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15 October 2014
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Gus and Rene's War

by Barrackroomlawyer

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Gus and Rene Krayer
Location of story: 
East End of London and Salerno
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 April 2005

My parents’ war

Gus Krayer and Rene Shodken got married on 25 August 1940, knowing Gus was
about to be called up. She was 18 and he was 20. The night before their wedding came
the first Blitz raid on the East End - a good friend of my mother’s family was killed and
Rene really didn’t feel in a celebratory mood. But eventually she was persuaded to put
on the beautiful gown of brocaded net made for her by her mother (who was a skilled
professional dressmaker) and go to the synagogue. Thanks to the generosity of a rich
relative they enjoyed a one-night honeymoon in the Strand Palace Hotel. Perhaps
“enjoyed” is the wrong word - the air raid sirens went off repeatedly, and they spent
their wedding night staggering up and down the stairs from their ninth floor bedroom
to the basement shelter, as the lifts were out of action. My dad often joked that there
was a direct hit on their wedding cake - as a little girl I always imagined a cartoon
missile embedded through three tiers.

Gus moved in with his in-laws, and strangely enough this saved his life right at the start
of the war. A few days after the wedding, there was an unexpected, loud knocking at
the door. Outside stood a grim-looking recruiting sergeant. “Does Gershon Krayer live
here?” he demanded. “He hasn’t responded to his call-up, and he’s in big trouble.” It
seemed that the papers had been delivered to the Krayer household, and were still
waiting for him there. When it was explained to the sergeant that the AWOL conscript
was a newly-wed, he softened. “Well, if he presents himself tomorrow, we’ll say no
more about it.” Later, my father learned that the ship he would have embarked on, had
he responded at the proper time, was torpedoed and most of those on board lost their

Gus was not passed fit for active combat service because of his poor eyesight. Instead
he became a medical orderly - much to his relief, as he had no desire to kill anyone, not
even a Nazi. He used his time in the army to learn as much as he could about medicine,
and to familiarise himself with the King’s Regulations so that he could contest the
petty injustices of army life inflicted on his comrades. He was very proud of being a
“barrack-room lawyer”.

His unit was shipped all over the world, for obscure reasons - Palestine, South Africa,
the Indian ocean. At one point they were stationed in India, where he carefully avoided
curry and lived mostly on fresh fruit and bread - unlike most of his mates, he never
came down with dysentery.

Meanwhile, my mother tried to continue life as normally as possible. The family moved
to Northampton for the duration and Rene got a job as a secretary for a manufacturer
of potato riddlers. But conditions there were Dickensian and before long she got a job
as secretary to the plant engineer at British Thomson Houston, a factory making wings
and spare parts for Lancaster bombers. For a time life was much more pleasant. Then
in September 1943 a dreadful letter arrived from one of Gus’ comrades. He was sorry
for her loss, he wrote - they were searching for Gus’s grave. Somehow Rene managed
to get herself to work that day. Her boss piled work on her all day, much to her
frustration - only afterwards did she realise that it was meant as a kindness.

But Gus was still alive - just. It happened at Salerno. A soldier came to the medical
unit with shellshock, complaining that he was unable to sleep. There was nothing
available but aspirin; Gus gave the man two aspirins, assuring him that they were a
brand-new and highly effective drug. He accompanied the man back to his tent and
persuaded him to lie down. Almost immediately, the man fell into a deep sleep. Job
done, Gus set off back to the unit. But he never got there. A shell exploded close by
and Gus fell unconscious, with a piece of shrapnel embedded deeply in his skull, and
other pieces in his throat and groin. His whole body was peppered with black
fragments, like a coalminer, and many of the smaller ones remained under his skin till
the day he died. Left for dead on the field, slipping in and out of consciousness, he
survived almost miraculously. When at length a stretcher party passed by, with his last
strength he managed a faint groan which alerted them to the fact that he was still alive.
Gus was initially taken to a hospital in Naples. The matron there wrote to Rene to let
her know that he was still alive but not expected to last long. He was eventually
airlifted to Algiers, where there was a surgeon with outstanding skills in this kind of

Gus used to repeat what he had been told by the hospital staff: that on the night after
his operation, there was a young man in the next bed who had had almost the identical
wound and the same operation. That young man died in the night, but Gus survived.
The doctors claimed it was Gus’s strong will to live that had made the difference.
Perhaps he was longing to get back to his bride. Meanwhile Rene back home continued
in a state of grief and anxiety for many weeks. Gus wouldn’t allow anyone to write to
her until he was able to write for himself. Her feelings when she opened that envelope
with the shaky mysterious handwriting on it and discovered who it was from, can
scarcely be imagined. After that, fate and the Luftwaffe gave up on trying to polish off
my father; he lived to the age of 84 and died in October 2004, leaving Rene, two
children, four grandchildren and a great-grand-daughter.

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