Looking on disapprovingly was Sergeant Bendle. He was a thickset man, short and tough. 'Louder, louder' he bellowed at us until he was red in the face. And he wasn't happy until we were screaming as much as he was.
It was psychological warfare and shouting helped you get through it, but we still had to do it again and again until we were proficient. I knew if it was a question of me or the other feller, it wasn't going to be me writhing in agony.
Man-to-man bayonet fencing was better because at least it felt like a sport. We had spring-loaded swords fixed to rifles with a protective bauble on the sharp end. If we got a thrust in without it being blocked, the blade was supposed to retract. But of course the Regulars would give it an extra push beyond the stop, giving you an agonising pain in the guts. It was a reminder of what was at stake if you let your guard down.
After Winchester we went to Tidworth on Salisbury Plain. There was one officer there who was especially popular with the lads. He was a dapper-looking gent, well turned-out with a dark pencil moustache and tidy hair. He was a 2nd Lieutenant at the time, I believe, and a cracking officer but he was better known to the rest of us as the gentleman thief, Raffles. The film had come out just before the war and posters were still around. The officer was the suave and sophisticated film star, David Niven.
After one exercise we gathered around him for a debriefing session but we all wanted the gossip from tinsel town. He was comfortable with fans but he had trained at Sandhurst before the war and he was now adjusting back to military life again. He had just appeared opposite Olivia de Havilland in Raffles but it was 'Ginger', his co-star in Bachelor Mother, he talked about most and we all knew who he meant. There was a good deal of joking around before one of the lads chirped up with, 'I bet you wish you were anywhere else but here, sir?' There was a momentary pause then he said, 'Let's just say I'd sooner be tickling Ginger Rogers' tits.'
Reality hit in the fourth week of May, 1940 when a hundred of us were specially selected and marched down to Tidworth railway station without being told why. We knew things were going badly in France. I was put in charge of about twenty men and told to allocate the mortars, the Bren guns and the rifles.
After an hour, the train came in, billowing clouds of steam and smoke. We climbed in amongst the civvies and began the haul towards the coast.
The British Expeditionary Force was in serious trouble, Calais was besieged and the German noose was tightening. The 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, was pinned down there and our unit from the 2nd Battalion had been put on standby to go in to help.
We sat there on the wrong side of the Channel. Staring into the intense coastal light from the safety of England, it was hard to imagine the disaster unfolding across that narrow strip of water but we could hear the concussion of the big guns - an eerie, melancholy sound.
The 1st Battalion had only been in France for two or three days, rushed over to try to keep Calais harbour open and help our army escape. They put up a tough resistance, fighting until there were no more bullets left. A handful of survivors were brought back by the Royal Navy but the rest were killed or captured. Winston Churchill thanked them later. He said their action tied up at least two German armoured divisions while the 'little ships' picked up so many men from Dunkirk.
For us, going in would have been suicide. We would have been wiped out in the water. Happily, the big noises realised that and the plan was abandoned. If I had a guardian angel, she had just appeared again. It would count as my second lucky escape after failing to get into the RAF.
I would finally get to mainland Europe but it would be as a prisoner.
Next, we moved north to Liverpool to camp on Aintree Racecourse, home to the Grand National, though now it was a sea of soldiers waiting to be dispatched to who knows where.
Excerpted from The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby. Copyright © 2011 by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby. Excerpted by permission of Da Capo Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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