My Dad’s End To The War

“We saw the Germans attempting to blow up the bridge over the river which the GIs would have to cross. Later a tank approached over the bridge and the Germans held up their arms in surrender. White flags appeared at all the windows of the surrounding buildings. Freedom was nigh!

Soon American infantry entered Colditz. They were kissed by the French and had hands shaken by the British. They informed us that earlier they had instructions to raze Colditz to the ground and it was only because someone had the foresight to put Allied flags out that saved it.

It was a day to remember. Freedom after 2 ½ years. For some it was since Dunkirk. The Yanks gave us food and real coffee.

Arrangements had to be made to move us and it was made difficult because the war was not yet over. In the meantime I, amongst others, went down to the village. I met and embraced a 16-year-old polish girl. The first female I’d seen for many a long day. She had been forced to work as a maid for a German general since the age of 14. She was extremely pretty and I spent an ecstatic few hours with her.

While waiting for the transport to move us I ambled around the camp and was shown the glider which was being made by two RAF officers. It was situated in a camouflaged room in the attic under the roof. It was made out of wooden bed posts and sheets. The idea was to knock a hole in the roof, put it together and glide off far enough to get over the river. The Americans were most impressed. So was I.

Our convoy took us through a forest and suddenly we stopped as apparently there was fear of an ambush. A patrol was sent forward to search things out but fortunately it was a false alarm.

We passed by Leipzig, which was being sheltered by our forces. The enemy were still holding out. We came under a bit of shelling ourselves and were glad to see the back of that episode.

Eventually we reached an aerodrome, which I think was somewhere in France. We were to fly home in a Dakota. Before I boarded the plane I was stopped by an American soldier who said that I wasn’t allowed to take the German pistol that I had pinched from Colditz as a memento. He said he would give me a bottle of Scotch for it. I was only too pleased to make the swap.

We sat on the floor of the Dakota. We took off and it was hard to believe that we were on the way home. The plane rattled and vibrated. It was the first time that I had flown and I prayed that it would make it because it sounded to me as if the engine was about clapped out.

We crossed the English Channel and there before our very eyes we saw the white cliffs of Dover. Men cried and all of us were speechless with emotion. It was some time before anyone spoke. We embraced each other.

We landed somewhere in Buckinghamshire. We were greeted by bands and cheering crowds. We were deloused and medically examined and then given a new uniform and regimental emblems to be sewn on. We were able to send a telegram to our loved ones saying that we would be home in about a week. I suppose they wanted to spruce us up a bit.

Each of us was handed over to the WVS. I was taken in charge by a lovely young lady. She took me to her home which was a farm near Great Missenden. She sewed all my emblems on and generally knocked me into shape.

I had an embarrassing moment as I wandered round the farmyard with my hosts. I saw two chickens which I thought were knocking the living daylights out of each other. I pointed this out to my chaperone, who made no comment but gave a sort of sardonic smile. I slowly began to realise that the chicken which appeared to be less belligerent seemed to be enjoying the battle. A tinge of red coloured my face.

The week on the farm was heavenly and only tainted a little by the thought of going home.

The big day arrived. I said goodbye to my farmer friends. They had done me proud. They said I could return any time. In fact, I was to see the young lady many times again.

I packed my few belongings and made my way to the station. I think I arrived at Marylebone. I caught a tube to the Oval and then a 59 bus to New Park Road. It was a sheer delight to be travelling under my own steam without being surrounded by armed guards.

I walked down New Park Road and entered the gates of Byng House. There were flags flying from all the windows. I was home after 3 ½ years.”

PC Syd Smith, London, 1951 – From my dad’s memoir

PC Syd Smith, London, 1951

PC Syd Smith, London, 1951

In the meantime, life went on. The Festival of Britain took place. One or two events concerned with my job stand out in my mind.

I was on night duty and walking on Waterloo Bridge at 2am in the morning. I noticed a young lady looking over the parapet. She appeared somewhat distressed. She spoke in a foreign language which, with my linguistic experience I deciphered as German. It was fairly obvious that she had suicide in mind. After some time I managed to escort her off the bridge and walked her to the station where we later discovered she was reported as a missing person.

On another occasion whilst on patrol in London Road at the Elephant and Castle during the day a lady approached me and threw her arms around me and demanded a kiss. She wasn’t exactly an Elizabeth Taylor. She stank horribly of stale beer. I was somewhat flattered by her persistence and at the same time very embarrassed especially as an audience had gathered. My only option was to arrest her, which she seemed to enjoy. Unknown to me, a photograph had been taken by someone and a few days later 2 arrived at the station and were presented to me.

My Dad’s End of the War

On Saturday April 14th the gunfire from the west slowly moved towards Colditz. Colonel Todd was told that the camp was to be evacuated but he flatly refused. The Germans conceded but held the colonel responsible for any casualties as the result of the shelling or bombing by the Americans.

On Sunday 15th April everyone was at upper windows looking for the approaching army. Suddenly a shell hit the guardroom near the main gate. The castle made a good target, standing high on the skyline and dominating all the surrounding buildings and countryside. Another shell hit Wing Commander Bader’s window. The room was empty.

We saw the Germans attempting to blow up the bridge over the river which the GIs would have to cross. Later a tank approached over the bridge and the Germans held up their arms in surrender. White flags appeared at all the windows of the surrounding buildings. Freedom was nigh!

Soon American infantry entered Colditz. They were kissed by the French and had hands shaken by the British. They informed us that earlier they had instructions to raze Colditz to the ground and it was only because someone had the foresight to put Allied flags out that saved it.

It was a day to remember. Freedom after 2 ½ years. For some it was since Dunkirk. The Yanks gave us food and real coffee.

Arrangements had to be made to move us and it was made difficult because the war was not yet over. In the meantime I, amongst others, went down to the village. I met and embraced a 16-year-old polish girl. The first female I’d seen for many a long day. She had been forced to work as a maid for a German general since the age of 14. She was extremely pretty and I spent an ecstatic few hours with her.

While waiting for the transport to move us I ambled around the camp and was shown the glider which was being made by two RAF officers. It was situated in a camouflaged room in the attic under the roof. It was made out of wooden bed posts and sheets. The idea was to knock a hole in the roof, put it together and glide off far enough to get over the river. The Americans were most impressed. So was I.

Our convoy took us through a forest and suddenly we stopped as apparently there was fear of an ambush. A patrol was sent forward to search things out but fortunately it was a false alarm.

We passed by Leipzig, which was being sheltered by our forces. The enemy were still holding out. We came under a bit of shelling ourselves and were glad to see the back of that episode.

Eventually we reached an aerodrome, which I think was somewhere in France. We were to fly home in a Dakota. Before I boarded the plane I was stopped by an American soldier who said that I wasn’t allowed to take the German pistol that I had pinched from Colditz as a memento. He said he would give me a bottle of Scotch for it. I was only too pleased to make the swap.

We sat on the floor of the Dakota. We took off and it was hard to believe that we were on the way home. The plane rattled and vibrated. It was the first time that I had flown and I prayed that it would make it because it sounded to me as if the engine was about clapped out.

We crossed the English Channel and there before our very eyes we saw the white cliffs of Dover. Men cried and all of us were speechless with emotion. It was some time before anyone spoke. We embraced each other.

 

Blog about my Dad – Syd in Venice

I think the most successful sections of my autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax were those featuring my father – the letter of praise for Daphne I most cherished ended, “and thank you, above all, for introducing me to Syd.”

At the age of 70, prompted by my brother Richard, Syd spent several months writing his ‘memoirs’ (he laughed at the pretentiousness of the word) in his careful, copperplate writing. The prose is spare, occasionally ungrammatical and avoids introspection or rhetorical flourish, but you can feel the underlying turbulences

There are tales in Syd’s reminiscences, especially those from his war years, which, though narrated in a few sentences or a couple of sparse paragraphs, have a kind of epic quality, stories whose details and emotions I have tried to construct in my own mind. Of these, perhaps the most affecting comes when he is still a soldier, though now in the post-war turmoil of Yugoslavia:

To my delight, I was granted a week’s leave in Venice. I went with a tough, North country lad whose main interest was booze, but I wasn’t to spend any time with him. We were accommodated in the best hotel in Venice, called the Excelsior, which stood on the Lido. It was luxurious but I wasn’t to take much advantage of it.

Gosh, why not? I am hooked. Surely, after all those cramped shared quarters, filthy desert toilets, foreign prisons and army camps, he was exhilarated at the prospect of clean sheets, warm baths and uxorious service? It will be 30 years before he ever stays anywhere as grand as the Excelsior.

It had its own sandy beach and once I’d settled in I went for a swim. The water was beautifully warm. I swam out and climbed up onto a small jetty in order to have a dive. Laying sunning herself there was a girl in a white bikini, and she was to be the reason that I spent so little time in the hotel.

Ah hah, I see….  The bikini, then a fashionable and daring new garment in the wardrobe of young women, was named – obscenely you might say – after the Pacific Island that had been nuked in the recent atomic tests, and this particular white two piece, and more particularly the eager tanned body that filled it, were naturally of more interest to Syd than any bedding, however sumptuous…

As I recall, I think her name was Santa Maria Della Costello but I think that is the name of a Church. Anyway, I called her Maria. She told me that she had lost both of her parents in a bombing raid in Milan. She showed me all the delights of Venice: St Mark’s Cathedral, the marble-paved Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, the island of Torcello, where women were sewing Venetian lace, which we went to on a gondola.

Although her English was non-existent and my Italian was about the same we managed to communicate remarkably well and we were both sorry when my week ran out. On departure I offered her money, but she refused the offer. I think I insulted her because she thought I was paying for her services. She later tried to get to see me in Pola but was stopped at the border crossing. I never saw her again.

However many stories end with it (perhaps in some way because they all do), ‘I never saw her again’, is a phrase that is always loaded with poignancy. Forty years after his Venetian encounter I rang Syd from the beach opposite the Excelsior Hotel and claimed I could see an old lady in a white bikini. He laughed but I knew he had always wondered what had become of that sad woman, poor beautiful desperate Maria, newly orphaned and homeless, hopelessly trying to bluff her way past the guards, praying she might be rescued from her despair again by the handsome, kind, sexy, English soldier…

I never saw her again.