THE FADING MARGIN: serial 15.

Chapter TEN

    Indian Occasions

Part One

In the year 2008 the papers were full of pictures of the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay with smoke and flames billowing out of its windows, following  an attack by terrorists from Pakistan. Today as I write, stapled to one of the hand-written pages in an obviously old desk journal, is a miniature menu on faded pink card headed “Taj – Bombay.  LUNCHEON  12.30 to 2  p.m”. The card informs hotel guests not only that a grill of ‘Mutton Kidney & Bacon’ is available, but that ‘By Government Order only Soup plus one dish of section A and one dish of section B may be served’. On the back of the menu (I have it by me now) is a programme of ‘Music by the Melody Trio’ which, no doubt in honour of Britain’s contemporary allies, included Souvenir D’Ukraine, by Ferraris, and Tambourin Chinois by Kreisler. The card is dated 8.8.46.

It had been a journey of 4,500 miles and 4 months from the primroses of Sussex to the frangipani and all too often less fragrant airs of the Deccan Plateau in India. Inside the front cover of a slim, much-worn copy of James Elroy Flecker’s Selected Poems, which I treasure, a pencilled scribble reads: “We are flying 5,000 feet above the Mediterranean. One has heard so much of the blue of this sea and indeed it is unreally blue. As we crossed the coast after leaving Castel Benito it was hard to tell sea from sky”.

The book of poems had been a parting present from my sister Jessica when I had left home the day before. In a snapshot which has been used as a marker, and which is loosely between Hassan’s Serenade and To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence, a dozen or so army officers carrying small holdalls are standing close to an RAF Liberator bomber which they are evidently about to board. The officers are wearing their peaked hats and greatcoats and are probably eager to escape from a keen little wind that was blowing across the airfield there at Bourn, in Cambridgeshire, on the last morning of March, 1946. The scribble, which occupies the whole of the inside of the cover and most of the originally blank facing page, notes that we landed at Marignane, near Marseilles, that after Castel Benito we “skirted Benghazi” (a household name during the desert war of 1942-1943) and that before Alexandria we looked down on 4-year-old tank tracks made during the fighting at Alamein. Taking up the account where the volume of Flecker leaves off, the diary remembers that we landed at “an airfield near the Pyramids” and that two of my fellow travellers and I took a taxi into Cairo, had drinks and dinner at the renowned Continental Hotel, where in 1923 Lord Carnarvon (the power behind Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun) had died of a mosquito bite, spent “a foolish and unprofitable hour at the Bardia Cabaret” and took another taxi back to the camp and “bed without incident, though I had to control the other two, who had drunk a lot more than I”.

DISCOVERING THE LOTUS

It is a lamentable fact (the diary was my confessional) that next morning, when a colonel who was one of the officers in the Liberator proposed that four of us should hire a taxi to take us to the Tutankhamun Museum in Cairo, a hangover allied to ignorance very nearly prevented my joining the party. I must already at least have heard of Tutankhamun, but William the Conqueror and Henry the Eighth meant infinitely more to me than did the name of the boy king who was the most famous of the pharaohs. The colonel’s encouragement and Alka-Seltzer saved the day, and before the morning was out and I was sitting in the shade on the terrace of historic Shepheard’s Hotel, enhancing the earlier therapy by a liberal application of John Collinses, I knew that I had just been treated to a glimpse of some of the most consummately beautiful artefacts that the world has ever seen. Why, of all the exhibits in the collection, the alabaster lotus flowers in particular should have so impressed me I have never been able to explain; perhaps because they were most obviously exquisite to the untutored eye; but in 1972, when I saw them again at the British Museum in London, I was again entranced. Pleased, too, by a sense of familiarity, as by a reunion with a long-lost friend with whom I had once established an exclusive and valued relationship and who on rediscovery reaffirmed the validity of the original attachment.

The incident in Cairo was another of a number of occasions in those adolescent soldiering years that were to leave me with a regret that I had been so ill-equipped at the time to take advantage of them. On the field of Waterloo, albeit not unaware of its place in history, I had known nothing of the epic battle itself, so that Quatre Bras, Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte, the Sunken Lane, La Belle Alliance and Plancenoit, all fundamentally key locations of the action in June, 1815, all famously celebrated in print and on canvas, and which I might easily have explored, had held only minimal significance for me. Later, I wished I had known about Wellington’s legendary elm tree and gone to see where it was said to have stood at the intersection of the Chaussée de Charleroi and the Chemin de la Croix.

Brussels, too, had been rich in associations of which I had known little or nothing when I was first there and had time to spend more or less in any way I liked. In the 18th century the city had been host to a large British community. Wellington had been tutored there. I had heard of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of Waterloo, could even recite a few appropriate lines from Byron’s Childe Harold, but Thackeray had not been on the compulsory reading list at school, so that I had never met Becky Sharp, Amelia Sedley or George Osborne. All would have added piquancy to my wartime love affair with the still fundamentally 18th and 19th century city that was to be so hideously blighted by post-war developments. It was a regret that may have been misplaced. Even so soon as 75 years after Amelia had vainly finished praying for George – “lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart” –  it had become impossible for researchers to identify the place where the legendary eve of battle gathering had been held.

PASSAGE TO INDIA

We had lunch in Cairo, supper before boarding the Liberator again at the airfield near the Pyramids and breakfast in the very early hours of the morning at Shaibah, almost on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Dawn was breaking as we flew over the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates and what my scribble in Flecker described as “vast wastes of merciless-looking country”.  The sun was setting as we landed at Karachi, in India. After a hot, sticky and restless night in the city we exchanged the Liberator for that ubiquitous workhorse of the Second World War, a Dakota, and after some 500 turbulent miles as the DC3 flies, and a furnace of a train, arrived in Deolali.

Rubber-stamped in violet ink inside the covers of some two dozen volumes, several of them weighty, on my bookshelves here in Sussex is the legend ‘For the use of H M Forces. Not for resale’. The non-fiction titles include The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, three volumes of A History of Europe by H.A.L Fisher, J.C.Stobart’s The Grandeur that was Rome, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Arts of Mankind by Henrik Willem Van Loon. Distinguished by the same violet rubber stamp are The Trumpet Major, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy; A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Hard Times, The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens; Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte; Rotunda – a selection from the works of Aldous Huxley, and a 1940 edition of Hilaire Belloc’s Hills and the Sea.

With the exception of a photograph or two, the books constitute my only material souvenir of India. The stout leather trunk with securing straps, faithfully copied from the sort of thing that generations of sahibs had brought with them from England, so attractive, and so irresistibly cheap in the bazaar, did not survive an accidental drenching in the monsoon and the consequent disintegration of the thick cardboard body concealed by the paper-thin covering of low grade genuine leather. The smart Jodhpur boots, their skilled craftsmanship undeniable and the provenance of their design almost certainly the same as that of the trunk, fell apart when the soles proved to be of the same basic construction as the luggage. The ‘Benares’ brass tray, owing more, I suspect, to the industry of the brass workers of Bombay than to those of the holy city on the Ganges, that had been intended as a present for my mother, mercifully never left the subcontinent to bear witness to my youthful aesthetic judgement.

DEOLALI DALLIANCE

Deolali. The name is writ large in the annals of the British in India and commemorated in “doolally”, meaning mentally disturbed, or soft in the head, an abbreviation of ‘doolally tap’, itself deriving from the fact that the military depot of Deolali was the site of a mental sanatorium, many of whose soldier inmates – it was said – had been driven off balance by the climate (tapa is Sanskrit for heat) and interminable waiting for a home posting. Later and more tenuous fame was conferred by its being the setting for the long-running British television series, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. In April 1946 I was as ignorant of such claims to fame as I was of India itself. To my delight, at a gathering of new arrivals, I met Tom Benning,  who had so recently been on the same Air OP course in England and had completed it. Not only had we been contemporaries and friends at Wrotham and Catterick, we had served in the same division in Normandy. Now, almost alone in having seen active service among those awaiting posting, in the unknown, uncharted and vaguely menacing territory of the depot, mere numbers and names on cards to be shuffled and dealt by indifferent hands, we met again like hardened veterans and blood brothers. To make space for new contingents of transitional soldiery, and the shuffling to be completed, numbers of us were sent for an indefinite term to the nearby recreational resort of Lake Beale. Here, Tom and I went sailing together, shared taxis to bazaars, spent evenings at this or that officers’ club and talked late into the night. Destined to become a successful barrister, he was endearingly tolerant not only of his companion’s fanciful ideas about a literary life but – greater love hath no man – of his often gin-fuelled post-mortems concerning the love affair with Nicola, on which subject lamentations still littered my diary. When, at the end of April, he was posted to Secunderabad, we were both unashamedly upset. Deolali to Secunderabad as the crow flies is more than 300 miles. Well-acquainted as we were with the vicissitudes of the times and military life, we knew that we might never meet again.

A TIME OF DISCONTENT

For a while I was left to linger on at Deolali, seriously bereft, comprehensively bored, a joy neither to myself nor to anyone else. Knowing that I had at the very least six months to serve before demobilisation, I began agitating for a job. Regimental soldiering offered no attractions. I enquired again about the Education Corps and was told that there were no vacancies at the moment. Instead, within a few days I found myself in nearby Nasik commanding a troop in a regiment of artillery that had been in India throughout the war, had no guns, and, I suspected (we were less than a year away from Partition), might be intended for service in a situation of Indian civil unrest.

Discontent was not ameliorated by a severe bout of dysentery, treated with alarmingly large doses of sulphaguanidine. Graver by far was that most pernicious of afflictions – a consuming sense of injustice. Troop commanders were customarily captains, and although, with the exception of the colonel and second-in-command, I was wearing one campaign medal ribbon more than any other officer in the regiment, I was still only a full lieutenant. I complained. I agitated. Like most of my fellow junior officers, I drank easily obtainable and affordable gin and whisky in appreciably larger quantities than was good for me. In the mess, when not gratuitously disputatious, I was liable to be sullen or tediously facetious. In short, I cannot have been at all nice to know.

Much – perhaps most – of the trouble stemmed from the fact that for India (for the world, for the army, for myself) it was a time in limbo. The global war was over. The British Empire was in an advanced stage of disintegration. Farewell The Trumpets was to be the title of the last volume of Jan Morris’s superb trilogy charting the whole historical process. Colours were being laid up, proud regiments disbanded, military establishments eliminated or drastically reduced. From major-generals (and their wives) to long-serving privates and their indigenous girlfriends, a whole new class of displaced persons was being created. From the Himalaya to the Indian Ocean, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, all bets were off except those contingent upon whether or not one might be homeward bound before the monsoon arrived.

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NEXT FRIDAY, 1 March Serial 16:  Indian Occasions, Part Two.


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 14.

CHAPTER NINE

Circuits and Bumps

Midsummer, 1945. In Europe the war is over. In the Pacific, there are still three weeks to run in the battle for the island of Okinawa. The first atom bomb test has not yet been carried out and the Allies are estimating losses of more than a million American and British lives if the Japanese mainland has to be invaded. In Britain, the coalition government has been dissolved, the general election campaign is on and our junior officer has reported in glorious weather to Larkhill School of Artillery on Salisbury Plain, where the 24 members designate of the forthcoming Air OP course have assembled for a month of field gunnery exercises and examinations before going for flying training with the RAF.

On the first morning we are told that the War Office had overestimated the number required to qualify as pilots and that six of those present will therefore be returning to their units forthwith. On what basis they are selected, none of us knows, but later in the day six shattered officers are duly driven with their kit to Salisbury station. It is also now announced, pour encourager les autres, that at the end of the month a further six will be ‘weeded out’. Where the child’s boasted self-confidence had gone I have never been sure, but after another day on the ranges and good shooting by everyone except myself I did not see how I could hope to make the final dozen.

That I did make it surprised me then and surprises me still. I hardly deserved to. When others with less need than I to be anxious were remaining at the camp and devoting their weekends to study and revision, I was catching the first possible train up to London and Nicola with two or three brief excursions down to Sussex to see my family. When, judging by their conversations, others were thinking about little else besides how they had performed or would be able to perform on the ranges or in the map reading exercises that featured prominently in our curriculum, I was engrossed by pleasures past or – as I hoped and schemed – those yet to come, or, too often, brooding on things done or said, or not done and not said. When the Chief Instructor told us that we had been an ‘outstanding’ course and read out the names of the twelve who would go on to Cambridge my name was second on the alphabetically ordered list. I remember nothing else about what must have ranked as a never-to-be-forgotten moment except making a telephone call to London to arrange a meeting with Nicola next day.

On 26 July, the day that Winston Churchill, ‘saviour of the nation’, is overwhelmingly rejected in favour of Clement Attlee and the first Labour government in British history, I am issued with my flying kit at Marshall’s airfield, Cambridge, have my first flight in a Tiger Moth and am air sick. It is now that the first major blank appears in the chronicles of our first person singular, so that between the middle of August and the end of December my RAF flying log book, meticulously kept on pain of severe disciplinary action, is almost our only aide memoire. In explanation I am able only to theorise not that nothing in all that time deserved report, but, to the contrary, and as we saw once before, the pace of life and my state of mind so changed that I failed to make the effort to keep up with the action.

There now occurs that which, had it happened two or three months earlier, would have given the War Office second thoughts about the training of new pilots for Air OP. On 6 August  the first atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb obliterates Nagasaki. August 13 and 14 see London wildly celebrating the news that Japan has surrendered and that the world conflict has at last come to an end. Nobody goes wild on the Air OP course at Cambridge. We know that the threat of action over the jungles of Burma has been lifted from us and we quietly, and mostly privately, rejoice. As with VE-Day in Germany, however, the celebrations of the official end to the war in the Pacific seem anticlimactic. More important has been our performance in approaches and landings (takeoffs, if more hazardous, are superficially a lot easier) and how soon we shall be able to take our solo checks. On 17 August, after a far from creditable 11 hours and 30 minutes of dual instruction (the star pupil on the course has taken only 9 hours) I am cleared for my first solo flight (“OK. She’s all yours. Once round and a nice smooth landing”).

Now, life becomes a touch more demanding. Instead of exercise number 12, taking off into wind, and exercise number 13, approach and landing (accounting for nine out of ten of the entries in the log book), instrument flying, low flying, precautionary landing, stalling, gliding and climbing turns, spinning, sideslipping, steep turns, forced landing, action in the event of fire and restarting the engine in flight (exercise number 24) follow one another within the space of three days and a total of less than three flying hours. August 22 finds me suffering badly from air sickness as a result of having antagonised a new instructor who has taken revenge by putting me through excessive practice in recovering from the spin. On 2 September I am rehearsing forced landings by day and flying solo at night. On 3 September a certain Warrant Officer Butcher (for his patience, not to say gentleness, I retrospectively salute him) introduces me to aerobatics (stall turns, looping the loop, rolls off the top). In a day or two I am required to perform them by myself and, as with every exercise, sign my log book as having done so. September 7 is an especially exciting day, since it is now that Flight Sergeant Brown takes me up in an Auster 3 instead of a Tiger Moth. The Auster is the high wing, enclosed cabin monoplane (the Tiger is an open cockpit biplane) in which we shall be doing our operational training, if we progress that far.

Two weeks later is a day of humiliation. Somewhere north and east of Cambridge, flying solo in an Auster on exercise 27 – pilot navigation – I stray into cloud, fail to determine my position when at last I escape from it, fail to equate anything I can see on the ground with anywhere on my map, fear a deterioration in the weather and decide to land at the first opportunity. Eventually, I see the crossed runways of the sort of heavy bomber base with which East Anglia has been littered by the war. The sign in the signal square as I make a regulation pass over it at a few hundred feet is the one for LAND ONLY IN EMERGENCY. With my fuel gauge registering empty, I judge myself to meet the conditions and line myself up on the runway that is nearest to being into wind.

Nearest, but not near enough. Heavy bombers are not bothered by a boisterous cross wind; little single-engine aeroplanes are. Crabbing down towards the vast expanse of concrete, concentrating on my flying, I see red lights flashing at me from the control tower and a line of small objects moving towards me across the runway . With nothing in the tank, to abort my landing and go round again is out of the question: if my engine should cut in the middle of a steep turn I should most surely stall into the ground. Nothing for it, therefore, but to keep going and hope that the unidentified oncomers will get out of my way.

A few feet from the concrete I see that the approaching objects are men on racing bicycles. As they hurtle to either side of me, crouched over their drop handles, I notice that a white lamp is signalling frantically at me from the tower. COME HERE, it says in Morse code as I swerve onto the grass, where within yards of the tower the motor stops of its own accord. Massed on the balcony, staring down at me as I get out of the plane, are figures in blue, some with gold braid on their uniform caps. I have landed in the middle of, and threatened gravely to disrupt, the All England, RAF inter-station cycling championship.

It is a very strict rule that pupils who have been obliged to make an emergency landing away from base may not take off again except in the company of a qualified instructor. The RAF, forgiving and hospitable, allow me to use the telephone, and while the Auster is refuelled and I wait for the regulation and ignominious collection, treat me to a drink.

Of the twelve of us who left Larkhill for Cambridge in July, eight of us report to 43 Operational Training Unit at Middle Wallop in Hampshire in the middle of October. Here, greater demands are made on us than mere pilot competence. Here, we must fly, navigate, observe shell bursts on the ground (‘fall of shot’) and radio back to the guns such corrections to their aim as we think they ought to make in order for them to hit their declared targets. I am a less than star performer in all of these. As a general comment it would not be unfair (but, some would think, generous) to say that I simply do not keep my eye on the ball.

Example. We have been sent on a cross-country navigation exercise in which we are required to note the most prominent feature to be observed in a certain map square. It takes me longer than it ought to have done to find what I believe to be the given square, which includes part of the docks at Southampton where the ocean liner Queen Mary happens to be at a quayside. This is interesting, and I fly over and round the ship twice. The consequence is that I use a lot more petrol than I ought to have done and in making my regulation pass over the airfield at Middle Wallop on my return am rewarded by having the engine cut and the propellor seize. Exercises eleven and sixteen now stand me in good stead. By a combination of gliding turns and sideslipping I manage to get in over the boundary and come to a halt not fifty yards inside the airfield. Nobody is pleased.

It all ends in a cry. It is not my flying that does for me, but my gunnery. After a final test over the ranges on 15 November I learn that I have failed to reach the required standard of proficiency in directing fire from the air. “Lack of concentration” is one of the comments in my terminal report. “Too many weekends in London”, says the chief instructor. “Burning the candle at both ends never did anyone any good”. Sent on two weeks leave and ordered to report thereafter to the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich, I depart as a certified pilot-navigator of light aircraft but without the distinctive and coveted Air OP wings on the left breast of my uniform. The damage to my self-esteem will never wholly be repaired.

Diary entries for the end of 1945 and the first three months of 1946 constitute a capriciously maintained, and in places almost illegibly pencilled, chronicle of wasted time. At Woolwich, they knew no better than I did what to do with a junior officer of field artillery now that there was no war to fight and no outpost of empire which was not already under notice of closure, and could hardly have cared less. I had better take some more leave, said an elderly captain, who thus was able to shift me from one filing tray to another and forget about me for a while. I took a month, which was bad for my own constitutionally unsound finances, bad for my family, some of whom lent me money which they themselves could ill afford, and ruinous for my already-ramshackle and doomed relationship with Nicola. I had no well-established and intelligent interests, too much time on my hands and too many opportunities for the exercise of adolescent stupidities and frustrations.

London saw far more of me than Sussex did. More flowers were bought from Moyses Stevens. More evenings and too much money was spent at Grosvenor House and the Dorchester. I read Brideshead Revisited (published the year before), went to see Brief Encounter (another runaway success of 1945, and one which established Celia Johnson and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto for ever in English middle class affections) and somewhere or other heard a rumour that there were vacancies in the Army Education Corps for officers prepared to “go back to school” in order to become language specialists. Reporting to Woolwich after Christmas, I asked if there might be a possibility of my joining the Corps. Not impossible, said the elderly captain, but he would need some time to look into the matter. Meanwhile, why didn’t I take a spot more leave?

Having taken ten days, I reported again to Woolwich and was told to take a week more, but this time as posting leave prior to a return to Germany and a holding camp at Lüneberg, there to wait for assignment to an as yet unspecified unit somewhere in the British Army of Occupation. The possibility was appalling. Remembering May 1943, and my situation following the gas course, I telephoned Hobart House to ask if a Major C was by any chance still in a section called ‘Funnies’. There was no longer a section of that name, I learnt, but Major C could be found on another number. When I went to see him next day he was in a smarter office than the one in which I had met him some eighteen months ago, but otherwise was just the same. He volunteered nothing about his present functions, but when we had exchanged pleasantries and I had given him the gist of my situation and said that what I would most like would be a posting to almost anywhere except Germany, though for preference as far away from London as possible, he said well, that would really narrow things down to India. How did that appeal ?

It took me ten more days to organise myself. I said no goodbyes in London, but at home picked primroses for my mother and shed tears when waiting with her at the bus stop at the end of posting leave.

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NEXT FRIDAY, 22  February Serial 15:  Indian Occasions, Part One.

We had lunch in Cairo, supper before boarding the Liberator again at the airfield near the Pyramids and breakfast at Shaibah, almost on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Dawn was breaking as we flew over the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates. The sun was setting as we landed at Karachi, in India. After a hot, sticky and restless night in the city we exchanged the Liberator for a Dakota and after some 500 turbulent miles as the DC3 flies, and a furnace of a train, arrived in Deolali.


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 13

CHAPTER EIGHT

Götterdämmerung

 

 

A month later, we reached the Elbe. We reached it by way of successive scenes of devastation that depressed the spirit without raising so much as a tremor of sympathy for a population that seemed dazed by bombing, shelling and disbelief at finding themselves still alive. Acting as traffic control again, installed in a house largely unscathed among town ruins, my crew and I found not only a compromising wealth of the trappings of Nazi enthusiasm (an ornate certificate of efficiency for a member of the Hitler Youth, Swastika armbands, an SS ceremonial dagger, adulatory publications about Hitler and other Nazi notables) but also a typically German cellarful of preserved vegetables and fruits in vacuum jars, their seals intact.

By candlelight in a first floor room I ate fried spam with peas, asparagus and carrots, followed by raspberries with British army issue evaporated milk, off fine, if rather florid china at an ornately-carved mahogany table covered with a hand-embroidered (also florid) linen cloth and set with heavy silver-plated cutlery. My napkin matched the cloth. Disappointingly, the cellar had yielded not a drop of wine, but my rum and water was drunk from a goblet of cut glass. My driver and signaller, who in their civilian lives neither had, nor would ever be likely to have any experience of fine dining, had taken huge delight in setting the table, earnestly consulting me as to the proper placing of the cutlery. There was no washing up. When I had finished, each of my companions grasped two corners of the tablecloth, carried the bundle – china, glass and all – to the window and let it fall with a sound of catastrophic fragmentation into the flower bed below.

DEPREDATIONS

A barbarity. But we were deep in barbarous times, and not yet sophisticated enough to set the Lieder of Schubert (Frühlingstraum; Der Lindenbaum) against what we knew to have been the unprovoked bombing of Rotterdam and the massacre of refugees on the roads of France, nor the poetry of Goethe (Neue Liebe, neues Leben) and the music of Beethoven against the bloated bodies of our own infantry that we had seen in Normandy, killed in a war supported by the enthusiasm of just such people as those whose possessions we were now despoiling. Thanks to jack-booted battalions of grown-up members of the Hitler Youth, people we had known and loved would never see another spring. In many a “liberated”, once peaceful town and village that we had passed through on our way to Germany the lime trees had lain in splinters as a consequence of those who had been proud to wear the swastika armbands. We knew that Hamburg had been devastated in the British bombing raids of July, ’43, and had felt only satisfaction at being told that more than half the city had been destroyed. We knew, too, that Dresden had suffered a similar fate, or worse, and regretted nothing except the loss of eight of our Lancasters in the attack.

Share with me now a quaint coincidence. On the evening before I had reached this stage of the present book, I had started to read for the umpteenth time Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, the autobiographical classic based upon the walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople which he started in December 1933, at the age of 19. On the evening after I had written the first few paragraphs of this present chapter of mine, I took up Leigh Fermor’s work again and found myself reading the account of his first night in Germany. The town, he says, was hung with National Socialist flags and the shop next door to the inn in which he was staying ‘held a display of Party equipment: swastika arm-bands, daggers for Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.A.men’. The name of the town was  Goch!

Meanwhile, my diary was briefly signalling the closing stages of the war. “Lots of unpleasant mopping up operations, some against cadets and instructors. Bremen captured. Fierce fighting in Berlin”. Near Rotenburg, east of the Weser, we came across a small factory which even at a time of chronic deprivation in Germany appeared not to have suspended production of the renowned eau de Cologne, 4711 (said to have been favoured by Goethe and Napoleon) and a range of cosmetic creams. The infantry had been there, but only in passing, and had joined the general loathing for all things German (witness the dinner) to what may have been a distorted sense of fun by using pots of the cream and bottles of the expensive toilet water for grenade practice against one of the outer walls.    “Fucking waste”, was the comment of the disgusted sergeant, a family man, who was with me when we came across the evidence of the wanton destruction. Only a few cartons appeared to have been used, yet still, a day after the orgy, the approach to the factory was scented, as the beau major put it, “like a tart’s parlour”.

What had not been so used was not destined for so futile an end. Other members of the battery helped themselves to such quantities as might be sent to wives or girls at home by means of Forces’ Mail. Hard on their heels would come the ‘B’ Echelon lorries that arrived full in the forward areas, and which would return to base laden with anything that appeared likely to have a ready sale in Brussels or elsewhere. Pianos, paintings and bicycles were three of the most favoured items of cargo. Cosmetics, especially cosmetics with so famous a name as 4711, were not to be despised. Four days after my own discovery, one of my fellow officers found the building empty of anything useful and removable, but the air still fragrant with the might-have-been.

CLOSING SCENES

It was a bizarre finale to hostilities. Himmler was rumoured to have tried to negotiate peace terms, but to have been rejected . On 23 April he took cyanide. On 30 April we were attacked by ME 109s, but no harm was done. On that day, too, Hitler shot himself.

“At 0530 hrs on the morning of 4 May the leading battery entered Hamburg, which had surrendered. The CEASE FIRE was ordered and the regiment moved into its static occupational area before nightfall. Three days later the following message announcing the complete capitulation of all German forces to the allies was issued by RA 53 (W) Div Artillery. “A rep of the German High Command signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces at 0741 hrs Central European Time 7 May 45 … Effective immediately, all offensive ops are to cease and troops are to remain in present positions. Moves involved in occupational duties will continue”. The rest of May was spent at Hamburg where the regiment was employed on security patrols as well as searching for and organising displaced persons camps”.

So began the end of my time in Germany, which in retrospect appears as a montage of the improbable and the grotesque. “Peace brought no rest to the human flotsam of the war which swirled in hordes between and behind the victorious armies”, says John Keegan. “Ten million Wehrmacht prisoners, 8 million German refugees, 3 million Balkan fugitives, 2 million Russian prisoners of war. … washed about the battlefield. In Britain and America crowds thronged the streets on 8 May to celebrate ‘VE Day’; in the Europe to which their soldiers had brought victory, the vanquished and their victims scratched for food and shelter in the ruins the war had wrought”.

GRAND GUIGNOL

It was a time when the improbable and the grotesque were commonplace. While their compatriots in Russian-occupied Berlin were dirtying their faces and dressing in rags in a vain attempt to escape the orgy of rape that was to claim more than 100,000 victims, German women and young girls, unashamedly tempting us to contravene the non-fraternisation order, strolled in glorious spring sunshine and summer dresses on the banks of the Aussenalster and Binnenalster – the lakes which, less than a year ago, had been choked with the bodies of people who had sought refuge from the firestorm in which more than 40,000 people had died. While untold millions throughout the continent “scratched for food and shelter”, the astonishingly intact Atlantic Hotel, overlooking the Aussenalster and now commandeered for the use of British officers, served roast chicken with spring peas, new potatoes and buttered carrots, followed by raspberries and ice cream.

In pursuit of our ‘occupational duties’, a sergeant and I found a large quantity of assorted firearms at a police station and disposed of them safely by having them laid as a ribbon of potentially lethal hardware in the road, then arranging for one of our tanks to drive over them. At a large military hospital, we gravely accepted a quasi-ceremonial handover of the establishment along with the impressively courteous and dignified medical colonel’s Browning automatic, inspected impeccable wards full of baleful or puzzled-looking patients, then returned the surprised and grateful commanding officer’s personal weapon to him before departing with our fingers crossed and an optimistic forecast of help from our own medical authorities. The colonel bowed in acknowledgement.

At a stately house in a sylvan estate north-east of the city, an imperious man of suspiciously military age and bearing, seconded by his attractive English-speaking wife in smart country tweeds, offered a handsome landscape in oils and a bottle of Courvoisier before asking me not to confiscate several sporting rifles, which were needed, they not unreasonably said, to keep down the rabbits which infested the kitchen garden. The lady had in all respects the sort of patrician quality which in certain German women and those of the old central European aristocracy can make a less than perfectly self- confident man feel like a blundering peasant. I declined the painting and accepted the cognac without asking where it had been acquired, but, self-righteously unflinching in my sense of duty, confiscated the guns all the same.

COMMANDANT

What the regimental history did not explain was that the forces of occupation were phenomenally thin on the ground; unlikely, otherwise, that a junior subaltern of field artillery would have found himself temporarily commanding a camp for Italian prisoners of war. The ‘camp’ was a stadium – the Rennbahn – where the popular sport of ‘trotting’ (curricles pulled by specially trained horses) took place. Since October, 1943, Italy, once an ally, had been at war with Germany. Now, some 800 officers and other ranks of her fighting services were crowded in prison cells under the spectator stands. Whilst a dozen horses still in the stables were in what appeared to be capital condition, the prisoners were filthy and half starving. Many were sick. Their most senior officer was a captain of mountain troops, the famous Bersaglieri. Bespectacled, impeccably uniformed (belt and knee boots beautifully polished), speaking faultless English, on the morning after my arrival he presented himself in what had been the German commandant’s office, and was now mine, saluted as smartly as any Guardsman and asked what my orders might be.

We found a German army depot and commandeered foodstuffs. Among the POWs were two doctors, whom we took to one of our own supply depots in order to acquire basic medical supplies. Their gratitude was embarrassing. Relieved of their German gaolers and their most pressing discomforts, the Italians disciplined themselves, freeing their far from conscientious British commanding officer for further unconventional service. In a house whose appearance took his fancy, and to which I accompanied him on a billeting reconnaissance, the beau major found not only promising accommodation, but Mimi, the attractive wife of a U-boat captain who had not survived the Battle of the Atlantic. I was asked to come back later. Sadly, the beau major subsequently reported, the cellar was empty except for German sparkling wine, a deficiency which did not last for long.

Conveniently for all concerned, it was in this same house that the beau major, one of our troop captains and I acquired rooms. A green glass tank which had probably once held goldfish stood empty and I filled it with white and purple lilac from the garden. No sooner had I done so than I was instructed to reconnoitre yet another POW camp on the outskirts of the city and was obliged to exchange the sweet scent of spring for a stench that turned the stomach at the camp gates. The camp was reported to be mainly for Russian and other east European POWs, and like most such places at the time, often due to the fact that the Germans feared the Russians immeasurably more than they feared anyone else, was still under German command. Nobody then knew how far west Marshall Zhukov’s formations would come; better by far to be captives of the British or the Americans than of vengeful Untermenschen from the east.

CONFRONTATION

I was accompanied to the camp by a certain Sergeant Evans and an interpreter, a German civilian who, on our arrival, was immediately required to make sense of the frantic pleas of a German woman who turned out to be the wife (unexplained) of one of the guards. Her husband, she said, had been thrown into a punishment cell on the orders of the SS Commandant for refusing summarily to execute one of the Russian prisoners who had stolen potatoes from the cookhouse. The guard was himself now under sentence of death. Very melodramatic, B-movie stuff; but in such a place and in the spirit of the times wholly convincing. Possibly because it was the one that embraced the strongest element of drama, of the many clips in the montage of the bizarre it is the one that I am able now to visualise most vividly of all.

When, ushered in by a German guard, we encounter the commandant, he is sitting at a large desk, evidently dealing with correspondence or other office business, and although not wearing a cap, recognisable for what he is – an Oberleutenant in the Waffen SS. Instead of getting to his feet he stays where he is, which is an error, since by remaining seated he is making a statement of continuing authority. Which might have been the intention. If it was designed merely to preserve dignity, it was miscalculated, for it has gone beyond face-saving into what could easily be mistaken for insolence. I say nothing, but am conscious of a moment of apprehensive admiration for what a later generation might call his ‘cool’, instantly supplanted by anger. Sergeant Evans shouts “Get to your bloody feet!”, which the interpreter conveys in an embarrassing imitation of the N.C.O.’s barrack square delivery. The guard stands rigid, staring to his front as if on inspection parade. The Oberleutenant obeys, but in a manner not at all matching the urgency of the command. He must be about six feet tall and about thirty years old, ‘a fine figure of a man’. Slowly, perhaps reflecting an awareness of the Sten gun that the sergeant is now holding at the ready, he reaches for the peaked uniform hat that is on a side table, puts it on and adjusts it carefully. Then, bringing his heels firmly together, he draws himself fully to attention and in best Ealing Studios manner (If the post-war genre of caricatures had been a few decades earlier he might have been suspected of insubordinate parody.) announces “Oberleutenant Schneider, Zu Befehl”.

“Tell the bastard to hand over his gun”, Sergeant Evans says to the interpreter. The Oberleutenant’s pistol is a Luger (highly prized by all allied soldiery), which he is wearing in an impeccably polished black leather holster on a matching belt. The translation is made, but is superfluous. “The pistol is for discipline and for protection”, says the Oberleutenant in good English, making no move to comply with the order. Instantly, with the Sten held waist high and pointing at the German officer’s middle, Sergeant Evans snatches back the cocking mechanism and I can tell by the sound of the bolt locking into position that a round is now in the breech.

FINGER ON THE TRIGGER

“You make me wait just five seconds more, boyo, and you’ll need the protection of a bloody undertaker”, says the sergeant. The Sten is a notoriously unpredictable weapon, and to have it loaded, cocked, and pointing anywhere except at the ground or in the air unless in battle is a crime of which an N.C.O. of Sergeant Evans’s experience is almost incapable. For a moment or two the Oberleutenant stares at the sergeant as if estimating the advisability of trying to face him down, and makes no move. Still I say nothing, but feel my scalp and face muscles tighten. In such circumstances five seconds is a long time. “Do it”, I will, silently. “Do it, or Evans may pull the trigger and at this range half a magazine, let alone an involuntary whole one if the Sten behaves with its customary caprice, could cut you messily in half”.

Very slowly, but more insolently than circumspectly, his eyes not straying from the Sergeant’s face, his mouth twisted in contemptuous amusement, the Oberleutenant raises his hands to the buckle of the belt, unfastens it, and having divested himself of belt and holster together, lays them on the table, staring at the British N.C.O. as if now daring him to come and pick them up.

More than six decades later, I seem to see it all with undiminished clarity: the SS man with his disdainful smile standing behind the desk, loosely at attention (“Keep your bloody hands in front of you”, Sergeant Evans has ordered when, after a formally rigid moment, the other man has erroneously felt free to adopt a casual position), the polished black leather accoutrements lying on the green baize, the sergeant with the Sten levelled menacingly, the interpreter to one side and a yard or so further back, the German private soldier still stiffly on sentry at the door. I see the five feet eight inches tall, twenty-one years old English subaltern in his shapeless battle dress and absurd Herbert Johnson beret, black-booted, green-gaitered feet slightly apart, left hand resting on the compass case attached to his green webbing belt, right hand on the unbuttoned holster containing a regulation Smith and Wesson six shooter with a lanyard of green parachute cord looped from the butt; silent, looking at the smart, thirty-something veteran whose uniform insignia advertise membership of what until a short while ago had been the western world’s most feared military machine.

I see the same man in the jack boots that match his now-abandoned belt, hands clasped behind his neck, walking with as much dignity as the circumstances allow to the stinking, windowless chamber that has been one of the camp’s punishment cells, jeered at by the would-be lynch mob of prisoners held at bay only by a high fence and a British sergeant with a Sten.

On being replaced next day by a captain from our Military Police my reaction was of unmodified joy. Good-bye the most depressing place I had ever set eyes on; hello again to the house with Mimi and lilac blossom. Good-bye to the infinite degradation of the flesh and the spirit of more than 600 prisoners whose “liberators” were compelled to keep them behind barbed wire; hello again to the cheerful company of my fellow officers and the hope of home leave. Not least, good-bye the stench.

REACHING FOR THE SKY

The 8th of May was V.E. Day. Churchill’s speech at 3 pm, the King’s at 9 pm and the broadcast of London festivities left most of us quiet and homesick. There was no celebration in the mess, or none worth the name. “John and I drive into country again. J shoots brace of farmyard ducks in mistake for mallard. Curfew patrol 8-10pm”. What the purpose of the edict might have been in a devastated city that had surrendered without a fight, we never enquired, yet I remember my anger at the very few curfew-breakers I encountered as I drove around the suburbs that spring evening. “In Haus! Zie mussen in Haus gehen”, I shouted at an elderly couple in their front garden. Hard of hearing, perhaps; possibly unaware of the decree which forbade them to be out of the house after dusk; in their evident innocence possibly disbelieving my order, or not understanding my execrable German, they made no move to obey. Affronted, I swung the barrel of the loaded Bren menacingly in their direction and shouted again. Louder. Brutally. “In Haus! Zie mussen in Haus gehen”. Putting a hand on the woman’s arm, the man ushered her to their front door.  “Bolshie bastards”, my driver commented. It was years before the incident caused me any shame.

On May 12, the regiment was informed that the division (there were three regiments of field artillery in a division) had been offered a vacancy on a course to train pilots for the branch of the artillery known then as Air O.P. The O.P. stood for observation post. Most O.P.s are in a vantage point on the ground. Air O.P.s consist – or consisted then – of a man in a small aircraft flying so as better to be able to observe where shells fall in relation to the target, and what adjustments might be necessary to the aim of the guns.

The attractions of such a course were irresistible. With the end of the war in Europe immediate threat of transfer to the infantry might have gone, but in Burma the “forgotten” 14th Army was still fighting the Japanese.Two junior officers from the regiment had already been nominated for that most unappealing theatre of operations and I might well become another. Acceptance for the Air O.P. course would at least remove the short-term threat. Nor was that all. Hard on the heels of the German surrender at Lüneberg Heath, there had come a stultifying anticlimax. In spite of the fall of Berlin and the death of Hitler, the fact that the war was over was curiously slow to take hold. True, the guns were silent. True, we went to bed at night largely when we liked and were undisturbed until morning; yet there was no convincing demonstration of relief and gratitude on our part. For good or bad, philosophically and emotionally we were what we had become and it would take more than a declaration of cease fire to change us. It was as if there were something improper in being comfortably housed, regularly fed and able to wash all over every day; as if there were something decadent about polished boots and clean battle dress. Overnight, we descended from high purpose to bathos: from what plausibly were exercises in the manly virtues to black marketeering (a packet of cigarettes had more purchasing power than any conventional paper currency in existence); from boldness in the face of the enemy to frightening old ladies from their gardens with loaded Brens. How wonderful to have a bright new ambition and purpose! To be able to echo Robert Graves and say good-bye to all that!

Though I could not seriously hope to get what would eagerly be sought after by a multitude of others with motives no less urgent than my own, and qualifications no less valid, not to try for it was unthinkable and my application was on the adjutant’s desk within the hour. A week later, to my astonishment, I was given orders to report to a Royal Canadian Air Force unit at Lüneberg for a medical. The examination, I was advised, would be very thorough.

For the next few days I neither smoked nor drank alcohol and worried about having once been told that one of my eyes was significantly weaker than the other. Having passed the medical, I gave a party in the mess and drank injudiciously, so that for the following morning I noted “terrible head and difficulty in making myself go for run in hope of cure”. Though I had celebrated my good luck, it was not until I was given a formal posting to the 22 E.F.T.S, R.A.F. and a travel voucher, that I was able to believe that the impossible had happened. For me, the war in Europe was finished and I had survived. There was still Burma; but Burma was a long way away.

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NEXT FRIDAY, 15  February Serial 14:  Chapter Nine, Circuits and Bumps.

Now, life becomes a touch more demanding. Instead of exercise number 12,”taking off into wind”, and exercise number 13, “approach and landing”, accounting for nine out of ten of the entries in the log book, instrument flying , low flying, precautionary landing, stalling, gliding and climbing turns, spinning, sideslipping, steep turns, forced landing, action in the event of fire and restarting the engine in flight follow one another within the space of  less than three flying hours. On 2 September I am rehearsing forced landings by day and flying solo at night.


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 12

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Winter of  ’44

Part Two

It may be that the absence in almost three weeks at Helmond of any chronicled references to a refit indicates a Freudian forgetfulness. Or perhaps their priority was insufficient for the restricted space of a 3- or 4-days-to-the-page diary. Letters written and received occupy a large part of the text. From the start in 1944 to the finish in 1945, Forces Mail was monumentally praiseworthy. 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. Speculation regarding home leave, anxiety about a possible transfer to infantry, and diversionary trivialities (novels; card games; pseudo-intellectual arguments) all appear in passing. Repairs and re-equipment do not get a look-in.

By contrast, a battery party dominates the entries for three days. It was I who was appointed to organise it and I wished that I had had the help of my R.A.F. brother David, who was a past master in such things. Instead, a local hotelier, who, I suspected, was a leading light of the black market in anything to do with his trade, almost entirely relieved me of the task. The battery officers’ mess possessed a handsome stock of champagne which with typical prowess in such matters the beau major had secured through the good offices of the brewer’s daughter when we were in Antwerp. That it was still largely intact was already remarkable; that it should be put to the hazards that might be expected on the far side of the Rhine seemed to be a risk too far and there was general agreement that now was the right moment for making hay while we stlll had the  sunshine. Having, in the first instance, gone to the hotelier in order to borrow suitable glasses, I was asked if I might be interested in oysters. I am not sure that I had yet ever eaten oysters, but I knew that the beau major most certainly would have done, and that other senior officers in the regiment, who would be our guests, might easily be glad of them. The shellfish would come from Bergen-op-Zoom, not far north of Antwerp, which was famous for them, my hotelier friend said. And if we fancied brown bread and butter there would be no difficulty. Large quantities of miscellaneous supplies were now coming in through the port of Antwerp, which helped to explain the possibility of other attractive things to eat and  drink at no detriment to the welfare of the Dutch people.

Then there were girls. A party would be much better fun if there were music and dancing, and dancing called for girls. There was nothing sleazy about the hotelier, and when he was quick to volunteer that he was not thinking of professional, or even amateur filles de joie, but of perfectly respectable young women, his own two daughters among them, I believed him. Anyway, he was obviously right in his estimation of what the occasion required, and with the proviso that I would need to get the approval of my masters for any arrangements that the two of us might provisionally make, I had a glass of Dutch beer with him before returning to the battery to report on my morning’s work. There were no objectors, though someone said that it all sounded a bit too good to be true.

But it was true. The party was held in an only slightly damaged church hall. The colonel of the regiment, the adjutant and two of the battery commanders (the third was in hospital) came along with sundry other guests from other units. The champagne came into its own. The food and other drink were unstinted and very good. Typically Dutch, the four girls all spoke English, and although outnumbered by men by about five to one were fun. There was a three-piece local band and a radiogram. I went to bed at 3 am “dead weary”, having been congratulated for an achievement that was almost wholly that of the hotel keeper and his wife.

THE DARK OF THE FOREST

 “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 alongside a Canadian Field Regiment. 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 Reichswald (the German Forest) and the outposts of the Siegfried line on the western banks of 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 in spite of bad shoulder pains until woken by the heavies going over”, says a 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 German survivors, many pathetically young, streaming back past us to the prison cages with shuffling steps and staring eyes. “Look at ‘em; fucking 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.

“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. Here the regiment remained until returning to concentrate at Groesbeek on 12 Feb as guns were now out of range and lack of roads made it impossible to get forward into the forest, where several positions were chosen but never occupied”.

The uncharacteristic vehemence of the much-quoted, meagre, 20-page pamphlet that is the regimental history, its paper close on sepia and crumbling with age, sets a scene for which Wagner at his darkest might provide the music. Day after day, the weather – rain or sleet – was appalling, the ground comparable with the mud of Passchendaele, 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. Swiftly, 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 forward as close as possible to the fighting and through an imposition of movement discipline, to 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, swaddled in blankets, slept in the back of the truck, I sheltered underneath, cocooned in ground sheets and my officer’s issue valise. For the few days and nights of our special (“vital”, the colonel said) duty we were sustained by rum, cigarettes and frequent brews of tea.

For many a man, most especially, and as usual,  many a poor bloody infantryman, what became known as the Battle of the Reichswald was the worst battle since Normandy.  ”No assault in this war has been conducted in more appalling conditions”, said the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower. “This was the grimmest battle in which I took part during the war”, says General Horrocks. “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”.

For the next few weeks there are numerous – perhaps eloquent – blanks in the junior officer’s diary. Such entries as there are make for dismal reading. They record a “this hurts me as much as it hurts you” announcement by the adjutant that on the grounds of age and demobilisation number I had been nominated at Divisional level of authority for early transfer to infantry. If my informant had donned a black cap for the disclosure it would not have been inappropriate. A gastric affliction required several days of semi-starvation and medication. 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”. An easement of such woes 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.

A SEVENTH HEAVEN

“On 16 Feb the regiment was ordered forward using the 51 Div main axis and was in action by 13.45 hrs. On 24 Feb it moved to Goch where it came under small arms and artillery fire. It remained in this muddy and uncomfortable place until 1 March, then advanced through Kevelaer to a position west of Issum. On 8 March, after fighting continuously for one month, the Division was withdrawn to rest and refit. On 21 March the regiment moved to a hide within the gun area prepared for Operation Plunder and the Rhine crossing, which started on 23 March”.

While the Division was resting and refitting, a secondment to ‘B’ Echelon now came upon me like a sunburst on a dark midwinter day. Every fighting formation has its non-fighting support organisation in the shape of its ‘B’ Echelon, which necessarily exists at a considerable distance behind the lines. In almost any circumstances, life there is to be preferred to life further forward: accommodation incomparably more comfortable, meals more appealing, hours of duty more predictable and less onerous, the dangers of hostilities, to put it mildly, much reduced. In short, the battery and ‘B’ Echelon are two different worlds. In March 1945, to be posted out of North Rhine Westphalia to the suburbs of Wemmel, a few kilometres from the centre of Brussels, was to have an inkling of what the Israelites must have felt on receiving marching orders for the Promised Land .

“Lucky man”, said my fellow battery officers with unconcealed envy.

“Be sensible”, said the regimental doctor, the M.O. “Go easy on the booze and late nights” .

Most likely, the posting was a gesture of kindness, not to say generosity, on someone’s part; not impossibly that of the M.O. The job was an undisguised sinecure. Ever since Normandy, those who laboured in the organisation that supplied the material requirements of our forward units had been demonstrating their competence and in no discernible way now needed the services of a junior officer of field artillery; or if they did, forbore to let him know. Nobody appeared to expect me to do anything useful except to keep out of the way. Of the eleven nights during which I was absent from the battery in Germany, only two – the first and the last –  were spent at Wemmel; all the rest either in Brussels or at the cottage near Waterloo.

Seventh heaven is not too immoderate an appraisal of that interlude. With insignificant interruptions, I spent the whole of it in company with my friends of the Christmas party. It was time that went in walks in the Parc du Cinquantenaire or the Bois de la Cambre or the Forêt de Soignes. It went in shopping for luxuries to send back to England or gifts for present friends. It went in midmorning coffee or lunch in the Taverne du Passage, a classic Belgian brasserie in the heart of the city, conveniently owned by a close and generous friend of Mac. It included wining and dining, in or out. And in dancing at Boeuf sur le Toit or in someone’s drawing room with the carpets rolled back. It went in sometimes glorious sunshine and expeditions from the cottage to the battlefield of Waterloo. It went arm in arm, hand in hand. There was a lot of laughter. There were tears now and then. There were earnest conversations late into the night.

We were very young. We were Denise and Christiane and Françoise and Madeleine, and Léon and Marcel and Jean-Pierre, and I. Four years ago we had all been adolescents; now, we were young men and without exception outstandingly attractive young women. After four years of German occupation, Brussels was free. The war could hardly last much longer.

Then, on 22 March, making a trip to Wemmel, “just to show the flag”, as I complacently put it, I was told that I was to report back immediately to the battery. In the cause of urgency, I borrowed a motorbike, rode into the city for a last evening with Denise, Marcel and Madeleine, said goodbyes at midnight with my own eyes dry but my cheeks again wet with tears, and with half a moon shining on the cobbles rode back to join a fast convoy of ammunition and medical supplies that reached Kevelaer, near the German border, before dark next day. A few hours later I was back with the guns. That night our bombers went over in strength and we heard the distant thunder of their assault on enemy positions near Wesel. Shortly after 9 pm, supported by the greatest artillery barrage of the war, infantry of the 51st Highland Division in their amphibious “Buffaloes” were crossing the Rhine.

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NEXT FRIDAY, 8  February Serial 13:  Chapter Eight, Götterdämmerung. 

‘A month later, we reached the Elbe. We reached it by way of successive scenes of devastation that depressed the spirit without raising so much as a tremor of sympathy for a population that seemed dazed by bombing, shelling and disbelief at finding themselves still alive’.

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