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15 October 2014
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Coming Home (2)

by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Contributed by 
Sgt Len Scott RAPC
People in story: 
Sgt Len Scott RAPC, Minna Scott
Location of story: 
Italy, Switzerland, France, England
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 May 2005

Another world... peacetime Italy, July 1935. In this mountain refuge, 7,000 feet up in the Dolomites, a group of friendly German climbers introduced me to Minna, the Danish girl who became my wife in 1937. In December 1945 I was returning to her.

December 1945. Our train has halted at Domodossola, on the Italian frontier. The Italian soldiers have large, grey circular patches on the backs of their soiled uniforms. It indicates their prisoner-of-war status — and I am remembering another visit, ten years earlier.

In July 1935 I was here as a passenger on the Simplon-Orient Express. Then, the Italian soldiers and Customs officials were bandbox-smart and hostile. On the eve of Mussolini's Ethiopian war a British journalist was despised. I was on my way to climb in the Dolomites for three weeks. I was 21, with £25 in my wallet and an Italian Alpine Club membership card. I would sleep in alpine huts for 6d (2 1/2p) a night.

I did not know it then, but for me this would be much more than another frontier crossing. It would become the door into a new life — because an honest little Italian waiter came running through the rain to give me back.... my lost wallet! Without it I would have had to return to England - to an unimaginably different life. Better? Worse?

A few days later I reached an alpine hut below the Grasleiten Pass. A jolly group of German climbers welcomed me into their circle. We drank schnapps together. No-one mentioned Hitler. They tried to understand my schoolboy German. It was Willy Sprecksdorff who saw a young girl laughing at our attempts to understand one another. Willy asked her to join us. She spoke immaculate English and German. She was Danish. Another hour and I felt I had known her all my life…

And now…

Now she is my wife, and I am on my way home after a three-year separation, full of fear and foreboding.

'Grub up!' comes a yell and we de-train, hundreds of us in crumpled battle-dress, unshaven, our mess-tins, eating-irons and enamel mugs at the ready. The Italian soldiers serve us, scurry about, clearing debris from the mess-tables into swill-bins, loading the overflowing bins into waiting trucks. We get Maconachy's infamous tinned stew and chips, 'wodges' of bread washed down with scalding sweet tea. We rinse our mess tins in a huge tank of lukewarm water where food-fragments float like dead goldfish.

On the way here we have seen many bridges damaged or blown up by the retreating Germans and replaced with temporary structures. One such, spanning a wide ravine, is scanned by some Royal Engineers down on the valley floor. They make balancing movements with their hands. Worried faces peer from our train far above. An engineer yells, 'It's all right mates. We've just sent a trainload of German P.O.W.s across'. We cheer ironically.

What, I wonder, has become of Willy Specksdorff and his three mates from Kiel and Bremen...?

That Italian. Those Germans. Without them I would not be returning to Minna, that Danish girl who left her husband and her country for love of me.

And where, I wondered was Guiseppe Grossi from Rome's Ministry of Education? Minna and I, on our 1937 honeymoon, had shared his water-bottle as we climbed the Suldenspitze. Where was Hans Sepp, our sturdy guide? Where that German Doctor Friedrich Ladurmer who left his bed at 3 a.m. to tend me as I lay groaning, fearing appendicitis, in a Merano hotel? Where that Bonn University student I met in Cologne in 1932 who told me: 'Hitler is a clown. No sensible German has any time for him'? And where was that other young German? He had declared: 'Hitler is the greatest man who has ever lived - far greater than Jesus, that Jew. I would die for him.' But this is December 1945, and I will never meet those 'enemies' again...

In a battle-dress which has never seen a battle, with Hitler and Mussolini dead, I am going home to Minna. It has taken two days to reach Domodossola. Six to a compartment, sleeping two in the luggage racks, two on the seats, two on the floor. All change every two hours, a sort of guard-duty routine. We have done a steady fifteen miles an hour since leaving Rome: across the Apennines, skirting the great lakes and would now be in the shadow of the Alps - if shadow there were. It is raining.

Rome seems a lifetime away. Now what? There had been plenty of time for thinking as we slow-wormed our way towards the north. 'Sixty-six, clickety-click' Some lads along the corridor were playing Housey-Housey. Clickety-click went our laggardly wheels and I passed the players on my way to the latrine, which was overflowing. I was going home. Three years? Five really. Her letters: 'My beloved’, 'My sweetheart', 'My very dearest'... her letters my mantras against doubt. So many letters, letters read with delight in North Africa, Naples, Rome, Florence... in hospitals and transit camps. We have written... how we have written! Flimsy air-letter sheets doing duty for cotton-sheet caresses. Her letters are in my back-pack. Hundreds of letters. We had written three or four times a week.

We would not be beaten, would not tolerate the hostility of time and space. Our letters preserved our special world, a world outside war, a world we had constructed and in which we had once lived. Now we will live in it once again. Nothing will change. We will pick up where we left off, the war a monstrous irrelevance. We like... no, love each other more than we love anyone else But....

Since 1939 Minna has been a volunteer soldier, seen Denmark invaded, been eased out of the A.T.S. as a possible Nazi 'plant' or 'sleeper', psycho-analysed after a breakdown triggered by this hostility and dismissed. She has endured bombs, V1s, a near-miss from a V2, 'peace', news of her father's death, food-rationing, fuel and clothes rationing, loneliness, the creeping malaise of depression and recurring head-pains. She, a woman, has endured a war which makes mine look like a Cook's tour. Stop, start... we shall be hours yet on this damned train.

Since July - exactly ten years after that joyous Dolomite July - there has been a change. A note which had sometimes surfaced in her moments of depression has now become more and more insistent. After spending time with a Catholic family a third voice has intruded into our duet. So often she writes about her 'conscience', her 'guilt'. Religion? 'God.'? Both had been written out of our lives. She was my religion, I hers.

Domodossola, December 1945: I finger my bristly chin and walk towards the ablution-benches and latrines. I walk away from the shoving, cursing queue and make for the monstrous Italian locomotive with its multiple pistons and complicated upper works - pipes, bells and whistles. All promises and no performance. Like Mussolini.

A sooty Royal Engineer leans from the cab. 'Any hot water, mate?' I ask. He grins, points to a pipe which seems to have no function. He turns or pulls something I can't see and boiling water jets into my mess-tin. Gratefully, I shave.

Shouted orders. A tannoy: 'All aboard!' Through the Simplon Tunnel into Switzerland. We are stunned, even resentful. A country untouched by war. Neat little farms, villages with intact roofs, small towns swarming with plump people in smart suits and dresses. Pretty girls line the platform at Basle to hand out Swiss chocolates amid a chorus of wolf-whistles. These the Swiss misses dismiss tolerantly. A milky voice over the tannoy hopes we will come back again - as tourists.

France is full of trackside ruins, burned-out locomotives and bomb-craters. Ragged children beg for food at every halt. Soon there will be the 'White Cliffs of Dover' - and what? The white cliffs mean nothing to me. I long, long for a hilltop in Surrey. Stop, start, crawl - too much time for thinking.

I left Minna and our beloved Scots terrier on Warlingham Station's platform at the end of October 1942. The little dog is dead, but Minna is alive. What I want is to get off that train at that same station, be met by her and walk back home with her, believing, really believing that I have just spent a day at the office. Whisking out from the best life had ever been and whisking back in again.

Dieppe. In a cavernous warehouse we queue alphabetically for strange objects - identity cards, ration books and equally strange English money - our back pay and pay for a month's demobilisation leave. I am not TOTALLY demobilised - transferred to 'Z' Reserve' hoping that 25 other categories will be recalled before reaching me.

A curious procedure at Newhaven: group by group we march into another cavernous area and are ordered to walk slowly round the walls, dragging kitbags and encumbered with great-coats. In the centre stand a group of Customs officers and a series of trestle-tables. The tables are already loaded with spectacular displays of treasure - Leica cameras, Zeiss binoculars, boxes of cigars, wrist-watches and various objects of - presumably - gold or silver. We circle round patiently while the Customs men pick one or two of us at random. I am reminded of the ancient Roman custom of decimation for a cowardly legion.

Today the selected victims are ordered to empty their kit-bags and back-packs. More treasures for the trestle-tables. I walk cautiously because my sherry, wine and Kummel are going glug-glug in my back-pack. But no-one points his finger at me. On the train to Aldershot the air is blue with the imprecations of warriors whose loot has been looted. 'A f*****g fine welcome. Bastards!'

Aldershot: a meal and accommodation in bunkhouses. I phone Minna telling her I expect to be home by the following afternoon. She sounds joyful, but tired. One of my companions smokes all night, another snores. Ah well, tomorrow night there will be SHEETS. Early next morning we enter yet another vast cavern. Long tables stand before tiers of shelves which stretch from floor to ceiling. A host of middle-aged gentlemen approach with tape-measures, offering three-piece suits in brown, blue or grey. Take your pick. I pick.

My own gentleman measures me, swarms up a ladder to the shelf labelled with the right colour and size. So this is what is meant by 'reach-me-downs'. Two shirts, a tie (three from which to choose), braces, two sets of vests and pants. Add a trilby hat. Size twelve shoes fox the system but it comes up with eleven-and-a-half. I am given a shapeless raincoat. I am to keep my great-coat and battle-dress ('handy for gardening' says my dresser) and I come into the daylight looking like a commercial traveller for a firm nearing bankruptcy.

I return to the bunkhouse, resume my battle-dress and boots, re-pack the suit in its cardboard box. I have better suits at home. One more call - to the R.T.O.s office for a rail warrant - Aldershot to Warlingham. I AM GOING HOME!

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