THE FADING MARGIN: serial 13Posted: February 8, 2013
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.
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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.