WW II, a British focus  




There was not much damage to be seen on our way through the town. Despite the presence of the population the station was deserted. No horse and carriage cab service outside, in fact there was not a soul inside or out. The station was in the old Victorian style, spacious with four platforms. Wandering around we finally found a railway worker in uniform. We learned that there were no trains but it was hoped they would start running again that night, so we settled down to wait with no idea where a train could take us. Typically, foodwise we were worse off in built up places. We were determined that this time we would get a lift somewhere and made ourselves as comfortable as possible as darkness fell and went to sleep. Now that is something: I can't speak for the others but every night I slept like a log.

When I awoke in the morning I was fighting for breath, I seemed to be wrapped up in something that was smothering me. Struggling, I had the impression of being a worm in a can of worms, as threshing about I heard voices that sounded as startled as I was. With a flourish of arms I emerged to discover, where only we three had been was now a solid mass of humanity that had arrived during the night. As a result of twisting and turning in sleep, I had awakened with my head on a young woman's lap - underneath her voluminous clothes! We looked at each other and she was laughing. I must have looked like a fish out of water. She must have thought me sexless not to have capitalised on my privilege, but I could not have taken advantage if I had been fully aware - shame on me!

Clearly there had been no train and not only did the prospect seem even less likely but there was the small matter of food. We had to get out on the road again since there seemed no one to turn to for assistance. We found the countryside again. There were a few stragglers on the road who would need the same facilities that we had relied on. It was different now though; during the afternoon we came to a village and the village was occupied with its people. Every cottage and house had a small red flag outside and we were directed to one that had a sentry outside and a larger red flag. The villagers were now communists, like it or not. We had to report to the large flag and having identified ourselves for the thousandth time were taken to one of the cottages where the inhabitants had to give us shelter for the night and a meal before we continued walking the next day.

We learned that leaflets had been dropped on the villages telling them to get outside three kilometres, stay there for 24 hours and return. The village looked tidy as though there had been no fighting but on the small village green the Russians had set up a cemetery. It consisted of one large concrete obelisk and half a dozen short ones, quite plain with a name and number on each embossed with the sickle and hammer, one had a helmet perched on top. No sign of any Germans being buried though. What they did with them was a mystery.

Subsequent days followed the same pattern as we were now deliberately directed from village to village instead of avoiding them as was the case in East Prussia. One day we found a horse. Jock was a countryman and suggested that if we took it with us, since nobody seemed interested in it, we may also find a cart and be able to ride, brilliant. He found some rope in an outhouse and made a simple halter and so we led it along with us. Coming to a farmyard we found a two-wheeled cart. A harness was rigged up setting us off again at a trot whilst we stood in the confined space of the cart very pleased with ourselves. There was a snag. Despite the severe weather having lifted, it was still below zero and we got cold at the lack of body. The extra height in the cart allowed the wind to penetrate through our clothes. Although reluctant to be realists, we sheepishly agreed that walking would be best after all. By now we had very little to carry, even my treasured compass plane had been left in a ditch so we continued, but reluctant to part with our horse and cart we led it along. The upshot was that before the day was out, several women occupied the cart and three children sat on the back of the horse so we gave it to them.

That same night we billeted at a cottage which had one large 'L' shaped room. There were several women and children there and an old man. For the evening meal they made a vegetable stew that contained small balls of dough with a little meat inside. These were called 'grenades' because they went down and exploded inside! Despite everything, these country Polish people were as generous and decent as possible, but their towns people, like ours, were always too busy. When we settled down that night, the three of us lay on top of a double bed. There were two other double beds in the same room, and beside ours was a cot with a baby asleep. I bent over it and gave it a kiss, the women all put their hands together and bowed their heads in prayer. In the morning, before taking our leave I thought to show our appreciation by kissing the baby again, but now, in the daylight, I could see it was dead. I don't know if they understood my mistake, or simply believed I had made some kind of gesture. I managed to cover my confusion as we left. So many incidents we had been witness to or part of throughout the whole war and yet, despite everything all feeling had not deserted me. I was glad of that. I also learned how the religion of these people was a vehicle for expressing their humanity, a tool to help them cope and help each other.

We had no watch or calendar or any idea of the days we travelled, or how many kilometres. The days were short so maybe we did not cover more than 18 kilometres a day. What was noticeable was that with the secure knowledge of shelter and a meal each night, we had settled into a comfortable pattern with everything discarded, only carrying what we wore. Lousy again, but this could not be helped because they originated from nits that came out of the body due to malnutrition. But we were going home, and 'Going Home' was the incredible motivation that kept us going. Mind over matter if you like. Now we talked more, God knows what we nattered on about. We knew what we had come through but still had no idea of what lay ahead. It was a simple fact that we were still one hell of a long way from home, somewhere in Poland. One little thing that brightened us up was when, approaching a village, a couple of men had set up a stall; a few vegetables, odd bits and pieces, but it was necessary to be there to understand the small group excitedly milling around looking hopefully for who knows what? I had a little Polish paper money as a result of transactions with the two Poles at Deutch Eyleau, but we stayed out of it and kept going until we arrived at another town.

It was Warsaw. A long walk through the suburbs brought us to a big red flag and we reported our presence. It caused no excitement. It was explained in a mixture of languages that this was our destination, but the damage was so severe no communications were running. We were to be billeted in a suburb called Praga and escorted there with Jock and I together in one house and Lofty Brassington a few doors further along the road.

We stayed there for three days. We were made welcome but rations were difficult to the point that it was embarrassing to share, and we wondered if our hosts had been given any extra provisions for our keep. The people were anxious that we should know what they had been through with the Germans, the Ghetto and the fate of the Jews. We understood they had had terrible experiences but could not grasp any details, so they took us, not far, just a couple of hundred metres. There we found ourselves looking across the debri of where part of the town had once stood. We could see clear across almost a kilometre in every direction. There were still people searching through the debri for bodies or possessions. How thorough this searching had persisted could be seen from the trampled and disturbed snow everywhere.

For the first time a serious problem developed between us. It was obvious that it would take a long time for any order to be restored here. So having learned that things were getting back to normal at Lublin, probably another week's walk, we felt we should move on again without delay. Lofty could not go any further. Not only were his boots finished and they certainly were, but his feet were bad too. Something he had kept from us for several days. Jock's boots were down at heel, steel rims gone completely and the few studs remaining seeming no thicker than silver paper. A large area of the leather was well worn whilst my boots had a little steel on the heels and the studs were still there but very thin. I knew that I had sacrificed many small items like cholcolate to get the boots but now I felt embarrassed by the disparity. Lofty swore that he was better off in his digs alone than we were and, in the well of our self-interest it never occurred to us that the presence of a young women where he stayed might have had anything to do with it. Making our farewells, I took Lofty's address assuring him that I had not forgotten his promise of a box of kippers, we set out again.

How we survived that last stretch I cannot clearly remember. We had to put up two nights for sure, maybe three, but the distance was less than we had imagined. I have the impression that we drifted through that journey like a couple of light headed drunks. Jock, always the quiet dour Scot talked more than at any time, but only nonsense. Whether the suppressed stress could not be contained any longer, or, believing we were near the end, he felt nothing mattered any more? Same thing for me perhaps, but I indulged a more philosophical attitude about the war in general, suggesting that when it was all over there would have to be some kind of world government to ensure nothing like it could ever happen again. Fifty years later it can be seen how impossible such a scenario can be.

Politicians are as voracious for acquisition and power as they have been throughout history. The only difference being that the most dangerous are tip toeing around the nuclear factor. What I had learned was that in National Socialist Germany, it was possible to lead people into a condition where they all become subjects of the State. Full employment was a fact, but it also meant that when one job ended, one was likely to be given work the other side of the country and separated from family. The employers, to survive, were Brown Shirts and exercised political control over their employees. There were carrots as well as sticks, but, like Hitler said 'The life of the individual is nothing, the life of the Nation is everything' or words to that effect.

Then there were the Russians with their communism. Everyone a 'comrade', all facing the same way in a common cause, but dead if you do not fit in. Whatever the divisions of wealth and circumstance in the 'democratic' countries, the same divisions of privilege and disadvantage existed. The 'cream' always rises to the top, including what is sour or otherwise unfit.

As we rambled on Jock wanted to know more about my life with the 'Z' reservists at the beginning. Although he had never held a rank, I think he understood the difficulties I had endured, but preferred to hear about the light-hearted adventures, in particular about that old sweat 'Dicky' Bird. One of the reservists of our Pioneer Platoon, 'Dicky' Bird fitted the apt description of an 'old soldier' perfectly, or rather imperfectly. With everyone was drinking so much it would be hard to say that, he, in particular, was an alcoholic. He certainly drank more than anyone else, and his water bottle was always primed with anything but water. He must have been well into his 30's. Despite years on the Indian Frontier and his lifestyle, he had a rosy cheeked boyish face that gave him a cherubic look that belied his crafty mind, always there on parade but never visible when duties were called. His one redeeming asset was his entertainment value. It was impossible to tell what he was really capable of but it was clear that he had a remarkable memory, which was expressed through endless dirty jokes and songs with unlimited verses. His repertoire even continuing in a mumbling fashion whilst he was asleep. A couple of his long-winded stories I remember as follows and these I told to Jock.

A young commercial traveller who was getting married on a Saturday was called into the guv'nors office on the Friday previous and informed that all the agents were away on various assignments, but an important contract had to be signed over the weekend in New York. If he could get agreement to defer his honeymoon and go, promotion and a bonus would he his. Reluctantly his sweetheart agreed and so he went immediately after the wedding ceremony to New York. Upon arrival he was obliged to use the subway and to his amazement, the station reception area was surrounded by slot machines in which one could buy almost anything. As he gazed around, to his amazement saw a machine in the centre that looked like a weighing machine. As he watched a man hurried up to it, put down his brief case, stood on a little platform up close and put a coin in the slot. The machine vibrated violently for a few moments and then stopped. The man stood back, did up his trouser front, picked up his brief case and headed off for the trains. Good heavens, he thought, a machine for that, and here I am miles away from my honeymoon, I must have a go, nobody seems to mind. So he does the same, puts down his brief case, stands on the platform, undoes his trousers, pops his willie in a hole in the front and puts in a coin. The machine vibrates violently and he staggered back with a button sewn on the end!

Another, involving quite a long story before getting to the punchline was about a farmer who had a lot of hens, but his only cockerel had died and he could not find a suitable replacement. He was complaining about this down at the village pub when a local chipped in and claimed he had a bird up to the job and a price was agreed if the bird was up to it. The local said he lived nearby and would go and get it. When he returned he had a bantam under his arm. The farmer laughed his head off at the idea of the tiny bird servicing his yard full of hens but the local argued that not only was he certain the bird could cope but would be willing to bet £100 on the outcome. The farmer could not resist what he thought was easy money, so agreed. For a couple of days the bird really did live up to his reputation.

Getting up one morning and looking out of the window the farmer saw the bantam laying in the middle of the yard flat on its back, claws curled up and eyes shut with a buzzard hovering overhead. The farmer shook his head sadly and, having admired the little bird's performance, said he could not let it end like that, it must have a decent burial, so proceeded down to the yard. As he bent to pick it up the bird opened one eye, and looked up at the buzzard and said, 'don't interfere, another minute and I'll have that one too!'

There were his songs too; ribald and unfit for polite company but hilarious in an inebriated troop situation. One can only imagine the spectacle of we two drifting along, filthy and unshaven, holding on to each other singing or reciting Dicky's creations. One went something like this:


Father went a fishing and he caught a little trout,
He said 'I say, you little fellow, does your
Mother know your out?'
So he put it in his pocket and he went off home.

(Chorus) I-tiddle-I, I-tiddle-I, I-tiddle-I.

Now he couldn't find a bowl and he couldn't find a dish,
So he put it in the pot where the old woman pissed.

(Chorus) etc.

Oh Father, father, sure as you're born, the Devils in the
Pisspot, poking up its horns!


In came father with a shovel and a broom, chased the
little bastard all around the room.


He hit it on the head and he hit it in the side and he
kicked it in the teeth until the poor sod died.

(Chorus sang sadly).

A lot of rubbish of course but it suited our mood far better that 'It's a long way to Tipperary' and all that stuff. Another effort was a poem:

I'll tell you's the story of Short Pete, the half bred galoot
Who staggered in from Staggers Toot
   and, when he slapped his XXX upon the bar,
   all agreed that Nell had met her fate.
He agreed to make his kill,
Behind the schoolhouse, on the hill,
Where everyone could get a seat,
And watch the half bred bastard have his meat.
Only once did he miss his shot -
And then she caught it up the bot.
She died gamely did our Nell,
She died with her boots on where she fell!

I guess that's a fair example of how we managed to shut out all other thoughts. By the time we reached the suburbs of Lublin we were no longer walking but staggering, still holding on to each other for support, like a couple of drunken tramps. One might well wonder about the padre and his two, also the Frenchmen back at Deutsch-Eyleau. Did they get transport by waiting? It seemed likely, not having seen any more of them. Were we stupid for not waiting? That is anyone's guess, the fact was that in OUR minds, we had escaped and were doing it all ourselves, every damned inch of the way and had a glorious sense of achievement. Well, not quite all the way. As we progressed into the town we asked where to go - you've guessed it, to the Big Red Flag! To get there, we were told to take a ride to the town centre, quite a long way, on a tram that, with two carriages, ran on lines close to the curb. There were no fares, but there was a conductor for stopping and starting who understood where we had to go and report ourselves.

We arrived in a large open square dominated by what we presumed to be the town hall. It not only had the large flag, but a lot of little ones as well. Otherwise everything around seemed quite normal. I do not recollect any signs of damage. Having taken our weight off our feet by sitting in the tram, we hobbled across and made our way up the steps almost on all fours. Taken inside, the information that we were English electrified the atmosphere with all kinds of ranking officers and civilians coming simply to look at us. We were clearly welcome, and that was all that mattered. We did not have long to wait before being handed a cup of tea each. Russian or Polish, we did not care for the flavour or the weak appearance but it certainly helped revive us. Then we were given a token each and told to go and find a restaurant and get a meal. In our condition! They simply smiled and nodded.

It was a little while before we found a restaurant of any kind. It was a large establishment, very much like the pre-war Lyons Corner House in London. The walls were walnut paneled, French polished and old and seedy looking. The tables were set out with clean cloths, cutlery and cruets all neatly laid out. We couldn't go in there, could we? To our surprise, as we stood in the doorway gawking, a man in morning dinner jacket, white shirt and bow tie came, invited us in and sat us down, thankfully a little separate from the other diners. Almost immediately a maid in black dress and white pinafore brought us soup - soup, everyone in Poland slurped their soup so we got slurping and tried not to look around, just furtive glances out of the corners of our eyes. I've never felt so ashamed. We were in such a mess and must have stank to high heaven but the soup bowls were taken and a main course was brought with a generous smile. There were boiled potatoes, sauerkraut, a few peas and some thin slices of meat with gravy. Compared with our every experience since leaving Marienburg, it was astonishing, only to be capped with a sweet of pudding and custard. Quite honestly, I have never got so near to crying as then in that place with those caring people. You never forget such kindness. I am sure we had preferential treatment because we were English, but what a bloody advertisement! Although each course was not large, we were blown out after managing on so little for so long. We sat there for half an hour before taking our leave.

When we returned to the town hall an escort took us to a warehouse by a rail siding. To our surprise some two dozen others were assembled. Two Americans in civilian clothes gave us a 'K' ration apiece and told us we were staying the night. They also handed around a packet of American cigarettes apologising that there had no more. The 'K' rations were an innovation that had to be seen to be believed. Each packet contained one cigarette and match, and various compressed foods that only needed water added, and a piece of toilet paper. The last item was something we had not seen for close on five years, having had to manage with leaves or torn up clothing rags. Luxury indeed.