THE FADING MARGIN: serial 5Posted: December 15, 2012
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.*
Stiffening the Sinews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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………