No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess dear, I have a suspicion that this attempt to write to you may prove a failure… as is usual these days. But it is a long time since I have been able to write, so I must at least let you know that I am O.K. and unharmed.
Conditions have changed somewhat since my last letter… was it written last Fri and Thurs?.. and as usual under these circumstances, my mind is somewhat confused. So many things seem to happen at once… and days become merged into each other due to all night activities: even now, I have to accept someone else’s word for the date… I have no definite idea that it is Sunday.
At the moment I am writing in what appears to have been the kitchen of an hotel in a small German town. The town is one of the ‘has-beens’ as I will try and tell you later. In this kitchen, the most prominent feature is the wreckage… brickwork, plaster, glass and dust being scattered about everywhere: the floor is invisible beneath inches of debris, and the large oven is little better. Nevertheless, we have lit a fire in the range and the flue system must be working because the fire is burning well. This is a bit of good luck in view of the wrecked condition of the building: it has been severely blasted by our artillery. The oven too has been put to use: it is roasting a goose just now… this will provide supper for a few of the lads. Electric light and radio have been ‘laid on’ from one of the tanks… the latter having been run up to the outer wall, and the wires pushed through the glassless windows. Even tanks can be adapted to provide some little measure of comfort!
But I think you will be more interested in a broader picture, rather than the trivial details of this squalid kitchen. One thing I must say… the more I see of Germany, the more convinced I become that the war has been brought home to them with a vengeance… a terrible vengeance. They appear to have elected to finish the war the hard way:- I wonder whether they would have done so had they known what really lay in store for them. And I wonder whether any of them allow their minds to span the gap of the last four or five years as they survey the pitiful wreckage of their former homes.
Those were the years of the cheering multitudes: of the Germany triumphant: of the deification of the beloved ‘Fuehrer’. It was then that the Germans gloated over the tragedies of Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, London etc. Their soldiers… these so-called supermen, inspired by hatred of all things decent in humanity… were returning from their conquests with loot… Loot from the homes of Poland… from Holland… France… Belgium… Paris. The world was indeed Good: The cherished dream of ‘Deutschland uber alles’ had become a reality… almost. Praise to the Fuehrer. At the cost of millions of lives and untold suffering, he had taught the Herrenvolk how to live down their enormous inferiority complex. But now… the world has changed… and not to the advantage of the Germans. Do they wonder why? Are they capable of thought? Complete failure is bitter at the best of times, but how much worse must it be after the orgy of conquests and successes for which they paid such lavish tribute to their highly trained murderers? I cannot help wondering upon the state of mind of these Germans as I see them now… homeless, wretched and unwanted. They are the victims now: history is repeating itself.
On our way to this town yesterday, we passed through the usual scenes of desolation. Dead animals were frequent, particularly horses… usually lying in the roadside ditch: dead cows lay in the shell scarred fields: wreckage of war vehicles and weapons lined the roads: telegraph poles and wires formed a crazy network across the skyline: and many huge trees had been felled across the highway to retard our progress: as usual, these trees had been ‘blasted’ down by a charge of H.E. around the base of the trunk. But the most depressing sight was the lifeless humanity… mostly German. How pitifully harmless they appear in death:- just ordinary beings: not fierce, not brave, not blond, not arrogant:- just ordinary men who have died so unnecessarily. And as we travelled forward, little fountains of earth could be seen in the adjoining fields. Harmless little eruptions they appear… but in reality they only inspire fear because they are the visible after effects of enemy HE shells or mortar: they kill. Normally, we can hear as well as see them, but not whilst travelling on the roads: the noise of our vehicles, and our head-sets (radio) obliterate other sounds. Even so, we are usually conscious of the enormous roar of our own artillery away in the rear: but this noise is so tremendous that the air becomes heavy with it: we feel, rather than hear it. And sometimes we have to travel warily because of road craters… another legacy of the retreating enemy. Mines, too, are a worry. They are usually ‘sown’ in the road verges:- so we have to remain on the road… or suffer the consequences.
Yesterday’s journey reminded me a little of the Falaise area in Normandy because once again the fields and roads were littered with pieces of paper… “safe conduct” leaflets dropped earlier by our aircraft. I will enclose one for your scrutiny. All the ‘signs’ I have mentioned were indicative of heavy fighting, and I knew in advance that the ‘town’ for which we were heading would be a ruin… and it was. Many houses were mere heaps of rubble. Others had great gaping holes in their roofs and walls. The town centre was littered with debris and such things as furniture, glass, clothing, roof-tiles, pianos, sewing-machines… and the countless other commodities usually found in a shopping area. But there were no human beings apart from our infantry. The civilians, if any, were wisely sheltering in their cellars and fox holes – a necessary precaution, as the enemy were shelling the town heavily, providing us with their usual welcome. The infantry, however, have to ignore these things… their only defence is to drop flat in the gutter or behind the piles of debris whenever the whine of a shell appears very close: but quite often, they are unable to ‘take-cover’ in time. And then the stretcher bearers appear as if by magic… and another casualty is in good hands. Grand lads those stretcher bearers: well worthy of the infantrymen they serve so faithfully.
It would be difficult for me to describe in detail the particular town I have been talking about: I could write pages about each of dozens of little incidents. Let us leave the wreckage of the town and proceed to the point in the suburbs where we halted. My troop took up a position beside a badly battered house… a once fairly pretentious home. Ahead of us lay the open country, thinly wooded… and the enemy. But we weren’t greatly concerned about the latter: we were damned hungry, and so we dismounted and did a ‘reccy’ around the house. It was a complete ruin inside, although the tables and chairs were still ‘usable’ after clearing away bits of brickwork etc. The walls of the house were partly intact too – affording some protection from enemy gunfire. We cleared away some of the wreckage and made ourselves at home. Very soon our tiny petrol cookers were buzzing away boiling the inevitable brew. Our ‘reccy’ of the house had revealed two dead civilians, both men, on the steps leading to the basement at the rear of the house. One of the bodies was almost intact, but the other was badly mutilated and in three or four pieces, including a badly crushed skull. But these gruesome relics did not affect our appetite in the least: they were simply dismissed as a “couple of stiffs”. I suppose it is true that familiarity breeds contempt.
I should mention that our tame poultry accompanied us on this journey. They were packed into a box and strapped on the rear of the vehicle. During our lunch, they were released and allowed to have their meal:- but no eggs were forthcoming!! Our stay in this area lasted some hours during which we received a visit from a male civilian living close by. His house was in ruins, but he had somehow contrived to remain alive in the cellar. He seemed quite harmless… and cursed the Nazis… as usual! I suppose they adopt this attitude in self-defence, but it has ceased to deceive us.
Today the ‘town’ has shewn more signs of life: I daresay there are now hundreds of civilians in the place… mostly women… and they are mostly living a communal life in one of the lesser damaged buildings. They are a pitiful crowd. I wish I really knew how to treat them. My reason tells me that severity is essential… but my conscience is a worry. Perhaps I am guilty of allowing my “bleeding heart to run away with my bloody head”… I don’t know. It is a difficult business, especially where the children are concerned. Today for instance, a mother and her little girl of about ten were weeping bitterly. They were standing by the door of their ruined cottage: the interior was a mass of debris and a foul smell. The woman addressed a colleague and myself. We gathered that her two younger children had been killed on the previous day. She begged us to go inside the house. We followed her… down some gloomy stone steps into the evil smelling cellar. On the concrete floor were some rags arranged as bedding: a tiny stove, unlit, was in the corner: an enormous wicker basket full of pots and glassware lay at the foot of the steps: she asked us to carry it for her to a communal house across the road. Would this be “fraternising” with the enemy? We carried the basket… and left the woman and her child with her friends. I wished I had some chocolate for that child. I suppose I am a damned fool.
Sorry, dear… my time is up. May be able to write again tomorrow, but cannot promise. Please don’t worry…