Part 7 : The Last Winter Of The War 1944/45

It was hard to imagine that all around us in an area little larger than Kent hundreds of thousands of British and Canadian troops were massing for the final assault on Germany itself with a million and more Americans poised for 100 miles to the south.

I never even thought about the enemy unless you thought of the enemy as our NCOs and officers and all the dirty jobs we had to do in foul weather. We felt secure in this new location as everyone had a roof over their head and all our equipment lay in front of us on the waterlogged square. Six weeks earlier Deurne had been still occupied by Germans but now it could go about its daily business.

One thing for sure was the faith the population of this area had in their catholic religion and it was pleasant to see so many people walking past to the local services where no doubt a little prayer was said for us as well.

Some of us joked that you could tell the time by the direction the people were walking to and from the church.

I knew that there were lads even younger than myself out there in the German forces, forced into a tragic start to their lives in circumstances far worse than mine and I prayed for them in an unconventional way.

Aftr a few nights spent on the floor over a terrace of one time shops, life really improved for me when I was sent to live with the family of a small farm round the corner along with a pleasant guy from Manchester who was a couple of years older than I.

Billy Ward and I spent 3 months together up in this other Mr Claasen’s hay loft from mid November to mid February and it was the Ritz to us being part of the family and sleeping in the 2 makeshift beds that they had built for us. Bill was a very friendly guy who stayed my friend right to the end of my service and we are still in close touch today. By coincidence his birthday is the same as my eldest sons born in 1949 so I could never forget it.

Every morning at 6.30 Mrs Claasen would give us a shout up the ladder and so we were never late on parade at 8.00.

Bill was a Coles crane driver which was really specialised whereas I could be given any dirty job that the day demanded. The worst was to clean the tracks of the D7 armoured buldozers after their days work clearing the roads up near the front. The best was driving a dumper to and from the railway station bringing in supplies off loaded from a train.

Once I had to work with a road roller and they were not meant for such rough chewed up surfaces full of slime. I skidded into a rut and couldn’t get out and nothing would grip and it just got deeper. One of my pals came up behind me with a tractor to nudge me out, only it was more than a nudge.

The bump cracked the sump and I limped back to base which was fortunately not far away with oil pouring out.

Regardless of the circumstances I was given a week up the front with a road grader as my punishment and I had to sleep in a small hut used for drying tobacco leaves. The artillary was firing most of the time thankfully from our side and one night the leaves that were drying on wires over my head couldn’t take any more and shook all over me in the night. I woke up almost suffocated in a sweat for it would have been a sad way to die.

It was worse for one us as his tractor came right off the road into a dyke as the sodden road gave way and even with tracks you needed to be very careful not to end up in a muddy grave such was the state of the terrain before it froze in December.

It was good to get back to the farmhouse in the evening and read all the mail and magazines that I received. I would lie on my bunk and see the frost glistening on the inside of the roof and still feel warm.

We didn’t have have to sing anymore in the evening to keep our spirits up as we had done in Mill out in the open looking at the stars.Then we could see flares going up all around us on 3 sides and we were always in danger of being cut off as someone would sing “catch a falling star” and other melodies from the “Inkspots”

Above all it was good to be part of a family and to play with the children who all were very polite and shook our hands when they went to bed.

In the rural areas at least standards had not dropped after 4 years of occupation.

In early December I got a wonderful surprise. We were so sure of our position that it was possible to send troops on short leaves to Brussels and to my amazement my name was down to go there over my 19th birthday for 72hrs on the 16th December. The tourist in me took over again and it hardly seemed possible that I was going to be let loose in a capital city in the middle of a war.

I was taken to a large flat in a smart area and such was my lack of experience of the world, I had never seen a security system on a block of flats where you pushed a button and a voice came back way up top.

I was spending 3 nights with a family whose son was in the RAF having escaped and I thought of him doing a real job of work while I was tucked up in his bed.

At that time unbeknown to me Hitler launched his own birthday present for me in the shape of the Ardennes offensive some 200 miles to the south in an effort to turn the war in his favour by cutting through the country with tanks to cut off everyone in Holland and even reach the coast.

It took everyone by surprise and thousands were killed for a bloody 3 weeks but noone disturbed my weekend of window shopping, and all the great meals and entertainment during the time the offensive had started.

I wondered if they would allow the little boy pissing statue in London and much other rudery that I saw. I wondered what the German troops had looked like as they had been told 3 months earlier we were coming to get them. It must have been wonderful to be one of those who liberated Brussels. Most of all I enjoyed that bed and lie ins after 4 months without one.

Getting back with one of our maddest drivers was much more scary than the war as he was showing off and skidded, nearly landing us all in a canal.

The snow came down and it was a hard Winter for the rest of December until early February which made the movement on the roads better with care and perfect for getting over the countryside. I took a tractor out onto the peat marshes with a trailer to bring in the peat for the locals and had lots of fun trying to back it round corners without loosing it.The locals were extremely undernourished by now and had little energy.

The only things I hated, being rather a sensitive lad, was when they had to slaughter a animal on the cobbles at the back of the house and even going to the loo which was open to the herd who stared back at you.

One day a lone man wandered into my arms over the marshes and it was evident he was a German who had taken himself off without being seen and he must have walked at least 10 miles so the only prisoner I took in the whole war myself was not a very heroic venture.The nearest I can describe that area where we were, would be like the fenlands of Cambridgeshire, and because I like woodlands I would not want to live there today, but the people are sincere and honest and I will never forget them.

Saying goodbye later to our hosts was a hard thing to do.

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