Kindness in war and peace

Last Friday was VE (Victory in Europe, WWII) day. Britain’s tabloid newspapers and some other media outlets delighted in escaping from the viral gloom of recent months to show images and disseminate stories of revellers in 1945 and today. It’s something to be celebrated – the end of terrible hostilities with a fascist axis (although the war in the Pacific continued for some months more). But I found something distasteful in the jingoistic and triumphalist tone of some reports: victory over Europe seemed to be the subtext. Plucky little Britain gives a V-sign to foreigners and shows we can go it alone.

It was a relief therefore to read a moving post at Bobby Seal’s Psychogeographic Review blog. He told the story of his father’s experiences of cruelty and suffering as a prisoner of war (POW) during the war, but more importantly of the kindness he was shown by a young Polish woman. There’s a link HERE

My dad was also a POW. He was serving as a sergeant in the artillery in the N. African desert when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. His unit had been surrounded by Rommel’s forces. His CO had told him the night before capture that the officers were all retreating to safety, but that he – my dad – as the senior non-commissioned soldier, was to hold his ground as the Germans advanced, to give his officers maximum time to make their escape. What a message to give the troops: you’re expendable, we’re invaluable.

In the morning he was thus left in command of this small unit of artillerymen. They fought as long as they could. My dad saw some terrible things as they were pounded by German tanks and artillery. Finally they destroyed their own guns as surrender became inevitable. The worst thing a gunner can do, dad told me: spike his own guns.

The survivors were marched for days across the scorching desert with little water or food. Many died on the way to the POW camp.

When Italy opted out of the war and their POW camp was about to be deserted by their Italian captors, the British officer responsible for discipline among the prisoners called the prisoners together. His orders were that they were to stay put in the camp until the Germans arrived to take over control of the camp. It later emerged that this was a direct order from Montgomery, commanding the invading Allied troops in Italy. He apparently didn’t want the roads and other lines of communication ‘clogged up’ with escaping British prisoners.

My dad walked out and made for the Apenines. For some months he was sheltered and fed by a variety of mountain farmers and their families. Finally one of them turned him in – but he never forgot the kindness most Italians showed him. (Eric Newby has a fascinating account of his own similar experiences there in Love and War in the Apennines.)

He was sent on to another camp in Italy. He escaped twice. On the second occasion he’d made it almost to the Allied lines; they were just across a river. As he entered the water to swim across he was spotted by a German patrol. They opened fire, and he was forced to surrender – just metres from freedom.

A young German soldier was assigned to take him back to a camp in the sidecar of his motorbike. After some hours of driving, the motorcyclist parked up to enter an inn for food and drink. He shut my dad into an unlocked outhouse, and gave him to understand with facial expressions and gestures that he was trusting him not to try to escape, while he fetched food and drink for them both. This he did. My dad was starving and thirsty: he opted to accept the soldier’s kindness.

He spent something like four years in prison camps, first in Italy, later in Germany. I remember as a child leafing through a book he’d brought home after the war. It contained articles, drawings and cartoons made by the prisoners for their camp’s “newspaper”. I didn’t understand as a child the significance of these pieces. There was little evidence of the horrors they were experiencing.

My dad rarely spoke of these years. It was only when I was in my late teens that he told me these stories. He was clearly scarred psychologically by what he’d gone through. He never found it easy to show affection to us kids. He was often distant, distracted.

I spoke to my sister about all this at the weekend, and asked her if she had anything else I could add here. She reminded me that our dad arrived back in England soon after VE day and was stationed in a sort of rehab camp in Sussex, on the south coast. My mother was living in Hastings – in that county – at that time. She met my dad at a dance in her town that the men were allowed to attend.

It was the classical whirlwind romance. They married a few months later. My brother was born in June 1946, six months later. It took him years to do the maths and realise he was conceived before our parents were married!

He remained in the military until I was six years old. The family followed him around the world to camps where he was stationed – I was born in Germany, lived in Egypt and Cyprus (where I attended my first school), then back to Germany, with brief returns to Britain in between.

My siblings and I attended dozens of different schools between us in our childhood – all very unsettling. Even when he left the army, dad tended to be restless, and we moved house many more times, often for no apparent reason, resulting in more changes of schools for us children.

I’d like to say that he was magnanimous in his later life about his former enemies. He didn’t hate them, but was always one of those who vaunted his own country and berated foreigners in general. I guess it was my teenage rebellion against this little-Englander attitude that made me the Europhile I now am. It took me a long time to understand why he was so xenophobic.

But it’s also why I can’t stand flag-waving ultra-nationalism. It’s what’s led to the catastrophe of Brexit. Probably explains why the UK has made such a mess of responding to the pandemic: we’re so great we don’t need to learn from anyone else, our leaders seem to believe.

I started this post with reference to a psychogeographical blog; I became interested in psychogeography when I taught a unit called Sense of Place in an English degree course. I’ve posted several pieces over the years about this, from DH Lawrence in Cornwall and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to a virtual dérive (link HERE).

On Iain Sinclair, the born-again flâneur, HERE