Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Rocket Fuel

It is difficult to acknowledge this fact now, but when we were kids, war was the thing. When the bell rang and the teachers let us out into the yard there was nothing we liked better than to pretend to kill each other. Machine guns and grenades were cool. True, the ubiquitous TV did nothing to disabuse us of this notion. There was Telly Savalas, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. War was glamour – our first rock and roll. Knowing that Grandad, an enthusiastic gardener and beer drinker had been a real live soldier in a real live war lent him a certain mystique. There was even an old black and white photograph of him in his uniform. One day, like a child in a war propaganda poster, I made the inevitable mistake of asking ‘and Grandad, what did you do in the war?’ An instant icy change in the room’s atmosphere told me that I’d done a wrong thing: I’d brought up a taboo and I soon learnt never to do it again.

No. I never raised the subject again and time marched on. Things changed. We became boys in the big school, teenagers, got jobs, left home and tried to become men. The war games became a distant, ludicrous memory. War lost its romance when we realised that it was a horror we’d been blessed with escaping. But what didn’t change – right up to the last year of his life when he was eighty nine and I was thirty nine, half a century between us, was that war remained the great taboo. Even as the first grey appeared in my beard, I was still ‘the boy’ and Grandad wouldn’t tell me a thing about his war.

A year or so after he’d passed on, and other conflicts of a more personal kind had been smoothed over, I learnt that Grandad did talk about the war to a select, chosen few – especially after a glass or two of good brandy. Some of these stories have now been shared with me – I’m forty three and finally old enough to hear about his part in the war. I don’t have the full picture, just pieces in a tantalising puzzle that I’m beginning to put together.

What I have is this:

       1.      Grandad joined the war early. He was aged sixteen.

2.      He was part of the Normandy invasion but, due to his boat being attacked, he didn’t make it to France until the day after D-Day.

3.      He was a signalman.

4.      Part of his mission was to take one of the Hills in Northern France. They weren’t really hills but pieces of elevated ground. However, they were very useful for strategic reasons.

5.      The attempt to gain the Hill was hell on earth. The shells killed many men including a friend Grandad was sharing a cigarette with. One moment the man was there, the next….

6.      The Churchill tanks were no match for the Panzer tanks.

7.      The mission to take the Hill turned into a rout. Grandad became separated from his regiment and escaped by heading south.

8.      Somewhere along the way, Grandad spotted what looked like a good pair of trousers tangled in the branches of a tree. A closer inspection revealed that they still contained the legs of the man who’d owned them.

9.      Further along the escape route Grandad and his companions came across an oil tank. They undid the tap and let the content trickle out. It was a clear liquid. I don’t know how these things happen, but someone thought to cup his hands and try drinking it. ‘By Christ’, the soldier said, ‘it’s booze.’

10. Unable to believe their luck, the hapless escapees set about getting inebriated.

11.  They awoke with ferocious hangovers.

12.  One of the men had drunk himself blind. Fortunately, it was only temporary.

13.  They later learnt that they’d been drinking ethanol – fuel for the V2 rockets.

14.  I can never hear the phrase ‘it’s like rocket fuel, this stuff’ without picturing Grandad, a man who’d enjoyed the conviviality of the pub all of his life, knowing that he had really drunk rocket fuel.

15.  A final mystery. Grandad had stayed in Holland with a Dutch family who had a camera. They took strange pictures of jelly-fish/bacteria-like blobs falling out of the sky – men being parachuted into the war. Grandad took these pictures home and kept them in a briefcase along with letters and correspondence from the Dutch family that continued long after the war had ended. There were other artefacts, memorabilia kept in the case - medals, badges, newspaper clippings and so forth.

16.  Sometimes, after a good glass of brandy or two, Grandad would get the briefcase to show to the select, chosen few.

17.  After he’d died, my mother and Uncle cleared the house. There was no sign of the briefcase.

18.  To this day, no-one knows who he gave it to.

19.  Grandad never told me what he did in the war.

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