Monday, 5 March 2012

We go to Trieste


Volume 1 – Chapter 16 – Part 2

After enjoying some leave which passed in a flash, as all good times do, I returned to Whittington Barracks to join the battalion which was now in residence at the depot. The battalion was busy shaking down after releasing men who had finished their time, and replacing them with new recruits who had just finished training. Others had just returned from leave, and amongst them were a few regulars, and of course most of the NCOs were regulars, but not all of them. I was posted to ‘A’ company, and found myself in charge of a section which was made up of 11 riflemen including myself, and two men who manned a light machinegun. (A Bren gun) We were number one section in number one platoon, which sometimes made me the leading man in the battalion when we were on parade, or out on a route march.

Before I had time to get to know my new location, or the men I was to spend my time with, the day came when we were to move out on our new posting. The battalion was to march through Lichfield behind the band and regimental colours, an occasion when all the people turned out in force. The end of the parade was at the railway yards on the edge of town, where we entrained on a special troop train which was to take us to Harwich on the East Coast. With fixed bayonets we marched proudly down the main street, passed the Lord Mayor and other dignitaries, with the townspeople cheering us all the way. This scene brought a smile to some of our faces; this was not the sort of welcome we usually received, when we had visited town on other occasions. So often events display themselves differently, not in the way one expected, and so it was on this day. Instead of a grim departure we were actually enjoying ourselves we were being approved of and cheered on our way.


In this picture Neville Bowker is in the centre at the back. He was a country chap whose job in civilian life was the artificial insemination of cattle. He was one of two in the group who I became friends with. I am on his right with an American lad in front of me. The other young man in front with the chubby face and glasses was my other friend Keith Yearsley, who was well educated and could speak German. He was a brilliant pianist who had been studying to become a concert pianist, and when I heard him play I was totally blown away to use a modern expression.

On arriving at the rail yard another surprise awaited me, my father appeared and I had not expected that. He had brought his old Kodak folding camera with him; given to him in India by a friend a famous Irish tenor by the name of John McCue. He took pictures to record the event, and told me that he had spoken to our Commanding Officer about me. Our C/O was Lieutenant Colonel Radford, who had been just a lowly Second Lieutenant when my father had been a staff sergeant out in India. He promised my father that he would keep an eye on me; his adjutant also told my father that only the best trainees from the OR1 platoon were accepted for active duty, and I had been one of the most promising.

This news cheered me up and made me more confident about the future, but I have to add that I never received any support or recognition from that source later. Just more empty promises, which are the usual thing in life, or so it seemed to me as time passed by.

When the troop train arrived at Harwich we boarded the regular military ferry which operated between its home port and the Hook of Holland, about an eight hour trip. Departing in the evening, we were provided with a meal and supplies from a shop set up to supply passengers. To amuse us until lights out a game of ‘Tombola’ (Bingo) was organised by members of the ships crew, and then we slept until next morning. Early at the crack of dawn we disembarked, and went into a transit camp to await rail transport, which would take us on to our destination. During the day we were allowed out of camp, so Neville, Keith, and I ventured out to take our first look at Holland and its people. Being a seaside locality there were plenty of people in the nearby town where we received a friendly reception from the locals. Talking to one group a young man commented: “If you want a good house frau, you should marry a German girl, if you want a good time marry a Dutch girl, but if you want to marry a lady marry an English girl.” This was a very pleasing compliment, but from my perspective, an indication that this fellow had not met many English girls, there were many that were not ladies.

One of the locals mentioned to us how impressive the fortifications were along the seafront, so we decided to take a walk in that direction. The local man had not exaggerated, the Germans had built extensive defences in the development of their ‘Atlantic Wall’ and we were very glad to think we no longer had the task of attacking such powerful positions. It is amazing what short memories we have, and how quickly we were forgetting that the Germans were our enemies. Here we were in 1951 just six short years after the war had ended, looking at these powerful fortifications and trying to imagine the men who had manned them.

These were the sort of thoughts I had in my head as we walked back towards the town, and my confusion were not helped when we met two Germans a short distance up the road. We did not know they were German when we met them; they were two attractive young women, who behaved as all young women do no matter what their race. They greeted us in English and we quickly discovered that they were on holiday from Germany, and quite willing to enjoy our company no matter who we were or where we were from. We were getting on well with our new companions, and I was thinking that they were no different from us, when they revealed that they were not as friendly as we thought they were. They were smiling and flattering us, but then one of them turned and spoke to the other in their own language, and it was then that I discovered that Keith could speak German. Before the other girl could reply, Keith spoke out in their own language and in ringing tones, and they both looked at him aghast, and in considerable embarrassment. Turning they hurried quickly away and we just stood and watched them go, before turning to Keith and asking what that had been about. He told us that the girl had made remarks about us that were both unfriendly and insulting, and that she had referred to him as being fat like a pig. So, that was the end of that.

The next day we spent the morning organising ourselves, and after eating an early lunch we boarded another troop train, and departed for a journey through Holland and into Germany. The countryside was flat as we would have expected in low lying Holland, and to me it all appeared neat and tidy and scrubbed clean. The houses looked clean with bright red tiled roofs, and many of them had gleaming white sheets hanging from the bedroom windows. By the evening we were deep into Germany and after dark we pulled into the railway station at Frankfurt, where we remained for quite some time. I suppose the engine and crew were changed at this point, but most of us were asleep by this time, and when the train moved on we knew very little about it. The next morning we were well into Southern Germany and we continued south stopping from time to time for reasons we were unaware of. One such stop we found ourselves deep in pine forests with no habitation in sight, it was beautiful to see and like nothing I can remember ever seeing before. After maybe half an hour, some children appeared from down the track, and we threw sweets and money to them, something that I am sure had been done before. A couple of older boys offered to go and buy things from the nearby village, suggesting that we would like some beer on an alcoholic free train. (Clearly this was not a new experience for them; they knew very well what we might need.) Money was passed down to their willing hands, and the boys disappeared down the line towards the village. The more cynical amongst us stating that we were seeing the cash disappearing for good. The cynics were soon proved wrong when the boys reappeared with a crate of beer between them, and we showed our approval by showering them with more money and other souvenirs. The boys did well from their honest dealings with us, and it is more than likely that they knew us far better than we knew ourselves.

The journey continued with our train moving into Austria, and into mountainous country which was the foothills of the Alps. The weather was cold and wintry, which resulted in the magic of the scene being transformed even further by the appearance of snow, as we moved ever deeper into the Tyrol. In this sort of country and in this type of weather the train moved quite slowly, which allowed us to enjoy the scene in more detail. The light was beginning fade when we stopped as a small railway station, and I for one was entranced to see skiers ending their run down the nearby mountain, almost within arms length of our train. For most of us on the train it was an astonishing sight, looking out at the black forests covering the mountain, through which had been cut a strip maybe 200 yards wide running to the top of the mountain. Down this gleaming white ribbon came the skiers who were so far away when they began their descent that they were invisible to the naked eye. Slowly they appeared as tiny black dots, which came gradually closer, until they formed into the figures of speeding skiers, who finally braked by the railway line. I shall never forget the picture it left in my memory, and how it made me realise how different was the world than some people lived in.

During this second night the train moved slowly through the darkened mountains into Italy and in the early hours of the third day of our journey we arrived at our destination. The British maintained three battalions collectively called BETFOR (British Element Trieste Forces) to guard Trieste from Yugoslavia who had tried every means possible to make it theirs. The Americans also had a similar force occupying both the city which was called the ‘A’ zone, and the surrounding country which was called the ‘B’ zone. When we arrived transport was sent to carry us to our barracks which was called Lazaretto and was only a short distance from the Yugoslav border. The other two battalions were from the North Hants Regiment, and East Lancashire Regiment and they were situated in the city. Our base had once been a monastery, and during the war had been occupied by German forces. It was out along the coast about 7 or 8 miles from the city, and in between only 2 or 3 miles from our camp was a small village called Muggia.

After getting settled in our first interest was to familiarise ourselves with our location, which we found at first sight quite picturesque. The main buildings were set in a grove of trees, and scattered among the trees were what the army calls Nissan huts. These huts were long rounded structures made of corrugated steel sheets, with a window and door at each end. Battalion HQ company was housed in the main buildings and the other companies comprising of A – B – C – D – and Support company were billeted in the huts. There was an area for transport and other equipment, also an open space which we used as a parade ground. The whole complex stood by the Adriatic Sea, and was surrounded on the landward side by a wall. The parade ground stuck out into the sea and was in fact a quay where a coastal steamer called once or twice a week on its way down the coast from Trieste to ports of call along the Dalmatian Coast. I was told it went as far as Split before returning, but I cannot be sure about that.

What are my first recollections of army life in a foreign land? I have many memories but the first thing comes to mind is the fatigues and other such work we were given to do, which I have never accepted as appropriate for men who had been recruited to train as soldiers and fighting men. It could be argued that being made to do things that we did not see as part of our training, was part and parcel of the learning process. Were we not being taught how to obey orders? There is an old army saying: “Yours is not to reason why, yours is but to do, and die.” I understood this philosophy but did not accept it when it was applied in what appeared to be an unreasonable way. For example, I was put in charge of a work detail that was ordered to clean and whitewash an old granary up in the hills behind our base. This job took several days and each day I marched a fresh batch of men up to the derelict old mill to carry out this menial labour. The men only had to endure this task for one day, but I had it for the whole time that it took to complete it to the satisfaction of those that wanted it done. Inevitably, the men in my charge grumbled and asked me to explain why they were doing such work, so I felt it necessary to ask in my turn. When I was told that some senior officers had decided that they would like to take up horse riding, and wanted the old building as a stable for their mounts, I felt most indignant. I was young an immature but even older men might have thought that it was hardly fitting that soldiers who were supposed to be in training should be asked to work as common labourers. What a way to treat people who were being trained to fight and possibly die for their country, were we not warriors arguably the best material in the world from which to make the finest regiment in the world. Is it any wonder that when the men did not work very hard on this project, or show much willingness to want to carry it out, I made little effort to make them?

There were many chores had to be done, some had little relevance to military life but common sense told you that they had to be done anyway. An example of this would be the day we had to destroy our mascots, someone had to do it, and as usual it was junior NCOs who got the job. The battalion had taken several dogs with it from the UK, but shortly after arrival in Trieste it was realised that they should not have been included. As usual we were never told why they had to die; we just got the order to do it. This time I did not get the dirty job, but I saw them depart with a couple of my colleagues who had them on leads. They were taken to what I took to be an old quarry a short distance from our camp, which we used as a miniature outdoor range for testing weapons, and there they were dispatched. These animals were favourites and the men were not happy about what happened, for my part I wondered how it was that money could be spent of housing and feeding horses for the officers, and nothing could be done to save our mascots.

What were the proper duties for a soldier you might ask; after all we were living a life divorced from those around us. Everything that was part of our lives had to be dealt with no matter how unrelated it was to our main function. However, there is no avoiding the fact that life in the army was like going back to the dark ages, a time when it was clear who was lord and master, and who were the surfs and slaves. I was to discover very quickly that no one in the army was allowed to think for themselves, freedom of action was a thing of the past.


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