- Contributed by
- chris hardy
- People in story:
- Tim (Stanley) Hardy and many others
- Location of story:
- Nottingham and elsewhere
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 July 2004
What follows is part of my father, Tim (Stanley) Hardy's memoirs - that part about his experiences in the Army in WW2, having grown up in a poor, hard-working mining family in Nottingham before the war. Tim's regiment ended the war policing Java before the Dutch colonialists returned, something Tim disapproved of having to do. But this taste of the Far East affected him so much that he determined to return and eventually did so, spending most of the last half of the century in Africa, Malaysia, Fiji and Hong Kong.
Wars and talk of wars
There were stories in the newspaper we could now afford to buy about black-clad Romans bombing the daylights out of black-skinned Abyssinians: about a short-arsed Spanish general leading Moors back to Spain not to revive the Moorish culture in his homeland but to kill indigenous socialists; about how a Chinese general, cashing in a Yankee promise of green-backs for converting his soldiers to Christianity, lined his vast army before him and sprayed it from hose-pipes thus baptizing entire divisions in a few moments; about a Nipponese general who had the nerve to suggest that empires in Asia ought to be run by Asians, and about a former German corporal whose hair and moustache looked as if they'd been painted on but who now ran his country and hinted at slaughtering Jews in abattoirs.
Even in Sutton's soot-laden atmosphere you could smell cordite: a great war was in the air.
We were called upon to 'Gird loins', shown how to wear gas-masks and assured that hundreds of millions of people clear across the globe were keen, together with us, to die for love of the Windsors. In the parks brass bands played 'Tipperary' and 'Pack up your troubles'. Union Jacks were hoist above national institutions such as H & C.H. Blinkhorns, Hosiery Manufacturers — 'same as that'. There were air displays at Hucknall Torkard. Ordnance assembly lines switched on to overtime thus raising appeals for more coal to be mined by people who'd only the day before been treated as though they were lice but who today were being lauded as 'the empire's finest'. Women, ever conditioned to pleasing warriors on the eve of battle, craved more and more silk stockings the more exciting to make their pleasing ways. Thuswise Harry I could take his pick and shovel and find work at any pit he liked while, as soon as it was lawful for them to order it the Blinkhorns put me on a twelve-hour day — same as that.
On the one hand the flag waving and tub-thumping offended my Lansburyite pacifism, on the other some of the things being done in the world were enough to provoke saints to reach for guns. We were accustomed to the routine beatings-up of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans but when Europeans themselves were being killed by jack-booted sadists simply because they believed in the equality of all men or because they were short on fore-skins or read the wrong books, then it was time for fear and anger. After much soul-searching I came down on the side of those who reasoned that maybe for the first time in history the interests of the masses and the rulers coincided to justify war.
The King' s Shilling
Once I'd made up my mind it was a case of in for a shilling in for a war; I joined the part-time Territorial Army. But to tell the truth it wasn't only my desire to get my hands on a gun that led me one late-August 1939 evening to the drill hall on Alfreton Road. No, a less noble incentive was behind it: in the Territorial Army I could spend two whole weeks a year away from Sutton in places as exotic as Yorkshire and as foreign as Wales. While away on those exercises-cum-holidays the state would pay my wages and a bit more besides while H & C.H. Blinkhorn, Hosiery Manufacturers were bound by law both to release me when the army so ordered and to welcome me back as an heroic defender of the realm. In other words by joining the army I was working the system nicely, or so I thought; by trebling my seven days annual holiday entitlement I was giving the finger to the Blinkhorns who didn't hold with holidays and I was being given a chance to see distant places for free and, as a bonus, I was to be taught how to kill people like Hitler which I wanted, badly, to do. Anyway, the upshot was that I shamefacedly took part in one of the many childish rites that make up the ridiculous mummery by which the British establishment blinds its masses to their vassal status. I 'took the King's shilling' and so became a soldier, albeit only a spare-time one: 4977691 Private Stanley Hardy, 8th (T.A.) Battalion, Sherwood Foresters.
Another reason for joining the T.A. lay in my loins. I dreamed the same lecherous dreams as any 17-year-old but my chance of ever fulfilling them seemed remote. Maybe I brought my sexual starvation upon myself by not following the crowd. The vulgar banter exchanged by my workmates and the leerings of the factory girls didn't turn me on at all. I was a romantic who imagined that dozens of educated, refined, hot-bloodied young females were lying on beds of sweet grass outside military encampments on the Yorkshire moors and in the Welsh valleys waiting, moist with desire, only for me.
Well, I never had the chance to find out whether carnality awaited me either on Ilkley Moor or in the Brecon Hills because I'd no sooner taken the King's shilling (the bastard, I hoped it was his last one and that Mr Arnold called on him that very day) I'd no sooner taken it than the T.A. was mobilised in readiness for war!
'Nay lad, they'll nivver tek thee', Harriet swore with utter conviction, 'tha's nobbut a yewth, tha's nivver seen a gun, tha's not strong enuff to carry one, nay, they don't mean yo'. And Harry I chipped in: 'T'army's bloody daft but not as daft as to tek thee; a'll 'ave a word in t'liberal club, sumbody theer'll know 'ow to stop it.' But they did mean me and Harry I's club contact didn't have the ear of the Commander-in-Chief. The Sergeant Major at the drill hall was most put out when I suggested that the order hadn't the likes of me in mind, after all I'd not attended even a single drill, never donned a uniform and I was only just 17. The Sergeant Major was terse: '4977691 'Ardy — yo're in t'army now sunny boy an' there's a flamin' war on!'
And so it came to pass that while on August 31, 1939, I was an alley lad who'd not have known the difference between the muzzle and the butt of a rifle, on September 3, disguised in an ill-fitting uniform and toting an old Lee-Enfield .303, I stood on guard over our sacred realm — in reality a piddling little airstrip at Hucknell Torkard. An under-developed 17 year old who'd hardly ever been away from Harriet's side, a proper 'mardarse' if ever there was one, I'd been pitched overnight into an empty aircraft hangar together with forty or fifty brutish, foul-mouthed old sweats: my bed, not more than two feet away from the next on either side, was a straw-filled palliasse thrown on top of three planks of wood raised about twelve inches above the icy, concrete floor. All around me were stinking, rowdy, gross-witted, chain-smoking aliens.
The Sherwood Foresters
They were aliens to me anyway, those men, my comrades-in-arms, men portrayed by the nation's propagandists as 'noble, fearless crusaders against evil, idealists eager to fight the good fight for Christianity and democracy, every man jack of them a credit to his King and country' etc etc. The reality of course was that they were coarse-minded louts who looked down on the 'Eyties' and 'Dagos' as slobs who deserved to be pushed around by jokers like Mussolini and Franco but who thought the Germans were on the wrong side. As far as they were concerned a touch of Hitlerism wouldn't have gone amiss at home; they found a lot to their liking in the way the Fuehrer dealt with 'Jew Boys', gypsies and the infirm. I'd been given a 1914-18 rifle and bayonet, an empty cotton bandolier, some thread-bare webbing 'equipment', a uniform that fitted only where it touched, a ridiculous tent-shaped cap that wouldn't stay on my head, a pair of second-hand, hob-nailed boots with puttees I never could fasten properly, a pair of well-used mess tins, a tinny knife, fork and spoon and a cap badge saying 'Sherwood Foresters'. Robin Hood would have been disgusted.
Decked out thus, throughout the first winter of the war I stood guard over crappy little outposts that Hitler in his craziest, carpet-chewing moments couldn't possibly have wanted to seize. When I wasn't defending the Kingdom's barricades I was marching idiotically up and down responding to commands shouted out by spiteful hatchet-men: 'Quick march! Halt! About Turn! Slope Arms!' and many other inanities, part of a centuries-old routine that was supposed to rob men of their individuality, turning them into robots who'd kill and who'd get killed to order thus scaring the s**t out of the enemy. It was all too silly, too crass to be funny. I'd no books to turn to for escape because had I ever opened one my comrades-in-arms would've tormented the life out of me for being 'Sissy'. No wonder then that I was desperately homesick.
I was only a few miles from Sutton but I daren't go home for fear that I'd never go back to the army again and land up in the 'glasshouse'. Instead, I blubbered into Muriel's ear over her telephone line and once or twice went to blub my heart out in front of Uncle Isaac who kept a pub in Hucknall. Isaac, who always presented a stony mien to the outside world, turned out to be soft-hearted and understanding. Eventually though I developed my own defence mechanism against melancholy and alienation (it was to serve me well most of my life) I switched off my consciousness and escaped into emotional isolation and fantasies.
Early in the new year of 1940 my rag-tag, ruffianly regiment was ordered to France, a deployment which if noted by his intelligence people would have done Hitler's morale a world of good. Not for me however the delights of the filles de joie or the culinary marvels of Gaul; not being 18 I couldn't be sent to the front-line. My dreadful companions marched away leering and practising their 'parley vous' while I was left behind in a suddenly deserted sort of depot near Hucknall to do more or less as I pleased. I joined the local library and taught myself how to type. I'd have been doing Hitler as much harm had I stayed with H & C.H. Blinkhorn, Hosiery Manufacturers.
On the border line
The mob of Sherwood Foresters that straggled back to Hucknall from Dunkirk in June was in even worse shape than it had been before embarking for France. Its pathetic state had nothing to do with its having grappled with the enemy tooth-and-claw but all to do with its having fled in terror before a foe it now feared and with its having chucked its weapons away as it took to its heels. This ragbag was swiftly rearmed with whatever ancient weaponry was found to be lying around and, reinforced by 4977691 Private Stanley Hardy, it was despatched northwards, there to defend the South-East corner of Scotland (I'd made it to 'abroad' at last!)
We dug-in, 1914-18 war style, right opposite Bass Rock just below Edinburgh. It was all very well for Churchill to rave on about fighting in the hills and on the beaches and never surrendering but my trench companions were in no mood for a fight. They were still seething with shame over the manner in which they'd bolted out of France and they remained poorly shod, ill-armed and demoralised. The Scottish air was blue with curses aimed at the entire officer corps while profane oaths were sworn hourly against Chamberlain and Churchill both.
But as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months without as much as an air-raid siren to disturb the peace, old habits were revived. Skiving resurfaced as a way of life; prodigious amounts of army supplies found their way on to the local black market, everybody was on the make and sloth became all-pervasive. When the Germans didn't show up and the weather made it unlikely that they would, we moved out of our coastal holes to go inland into grim lodgings of one kind or another, mainly abandoned cotton mills in Scottish border towns where we once more began to play the same old, infantile military games. Our masters believed that by their positioning of highly polished mess-tins alongside the perfect edges of faultlessly folded blankets and by weekly infusions of the holy gospel, the common soldiery could be turned into efficient manslayers. Thus, on Sunday mornings, having first been inspected to make sure that our appearance wouldn't offend our ultimate Commander-in-Chief, the Christian God Almighty, we were marched to church. Drawn up outside its portals we were ordered to 'Remove Headdress!' and directed where, when and how ('Upstraight!') to sit. We were also cautioned to demonstrate silent, humble endorsement of the vicar's plea to our Good Lord that He dealt death, destruction and plague upon the German and Italian people. And there I'd sit ('Upstraight!') in my pew ruminating on the fact that German sermonizers were preaching the same gospel to German soldiers and that all German killing machines bore crosses!
My plans for escaping the Sabbath burlesques went horribly wrong. If only I'd had the sense to have registered myself as a Zoroastrian, Shaker, Annabaptist or Bahai I'd have been able to be on my bunk of a Sunday; instead, I told the truth: 'I'm an atheist'. The army wasn't having any of that; I was accused of 'coming the old soldier' (me an old soldier!) written down as 'C of E' and told to get on church parade 'or else'. It was an experience that confirmed what I'd already learned — you'd never get the better of the system by protesting against it or by telling the truth, least of all by using common-sense; no, to beat it you'd have to use guile.
The smell of grease paint
For a while after Dunkirk the army brass lacked the guts to direct a return to the imbecilities of kit-inspection and church parades. For one thing there wasn't much kit left to inspect and for another, back in France, God had given the impression of being a Nazi, so they didn't dare risk mutiny by ordering the rank and file to indulge in such frolics. But, given time, soldiers who'd been bolshy returned to being their old, supine British selves again; their anger changed to resignation coupled with stupefaction. My future looked desperately dull; somehow or other I had to fiddle my way out of the Sherwood Foresters or go suicidal. In the end it didn't need knavery, just a stroke of luck. Perusing the notice board one day I came across a curious pronunciamento inviting 'entertainers' to apply for auditions for work in the 46 Division's concert party — 'The Oaks'. The fact that I'd never once in my life set foot on the boards didn't deter me for a moment; in the need to try anything to escape I bunged my name in. Expecting only to get 'booked' for insolence or some other military crime, to my amazement not only was I auditioned without a question being asked about professional qualifications but I was almost overnight signed up as a member of the troupe!
And so it came about that in less than a year after I'd joined the army straining to get at Hitler's throat, I was to be found prancing about acting the fool on town-hall stages covering the length and breadth of the Scottish borders. 'The Oaks' must have been one of the oddest ensembles in the entire army. My 'Good Companions' were a middle-aged gay man, Michael Ronnie, who'd seen better days with the Royal Ballet — or so he claimed; a pair of pianists, one tall and gay, the other whippet-like and neuter; a fine actor, Bunny Hare; a handsome Doyley Carte tenor, Tom Hancock, and a fat Yorkshire man, a slapstick, lavatorial comic, Tommy Kendall who'd spent years peddling smut in working-men's clubs in the North. It was a bizarre way of waging war but it was no more risible than the way in which I'd seen it being waged during the previous 12 months. No matter how it had come about, membership of 'The Oaks' represented a gigantic turn for the better. My new friends were cosmopolitan, a human species from a different planet to that inhabited by colliers or Sherwood Foresters. And we all knew how lucky we were, and only too happy to load our mini-pianos, props and footlights aboard our coach and take the road to town-halls, theatres and cinemas in places like Melrose, Galashiels, Haddington, Jedburgh, Selkirk, Hawick, Peebles, Dunbar and North Berwick.
What we performed was so picayune that I recall very little of it. I can see Michael Ronnie, oblivious to the catcalls from the rude soldiery, dancing quite charmingly without having to impersonate a ballerina because he already was one. Hancock's golden-voiced 'Take a pair of sparkling eyes' silenced even the rowdiest ruffian. Our pianists could be real hep-cats when they tried; their 'Jamaican Rhumba' always brought the house down. For my own part, what I enjoyed most was dressing up for, and playing, a stuttering 'wall' in a burlesque of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. 'Th…th….th…thus have I ww..w…ww..wall my p..p..p..part d..d..discharged so'. It was all preposterous, absurd but it really did happen!
Doreen Maud Fenner
Like the camp-followers of yesteryear we entertainers followed our soldiers around. Which is how we came to be lodged in a warehouse above the Station Hotel in Ashford, Kent. Using this comfortable billet as a base we played Hastings, Canterbury, Bexhill-on-Sea, places in which the soldiery had so little need of our sort of rodeo that they had to be ordered to attend. Even so we faced a half-empty house in Ashford itself. Across the footlights however my gaze came to rest not upon the empty seats, (we got the same pay whether we packed 'em in or not or whether or not we were hissed off the stage), no, my eyes locked as in a trance upon one particular incumbent of a front-row seat: a well-rounded, long-haired teenage female balancing an open note-pad on one of two entrancingly shapely knees.
To my joy this charming creature hung about after the show, not alas because she was star-struck but because she wanted one of us to help her with a report she was to file with her employers at the Kentish Express. My luck was in because for one reason or another I was the only 'Oak' in whom the delectable girl stirred romantic interest; hence it was left to me to deal with her. Doreen Maud Fenner had me in flames the moment she opened her mouth. On the instant her voice was as seductive as her person.
She spoke with clear, clean cadenza, diction, and articulation, the very tongue I'd fantasised about back in the ghetto, the voice of good manners, intelligence, education, taste and culture. The lovely sound issuing from its beautifully contoured outer-package was irresistible. Of course, like that of all nubile young females, DMF's mouth was made for kissing but added to this alluring detail, the delicious sounds it emitted produced a powerful aphrodisiac.
Elated as I was at first however I was brought down to earth with a bump when DMF informed me that her father was a retired empire builder, an ex-Engineer Commander in the Royal Indian Marine! What chance had I, a little, sway-backed, semi-literate, unrefined private soldier-cum-alley-lad-cum-amateur player who hadn't even made out with a butcher's daughter; what chance had I of romancing a daughter of the Raj? If the class divide between Joyce Beastall and Stanley Hardy had been wide as the Trent, then that between my exquisite word-smith and the same me was as wide as the Bay of Bengal. But I progressed further with DMF than I had with Beastall; in the darkness of the cinema she allowed me to hold her hand! Our world was however too disorderly to permit orderly courtship and my hopes were short-lived. My sweet reported that she also wanted to take a swipe at Hitler; she joined the navy, upped-sticks and moved clear across the country to Milford Haven, thus adding physical separation to the social divide. So began courtship by letter, not, worse luck, of the French variety but by courtesy of the Royal Mail and always, it seemed, at ever lengthening distances.
I thought of little else except how to improve my image before my Kentish enchantress, agonizing over the knowledge that the hands I'd held while watching 'Citizen Kane' were now caressing torpedoes — phallic imagery indeed! — in the Welsh valleys. I tortured myself thinking of how she might hold me in contempt for acting the wall in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' while she was arming torpedoes for firing at Hitler? Enough was enough! I volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, the army's newest task force and the one which, according to barrack-room gossip, was free from bulls**t.
In the twinkling of any eyelid I was in training at — of all places! — Hardwick Hall, Teversal: not more than three miles from Garden Lane! There, in authentic Lady Chatterley country, I got down at last to some really serious instruction in the 'brain-splitting, windpipe-slitting, art of war'. God knows it wasn't before time. Whatever lay behind the progeniture of the parachute regiment, it was so out of line at the time that it was spared the antediluvian stewardship by which the rest of the army was shackled. At Hardwick Hall for example, (will wonders never cease?) we weren't called upon to prance about like zombies to the orders of illiterates or to worship the Lord by numbers; all we had to do for fourteen days was to push our bodies to their physical limits, the idea being to weed out those who, when it came to the pinch, might be found not brainless enough to throw themselves out of aeroplanes in flight.
Walking was out; once you stepped outside the barrack-room you had to jog. The regimen was so tough that men who outwardly resembled tanks dropped out within hours of arrival. But I was driven by high motivation. One, failure meant going back to the Sherwood Foresters; two, I was fired with the notion that, by displaying a parachutist's wings on my sleeves, I'd show proof of my determination to do real battle with Hitler and so persuade DMF (who'd, incidentally, dubbed me 'Tim' and never again breathed the name 'Stanley') to permit the assuageance of my smouldering lust. Thus inspired I gritted my teeth and, somehow or other, I made it into through the back-breaking physical endurance tests.
Bent double under full battle order I pounded seven miles of rough track in just sixty minutes. Then, after scrambling through drain-pipes; scaling high, slippery walls; and breeching barbed-wire fences, I'd managed to fire my rifle from my left shoulder (you'd to pretend your right arm had been busted) and hit the target. Next, once more weighted down with full battle-rig I'd puffed and pulled myself over loose netting as high as a house. I'd grabbed the end of a rope to swing across a noisome pond and so on. Finally, I was given boxing gloves and told for three minutes to trade punches with a person whose name was pulled out of a bag the same time as mine.
The Marquis of Queensbury's rules didn't apply to the ring at Hardwick Hall; a hulking heavy could be pitched against a puny flyweight. Neither did it matter who won the most points or got knocked out; all that counted was that both boxers kept slugging away at each other. My opponent was a massive young Austrian Jew who, stripped-off, looked like one of those huge, tormented Russian circus bears — all sinew and fur. He was a chap I'd taken a shine to, an intellectual whose rage against fascism had driven him to volunteer for the parachute regiment as the quickest route to Hitler's jugular. As the giant Semite towered over me in the ring, his long arms ending in outsize boxing gloves beside his knees, I swung my fists at him and waited for him to land me just the one clout that would have done for me. But the bell had the opposite effect upon the Austrian because he immediately buckled at the knees and slipped to the floor in a dead funk. Poor fellow, he was sent away to seek another way to cut Hitler's throat while I graduated from Hardwick Hall.
My next berth was at Ringway Airport, Manchester, where I was to learn the tricks of the new aerial way of killing people. Being a new art its initiators hadn't had the time to work the old military frivolities into their routine (but before very long even seasoned paratroopers were square-bashing). At its early stage Ringway had only one purpose: to teach soldiers how to jump from the skies and land on the ground undamaged. The regiment's attractions were thus well-founded: a reputation for being free of ancient military humbug plus higher rates of pay. Dependent wholly on volunteers (ordinary mortals would've mutinied en-masse rather than obey orders to chuck themselves out of aeroplanes) the regiment drew non-conformists, hence few professional soldiers. Our heads protected by sorbo-rubber helmets and our feet by high boots, we trainees were instructed not so much in diving out of an aeroplane but in the vital art of landing on the ground. Thrown off high towers we were told, much as public schoolgirls are instructed, to keep our ankles and our knees glued together. We studied film showing how Russian and German paratroopers did it. We were given fancy multipocketed zoot suits, machine guns straight from Chicago (yes, genuine Thompsons), gourmet food and the very latest in backpacks etc. And, to gild the lily, not only were we paid two whole shillings a day extra but we were actually ordered NOT, repeat NOT, to clean any of our kit and never to polish its brasswork!
The big day came at the end of a fortnight's hard slog. Six at a time we were locked into our parachutes as if in straight-jackets and, in the charge of a 'despatcher', we were herded into a large basket suspended beneath a great big balloon which soared skywards until it reached 500 feet. One at a time, our despatcher told me, we were to swing our legs into the large, round hole that had been cut out of the basket's floor and when he shouted 'Go' we were to hurl ourselves through it, our bodies held stiffly to attention, into the open sky beneath us.
I'd been told off to be second man out — number two. Number one was the only other aspirant-parachutist who wasn't several inches taller and many pounds heavier than I was. Together, he and I formed a two-man minority of 'short-arses'. On the command 'One' my diminutive friend swung his legs into the hole alright but on the bark 'Go!' he turned greenish in the gills, opened up his breakfast, crawled into a corner of the basket and whimpered that he'd rather not. Another one who had to find a different way of waging his war.
It being up to me to preserve the honour of short people, I swung my own legs into the hold and, imagining myself to be a robot, I waited to be switched on. At 'Go!' I straightened up, plunged myself through the hole like a man on the gallows and fell through the air like a stone. A hundred feet into the fall I heard a noise as if somebody above me was tearing a sheet of calico; it was the sound of my parachute bursting from its envelope and opening above my head. It filled out on the instant to spread above my sorbo-rubber helmet like a fantastic umbrella. Pulling first one cord and then another to regulate oscillation (a word I hadn't known until I took up parachuting) and to avoid plunging into the lake at Tatton Park, I dropped to earth a lot faster than I'd anticipated — in a matter of seconds. Knees together, bending into the fall, I subsided into the grass as gracefully as Nijinsky.
The real thing turned out to be a piece of cake; compared with jumping from the balloon, leaping from an aeroplane was a doddle. I was to be the consummate parachutist; seated in aircraft pitching around the sky like corks in a rough sea, I was always close to throwing up and always, therefore, more than ready to jump out. Indeed, I felt so awful at times that I'd happily have leaped without a parachute. After the seventh aeroplane jump I was given a red beret, a flashy cap-badge, cloth wings to sew on my uniform and two whole shillings a day extra pay. The question was would all the new frippery and affluence help me seduce DMF?
I was a paratrooper in the 6th Airborne Division. The sixth? There certainly weren't five others, the number 6 I suppose was meant to fool the enemy into shaking in his boots thinking there might have been. In any case parachutists made up only a small part of the division. We were heavily outnumbered by glider-borne troops, wretched infantrymen who were stacked like sardines into flimsy, engineless flying machines that, once cast off from the engine-powered machines that towed them, floated slowly down to earth. Luckless fellows those, they wore neither parachutes on their backs nor facsimiles on their jackets and they were paid only half the danger money we got.
Second fronts and second-rate generals
Hardwick Hall and Ringway were the high days, the heady days when it was possible to feel that at long last we really were getting close to sticking it to Hitler; from then on things drifted downhill again. The Germans were knee-deep in their own blood on the Russian steppes, the Americans had come into the war on our side bringing overwhelming amounts of power to our elbow; as Lenin would have said, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were 'dead men on furlough'. Strangely however there seemed little to shout huzzahs about, while Russians were still being slaughtered in titanic battles in the East we could run only to relatively little side-shows in Africa and Burma.
Both Oz and Harry II had been in North Africa where General Montgomery had insisted on massing advantages of nine-to-one in soldiers, five-to-one in tanks and artillery and one hundred-to-one in aircraft before he'd attack the Germans in Egypt. It seemed to us squaddies that it didn't take military genius to achieve 'a glorious victory' when the odds were so heavily weighted in our favour. Compared with Stalingrad and Kursk, Alamein had been but a petty skirmish; the bulk of the British army, including the 6th Airborne, lay around at home doing nothing.
The hero of Alamein, all the stops having been pulled out to hail him as the mightiest general since Alexander, came home to tunes of glory and one fine day he was brought, all conquering, into the wilds of Wiltshire there to try to rouse his paratroopers to his own level of blood-lust. We brave paratroopers, who hadn't yet fired a shot in anger, had been 'stood to' for hours in carefully pre-arranged 'spontaneous' welcoming formations overlooking a sort of platform waiting for the great military genius to arrive. When he did he was in the middle of a flurry of flunkies who eventually hoisted him aloft on the podium. We couldn't believe our eyes; the unremarkable-looking little fellow who was pushed in front of the rest of the red-tabs couldn't possibly be anyone but a warm-up comedian, but to our astonishment he was introduced as 'General Montgomery'.
From this bank-clerkish figure there issued forth a bank-clerkish voice : a piping, snooty squeak in which we were informed that we were the world's finest (a statement I considered lacking in empirical evidence) that we were led by the world's finest (which had been vividly demonstrated to be untrue) that God was on our side (ditto as things stood) and, in peroration, that he, Montgomery, conqueror of Alamein, was 'looking for an ocean he could push the 'Narzis' into'. For a battle cry it was hardly Henry V but then Montgomery wasn't Olivier, more like Stan Laurel.
We kept our hand in by leaping every now and then from air-craft and we tried to keep in good physical trim but, much as our bodies may have been tuned-up by 50 miles-in-24-hours marches (passing Stonehenge at 3 o'clock of a balls-freezing morning) didn't — or so it seemed to me — didn't help poor Comrade Ivan over there in Voronezh.
To break the monotony we'd swap with American parachutists who, as we ought to have guessed, jumped with one parachute on their backs and, just in case it didn't open, another one on their chests: I recall the end of a long foot-slog to an American camp on the south coast; it fell to me to heft a horrendously heavy base-plate of a mortar over the last, bruising mile. It may have engendered a temporary blip in Anglo-American relations, but amicability was restored when we drank Budweiser, ate bacon and waffles smeared in molasses and scoffed lots of ice-cream (oh! the profligacy with which the Yanks waged war) and I marvelled at Yankee openness and friendliness. At the American camp there were hot showers and the 'hard' rations were food for the cognoscente; you could forget there was a war on except, of course, that the news from Russia soon brought you to your senses.
As I've said we jumped every now and then from aircraft, sometimes by day, sometimes at night. My favourite aeroplane was the Albermarle, a machine in which a dozen of us sat between each other's legs with our backs to the cockpit, perched on a slide running downwards from the nose of the Albermarle to the rim of a coffin-shaped hole cut out of the floor of the tail, the widest part of the coffin being nearest the tail. At the word 'Go' we slid like kids on a park slide, tumbling out of the hole with heads bent towards the wider part of the coffin. It was a lightening-quick exit from which we were parachuting within parts of a second of each other and which resulted in our landing nice and close together.
Then there was the Whitney, a slow, ungainly bomber from which we leapt through a tube projecting maybe a metre below the middle of its floor. Jumping through the tube was a bit tricky; you'd to make sure of flinging your head backwards. If you didn't the slip-stream from the Lancaster's engines, catching your legs first, would pitch your torso and head forward in which case your face might collide with the opposite wall of the tube. Sorbo-rubber padding or not you'd come to earth sporting a bloody nose — it was called 'ringing the bell'.
Somewhere along the line we were introduced to the parachutists' Rolls-Royce — the DC3 (Dakota). Instead of throwing yourself through a hole in the floor you just stood up straight and walked out of the back-door. The Dakota took twenty of us, ten seated along either side, our umbilical cords (the straps by which our parachutes were connected to the air-frame) coupled to wires stretched taught above our heads. All we had to do when we got the word was step out of the door one at a time, turn to face the tail so that the slipstream hit our backs, and enter space — simple as that. As soon as your canopy had been pulled from its bag and was about to open the cord holding you to the Dakota snapped and there you were drifting down to earth. Almost enjoyable.
This account might make it seem as if we were jumping, running and marching all the time but it wasn't so; most days we just loafed around, indeed we were more or less egged on to take as much leave as we liked or could afford. Ergo, I spent a lot of time laying siege to, but failing to breach the ramparts of, DMF with whom I engaged in over-heated skirmishes in all manner of places: Cardiff, Bognor Regis, Portsmouth, Newbury, Littlehampton and, most memorably, Brighton where DMF chose a room in the YWCA as the battleground. What girl ever needed to wear a chastity belt in a YWCA?
It was the spring of 1944. Over four years had gone by since I'd burst into the Drill Hall on Alfreton Road straining to get my hands on a gun with which I'd shoot Hitler. Four years and I'd not yet seen a Nazi let alone fired a shot at one. Four years and I was still a lowly private soldier. Fours years and I was 22 and still a virgin.
Then fact was that at long last something was about to happen. The 6th Airborne Division was herded into a camp on the outskirts of an airfield close to Burford. There was relief because it looked as if we really meant business and to crown it all we were actually let into the secret of what the generals had in mind for us. We were told that we were about to spearhead an assault against the German army in Normandy. What's more, we were given such precise information and with such cockiness that if we'd not been made cynical by past experience we might have been persuaded that, for a change, our generals might have known what they were talking about.
Take for instance the minute detail of my own platoon briefing: on the night before the sea-borne armies were to land on the French beaches my platoon was to drop from the air close beside a little bridge that spanned the River Orne near the Normandy town of Troarn. Our job was to seize the bridge and hold it until glider-borne sappers, together with their explosives and a good number of infantrymen, landed close-by. We were then to give the bombardiers a hand to blow the bridge then settle down until twenty-four hours later when sea-borne troops would relieve us as they dashed towards Paris. It was a simple plan: by denying the Wermacht use of the Troarn Bridge fewer of them would be able to get to the beaches to carve up our soldiers landing on them. It looked foolproof and, to make us feel even better about it, we were shown photographs of our bridge and we actually built a scale model of it. We grew so fond of it we didn't want to blow it up.
Our scepticism was however, well-founded; we asked ourselves whether or not this was going to be just a safe little curtain-raiser to the main event or were we really going to put the Wermacht through the mincer and end the war? Would our sea-borne comrades relieve us within twenty-four hours as our colonels had promised and would they really capture the city of Caen as a general had personally sworn to us they would do within the first few days? And after Caen would the roads to Paris and Berlin really be wide open?
A white horse, purple fireworks and red faces
In the evening of June 5, 1944, together with nineteen others (two-thirds) of my platoon, I was rammed into a DC3 at an airport near Burford. I use the word 'rammed' because, being encumbered by monstrously heavy loads (besides the parachute and the usual battle-gear each of us toted either a 2" mortar tube or its base plate or one or two of its bombs, bandoliers of extra ammo and extra rations) we had to be pushed up the landing steps by loaders as if we'd been Japanese commuters being sardined into bullet-trains.
Some of the relief and the excitement we'd felt about at last going to war evaporated quickly and it didn't help to be told that our Canadian pilot had never dropped parachutists before. Welcome aboard! To add to our misgivings, once aloft we circled for what seemed hours while our prodigious air-armada, history's largest, got into formation. Finally, buffeted by the slipstreams of hundreds of aircraft all around ours, we flew bumpily across to France. I wasn't the only one sick enough to hope we'd be shot down and so have done with it and who greeted the order to jump with glee. I stepped through the door, turned left and, like a ton of bricks, I dropped into the dark French sky. It was midnight. It was an unusual mode of immigration I suppose but there I was overseas at last.
Knees locked together I rolled over nicely to settle comfortably into French grass. I banged the 'box' on my chest to break the lock that closed my parachute around me and I stood up to look for my mates and, I hoped, for road signs reading 'TROARN -> ½ km'. Above all I looked for a flashing purple light, a signal we'd been told would be beamed by a scout who had been dropped ahead of us. Our platoon was to converge upon that light and, once formed up, we'd be led by a French resistance-fighter to our bridge. We'd also been told that there'd be no enemy soldiers about and that we'd be at our target within an hour of getting out of our parachute harnesses.
What met my eyes instead was a dazzle of brightly coloured lights, several of them purple, flashing from all directions. It was as if I'd landed on Blackpool promenade at illumination time. For another stomach-churning thing, the only other living creature I could see was a white horse I'd nearly fallen on; what's more, judging by the sound of gunfire blazing away on all sides, there were plenty of angry soldiers about, a good many of them, presumably, German.
Far from being on our bridge within an hour, by that time I'd not moved out of the field I'd landed in and I'd managed to rendezvous with only five other paratroopers all of them, like myself, privates. We weren't to know until much later that the fireworks and the lines of tracer-bullets we'd seen and the din of small-arms fire we'd heard weren't being directed against us or our missing mates; no, they came from enemy guns alright, but far from the Germans having been alerted to our arrival by filthy spies, they were engaged in a night exercise, blasting away at each other with blank ammunition. Not understanding this we six forlorn creatures viewed our situation with alarm.
Looking on the bright side though we worked it out that if we weren't far away from our bridge then we were near to our platoon mates (another thing we didn't know was that the 'plane carrying the other half of our platoon, including its commander, had been shot down) who might be about to blow the bridge. Ergo, wait for the big bang and make tracks in its direction. The bang never came. Alright then, we still needed to know the way to Troarn. Never doubting that we'd soon come across a place-name: 'TROARN — BIENVENUE!' we set out looking for a road — any road.
Sure enough we soon came to one and sure enough it had its name-sign. Mystifyingly however, instead of proclaiming the village ahead to be 'TROARN' it said that it was 'HEROUVILLETTE', a place we'd never heard of and a place moreover that on closer inspection appeared to be lifeless; not even a dog to bark. In no mood for heroism we six decided that the most sensible thing to do was to hide in the outskirts of Herouvillette and wait for daybreak. We chose to secrete ourselves about a quarter of a mile from town in a deep ditch beside the road. One of us, the platoon signaller, was humping a thundering great wireless set that he couldn't get a spark out of. He wouldn't dump it though because come the light he might be able to fix it and maybe find out what the hell was going on? Poor sod, he became the first — and nearly the only — man I saw die during the whole war. He perished, not by bullet or bomb or bug but, unbelievably, by sinking in a split second into the mire at the bottom of the ditch. He and his wireless disappeared with a sort of 'whoosh' — Roger and out. Abandoning him to his watery grave, the remaining five of us fled to higher, wooded ground where dawn found us hugging the earth while shells from our own ships out at sea screamed over our heads.
Our position an hour or so later was that while the shells told us which way was North we remained confused because we'd still no idea where we were in relation to Troarn. There were still no signs of soldiers either friend or foe and our spirits were lowering by the minute. Then all of a sudden, just as though he'd known we were there, into our hideout walked a thirteen year old local youth who introduced himself as 'Daniel'. After telling us how he hated Germans he said that we were a long way from Troarn but he knew where there were lots of Britons who'd dropped from the sky during the night; he could lead us easily and safely to them. True to his word, on the night of June 7th Daniel guided us through woods and dales until on the morning of the 8th he brought us into a shambolic gathering of a couple of hundred stragglers from our own outfit.
God knows what Daniel thought of his first sight of the cream of the British army; we must have looked more like cut-throats on the run than liberators. When we'd all put our stories together it turned out that the Canadian airmen had cast us out of their aircraft while flying too high meaning that few of us had come to earth where we'd been supposed to and we'd been scattered so far apart that, for instance, those carrying the 2" mortar tubes had dropped not metres but miles away from those carrying the base-plates and so on. Nobody knew exactly where we were, where the sea-borne soldiers were or what was best for us to do? Everybody was in the mood to lynch Montgomery.
What it boiled down to was that the airborne operation, which we'd been conned into believing would be flawless (and heaven knows the brass had had long enough to make it so) had in practice been a right old snafu. (The next one — Arnhem — was to be an even bigger one). But maybe the church parades had paid off after all because there had been few casualties (even the rest of my platoon had walked away from their crash-landing into captivity) and the sea-landings had proved to be a lot easier than had been feared. We parachutists had done nothing but we still expected to leave straight away for England there to prepare, as we'd been told, to drop within weeks over the Rhine, opening up the swift dash to seize Berlin before the Russkies got there. But confusion was piled upon commotion; the dash for Paris ground into the Normandy soil and to our chagrin we were told to dig in like poor bloody infantrymen and help secure the beach—head against possible counter-attack. What happened to Daniel? Since we were unable to take him safely back home to Herouvillette he was sent to help in the field-kitchens; a stray shell (possibly one of ours) landed on the cook-house and killed him. C'est la guerre.
Trench warfare, instant promotion and bald women
Weeks later, just as I was 'borrowing' a duck-board from a nearby farm building to line my muddy slit-trench with, I collided head-on with a Colonel. On the following day I was wheeled up in front of him to be charged not with looting (no army ever took looting as a serious offence) but for 'failing while in the front-line on active service to carry his personal weapon' — an offence, according to the Adjutant, that was damned near a court-martial thing. My defence was that I'd been in the front-line for several weeks without having clapped eyes on an enemy soldier; I didn't therefore feel all that insecure without my sten-gun and, anyway I needed both hands to carry my duck-board. My plea must have hit the right note because although he pronounced me 'Guilty' the Colonel excused me from punishment and in the next breath promoted me to Sergeant! His judgement was no doubt coloured by the fact that so many of our Sergeants had turned their ankles, caught pneumonia, been taken captive, gone bonkers or deserted that he was left severely short of them. The outcome was that he used his authority to confer a 'field promotion' on me.
4977691 Sergeant Hardy (Harry I would've had a pint or two on the strength of my meteoric rise) sat atop a hill overlooking the city of Caen, the city that the military genii had sworn to liberate within a couple of days of the initial landing. But there I sat, weeks later, watching as a thousand bombers belonging to my own side unloaded God knows how many bombs on Caen because that city was still held by the Germans! Berlin, it seemed, was still an awfully long way away.
While we sent a thousand bombers to liberate one city, we never saw a single German aeroplane in the skies; such a one-sided conflict could only end in one way and it did; all of a sudden the enemy turned tail and ran. We ran after them. Crossing the river Orne over — yes you've guessed it — Troarn bridge we made for the fashionable watering holes of Deauville and Trouville; our ultimate objective, we were told, was Le Havre.
The country through which we chased the Germans, still never firing a shot, was calvados country. Everywhere you looked it seemed as if thousands of gallons of that corpse reviver was brewing away in enormous vats from which we liberators liberated buckets full. In every town happy, newly freed Normans paraded in front of us dozens of haunted-looking shaven-headed females, demented creatures with the eyes of caged animals. They'd been tried by kangaroo courts and convicted of having 'fraternised with the enemy'. Their summary punishment was to have their heads shorn by thugs wielding blunt, old-fashioned cut-throat razors; then, bloodied and horribly disfigured, they were put on display before a jeering populace and companies of their 'Tommy saviours'.
It was a sickening, uncivilised spectacle but one which nevertheless drew loud applause from a large majority of my fellow liberators to whom the loathsome practice was as much a spoil of war as looting. Just as they never paused to question the ethics of stealing from people who were supposed to be our allies, it mattered nothing to them to acclaim the torture of French, not 'enemy', women. They cheered on the ghastly Norman barbers and they ransacked every empty farmhouse they came across. Luckily, before we reached the fleshpot Deauville where I dreaded witnessing victory celebrations in even more depraved taste, we were ordered to turn about and fly back to Wiltshire. Hardly a man landed back home without carrying some booty he'd liberated from the 'Froggies'. It was an ignoble end to a fouled-up battle but almost everyone of us had lived through it. As Marquez wrote the greatest victory in a battle is to be alive at the end of it.
Quartermastering and helicoptering
I'd flown out of England as one of the nation's military elite — the most macho of its machismo. Armed to the teeth and hyped up to a crazy pitch of blood-lust, my company had spearheaded the greatest cross-water military action in history. But back in England three months later I walked away from a DC3 with my ammunition bandoliers unopened and my gun barrel as virginal as my body.
According to latrine rumour — and you didn't have to be a military genius to see that it might be true — our next job would be to drop on the east side of the Rhine. And I was going to drop on the Reich not as a mere Sergeant but wearing the crown of a Quartermaster Sergeant, a rank that was a much sought-after sinecure because a Quartermaster had first go at supplies, dishing out the rations, the pay and the clobber. Lord knows how they worked these things out but there it was; I'd helicoptered up four ranks in as many months; at that rate of promotion I'd have entered Berlin carrying a Field-Marshal's baton.
But I'd been promoted no more than a day or two when I was transferred to the 12th Battalion, 5th Independent Parachute Brigade which, the buzz had it, was to go to Asia. Meanwhile Montgomery gave the exalted task of crossing the Rhine to the 1st Airborne Division whose soldiers were told that the bridge at Arnhem, undefended, was theirs for the taking. We could've told 1st Airborne a thing or two about Montgomery's intelligence, especially where bridges were concerned, and we weren't surprised to learn that massive German forces had cut 1st Airborne to ribbons on the bridge and that its bloodied survivors had to swim for their lives back to the West Bank.
In any other walk of life errors of judgement on the Arnhem scale would swiftly have led to the wholesale sacking of the principals responsible but, this being the walk of death, the generals weren't pressed even to say 'Sorry'. They went instead into an orgy of back-slapping, of singing the praises of each other's heroic nations and armies and of awarding themselves fancier ranks, medallions, sashes, titles and higher pay. While they were thus fooling around — serve them right — the Russians reached Berlin first. Adolf Hitler escaped his people's wrath by blowing his brains out; the great cigar-smoker chose to go for an election which, to his astonishment, he lost by many a mile. But, of course, election defeat or not, Churchill's class held on to its domination of the British establishment. Atlee's so-called 'socialist' government made noises that provoked the bourgeoisie to anguished charges of 'Bolshevism' and 'Red Dictatorship' but it lacked the guts fundamentally to try to alter the class structure. It remained easier for a 'working man' to be appointed Minister of War, for instance, than for him to get a royal commission in one of the armed services. True, the working-man Minister (one Fred something or other) set alarm bells ringing with talk of 'democratising' the services but he was easily neutered by being kept so busy inspecting parades and taking salutes that he lacked the clout even to promote lance corporals let alone generals.
Wedding in Worthing, Bedding in Buxton
Our 'socialist' minister promised the rank-and-file that one day they'd wear collars and ties like the officers and gentlemen — but not yet; first he had to have the shirts and ties manufactured. That was about as democratic as Fred was able to go. In the meantime we hung around in Wiltshire perfecting the arts of skiving while pretending that we were men still at war, now with Japan.
In May 1945 the 5th Independent Parachute Brigade was ordered to go to help our American allies settle Hirohito's hash in the Far East. Maybe the news that I was to go to Asia reawakened DMF's reveries of her babyhood in India, thus releasing her broody instincts, or maybe she was turned on by imagining me in tropical shorts; whatever sparked her off it was DMF herself who put forward the idea that we might share a bed before I sailed for Bombay. The proviso, standard in those days, was that the bedding came only after the ritual of holy wedlock.
The deal was struck at St George's Church, Worthing on the morning of the 8th June 1945 in the presence of Engineer Commander Sydney James Fenner, Royal Indian Marine retired, Rose Fenner and Muriel Atkin. When you think that all that DMF and I could look forward to with any certainty was that I was just about to leap from aeroplanes over Asia while she was to return to servicing torpedoes in Wales, it was a brave, daft thing to have done. But we did it. We honeymooned in Buxton, yes Buxton, Derbyshire — old cycling country to me and a place not half as unromantic as it sounds.
Then we parted, neither for the first nor the last time, to go our separate ways, not just across county borders, not even to put only a country between us, but to be separated by continents. Always though to come back, happily, to each other.
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