Volume 1 – Chapter 16 – Part 6
We had little leisure time, and leave passes were unheard of, all we had was an occasional trip into the city, and the odd night out to the local village. A couple of times I went into the city with Neville and Keith, and on one never to be forgotten day we ended up in a club which had been set up for military personnel. I cannot recall whether it was run by the NAAFI, but it was an impressive place with a good dining room and a quality lounge. It was a sunny afternoon when we took a drink into the lounge, attracted by pleasant music being played by a middle aged lady seated at a very impressive grand piano. She was playing Strauss or something of that nature and playing it very well, being drawn like a moth to a candle I found myself standing by her side listening with rapt attention. A musician always knows when their efforts are being appreciated, and the pianist showed that she was enjoying our interest. I say our, because I was not the only one to be drawn to her side, Keith had followed close behind and was standing alongside me.
When she had finished the piece she was playing we spoke, and were told that she was from Vienna, and had attended a school of music there. She was way out of my league as a musician, but Keith was not overawed by her qualifications, and after admiring the piano asked if he could try it. She was obviously doubtful, but decided that we looked like trustworthy fellows, and so reluctantly agreed. Keith sat down and without any hesitation launched into a piece of Chopin which he played with complete confidence and considerable panache. Everyone in the room was struck dumb with amazement, me in particular; I could not believe that I had numbered among my friends a person who was so talented. ‘More, more’ there were cries for more, and I was crying louder than anyone. He played on, more I suspect because he was enjoying getting his hands on such a good piano after what must have seemed an eternity, than for the pleasure of those around him. He was wonderful, and the Austrian lady was overcome with his talent, finding it hard, I have no doubt, to believe that an English soldier could demonstrate such artistic ability. When I recall that magic moment my heart still sings with the wonder of it, how glad I was to have enough music in my soul to be able to appreciate the emotion and the brilliance of the music that Keith created that day.
From the sublime to the ridiculous as they say, which means to say, I can call to mind an outing at the other end of the spectrum. It was an evening out in Muggia, again in the company of my two friends, during which we strolled around the village taking in the ambience, as they say. In spite of unhappy moments such as the visit they had received from our belligerent guardsman some time before, the villagers were not unfriendly. To me this was a surprising reaction, because I am sure they did not consider soldiers the best of neighbours, an opinion that the residence of most garrison towns in Britain would share. When you consider the strange occurrence that took place during this latest visit to the village, one would have expected a less than friendly reception from the locals.
On one of the earliest occasions when we were allowed to leave the barracks some of the lads and I had gone into Muggia, with the usual desire to drink and relax. We had established ourselves in one of the taverns, where a session of drinking began; it was mostly the cheap local wine we were attracted to, though we had not yet realised that though the Vino Bianca was sweet and easy to drink, it was far more potent that we realised.
My sense of duty, as always, made me try to restrict my intake of alcohol, but being inexperienced I had drunk enough of the wine to make my head spin. Through the haze I was in, I became aware that an argument had broken out at the table where six or seven of us were sitting. Dimly I realised that the row was about me, with one of the younger chaps whose tongue had been loosened by the wine, beginning a verbal attack on me. It seems he was feeling some resentment for the fact that I was no different from him, but I had a stripe and so was entitled to order him about. If my critic was trying to pick a fight with me he was failing badly, I was paying little attention to him, but often the effects of drink brings out the belligerence in people, and so it did on this occasion. In our group was an old timer with a record going back to the WW2; he was in my section and I had discovered he had served in Burma. This chap had decided to take me under his wing, though I was not aware of it at the time, and he now came to my defence. The dispute grew more heated, which upset the locals who were present, and when I told them to stop upsetting everyone, they decided to take it outside.
Letting them go, I concentrated on keeping the others at the table, so what happened outside I cannot say. It soon became obvious that we had outstayed our welcome, so we decided to leave and return to barracks. On leaving the village we found that it was a very dark night, and without street lighting the coast road was as black as pitch. After a short distance we became scattered along the road, and for the remaining distance I did not see any of the others. Once back in camp we assembled in our billet, and it was then that the old timer came to me and showed me a much bruised face. His story was that on the way back to Lazaretto he had been attacked in the dark, and being taken by surprise he had been unable to defend himself. He insisted that he had lain unconscious on the road for an unknown period, and though we asked questions around the others, no one ever admitted to the attack and we never discovered who had done it. I still wonder whether the locals had been responsible.
It can be seen why I was surprised by the friendliness of the villagers when Keith, Neville, and I were walking their highways and byways. If good relations did not continue it would be more our fault than theirs, and this thought was confirmed at this very moment. We were approaching the bar that had become our favourite watering hole, when a commotion began within, not a good sign. We broke into a run wanting to find out what was happening, and hopefully to prevent any involvement of our chaps in what sounded like a serious uproar. It was a forlorn hope; our lads had been drinking too much and reacted to the behaviour of some Americans, who had found their way into what was considered our territory. The details were never made clear to me, but I knew how much bad feeling existed in the minds our contingent. We hated the fact that the Yanks were so sure of themselves, with so much money to spend, and their smarter uniforms, and their air of confidence that suggested they were top dogs. It was inevitable that hostilities would break out, and when they did our lads had unleashed all their resentment and bitterness on the unfortunate GIs. I suspect that this had been an opportunity to relieve their pent up passions and frustrations.
The bar looked like a battle ground, but the fight was over when we entered the premises. The Americans were down and out, showing little interest in further proceedings, but it was a serious mess, with the owner of the bar in an outrage. There was going to be big trouble over this incident, and being there we were going to be held responsible as the senior men present. We had to find a way out and fast, so we decided to get everyone out and on their way back to barracks, before retribution descended upon us. It is uncanny the way fate often arranges things, something it did on this occasion. Our chances of escaping detection were slim to say the least, but we were lucky thanks to fate, when one of our three ton trucks appeared from the direction of Trieste. Flagging it down, we explained our dire need to get back to camp without delay, and the driver understood immediately. In a few moments we were all in the back, and gone from the scene.
An interesting sequel to this event occurred a short time later when I departed on home leave. I had boarded the train that was taking me back to the Hook of Holland to catch the ferry to Harwich, and I had become friendly with the only other soldier in my compartment. He was also going on leave, and I had much to talk to him about because he was from the Royal Military Police unit stationed in Trieste. During conversation he referred to the fact that I was from the North Staffordshire Regiment, and he told me of a curious event that had take place only a few days before, involving he understood, men from my unit. A disturbance had been reported at a bar in Muggia, and when they sent a rapid response team to the scene, they had found some damaged Americans, but no sign of their attackers. I wonder how they managed to disappear so quickly he said, and I replied to the effect that it was very strange indeed, but I had no idea how they had managed it.
Time and again I have wondered about this question of fate, how impersonal it can be, how it decides our destiny without any considerations as to fairness or merit. Why would fate decide I should die, yet allow me to live? Keep me alive, yet blight my future, and make it difficult to succeed, yet comfort me in my hour of need? I pose the question though I provide no answer; if I could answer this question I would be solving the riddle of life itself. My thoughts take on this philosophical bent because I can see the significance of it in relation to my next account, which comes to mind when considering this portion of my story.
I am attempting to recall what little leisure and pleasure I had during my time in Trieste, which reminds me that we were by the sea, and I enjoyed swimming. Twice the overconfidence of youth took me into danger in the water, but both times fate found in my favour. The first time was some weeks before the point I have reached in my story, when I was helping to set up a water polo court in the calm waters adjacent to the seaward side of our parade ground. I was helping to place heavy concrete anchors to which the goals were to be tied, I went into the water holding on to the tie ring set in the block, while around my waist I had the rope which was to be used. The water must have been at least twenty feet deep, and crystal clear, which allowed me a good view of everything around me. When I reached the bottom I had been careless about my position which resulted in my right foot being trapped beneath the concrete block. When I could not remove my foot or move the block I quickly realised that I was in trouble, I look up to see if anyone else was in the water and able to help me, but I was alone. All I could see was the bottom of the boat I had just vacated, and with time passing I had to do something. It is amazing how danger sharpens the mind, and I hit upon the idea that I should seize the rope and pull in as hard as I could. My efforts plus the fact that I had been down for a couple of minutes alerted those in the boat, and down came a couple of chaps to help me. Easing the block of my foot I was able to surface and all was well, giving little thought to how close I may have come to drowning.
The close encounter I have just described was sudden and of short duration, which is why I probably forgot it quite readily. Another near escape I had took longer, giving me time to contemplate my fate, and to consider how close I came to death. It was a hot sunny afternoon ideal for a swim, and we were ready for it in our bathing trunks, a state of dress that was constant when not on duty. With a friend I had left the barracks and gone along the coast, out on our own looking for that privacy you never had when in camp. My companion was a corporal from Support Company, another regular with more years and more service than myself. His name was Miller, and just as you would expect in the armed services, he was known as ‘Dusty’ so I never learned what his Christian name was. Finding ourselves near to the shipwreck, which I mentioned earlier, we sat on the rocks and looked out at the buoy which marked the spot. The recovery work had long since finished, so the buoy was the only thing to remind us that there was anything different about the location.
Looking out at this marker, we discussed how far it might be, and I thought it was about the size of a small car. It was hard to tell, because it was round with a flat top and no distinguishing features. Dusty agreed with me and judged that if it was that size it must be about 400 yards out, say a quarter mile. We had both expressed our confidence in our swimming ability, so it was decided that we would swim out to the buoy and climb on top to sunbathe. After a suitable rest we would swim back having had an enjoyable afternoon, and a little adventure that had added some interest to our day. Off we went swimming in a leisurely fashion with not a care in the world, until we had been swimming for quite a while and I was thinking we should have reached it by now. It did not seem to be getting any nearer, and if I had been alone I would have turned back, but being with Dusty I could not lose face, so I swam on. After what seemed to be an age we finally arrived at the buoy, which was, to our amazement huge. It seemed to be the size of a small gasometer, and stuck up out of the water for at least six feet, we swam around it looking for a place to climb up, but we found nothing. It had no ladder, and was smooth apart from the rivets that had been used in its construction.
We had got it totally wrong, being the size it was it must have been at least half a mile from the shore, and now we had no alternative but to start back with no chance of a rest. Being older and more mature Dusty now showed that he also had more endurance than me and slowly he forged ahead of me. For my part I was getting very tired, and beginning to realise that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. About half way back on this apparently endless journey, I could hardly raise my arms out of the water, so turning on to my back I floated for a while trying to rest. It was not easy to make myself do this, knowing that I could get cramp, or might be drifting further out. I had to keep going, so turning over I began to swim using the easier breast stroke, but progress appeared almost nonexistent. An age seemed to pass, and I was no longer capable of measuring my progress, I did not have the energy to look around me, all I could do was just keep myself afloat. Even breast stroke was getting too much, so now I resorted to side stroke which was hardly moving me along at all. Lying on my side I paddled weakly along thinking that this was it, I was going to drown, because I had no sense and so deserved my fate. The water was quite deep up to the shoreline, so I never touched bottom, being taken completely by surprise when my leading hand hit the rocks. I had made it though I was so exhausted I was unable to pull myself from the water for a few minutes. Fate had again decided in my favour, and for my part I had certainly learned a lesson that day.
There was little escape for most of us, the regimentation of army life had us in its grip, but we all did our best to avoid it as much as we could. In my case some small success was achieved when I was invited to join several others on a clandestine visit to a village up in the Dolomites. It was only a few miles away, but being in steep mountain country and with only a poor dirt road connecting it with the outside world; it took some 30 minutes or so to reach it in one of our Land Rovers. The name of the village I recall was ‘Ellery’ or something similar though it was not even a village but just a group of houses, and it was located close to the border with Yugoslavia; it was also a key point on the road that ran along the border of the Trieste ‘B’ zone. Because of its strategic location Army HQ had deemed it advisable to have someone watching over the locals and any activity on the border there. A sergeant in the Intelligence Section at BETFOR HQ had been given this job; he was well qualified for it, being familiar with the appropriate languages, and looking like a local when in civilian clothes.
By the time we came on the scene the sergeant must have been in this position for quite a long time we came into the picture, when I made my first visit he was well and truly ensconced and accepted by the villagers. He had married the daughter of the owner of the village vino bar, called the ‘Casa- Da-Popular, and he would commute to the city each day on an army motorcycle. It appears that our battalion Intelligence Section did its work under the auspices of the central head quarters, and one of our corporals named Green, had met and made friends with the HQ sergeant. Under the guise of official visits our battalion colleague and been spending time at the village, and when the sergeant had expressed the desire for more company from his own people, several of us had been an invitation to join them.
The villagers were not quick to make friends with outsiders, especially soldiers from a foreign army, and our visits may have been few and far between, but for me all that was to change. On my first visit we sat enjoying a drinking session with some of the locals, who were always willing to share our carafes of vino Bianca which was cheap, even for us poor paid English. Only a few lire for a litre, it was far cheaper that the Austrian beer which was about 100 lire (less than 1 shilling in our money) a bottle. One young man we were sharing our wine with lived in the village; he was a young Italian in his early twenties named Luigi. He told me in his broken English that his prize possession was a piano accordion which he had purchased recently, which caught my attention being a player myself. He was very keen to show his instrument off, and quickly produced it for me to admire, and admire it I certainly did. It was one of the best Italian instruments ever made called a ‘Paolo Soprani,’ it was a beauty with the sweetest sound I had ever heard.
Thinking that with an instrument like that he must be a skilled player and I asked him to play it for me, and to my utter amazement he confessed that he could not play it at all. Naturally I asked him why he had bought it if he could not play, and he said that he loved the accordion and thought he might learn if he had one. Sadly the poor chap had no musical aptitude, and neither did anyone else in the village. Could I have a go I asked, and being given permission I played it, regardless of the presence of a room full of people? Normally I would have avoided bringing such attention to myself, but the attraction of this lovely instrument was like an addiction I could not resist. Talk about the ‘Pied Piper of Hamlin’ the effects were much the same, conversation ceased, and as I played villagers came from everywhere, and quickly the room became packed and more were standing outside enjoying the music. From that moment on I became the most popular visitor to the village, I was no longer a stranger; I was the music man who was welcomed by all.
My buddies liked the music as well, but more than that they liked the popularity it brought them; we were welcome whenever we wished to visit. More importantly our local spy was keen as well, it was improving his position in the community, and I also suspect that he was lonely living up in this isolated village, among people that were so different from him. Another who was becoming close to the village was our Corporal Green, who was attracted to one of the village girls, developing serious intentions towards her. The houses in the village had no water supply and the girls would fetch their requirements from the well, they were undoubtedly an attractive sight walking through the square with a large earthenware jar balanced on their head. One afternoon the girl that Green favoured was at the well for water, and when she placed the jar on her head, some of the local youths decided to make things difficult for her. They began to poke and pinch her attempting to make her drop her load, but they had not taken into account that we were observing them.
Corporal Green was not going to tolerate that sort of behaviour, and he was on the attack without hesitation, and we stood and watched as he put the girl’s tormentors to flight. Fair enough I thought, but was surprised when our hero returned to us, because the local sergeant then gave him a lecture about understanding the locals. He told us that the attention to the girl had compromised her, and that the villagers would now expect Green to make an honest woman of her. If a girl is courted and keeps company with a man without a chaperone her reputation is destroyed, and most such girls leave the village and end up on the streets of Trieste as prostitutes. We were learning how different life was in other parts of the world.
We had much to learn about local life, though not everything was different, such as drinking too much for example. The resident sergeant was one that was inclined to over indulge, he would drink far too much when we visited, and this usually led to a fiery exchange with his wife. She was Yugoslav with ash blond hair and dark brown eyes, a woman in her twenties, she was an exceedingly beautiful girl, but with the hot blooded temperament of her race. When she became angry with her husband she would attack him verbally, showing no fear even when he indicated that he would beat her if she did not desist. One night being the worse for drink, he struck her with his fist and she staggered from the room, we objected to this behaviour and he felt it necessary to explain his actions. It was obvious he was upset and realising this we accepted his explanation, which was that local temperament was mercurial, but a man had to assert his authority otherwise he would lose face, and be considered a weakling.
For several days after this occurrence his wife did not appear, which gave cause for some speculation on our part. Then on one of my visits I was alighting from our vehicle in front of the bar, and looking up I saw the lady in question looking out the window. Her eyes were black and she quickly dropped the curtain to hide her appearance, so that must be why she was not showing herself I thought. It was quite a shock to me to see her, and to think that a man could hit a woman, something that I imagined did not happen at home. I had much to learn, and not just about life in this part of the world.
Since I had been discovered I was always expected to play and entertain, I did not mind this as I enjoyed it. In appreciation for my services I was provided with free wine, though I usually did little drinking, being far too busy playing. I did drink some and was inexperienced in such matters and in retrospect I wondered whether it was here that I became infected with a deadly disease. The next big event in the village was the 1st of May, Communist Day or what we usually called Labour Day. To the locals this was a major holiday, one which required a celebration. They would have a party that evening, and they wanted me to be part of it, which was no problem to me. With some lanterns to light the square, I stood on a heavy outside table and played far into the night. Much of the music they wanted was to dance to, and I can see them now, the whole village shuffling around in the dirt of the village square. They would dance to anything, but their special favourite was something they called ‘The Araspa’ which I had heard before but not with that name. This I played several times that night, and it was fun to watch them come alive when I began to play it. They would begin with hands on hips facing their partner, and they would jump with one foot forward, and then the other. This would be followed by a linking of arms when they would spin each other around in a circle, then it was back to the beginning. It was a happy night for them, but a busy night for me.
Sometimes the villagers would ask for me when it was not convenient for an organised party to go, which resulted in times when friend Green drove just me up to the village. It never occurred to me to wonder how he managed to get transport so easily when he wanted it, and thinking about it now, I wonder whether it was not all as secret as I understood it to be. Could there have been some awareness of what was taking place I wonder? I shall never know the answer to that, but maybe the intelligence people thought I was helping them to keep in the good books of the villagers?
What I did know was that I was getting some freedom and some pleasure, which was something most of the other lads were not getting. I was also learning a little more about life and the people around me, and a few other things as well. One experience I had at this time was what it felt like to drink too much, I have only allowed myself to get drunk two or three times in my life, and this was the first time. I could excuse myself by saying it was my youth and inexperience with alcohol that was responsible for my stupidity, and it was certainly true that I still had not learned how potent the local sweet white wine was, but all these things apart, we are all responsible for our own actions are we not.
Corporal Green and I had gone on another of our visits to Ellery, and as usual I was providing entertainment in the bar. It was getting late in the evening and Green announced that he had to get back to barracks, which usually meant I had to go with him. The customers were enjoying the music and I suppose my efforts had increased the attendance at the vino bar, which is why the mysterious sergeant suggested that I should stay on. He offered to run me back to Lazaretto on his motorcycle when he closed the bar, so why not stay? It’s nice to feel wanted so I stayed, thus having more time available to drink the wine that was constantly supplied to me. I have no idea what time I eventually left, but by the time I did I was well and truly plastered. The sergeant was little better than I was, though he was older and being a seasoned drinker much more capable of handling his intoxication. I can well imagine the risks we must have been taking as we roared through the night at breakneck speed, with only a feeble light from the motorcycle head lamp. Just imagine it, a pitch black night, a low grade dirt road winding through the mountains with steep drops on every side, and no helmets. The sergeant did not want to show himself at the camp gates, so he stopped on the track a short distance from where it joined the coast road, and told me that I only had a couple of hundred yards to walk along the road to reach the barracks. Turning his machine he disappeared the way he had come leaving me standing in the pitch dark with no light in sight. I was feeling fantastic and decided to run the remaining distance down the steep incline to the main road. In only a few yards I was going too fast and lost my balance, I was unable to see anything and I can recall thinking that I could fly; if I flapped my arms maybe I could stay airborne?
It is hard to believe now that I survived this moment of madness, the ground was steep and very rocky, and according to all logic I should have broken my neck. Once again fate smiled on me and instead of killing myself I went head first into a large prickly bush. This unpleasant ending to my flight of fancy brought me to my senses a little, and once I had sorted myself out, I was able to continue my journey in comparative safety. Anyone arriving drunk at the camp gates is put in the cells so how I escaped this fate I shall never know, but I managed to walk past the guard without being incarcerated, but ‘ All’s well that ends well’ they say, and so it was in this case. In the early hours of the morning I awoke in my bed, feeling none the worse for my adventure. It is only right however that I confirm my indiscretion by describing how I felt the need to visit the toilet. Padding quietly to the latrines which were in a separate block, I was responding to the call of nature, when I vomited quite unexpectedly and with great force. I could not believe I had done that because I did not feel sick, and without any of the mess landing on my person, I turned and went back to my bed and feel asleep.
I continued to visit the village where I was now as well known as the mysterious sergeant, and in one way at least I believe it was a help to me. I had not been eating much because of the disgusting state of the food offered up by the inept army cooks, (We had of course an orderly officer who visited the mess at regular intervals asking if anyone had any complaints, but no one ever complained. It would have been more than your life was worth to be labelled a trouble maker. Not like the old regular army that had been in existence when my father was a young man. He told me of an occasion when poor quality fish cakes had been served to the men, and they not only complained they also threw them against a large blank wall. They all as one man rose and left the mess, leaving the painted wall looking like a giant fly paper.) At the village I had learned to eat local food, though it was only on the odd occasion. I remember one dish in particular because it was sometimes eaten several times a day by the villagers. They would cook a shallow dish of spaghetti on which was place a fried egg, the whole lot floating in a sea of olive oil. With this they would eat a roll of the lovely Italian bread, using the last of the bread to mop up the remaining oil. Not being used to olive oil I would sometimes eat the bread and a little cheese which I always enjoyed.
There appears to be a number of reasons why my involvement with the village of Ellery was beneficial to me, but thinking about it I now realise that there may have been a detrimental aspect to it as well. Only a few short weeks later disaster was to strike me in a big way, and I never discovered why, but it could well have been caused by my involvement with the village. Also, before I move on with my story, I must mention that I cannot recall ever being told the name of the mysterious sergeant. If it comes to that, all I have said about him was second hand, so I can never confirm that he was what I believed him to be. I suppose this is not surprising when you consider that he was after all a spy of sorts.
With all the events I have described mixed in together, like them or not, time certainly passed quickly. I had not realised it but my first year in the army was coming to an end, and I had applied for no leave. The army had a policy of agreeing to leave once a year so that people on overseas duty could return home, if you wanted to accumulate it, like my father had done in India, you could take leave every three or four years. In September I had a month to complete my year, and so the company office called me in and told me I was now due for a month’s leave. What did I want to do, and like a shot I replied that I would take it immediately? The arrangements were made and about two days later I was given a lift into the city to report to the Transport Officer, who had booked me on the land liner that ran every day into Austria.
I was given a month’s pay in BAFS (British Armed Forces Script) which was like Monopoly money, a very clever idea I thought. It could be spent in any military establishment, or it could be exchanged for any currency wherever you travelled, also it would be changed into sterling when you arrived in England. At the same time your leave pass would be endorsed to commence the day after your arrival at Harwich, which gave you plenty of time to travel home before your leave began. It was a very fair system on the whole and one that had been perfected over many years.
It was a wonderful feeling to be free of rules and regulations, I was still in uniform but when I boarded that civilian bus I was on my own at long last. The land liner was a huge beast that would seat maybe 50 passengers or more in complete comfort, there was storage room for baggage and freight, and attached was a trailer coach that would accommodate just as many. I had never seen anything like it before, and I never saw anything like it again, until I travelled to Australia and saw the great road trains that travelled the length and breadth of the country, but they were for the transportation of goods not people. With an Italian crew of two we travelled for over half day up into the Italian Alps, stopping for a lunch break at a small village. I remember that stop because there was a market in the village square, and I bought a half kilo of the sweetest locally grown cherries for only a few lire. That was my lunch taken care of and I never enjoyed anything so much since I left home.
Another hour or so and we stopped again on the side of a mountain with a sheer drop on one side and the steeply climbing mountain on the other. Facing us was another land liner identical to the one we were on, the crew of this one was Austrian, and they boarded our bus while the Italian crew boarded theirs. Then on we went crossing the border into Austria and dropping slowly down to the town of Villach, which was one of a number of railway towns which had military transit camps where military personnel could stay. When I arrived at the camp I was told that there was a train for me the next day, one which would carry me all the way back to the Hook of Holland, the same two day journey I had made when I had arrived with the battalion.
As predicted I boarded the train the next day, and travelled in civilian comfort through Austria on into Germany and finally to Holland. It was on this train that I met the military policeman and heard the story about the disturbance at Muggia that had been such a mystery to him and his comrades. When we arrived at the Hook there was little delay with the ferry sailing every evening, and that night I crossed to Harwich and found myself back in dear old Blighty. Then it was a train to London, a short ride on the underground to Euston Station, and then a fast trip on the North bound express to Stoke.
It is so true that time flies when you are having fun, which is why my leave was soon over and I found myself back at the port of Harwich preparing to board the ferry once again. I was becoming used to this way of life, I had more confidence knowing what to expect, and I had learned how to make life a little easier for myself. Knowing how difficult it was to find the means to press uniforms, I had bought a neat little electric iron which was designed for the traveller. This was a great improvement and much admired by my comrades, as was a ‘Rolls’ razor that provided me with a trouble free shave no matter what the conditions. My father had one of these razors which had served him well all through WWII, though I have to confess that in my case the need to shave was not yet as vital. The razor fitted into a flat rectangular metal case which had a removable top and bottom, the top was fitted with a stone surface which allowed the razor to be honed. The bottom plate had a leather fitted which was for stropping the razor each time it was used, which meant a sharp blade at all times, and a blade that never needed replacing.
At Harwich I reported to the Transport Officer, and when I did was told that I was to escort a prisoner who was being returned to his unit. Another young NCO and myself had been given the job because we were travelling in the right direction, we were not happy at the prospect of being responsible for this man, but we had to make the best of it. The other escort was a young NS man stationed in Trieste, and we got on very well together, telling each other about our experiences and sharing our likes and dislikes. The prisoner did not seem like a really bad character either, though he was clearly not happy to be on his way back to active service. On the ferry our responsibility was locked in cells so we were able to relax, as far as it was possible on a crowded ship. When we boarded the train at the Hook of Holland our duties really began, when we were given a compartment of our own, with a key to lock the corridor door. The outside door was permanently locked, so we felt there was little chance of the prisoner attempting to escape. He gave us no trouble so we felt justified in allowing his freedom of movement within the compartment, and being on a moving train we soon began to relax.
It did not take long to establish a routine which worked well, for visits to the toilet we would both accompany him, standing guard until he was ready to return. For meals one of us would go to the dining car and eat, bringing back a meal for the prisoner, who would eat while the other guard went for a meal in his turn. With everything running smoothly and no sign of trouble, we began to relax more than ever which is something you should never do. On the second day I had gone to have some lunch while my colleague stood guard. In my absence he had the need to go to the toilet, so it did not seem unreasonable to do so, locking the door behind him. Arriving back he noticed that the train was moving very slowly for some reason, so he stood in the corridor outside the locked door and opened a window to look out. No real problem could be seen outside the train, so he relaxed and continued to enjoy the fresh air from the open window. Then above the noise of the train he thought he heard some additional noises, with the blinds drawn to prevent passersby looking in, he could not see the prisoner so he decided to re-enter the compartment to make sure all was well. What a shock he got when he did, the usually quiet and docile prisoner had sprung to life and was frantically kicking at the outside door. Maybe the slowing of the train had given him the idea that might be able to make his escape if he could break through the carriage door, and this was what he was trying to do. He had smashed the inside wooden panelling and was working on the metal outside skin of the door when he was discovered.
This attempt to escape gave us a real fright, and after that we watched him like hawks, and it was agreed that we would never leave him alone again, no matter how secure he appeared to be. On arriving in Villach we handed our man over to Military Police, and after a night at the transit camp, my companion and I boarded the land liner and completed our journey to Trieste. It was a great relief to be free of the responsibility of having a prisoner in our care, and on the evening of our arrival in Villach I can recall how we enjoyed the ability to take a walk to see the sights. One thing I shall always remember was the sight of a German tank on a flat wagon in a railway siding near the camp. It looked as though it had been standing in that spot since the end of the war, and looking at it I felt glad that the war was over. It must have been an experimental machine because it was like nothing I had ever seen; it was massive and made of metal so thick that it appeared indestructible. It had an air of sinister menace about it; though I imagined that with its massive weight it must have been very slow moving.
Before I move on with my story, a few words about my fellow guard might be of interest, mainly because he made me aware of how different the army treated people who were more important to them than mere infantry like me. He was as I have already mentioned a National Service man who had been in the army for only a short time. He was in the Royal Engineers, part of a small unit stationed in Trieste, and he told me that he was quite liking the army. He was well spoken, with a high level of education, and had engineering qualifications, which made him a very useful recruit for the military. He told me with complete confidence that he expected rapid promotion and that even as a Lance Corporal he had the sort of life that only commissioned officers enjoyed in the army. The few men in his unit lived in a large house in the city, which was an impressive sort of mansion, where they all had their own rooms. An Italian woman was employed as a sort of civilian equivalent to an army batman, and she did a first class job which included all the domestic chores. She ironed his uniforms and his shirts, and even made his bed, and what is more, they had an Italian cook that produced meals that were out of this world. I could hardly believe that there were soldiers in the same army as myself that were living such a wonderful life.
I knew that the army had a clearly defined class structure, just as English society had, but I had never realised just how much benefit there was to be had from being in its higher echelons. It all appeared so unfair to me, who should one Englishman be treated so much differently to another? So my new friend had a piece of paper that said he was useful, but no piece of paper yet had ever been able to convert an impractical man into one who was sensible, down to earth, logical, effective or reliable.
Knowing such things was not going to make any difference, young and inexperienced I might have been, but I had already learned that the only way to get ahead in the system was to use it, not fight it. I was waking up to the fact that I was idealistic, romantic, and brainwashed into believing that I should be loyal to a country that asked for everything and gave little in return. These were the sort of thoughts that were slowly forming in my head, but in the meantime I had to deal with the way things were.
Arriving back in barracks I found that there were few people around, the battalion was away taking part in war games over the border in Austria. The battalion had marched for three days over the mountains, and were now defending positions at the head of a valley, with American forces attacking them. In the meantime a rearguard was keeping the barracks at Lazaretto running, and I joined the lucky few with no orders and no duties. There were a few who had been sent back to base for one reason or another, so it was not long before I had heard what was happening up at the sharp end. I was eager to get up to date because I was sure I would be ordered back to my company without much delay. I could describe what I had heard, but it would be second hand and not part of my story, so I shall resist the temptation to include it. To me of course it was all very interesting, and accurate I was sure, though I realised that there was bound to be some embellishment.
In the meantime I was going to make the best of this opportunity to enjoy a few more days’ relaxation. The weather was still sunny and warm, which meant that swimming in the sea was still the cheapest and most convenient pleasure to be had. It was not even necessary to leave the base, with the sea all around the barrack square, we could swim just about anywhere within the confines of the camp. The very next day after I arrived back I joined a group who were swimming along the side of the camp in the shallow and sheltered waters close to the harbour where the fishing boats congregated. I was sorry to see that there were few boats left in the harbour, they had been such an attractive sight, especially at night when they would anchor half a mile or so out to sea, looking like a swarm of fireflies with their big gas lamps hanging over the bows shining brightly into the dark waters, to attract the shoals of fish. The fact was that the summer season was over, and as autumn passed into winter the fishing fleet moved South fishing during the winter months down at the most Southern extremity of the Italian boot. With the coming of spring, they would head north again spending the summer in the waters around Trieste.
You might wonder why I mention our swimming party when I have already described other such occasions. The answer is that something happened that was unimportant at the time but which was to have an important influence on future events. We were larking about as young men are inclined to do, when one of them crept up on me and pushed me into the water. Being unprepared for it I went into the water with no control, slicing down feet first into the water which was quite shallow at that point. Spearing down with considerable force my right foot penetrated between two of the jagged rocks, and when I climbed out I found I had cut my ankle quite badly. It was not done to make a fuss about such things, so wrapping it up in a clean handkerchief I carried on, and within a couple of days it had healed over. This was not to be the end of it however, which I shall explain in due course.
That evening I went to the mess for a meal, and with few in the place I sat at an empty table and began to eat. A few minutes later a junior NCO from HQ Company, who was a clerk in the battalion orderly room, joined me and because I knew him by sight we began to talk in a friendly fashion. After sharing some news from the battalion with me, he looked at me in a rather puzzled sort of way saying: “How come you are here, as far as I know you are not supposed to be?” I explained that I had just come back off leave, and I asked him what he meant when he said I was not supposed to be there. He then told me to my amazement that he had seen my transfer and thought I had gone back to England. When I asked for more details he told me that I had been accepted for training in the Royal Military Police, and that I should have gone to the Police Depot by now. “You had better pick up a travel warrant in the morning and get on your way.” It was hard to believe that having just arrived back from England, in the morning I had to make the journey all over again.
Returning to the billet I began to pack ready for departure, with my mind racing trying to work out what had happened and why. How had it happened? I had never expected to escape, with things the way they were, the shortage of NCOs, my lack of qualifications of any sort, and a number of other things. Could it be, I conjectured that Captain Edwards had given me a helping hand, being a chap that worked his way up from the ranks? Maybe a change of command had worked in my favour, who would have thought that someone breaking his legs could have worked so beneficially for me. This like so many other things over the years has remained a mystery to me, and time spent on further supposition would be pointless. It was not going to be an easy task taking on the Military Police training course, but I was determined to give it my best shot. I wanted a chance to show my worth, and this was my golden opportunity.
Early the next morning I was in the Military Transport Office only to find there was nothing available for some days, but wait a minute, there was a train from Klagenfurt in two days time, so I had to take the land liner that extra distance. That night I found myself in that quaint sounding town, with two days to kill. Another transit camp and more walks around the town, where the army had a dog training facility, but I never got to see it. One thing I did see remains a memory still clear in my mind, and that was young German soldiers lying in a row on the veranda of a house which I passed on my perambulations. The veranda would have been about 20 feet back from the pavement with a garden and a low stone wall in between. Seeing my uniform one of them called out to me and I stopped to answer his greeting. There must have been seven or eight of them all in their mid to late twenties, and all had lost arms or legs and in a couple of cases all of their limbs. They had all been crippled towards the end of the war, and some six years later they were still being helped to recover. With such horrendous injuries they would always need someone to look after them, and I felt great sorrow that they had come to this. What I have never forgotten is their friendliness, and the fact that they held no animosity towards their old enemies. I expressed my regret and was told that they had been soldiers doing their duty, and the men that injured them were the same. I walked away wondering whether I could have been as magnanimous had I been in their position.