Friday, March 13, 2009

My War

Talking about my Lange blog a political scientist points out that this year’s new university students were born after David stepped down as Prime Minister. This statement reinforces a feeling that I sometimes have – younger people stumbling on to my blog are likely to say who is this old fogey? I am my generation. Like most Kiwis of my vintage our upbringing was dominated by a distant war - World War 11.

At present I am rereading The Turn of the Tide, Arthur Bryant’s editing of the Alanbrooke diaries of that war. Last evening it was the retreat to Dunkirk. Despite Bryant’s ardent British patriotism what a shambles. And amidst such mayhem such bravery and pluck. Monty won his spurs. The German pincer plan worked splendidly. Yet their troops held back at the end. The Brits were lucky. They could have lost almost all their men as well as their equipment. At this arm-chair level it’s a game of chess – not the blood, sweat, tears and panic of the battlefield and its surrounds. The chaos on the roads, refugees and troops, disorganisation and fear is described and can be imagined but I'm sure the experience would be chilling. The relief at Brooke's transition to the quiet of English country lanes is obvious. But at the back of his mind there must have been the thought that those lanes might soon be reflecting the same chaos. Bryant’s always tough on the French. Who knows what defeatism may have run through Britain had the German army gained a foothold. Further, the French had seen first-hand the carnage of the First World War.

When I was a child that second war dominated my life. The action may have been distant but the consequences were ever present. Our teachers lectured us that civilisation must be saved from the cruel, barbaric men who had seized control of Germany. The enemy was not the German people but their leaders. When the Japanese advanced in the Pacific the tune changed. Now the war was no longer confined to the other side of the world, and a sense of threat moved into the community.

But the action for me remained second-hand. The war was bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. It was Mum knitting jerseys, mittens and socks, Doug or I with the skein held in our outstretched hands as she wound the khaki wool into a ball against the background of rain drum-rolling on the corrugated iron roof. It was Pop (Mum’s father) listening to the BBC, its gloomy urgency - `this is London calling'. (Years later standing before Big Ben and hearing its precise strike I experienced a surprising feeling of imperial pride. The Empire might have lost its grandeur but its heart still beat. That particular cluster of emotions had been fastened to my personality, incongruous alongside other contradictory clusters).

Granny’s Sydney cousin and her daughter came to live in Little River for a while after the submarine attack in their harbour. Wood was piled on Pop’s farm at Rocky Peak, high above Akaroa Harbour, to be lit as a beacon if the Japanese landed. We saved money in our post office boxes to help defeat Hitler. We were given time off from lessons to hunt for ergot, the black fungus that grows on tall fescue grass, and which would apparently stop soldiers bleeding to death. There were photographs of dead or missing young men in the Weekly News, and maps in the newspaper showing the Russian advance from Stalingrad, past places with strange-sounding names like Kiev and Omsk. At the cinema (a local Saturday night showing, or in town as a treat), we watched grainy newsreels of Spitfires taking off, shattered cities, Churchill with his ever-present cigar, and the odd distant dead German soldier.

One Friday the regular army arrived. There was to be an exercise in which the local home guard, acting as the enemy, would attempt a breakout from Pigeon Bay, and the army would try to stop them, and defend the road to Christchurch. After school we helped the troops cut down two of Pop’s pussy willow trees to camouflage their tank, an activity which did not please him. Next day the older boys and girls rode over to Pigeon Bay and told the local men which spots the army had fortified. The soldiers had protected the main road but no one had told them about the alternative route, Pah Road. The home guard got behind them effortlessly, and received compliments on their intelligence. Pop said, “that lot wouldn’t be much help against the Japanese.” In their haste to leave their pussy willow stronghold the soldiers left behind two combat jackets, which we promptly commandeered.

Towards the end of the war, convalescing American soldiers were billeted with local people. These men kept getting malaria relapses. Pop was given an extra petrol allowance, as he or Mum often drove his big dark red Oldsmobile to Christchurch hospital with sick marines. Even to my untutored eye their uniforms seemed smoother and better-cut than those of our men, while their comics, chewing gum and forbidden Camels opened up new worlds. I listened wide-eyed as one marine from Arizona told of his cattle ranch, and the cowboys who worked it. After he had gone, one of his mates said he worked a petrol pump and wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other. Romance is so easily shattered. Nevertheless the locals spoke of them as brave boys. Bravery was then an important value. Farmers, soldiers, rugby players: all were brave. I envied them, even though my imagination too often portrayed the unfortunate consequences of such bravery.

Suddenly the European war was over. Decency had prevailed. Hard on the heels of this news came the victory of Labour leader Clement Attlee in the British general election. All through milking that evening, Pop whistled happily. Soon it was VJ Day. - the locals complaining about the lack of fireworks caused by the war. The horrors of Hiroshima remained unexamined though a new word Belsen justified the long struggle. Soon oranges reappeared in the shops, and bull’s-eyes, which we had read about in English schoolboy stories – gigantic things to hold in the mouth. And hazardous: they could choke you.

Until peace arrived, the conflict heightened a sense of unpredictability and insecurity. One day that fateful telegram might arrive. There was fear over the prospect of the troop ships being torpedoed. Pearl Harbour shook confidence. Our home-guard with their horses and old rifles offered little protection against Zero planes. But most men returned – the killing had not been nearly as catastrophic as in World War I, and only a few names needed chiselling on to the memorial gates of the Little River domain. Those who came home were scornful of the British High Command’s limitations during the war. In contrast, those who had been in New Zealand were grateful for the American presence in the South Pacific. The geo-political shift that created the Anzus alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the United States took place in front of my childhood eyes.

Those who criticise the materialism of the '50s and '60s should recollect the austerity of the war and its preceding depression, also the courage and the sacrifice that made victory possible. There are those who call that generation 'selfish'. Many of these men put their life on the line 'to keep the world safe for democracy' and their womenfolk joined in that sacrifice.

Note (An abridged version of this passage is in my memoir, This Piece of Earth, now out of print).

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