No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood.
‘C’ Sqdn, 9th Battn RTR,
Jessie Mine: I am writing this in the train as we make our way haltingly across this still devastated countryside. It is now late evening and becoming dark, but against the horizon half a mile away, I can see the gaunt ruins of the town of Goch… Goch! One of the bastions of Hitler’s Siegfried Line… And because I can see Goch, I know that we are in the midst of those fortifications which, only a few months ago, were such a dreadful reality to most of us over here… And not far away from this spot – only a mile or two – lies the little hamlet of Hulm… But you will have forgotten Hulm no doubt. It was the place where we harboured in a church-yard – and where the lads kept their hens amongst the grave stones… and where the graves had been blasted open by shell-fire – and where the smell of death and decay permeated everything. It was in Hulm that I found myself a day or two after returning from my last leave – I remember Hulm, darling.
Today, I have seen many reminders of the recent past… We passed the area of Vinkenbroek – where we had a battle or two a few months ago… And then Roosendaal, with its bomb-shattered station… And Breda… and Gennep… All of them mere names on the map of Holland, but now the graveyards of many of our lads.
And in all these places, there is now a common purpose – that of reconstruction. Buildings are either being demolished or patched up: railway lines are being re-laid: signal wires repaired: signal boxes re-built… and amongst all the debris, there are the inevitable urchins… mostly playing cheerfully as though the partial suicide of our civilisation were an everyday occurrence – and nothing to worry about. Some of the youngsters knowing that military trains carry soldiers, stand by the line – begging. And whenever we halt, the bolder ones clamber up the carriages and start the usual bartering for cigarettes… And in addition to cigarettes, they now offer to buy Belgian francs – offering 20/- (20 shillings) worth of Dutch guilders for 12/- worth of Belgian francs… so revealing another of the many channels through which profit can be made illicitly in the army.
A fantastic world this, Jess… A depressing world… Human values have changed – morality is having a hard time to survive. Perhaps when all the physical signs of death and destruction have been obliterated, human decency will again prevail, but it looks as though the change will be a slow one. Meanwhile… the air in the towns and villages remains polluted with that depressing smell of decay… a musty, evil smell.
The train is now moving fairly well, but there will be another slow crawl very soon because we must be very close to the Rhine by now… and the improvised Rhine bridges have to be crossed very carefully. Unfortunately, it is now too dark to see outside, so I don’t know precisely where we are.
Another long halt… this time well inside Germany… altho I don’t know precisely where except that we must be forty or fifty miles east of the Rhine. We passed through Cleve (Kleve) two or three hours ago… and altho I couldn’t see the town in the dark, I know what it must look like… I saw its bombed and battered profile from the Reichswald area a few months ago… and I know that towns which have been so treated are all more or less alike – just heaps of rubble with ‘roads’ hewn out of the wreckage and gaunt and jagged walls pointing helplessly skywards… And the smell will be there in Cleve… and maybe an odd cart or two… and the usual women and old men with handcarts and perambulators carting their rubbish from one heap of rubble to another… And maybe a few optimists patiently groping amongst the stinking ruins that they formerly called home.
We reached the Rhine soon after passing through Cleve. I noticed a tiny shack by the side of the railway: and inside were British soldiers wearing waterproofs and carrying rifles: they were just visible in the feeble light of the shack. These men were obviously on guard duty… and a few seconds later I knew why as the train rumbled on to the flimsy bridge built by the army soon after the German retreat: this bridge, and others like it, must be among the many remarkable engineering feats of the war.
From the carriage window, I could see the black swirling water of the river only a few feet below – thanks to the light from the train. It looked nasty and sounded angry: I was glad when we got across… I don’t like this journey now, Jess. We are passing through a land of ghosts… a land of treachery. I almost wish we had black-out blinds across the windows: I feel horribly naked in this lighted compartment – so visible to the hate-crazed ex-Nazis… The rail track is lined with wreckage… bits of twisted girders, torn chunks of railway line, shattered sleepers, twisted and useless signal wires. And over and around it all, the weeds are growing as if to conceal such evidence of the beastly past.
I have no idea how the railway systems work here – particularly in signalling, because all the signal mechanism is destroyed… but the train keeps on moving, so there must be some system.
Later 18.8.45 Saturday
At last – I am back with the unit:- and I find myself in a village called Gümmer, about 12 miles from Hanover – But let’s try to keep to some sequence.
Last evening, I was scribbling in the train – and I fear my writing is hardly legible, but I hope you can decipher it… I fell asleep during the early hours and awoke as we were approaching Hanover somewhere around 9.0am. The rail track ran through what used to be a built up area… but now, the former buildings, warehouses, factories, houses, are just heaps of rubble and jagged bits of walls and chimney stacks. The station too is a ruin… just a broken and torn mass of steelwork overhead, with a huge marshalling yard at one side literally crammed with burnt out and rusty hulks of carriages and wagons – hundreds of them. On the station platforms were crowds of civilians – mostly with piles of lumber and suitcases – just waiting for a train to take them away… I will try and tell you about these human herds later. At the station, transport was awaiting us, and we drove away to a nearby R.H.U. (Regimental Holding Unit) passing through the centre of the town.
Jessie Mine: I’m sorry dear, but I must finish – I haven’t been able to write a word for a couple of hours due to interruptions here. It is my first evening back in the mess – and everyone has been asking about Paris etc. I hope to write a decent letter tomorrow. Before I finish… thanks for your letters: there were seven of them waiting for me here: And about leave – I am scheduled to leave here on Aug 31st – but will say more about this tomorrow.
Goodnight, my love
Yours Always –