No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess, Darling, At the moment, I seem to have nothing worth-while to write about. And in the absence of your letters, I cannot discuss your various domestic problems or our nipper’s progress… You see, I don’t know what you are doing… what you are thinking… what has been happening to you. I remember you telling me how you and Barry were going to Reddish for ‘Xmas dinner… but much has happened since then, and my imagination cannot furnish the little details which mean so much to me.
I know you have been writing to me with your usual regularity, but something seems to have happened to the unit mail… there has been none for us since Xmas eve. I have the consolation of being able to look forward to a real batch of your letters, but I think I would prefer them more regularly. I only hope that my letters to you, scanty as they have been lately, are not being similarly delayed. I hate to think of your anxiety if they have been. But I have a suspicion that the hold-up is only affecting incoming mail… particularly this unit.
I often wonder what you are thinking about the war and its latest developments. No doubt the recent German assault will have surprised you, but I hope it has not depressed you. After all, to win the war we have to kill lots more Germans yet, and they are easier to kill when attacking.
Taking the European war as a whole, I have thought for some time now that ‘something’ has gone wrong… somewhere. I wonder whether you have a similar impression. I cannot detail my opinions… they may conflict with the censorship… But one thing I can say is that I never expected to read of such good progress in Burma and the Pacific whilst the European war still remained undecided – did you?
Another thing has struck me lately… the question of “unconditional surrender”… I believe now that we made a psychological blunder by promulgating such terms. I am not trying to be ‘wise after the event’, because I, in common with most people I think, was heartily in favour of the original declaration, and I am not in any way trying to criticise the ‘big three’ for their (a few words censored here) attitude to Germany.
But now… I cannot help thinking that the enemy may have invited peace terms before now… had we not been so unequivocal about ‘unconditional surrender’… And it is possible, to my mind, that peace overtures, once commenced, would inevitably have led to a cessation of hostilities… And we may have got “unconditional surrender”… or something very close to it… but it would have been given another name: something less severe upon German pride. After all… I suppose the Germans are a proud people, and to expect them to surrender unconditionally… well, I think we have rather played into the hands of Dr. Geobbels.
I may be wrong… I suppose I am… but in trying to fathom the mystery of the German people’s refusal to succumb to our bombing and their military defeats, I find it difficult to attribute such ‘fortitude’ to fear of their own Gestapo. I feel there must be something else… something inspired by the ghastly pictures of unconditional surrender, as painted by Goebbels. What do you think, Jess?
And what do you think about the latest situation in Greece? It is a ghastly business, isn’t it? I must say I feel thoroughly ashamed of the part we are playing out there. Was Churchill misinformed when he spoke in the Commons about E.L.A.S. (Greek resistance) being bandits? And if so who is responsible? I cannot believe that he still holds this view. What is the general opinion at home? I do wish I could find out… The B.B.C. gives us no information whatsoever, apart from the barest details of the fighting… and usually against E.L.A.S. And what on earth is happening about Poland? I gather that they now nave two official governments… one in London, presumably inspired by our government, and the other in Lublin, presumably inspired by Russia. And America, it seems, has tossed a coin, and decided to back the London Poles. Or has their action some more subtle foundation?
Ach… what a world! I must go to bed… It is very late, and I must leave you. By sitting up in the kitchen, I am preventing the family from going to bed. They sleep on the kitchen floor here… all four of them. The cellar is too small for sleeping, so they use the kitchen, and dive into the cellar whenever they hear the flying bombs approaching. Needless to say, their sleep suffers much disturbance.
Good night, my darling… Good night.
Another day… and there is still time for the mail to arrive, if it is going to come today. I shall be a nervous wreck if it doesn’t come soon!
Did I tell you how we spent New Year’s Eve? I don’t think I did… not that there is a great deal to tell. There was quite a house full of people here… the family of four, the cousin and his wife, three sergeants, one sergeant major, and one quatermaster. There were also about forty bottles of English beer, a bottle of whisky, one of gin, one of brandy, and one of rum… Enough drink for a small army! Sgt Challinor and I, and at least two of the family here remained tea-total, so there was plenty of drink for the others:- in fact, there was too much because the S.S.M, the S.Q.M.S, and the cousin… the Gremlin we call him… got really drunk.
Most of the evening consisted of fooling and drinking, with the S.S.M. doing most of the fooling. Tom Hamnett provided an interesting diversion with his conjuring: He is a damned fine conjuror… especially with cards. His tricks were much appreciated by the locals, even though they couldn’t understand his English ‘patter’. We had a joke at Tom’s expense earlier in the evening. The family had invited four of us to have a meal with them at 6.0 pm. The S.S.M. had previously given them a huge chunk of meat, and one or two etceteras… and we assumed that this food would provide the meal. Tom really looked forward to that meal: He is a healthy eater with army food, but it seemed that he was going to excel himself with a bit of “decent home cooked grub”. At 4.30 pm, the army ‘tea’ was served, and we all had something to eat… except Tom. He was saving his appetite until 6.0 O/c.
When 6 O/c did arrive… we had waffles and coffee… nothing else! How we laughed!.. and how fortunate that the family had no idea of what we were laughing at! The waffles were like pancakes in texture and taste, but very thick… I could only manage one of them. But Tom ate five: he was damned near starving.
Somewhere around midnight, we all sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’… or rather we soldiers sang it: the others just remained dumb, or giggled. And then we switched on the wireless… and heard Big Ben… followed shortly by the lovely strain of the “Solemn Melody” (by Walford Davies). And that, to me, was the happiest part of the evening… I have no need to tell you why, darling. When the National Anthem was played a little later, we soldiers all happened to be standing up… and the ‘family’, recognising the time, all jumped to their feet and stood to attention… So we had to remain, standing to attention, for appearance sake. But I felt a bit of an idiot.
We went to bed soon after this, but I still wonder how the ‘Gremlin’ got home. He was gloriously drunk and barely able to stand. He was accompanied by the S.S.M, also drunk, and they had to descend a steep ice covered hill to reach their home. Neither of them have any recollections of the journey.
The following day the Gremlin invited us down to his house for the evening. We arranged to be there at 7.0 pm… for a meal. The S.S.M. assured us that this time there would be a meal, not just a waffle. Nevertheless, we all had our army tea at 4.30, including Tom! – just to be on the safe side. Well… the S.S.M. was right in one respect… We did not have waffles this time. Instead, I beheld a kitchen table set out with cups and saucers and two enormous fruit tarts… as big as dustbin lids, and with crusts as thick as floor boards. Shades of Mrs. Boh!! My heart sank. The mere sight of these “Dutch” fruit tarts makes me feel positively gorged. I can hardly get my mouth around the darned things, let alone digest them. I had to show willing of course: ‘Madame’ had apparently gone to much trouble to offer us this treat. I took the smallest piece I could find… and then found that we had no plates. I looked around and saw that the family were munching their tarts straight from their hands… so I did likewise. But human arms were never designed to support such weight for so long. I rested my elbow on the table in between bites.
After the meal, there was some drinking, but the Gremlin was much more subdued than on the previous evening. I think he still had a fat head. Tom Hamnett did some more card tricks: more neighbours being invited around specially to see him. We departed for ‘home’ at ten O/c… so as not to cause our ‘family’ any inconvenience. They would have to await our return before going to bed.
These ‘country’ Belgians have some queer ways, Jess. As with the Dutch, they seem to be spotlessly clean, and spend most of their time on housework. I am sick of seeing them cleaning floors… The ground floors are always tiled, and they swill them three or four times a day. Other jobs they do daily include sawing and chopping logs for the fire: going out with a ‘yoke’ and two pails at least twice daily for water… they get this from a communal village pump. Grandma spends much of her time spinning wool on the ancient pedal machine, and then she knits it into stockings. She also cooks, and washes clothes. Today, she has been baking bread… and tarts… Oh! those tarts.
But let me tell you about the bread… I saw the whole ‘works’ today. Firstly, the ingredients were mixed up in a huge wooden trough measuring about four feet long, eighteen inches wide and twelve inches deep: it bears a horrible resemblance to a small coffin. After bashing the stuff about for some time, a cloth was placed reverently over the trough… and then left by the side of the Kachel or stove… And now we come to the oven… and once again my thoughts flew to the graveyard as I beheld it… a miniature incinerator! For some time I have been pondering upon the meaning of a board hanging on the wall, and covered with wall-paper. This board measures about two feet six inches by two feet. It just hangs by two pieces of string, from a couple of hooks. Today, the board was removed… and my problem was solved. Behind the board, I saw a large hole in the wall… a little smaller than the board: inside the hole was an iron door. And above the iron door was a vertical cavity in the wall… a chimney. Grandma opened the iron door and I saw nothing but a black gaping hole. She went outside and returned with an armful of straw which she poked into the hole… the oven, actually. Next, she carted in five large bundles of faggots, each one an armful. She subsequently lit the straw, and very soon there was an inferno in the oven as the faggots caught fire. I could now see that the oven was a brick domed affair and quite large: I dare say five people could easily lay side by side in the thing.
After half an hour or so, the faggots had burned down to embers: most of these were removed with a long-handled shovel, and then the oven was ready for the bread. Whilst waiting for the oven to heat up, the old lady had transferred lumps of dough into round baking tins: she had also prepared three huge fruit tarts. The whole lot were now pushed into the oven… a long stick being used to push them to the rear. There were about twenty loaves and the three tarts. Next, a small pile of embers was raked towards the front, and into these were poked about a dozen large potatoes. and then the oven was closed. Half an hour later, the tarts were removed: they looked O.K. being baked a rich brown. The potatoes came out later, and then the bread… Everything seemed to be beautifully cooked.
Have had tea: we had beans on toast, jam and tea… And as we eat our meals in the house, the family always know what we have. This evening the beans caused some amusement… I will tell you why just to illustrate how these people differ in outlook from ourselves: they are sometimes embarrassingly outspoken, where we would remain er – reserved… or discreet. When I entered the living room carrying my mess tin of food and tin mug, Les Challinor was already sitting down, eating his meal. He seemed amused as he told me that Maria, the married daughter, had something to say to me about the beans. She came across and pointed to my mess tin, with its beans resting upon a piece of fried bread. She then uttered a few words amongst which I recognised “haricot” (the beans), and “par bonne”, and “vous”, and “le nuit” and one or two others… But her meaning would have been lost upon me but for her actions. As she finished speaking, she placed one of her hands behind her back… and close to her posterior… She then thrust her hand downwards three times… accompanying each thrust with a most expressive “poof, poof, poof”. I should have known what she meant, even had I been ignorant of the “wind” producing propensity of beans!
For a moment, I didn’t know where the hell to look. She had literally taken the wind out of my sails. I glanced at Les, and he immediately exploded… and so did the rest of the family. I could see now that Les had already had his lecture… and he enjoyed my embarrassment. A little later, Tom Hamnett came in with his tea. We said nothing… but Maria again jumped up, and repeated the performance. Tom’s face was a study as the awful truth dawned upon him… and we had another good laugh… The same ceremony was repeated when the S.S.M. came in for his tea. God! How we laughed. The family laughed with us, of course, but I don’t think we laughed for the same reasons.
This situation reminded me of another unusual conversation we had last week with a Belgian wife… in a nearby town where we were billeted at the time. The wife in question was the mother of the girl with asthma. A good looking and very pleasant lady and quite young… about 33 years of age, I should guess. She was telling us about the behaviour of American troops who had previously been billeted in the area. She knew NO English, and it was consequently not easy to follow her. But we understood that she rather disliked the Americans. In explaining the reasons for her dislikes, we all distinctly heard the word “jig-jig”. We looked at each other… Challinor, Hamnett, the S.S.M. and myself. Surely we must have been mistaken. No one would talk so openly upon such a subject with strangers… especially in the presence of her two children. I should explain that “jig-jig” is the commonplace term in France and Belgium to describe copulation. I felt sure she must have said “zig-zag” and we had misunderstood… ‘zig-zag’ being another popular phrase meaning ‘drunk’: the equivalent of our “tipsy”. I interrupted her story and asked her to confirm that she said ‘zig zag’… and as calmly as anything she repeated “jig jig”, and went on to explain how many local women had given themselves up to the Americans… all for a ride in a jeep, to a quiet spot, and how they were rewarded with tinned food. There wasn’t the slightest suggestion of embarrassment as she told the story even though her two children were with us, listening to every word. I hardly knew what to do whilst she was speaking… and so I kept my eyes glued to her face. Presumably my colleagues did the same because I’m sure there would have been guffaws of laughter, particularly from the S.S.M, had we looked at each other. I can’t imagine an English mother speaking so openly before children aged about 12 and 14… can you, dear?
There has been more fun here this evening. The four of us were invited to have supper with the family at 8.0 p.m. When the S.S.M. came in just before 8.0 O/c, I warned him that there would probably be fruit tart for supper as I had seen the old lady baking them during the day. And just as I ceased speaking, along came grandma carrying one of the tarts upon a wicker tray. Her eyes were beaming as she bore the darned thing into the kitchen. And what a tart! – Jess!! It was as big as a cart wheel. And then the S.S.M. saw it!.. His face distorted with a look of horror… I couldn’t stand any more – I just exploded. And so did Les and Tom: we howled… Fortunately the family thought we were laughing at an earlier joke, and they joined in the laughter. It was difficult to remain serious during the supper, as you can imagine. But if laughter is good for the digestion, then my slice of pie will do me no harm.
About leave… that is something we are both living for… but, like you, I am almost afraid to talk about it. But now I must let you know what is happening. As you may have read in the press, monthly allocations have been made for each unit… and we received our allocation about three weeks ago. In this unit, we decided to ballot for our turns… this being about the fairest way of fulfilling our allocation. My number in the squadron… is… 35. It could be better… but it could be a lot worse: I am not complaining of my luck. On our present allocation, I should be home just about mid-February… And that is the date I am banking on, in spite of vague rumours about a forthcoming increase in the allocation. I have not discussed the subject before, Jessie Mine, because I had a horrible feeling that the whole scheme may have been suspended owing to the unexpected German assault. But now, three numbers of the squadron have already departed, so I know that my fears were groundless. I cannot talk about the time when I will be with you, darling. Words are inadequate to express what I feel… I know you will understand.
The mail has not arrived… nothing for any of us. It is becoming serious, and already the colonel is investigating the matter. It is a scandalous business in my opinion. Something ought to have been done ages ago, but our complaints seem to have had little effect. Perhaps the importance of mail is not appreciated by those in authority. Perhaps tomorrow will produce something… I go to bed… hoping… always hoping.
Jess… my dear wife… I love you so much.
Always and always
P.S. Heavy snowfall today and last night, but it is much warmer.