willows and mulberry trees veiled in mists, old castles, snow-covered battlements, ice-covered moats, cattle sheltering in the byres.  Inside was a wood fire in an 18th-century mansion which is now a restaurant. Tortelli di erbette and anolini and quail, wild boar and pheasant were on the menu. Parmesan cheese was an education in excellence. White wine was from Piedmont, red from the Veneto. Tradition ruled and was a delight.

Adapted from Travel ’67, published by Collins, 1967


THE REWARDS OF THE DAY

Dusk had come by the time I had climbed the last hill and left the last wood and saw the village of Avize lying immediately below me. Suddenly, the 12 miles back to Épernay seemed impossibly long and to walk even one more seemed a task beyond the strength of body or will. Pausing, I felt the chill of damp clothes. As I was signing in at the Hotel St. Nicolas  the rubicund patronne appeared in a blue woollen dressing gown and said: ‘You look as if you need a bath.’

Great, now, were the rewards of the day’s exertions. Safe from the rain, shoulders free of the pack, sitting upon the edge of the bed taking boots from aching feet, I savoured a delicious awareness of comfort and well-being. Part was mere animal pleasure at shelter from the elements. Part was satisfaction at having achieved what had been intended. From the pack came a complete change of clothes. I was half stripped when the ample patronne came in after no more than a perfunctory knock at the door. She had brought towels and a large tablet of soap and led the way down a spiral iron staircase that seemed to have been built as an afterthought. At the bottom was a courtyard where rain danced on the cobbles as I followed the blue dressing gown through what proved to be the kitchen door.

‘Now,’ the patronne, said, lighting all the burners of the two gas ranges and turning the flames as high as they would go. ‘A little heat so that you do not catch cold. And now, voilà le système.’ Over the sink was a gas heater. An adjustable cold water supply had been plumbed into the outlet pipe to which she fitted a hand shower on a length of rubber tube. ‘Nous sommes à la campagne, mais nous ne sommes pas primitifs.’

‘Don’t worry about the waste water,’ she added. The floor slopes. It finds its own way out’. Standing by the sink, I let hot water run luxuriously over me until I feared that the kitchen was in danger of flooding and the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling might suffer from the steam.

Before dinner came bed. I had been awake since 5 a.m. The room was warm. The bed itself was large and very comfortable. Outside were the dark and the rain and the wind. Inside, I listened to them, drew the quilt higher over my shoulders, stretched my limbs in the warm sheets, heard a murmur of voices from the bar below, and slept.

There was no restaurant at the Hotel St.Nicolas: cosily, a table was laid in a sort of alcove at one corner of the bar. Dinner began with soup, then charcuterie and a pâté that was served with a certain suggestion of conspiracy. The  patronne came over when it had gone and asked if I had enjoyed it. Delicious. And did I know what it was?  No idea. ‘Cod’s liver!’ she said triumphantly. ‘If I’d told you before, you would never have eaten it’. Rabbit cooked in a mushroom sauce with the slightest touch of curry came next, then pigeon. It is easy for a pigeon to become dry when it is roasted but this one was succulent, served on thin rounds of fried bread.

I had finished  a half bottle of the local champagne ( a blanc de blanc) with the soup and the second course. With the rabbit and the pigeon I had a Beaujolais Villages. As a meal it had already all been more than enough, but now the patronne’s daughter brought in an apple flan whose pastry, she said, had been made with fresh cream. I declined the cheese.

Coffee followed, and with it, Armagnac. At the bar I sat on a high stool and was introduced to Victor and Paul and Jean Claud; like most of those there, men who lived by the vines. Midnight sounded from the clocks in the village and we were still talking. ‘Patronne; another glass for Monsieur. Ah, but I insist; you must fortify yourself for tomorrow. It keeps out the rain.’

My going to bed an hour later was defended by Madame: so many kilometres walked yesterday, so many to be walked today. What would Monsieur like for breakfast? Monique, see that Monsieur gets his coffee at 8 a.m. Monsieur is certain he wants no bacon and eggs?

In my room walking clothes were drying on an old-fashioned radiator, the rain-soaked map hung over the back of a chair. I lay in bed and heard bursts of laughter from below. The wind was making a shutter bang somewhere down the street. Again I slept.

_______

Adapted from my book,Walking in Wine Country. Sadly, there is no longer a Hotel St.Nicolas in Avize, and almost certainly few  like it  still to be found in France. But I like to think that much that was essentially French and  part of its charm lives on.