Part 9 : Occupation Forces

Only a few days after the war’s end 508 company was moved to a static location into the centre of the narrow arm of Germany that leads to the border with Denmark called Schleswig Holstein. We occupied huts along the side of the Einfelder See which is a large lake a few miles north of Neumunster on the main road to the German port of Kiel. This area was relaxed and picturesque being full of lakes and downland but it was a bit of an exaggeration to find on the map it was known as “Little Switzerland”

The main road was in good shape and was entirely cobbled with a high camber which made it tricky to both march along and drive .

I knew it was no good thinking about getting out as soon as it was all over as there were so many millions due for release who had suffered from the war much longer than I but I used to get depressed at times at thinking how I was going to start my real life.

But for a rather nasty Sgt Major who was keen to make barrack square soldiers of us again the village of Einfeld could have seemed no worse than a rather rigorous holiday camp.

Here we were to stay for a very long time with myself being the youngest at still only 19 and a half. Little did I know that in fact my army service was going to extend itself for another two and a half years , longer than I had just served to date and it had seemed a long-time at that early stage of ones life already. Of course there were people all around me who had served far, far longer and the situation was slightly relieved that I was going home on 10 days leave in July.

So many people had kept in touch with me for the past 10 months that I had been overseas that I had much to look forward to. My humble sappers pay of 21 shillings weekly (105 pence today!) had swollen my savings to the princely sum of £60 and I stood to attention on the quayside at the Hook of Holland to receive it in amazement.

I had never held more than a couple of pounds in my hand before and notes as thick as they were made then made a real wad. I bought a brand new Raleigh cycle for £12 so I could get round my friends and proudly put the rest in the local village post office at Eddington by my home just outside Herne Bay.

Once back again I felt pretty useless and the spit and polish seemed a pain and I did my best to keep out of trouble.There were still very few southerners in the unit but luckily there was my old friend Billy Ward and another from Canterbury called Eric Dixon and another older chap from Bromley called Willy Whitehead who at about 40 was like a positive grandfather to me. The worst chore to be detailed on morning parade was to clean and look after the huts themselves mainly due to the boredom. You were expected to go right up on the rafters and dust them down as well just like we used to have to do at Chatham.

There were no bunks as we slept on the bare wooden floors with mattresses with our weapons by our sides and the buildings were much the same as many in the UK and probably occupied by enemy forces shortly before we took over. One day the Sgt Major picked on me and said there was dead meat around those windows by which he meant there were still a couple of dead spiders. It will always stick in my mind because unbeknown to us at the time he was currently involved in a far worse crime and among other things he was later caught selling army supplies to the German black market.

He went missing and search parties including myself were hunting for him all around for hours. There were plenty of nasty characters around still on the run who could have done him in. I can’t really say why but when he was found hanging from a tree in a nearby wood I was not all that surprised nor sorry. After all 1000s of starving people all around were dying daily in displaced persons camps for no fault of their own.

One of the other duties was infact to keep an eye on such a camp to prevent any riots or disorders if possible. We quite often went by truck to some shattered railway sheds that passed for shelter for near corpses and again there was nothing really intelligent to do so we played with the derelict locomotives on the bombed out railway lines and pretended we were going on crack expresses. I don’t think I ever understood why continental steam engines had to have twice as many pipes around them as ours at home and look untidy at the best of times. They compared very badly to my own favourite King Arthur class that plied from London to Ramsgate and Dover.

On afternoon pass Billy Ward and I would go to the local town of Neumunster and browse around what was our first experience of a local town. It was just wonderful to be on the loose for a while although there was very little to do and very few people to be seen due to the extensive British bombing. You didn’t really say anything to locals at that stage as no fraternisation ruled for the foreseeable future. Every now and again we had to clamber over piles of rubble to get down a street and we would have a quiet giggle to each other and say “We will have to report this mess to the Burgermeister”

It was a very fine summer and the atmosphere by the lake became a bit more relaxed when we were off duty. Within the compound we had a boat house and a small pier with canoes and these we took out frequently exploring all around the lakeside which was vast and at least a mile across and many more around, with lots of inlets and bulrushes.

Those who took the risk of fraternising with girls from the local farm buildings had every opportunity to do so. I was a non swimmer really and in retrospect can’t believe I took such a risk on the water but it was usually like a millpond and you felt quite snug on your own as the canoes were well made. I only once went straight across and stuck near the sides and you could hardly feel scared when you had had so much wet bridging training behind you on the river Medway and elsewhere. In addition to that I had done quite a bit of rowing on the sea at home and on local Kent rivers with my girlfriend, not to mention with my mother on the Serpentine in London

It came as quite a shock then when we suddenly heard that my favourite Sgt Olgivie had fallen out of a canoe and been drowned. Those that knew him better told me that a few years later his sister was killed in a car crash and it was hard to believe that so much tragedy could strike one family without the help of the war.

There was welcome relief from the waste of time when educational classes were started and though it was mainly about current affairs and not linked to any qualifications, it was quite enjoyable. Not so good was the fact that I got a very sore face through shaving in cold water and my mother used to send me cream to put on my roar face. It was not well shaven one morning and I should have reported sick with it but instead I got on my 2nd charge of my service and landed up with a week of potato peeling and being confined to barracks for a week.

All our equipment and transport lay nearby in a big parking area and so it was very necessary to have a very alert guard at night two hours on and four hours off. As the winter came on they were a real pain of course and the quarter hours used to ring out far too slowly from the local village clock as we stood out there on the main road. No civilian traffic came by at night but every evening about 11 the small cycle light of a musician returning home from the local public house in the village used to approach and every time I had to challenge him just as if I had never seen him before. There was still a notice in German ironically from the old days telling everyone not to stop by the barracks and we were telling them just the opposite!. I still have a photo of that entrance reminding me of many dragging hours and cold nights.

Winter 1945/46 was severe and even though this was the mildest area of Germany being near the sea on two sides it was even harder than the previous bad one in the UK 1939/40. The entire lake was frozen solid for two months and it was quite safe to drive a truck on it as far as the eye could sse. The snow was always there but not all that deep so it didn’t become a problem but the temperatures did. Truck drivers had to run their engines at least twice in the night to prevent them from being unable to start in the day although nothing like it had been necessary in the war.

I got hold of a pair of ice skates and kept myself amused and exercised for hours at a stretch. I also had a old box camera which took some good pictures still going strong today. We didn’t go far at night from the big stoves in the huts. There were no cinemas or anything like that in this rural area. Someone noticed that I could put two and two together and I was lucky to find I had a new job when the stores office was expanded. There were two local girls and our corporal clerk Cpl Freak and an older German man who used to go on about how we should be fighting the Russians like so many did and how he went on such long walks every Sunday. I would have given anything to know what he had done in the war and he struck me as a typical ex Nazi.

One of the girls was quite the opposite and only about my age, and as she was my first contact with a local female and pleasant at that I always remember her name as Anneliese Hahn. She unexpectedly asked us both home to tea with her mother and I have to say so soon after the wars end I felt a touch guilty sitting there with the ban still on and with my long term girl friend at home who had lost a brother in the RAF. It was remarkable that the army took on German employees so soon and of course they were jobs much sort after in the days when hardly anybody had anything.

I actually wrote to her several times afterwards as she reminded me that this country still surprisingly had a future. It was amusing though to realise that the translation of the name Hahn was Cockerel. I had another 10 days leave to the UK in February 46 to remind me that all those loving friends and family really still existed and that sometime in the future another world awaited me now that I was 20. Demob had already begun for many but I didn’t allow myself the luxury of looking forward to it yet. I only tried to find ways of sorting out my frustration.

We did have some laughs but not enough to make you feel you were living a worthwhile life. A typical incident that I will never forget was the time a rather lazy member of our section failed to get up smartly one morning even though reveille was now as late as 7am.

Two ncos transported him mattress and all outside and down to the end of the jetty from where he had to walk back in the freezing cold amid the laughter of the rest of us.

One day next May 1946 after a year in Einfeld I saw my chance when volunteers were advertised for to help a special unit in Berlin deal with the casualties of war. All I could see before me that mattered was the chance to go to the one place that symbolised the final goal whether you were British or Russian or whatever and the big change in my existence that would entail. I went on a special course involving basic educational tests and it was a great feeling to know that even though my education had effectively finished when I was only 15, I could still figure it out enough to get through.

I left behind some good friends at 508, the unit I had served with since Oct 1944 in the mud of Holland and which seemed a whole world away.

Robin Brown the tourist took over again as I joined the train to go through the Soviet occupied territory to Berlin. I knew no one where I was going but I knew that life was going to be far more interesting from now on and I would have a lot to tell the folks at home when I could sit by my favourite fireside again and toast my crumpets.

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