Fifty Years On

Richard Wollheim

One snowy night in the early months of 1945, we were dining in the basement of a bombed-out house in one of those neat workers’ suburbs of which the Dutch were proud. ‘We’ were the ten or so officers on the Headquarters of 214 Infantry Brigade. For protection against the fierce cold, we had an anthracite stove, which smoked, and large tumblers of Dutch gin. We had been out of the line for an unprecedented ten days, and the Brigadier was in a more relaxed mood than we had seen since the last days of training in Kent the previous summer. He said that we must promise him something. We had been through a lot together. ‘My word,’ he said, and he chuckled. When the war was over, we might start to think of these as great days of our lives. ‘I want you never to forget that war is the filthiest, the most disgusting, thing man has invented.’

My brigadier was short, with unremarkable looks: he had a small crumpled face, blue eyes and wisps of sandy hair. To the soldiers he was ‘Twinkle-toes’, from the way he dragged one foot when he walked. He could be quick-tempered when he detected inefficiency, and, in matters of discipline, he upheld the severest sentences. Normally he was soft-spoken, and it was with the dreamiest of gestures that, his eyelids partly closed against the rising smoke of his cigarette, he allowed two outstretched fingers to drift above a map, indicating the route along which he would push his troops into and through the enemy defences.

It was in 1916 on the Western Front that he had learned the terrors of war. Fresh from school, he had been sent out on patrol his first night. Every time they passed a German corpse his sergeant stopped, pulled open the dead man’s mouth, and with a pair of pliers wrenched out the gold stoppings. In the twenty years between the two wars, he had spent much of his time in an infantry battalion on the North-West Frontier, where, more interested in Indian life than in polo or big game, he had been passed over for promotion. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he was still a captain, and he owed his rapid promotion to the new attitudes. That our paths ever crossed was due to a further series of accidents.

In 1939 I was 16, a schoolboy, and a strong, though not an unqualified, pacifist. Pacifism was prevalent at Westminster, but I owed my conversion to the fact that, one afternoon, faking illness so as to avoid games, I had walked to the Army and Navy Stores, where on a large mahogany table there were laid out two piles of yellow pamphlets, both by Aldous Huxley, one called the Encyclopaedia of Pacifism. I left the OTC, but, unlike some of my school friends, I did not join the Peace Pledge Union. I believed in the possibility of a just war. The Spanish Civil War was for me just that, but a war waged solely by the great imperialist powers could not be. What changed my thinking was the German attack on Russia. What continued to make me unreconciled to this decision was the bombast of Churchill, in which the silver prose of Augustan English was, as I saw it, melted down into racist rhetoric. I was not inclined to see any big difference between anti-semitism and anti-Germanism since for me the original evil in each was to see people in terms of nations or races.

The arrangement was that I volunteered, and this gave me a year at Oxford. In September 1941 I went for my medical examination, half-expecting to fail, since I had been ill for much of my childhood and had always avoided exercise. The doctor asked me where I had been to school, and since, as I saw from his tie, we had this in common, he passed me. But the war was too distant for me to have any reaction. At Oxford I did a day and half’s training a week. This consisted in desultory exercises in Christ Church Meadows, and lectures on map-reading given by Edmund Blunden.

I worked hard at Oxford, but what I wanted from it was to meet extraordinary, over-life size characters. In the hothouse atmosphere, generated by the imminence of war, I was not to be disappointed, and the fact that this would all disappear, and we would never see each other again, only made life more febrile.

Towards the end of my Oxford year, I realised that a number of my friends were going on quite different assumptions. They had plans to see one another in the Welsh Guards, or the Scots Greys, or the 60th. As a child, before I collected medieval coins, which I did with great success, I had collected lead soldiers. Uniforms were poetry to me, but I had not thought of a real-life equivalent to this pageantry.

With trepidation I asked a friend of mine whose judgment I trusted, a young lord, shortly to be killed, what I should do about all this. He said that if my family, which had evacuated itself, had no permanent address, it would be hard to get into the Brigade of Guards, but he strongly advised me to apply to the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. There were, he said, amusing people in it, and they wore green trousers. I liked the advice, and the idea of going into battle so recklessly seemed to me to atone for my lapse from pacifism. My grandmother’s husband offered to help, and he arranged an interview in a small, windowless office in Victoria Street, and I was accepted immediately.

The autumn of 1942 was something for which I was quite unprepared. The exoticism of Oxford vanished, and I found myself first at a pre-OCTU on a steep hillside in Kent and then at an OCTU at Morecombe. The training was intended to toughen us, so that I always had blisters, or vertigo, or was out of breath. I made no friends, and disaster seemed imminent. At last I was an officer, and I was sent off to the regiment in which I had been accepted: it was not the one to which I had applied. It was called the Inniskilling Fusiliers, and the only approximation to an amusing person was a drunken Irish chieftain called The O’Kelly. Fierce in the morning, he didn’t leave the mess after lunch, which was always curry, until late at night, when it was the duty officer’s obligation to put him to bed.

My life as a serving officer began in earnest when I was posted to a battalion of a West Country regiment. Three days later, we set off for the West Coast of Scotland to be trained for an amphibious assault. We had the training, sleeping by day, by night storming the coast through a curtain of mosquitoes, but the assault, which I later learnt was to have been on the Azores, was cancelled. From then on we made ourselves ready for the Second Front.

The battalion in which I found myself had been raised, and was still commanded, by a local baronet, a sizeable landowner, who had been a peacetime officer in the Grenadiers. Sir J was a hard drinker and smoker, but a fit, good-looking man, with a clipped voice, a clipped moustache, a permanent sniffle, a small head and tiny, fierce, violet eyes. Every soldier in the mess, except one, looked up to Sir J as his social superior, and Sir J exploited this fact to make sure that, whenever he spoke, the others fell silent. The exception was the second-in-command, another baronet from the same county, very genial, a country-lover and yachtsman, and without Sir J’s determination to ride into action, with whom I used to slip out to seaside hotels and drink gin and lime, but who was soon removed. If Sir J had been with people with whom he felt something in common, he might have had more to say. But with us his repertoire was limited: he told dirty stories, he teased married officers going on leave, and he gave vent to a remorselessly repetitive anti-semitism. Every night in the mess, at the same hour, to the same applause, he made the same joke. There were, as it happened, three officers in the mess who, under the Nuremberg laws, counted as Jews. In addition there was an Irishman, who giggled a great deal, and was a toady of Sir J’s, and who had a hooked nose. And the nightly joke was that there were four Jews in the mess.

Sir J made it clear that he extended me no protection, and I was handed over to the constant ridicule of my rugger-playing fellow officers. However, in addition to what I endured in the mess, I had as my platoon sergeant a jolly ruddy-faced man, who in peacetime had been a porter in the market in Covent Garden. Sergeant H took an immediate and intense dislike to me, which I was unable to placate. We were billeted in a sprawling 19th-century castle on a rock on the Northumbrian coast, and one day I told him to parade my platoon the next morning at a certain place at the bottom of the rock. I arrived a few moments late because I had the usual trouble in getting my equipment together. There was no sign of my platoon. I ran, in a way that barely befitted an officer, this way and that, but to no avail. Sergeant H had told my men to parade somewhere quite different. Just as my puttees were starting to unwrap, I saw, coming round the corner of the rock, Sir J, normally a late riser, approaching on one of his rare morning inspections.

Between my colonel and my sergeant I felt my mind giving way. One day, I fell asleep after lunch in the mess. I woke up with a start. Some of the officers, I noticed, were averting their eyes. I reached down with my hand, and I felt a tell-tale wetness creeping outwards from my crotch. I had wet my bed until an unseemly late age, and nothing surprised me about incontinence as a symptom of oncoming dementia. The next day I went to see the Medical Officer, an elegant white-faced man, quite young, who had given up a successful practice as a dermatologist, and I confided to him my anxieties. In doing so, I must have embarrassed him. ‘Don’t worry, old boy,’ he said over and over again, as he led me to the door of his office, ‘Nothing to worry about, I’d tell you if there was, old boy. Honestly.’ I felt apologetic.

Soon we moved from the North of England to the South Coast, but nothing made the doctor’s advice easier to take. I had a new company commander, a martinet of an icy foppishness, who sent me to London to Fortnum and Mason’s to buy a large picnic basket, so that the officers could always, on exercises and in battle, eat separately from the men: this was essential for discipline. Meanwhile neither my colonel nor my sergeant let up. The day arrived when I had to appear in front, first of the Adjutant, then of Sir J, to respond to an adverse report, which recommended a change of employment. A few days later, I was driven, in the custody of the Adjutant, to be arraigned in front of the Brigadier. The hearing was tense, and the Brigadier told me what was open to me. There was the Catering Corps, but, for someone without experience, the likeliest opening was the Laundry Corps. I stared ahead of me. I knew that I had not abandoned pacifism – a course of action that was beginning to seem to me to be ever less worthwhile – in order to join the Laundry Corps. Then the Brigadier said that he understood that I could volunteer to be a glider pilot. But I must understand the risks. I said that I would become a glider pilot.

A few days later, I took the train from Folkestone to London. I went out with some friends to a round of night-clubs, and, early the next morning, I presented myself for a battery of tests. Around the age of five and six, I had always had to be carried downstairs, so terrified was I of heights: it seemed to me that my chances of passing the tests were low. I passed.

It was, I believe, in the course of the next few weeks, while my life was in moratorium, that someone told me what had taken place that afternoon in the mess. A group of officers had got hold of a glass of warm water, and had poured it over me so carefully that I remained asleep. They were led by the senior company officer, and they had been careful to recruit the Medical Officer.

In due course, a letter arrived from the Glider Pilot Regiment, expressing gratitude for my interest, but, for the moment, there were no vacancies. I returned, with a visibly irritated Adjutant, for another interview with the Brigadier. I was standing to attention, and he told me to stand at ease, and then, in that soft voice, which I came to know well, and which he invariably assumed before reaching a resolve from which nothing could shake him, I heard him say: ‘This may be the most foolish idea I have ever had, but I think that I should like to have on my headquarters someone who could talk about Proust.’

I joined the Headquarters at Hythe, and shortly afterwards, we moved to Battle Abbey, which in peacetime was a girls’ school, and I remember terraced gardens with views over a deep valley and old elm trees. I walked the battlefield of Hastings, and for the first time for months, I could look at a stretch of countryside and not wonder how out of breath I would be if I had to charge up it in full battle order. The Brigadier entertained the local gentry, and one, an ecologist before his time, was an ardent Nazi sympathiser. One night I was walking back, very drunk, from a country club, which had opened up in a small moated manor house, and, for hours on end, troop planes hummed overhead, blocking out the stars, gently rising and falling, as they took the airborne assault to Normandy.

Next day we moved to the East End of London, and slept in a greyhound stadium under canvas. I developed a raging toothache. I was taken under escort to a local dentist, who looked after the poor. He had no waiting-room, no dentist’s chair, and I sat on a plain kitchen chair, with men sitting round the room, waiting their turn, while he pulled out a wisdom tooth. That, and a short visit to the Ritz bar to say goodbye to friends, and returning with the new missiles falling on London, were my last experiences of England.

We sailed out into the Channel along carefully marked-out lanes. Suddenly a gale blew up, but the heat continued. For five days, as the shells whistled overhead on their way to France, I lay in the sun, rinsing out my mouth with Glyco-Thymoline, and worried whether, when the time came, we would have to go over the side and climb down the scrambling nets into the landing-craft, or whether steps would be set up, which we could walk down. As in childhood, my fears, which were overwhelming, had little to do with danger.

At last we landed. It was, I believe, D+11, instead of D+6. We had studied, over and over again, the trick of driving a jeep off a landing-craft into a foot or two of water and keeping the engine running. I drove up the beach, waved on by flags, through the dunes, and then, for about eight miles, followed the divisional signs, through liberated villages, past burnt-out vehicles, and the utterly unexpected sight of crosses made of raw wood. Except for a few days as a very small child near Le Touquet, this was my first holiday abroad.

At last we arrived in an enormous field, several miles in extent, with the corn flattened by the tracks of tanks and the movement of troops. Regiments with exotic names were threaded through one another as they were moved up to the front, soldiers brewed tea, young lieutenants, wearing paisley scarves, lay on top of their tanks. It had the feel of a race-meeting, and, two miles or so ahead, a battle was going on. My old battalion, from which Sir J had been removed almost at the last moment, had, I learnt, gone into action. Sergeant H had suddenly leapt up, turned round, and ran until he was apprehended some miles behind the lines.

The next six weeks passed in a kind of delirium like the infections of childhood. We did everything by the map, and yet we seemed permanently lost. One late afternoon we would enter a pretty Norman village, with its apple trees and broad barns, and two days later we re-entered it from the other end, and it was another place. The timber frames were still smouldering, and there were piles of old women’s clothes in the lanes, and the dead cattle were lying on their sides with vast distended bellies. Or the lines between divisions would shift, and we became aware of a vast aerodrome on our left whose existence we had never suspected; or, down to the right, of a deep river valley which the leading sections had to ford. One warm summer evening with lengthening shadows, I accompanied my brigadier on a trip to find out how the land really lay. We parked our cars in a large field, surrounded by tall shaggy trees, and familiar from an earlier visit. A soldier with a Bren gun sprayed the trees in case there were snipers left behind. From the top end of the field a sunken lane curled away outwards to the higher ground. As we dropped down into the lane, we saw, stacked up on either side, piles of young German bodies, with small bung-holes in their foreheads, from which the blood had poured out and matted the coarse fair hair. At the end of the path, the two of us got down and crawled forward. As the Brigadier brought his binoculars up to his eyes, he found himself staring straight into those of a German field-officer, a few yards away.

We were still in the beach-head, and our role was, by a series of attacks in excess of what our numbers justified, to draw down on ourselves the full weight of the German reserves, so that the American Army could break out to the south. Within a few days we had two Panzer divisions facing us. Our soldiers went into battle, freshly shaved, and they fought with amazing courage: they fought also with real anger. The numbers for the enemy reported captured in battle invariably exceeded those for the prisoners who reached the POW cages, and the Brigadier smiled sardonically. Once I attempted to carry ammunition up to a company cut off in a small wood on the reverse slope of a ridge. It was dark, and they were encircled by Tiger tanks, and by infantry force-marched a hundred miles and thrown into battle. The attempt was abandoned.

As the weeks passed, I recognised what made my brigadier a remarkable commander. For him every battle was fought on its own distinctive bit of the earth’s surface, which might stretch well beyond where the action took place. Soldiers had to capture a hill and hold it against all counter-attacks, not just for the battle honours it brought, but because it prevented the enemy from shelling a crossroads some miles behind the lines, which lorries had to pass over, bringing up the ammunition or the hot meals on which the next day’s battle would be fought. In the evening, in his caravan, sitting up over his nightcap, the Brigadier pored over the map, until, like a connoisseur with his etchings, he had mastered every flickering contour line so that he now knew where the enemy fire could reach, where his advancing troops could find cover, and where they would have to do without it and get on as best they could. A lesson I learnt from him, though he would never had said as much, is that ultimately war is fought in two dimensions. Horizontally, there is the war that desires to be as noisy as possible, of our side against theirs. Vertically, there is the war that seeks obscurity, of those who are charged with waging it against those who are reluctant to give up their lives no matter the cause. Once I sat by his side as the news came through, late in the afternoon, that the battalion that had passed into the assault was held up by automatic fire. They were told to move forward; the tanks needed to move through. An hour later, and the situation was unchanged. My brigadier was enraged. ‘Who do the 2nd Blankshires think they are? Do they think they are going to live forever?’

On 15 August I followed my brigadier to Corps Headquarters. There the elegant silver-haired Horrocks gave us the details of an attack to be mounted that night on Condé-sur-Noireau. It would be accompanied by an unprecedented bombardment. I marked up my map, and we raced back, my brigadier in his scout-car, I in my jeep. The air stank of gunpowder and decay, as the swollen bodies of the cows started to explode. The light was deteriorating, and, at a roadside Calvary, I assumed, from the rising dust, that the scout-car had taken the left fork, and I hurried after it. A single shot, then a fusillade from the roadside, told me my mistake. Petrol poured out of the tank, soldiers in field-grey jumped out of the ditch, and I was carried off, one field away, to Condé-sur-Noireau. By the time I arrived, I had rubbed off the chinograph markings on my map.

The attack failed, and before dawn I left with my captors so that I could be got through what was called the Falaise gap, and be sent to a camp in Germany. An hour later we drove into a big field, and some German officers came up to me to reminisce about Ascot and Henley. Rather abruptly, a sergeant took me aside for interrogation. Soon he was asking me questions that the Geneva Convention protected me from answering. I told him this, and he struck me to the ground. I got up, and walked over and complained to the officers. At first, they defended him, then they came back to me apologetically. The sergeant had spent five years in Chicago: he was no longer a real German.

For the next four days, we slept under hedges by day, and at night drove without lights along the roads. The Allied aircraft dropped flares and machine-gunned the convoys, and the screams of the wounded horses filled the night. My private guard was a Pole, who, glamorised by the tanks, had joined the SS, had deserted, and was now in some penal unit. Occasionally, at a crossroads, a tall SS officer had taken control to see whether the troops were retreating under orders. My Wehrmacht captors invariably panicked.

One evening, just after I had dug my slit trench, word came that a nearby German major would be pleased to give dinner to a British officer in captivity. My host, with one eye, one arm, the Iron Cross with oakleaves, talked in a strained voice of the epic experience of war. Were we British, he wanted to know, terrified by the roar of the nebelwerfer? We spoke in French, a German soldier waited on us, and we sat up, drinking brandy by candlelight. It was my first food for three days.

The next evening I was brought to Orbec, and joined about two hundred prisoners captured since D-Day. I was the senior of two officers, and was put in charge. The following day we were to be marched to the Seine, and I was determined to escape. Ever since I had been captured, I had thought continuously of John Stuart Mill and the value of liberty. I walked by the side of a New Zealand officer, who, just before being shot down two days before, had been briefed on where the Resistance were in control. We arrived at a farm for the night. I told him that we should walk to the edge of the field, pee against the hedge, then jump through it into the sunken path below, and run. It worked. Freezing rain started to fall, and we spent the night sheltering in two corn stooks, while, through the hours of darkness, a hundred yards away, the German Army passed in retreat.

My companion spoke no French. I got him some blue overalls, and, as military law required, we took an oath that, if one was recaptured, the other would try to get away. My companion said that we should make for Bernay. The closer we got to the town, the more Germans there were encamped in the fields. A sentry asked us, laughingly, whether we were escaped prisoners. At the edge of the town, I picked a house at random, went in, and asked the owner if the Resistance had taken the town. He shook his head, and advised us to leave. My companion was adamant: once we got to the centre of the town, it would all be different. I do not know why, or with what conviction, I followed his advice. We arrived on the place. Tanks were moving two abreast, and, on the pavement, German soldiers, with rifles slung, were singing as they marched. I heard a shout, and turned, and I was looking up into the face of an officer in the SS Field-Police. I told him a story: we were bombed out from Falaise; this was my idiot brother who couldn’t speak; our mother had our papers, and was at the other end of the town. My interrogator said that I was a liar, and that we were escaped English prisoners of war; I responded with indignation: it was the English who had bombed us out. I knew, however, that my French might deceive an SS officer, but it required only one Frenchman around us to denounce me. The officer told me that I could go and find my mother, and bring back the papers, but my brother must stay. We had made our oath. I walked back up the hill, went to the house where we had stopped, and made a final appeal for forged papers. The man opened the back door, pointed to a path that led into the country between the thick corn and the hedges of hawthorn, and told me to go.

I walked for three miles or so, thinking of my companion, and then, just short of the main road that ran to Rouen, I stopped at an ancient farmhouse, and asked for shelter. I was taken to a barn, and I climbed up an old ladder and buried myself in the hay. Early every morning and late every evening, I came into the house and ate rabbit, and goose, and rillettes, and toast, and drank strong cider, and calvados, and coffee made from acorns. At lunch a farm worker brought me out four oeufs sur le plat. One day I missed lunch because two German corporals drove up in a car, very slowly set up an anti-aircraft gun, and fired off a couple of rounds. Then they came into the barn, and they cooked a meal, all the while quarrelling among themselves. All I could think of was whether the hay would make me sneeze. After a while they left. At the end of five days, I heard, in the far distance, church bells ringing, and they got closer, village by village, until the bells of Bernay were ringing, and, through a crack in the barn, I could see the armoured cars of the Canadian Army moving along the high road. I emerged from hiding, said goodbye to my family, and a jeep raced me back, along roads lined with little girls holding bunches of flowers. I rejoined my brigade as it was forcing a crossing of the Seine.

Some months later we were fighting in a horrible wood, now a favourite picnic site for German hikers. The trees were blasted, rain had turned the ground to mud, and wooden crosses marked hasty burials. The attack was held up at the front edge of the wood by the sudden arrival of tanks, which were digging in. I was walking back through the wood when I saw some ferns moving and heard words in German. It was a patrol, an officer and a corporal, and they had been overtaken by the battle. We saw each other about the same time, and I reached for my pistol, with which I couldn’t hit anything at more than five feet, and got it out first. The patrol surrendered, and I had two prisoners.

The war changed a great deal after we crossed the German frontier. It was now fought, not just against the German Army, but against everything else that was German. I saw young cavalry officers skidding their tanks so that whole German families, fleeing with their belongings from the front, were tipped into the ditch. I saw soldiers, supervised by their officers, hacking to pieces a great limewood altarpiece of the Renaissance for firewood to make tea. ‘Hun’, ‘boche’, ‘kraut’ were everyday words.

One early afternoon, we were sitting on a hill, looking down a long, straight road, at the end of which rose the great church of Xanten. The divisional commander, known throughout his command as von Thoma because of the way he emulated his opposite numbers, from his long leather overcoat and his big goggles to his love of destruction, made a sudden appearance. The tower facing us, he said, was an obvious look-out place: it must go. ‘My gunner,’ he said, ‘tells me it’s an old building, and it’ll burn like a barn.’ As soon as he was gone, I said to my brigadier that I would drive my jeep towards the cathedral, turn round and come back, and, if I wasn’t fired on, we could know that it was unoccupied. He laughed, and I took that to mean that he wouldn’t court-martial me when I returned. I got into my jeep, drove through our lines until the cathedral came firmly into focus, stopped, hoped that the verges were not mined, turned round, and raced back. That evening the cathedral was shelled, but the attack changed its axis, and I never knew what remained of Xanten.

A few days before the war ended, I went out on a broad sweep to see if we were still engaged with the enemy. I drove up onto a knoll, surmounted by thatched cottages with broad eaves and views over water-meadows. This was Worpeswede, the artists’ colony where Rilke courted two women. In one cottage some books had been thrown into a pile: I stole two, one on Piranesi, and another on Baroque Vienna with a frontispiece of Baldur von Schirach. About two thousand yards away, some German soldiers were standing. I fired at them, knowing they were out of effective range of a rifle. This was the first time I had looted a house or fired a shot in anger. I had led a sheltered war.

Throughout the war, no one, apart from a few old members of the Communist Party, ever discussed with me the aims of the war. You could have thought that it was fought in older to get home.

The war over, its place was taken by a non-fraternisation policy, by which I refused to abide. Increasingly, the soldiers found the presence of girls with fair pigtails whose smiles they were forbidden to acknowledge intolerably frustrating. Higher Command recognised this, and thought of a compromise. In Belsen there were a number of women recovering from starvation and the prospect of extinction. Could not these two groups drown their sorrows together at a dance, with the Hungarian guards providing music on the accordion? What went wrong with the dance, which it fell to me to organise, is another story, but it asked the question that, as far as I was concerned, the war had left unanswered. Stretch the corpses I had seen since the Normandy beaches end to end, and what could make the whole haphazard killing worthwhile? The fall of tyrannies, perhaps. But it would have been better if there had been some change of heart.