THE FADING MARGIN: Serial 11
The Winter of ’44
“Did ye not hear it? – No; ’twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street….
On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined;
No sleep ‘till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –
But hark – that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar” *
* Byron, Childe Harold: The Eve of Waterloo
On 16 September, the day before we watched the beginnings of Market Garden, Hitler had announced to his headquarters operational staff that in spite of all reverses so far the war could be won, and that before the end of the year he would launch an offensive that as well as retaking the port of Antwerp would drive a wedge between the Americans on the borders of Germany and the British and Canadian armies in Holland and northern Belgium. Having destroyed the latter, and with his “secret weapons” (the V1s, V2s and forthcoming jet aircraft) yet to be fully deployed, he would be able to negotiate peace with Churchill and Roosevelt and devote the whole of Germany’s efforts towards the definitive defeat of Russia.
On 16 December, Code-named ‘Autumn Mist’, the promised offensive was launched by three German armies where Hitler’s panzers had overwhelmed the French defences in 1940 – the Belgian Ardennes. Falling, John Keegan has said, “like a whirlwind” on the weakest part of the entire Allied front and its “ill-fitted and unprepared American defenders”, more than eight thousand of whom surrendered in the initial assault, it was the beginning of what came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. At this time we were still ‘resting’ in Bocholt, Belgium, and I was writing to my elder brother, who was a pilot in Atlantic Ferry Command, thanking him for the marvellously welcome gift of a pair of sheepskin-lined flying boots which were, I told him unoriginally but sincerely, “worth their weight in gold”.
Four days later, the gravity of the disaster and the strategic threat having been grasped by Eisenhower and the American high command, the northern sector of the ‘bulge’, nearest to Antwerp, was put under British (which is to say Montgomery’s) command, the letter-writing in Bocholt ended and a diary entry recorded “Slow move south through Malines and Louvain to position on high ground about 20 kms south of Brussels, but no firing. Later, move south again in dark to position near Waterloo.”
Sometime during the night of 21 December, in a large and picturesque thatched cottage near Maransart, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo, our arrival disturbed Jules Van Paemel, a 55-year old Belgian artist (not until years after the war was I to know how eminent he was), his wife, and their 21-year-old daughter, Denise. The Van Paemels had moved there from Brussels in 1939 and were now awakened by the noise of heavy motor vehicles in the lane that skirted the property, then of their manoeuvring on the partly open ground near the cottage. British voices could be heard, shouting orders.
It was the beginning of a novel such as might be written for those famous publishers of romantic fiction, Mills and Boon. In the morning, a young British officer appeared at the cottage, asking where the nearest water supply point might be found. Right there, if only moderate quantities were needed, Madame Van Paemel said. Otherwise, there was a well and a pump in the farmyard a few hundred yards along the lane. The young officer was invited to take coffee. Thus I met the enchanting Denise for the first time. “All right for some!”, one of my troop sergeants remarked sardonically when it later emerged that at night I would be sleeping on a divan in the cottage instead of being obliged to bed down in the makeshift command post. But his imagination ran far ahead of reality. Romance there would be in plenty, but almost heartbreaking in its innocence. We were many years and a social revolution short of Philip Larkin and the Beatles’ first LP.
A COTTAGE IDYLL
As Hitler had hoped, on the Ardennes front atrocious flying weather kept the Allied air forces grounded. Such news as we heard on public broadcasts (there was little or nothing from respectable military sources) was of continuing enemy progress and of confusion on the part of the American defenders. At regimental level we were given to understand that the division’s rôle near Waterloo was the defence of the capital and the blocking of the way to Antwerp. Histrionically – as we assumed – rather than seriously, there was mention of the artillery’s traditional backs-to-the wall, die-where-you stand, order of ‘last man; last round’. Gun and weapon pits dug, telephone line laid, our 25-pounders in position, facing south, there was now nothing much in the way of soldiering to occupy our time.
“You’re welcome here whenever the fancy takes you”, the Van Paemels said, meaning in particular the four or five of the battery’s junior officers they now met. That they derived unqualified pleasure from our company was never in doubt. Brussels had been cleared of the enemy less than a month before and on the part of the Belgians the joy was still of liberation; on ours, literally and metaphorically, it was that of coming in from the cold. A large open hearth and a plentiful supply of wood kept the cottage wonderfully cosy. The Van Paemels insisted that we eat meals with them. Judiciously and deliciously we did. There were hot baths. Mending and laundry was done.
My troop position being significantly closer than any of the other three, propinquity, that most powerful of advantages, was on my side, and I was able to spend more time in the cottage than anyone else did. No less of a head start, and equally fortuitous, my French was a good deal more confident than that of my battery colleagues. Jules Van Paemel and his wife spoke English fluently, but their daughter’s command of the language, though unforgettably endearing, was rudimentary. Finally, as the youngest of our junior officers, I was nearest her in age. “You children” was how Madame Van Paemel was inclined to address us when we were together. There was an unmistakable wistfulness in her maternal affection for both of us. She had been a young woman in another war and seen other hardly-fledged young men in uniform holding hands with other starry-eyed girls of twenty-one.
On 23 December Louise, one of Denise’s many cousins and “Mac”, her unofficial fiancé, arrived from Brussels. The weather cleared. I was legitimately off-duty all day and the four of us went to Mont St. Jean and the ridge from which Wellington had directed his troops in the decisive stages of the battle on 18 June, 1815. While I strove to picture the events of 129 years ago, Allied aircraft heading for the ‘bulge’ and the devastating erosion of the Panzer invaders crowded the otherwise unblemished blue sky. Absurdly, we waved and cheered them on from the steps of the Lion of Waterloo.
Though it had never for a moment occurred to us, their new-found British friends, that the German offensive might ultimately succeed, it had been different for the Belgians. They lacked the blissful ignorance of our generation. The elders especially had adult memories of the First World War and the barbaric destruction of Louvain. They had lived through the blitzkrieg of 1940 and four years of occupation. They had not forgotten Dunkirk. Now, the sight of Allied air power flooding south immensely heartened them and that evening there was an almost palpable sense of relief as well as gaiety in the cottage. Champagne (surely the celebration wine never more triumphantly came into its own than in those last weeks of 1944) cooled in buckets on the frozen lawn and sparkled together with our eager chatter.
Next day, the troop was busy with preparations for a midday Christmas dinner to be held in a neighbouring barn. In the cottage a magnificent Christmas tree, decorations, things to eat and drink and armfuls of presents had arrived in two cars from Brussels along with an aunt, an uncle and more cousins – Christiane and Gérard. Tireless, ant-like industry, not least in the kitchen, turned the cottage into an Aladdin’s cave of colour, brilliance, and richly-scented promise. In the Ardennes, the American 101st Airborne were surrounded at Bastogne and men were dying of cold in their foxholes. A legend (powerfully to be evoked 60 years on in Band of Brothers) was in the making; but we knew nothing of it. We drank more champagne, dined convivially and superbly by candlelight, rolled back the carpet and danced to Glen Miller. Joy could never have been less confined. Denise said it was all “vachement chaleureux”.
“The German penetration having been held on the Meuse and elsewhere, the division was moved in the very early hours of Christmas Day to Dinant, where the regiment took up a position a few miles south of the town until it was relieved by the 53rd (Light) Air Landing Regiment of 6 Airborne Division. On 28 December it occupied high ground above Namur. On 1 January there was another move to the north of Marche, where the Regiment supported the Division who were attacking south on the right flank of the American 82nd Infantry Division.
In the very small hours there was a loud and urgent knocking at the cottage door. Captain G, who had drawn the short straw that had consigned him to night duty, was sorry to break things up, but the battery was under orders to be ready to move out at 10 a.m. The dancing stopped. The grownups went to bed. The “children”, energy abruptly dissipated, sprawled by the fire, too shocked and dispirited at first to talk, then sometimes murmuring the sort of endearments that are not dared among new acquaintances until high emotion overrules the inhibitions of convention. The candles burned low.
Shall I be believed when I swear that the taste of someone else’s tears is as real to me today as it was so long ago? I can hear Denise’s sobs immediately after the momentary, stunned silence that followed the arrival of the duty officer. Her cheek is against mine. With a tenderness I am glad of, and which I hope provokes no embarrassment for the reader, I can recall the scent of her hair as later she slept in my arms there by the dying fire. Lulu was sitting on the carpet, her cheek against the knees of one of my seniors. Christiane was sleeping on cushions, her head in Mac’s lap. There had been apple wood in the fire and in my fancy now I can hear it hissing. There was cognac in my glass and today the taste of cognac is remembrance of all those things.
Standing in my vehicle as we passed along the lane soon after 10 a.m., heading south, I waved at the little group gathered at the bottom edge of the artist’s steeply sloping lawn. As they waved back, Denise turned away suddenly and ran back up to the cottage. The others were still waving when a bend in the road hid them from view.
That night, we deployed the guns in a field somewhere between Waterloo and the Meuse, but were not called on to fire. Temporarily separated from my personal kit, vainly attempting to sleep in straw thickly spread on the frozen ground in the command post, I thought of the night that had just passed and the people in the cottage and wished that I could call out to tell them that we would be back. With daylight again, we moved on south, by the light of the moon during the night of New Year’s Day occupied a position not far from Namur, and in an abandoned cutlery factory warmed ourselves at a stove fuelled from bins of wooden knife handles while some of our infantry in the forest died of exposure.
A week later, the German offensive was spent and the Ardennes front secured. Reliable casualty figures are not easy to come by, but upwards of 15,000 Americans had been killed and possibly three times that number of Germans along with the loss of some 800 tanks and 1,000 aircraft at a cost of disastrously weakening the Russian front. The British comparatively minor, though vital participation, cost them fewer than 500 dead.
“The Division was withdrawn from operations in this area on 11 January, 1945, and the regiment went into a rest area near Liège. From there it moved to Helmond, in Holland, on 20 January to refit”.
Some of us made vigorous use of our leisure time. Skiing equipment was found in Liège and lessons were given by the beau major on snow-covered terrain close to our billets. “An exhilarating sport and quite easy to learn as regards simple runs”, observes my diary. For “simple runs” understand pushing off from the top of the slope and stopping after a straight descent not by design but because of exhausted momentum. It was the birth of an unhealthy delusion. Subsequently, in another country, it abetted a repeat performance, and when that too was blessed by beginner’s luck encouraged a dangerous belief that boldness might be a dependable friend. The day was to come when, still untaught but not wanting to be pitifully upstaged by my younger Oxford companions, I applied the philosophy to a late afternoon run (which is to say when pistes were in shadow and icy) on a steep slope in the Vorarlberg. The following week saw me on crutches.
Whatever was supposed to have constituted the “refit” at Helmond, the process remained a mystery to my diary: nothing about the guns; a little about vehicle inspections; a note that I conducted a “short course on mines” and that I was defending officer in the court-martials of two of our gunners for alleged desertion but nothing to indicate a comprehensive renovation or replacement of our essential equipment. References to “bad stomach trouble again” and “agonising shoulder pains” suggest that a certain amount of personal refurbishment might have been appropriate, but what therapy, if any, was applied is not revealed. We seem to have had good billets (“slept well in proper bed with sheets”) and to have been well catered for (“after 2 gins and large dinner, too sleepy to write letters”) and although there are mentions of snow there are few about being cold. Nearby was a Canadian unit that was to be involved in the forthcoming offensive. I visited it in the hope of finding an officer I had met in England, found him, and returned to billets richer for unsolicited but welcome gifts of a kerosene camp stove, winter underwear that included hugely comforting longjohns, toilet soap, cigarettes and Canadian Club whiskey.
NEXT FRIDAY, 1 February, Serial 12: The Winter of ’44, Part Two.