As Britain prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe, Otto English cuts through the myths with his father’s first-hand account of war.
The lieutenant, a forward intelligence officer in the Royal Engineers, attached to the 10th Indian Division, had his orders. Survey the basin of the river, find the shattered bridge and assess the possibility of constructing a Bailey to replace it.
As the German army retreated north through Italy in June 1944, it was blowing up everything behind it and this was causing a massive headache for the advancing Allied Eighth army. Bailey bridges were the solution. Temporary, pre-fabricated, portable crossings, strong enough to support the weight of tanks, troops and heavy artillery — they could be swiftly constructed and allow the advance to Rome to continue.
The young officer had been allocated a bodyguard of two tough looking Nepalese Gurkhas to accompany him but experience taught him that it was better to go alone. More men meant more noise and stealth was of the essence. So he stood the Gurkhas down and crept forward alone into the night.
As he passed the outer reaches of the front line someone muttered: “Rather you than me mate.”
They didn’t know the half of it. Some months earlier the lieutenant had suddenly gone blind in his left eye and despite the moonlight — he could barely see the path ahead of him in the dark. Matters weren’t helped by the mud. June 1944 had seen a deluge of unseasonal rain and the mountainside was saturated. As he made his way along the narrow track he slipped across wet rocks and the risked losing his boots in the thick mire.
After an hour he was down. It felt good to be off the treacherous mountainside, but now he was close to German lines and faced the risk of capture — or worse. Soon he reached the river bank and crept towards the tangled remains of the bridge that the retreating Wehrmacht had blown up as it fled.
He took out a pencil, field notebook and torch; sketched the scene and scrawled some notes. After half an hour and satisfied that he had got what was needed, he put his equipment away and headed back towards the mountain track. By now, any lingering concern had lifted. There were no signs of the enemy and he felt satisfied that the German Army was miles away.
It was almost pleasant to be out at night like this, walking through the Umbrian countryside. His mind drifted to the Italian girl he had met and the dog he had bought her in that market. He was in trouble for that relationship but the lieutenant was an instinctive rebel and the girl had stolen his heart and he really didn’t care.
Just a few weeks earlier he had witnessed the full horrors of war at close hand during the Battle at Monte Cassino. It had affected him deeply. Any lingering faith in God was gone. Witnessing the brutal endgame and seeing bodies scattered across the hillside had reshaped his outlook on life.
The girl was worth far more to him than the whispers of his comrades and the promotion to Captain that he now knew would never come. For the first time he was truly in love. He wanted to survive the war and live out the rest of his life with her.
And then, suddenly, something to his right caught his one good eye.
Across the short expanse of a river he could see another man, dressed in the uniform of the German Army Pionier battalion, making notes by torchlight. The Wehrmacht officer was so engrossed in his work, that he hadn’t noticed him.
What to do? The path up was just a few metres away – he could probably creep to it unnoticed and evince his escape. But wasn’t he supposed to kill Germans? Wasn’t that the point of war? Wasn’t that why he was here?
He unbuttoned his holster, drew his service pistol and dithered.
Firing his gun would attract attention but more than that, he was overcome with the powerful sense that he really didn’t want to kill someone. Unfortunately, this moment of pause meant that inaction was no longer an option.
On the opposite riverbank, the German soldier was now staring back at him in the moonlight. The two young men’s lives were now entwined in a moment of common fate.
The Lieutenant raised his pistol, pulled the trigger —and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction. Behind him, he heard shouts and perhaps, although he could never quite remember, the return of gunfire. He ran up the path, slipping and sliding with the adrenalin coursing through him and his one good eye letting him down as he tumbled repeatedly into the rocks. He didn’t stop until he was well away and up the mountain slope and only then when he knew he was safely within reach of his own front line.
When he got back to his camp bed he found it impossible to settle. Had he killed the man? He didn’t know. He tried to get to sleep but eventually gave up. The following morning news came that the enemy had retreated and as work began on that Bailey bridge began he managed to get across the river. He scouted about — looking for a body — or signs of blood and finding none convinced himself that he hadn’t hit the man, let alone killed him.
And for that he felt nothing but a deep sense of relief.
Forty years later and now advancing into his late sixties, the man would tell this story to his teenage son as we walked through the fields.
I had grown up on the staple diet of war films and toys that boys played with well into the 1980s and the story, repeatedly told as we trod the muddy footpaths of Essex, disappointed me intensely. This tale of fear, of reluctance to kill and relief that he hadn’t was at stark odds with the narrative in my head. Why had he run away? Why had he been relieved that the German hadn’t been hit? What was wrong with you Dad? It made no sense.
A decade later, after he died, one of his old comrades told me other stories of my father’s war – ones that shone a far more glorious light on his actions. But the story my Dad chose to tell me – his son – was the one where he ran away.
The young lieutenant never married his Italian girlfriend and – many years later – met my mother and settled down with her instead. I was born when he was in his fifties and as such was out of kilter with most of the other children of my generation. It was mostly their grandparents who had been in the war and in a way I suppose, knowing Dad had been there made me feel special. I was proud of him – even if the loss of that one eye caused him to drive ever more slowly as he aged, much to the amusement of my contemporaries.
Like millions of other ex-servicemen, as time receded, he looked back in fondness on the adventures of his youth and the comradeship of war. His closest friends were those who had been through it with him and survived. They were to a man, kindly, funny, decent people – who had a kind of wisdom that the generation that followed seemed to envy. These veterans were not incomparable super-beings but ordinary men forged by the exceptional circumstances of lives uprooted by events beyond their control.
It was only 50 years after VE Day that my Dad bothered to put his service medals together and he only wore them that one summer, as he and his old comrades marched on that last great parade through London. He told me that same year that he hadn’t ‘celebrated’ the original VE Day – which came while he was in Germany because “I didn’t really see what there was to celebrate.” But he wanted to see his old friends again so he went down to London for the day.
His views were solidly old school Conservative and as such he believed in our place in Europe because:
“I don’t want you to have to waste your youth and risk your life doing what I had to do.”
He died in 1998 and would have been horrified by the tacky appropriation of his war by tin-pot nationalists whose experience of the fear of battle extended no further than the cadets parade ground at Dulwich College.
This Friday, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we are being invited to celebrate. Leaflets and internet memes are encouraging Brexit Britain to sing patriotic songs, hold socially distanced VE day garden parties and tune in to hear Winston Churchill’s 1945 victory speech on the BBC.
I shall be doing none of that, but I will perhaps take my son for a walk in the park behind our house and tell him once again about the amazing grandad he never knew and how lucky we and his sister are that one night in June 1944, in a valley in Umbria — he ran away.