As VE Day approaches I’ve been reading the diaries my father kept as a prisoner or war. In early May 1945 he was in a work group in the Austrian Tirol. British forces were close, but the country in between was occupied by heavily-armed SS troops. Although there had been a local capitulation on 2nd May, locals said the SS wanted to fight on.
For Dad the final days of the war held jubilation, high drama, and needless tragedy. In previous posts I have described the murder of the SS officer’s family near my father’s camp, and the bizarre circumstances of the surrender of the Hungarian division. It was a Hungarian officer who told Dad that British troops had reached Lienz, just 20 miles away. The officer agreed to drive Dad and another sergeant there, through SS ‘bandit country’.
Fortunately the road to Lienz proved clear. Dad’s description of contact with Allied troops is unemotional: ‘on the outskirts of Lienz we ran into a British patrol [and] we found ourselves in the thrilling company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.’ He’d known 3 years in captivity, escaped once, and endured punishment beatings and a mock execution as a result. He’d known such starvation that he wrote of one camp ‘we marched in as soldiers, we crawled out as animals’. And yet his first contact with free British forces earns only the label ‘thrilling company’.
The local situation was still volatile. In London, crowds packed the Mall to cheer the King and Queen. In Lienz ‘the night was marked by a good deal of shooting; not rapid fire, but well within view a number of houses or other buildings were burning fiercely.’ The Argylls promised to send transport to extract all the British prisoners of war, so after a celebratory beer the two British sergeants returned to their camp. It must have seemed strange to be chauffeured by a newly-surrendered Hungarian officer.
The good doctor
The entry for Dad’s last night in a prisoner of war camp shows more warmth, but surprisingly it is for the local Austrian population. In particular the local doctor had not only cared for their ailments but found other ways of alleviating their situation, frequently at great personal risk. Perhaps a dozen of the British PoWs gathered in his home that night for a farewell bottle, staying until several were incapable of climbing back up the hill to the ‘Lager’. Dad wrote ‘he was a brave and charming man, and I honour his memory.’
I suspect that ‘fraternisation’ stretched way beyond the doctor’s kindness. When the promised transport arrived the following day, ‘leave-taking was a wretched business, everyone seemed sorry to lose us, and all the women and girls were crying. And so we said “Auf Wiedersehen” and not good-bye, and if ever the opportunity occurs I shall most certainly return.’
Return, and afterwards
Dad reached home in June 1945. His own parents had suffered, in a different way; Dad was an only child, and comrades in his unit had seen his truck hit by tank fire in 1942, during the retreat to El Alamein. My grandparents received the dreaded telegram ‘Missing, Believed Killed’. They endured six months of uncertainty before they knew he was alive and a prisoner of war.
I always thought it strange that Dad talked so warmly of Austria, the country of his later imprisonment. Perhaps it came from the deep camaraderie of that work group, which endured for decades afterwards. Perhaps it was the warmth of a local, rural community largely untouched by Nazi politics. The Tirol had been kind, but I think some of his earlier experiences as a prisoner damaged him. His generation, though, did their best to pull themselves together and get on with life.
Dad lived to be 93. One of his fellow escapees in Italy, a man who stood beside him facing the firing squad in that mock execution, was Best Man at his wedding. They became lifelong friends.
Posted on VE Day, 2020, in honour to all those who served in that war, and those who waited.
Has anyone ever noticed how evocative music can be? The way it takes the mind back to a particular time and place?
I was at a very elderly relative’s house recently, helping her to clear out old cupboards. Among the debris was a stack of old piano music, some of it inscribed with the names of ancestors who’d been born when Queen Victoria ruled an empire. Each sheet was a slice of social history from an era before television, when a family made its own entertainment around the piano, or the ‘ol joanna’ as one London great-aunt used to call it. The words shone a spotlight on an era that is passing from memory.
‘Here we are, out of cigarettes, / holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets, / Two sleepy people, by dawn’s early light, / And too much in love to say “Goodnight.”’
An image of innocence formed in my mind; young lovers in a past so distant that smoking was normal but unmarried cohabitation was unthinkable.
Then one thin, folded compilation from 1940 caught my eye. Its cover showed a British soldier sitting on an ammunition box, tin hat at a rakish angle, waving a torch as he sang songs from an era when courage and defiance were the watermark of the British soul.
‘There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover…’
My sight-reading is awful. People only ask me to play once. But hey, ho, this stuff was too good leave unplayed, so I propped it on the piano and started.
‘There will always be an England…’
Have you ever felt that an audience was with you? I mean, totally with you, carrying you, urging you on?
‘And that England shall be free…’
Around me, querulous, reedy voices found a power they hadn’t felt since before the old King died. Their enthusiasm filled me with confidence. I even started playing better. Well, at least their noise drowned my mistakes.
‘If England means as much to you as England means to me…’
More! More! We were on a roll. A ninety-something year old clapped her hands over her head before her voice faltered at the memory of the dashing young officer she’d once loved.
‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…’
I turned as the singing faded into sniffs behind me, and in the dewy eyes of great age, I saw the ones they’ll meet again, some sunny day.
You can have too much of a good thing. Now where did I put that Flanders and Swann album?