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BBC Collaborative Article: Christmas on the Front

by Helen

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Archive List > Family Life

Contributed by 
Helen
Article ID: 
A2136340
Contributed on: 
16 December 2003

The BBC asked WW2 Members to add a short anecdote on the subject of Christmas at war.

We asked the following questions:

  • Where was the most unusual setting for your Christmas celebrations?
  • What food did you eat?
  • Where were your loved ones at Christmas time, and were you able to stay in touch?
  • What sort of gifts were you able to exchange?

Read members' responses in the forum below.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 16 December 2003 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Christmas 1944 was a memorable one for me and the last one I had with my family for many many years. My father, mother, and my sister Gloria were there. 1944 was by far the grimmest year in northern Italy under Nazi occupation with a civil war raging.

Word got round that the butcher's shop in Porto Valtravaglia had reopened for Christmas, the butcher had managed somehow to secure three donkeys. My father grabbed two bottles of grappa which he had illicitly distilled from sour wine (he and a fellow villager distilled it from a still he had made out of thin copper tubing, smuggled out in pieces at great risk from the factory where he worked) and he and I shot down to Porto, only to find a huge queue.

When we finally got to the counter the butcher told us he was very sorry but only some offal was left. My dad waited until he had sold out and then asked to have a word with him in private. He produced his two bottles of grappa and they were exchanged for part of a prime cut that the butcher was saving for himself. We returned to Musadino triumphantly with about a kilo of donkey meat. When I said to my dad that he had taken a risk not taking the offal, which I would have done, he said "Peter, Peter, you didn't think he was going to leave himself without any meat, did you?"

My father was an excellent cook and Christmas dinner was indeed memorable. Neither Gloria nor I could believe in the magnificent spread before our eyes: there was roast meat, potatoes, and cabbage. Wine to drink, with dried pears as desert, and chestnuts to round it off.

In her exuberance at this unexpected windfall, my mother had thinly peeled the potatoes and discarded the peel. They skins were frantically retrieved Boxing day, roasted, and added to our usual fare.
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If you wish to know how I got there, well thats a long story which I recount here A1993403

 

Message 2 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 16 December 2003 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Sorry, typo. 'They skins ...' in the last sentence should be 'The skins ..."

Peter :)

 

Message 3 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 16 December 2003 by Bob Gibb - WW2 Site Helper

Actually, Peter . . . Up here in Scotland they would talk about 'they skins'!

Slainthe!

Bob

 

Message 4 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 17 December 2003 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Peter,
For some reason I had to go all round the houses to find your story but it was worth it. Having eaten some strange meats in my time I have not knowingly eaten Donkey. In the war they would say a cat with its skin off looks like a rabbit so who knows.
I see we now have Writing Buddies, what do we collectively think of that developement? Personally anything that gets this site moving has my approval.
Regards Frank. :)

 

Message 5 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 17 December 2003 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Frank

By the time it came to be the turn of these poor three donkeys the cats had long disappeared. I remember in either January or February 1945 we were digging in preparation for planting maize when I unearthed a slow worm (often confused with grass snakes). It was quickly skinned and put in the fire embers where we were digging (it was bitterly cold). My father cut some and tried it, then handed some to me saying "Just think of it as fish, Peter".

Hunger is a wonderful sauce and my dad was extremely resourceful. We never got round to eating any insects, such as beetles and most larvae, there was no need and once summer arrived there was plenty of fruit and greens (salads of dandelions, especially) and he knew dozens of edible mushrooms and where to find them. But my dad pointed out what insects he thought I should eat if the worst came to the very worst.

There were plenty of snails and frogs (not just the legs of the frog, all of it) and fresh water shrimp. My mother could never bring herself to eat any of these, but our eating them left more ordinary fare for her.

--------------------------------------

I was somewhat puzzled by the 'collective' story label. At first I took it to mean that it was a story submitted by a group rather than a collection of stories sharing a theme.

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Have you seen some of the posts lately on the dangers of interviewing?
I never knew before that veterans of WW2 required counselling by social carers, in fact I had never heard of counselling before the 1980s. Seems to me that you would have had to have counselled about a billion people in 1945. I had it pretty hard for about eighteen months, but anyone living in Leningrad, Stalingrad, or Warsaw would have gladly swapped with me on any terms. I get the impression that our current social workers haven't a clue what WW2 was really like.

Now even the police seem to require counselling, and if a poor unfortunate child dies the entire school is counselled. I think these grief counsellors end up scaring people out of their wits about death, making matters worse. What do you think?

All the best,

Peter

 

Message 6 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 17 December 2003 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Peter,
The many books on the activity's of the SAS tell of eating anything and everything, they were called the snake eaters even in my time, so I would not doubt your word. Let me make it clear at this point if any one is listening in, I was never in the SAS, by the number of books on it the only one it seems.
We got for a time during the war Whale meat and were told it tasted just like steak, some steak. We were told by the government exactly how to cook it but my mother an exceptional cook by any standards gave up on it. We could buy Herrings in season by the bucket full in this area of fishing ports and they were many times tastier than that whale meat. I could never eat shell fish owing to allergic reaction but if I had been hungry as you where who can tell what I would have eaten.
I put counselling with the new Censorship by political correct speak, an invasion of privacy on a grand scale. Those people are living your horror second hand and now many surveys are saying they drag the suffering on instead of letting it drop. When they dropped those bombs on my head (they bombed the old mill) it was not counselling I wanted more like a chinese laundry. The laughter as I shot into the shelter was the best counselling ever.
A different age Peter with your experiences, if there had been counselling you would still be getting it.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 7 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 17 December 2003 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

As ever, you are so right Frank on counselling. We never saw the need for it. We are NOT special because we lived through those times, we just happened to be there that's all.

One thing we cannot convey in our stories is the feeling of the time. What the meticulous German's refer to as the 'Zeitgeist', the spirit of the times.

Look at my contributions, seemingly a catalogue of depressing misery and woe! But it wasn't quite like that. There were times also of great joy, laughter, and fun. The war was awful, but none of us could see the whole picture. We were just human beings living out our lives, whether in the forces or at home. We learnt to laugh at ourselves and at the human condition. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

Days before the war ended I met up with the Battalion of the Imperial Light Horse and Kimberley Regiment, they had been in the front line from May to October 1944 continuously (I learnt later) and in fierce fighting after. Yet they were full of fun and my memories are of great Africaan's sing-songs, cheerful drunkeness, and warmth. One of the first songs I learnt was 'You are my sunshine, my only sunshine' and listening to stirring songs like 'The Old Transvaal'. Sung in the evening by Lake Maggiore or in some Italian cafe, you could almost imagine a camp fire and an African sunset.

Those were the days!

Enjoy your Christmas Frank, I shall raise a glass to you.

Peter

 

Message 8 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 18 December 2003 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Right on Peter,
There appears to be a growing tendency of thinking anyone going through the war in any capacity is special. We are not and certainly never felt that way at the time. I remember a chap my age living not too far from me giving the local paper his story of the war. I was crying with all the doom gloom misery and fright by the end of it. Being rather prolific in writing to the local press myself I fired one back and started a to and fro war between various factions from which I sat back and enjoyed.
"Zeitgiest" is a word I know well, we all had it as did most of the world. Listen to the stories from far and wide. To our generation the war was the biggest thing that happened to us so is burnt into the memory (now what day is it today).
I served a short while with a mixed regiment of Africans, they were Basuto's Bechuana's and Swazi's I would willingly have served out the rest of my time with them. Witty Joyous industrious and happy people. At the time we were castigated by our Officers for drinking and socialising with them, we were a hard crew and gave the usual inverted "V" sign to those officious people. We were in short supply so there was nothing they could do but turn blind eye's. There is always someone Peter to start my motor running and make me rattle the cage.
Will enjoy my Christmas even more now as my wife just told me I have bought her present, thank goodness for that, even better news was what it cost.
I too shall raise a glass to you.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 9 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 19 December 2003 by tomjo4Thomas Jones

I was in Stalag 18A, At Christmas 44. Our little group of four,(of a party of 20 in a farm Lager) had col,ected, bartered and brewed enough for a christmas Dinner. The rest of the Lager did not seem to be interested forsome reason. So Christmas Nightwe had the table laid with about 2 lites of schnapps, A roast cocklerel, home brewed Wine and various additions from the Red Cross parcels all on a nice white tablecloth. The door opened and in walked a German Officer,somthing we had not seen at Christmas Time ever before. He walked all around the Lager, saying nothing until he came to our table on which there was enough evidence to get us all thrown in the cooler for ever.Beleeiving in the old adage that attack was the best methoc of defence Iaske him if he would like a glass of Schnapps to keep out the cold and cold it was outside. He promptly replied 'Well someones seems to be having a good Christmas and tokk the glass. I apologised for leaving hime to drink alone as we were not allowed to drink with Officers. He tossed off his drink and wished us all a Merry Christmas and departed. We four sat down to a Christmas Dinner which could easily have been Confiscated and a Christmas that could have been spent in the Cooler. We had conjured up enough Booze to share enough with the rest of the lads to get them good and Merry and all was well ===until the next morning. Tomjo.

 

Message 10 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 19 December 2003 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Tomjo4
That is a very good story and should be sent to the research desk so every one can read it. Those are the stories wanted for the Christmas forum from men who lived it and found the enemy were not all bad, a real christmas story. I will contact the Staff Researchers and see if it can be put where it can be read by many and not just a few of us.
I see this is your first effort but keep writing please the more the merrier.
Regards Frank Mee.

 

Message 11 - Christmas 1944

Posted on: 19 December 2003 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Nice to see you back in action, Frank.

By the way, the Battalion of Imperial Light Horse and Kimberley Regiment, 6th South African Armoured Division, was an almost entirely white outfit. About 50/50 between Anglo-Saxons and Africaaners, the descendents of Dutch settlers, with a few 'coloreds' (mixed race) serving as cooks, batmen, etc.

Even with General Smuts as premier, before the Nationalists came to power, the South African army was highly discriminatory. But then, most of the world was.

Peter

Message 1 - Christmas Worlds Apart

Posted on: 17 December 2003 by Carey - WW2 Site Helper

Click here A2132029 to read this story about Christmas written by Frank Mee.

Message 1 - Unexpected Christmas Cheer in Stalag 18A

Posted on: 22 December 2003 by Helen

I was in Stalag 18A, Christmas '44. Our little group of four (of a party of 20 in a farm Lager) had collected, bartered and brewed enough for a Christmas dinner. The rest of the Lager did not seem interested for some reason.

So on Christmas night we had the table laid with about two litres of Schnapps, a roast cockerel, home-brewed wine and various additions from the Red Cross parcels all on a nice white tablecloth.

The door opened and in walked a German Officer, something we had not seen at Christmastime ever before. He walked all around the Lager, saying nothing until he came to our table, on which there was enough evidence to get us all thrown in the cooler forever.

Believing in the old adage that attack was the best method of defence, I asked him if he would like a glass of Schnapps to keep out the cold - and cold it was outside. He promptly replied, 'Well, someone seems to be having a good Christmas,' and took the glass.

I apologised for leaving him to drink alone, as we were not allowed to drink with officers. He tossed off his drink, wished us all a 'Merry Christmas' and departed.

We four sat down to a Christmas dinner that could easily have been confiscated, and a Christmas that could have been spent in the cooler. We had conjured up enough booze to share with the rest of the lads to get them good and merry and all was well... until the next morning.

Submitted by Tomjo4 - <./>U525979</.>

Message 1 - Christmas 1944 (Flying through the air)

Posted on: 24 December 2003 by Carey - WW2 Site Helper

Please click on A2146862 to read this story.

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