Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 1 :
Morning in Bed
The 'Siberia of Deutschland' the Huns call it - and, Nazis or not, they're pretty right.
From my top bunk, I can just see through the frost-smeared windows of the hut. Yes, the snowclad pines on the valley slopes, the grim silhouettes of the watch towers, the massive double fences of barbed wire, and the ramshackle rows of icebound huts, do have a touch of the cinema Siberia.
According to Goebbels' guide books, the Stalag is situated in a Bavarian valley, about ninety miles from Munich. According to six thousand of us, the camp is stuck in a frozen swamp, goddam miles from any where. We expect a prison camp to be depressing. This place exceeds our expectations.
Just outside the wire, I can see a Hun on guard. 'Toadstool,' we call him - a pet name he's proud of - but in his sentry's topcoat, which goes over his greatcoat, weighs a ton, and flares at the ankles, he looks more like a tent. He's pegged down firmly by two pairs of boots - the outer pair like a couple of barges - and he's glaring glumly through the wire - frozen, bored, and cursing in his heart. He even envies us in our little wooden huts.
But just now, Toadstool, we've got a little laugh on you. I, for instance, with my balaclava, greatcoat and mittens on; my legs swathed in old pants and stuck in a kitbag; my two transparent, ersatz blankets around me; and only my clogs removed as a nod to bed, feel just as cold as you do - and look a damn sight odder. I'd give a smoke for that 'maternity style' topcoat of yours.
For the cold in here is a cold to chill the heart. While my fingers will hold the pencil, let me solemnly write down that all Hun prison camps are refrigerators - refrigerators, of course, minus grub - but that for sheer mind-numbing, soul-shrivelling, paralysing cold, Hohenfels, this winter, outfreezes the lot.
This place - Hut Sixteen, Nine Company - is typical of the four hundred others inside the cage. The asbestos lining of the walls is coated with ice. so is the roof. There are icicles on the few remaining hut beams, and there are cakes of snow and ice on the floor. Suspended grotesquely from lines all ways across the room are shirts and pants frozen as stiff as boards. Some of them have been 'drying' for weeks.
But it's not that, nor the sheet of ice on the just washed table, that chills my spine - it's Bert Gilbert's ears. Bert is one of my muckers - we share grub on days when we eat - and he wears, permanently, a short of blue woollen skull cap, strung together out of old socks by Alf Tuck, our mutual mucker.
Bert's propped up in bed two yards from me and, fence me in for ever, but his cap looks like a balaclava. That's how blue his ears are!
There are fourteen men still breathing in here - most of them, head under blankets, barely doing that. We're all N.C.O.s - genuine or self-promoted - we all refuse to work for Jerry - and now, at least, we couldn't really work for anybody. I've said we're cold: I'll add we're hungry. There are times when understatement saves a lot of lurid words.
For the camp has reached low ebb. Out of parcels; out of fags; out of fuel - and out of action. Organized activities have had to go. The school is now a barrack-room; the concert hall a hospital. The sports field is closed; the icy roads unwalkable. None but a fool would use the gym. Some are too weak to stand on their pins.
So here, hutbound, we stick, counting the hours crawl on to soup, and killing time as best we may. We're not downhearted - much; but we're empty bellied, razor-nerved, and sick with hope deferred. We've live here all our lives - and the world outside the wire is just a myth.
At one end of the hut there are double doors and a single window, largely boarded up. At the other are two part-broken windows looking on the camp. All along the walls are the two-tiered bunks, we rot in. The middle of the room holds a table, forms, and a massive, mocking stove. Icicles festoon the stovepipe - sometimes, when the fire's on.
Under the bottom beds, there's a clearance of a foot, and this space is used for storing kit, and for sweeping the dirt under when you're room orderly.
Today's orderly is Frank Moore. He might have used a broom while I wasn't looking - but there's no evidence of it. But you can't keep a joint like this clean anyway. By the time you've finished scraping the ice off the floor with an iron bar, your thirteen room-mates, and sundry visitors, have trodden the lot, and more, back again. So you just go through the motions of doing something, moaning bitterly about the slovenliness of others in a bid to ward off cracks against yourself.
The difference between Frank and other orderlies is that Frank does his growling through a wolf skin. Yes ... a neck-to-ankles, brown and shaggy wolf skin.
In the days of Red Cross parcels, when the camp was still alive, Frank was wig-maker to the 'National Theatre' - a 'creator of coiffures' for the female impersonators out of teased-cut string. For the last Xmas pantomime, he made a complete skin for the wolf in 'Red-Riding Hood' - and played the part himself.
Now he wears it, tail and all, as a boudoir suit. In his present half-starved condition - he's four stones under weight - he doesn't need a skin on to look like a wolf, but we lift our balaclavas to the things that wolf skin stands for: guts and perseverance at a time when work was tough.
'Got a bit of toilet paper, Mac?' says the wolf surprisingly. 'I found a couple of bumpers when I swept under my bed, but I've got no paper for a fag.'
'Don't give us that stuff about sweeping under the beds, Frank.' I say, handing him a tin with the precious paper and a razor blade to cut it with, 'and just put a spot of mint tea in there, and I'll have a smoke myself.'
Rather disgustedly, Frank gives me a fistful of the strange twigs and leaves the Huns dole out as tea, and with that and the toilet paper I roll a fat cigar.
'Got a light, Mac?' asks Frank, knowing damn well I haven't, and looking hopefully at Jim Tyre, the Aussie, who, he knows damn well, has.
Jim's expression of Christian resignation as he puts aside his chess problem is straight from Fox's 'Book of Martyrs.'
'One of these days,' he breathes restrainedly, 'one of you jokers will get a lighter of your own. Then i really will go nuts and scream! That's the fourteenth light I've handed out this morning!'
Yes, it's tough on Jim, all right, being the only man in the hut with a lighter. There's one other fellow with enough cigs to buy a lighter at one of the marts, but he only got the cigs in the first place by selling his lighter. So where are you?
I don't enjoy the Flor de Mint cigar. It gives off pungent, incense-like fumes all over the hut, but after the first two drags it tastes like fertilizer. Mint tea ranks just above spud peelings and well below tea leaves in Stalag favour, but it's definitely better as a smoke than as a drink. You don't have to get up ten times a night if you've only smoke the stuff. Odd how these ersatz drinks upset the human body without affecting Huns in any way.
Alf Tucker, my second mucker, keeps glaring up from his bottom bunk - first at Bert and then at me. I know what he wants, so I just go on scribbling this down, and frowning busily.
'Well ... what about it?' he says.
'What about what?' I ask.
'You know bloody well!' says Alf, fixing me with baleful eyes.
'But, Alf ... there's no water ... the tea leaves have been used three times. Anyway, they're frozen and ...'
'There's plenty of snow out there, isn't there?' Alf cuts in. 'Where do you think you are - the Ritz or somewhere? Okay then. Just go on writin' poems. Joe Muggins will make the brew - as usual!'
And taking a jug made out of Klim tins, Alf puts on a pair of clogs, also made from Klim tins, slams out of the hut and arouses the surly suspicions of Toadstool by scooping up snow from the virgin carpet just inside the warning wire. It's part of the ritual in our domestic triangle that Alf does the cooking for all, while professing indignation that Bert and I don't rush to help him. It would break his heart if we did.
It's now about ten o'clock on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, and ever since roll call at half-past eight I've been dimly conscious of a sawing on my nerves; of something other than hunger pangs gnawing at me. I now realize what it is. It's Bert learning Spanish. He's reading the phrases from a textbook in a sing-song sort of mutter which will surely drive me nuts. Jim Tyre's not keen about it, either.
'Is that lingo hard to talk, Bert? It's bloody hard to listen to,' he remarks.
There was a vague rustling beneath the blankets as the bored bed-bounds wait for a retort. Anything to break the monotony, even an argument - though God knows they're no novelty in here. But the re-entry of Alf with the first load of snow wards off nervy words.
'Another bloke's blacked out by the latrine,' he announces. 'They're carrying him down to his hut. And Jerry's playing two-up already. Just our blasted luck if the Yanks bomb our parcel wagons at Regensburg!'
Black-outs, due to hunger, are not news. There were dozens on roll call this morning. Not are air raids, indicated by there being two Huns atop each watch tower, any novelty. But the pregnant word 'parcels' rouses the room like a cookhouse call. Heads emerge from blankets like rabbits from their holes.
'Parcels ... what's that about parcels?' says one. 'I dreamt last night that they were on the way. Must be getting a bit psychic lately!'
'Psychic? ... you're not psychic, Chum,' scoffs another, 'you're just a sucker. That wagons at Regensberg griff was started by Hamburg Harry. Never trust a squarehead while he's breathing!'
'I'd sooner be a sucker than a gloomy buzzard!' flares the psychic one, 'and it's not Hamburg Harry I'm trusting - it's the Red Cross. Pity some of you gloomy guys don't appreciate what's done for you!'
That does it. There's not a man amongst us wouldn't sooner own to treason than to ingratitude to the Red Cross - that watchful second mother to us all. So the cynic and the psychic one get really rude. They each enlist supporters, and in a matter of moments half the hut are at each others throats on the all-absorbing question: when and how will Red Cross parcels reach us.
Pessimists, by temperament or pose, irritate the optimists, and vice versa. Would be 'balanced thinkers' enfuriate both. Insults are batted about like shuttlecocks - families, regiments and religions all being dragged in - but there are no fights. No one's got the energy ... and even the dimmest realize that words just now mean nothing.
Unintelligible as the squabbling might be to an outsider, ignoble as it seems to ourselves, it serves to stem off apathy. We've all got food on the mind just now, and we can't attempt to hide it. Better to argue about it than to lie all day and mope. That way, madness lies.
And the row's soon over, anyway. Someone makes a crack ... somebody else laughs ... nerves relax all round ... and the talk becomes quite matey. It's still about grub - nothing else quite registers - but it's now wistful reminiscences of mother's puddings, or starry-eyed eulogies of the wife's pancakes. Soon, someone will produce a written-out menu. Then I'll have to show him mine. It's the oldest Stalag custom of the lot.
Alf, who having started the argument traditionally ignores it, has now collected enough snow for his purpose, and again he turns a baleful glare on me.
'Well ... what about it?' he says, sticking
to the formula.
'What about what?' I say, taking my cue.
'Fuel,' says Alf. 'It's going to take a helluva lot of something to make a brew-up.'
'We've got a parcel lid left,' I say, without conviction. 'Where would I get fuel from, anyway?'
'We need that parcel lid to collect the swede peelings,' says Alf. 'Otherwise there's damn-all for grub tonight. I'll start the fire with them poems, and then I'll want one of your bed boards. And that's it!'
I don't need to answer the last bit. There's a series of contortions from the bed beneath mine, and John Newby, Liverpool man with an Irish bone somewhere, clears himself for action.
'Burn bedboards me foot!' he splutters. 'One more board from that bed, and it's meself Mac will be crashing through on. You're not sane - you must be ---- to talk so daft, Alf!'
Bottom bunkers are understandably sensitive about bed boards. Suspended, like the sword of Damocles, above them are a number of nasty-edged slats, and a human body. Accidents will happen - in fact they always do if you play around with bed boards - and when that body drops like a bomb in the still of the night ... it's annoying for both parties. It's been known to lead to 'words.'
But now the whole talk turns to bed collapses, and most of us have got a yarn to tell - usually with Lamsdorf (the notorious Stalag VIII B) as the setting.
There we had three-tiered wooden bunks, precious few bed boards, and too many fuel filchers and practical jokers. It was an almost nightly performance for some innocent top bunker to crash through to the middle bunk, then, together with his new bedmate, drop in on the third sleeping beauty below. As the trio would then have to sort themselves out in the darkness, the language, at least, was apt to be illuminating.
Well, the outcome of this chatty little interlude is that we all agree that bed board burning is the last card in the pack, but that fuel is nevertheless vital from somewhere. So, after a short debate, we decide to burn some more of the hut - and damn the consequences.
Already we've burnt enough beams to give the roof a sag. Already there are gales whistling through crevices where the side supports have been removed. But we're still well behind some huts in the home burning line. In one room I know, they've burnt most of their beds, both their forms, and the legs of their table. The table is suspended by ropes from the roof, and swings dizzily while the inmates stand up to eat their soup from it.
Other places have carried out 'improvements' by burning a complete wall, persuading their neighbours to do likewise, and making the two huts into one by fixing a tin roof - made from Klim tins - over the space between them.
Why Jerry doesn't open up with a Spandau is a mystery. In some camps we've been, the Hun was so touchy about his property that fellows have been slung in the cooler for fixing a clothes line to a roof beam, while using a nails as a coat hook was considered a serious act of sabotage.
But, quicker than I can write it down, Charley Patterson, Kiwi machine gunner, and Fred Perry of the R.E.s, have unbolted one of the massive beams that support the roof; it's been sawn into fourteen lengths with a verboten saw, made out of an old spring bed stay, and Alf has chopped up one of our blocks with a verboten axe pinched from the Jerry stores. The roof still stands, but it droops quite a bit, and we'll have to watch our heads in a heavy fall of snow.
'Got a light please, Jim?' says Alf.
Jim groans pitifully, puts aside his chess, and ignites some pages of 'Mein Kampf,' thoughtfully provided by Goebbels.
'Take the perishin' fire outside, for Pete's sake,' he says. 'I'm not handing out lights all day to be smoked and stunk to death in my own bed!'
Holding the 'Smoky Joe' portable fire in one hand, and frantically adding chips of wood to the flames, Alf scurries to the sort of vestibule between the two doors, calling the room to witness how those 'paralysed punks' - that's Bert and me - just lie and watch him.
There, aided by some language, and two or three further lights from Jim, he proceeds to boil the snow up. Twice he pops his head round the door, once to inform us that he's burnt his frostbitten fingers on the 'Smoky Joe,' once to suggest that if his muckers aren't suffering too severely from 'ingrowing bed boards,' perhaps they'd like to scrape out the mugs, which have still got last night's mint tea frozen in them.
Bert does this job while I get busy - watching Fred Perry make a spare 'Smoky Joe.' These 'smokeless heaters,' as the inventor calls them, or 'heatless smokers,' as everyone else calls them, play a big part in Stalag life. Made, of course, from Klim tins, they work - if they do - on the principle of an incinerator, there being an air space between an inner lining of smaller tins which converts the fumes, or something, into a gas flame.
They burn paper, cardboard, or wood, and properly handled are efficient, but they easily get choked - then so does everyone else. With three or four going at once, we often get a smoke screen worthy of the fleet - under cover of which, those gaping holes were burnt in the floor.
Today, it takes Alf and the 'Smoky Joe' about forty minutes to convert the snow and leaves into a liquid not easily describable in culinary terms.
'I hope it rots your guts,' he says, handing us up our Klim tin mugs - and it very likely will. It's earthy and smoky and vaguely medicinal in taste, but it's hot and wet, and just to cup the mug in your hands is a luxury.
'Good old Alf,' say Bert and I. 'Thank God we've got a cook in the family,' and, between sips, we remind each other of the last real meal we tasted - Alf's Xmas dinner.
This beautiful blow-out, saved up for months on end while we were still getting part of a parcel, included a cake made from off-grey flour racketed from the Huns. Alf's recipes are secret, but perhaps they include concrete, for, as he modestly claimed at the time:'No one could make a heavier cake than this - not even if they'd took a cookery course.'
Yes, it was a great cake, all right, and the fortnight's nightmares and the two visits to the M.I. room for enemas that it cost one of the syndicate seem, retrospecitvely, well worth while.
The fact is that any form of indigestion is better than lack of digestion due to there being nothing in particular to digest. Someone in here, a bit worriedly, asked some intimate questions round the room. He was relieved to find that other fellows, too, were functioning about once in every six days - biological detail must account for the strange dearth of rumours lately, Radio Latrine being the main source of all the weirdest.
Not that we go for long without a few titbits to discuss. Jack Welch, non-smoker, who wisely buys food with the cigs he saves, is still fit enought to walk around the camp - though how he avoids breaking his neck on the icy slopes is beyond us.
'What's the griff, Jack - any parcel news?' someone shoots at him, the second he returns from his morning slide.
Jack kicks his boots against the stove. 'Joe's taken a thousand towns and villages. Someone's torn down half the top latrine for firewood. The Western offensive looks like starting. It's swede soup again today. One of the working Froggies has been shot by a Hun civvy for pinching spuds. Ginger Darling's put a notice ...'
'Nothing about parcels, then?' breaks in an anxious voice.
'For Gawd's sake shut up about parcels!' rebukes another. 'You've put the mockers on the parcels coming - they way you worry about 'em. Carry on, Jack ...'
'Ginger Darling's put up a notice, challenging the bloke who ate his cat to a fight. Guards will fire without warning on post pinchers - that means you, Charley. The dust cart driver wants two pairs of new pyjamas for a loaf. Winston's supposed to be making a special announcement tonight. The news about parcels is nix - and, if anyone's interested, the snoops are next door. They'll be here any sec.'
At this last item, Charley automatically slips the axe and saw under his paliasse, Frank sweeps some tell-tale sawdust down a hole in the floor, and Alf kicks the newly sawn beam lengths under the beds.
'Here they come,' says Frank shortly, 'scraping their boots first, too. More thought for the orderly than some human beings!'
And, sure enough, the doors opens to two of the Fuehrer's most faithful ferrets - Mr. Moto and the Jeep.
'Morgen' they greet us tonelessly, closing the door behind them and glancing round the room. They stare, but do not smile, at Frank's weird wolf skin garb.
'Morning' we answer, with equal warmth, guessing at once that this is just a routine call - not a pukka search for tunnels, radios, weapons, etc.
Mr. Moto's strange, slant eyes today lack zest. He prods aimlessly about the floor with his iron probe, shifts some kitbags in the corner, puts them back, then raises the lid of our huge and useless stove.
'There's sweet Fanny Adams in there, Mate!' says someone bitterly. 'What about sending your side-kick for a spot of coal. Yes, 'im with the 'eadphones on.'
This crack about the black ear warmers the Jeep is wearing brings some chuckles from the bunks, and both Mr. Moto and the Jeep are notoriously allergic to laughter. Therefore they get officious.
'Aufladen!' says Mr. Moto, pointing to the very obvious trapdoor in the floor, and meaning that he want someone to open it up.
'Nix ferstin!' says Alf, and everyone else within range. 'Nix ferstin' is pidgin Deutsch for 'don't understand' and is our automatic answer to most Hun orders.
So, seething slightly, Moto and the Jeep have to do the job themselves, which involves taking down the dirty stove-pipe, shifting the mighty stove and the cement slab it stands on, and levering up the yards-long section of floorboards with iron bars.
They're not really interested ... only being awkward. They know from previous probes that the trapdoor hides no tunnel. We cut it last summer to reach some kittens who were growing up wild between the double floors of the hut. At that time the space between the floors was packed with glass wool, ticklish to handle, but cosy for cats.
Now, to our sorrow, there's no second floor to speak of. Some of the boards have been burnt by ourselves; some have been filched by our ever-loving neighbours. Only round the sides, beneath the bed positions, are there still some boards and packing. Bottom bunders guard these with their lives.
So the floor-raising act by Moto and the Jeep makes things kind of draughty - a fact we let them know in bitter chorus.
'Kalt, Ja?' jeers the Jeep, propping up the trap with the bar we use as scraper, and not even pretending to be interested in the cavity below.
'Ja, of course it's cold, Birdbrains!' snorts Frank, 'What's the Deutsch for "put it back and scram"? Here, you speak the lingo, Bert. Tell 'em what we think of 'em!'
'They know,' says Bert, 'they're not as dumb as all that.'
And I don't suppose they are. Moto, I think, knows every word we say. His oriental blandness gets some pretty nasty tests, but, born snoop that he is, he'll suffer any insult rather than reveal his grasp of English - the secret of his now and then successes.
'Komm!' he orders the Jeep, and the pair of them quit the hut, despite Frank's invitation that they crawl down the hole they've left, and rot.
And there's two men, at least, who're glad they don't accept.
'Charley,' chortles John Newby, as the door slams to, 'you and me've got the luck of the devil, the both of us! What are they after thinking, those Huns, not even to take a dekko down there?'
'John,' says Charley, in his cool, dry manner ' a Hun doesn't think. It wouldn't be a Hun if it did. But now it's kindly opened up our store, I vote we carry on with sawing up the posts. I've got a customer in mind ...'
And now the penny's dropped, and I realize what's happened.
Charley and John - shipping clerk and lorry driver, respectively, in private life, talented gangsters here - work a rather risky racket. They slip out at dark, dodge the watch tower searchlights, and with axe, pick and saw attack the inter-compound fence posts. They trust to luck to miss a bullet, and every now and then they stagger home in triumph, bearing on their shoulders the ten foot posts - the calibre of telegraph poles.
We'll hear a tap on the back window - the front of this hut being inconveniently near a sentry post - and, as we turn out the light and open up the blackout, the massive poles come through, usually to be sawn up quickly and sold for fags.
Last week, however, the market was sticky, so our capitalists stowed their wood to wait for better days. They'd have spent those better days in the cooler, which would have been a bore, and they'd have lost their hard-earned posts, which would have been worse, had the snoops probed properly down the trap.
So, one way and another, they're lucky tykes; but they're voted by one and all to deserve their luck, and they respond by presenting the hut with one of the posts to burn - a princely gift, indeed, in these bleak days.
And now things start to stir - including bedbounds who haven't stirred all morning - for the high spot of the day is drawing near.
'Rations up, Sixteen. Draw your Uncle Ned!' bawls a cockney voice outside; and while Frank gets the bread from the company office, and Fred draws the spuds from the cookhouse, the rest of us get ready for the soup - by which I mean we set out bowls and spoons out, readiness for soup in other respects being our permanent condition.
My own bowl - a shallow, oblong dish made from a biscuit tin - is already on the table, but it's a break for me that Alf's around, or I'd have to get out of my kitbag to look for my spoon.
'Stay put in your rookery,' he growls, twigging what's wanted, 'I'd sooner have to read them poems than have you loose about the place down here. Here comes the Kartoffels and the Uncle Ned, and there goes the bugle for loop the loop - so stick up there till you've had it!'
Which I will. And, thanks to Alf, a gracious lad at heart, I can now describe a ceremony - not, perhaps, a romantic, historic, or even edifying ceremony, but a ceremony of much interest to all in Hut Sixteen: to wit, the dishing out of grub.
The High Priests of this ceremony are Jack and Bill Welch - brothers, redheads, sergeants in the Rifle Brigade, and survivors of the gory Calais landing in May, 1940.
Jack is the present hut commander, and Bill the official 'cutter-upper,' acknowledged by one and all to have a keen eye and sure judgement when it comes to cutting up the rations.
Having been busy all morning in pressing his pants beneath his paliasse, Bill is robed for his present office in long woollen underpants, and four or five jerseys of varied lengths and colours. He slaps his arms around his back for a few minutes to restore his circulation, looks for an ice-free spot on the table, then picks up a knife, and with the most fearful grimaces of conventrated judgement attacks the black oblong Wehrmacht loaf. He'll cut it right or bust!
Meanwhile, Jack sets out the potatoes - and what potatoes! Old, misshapen, malignant looking objects, suffering from every disease possible to spuds - in fourteen separate lots, as even as much reshifting can make them.
A portion of bread is now put with each pile of spuds, and Jack takes from his shelf some playing cards specially reserved for this ceremony. They consist of two similar sets of fourteen different cards, and while one set is distributed, a card face upwards on each ration heap, the other set is shuffled and cut.
Then, going round the room in order of beds, Jack calls out our names, one by one, turns up a card from the shuffled set as he calls each name, and, voila! there's your day's rations - that little heap by the twin of the card you've drawn.
Not, as I said, an uplifting ceremony. It would, we admit, be nicer, more courtly, less Borstalian, if the food were left on the table, and a man just helped himself - taking care, of course, to choose the rottenest spuds and the most dubious bread for his own portion.
But contests in table manners are embarrassing just now. A man feels a pig if he grabs the best - and a prig if he doesn't. So we cut out the trimmings and trust to the cards. And what could be fairer than that?
'... John ... three of spades ... Mac ... eight of spades,' calls Jack, dealing the cards deliberately - and 'put them poems away!' shouts Alf, grabbing my winnings and plonking them on my bed.
'Well ... would you Adam and Eve it!' he trails off, open-mouthed, as a long familiar wailing fills the air, cutting out the music of the cookhouse call.
Yes, we believe it, Alf. In fact, we've come to expect it. Those sirens seem to wait for soup each day. Their urgent howling now means - A: that Flying Fortresses are near - probably heading for the Messerschmidt works at Regensburg - and B: less inspiringly, that soup is likely to be delayed for abit.
For the Huns discourage movement while an air raid is on. The Kommandant accuses us of 'congregating in groups and cheering during daylight raids' - which, of course, we do - and 'signalling with flashlights to aircraft at night' - which I hope we don't, though Lord knows we're not short of lunatics who might.
But, while some crowd to the windows to stare at the sky, I must keep my mind on my job, which is to write down the Fuehrer's idea of a good feed for Englanders.
The rations on my bed consist of an eighth of a loaf, and a few evil spuds. The bread is a slice from the middle of the loaf and is less than an inch thick. The spuds are five in number - two the size of walnuts ... one as big as an egg ... and the other two of fairish size, but foul appearance. Yes, I was afraid of that. One of them on being broken open is black-rotted throughout. The other, thank you, Adolf, has edible portions.
According to the Jerry diet sheet, we should also have had an issue of ersatz margarine - but according to the Jerry quartermaster, there just isn't any margarine to issue. So, one way and another, we've had it!
At a generous estimate, then, we have the equivalent of two normal spuds and a doorstep of bread to fill our bellies till tomorrow. That, and a cupful of swede soup - but as Jim Tyre once remarked, swedes are a drink for cows ... not nourishment for men. They're ninety-nine point something, just water.
If I could play Boswell to the various Johnsons now holding forth about Hun rations, I might add something to the literature of invective. As it is, I've got a grave personal problem to solve before the soup comes up. Shall I, or shall I not, eat my bread and spuds with the soup?
If I do, then I've got twenty-four interminable hours without a bite, perhaps tortured by the sight of other blokes eating this evening. If I don't, then I get not the slightest relief for my present pangs, and will certainly have the grub on my mind till I do scoff it.
Sometimes, when there's a margarine issue with the bread, we save the spuds till evening, fry them in the margarine, and eat the bread dry. At other times, we save the soup, bread and spuds for one single snack at about eight o'clock at night, and try to get to sleep immediately after.
However you work it, you've still an urge to chew your boots; you still feel pangs as your stomach shrinks; and you've no more fuel in your tank to keep you going.
But its got its funny side, this hunger business. There's Charley, for instance, asking for someone to take charge of his bread till six o'clock so that he, Charley, won't be tempted to eat it, then, noting the rather too eager acceptance of his request, deciding not to chance it, but to get it down his neck at once.
Then there are others of the 'neck or nothing' temperament, who've already scoffed the last crumb of their bread, and are now looking with the oddest mixture of scorn and admiration at the 'use your nut' canny school, who slice their eighths of a loaf into enough razor-thin slices to last for four 'meals' a day.
Best turn of the 'neck or nothing' boys is on Saturdays, when we are issued with two days' rations at once. They eat the lot in five minutes, then, with fearful curses on Hitler, retire to bed - there to lie the rest of the day, all day Sunday, and till mid-day on Monday, breadless but stoical.
To counter this feat, the 'use your nut' party take a particular pride in saving a crumb or two of their bread from day to day. 'What! rations up already?' they ask maddeningly. 'We've still got a slice left from yesterday!' and the only consolation the rest of us have is that the canny ones are just as spindle-legged and hollow-cheeked as we are.
But the Fortresses have passed ... there's movement in the camp ... Frank has got the soup by now ... and I've made my great decision. I shall ...
'Well ... what about it!' a voice breaks
'What about what?' I say, a trifle peeved.
'What about grub, of course. What are you going to do?'
'I'm going to eat my spuds with my soup, Alf,
and save my bread till tonight.'
'No you bloody well aren't!' says Alf. 'This syndicate's got swede peelings for supper. What did I tell you about that parcel lid?'
'Alf,' I say with feeling, 'you're the very
prince of muckers ... you're a chef above all chefs ... If there's
anything I can do ...'
'You can cut out the bull to begin with,' says Alf, 'and you can do me just one favour.'
'Speak!' I say.
'Stick them poems somewhere, and get stuck in
your Uncle Ned!'
'Alf,' I say, and mean, 'that's a very lovely thought.'
Music : If I Didn't Care