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Towards the end of November and through to January 1945 they were due for "six restful weeks" at Zomeren, according to the Regimental History, which also reported on two inspections. "The first was a visit from General Ritchie, the 12 Corps Commander. We conducted him through the mud and into the worst hovels we were occupying. It was cold. We gave him several cups of tea. All went quite well and inspector and inspected parted on the friendliest terms."

Jim mused over civilian attitudes towards the armed forces before returning to the issues that affected his life the most: the weather, the billets and the enemy action.

B.L.A. Holland, 16 November 1944

“Nothing amuses and at the same time irritates me more than to read in the newspapers how the Tommy likes action, how the infantryman is keen to get at the enemy, how the airman curses when a mist keeps him grounded, how the tankman worships his tank. It is all utter nonsense. The infantryman does not thirst for action, the airman often blesses the mist which grounds him and the tankman is sick and tired of looking at a tank and welcomes any opportunity to get away from them.”

“Why do they try to insist that there is anything decent or pleasant about any of it or that anyone likes it? After it is over the other phase will start and horror will be piled on horror making it sound a thousand times worse than it was.”

“Chilblains – it’s funny you should have a chilblain as I also have had quite a time with them. For the first time in my life too – truly we are aging as you say.”

“We have had one good fall of snow so far and last night it froze hard so that the water-cart was out of action for a while. I was sleeping on the lorry in a field but didn’t feel it at all. This morning the engine would scarcely turn over at all as the oil was so stiff.”

“Tonight we are in billets again and at present I am sitting in a super-heated room. It is quite a modern house though very small. None of the houses in Belgium or Holland have any hot water system, indoor sanitation or baths even though in other respects they are more modern than ours at home. I had my first good bath since D-day last week when we discovered a factory not two miles from Jerry in full working order. There were ultra-modern showers there all chromium and stainless steel.”

“This village shows no signs of liberation at all though the burgomaster was playing hell with us for tearing up his pavements with the tanks.”

“Recently the B.L.A. invented a new game of liberation. Many guns were brought in and placed in gardens and between houses, one house had four 25 pounders in its back garden and one street had a gun to every house and one to every garden. Then they all opened up together. Nix slapen for the people as it went on all night.”

Jim described his current billet with a modern kitchen “divided off from the living room by a frosted glass screen which runs the whole length of the wall – with, of course, a door in it.” He thought Pip would like it and included a plan for her. She had previously asked what the billets were like.

B.L.A. Holland, 18 November 1944

“The living room is connected to the dining room by two sliding doors also of frosted glass.”

Plan of house used as a billet

“One thing that strikes me about all the houses I’ve been in is the lack of kitchen utensils compared with the English home and yet they seem to get along just the same. Perhaps they store them somewhere else for there is no accommodation for them in the kitchen. One never sees a pan anywhere except when it is actually in use.”

“I cannot decide whether we are really welcome in Holland. We are preferable to the Germans of course but I think Holland will sigh with relief when they see our backs. It is irritating when they show condescension in their attitude. The British habit of belittling ourselves has had its reward and they have no inkling of the terrific effort Britain has put into this war…”

“It amuses me sometimes to see what reaction one of my snaps has on these people. Usually one is always treated to a good dose of how they hate Jerry. ‘All Germans are swine’, ‘They should all be shot man woman and child’, ‘The women are worse than the men’, etc. etc. Then I show that snap with Mr Brull on it and tell them he is a German or was, and is a very good man. Then it comes. How surprising! ‘My sister of course married a German and lives in Germany, he is a very good husband, his son has the Iron Cross or was killed at Stalingrad’, ‘I have two sisters in Germany’, ‘My husband is a German’, ‘My two nephews are in the Luftwaffe, very nice boys – it’s a great pity – my niece is a nurse and was wounded when the Americans bombed the hospital at Dusseldorf’, etc. etc… It’s natural of course when one is so near the frontier that a lot of intermarriage should have taken place, but why try to hide the fact?"

“The people at home of course are the same in their attitude towards the soldier. When we went down to Westcliff on disembarkation one would have thought we were lepers or something… They never spoke to us except to complain about something. They called their youngsters to heel if they tried to talk to us… the tone of their particular bit of suburbia was being lowered by our presence. After the nonsense talked in the newspapers about ‘our returning heroes’ it made us laugh.”

“I shall ignore your remarks re the Jerry – the china one. I may say they are an indispensable necessity in these houses and the absence of them has led to many a rollicking adventure in the middle of the night.”

Pip wrote to report that Jim’s parcel had arrived:

B.L.A. Holland, 22 November 1944

“If I had known you were going to be so pleased with the collection I would have increased it… an unlimited supply of all cosmetics owing to the fact that Belgium was constrained to accept such things in payment for food supplied to Paris during enemy occupation… I bought the stuff in Turnhout and if at all possible will get some more.”

They had spent two days in the fields before moving into a billet in a shop, “However, for the trifling expenditure of one oak tree we obtained enough red-hot charcoal to keep our truck beautifully warm when it was shovelled into a bucket.”

“The shop was a stationers and the shoppie in charge has buried most of his stock to save it from Tedesci. Tomorrow he will dig it up and I’ll buy some… We are providing our own light here as Jerry has most inconsiderately cut off our supply. It went out last night.”

“They won’t let us sleep upstairs because Tedesci whangs in a few shells at night and shakes down the ceilings. They all sleep in the cellar and we sleep in a room at the back of the house, on mattresses on the floor... The house jumps about two inches each time they fire – that was another – and another. They’ll – and another. I was going to say they’ll probably be quiet now for an hour or so!”

B.L.A. Holland, 29 November 1944

“Your last letter mentioned that you had had a letter from the Nijskins – that is the Belgian Congo people in the poshish house.”

Actually it was from the Geusens but, as explained previously, they were all related.

Jim’s latest billet earned a whole page of description due to its unusual structure:

“… a weird affair made out of what appears to be a church hall or some such meeting house. It is a room about 50 ft long by 40 ft wide with a stage at one end… The stage is partitioned off to make a bedroom and the body of the hall similarly divided into four rooms with plywood walls about six feet high… One can look over the partitions into the next room and when one slams a door the whole house structure is in peril of collapse… The household effects consist of an enormous mass of junk… just piled higgledy-piggledy against the walls. Old boxes, blankets, tins, jerries, wash-tubs, chairs, cutlery,… buckets, stoves, tables,… crockery, shovels, coal, wood, any damned thing.”

“We have connected a stove Heath Robinson fashion to his stove and the fact that the stove-pipe runs through nearly all his rooms en passant worries him not at all. If we desire his presence we just bawl ‘Guilders’ and he comes running… he seems to have unlimited supplies of money and buys anything at all.”

“The ‘walls’ are all papered by the way but one wall is now damaged as the ‘Bull’ fell over something outside and came right through the wall. ‘Guilders’ and his wife were in here at the time and laughed themselves nearly daft.”

Jim mused over the possibility of Leave in January, to be decided by drawing the quota out of a hat, and then described his very lucky escape the previous night.

B.L.A. Holland, 1 December 1944

“I was in the truck frying chips about 8 o’clock and the wireless was on. Our planes had been, and still were, going over in large numbers with that monotonous drone we know so well when it suddenly dawned on me that something was wrong. I don’t know what it was exactly nor does Fred Whiting but he reacted too. He shot up to turn down the wireless whilst I shot out of the truck with Fred a close second. I hit the ground about twenty feet away and was instantly aware of (a) the sky being full of what I took to be flares directly above us and (b) the unmistakeable sound, like an express train, of a heavy bomb which is going to be as near as dammit a direct hit. I flattened out in the mud as it hit very close at hand with a terrific thud. I then became aware (a) that it didn’t explode (b) that the things weren’t flares at all (c) that something hit the next field with a terrific crash and a sheet of flame (d) the unmistakeable sound of another damned bomb also going to be hellishly close. This time I went to ground in a ditch full of water and the ‘bomb’ hit nearer than ever, shaking the ground and covering us with bits and pieces. The ‘flares’ were still coming down and sundry crashes and sheets of fire all around showed where stuff was showering down all round. I was perplexed and a little worried. All this of course took a few seconds at the most and by now I realised it was not an orthodox bombing attack. Our planes were going over uninterruptedly in huge numbers and for a moment I had a horrible feeling that a mistake had been made, that the flares were bomb markers and the fires oil markers for our bombers to unload on.”

In the morning Jim found out that two bombers had collided at about 10,000 ft. One of the ‘bombs’ was an engine that missed the lorry by about fifteen feet, the other was a bomb which didn’t explode. Of the two crews only three managed to bail out but the remainder had to be recovered from amongst all the debris.

“Tonight on the News ‘RAF Lancasters and Halifaxes in great strength raided Duisburg last night. Four of our bombers are missing.’ It makes you think as they say. Boy, I thought I’d had it.”

He went on to describe another near miss in Holland when a Messerschmidt shot down a Dakota transport dropping supplies. The Dakota, in flames, “dipped and came straight at us like a gigantic meteor – a horrible feeling it is, one of utter helplessness. Fortunately she then dipped one wing and sheared off to the left. We buried eight men out of her I remember and the pilot was literally shot to ribbons.”

After complaining that nothing much was happening and he didn’t know what he was going to write about Jim filled two pages with cheerful anecdotes.

B.L.A. Holland, 6 December 1944

“Pride goeth before a fall they say – well I’ve fallen… I was the only driver who was still able to show a truck unblemished by scars… Now I have a punched-in wing and side-light… You’ll believe me won’t you when I say that a horse, a big burly cart-horse with feet like coalhole covers, when being led down the road took an instant dislike to the truck, and very deliberately turned sideways to launch its hind hoofs at the unoffending vehicle with obvious effects. The horse was quite unblemished. I’ve had to sort it all out with a 14 lb sledge-hammer. The horse took about 1/10 of a second and I took about 4 hours thus proving that my energy output is about 0.00015 H.P. That reasoning is faulty I’m sure.”

“I must take me a shovel into the fields shortly. The necessary outhouse in the farm is one of those very smelly places and isn’t outstandingly clean. Sanitary arrangements in these countries are almost non-existent even in biggish towns. I’ve said I’ll tell you about one of my episodes re such matters. Well this happened at a place called Arendonk, a smallish town in Belgium. My host was a schoolmaster with nine children and the lavatory, as is usual, was outside at the back. One night about 9 p.m. being desirous of paying the said place a visit, my first by the way, I tried to get in through the garden gate but it had been locked for the night. A little nonplussed I returned to our room where I was debating the subject with myself in harsh terms when in walked mine host with some hot milk. I approached him about it and at last he understood. The effect was startling – he became dynamic and seizing me by the arm dragged me into the kitchen. There he left me standing on show while he explained (I presume) to the company, precisely why the English soldier was honouring their humble kitchen. As the company consisted of his wife, three young ladies in their twenties, a similar number of young men, a priest, and all his children I was a little embarrassed. More was to come however. He could speak a little English and after explaining to them why I was there he turned to me and said ‘A light – we need a light’. He plunged away into the bowels of the house and came back with an electric torch which works or should work by pressing a lever energetically thus turning a little dynamo. This didn’t work so it came to pieces whilst everyone gathered round it and offered advice on its repair. He speeded up when his wife – I guess this of course – remonstrated with him and told him the poor English soldier was probably in a hurry. Ah yes – the light was fixed and glowed dimly when pumped feverishly. Its working was carefully explained to me and then to my horror he said ‘Ah paper yes paper’ and vanished again to appear with about six feet of toilet paper streaming behind him. This was pressed into my hands and I followed him through the door in a mild sweat acknowledging a friendly nod from the company with, I hope, an embarrassed smile. We sloshed down the garden and he showed me the lavatory then left with the light. Inside was stygian blackness so I struck a match and got the geographical layout throwing the match down the hole. This was an error as I found out. It was not a water closet and the match set fire to sundry bits of paper producing a merry blaze. I had visions of a roaring inferno with James rushing through a bewildered kitchen to reappear with a fire extinguisher and shoot out into the garden again. However it went out and everything was OK. Hereabouts one never knows what a simple request will lead to – honest one doesn’t.”

B.L.A. Holland, 10 December 1944

“Last night a V1 passed overhead so low that it nearly took the roof off. I don’t know where it was bound for but I was glad when it had went. They make a disgusting noise not at all like a plane, a really nasty noise and when close enough to shake the tiles are too close. I’ve seen plenty of V2s going up too. The first one I saw was before we started on Holland. It was at night and Mac and I were coming back from somewhere or other when we saw what at first we took to be an A/A tracer shell shoot up until it seemed to go out – obviously it wasn’t an A/A shell but there we were stumped. Since then I’ve seen several and known them to be V2s, at night a ball of fire ever climbing and by day a stream of white smoke rising almost vertically.”

“The bombers are out again by the way. They are going over now in large numbers – a few more minor earthquakes for the Reich I suppose.”

B.L.A. Holland, 16 December 1944

“It is just beginning to dawn on me fully how fortunate we are in having a house and furniture. Many chaps now are wondering (a) Where they are going to live (b) Where their furniture is coming from after the war. Many married during the war and many sold out or stored up whilst their wives went home to mother and to work.”

There was some enemy activity that merited comment. The Regimental History reported : "... for the first time in many months, we again became used to the sight of German aircraft overhead. They were the latest jet-propelled jobs."

B.L.A. Holland, 20 December 1944

“The only attention we have had so far was on his first day, when the Luftwaffe appeared and three of his jet-propelled efforts played ring-a ring-a roses round our cottage chimney all morning – boy, can they move! They just howl across the sky about six miles in front of their noise, which is for all the world like a screeching bomb – ergo one cannot tell whether a stick of bombs is on its way or not – a most disturbing situation you must admit.”

Jim sent his son a postcard for Christmas, complete with a translation.

Postcard to son Dave

Jim did not think much of the arrangements for Christmas Day, complaining that the dinner was a wash-out and their cooks were mediocre. He did enjoy a hastily put together concert held in a barn however, and declared the beer brought from Belgium to be “deadly”.

B.L.A. Holland, 26 December 1944

“We had each paid a pound towards the purchase of various alcoholic beverages etc. and the rumours had it that a peculiarly virulent form of beer had been discovered by our reconnaissance forces deep in the heart of Belgium. It was tried out by Lt. Dutton (to represent the hardened drinkers) and Lt. Foley (to represent the beginners). Dutton pronounced it excellent – with some difficulty – and Foley couldn’t pronounce anything at all or remember anything for that matter, so four barrels were bought and presumably smuggled across the border – the Customs still being old-fashioned about such goings-on.”


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Postcard to son Dave

Jim was also disgruntled but resigned about the staggered arrangements for Leave which saw late arrivals high on the list while he was No. 95 out of 106 in the squadron. His final ironic thought on the subject coincidentally includes a useful itinerary for his whole army career.

“Now Bill Bailey is a lady-killer and has killed hundreds in his time, white, yellow, black, red, old, young, they’re all the same to Bill and flock round him like gulls. I know because I’ve seen them do it in Suez, Cairo, Alex, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem, Syracuse, Catania, Foggia, Misterbianco, Bari, Molfetta, Fiumefreddo, Reggio, Messina, Lanciano, Taranto, Brighton, Worthing, Norry, Camilly, Mechelen, Brussels, Tilburg, Hertogenbosch, Berghaven, Nijmegen and a thousand intermediate villages and hamlets. He is single and owes allegiance to none and wants only one thing now and that is a week at the Parisiennes. He is No. 1 on the list for Blighty!”

On 1 Jan they moved to Maesyck on the River Mass (Meuse) and Jim wrote that he was billeted “about half a mile from the Greusens house”.

The present billet was with a clog maker who had promised him a small pair as a souvenir. He brought them back with him but they cannot be found now. The day the Regiment arrived in Maesyck they were subjected to a night of bombing and a morning of strafing but suffered little damage.

B.L.A. Belgium, 2 January 1945

“One crashed not far away, brought down by Sten fire of all things, and the pilot was taken prisoner – only a kid he was. These sudden bursts of activity must be all he is capable of in the air nowadays and they rely on surprise to carry them through.”

At the billet the household’s dog and cat were allowed to roam the table at mealtimes until they became a nuisance, but at least the dog did tricks...

B.L.A. Belgium, 6 January 1945

“One of these is rather good. They offer it sugar – yes SUGAR – and say ‘From Hitler’ and the dog turns away and no amount of coaxing will persuade him to take it. Then it is ‘From Churchill’ and the dog chews it up. There is a byplay with the hands too, in case of accidents, whatever that may mean – something to do with when Jerry was here.”

Jim returned from a couple of days in Brussels where he and Fred Whiting stayed at the flat of a very welcoming stockbroker from the Brussels Bourse. They found prices in Brussels very high for poor quality goods and Jim had difficulty buying presents to send home. They also bought nail files for Mac and the Sgt. Major.

B.L.A. Belgium, 10 January 1945

“This morning at 9 a.m. the Sgt. Major said to I says he ‘You’re in Fred Whiting’s billet aren’t you – well tell him I want to see him right away.’ ‘Okedoke’ I says and tramps back to our billet a distance of some 300 yards. Now Fred has just completed a 72 hour guard and as guard commander has had no sleep for three days as a result (a nasty guard if I may say so and a very responsible one). Hence F.W. is in the land of dreams, reprehensible but natural. Up the stairs I goes and wakes F.W. who grunts and opens a weary eye – ‘What the ___ ___ do you ___ want?’ he says gracefully and I tells him the news. With a casual remark about the parentage of the Sgt. Major, F.W. climbs wearily from bed and dresses, ruminating the while on whether he is in the soup over a certain civilian who had been arrested after curfew and put in clink and who F.W. had let go or whether, in his official capacity as motor mechanic, he is required for a repair on the Sgt. Major’s wagon. Out into the snow he goes and eventually arrives half-asleep and unshaven, at the squadron office. ‘Sgt. Major wants to see me?’ he says to Bill Thompson. ‘Yes’ says Bill ‘in that room’. ‘Worse than I thought’ thinks F.W., ‘a private affair – must be serious’, and in some trepidation knocks and goes in. ‘Want to see me Sgt. Major?’ he says. Ted looks up from his papers ‘ Ah yes – can you put a point on this for me – I don’t like ‘em round’, and holds up one nail file. Curtain.”

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