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AND SO ...

11. LIBERATION ..... by the Americans; preparing to fly home with the RAF

Chapter 12. "Return Home"

The next day, that WONDERFUL day, Friday 13th April, 1945, saw me in the morning boiling some oft-boiled coffee grounds, when a fellow came along, whom I presumed to be an idiot, because he kicked over my tin of coffee grounds. Then he began cavorting all over the place, shouting: "They’re here, they’re here!" I leapt from the ground, ready to thump him, until I saw him pointing to the hedge, towards which large numbers of the lads were running.


He grabbed me and said: "Look! Look at the aerial!" And sure enough I could see a pennant fluttering. We had been set free by four American soldiers in a Jeep!

Strangely enough the thoughts of freedom were so remote that some of the lads were shouting to the Americans to speed off in case they were put into the bag. The American sergeant finally told us that we were free, that they were one of many groups sent out to find us because, strangely enough, we had seemed to have disappeared.

In no time a number of jeep-loads of American soldiers appeared and the realisation came to me that I was finally free. All I could do was flop down onto the grass; I felt helpless and even lifeless as it sank in that no more would I be picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down for freedom; freedom had arrived. Yes, I cried; I just lay there and cried bucketfuls. After that spasm I found an American sergeant standing over me, asking me if I could speak Dutch. Of course he meant Deutsch; somebody had pointed me out as being able to speak German. He wanted to have the elderly guards lined up and their rifles, bayonets and rucksacks placed on the grass in front of them. The rifles and bayonets were collected and I told the guards to empty the contents of the rucksacks onto the grass. The sergeant was hoping to find a gold watch, but there wasn’t much hope of that amongst the few possessions they had between them: just toilet articles and photographs. Then we looked into the cart which had been with us all the way. There were the guards’ blankets and an empty rucksack, which I immediately took. All of the pocket watches were looked over by the sergeant. He took them for souvenirs and gave me three.

To my amazement, an open-top lorry appeared and the one-time elderly guards were loaded in and driven off. I told the sergeant that we had had to walk everywhere when captured and compared it with that lot being transported, but he made nothing of it. Our arrival at the farm had seen us being warned away from those white-feathered chickens, but by now the air was snowing with white feathers, as everybody was determined to have a chicken meal. I actually saw starving colleagues wandering amongst the birds, disregarding some that were too small! We were to be left at the farm that night whilst enough transport was organised to move us in relays to a captured airfield, where we would be able to use the huts. In the meantime we each received an American "K" ration packet of food. That and the chicken roasted over a spit made a most welcome meal - almost heavenly!

NAAFI Card - the Navy, Army and Air Force Institution - part of the welcome we shortly received in England

Late that afternoon appeared a horse-drawn flat-topped cart on which was what I can only describe as a bath, under which a fire was blazing. The whole get-up was convoyed by Russians. Some on the cart were evidently the cooks, stirring whatever was cooking in the bath, with some scooping up chickens and dispatching them, to throw them to the riders for onward treatment. What a stew that must have made! They even tried to round up one of the cows, but the Americans stopped that and gave them cigarettes in lieu. I wonder if they had the ‘trots’ next morning after that meal, the way I suffered after the hot pork. They were on the road to freedom, with a long way to go, so perhaps they didn’t care. What must the villagers have thought when they heard that Russians were passing through? Those lads must have lived well on their journey. I like to think that they might have passed through Freiburg and dispatched some of those geese into the bath! Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down.

Seeing the cow being chased gave me an idea and I walked to one of the cow sheds, with the idea of obtaining milk. Busily cleaning out the cowshed was a young woman who was a conscripted worker from the Ukraine. When I asked for some milk, she told me I must return early in the morning at milking time and invited me to visit the building which was the living quarters for her and her compatriots. The inside was very much like the inside of our huts: three-tier bunks, but this time boys and girls lived together. They wanted to know what had been happening and were amazed to learn that they, like us, were free. When the conversation turned to milk and why I required some, I mentioned that it was to use with coffee. At that their ears literally pricked up. Telling them to wait, I went back to the American sergeant who gave me some packets of coffee, which I took to them. They were profuse in their thanks, telling me to be at the cowshed at six in the morning.

I don’t suppose many of us slept very long that night. Excitement was still in the air and I was up and about long before six o’ clock - or so my watches told me. On entering the cowshed I saw the young lady sitting on a one-legged stool, milking a cow. She told me to take a similar stool, showed me where to sit and told me to begin milking. I had never milked a cow in my life and, when going through the motions of pulling a cow’s teats, produced nothing. Even the poor old animal mooed and looked back at me to see who was operating at its other end. I might just as well have used its tail as a pump for all the good I was doing. Eventually the milk-maid came to my assistance to show me the correct way and, much to my surprise, the cow condescended to release some milk. Not a lot, but the sound of the milk falling to the bottom of that bucket made me think of a picture of a milkmaid jetting milk from a cow’s teat at a cat sitting expectantly nearby. After a while my wrists had had enough, but I had obtained about half a bucket of milk. The milkmaid asked if I had finished and laughed when she saw the amount I had obtained. Saying: "Komm", she took the bucket to a calf which, with one slurp, emptied the bucket. Looking at my amazed face, the girl gave a lovely laugh, which was something I hadn’t heard for a very long time. Then she went back to the cow on which I had been operating and the milk began to flow into the bucket with a musical rhythm. We went back to their dwelling, where she gave me a large metal container of milk. I gave them my tin of nine cigarettes and a bar of American chocolate to the girl who, as she was saying her thanks, began to cry. What a contrast it was to the pleasant laughter of a few minutes before - again something I hadn’t heard in a long time.

There had been an issue of a breakfast pack of American "K" rations, containing dried egg powder, which to me was a revelation, a packet of coffee, some biscuits, cigarettes and even toilet paper, amongst other goodies which I have forgotten. By now four of us naval lads had teamed up, the French frying pan was brought into use, coffee made with milk and so our first Freedom breakfast was fried egg powder and biscuits washed down with hot coffee made with fresh milk. We had plenty of firewood by breaking some of the wooden fences. Soon after ‘chow time’, as the Americans called meal-time, army trucks began to arrive to transport us to a captured airfield, which was serving as a reception area for us. And so I left my last place of captivity, not picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down, but in the comparative luxury of an American Army truck. We rode for a couple of hours, winding round country lanes. We had been released about forty miles from that airfield and when we arrived we were told to find a billet in one of the empty huts which had previously housed enemy airmen; the interiors weren’t much of an improvement upon our previous living arrangements. Better lighting and better lockers, but three-tier bunk beds, together with similar tables and stools.

By the time I arrived at that airport those once-new boots I had put on early in January had been just about walked off my feet. The end of the "Wheatsheaf" brand boots had arrived. I searched for the American sergeant, who by now was calling me ‘Limey’ - the name any British sailor is known by to the cousins on the other side of the ‘pond’, because in the Tropics a daily issue of lime-juice is given to all personnel of the Royal Navy. Showing him my footwear I enquired about the possibility of obtaining a pair of boots. He directed me to a hut, the inside of which was lined with American Army service boots. A soldier was stacking them to create space. When I told him that the sergeant had sent me to find a pair, I was told to help myself and he let me know that the boots had been collected from men who had been killed in action. I sorted through the unstacked heap until I found two boots which fitted - a pair of high lace-up boots with sturdy support for the ankles. My poor old pair of worn out black boots I secured to one another by the laces and carefully placed them on the top of one of the prepared stacks. That pair had served me well and deserved a good rest. Vive la "Wheatsheaf"! That is the best recommendation I can give to that brand.

On my way out of the hut the soldier asked me if I wanted a ‘K’ ration and, without my replying, told me to follow him into the adjoining hut, where cartons of packets were stored. Having had a breakfast pack, I asked for a lunch pack, whereupon we went to a stack of cartons and I began to open one and remove a pack. He knocked my hand away and told me to take the whole carton. I stood amazed for a moment; this was a repetition of Mad Sunday. He told me to share the carton with my buddies: "There’s no shortage here; you’ll be fed up with them before long." I thought to myself that he should have been living with us for the last four months.

Expressions fail me when it comes to trying to describe the generosity of the American Services whilst I was at that airfield. In no time at all, long trestle tables were set up - and I do mean ‘long’. Each table groaned with anything and everything I had dreamed about whilst in that state of deprivation. They were piled high with bars of chocolate, cartons of cigarettes, soap, all kinds of toiletries, books, newspapers, comic papers, ‘K’ rations - in fact, you name it and it was to be found somewhere on those trestle tables. To cap it all, there were American uniformed ladies behind the tables saying: "Help yourself, honey. There’s plenty more for you boys." They were just heaping things on us. It just wasn’t happening - but it was! After those years of famine, one would have expected a mad rush, but no; there was such a huge assortment available that you could compare it with walking around a supermarket with a shopping trolley today, with those girls urging us: "Help yourselves, honey." Each day, more released P.O.W’s were arriving and the amounts on the trestle tables were constantly replenished. We lived on ‘K’ rations which were heavenly. And the weather was fine, as if trying to make up for the harsh winter.

One day the American sergeant caught up with me and took me off in a Jeep. At the far end of the airfield was a stone-built hut with padlocked corrugated doors. He used his machine gun to shoot off the padlock and inside we found we were in a parachute store. Besides wanting a gold watch, the sergeant now wanted a cuckoo clock, so he decided to fill the back of the Jeep with parachutes. We drove around the villages, where he attempted to exchange a parachute for a cuckoo clock or even a gold watch, but none were in evidence. He did collect a good number of eggs and some smoked hams, though. The only name I could think of for a cuckoo clock was a ‘bird clock’, calling it a ‘Vogel-Uhr’ and making cuckoo noises, but it didn’t seem to register and the villagers looked at me with sympathy, as if I was ‘bomb-happy’. When I asked the sergeant why he didn’t bring one of his German-speaking buddies, he replied that what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. I often compare him to Sergeant Bilko. When I recall that the right name for that type of clock is ‘Kuckucksuhr’ and that ‘Kuckuck’ is another word for ‘Dummkopf’, I realise it was no wonder that the villagers looked at me as if I had a screw loose!

Very soon the airfield began to burst at the seams with released personnel, but those trestle tables continues to be piled high. Those good ladies implored everybody to: "Help yourself, honey" and then: "Don’t forget to take some home for your folks!" As there was so much on offer I filled my German rucksack with cartons of cigarettes, ‘K’ rations and bars of chocolate.

Then came the news I had been waiting for. Next day all of us Brits would be transferred to a British airfield for transport to the U.K. Next morning we assembled outside our huts and several covered Army trucks arrived. To my amazement we were to be escorted by armed American soldiers in Jeeps and, more amazing, the same sergeant was with us. Because we were to ride a distance of about a hundred miles, we were each given a small packet of biscuits and told to take a piece of butter from one of the largest blocks I had seen in many a year. Stuck in the top of the butter was a sort of pallet knife and each person moved along the line to cut out a knob before climbing into the lorry. When my turn came to take some, something came over me and I sort of lost all sense of self control. Taking the pallet knife, I literally two-handedly attacked the butter and succeeded in carving out a lump the size of a house brick - all to put on a small packet of biscuits. At this ridiculous action the soldier who was supervising the distribution didn’t remonstrate or bat an eyelid. He just calmly said: "What are you going to do with all that?" Then I did feel like a Dummkopf and, when sanity returned, I remember apologising, putting that huge piece of butter back and taking a piece about the size of a walnut. I wonder what a "trick cyclist" would have made of that. Plenty compensating for deprivation, perhaps.

In each lorry was a clean, new galvanized bucket and, according to the sergeant, we would stop at about lunchtime to find a house to supply boiling water for coffee. Somewhere around lunchtime the lorry stopped and the sergeant called for me to alight with another fellow to walk up the drive of a house, hidden behind some trees. The other lad was a Welsh soldier. We carried the empty bucket; the sergeant had several packets of coffee ready for the brew. He was also carrying his machine gun, with which he banged on the rather imposing door of the resplendant house and soon the door was opened by a servant girl. I told her that we wished for hot water to make coffee and she closed the door, leaving us outside. We didn’t have to wait very long before the door opened again and she invited us into the kitchen. Here was a fairly young servant girl who opened her eyes wide when I mentioned American coffee, and even more when she saw the number of packets of coffee which had been taken from the ‘K’ rations. A number of the packets were emptied into the bucket, but I did manage to hang on to one to give to the girl, who actually curtsied as she thanked me. With the bucket nearly full with pungent smelling coffee we made our way out to the entrance, to be met by an obese, affluent German, who was evidently the owner of the house. I described him as affluent because the waistcoat adorning his ample stomach sported a gold watch chain. How slow the American sergeant and I were. As we were leaving the house, Taffy, the Welsh soldier, said to me: "Sailor, ask him the time." Without thinking, I said: "Wieviel Uhr ist es, bitte?" Whereupon the affluent German gentleman lifted the gold chain to take a GOLD WATCH from his waistcoat pocket. As quick as a flash, the Welsh boy took the watch from the German’s hand, unclipped it from the chain and said: "This makes up for the watch I had taken when I was captured." The American and I could only stand and stare in astonishment. And neither of us in our amazement thought to take the gold chain! The portly gentleman began shouting: "Mein Uhr! Mein Uhr!" but we took no notice and, with the bucket of coffee, walked back to the lorry for a lunch of coffee, biscuits and butter, shared with the soldiers in the guard jeep. Did the American soldier ever find a gold watch? I wonder.


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revised 27/9/11