THE FADING MARGIN: serial 7

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

TENNYSON 

 

 CHAPTER FIVE

A Taste of Calvados 

Part One

We sailed on a ship, not a landing barge. There are no group photographs, no snapshots, no tangible souvenirs of a voyage of which I recall the boredom of torpedo watches as we went down Channel, the discovery that a hammock was not at all a bad thing to sleep in, and the evening when some of us were philosophising on deck and one of our number said that he thought a man went on living after death so long as he was lovingly remembered. I didn’t know about lovingly, I said, but I’d remember him all right, since a few weeks earlier he’d borrowed my uninsured bicycle without my permission, and lost it; but I’d do my best. He was killed five months later, by which time the hereafter had ceased to be a subject for levity and I wished I hadn’t made the joke about the bike.

At Port-en-Bessin, near Arromanches on the Normandy coast, we transferred by crane and scrambling net from the ship to smaller craft and made our unopposed landing in France. It would be convenient to be able to pick and choose from a gallery of vivid images to illustrate the event; instead, one alone has never faded. At a junction of the narrow roads along which our column is heading inland, a Calvary of the kind seen all over rural France leans precariously from its stone base, the plaster image of the Saviour, thickly coated in dust, suffering not in ultimate agony at the hands of his executioners on Golgotha, but from mutilation by bomb or shell during the days and nights of bombardment that have prefaced the D-Day landings. The impersonal, remotely contrived vandalism is curiously shocking; frightening, even. “No! No!”, one feels like protesting, hands raised in a gesture of exculpation and hope of escaping Divine wrath. “No! No! We didn’t do it. It wasn’t us”.

But if there are no graphic souvenirs other than this to celebrate our arrival on the enemy-occupied continent of Europe, surely there ought at least to be imperishable emotional ones? There is nothing. If ever there was a sense of occasion (“So this is France! So at last we are about to face the enemy”…) it was lost in mundane practicalities. There is no recollection of either awe or fear.

Beginning, as it did, with the stench of death, the fear was not long delayed. Ask many a man who saw service in Normandy for his most enduring memories of the experience and likely as not his first will be the reek of decomposition. For miles inland from the beaches, the bombing and shelling that had preceded the landings had taken a dreadful toll of the countless thousands of cows that represented the largest part of the wealth of the province, a slaughter that continued until August had gone. Back from the fighting, animal carcasses could be buried by bulldozers. In the forward areas they lay where they had died, legs obscenely jutting from bodies bloated by rain and midsummer heat. Shortly after my troop had occupied one of its first gun positions, a Frenchman arrived who announced himself as the owner of the meadow and – sadly – the dozen or more dead cows that heavily contaminated the evening air. After an exchange of civilities in which, to his surprise and my considerable satisfaction, I appeared fluently to exercise my advanced school certificate French, he proffered a flask fetched out from one of the capacious pockets of his bleu de travail. I swigged, and choked. The flask’s owner laughed.  What was it? I asked, gasping. Calvados: authentic Normandy brandy, he said  – “la vrai eau-de-vie Normande”; made by himself from his own apples. Though prompt recovery or burial of dead men was conscientiously attended to by the enemy and ourselves, there were circumstances in which it was impossible. At that moment a sergeant called me over to ask what should be done about the grey-green body (field grey of enemy uniform; cadaverous green of flesh) lying in the hedgerow just behind one of the guns; the stench, he said, was intolerable. Indeed it was: there is a difference between the odour of animal and human putrescence and I supervised an immediate, if shallow, interment. The taste and redolence of the swig from the farmer’s flask was still powerfully with me; thus the beginning and end of my voluntary acquaintance with Calvados. Even today, the faintest smell of the digestif that at its expensive best is as much prized by its devotees as the finest cognac is to me powerfully evocative of the infamous bocage.

A DIRTY BUSH WAR

“That difficult and most characteristic Norman countryside” said the military historian, the late Sir John Keegan, writing of the terrain in which casualties were so many as critically to strain reinforcement reserves, “stands between small, thickly banked hedge rows, enclosing fields first won from the waste by Celtic farmers… and separated by narrow and winding lanes. Through over a thousand years of growth the roots of the hedgerows have bound the banks into barriers which will rebuff even bulldozers, while winter rains and the hooves of Norman cattle have worn the surface of the roadways deep beneath the level of the surrounding fields”. Bocage, said Keegan, “swiftly lost its pleasant sylvan undertones (and) came to mean the sudden, unheralded burst of machine-pistol fire at close quarters, the crash and flame of a panzerfaust strike on the hull of a blinded and pinioned tank”. In his book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Anthony Beevor records that the Germans described fighting there as taking part in a “schmutziger Buschkrieg” – a dirty bush war. Yet the ultimate drama of close combat was not indispensable to the awfulness of the bocage. A brooding, all-pervading menace and intimation of death lurked in every malodorous meadow, every shell and mortar-shredded coppice, every dark defile of a sunken lane.

The moment of not only recognising that one could be killed, but of fearing that one very possibly would be, was what a later age would call a tipping point. For most of us, I suspect, it was reached not suddenly, with a single incident, but with an accumulation of cogent disagreeabilities: the sight of graves marked by makeshift crosses and tin hats; the news that one of our advance party had been killed in a mortar attack; the hulks of burnt-out tanks; cautionary German notices in the form of a skull and crossbones surmounting the word MINEN; British ones proclaiming DUST BRINGS SHELLS. For a few of us an early reminder of our vulnerability came out of the blue. In an early and not particularly advanced location the relative quiet was shattered by the howl of an aircraft – obviously a fighter – arriving at tree-top height from the flank of the gun position. The Allied air forces had ensured that enemy aircraft were rare in the skies above Normandy so that my troop sergeant’s “Bloody maniac”! was more an expression of reproachful and alarmed surprise than fear. A split fraction of a second brought a comprehensive change of attitude. The presumed daredevil friend was a Messerschmitt 109, firing as he came, the din of his guns more terrifying than that of his engine. Both the sergeant and I dived for the floor of the command post excavation, upsetting the artillery board (a special sort of table for plotting gun targets) as we did so, along with the Tilley lamp, the broken glass of which caused our only injury and my lasting souvenir – a cut across the knuckles of my right hand.

It was a rude interruption of a curiously peaceful few days. Incongruously, there was time for excursions to nearby Bayeux. Evacuated by the enemy on D-Day itself, almost unscathed by Allied bombing or shelling, the historic city’s museum and Tapestry might be inaccessible but its shops were crowded with Allied soldiery, most of whom were subsisting on compo rations and had not bathed since leaving England but were eagerly spending their specially printed “invasion currency” on camembert and cosmetics to send back across the Channel. “Delightful little girl of seven called Yvette from nearby farm brings us milk”, says my diary two days after our landing; but Montgomery’s Operation EPSOM was at its disastrous height and ensuing nights were occupied with almost non-stop firing against counterattacking SS Panzers. “Dreadful sight of entire 15th Scottish infantry patrol wiped out, probably by Spandau fire”, reads a pencilled entry for the next day.

ANATOMY OF FEAR

Past the tipping point, fear was liable to be an irremediable affliction, commonly evident in the intensity of emotion expressed in letters and diaries and many a man’s enhanced attachment to tobacco and strong drink. Inevitably, its components varied. Chronologically first for many of us were snipers. Even before we ourselves had fired a round word ran like wildfire that sharpshooters were being left behind wherever the enemy gave ground.  The tanks and the infantry – the true “front line” troops – were the ones who were most at risk every time they went into action; but in the menace of the sniper we in field artillery, who by comparison had a “cushy” war, in some measure shared their perils. The ground-strafing Messerschmitt had come and gone, and considering the extent of Allied air cover had most likely never made it back to base. A rare bomb or two had been perturbing (“A bit too f—–g close for my liking”!) but in no way sinister. By contrast, the essence of the sniper’s trade was the personification of deadly, personal malevolence: to strike not in passing or at random; but to lie in wait, unseen, patient, precise, selective. “Snipers were detested and feared as much for the strain that they caused to men’s routine movements in forward areas as for the casualties that they inflicted”, says Sir Max Hastings. Every reconnaissance, every occupation of a new position, every necessary excursion for even the most basic of bodily functions came to be attended by a mortal anxiety. No quarter was given to snipers who attempted to surrender.

Though sooner encountered, they came a poor second to mines in my own hierarchy of fears. Broadly speaking, there were two categories of land mines – anti-tank and antipersonnel. The first needed a pressure of 300 lbs or more to set them off, and in field artillery we seldom had to deal with them. The lightest step or the snagging of a trip wire was sufficient to detonate the second. Like the sniper, it was omnipresent, unseen and deadly. In his book, Mine Warfare on Land, the American Lt. Col. Sloan described the ‘S’ mine as probably the device most feared by Allied troops in the war. To appreciate its characteristics, think of a tin of baked beans incorporating two explosive charges – one at the bottom of the container and one in the middle, among the beans. From the top of the tin protrudes a slim, 3-pronged metal antenna, two or three inches in height. Pressure on the antenna activates the lower of the explosive charges, causing the whole contrivance to jump three or four feet into the air, at which point the central and most powerful charge explodes. Imagine, now, that the contents of the can surrounding the main charge are not beans, but steel balls, resembling roller bearings, or any scrap metal that the manufacturer of the ‘S’ mine happened to have had to hand. Picture the can lightly buried and concealed (in long grass, for instance) with the antenna standing proud, or with the detonator in the base associated with a spring-loaded trigger connected to a trip wire. When the main charge explodes, the steel balls or pieces of scrap metal scythe a circle of several metres radius at about waist height. A man in armour might survive. A man in battledress can be cut in half.

CLOSE ENCOUNTER

My own special fear of the ‘S’ mine was born early in our acquaintance with the bocage. Shortly after we had moved into a particularly claustrophobic, but so far unchallenged position, where the body of a dead German lay huddled within a few paces of the command post, a sudden, curiously double detonation (“slam” rather than “bang” might best convey the quality of the sound) buffeted the air. Seconds later, a jeep carrying my colonel on his rounds appeared. Relieved to find that the evidently nearby explosions had not had anything to do with the guns, he nonetheless wanted to know what had caused them and told me to take a quick look round.

Immediately beside the position, bordering a wood that stretched ahead and for a thousand yards or so back to regimental headquarters, was a sunken lane by which the colonel had arrived, its surface beyond the turn-off into the gun position strewn with leaves as a result of earlier shelling or mortaring, but sinisterly still undisturbed by wheels or feet. Timorously making my reconnaissance along it, I soon saw that on one side, in advance of where the colonel and I had been standing, was a grassy clearing among the trees, and that in the middle of it, a little apart from one another, were three bodies in khaki, two of them quite still, one moving fitfully. In the course of laying field telephone line to the battery, three regimental signallers had gone too far and, emerging from the wood into the clearing, had blundered among ‘S’ mines.

That the officer on the scene would have no choice but to go to the assistance of the men was not in doubt. For the questionable privilege of helping him, one of the troop’s most competent and popular bombardiers, together with a driver of one of the gun-towing vehicles, unhesitatingly volunteered. In single file, very slowly, myself leading, the other two carrying a stretcher; step by precise, grudging step, searching the grass with straining eyes and the aid of hazel wands, we made our way to where the bodies lay. As we went, I was occupied by a double apprehension. Another type of antipersonnel land mine known to be in use by the enemy consisted of a simple wooden box with a hinged lid which when trodden on triggered an explosion large enough to remove at least a foot and not seldom a leg. This was the German Type 42 Schu (“shoe”) mine. Wholly, if shallowly, buried, it was detectable only by probing with rod or bayonet. There was no particular reason for supposing that Schu mines had been sown among the ‘S’ mines in the present position, but the possibility that they had been so employed added an undeniable, though for the comfort of my companions inadmissible, element of risk to an already uninsurable undertaking. Twice, we were obliged to skirt telltale antennae. Though we detected no trip wires we lifted our feet and put them down with theatrically exaggerated care.

Two mines had been detonated and two men lay like mutilated khaki-clad rag dolls, past all help. The third was ashen-faced, but still breathing. With meticulous care, at least as much for our common good as for the welfare of the victim, the bombardier and the driver manoeuvred the wounded signaller onto the stretcher whilst I did nothing but watch and most earnestly hope that a benevolent Providence was in overall charge. At last, the stretcher was lifted and we started on our way back. The journey (“journey”? It can’t have been more than fifty yards) to the lane was a reprise of the earlier performance, but with even fewer temptations to laugh.

Leading the way, as before, I had by far the easiest and safest part. Behind me, the bombardier and gunner marked my footsteps as conscientiously as any page ever marked those of Good King Wenceslas; far from boldly, treading tentatively and with little choice but to trust to luck and my circumspection. At the front of the stretcher, the bombardier could at least see where I had put my feet and do his best to follow my example. The gunner at the back, his forward and downward vision blocked by the burden he was carrying, must have suffered an immeasurably greater nervous strain. Afterwards, I found that I was shivering uncontrollably, only vaguely aware of an unusually solicitous colonel and avid for very hot, sweet tea laced with rum, and a cigarette.

In the ensuing weeks the Battery Sergeant-Major, a long-serving regular with a mordant sense of humour, delighted in stealing up behind me and giving a sudden, explosive hiss in simulation of the split-second noise made by an ‘S’ mine when the jump charge was triggered. For some time after the war I was absurdly shy about walking in long grass in a woodland clearing or beside a country lane.

_________

NEXT FRIDAY, 4th January, 2013.  A Taste of Calvados, Part Two.

After snipers and mines, it was a competition between the mortar and the Spandau as to which in the armoury of enemy weapons contributed most generously to the sum total of fear……………….. …………….The two unforgettable characteristics of the Spandau were the initial, split-second stutter – an apologetic little cough – when the trigger was first pulled  and the evil, demonic eagerness of the noise that instantly followed. …………. Fiendishly purposeful, it was as if the weapon itself were motivated by hate. At anytime and distance it could induce fear. Nearby, and at night, terror might not be too strong a word.

 

THE FADING MARGIN: serial 6

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

TENNYSON 

 

 CHAPTER FOUR

 Stiffening the Sinews

Part Two

The holding unit – a sort of sink into which flowed surplus-to-establishment army officers of all descriptions – was a tented camp at Northiam in East Sussex, not more than twenty minutes ride on a motorbike from my home in the other half of the county. Administered by the most skeletal of staffs, it had no routines except a daily call-over, and no discipline except take-it-or-leave-it meal times. How many of us were there? No one ever knew. How did we spend our time? Three of us who had improperly not surrendered our Smith and Wesson .38 service revolvers when leaving our units hunted grey squirrels in the great oaks of the park, buying ammunition from the camp quartermaster, a congenially corrupt veteran who could also arrange for the loan of a Norton motorbike. With this advantage I more than once went to see my parents for a few hours, taking as presents butter, marmalade and cheese, of which large quantities were piled on tables in the mess tent and which the quartermaster, hearing of the purpose of the trips, also supplied. “It’s the nature of a holding unit”, he said, seeking no additional payment and easing my conscience. “People always coming and going and no knowing how many on the establishment, so always obliged to indent for emergencies. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry if I were you. When you’re eating at home you’re not eating here”.

I falsify the annals for those Northiam days – indeed, of all those late adolescent months of ‘43 and ‘44 – if, fearing an excess of self, I omit the mood of the time and my own state of mind. Everyone knew that the Allied invasion of the Continent could not be long delayed. Night after night the pubs of the southern counties of England were thronged with the soldiery of half the world. Night and day the roads grew ever more congested with wheeled and tracked machinery of every shape and purpose, painted in green and displaying the allied white star. As 1944 wore on, with the cuckoo calling and summer icumen in, anyone in an active service unit was aware that in weeks, if not days, the hitting for six must begin. For many a very young man it was a time for Rupert Brooke (“If I should die, think only this of me…”) and the lodging of last letters with his bank.

With no specific duties or responsibilities to occupy me, I thought even more than usual of Nicola (let us at last give the ballet dancer a name) and whether (rapture beyond reasonable possibility) I might spend a night with her away from the protective eye of her mother. To this end I went to a well known and especially attractive hotel not far from the camp and – greatly daring; hoping that I did not strike the receptionist as being as gauche as I felt – reserved a double room for two nights of Nicola’s imminent holiday. When she agreed to come I soared into a near delirium of expectation, at frequent intervals tortured by fears of disappointment and failure to live up to my own daring. The fears were well founded. Two days before I was due to meet her off the train at Hastings I was given orders to report without delay to a unit of the Military Police in Colchester. Almost a lifetime on, the scent of lilac is the heartbreaking scent of the blossom that had decorated the foyer of the hotel when I went to make the booking: the scent of spring ‘44. Lilac and laburnum were in bloom and the grass was new green in the park at Northiam as I packed my kit and departed in the rain.

HIATUS

On the fourth day of June it was raining again as I stood in the cabin of a naval launch rolling nauseatingly at anchor off Harwich, a launch that was to carry me, a corporal of the Military Police, a private from the Medical Corps, and a man on a stretcher to an ambulance waiting on a quayside. D-Day ought to have been on June 5th. Two days before, hundreds of thousands of men had been briefed and started to board vessels of every sort in the harbours and anchorages of southern England; vessels that would take them to France. Some fell seriously ill. Because they knew where and when the landings would take place they were a potential security risk and had to be escorted by an officer to a hospital bed in a secure medical unit ashore.

The MP corporal and medical orderly got into the back of the ambulance with the man on the stretcher. I joined the driver. We had not been going long when there was a knocking on the rear window of the cab. We pulled over and stopped and I went back to see what was happening. “Afraid he’s gone, sir”, the medic said. Motionless on the stretcher, the soldier’s face presented a pallor and an indefinable something – or lack of something – that I had never seen before. Awed, frightened I think, I returned to the cab and told the driver to carry on to Colchester and the hospital. I had seen death for the first time.

Two days later, with the news that the Normandy landings had begun, the security job was manifestly at an end. Duty, I knew, would require me to report to my parent unit, now in Sheerness. But the regiment, I also knew, having more pressing business on its administrative mind than the whereabouts of one of its spare junior subalterns, would not be waiting up for me. Effectively, for the time being, no one who for military purpose mattered either knew or cared where I was or what I was doing. So I was free. Free to take a train to London. Free to spend a night or two in the spare room at the Kensington flat that was the home of Nicola and her mother. Before lunch I had obtained a travel warrant from the Railway Transport Officer at Colchester barracks, but no specific orders, and was on my way to Liverpool Street.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers……..

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here …* 

In our age of the anti-hero, it may appear unlikely that a self-respecting young gentleman of fighting age, abed in England, might be eager to cross the Channel and might feel more than a twinge of guilt at listening to battle reports filed daily by BBC correspondents in France. Yet in that week following D-Day, lost as I was to authority, on nobody’s unit strength, eagerness and guilt vied with the bliss of walking hand in hand in the park, dancing cheek to cheek at the Wellington Club, sitting late by the fire in a euphoria which, had the young gentleman known it, never would come again. With a percipience deeper than consciousness, perhaps he did  know: whatever the eagerness to be in the breach, there was a compelling reluctance voluntarily to surrender so halcyon a tenure of stolen time.

White hands cling to the tightened rein,

Slipping the spur from the booted heel,

Tenderest voices cry Turn again!

Red lips tarnish the scabbarded steel.  * *

 

MARCH TO THE GUNS

Then one morning I telephoned Major C at Hobart House, told him how I had come to be in London and asked him what he thought I ought to do next. “If you want to march to the sound of the guns, get back to your original unit as soon as you can”, he said. It was to be years before I came across the expression about marching to the sound of the guns again in a book about the Battle of Waterloo, but the Major’s double meaning  (as he knew, I belonged to a regiment of artillery) was clear. Though in the past twelve months I had spent almost as much time away from the regiment as with it, I still had a sense of loyalty: it was part of the 53rd Welsh division; my mother’s maiden name was Griffiths; all of its senior officers had been territorials with strong Welsh connections. That I had been posted to it in the first place had likely as not been a coincidence, but one that I liked to think of as significant. Telephoning regimental headquarters at Sheerness, in Kent, I was astonished and pleased to be spoken to, if not exactly as though I were the Prodigal Son, at least as if I were someone the adjutant was glad to hear from. “We move tomorrow”, he concluded. “Catch the first train”.

We moved by night. In spells, I was required to patrol the convoy on a Norton, attending to march discipline; which is to say the maintaining of proper intervals between vehicles and the proscription of all except ‘differential’ lights (the ones illuminating rear axles and thus visible to the following vehicle, but not from the air). When relieved on patrol, exhausted, I slept in the back of a 3-ton lorry. Dawn saw us entering the London docks and a tented encampment enclosed in Dannert wire, under which, in peril of court martial, I and my battery commander (B.C. for short), Major G, crawled that night with a more or less common motivation; his few stolen hours to be spent (he said) with his wife at the Savoy; mine, more chastely than I could possibly have wanted, and anyone not born a decade or two before the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial would be likely to understand, at the flat I had left not 72 hours ago. By first light the two gravely delinquent officers were back behind the wire. A few hours later we embarked for Normandy.

*    St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V,  William Shakespeare

* *  The Winners, Rudyard Kipling

_________

NEXT FRIDAY, 28th December.   Chapter Five : A Taste of Calvados.

We sailed on a ship, not a landing barge. There are no group photographs, no snapshots, no tangible souvenirs of a voyage of which I recall the boredom of torpedo watches as we went down Channel, the discovery that a hammock was not at all a bad thing to sleep in, and the evening when some of us were philosophising on deck and one of our number said that he thought a man went on living after death so long as he was lovingly remembered. I didn’t know about lovingly, I said, but I’d remember him all right, since a few weeks earlier he’d borrowed my uninsured bicycle without my permission, and lost it; but I’d do my best. He was killed five months later, by which time the hereafter had ceased to be a subject for levity and I wished I hadn’t made the joke about the bike.

   At Port-en-Bessin, near Arromanches on the Normandy coast, we transferred by crane and scrambling net from the ship to smaller craft and made our unopposed landing in France.


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 5

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.*

 

 

 CHAPTER FOUR

 Stiffening the Sinews

Part One

Came the spring of 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill had met at Casablanca, Field Marshall Von Paulus had surrendered at Stalingrad, and with our War Office kit allowances in their sights, the representatives of high class tailors from Edinburgh and Saville Row arrived in Catterick, eager to measure us for dress uniforms and greatcoats which, if not as long and prestigious as those of the Grenadier Guards, were nevertheless almost equally extravagant in style and use of material, and in due course a Scottish firm of wide repute secured my custom and admirably rewarded my anxious sartorial trust. Then we went south again.

It might be thought that the occasions of first appearing in officer’s uniform; of presenting oneself at home and to the girl of the moment visibly transformed from cadet to second lieutenant, would never grow dim. Sadly, they have gone beyond rehabilitation. After the war, a relation by marriage appropriated my service dress jacket and greatcoat for use (rest her soul) in amateur theatricals. My well-cared-for Sam Browne belt and my leather-covered swagger stick were filched from my valise on the way out to India. Only my Herbert Johnson hat, stained and misshapen, together, somewhere in the archives, with a studio portrait of the young subaltern in dress uniform (a disrespectful 12-year-old has recently pronounced it “rather soppy”), remain as testament to former eminence. Sic transit gloria.

Even for wartime, the period from a retarded adolescence to the first tottering steps of manhood – from midsummer commissioning in 1943 to the momentous May and early June days of 1944 – is one of exceptional instability and incoherence, rendered worse in the accounting by the absence of any accessible record. There is an abiding impression of incessant changes of location, activity, people; the chaos only roughly organised by seasons. Summer is medieval manor-houses in the heart of Kent and Suffolk with scents of new-mown grass and honeysuckle, long days of wearisome movement exercises and deployments into make-believe action; huge moons illuminating night-time field exercises; blessed sleep al fresco in East Anglian parklands, not seldom disturbed by the din of Allied aircraft bound for Germany. (July saw the devastating raids on Hamburg). Autumn is the bracken-covered moors of Flintshire, Breconshire and Northumbria (the tank training; the artillery firing ranges). Overwhelmingly, if selectively, winter is winds from the North Sea – from the great north European plain; from Siberia – enhancing the intrinsically dispiriting bleakness of the Isle of Sheppey (the regiment was in barrack at Sheerness) so that in retrospect, albeit unreliably, it seems to have been an interval of unalleviated gloom and bitter cold.

COURSES GALORE

Punctuating the whole span of time are the ‘courses’. Haunted by the massacres of the Somme and Passchendaele, and nobody more fearful than Churchill himself, those who planned for such things made provision for an adequate supply of junior leaders to replace the very large casualties expected to be almost inevitably contingent upon the reconquest of enemy-occupied Europe. Thus there came a point before the opening of that campaign when prudent reserves significantly outnumbered normal establishments, and units such as the field regiment to which I had been posted on commissioning found themselves burdened with numerous young men for whom there was, for the moment, nothing to do. The solution to the problem was a multiplicity of residential – usually week-long – programmes of instruction with a collectively wide embrace of military theory and practice, any of which might plausibly be judged to have some practical relevance to any kind of fighting formation. The field artillery of the British army, for example, was not then self-propelled, but frequently supported friendly tanks in action or fired on hostile ones; thus it was not entirely incongruous for me to find myself in the driver’s seat of a Crusader, claustrophobically closed down, wholly, blindly and terrifyingly dependent upon the commands of whoever was in the turret if twenty tons of armoured fighting vehicle were not involuntarily to somersault with all hands over a precipice of Outstanding National Beauty in mist-shrouded North Wales.

Equally, given that our 25-pounder field guns could be employed in an anti-tank role, and that the intellectual disciplines studied at the University of Glasgow little more than a year before had included higher mathematics, it was not unreasonable for me to have been expected to derive useful knowledge from a week at the School of Tank Technology in the stockbroker belt of Surrey, where we studied such matters as muzzle velocity and kinetic energy in relation to armour-piercing projectiles. Salutary rather than practical was a display on Chobham Heath of the effects of such projectiles upon the inside of a target vehicle: white-hot slivers of steel shredding soft animal tissue. If ever one had harboured fancies of serving in a socially smart regiment of modern cavalry they would have been unlikely to have survived the demonstration. A few months later, in Normandy, I was treated to an unwelcome reminder when ordered to investigate the hulk of a 7th Armoured Division Sherman hit by an 88 millimetre anti-tank gun of the Panzer Lehr Division at the approaches to Villers Bocage.

Such relevance was not always so readily discernible. Since more than three years of hostilities had already passed without the use of poison gas by any of the combatants, and – for fear of retaliation – none was thought likely to use it, there was a stultifying lack of immediacy about ‘Gas School’.Though undeniably every soldier might be said to march on his stomach, a five-day catering curriculum at Aldershot was hardly better calculated to engage the enthusiasm of a young man already belonging to a branch of the fighting services whose proud motto was quo fas et gloria ducunt. Significantly both more exciting and apposite was ‘The Theory and Use of Explosives’, where we were fascinated by a substance that could safely be kneaded like dough but could be devastatingly destructive when provoked by a suitably placed detonator. A time was to come when the fact of attendance at that desolately and prudently isolated encampment in the Essex marshes was to confer an inconvenient distinction, as did a course on mines.

Some courses could have consequences not likely to have been foreseen by those who devised them. During ten days at the Army School of Physical Training in Aldershot for the instruction of officers capable of supervising physical training at divisional level, I learnt nothing that I was ever required to put into practice whilst still in the army, but thanks to the tuition of Major T, a psychiatrist from the Royal Army Medical Corps, acquired a hint of the power of mind over matter that forty years afterwards was to stand me in good stead in the mountains of British Columbia. An end-of-course photograph shows fifteen young men in gym shorts, naked from the waist, sun-tanned, arms folded, boundlessly self-confident, looking fitter, more handsome and more capable than they had ever been before or would ever be again.

SOUVENIRS

So passed my nineteenth year, for which – doing duty for what would have been many an entry in the non-existent chronicles – two photographs are both memoranda and symbols. One, 12 x 8 inches, professional, and mounted, shows part of a dinner table and several diners against a slightly out-of-focus background of other tables and their occupants at what is obviously a large social event. The men, including myself, are wearing white ties (which means to say tail coats). Sitting next to me, smiling into the camera is the ballet dancer from Glasgow. * We were at a charity ball at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel. I loathed stiff-fronted shirts and wing collars, but to have worn a black tie (i.e. dinner jacket) for that sort of event would have been not the done thing. And this was in the middle of a world at war! The other picture is an amateur snapshot of a uniformed figure in a heroic pose on a concrete plinth crowning a rise on open downland. The plinth is a trig point that still stands near the Beddingham signal masts, overlooking Newhaven and the English Channel. The uniform is battle dress. The wearer, hatless and with hair untidy in a breeze that was blowing on the Sussex hills, is a fellow subaltern in my regiment, collaborating in a childish joke.

In retrospect, those twelve months between my commissioning in the summer of ’43 and June 1944 are overwhelmingly dominated by the ballet dancer and intensive training for war; the one making demands upon resources that ought to have been devoted to the other. The mind that ought to have been concerned with strictly martial pursuits was cluttered with recollections of cherished moments past or with longed-for moments to come. They were the disorientating preoccupations of a schoolboy in love. The anxious calls from public telephone boxes (“Please insert the money now”); the crowded train journeys that accounted for almost as many hours as those spent in the loved one’s company; the taxi rides; the flowers one could not afford from Moyses Stevens; the stage-door attendances; the candlelit dinners. Not gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow, but letters scented with Chanel 5, read and read again and treasured beyond price.

The subaltern on the trig point (above which much of the Battle of Britain had been fought three or four years earlier) is a monument to the side of life that was concerned with sterner things. From his vantage point he would have been able to see Black Cap Farm, then in ruins but once (and again today) a prominent feature of the landscape above Seaford, on the coast. Now, when growing crops are not covering the ground that borders the track east of the farm, walkers may still see what close examination reveals as fragments of the casings, sometimes the nose cones and base plates, of the shells that the subaltern and his like used to direct at targets on the firing range of the South Downs. Which was why we were there with our 25-pounder guns more than once in the autumn of ’43 and the spring of ’44. It was a time when General Montgomery, building on the victory of Alamein, was intent upon the twin tasks of training the British Army to competence and self-confidence and convincing it that the Germans were not the master race. It was the time when whole formations of soldiery would be summoned to cinemas or stadiums (or to open spaces, to be ordered to “break ranks and gather round” the general while he stood on the bonnet of his jeep) and told that we were going to “hit the enemy for six” right out of the German-occupied territories of Europe. And we believed him. They were the days and nights when the intervals between field exercises were few and brief and we grew more sure of ourselves. “Monarch of all I survey!” my friend had declaimed, posing on the trig point. But his earthly reign was to be ended a few months later by a German shell.

FUNNIES

Came the middle of May, 1944. I had finished a gas course several days earlier than had been advertised and thus sooner than I was required to report back to my regiment. With me on the course had been Harry, a subaltern whom I had known at Catterick and who had a friend whose father was in the War Office. The friend had told him about an offshoot of the War Office known as “Funnies”, based at Hobart House in London’s Buckingham Palace Road. “Funnies” was reputed to specialise in the recruitment of men for a variety of unorthodox and undercover activities. Harry, like me, having been on too many courses, wanted to play a more fulfilling role in the war and was going to see a Major C at Hobart House when the gas course was over. Why didn’t I come along too? He would telephone his contact in advance, if that was all right by me.

I never pass Hobart House today without seeing Major C as I saw him then, sitting behind a blanket-covered trestle table in a room otherwise devoid of furniture except for two folding army issue chairs and a filing cabinet on top of which, I curiously remember, was a jam jar holding white daisies. Past middle age, with well-groomed, greying hair and a neat military moustache, like my father’s, he was wearing khaki service dress impeccably tailored in what was clearly an exceptionally good barathea with extravagant (and on the grounds of economy currently forbidden), box-pleated pockets in pre-war style. On the left breast of his tunic were medal ribbons I didn’t recognise, except for the purple and blue of the M.C. Superimposed on one of the ribbons was the tiny metal oak leaf denoting a Mention in Despatches. There was a pipe resting in an ashtray and the air was agreeably redolent of Balkan Sobranie Mixture. The major got to his feet as Harry and I were shown in by a smartly turned out corporal. Shaking hands firmly across the table, he said that it was good of us to come.

The major already knew something about Harry and apologised for not being “at all well briefed” about me. When I had answered his few basic enquiries (school, games, academic and sporting achievements, activities since commissioning) he leaned back in his chair, twisting the unlit pipe in his hands and said well, both Harry and I were just the sort of people “Funnies” liked to have “on its books”, but he had to caution us that there was “not a lot going” just at the moment other than a slim chance of something in Yugoslavia and one or two possibilities elsewhere for preferably battle-experienced men who were as good as bilingual in French. But “in this business” one never knew. He assumed, by the way, that we would have no objection to a short course of parachute training if it should be called for, though as often as not it wasn’t. Neither of us seemed emotionally inseparable from our present regiments, the major said, so perhaps our best hope of a job with “Funnies” would be to go to a holding unit, which he would have no difficulty in arranging, and from which he would be able to whisk us at a moment’s notice if something should come up. He presumed we wouldn’t mind a spot of leave before doing anything else. Should we say a week? Summoning the corporal by pressing a button on the table, he asked that we should be issued with travel warrants to Hastings, shook hands with us again and thanked us for our time.

* Tennyson

_________

NEXT FRIDAY, 21st December.   Stiffening the Sinews, Part two.

   We moved by night. In spells, I was required to patrol the convoy on a Norton motorcycle, attending to march discipline; which is to say the maintaining of proper intervals between vehicles and the proscription of all except ‘differential’ lights (the ones illuminating rear axles and thus visible to the following vehicle, but not from the air). When relieved on patrol, exhausted, I slept in the back of a 3-ton lorry. Dawn saw us entering the London docks and a tented encampment enclosed in Dannert wire……… 


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 4

 

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.*

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Officer Cadet

 

That my contemporaries and I would volunteer to go direct from school into the fighting services was as inevitable as June following May. Equally unsurprising for the majority of boys from a place with an ethos such as that of the ISC was the choice of the Army rather than the Navy or the RAF. Not only that, the War Office offered selected boys from certain public schools two opportunities for fast-track progress to an officer’s commission: first, direct entry to officer cadet training for the Brigade of Guards; second, places on what were called university short courses. A commission in the Guards could be gained in less than a year. Guards officers (to be at school in the Royal Borough of Windsor was to be especially aware of them) wore outstandingly smart uniforms and commanded much respect. My father, however, who knew how little time was needed after his commissioning parade for a wartime subaltern in the Brigade of Guards to be reported as killed or missing in action, decisively advised against the long greatcoat and distinctively peaked hat.

1942 was a year that saw the appointment of Air Vice Marshall Arthur Harris as head of RAF Bomber Command. Already, the Command had suffered heavy losses of aircraft and men in exchange for trivial damage to the enemy. Now, the average life of a member of a bomber crew began to be measured in months, if not weeks. Cynics said that the War Office’s purpose in the short university courses consisted less in providing an army elite than in saving future junior leaders from the Harris system of slaughter. However that might be, for my mother, who must have shared my father’s misgivings about the Brigade of Guards, and to whom it was also obvious that the boy who had won prizes for his English essays was marked for Oxford and a fellowship at All Souls, six months in the lecture rooms of a university meant six less dangerous ones on active service.

But there was still another choice to be made. The University Short Courses were for field gunners, anti-tank gunners or signallers, taking place at Glasgow, Durham or Edinburgh respectively. I knew nothing of any of these universities, except that John Buchan had begun his higher education at Glasgow; a persuasive recommendation. I had no conception of what it meant to be a signals officer, anti-tank was explicit but devoid of any attraction. Field artillery, on the other hand, evoked a long and colourful history illustrated by countless paintings in which teams of frantic steeds with nostrils grotesquely flared in excitement or terror, ridden by heroic and handsomely-uniformed riders, dragged wildly lurching cannon and their ammunition tenders into maelstroms of shot and shell. Then again, one of my favourite childhood books had been Field Gunner on the Western Front, an account of a junior officer’s experiences in the Royal Artillery during the war of 1914-1918. Still fresh in recollection were the thrilling sight and sounds of precisely the same sort of artillery as described in the book passing through the village on manoeuvres.

Most recent – indeed, current – was an influence which, wholly unrecognised by me, was to shape my future. Exams successfully completed, my last sixth form term at school had given the sort of time for unpurposeful reading that was thereafter rarely to come again. I was already familiar with Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales (“The nicest child I ever knew was Charles Augustus Fortescue…”. “The Chief Defect of Henry King was chewing little bits of string…”) and could sometimes faultlessly recite his poem, Tarantella (“Do you remember an inn, Miranda? Do you remember an inn?”), but of the rest of his prolific works I was wholly ignorant until I chanced across Hills and Sea, The Cruise of the Nona and The Path To Rome. They were titles that strongly appealed to a very young man whose literary diet was preponderantly rich in such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper and John Buchan. Like many another reader, I suspect, I was at first disappointed to find that the Belloc books were collections of essays intellectualising on a diversity of topics from politics to religion, only interspersed by prose narratives justifying the titles. But what narratives! What prose! From these beginnings, I found myself dipping into the author’s histories and biographies and selections from his other writings in a quest for more of the same.

Belloc loved and wrote about my own native territory of Sussex, and especially about the South Downs, which I could see from the top of a tree in the garden at home and had known since I could crawl. Born in France of a French father, who died when Hilaire was still an infant, and an English mother, he grew up as an Englishman whose home for most of his long life was a few miles from my own. In spite of all later awareness of his less than admirable attributes, he became and was to remain one of my heroes. Almost twenty years later, when I myself began to earn a living as an essayist of sorts, I was to realise that I was deeply in his debt.

What was germane to my decision of the moment was that Belloc had soldiered in the French artillery. It was the clincher. I duly applied for the appropriate short university course, was accepted, and on 10th November, 1941, a few weeks before the end of my final term at the ISC, passed a cursory medical examination and took the King’s Shilling at the Army recruiting office in Reading, a momentous occasion for which I have a Certified Copy of Attestation, signed by a Major J. W. Tomkins, but no detailed recall. The Major said that I would be called to the colours “sometime soon”.

There are few reliable aids to autobiography concerning this brief transition from schoolboy to soldier cadet: no diaries, photographs, letters or mementoes to shed light on the period. Of the several faculties of memory the olfactory is said to be the most powerful, and it is with the aid only of the odours of new woollen suiting material, cheap catering and the London tube that I am able to recall the time between autumn of 1941 and March 1942. As a stopgap I had somehow or other found a job in the Oxford Street premises of a firm of wholesale clothing manufacturers. Part of my duties was to fetch out bales of cloth for the sales staff to show to prospective buyers. One of my rewards consisted of luncheon vouchers valid for Lyons Corner House at Marble Arch. I lodged south of  the Thames with a benevolent elder brother in the Metropolitan Police and his wife and travelled to and from work on the Northern Line.

SOLDIER

How much I earned and in what manner I spent my spare time I have no idea. Nor are there any other souvenirs of that interlude between leaving Windsor and finding myself at Marske-by-Sea, Yorkshire, in the early spring of the following year. And although there must have been some sort of an introduction to military drill and discipline, nothing of a week in Marske except the acquisition of boots, battle dress, and all the other usual impedimenta of an army recruit and a vague suspicion of having been to a dance hall, escorted a girl to a bus stop afterwards and made a clumsy attempt to kiss her goodnight.

There must have been home leave between the end of Marske and the start of Glasgow; leave which may have included the briefest of reunions in Sussex with one or two members of my family other than my Father and Mother; but the probability is small. One of my five brothers was ferrying bombers from the USA to Britain. Another was with the 8th Army in North Africa. A third was a wireless officer on tankers, routinely facing the enemy U-boat menace, and was twice sunk. Yet another was serving in RAF Coastal Command. Possibly, I would at least have had drinks with the one who had been unable to obtain his release from the Metropolitan Police, and who had so far come largely unscathed through the London Blitz. Perhaps my only sister was on holiday from her boarding school. More than likely, however, time went mostly in reading, sleeping, and going for walks in the hope of encountering the 17-year-old daughter of an opera singer who had sought a country refuge from the London bombing. Dark-haired, and in my easily dazzled eyes glamorous, she took a black Labrador for strolls in the afternoons and had no competition for the role of village beauty. Effortlessly (and unconcernedly) she displaced any lingering boyhood interest I might have retained for building huts in the woods. In April, the six months in Glasgow began.

STUDENT

At home, I probably never said much about the curriculum, which consisted of higher mathematics, the chemistry of fuels and explosives, survey, and the theory and practice of the internal combustion engine; but if anyone had ever thought that a War Office short course at the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world might provide the beginnings of an education in the humanities, they were doomed to disappointment. What work we did, how we were examined, what levels of academic achievement we were required to attain, and whether any of us failed to reach them, I cannot say. In that regard my sole and unreliable recollection is of manipulating a theodolite (surveying) in the university grounds overlooking Kelvingrove Park, where daffodils were in bloom, and having my notes blown away in the April breeze. As to where and how we lived, nothing. As to what we did when not at work, almost nothing. There was (and still is) an institution properly called the Glasgow College of Domestic Science, but affectionately known as “The Do (as in dough) School”, which in statu pupillari housed young women of about our own age. One of them was called Jeanie. A popular song of the time was Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and on the very rare occasions that I hear it now I am reminded that there were trips to Loch Lomond which began with a penny tram ride to Milngavie and led to waterside picnics when hands were certainly held and possibly kisses were shyly stolen.

But no sprig of heather. No snapshot. Not so much as a misty image in the memory. Whatever impression Jeanie may have made was to be comprehensively effaced by an encounter of seismic significance. A popular musical destined for London was opening in Glasgow. In an overcrowded and highly competitive calling, the four principal dancers, like so many would-be Alicia Markovas or Margot Fonteyns, had, faute de mieux, graduated to the company from Vic-Wells. All of them were attractive enough to turn even strong men a little weak at the knees. One of them so captivated the painfully callow cadet that years after Glasgow and Loch Lomond had faded to near unreality, the agony and the ecstasy of his first love affair were still to have the frightening power of annihilating time and reason. Untypically, the archives can bear cogent witness. Photographs that can still quicken the heart rate. Bundles of letters that dare not be read again. No lipstick traces, but a cigarette case (is it believable that such a thing was once de rigueur for the well-bred smoker?) and a lighter bearing the recipient’s engraved initials that were birthday presents. No airline tickets to romantic places, but dinner menus (one from the Dorchester Hotel on which the set meal is priced at £5), theatre programmes (Blithe Spirit at the St. James’s Theatre, Brighton Rock at the Garrick…) and a toy lamb made of pipe cleaners, grubby and misshapen, that later became a much-travelled talisman without which its owner would have felt perilously vulnerable.

At the end of Glasgow came a night train south, the corridors crammed with men in uniform, the steamed-up carriage windows blacked out, the stations blue-lit, the unscheduled halts frequent and unexplained. Summer had gone. In the Pacific, American naval and air forces had won the battle of the Coral Sea, and – pivotally in the war as a whole – the battle of Midway. In Prague, the supremely evil SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich had been assassinated and the village of Lidice, its inhabitants murdered or otherwise terminally disposed of, erased in retaliation. In the Arctic Ocean, British convoy PQ 17, incompetently in conception and disastrously in consequence ordered to disperse by First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound, had lost 25 ships out of 36. And in the English Channel the Dieppe Raid, for which the egregiously ambitious Lord Louis Mountbatten, with matching incompetence, bore a heavy share of the responsibility, had ended in catastrophe.

SOLDIER AGAIN

Now, wearing white bands round their ridiculous ‘fore and aft’ forage caps as a sign of their transitionary status, the Glasgow cadets were at what was called “pre-OCTU” (OCTU = officer cadet training unit) in a muddy, Nissen-hutted woodland camp near Wrotham, overlooking the weald of Kent. Here, we learned how to ride motorbikes and drive lorries. Here we were required to move everywhere “at the double” and went on cross-country runs, forced marches, and night trials in map reading. Not the least purpose of pre-OCTU, it was said, was the weeding out of insufficiently officer-like material. Hence, on the assault courses and battle training exercises a cadet was especially well advised to exert himself to the utmost. In a sham ceremony I was presented with a toggle rope (a device for scaling walls and other barriers) as a reward for outstanding prowess in street fighting; but the exercise had been blanketed in acrid smoke, under cover of which I had cheated by skirting one of the more formidable obstacles rather than scaling it. Soon afterwards I lost the ill-gotten trophy, but lived for months with my private shame.

Among the few surviving recollections of the period are the taste of tea and cakes at a NAAFI snack bar on bitter-cold mornings in October and the sight of a sergeant major, on his way to a commission, who greeted each day by lighting a pipe before getting out of bed. It was autumn when pre-OCTU and another home leave came to an end, and while 20,000 Russian Jews were being machine-gunned into the death pits of Bronnaya Gora, and the German Afrika Korps was retreating from El Alamein, I took the train north again to Yorkshire and the place that was known to the Roman legions as Caractonium and to the British Army as the Aldershot of the North.

Catterick; reputed to be the largest army base in the world. Catterick; a name to chill the blood of generations of young men who have meticulously folded their blankets in its cheerless barrack rooms (I write of 1942), incessantly polished their boots and their brass buckles and blancoed their webbing for inspection, drilled on its parade grounds, endured its disciplines and longed for an end to its trials by physical and mental ordeal. Catterick; from which thousands departed at last with the conviction that nothing in their future military experience could be as bad as that which they had left behind on the Yorkshire moors.

After pre-OCTU, Catterick was OCTU proper, at the end of which we would either be commissioned officers or —called, but not chosen— designated ‘RTU’: “Returned to unit”. Meanwhile, fitter, a good deal more cunning in the arts of survival, tougher and rougher, we did everything that we had done at Wrotham and a lot more besides.  Again, the images are sparse, but one at least is always with me. It is December. The army of General von Paulus is still investing Stalingrad and in the course of an exercise with armour on the moors the hatch of a tank has fallen on the fingers of my left hand. Had I not been wearing two pairs of gloves, the outer pair especially thick leather with sheepskin lining, I would probably have lost several of my fingers, as many a man had done before me. In the event, only the end of a middle finger was badly crushed, but I see the injured cadet as he squats inside the machine while shells explode on the hull (the object of the exercise is to demonstrate the invulnerability of the heavy tank to any but armour-piercing shot), deeply shocked, trying to control his voice so as to give orders to the driver, then weeping as shock gives way to pain.

Near the end of the course, and of winter, we are engaged in battle training on the moors of Otterburn, Northumberland. Fording a glacial stream, a member of my patrol stumbles and loses his grip on the Bren gun that he is carrying. My right hand is occupied with my own weapon. With the bandaged left hand I recover the Bren and make to go with it at least until we reach dry ground. Scrambling to his feet, the other man reaches out for it, but he is obviously near the end of his endurance and with my own laboured breath I gasp that he should let me keep it for a while (the RIGHT STUFF). He grabs at the Bren and there is a momentary (and for my injured hand agonising) tussle before I give in and continue with only my own rifle. Unknown to us, the incident has been imperfectly observed and erroneously interpreted by one of the directing staff and I am later called in front of higher authority and accused of refusing to carry the Bren when it was my turn to do so. My attempt to explain is cut short (“And don’t attempt to argue!”) with a warning that any further complaint against me will prove fatal to my chances of a commission, a threat that is the cause of acute anxiety for the ensuing week before the passing out parade. On commissioning leave at home the damaged middle finger of my left hand is clumsily operated on by the village doctor, subsequently becomes septic, and is slightly deformed to this day.

* Tennyson

_________

NEXT FRIDAY, 14th December.  Chapter Four:  Stiffening the Sinews.

It was a time when General Montgomery, building on the victory of Alamein, was intent upon the twin tasks of training the British Army to competence and self-confidence and convincing it that the Germans were not the master race. It was the time when whole formations of soldiery would be summoned to cinemas or stadiums (or to open spaces, to be ordered to “break ranks and gather round” the general while he stood on the bonnet of his jeep) and told  that we were going to “hit the enemy for six” right out of the German-occupied territories of Europe. And we believed him. They were the days and nights when the intervals between field exercises were few and brief and we grew more sure of ourselves. “Monarch of all I survey!” my friend had declaimed, posing on the trig point. But his earthly reign was to be ended a few months later by a German shell………

……….As 1944 wore on,everyone knew that the Allied invasion of the Continent could not be long delayed. Night after night the pubs of the southern counties of England were thronged with the soldiery of half the world. Night and day the roads grew ever more congested with wheeled and tracked machinery of every shape and purpose, painted in green and displaying the allied white star. Anyone in an active service unit was aware that in weeks, if not days, the hitting for six must begin. For many a very young man it was a time for Rupert Brooke (“If I should die, think only this of me…”) and the lodging of last letters with his bank.