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- Sgt Len Scott RAPC
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- Sgt Len Scott RAPC
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- 01 May 2004
On 10 May 1945 I wrote this letter to my Danish wife, Minna, from No. 8 Command Pay Office in Rome:
‘I suppose I should have started this letter with a howl of joy about the armistice, but I feel more like weeping than rejoicing — weeping from sheer relief and thankfulness that this long drawn out slaughter has ceased at last. Two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, were set aside here for celebration, but everything was very quiet. Even in Rome where a certain amount of high spirits might have been anticipated, the atmosphere was sober and calm, even among the civilians. When the sirens sounded a long ‘All Clear’ there was a certain amount of hand-shaking between strangers and some feeble cheering but the evening passed away as uneventfully as a Church Parade. The troops seemed actually subdued.
‘I was in the company of two infantry sergeants and a paratrooper. On asking the last-named how he felt about the news, he said: "Well, it seems to me that the main thing is that I’m not going to get killed — and that my friends are not going to get killed either." This seemed to be the general attitude. Me? The war was over and I had never seen a German soldier dead or alive, had never aimed my rifle at a living target. On V-day itself I spent the afternoon in town where I saw Mutiny on the Bounty and then sat at my ease under a tree in the Borghese Gardens.’
Writing these lines I wondered why I felt no guilt at my passive and comfortable war. No. No guilt. On March 6, 1940 I had placed myself at the disposal of the military authorities. For the following five years I had been moved on their chessboard - the paltriest of pawns. I could have been at El Alamein, Anzio, Cassino or Normandy. I was sorry for those whose fate it had been to enter those slaughter-houses. I had merely drawn a lucky card, aided by one dud eye. But I was glad I had not had to kill anyone, delighted that I was still alive.
I continued: ‘Yesterday I took a tramcar out to the hills — to Castel Gandolfo — and spent my afternoon beside the huge blue lake, letting the water ripple over my bare feet. It was very quiet up there and very lonely. I was able to think in peace. Yes, it was strange to realise that for the first time in many years there was peace in Europe and that I might even think about such unlikely contingencies as going home. For "going home" was something that might happen when that huge and unlikely miracle happened — the end of the war in Europe.
‘Now the sun is blazing down though it is six o’clock in the evening. In the distance the blue ridge of the mountains stands out against the lighter blue of the sky; next door, in the girls’ orphanage, a choir of tots is singing Italian songs to the accompaniment of a piano-accordion. A most un-English scene is it not? But by virtue of that very possibility of my return to you the mountains seem less clear than usual, the voices less audible. Instead I seem to see the wooded hills of Marden Park, the chuffing of the train far down the valley, your steady grey eyes.’
Our cinema now screened newsreels of the ‘V-E Day’ celebrations in London — the hysterical crowds, Churchill and the Royal Family on the Buckingham Palace balcony; the kissing and dancing. Many of us — including myself — watched with fishy eyes. Some of the men had been overseas since 1939 and for them, London had become just another foreign city. Many had long since lost touch with girls and wives. I counted myself lucky.
The eventual departure of the Alleati aroused apprehension in some sections of the Italian people. My friend, Staff-Sergeant Gordon Milne was billeted with a hard-up Contessa who was sure that the Communists would take over the State. There was a possibility of a right-wing backlash. Civil war. Tito’s doings in nearby Yugoslavia and the warring factions in
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Warlingham, Surrey. Minna wrote on 8 May: ‘So the danger is past. This is as far as I am able to get today. The thought of your return is too tender to be handled. I have made a Danish flag and it flaps merrily on our hilltop at the back of the house to avoid competing with our landlord’s Union Jack flapping from the verandah. It seems that everyone has gone mad and the crowds in London are enormous. Do you remember our flight from the Coronation? Well, I just could not face this show either and I have been pondering the fact all afternoon. Am I completely unable to celebrate? Have I lost the power to be happy? Oh Len! All I can think about is your return. Even my hope of an early communication with Denmark is vague and unreal. It is as if all life has been crushed out of me and I cannot grasp reality. And then your letter came. Len, you do make me so happy. I have nearly forgotten how it feels to be kissed. Yes, we will go stark, staring mad together — unless we are so overcome by happiness that we fail to speak and merely stare at each other in open-eyed wonder.
‘The best description of me at the moment is that of a dry sponge, thirsty for knowledge, love, you, adventure, peace, travel, excitement, family life, animals, the back-of-beyond and Denmark all in one and the same breath. How are you going to cope with this mouthful? You will probably want to spank me before you have been with me for more than five minutes. But, seriously, I do not think I can be quite serious tonight. It is a strange, thundery, evening and anything might happen.’
12 May: ‘Everything would seem more real if I could hear from home. The news that the Germans will be going in a matter of weeks is wonderful — but how are they all? As you see — celebrations with lots of reservations. I do know I have much to be thankful for and will have to train myself to be happy. I have been making discreet enquiries from other people and am relieved to find that I am not the only one to be feeling "queer". It is going to take more than victory to live down years of anxiety and loneliness. Gudrun, my Danish friend, wants me to go to London tomorrow to see the Royal Family or something... and in the heat of the moment (it is very hot) I said "Not b----- likely!" I should have pleaded my sore throat and sore eyes, but I think I upset her. Imagine if I behaved so ruthlessly when you come home.
‘ I must be a drivelling, sentimental idiot for I writhe to imagine the homecoming of some of the enthusiastic lads who set out on Hitler’s world-conquering quest. They cannot all be bad, any more than all the Allies can be good, and they have some dire sights in store for them. Is it being "soft" to be uncomfortably aware of mankind in distress? I know they brought it upon themselves, only they cannot all be bad and there is bound to be unspeakable suffering in defeated Germany. Or am I still wearing blinkers? If it is possible to trace the blame to individuals, by all means do so. But I am convinced that the old saying I remember from Denmark will still hold good in a new version, "The small thief we hang; to the big thief we bow." I cannot voice my opinions here, least of all to Gudrun.
‘Mercy has become an obsolete word at present. I am told that I would not recommend it if I could see some of the gruesome tortures indulged in by the aggressors applied to a member of my own family. I just do not understand anything any more. My mind is a vacuum or worse — sometimes a boiling cauldron of conflicting emotions. I need someone like you to tidy up my mind for me.’
But later: ‘Such a relief to hear how you feel about it all. I felt I was an odd-number, unable to feel exhilaration at the reprieve or the liberation of Denmark. Gudrun makes me feel that way. She has been frantic most of the time and taking it out on me. She had no idea about my attitude until last night. Then your letter came, describing V-E day in Rome and I knew that everything was all right, that to you too it all meant the end of the worst madness. How could I go celebrating in London or anywhere else without you? I am not ungrateful — far from it. I am profoundly thankful that the murder is over, the imprisoned peoples liberated, given aid and food, that Denmark was not made into another battlefield. It will be time enough to celebrate when I know that they are all unhurt and well. Meanwhile I must work, work — and not get feverishly impatient for your return. To be able to write about that as a certainty fills me with awe.
‘Gudrun has made it clear to me that I shall never return to Denmark for good if it means behaving as she wishes Danes to behave. She and her friends still believe in shouting for joy, embracing and kissing each other and dancing round the room waving Danish flags. I suspect that I am the happier in my quiet way which appears to correspond to your reactions, for which Heaven be praised. ‘
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