Have you ever escaped from captivity by removing from your boot the serrated surgical wire cunningly disguised as a shoelace and sawing through the windpipe of your hapless, squirming guard? Me neither, but I know someone who has. He’s a lovely old boy, gentle, thoughtful, slightly melancholy and, but for that unsettlingly sardonic smile and the gimlet glint in his eye, you’d never imagine for a moment that he could have killed anyone.
But he did, quite a few times in fact, during his service in the second world war with the commandos. On this particular occasion, he had been captured with three of his comrades outside Dunkirk. One was shot almost immediately, supposedly while trying to escape; one was moved elsewhere and never seen again; the other two — my friend and his pal (a German Jew) were imprisoned in a bunker and told by their guard that if they made the slightest move they’d be shot.
Of course, they were probably going to be shot anyway — this after all was Hitler’s order regarding captured commandos — so they had nothing to lose by trying. The guard who had threatened them watched them like a hawk. But when he was relieved by a laxer one they made their move. ‘He was having a Jimmy Riddle,’ my friend recalls. ‘And we did him with a Gigli wire. There was a terrible lot of blood and it went all over my battledress. I didn’t wash for over a month, so I had something to remember that dead German by all that time.’
After my friend told me this story a few weeks ago I remember feeling oddly elated. Partly, no doubt, this reflected the same unhealthy prurience which makes us slow down when passing major motorway accidents or sit, tranfixed, through hour-long documentaries about Beslan. But it was mainly, I hope, because I felt hugely flattered and privileged that my friend finally trusted me enough to try to answer the question we all so often want to ask of old soldiers: ‘What was the war really like?’
Until quite recently, this wasn’t something many of them felt ready to discuss at all. My prep-school art master, Ken Greves, served with the Long Range Desert Group and his tank was blown up in the Western Desert, but even though his son was my best friend and he knew I was an obsessive reader of War Picture Library, Commando, Battle and War Monthly, the most I ever got out of him was that when he escaped into the mountains from captivity in Italy he felt quite incredibly cold and hungry.
I fared little better at my public school. One housemaster, it was said, had somehow lost most of his toes as a wartime bomber pilot; another had the pockmarked face of one of Sir Archibald MacIndoe’s guinea pigs. But as far as I know not a single one of the 600 boys there at the time ever dared asked them about it. And it wasn’t that we weren’t interested. We just knew, instinctively, that this wasn’t something they’d be prepared to talk about. People didn’t in those days.
That was in the 1970s and the 1980s, when there were a lot more second world war veterans alive than there are today. Maybe that was the problem. None of them wanted to speak out of turn, or to be caught ‘shooting a line’ when all around were potentially thousands of other veterans whose courage or combat record put their own modest achievements to shame. All the same, the fewer people there are out there with personal memories of the horror and suffering — and also the cameraderie, decency and self-sacrifice — of the second world war, the greater our need to be reminded of it.
For a good chunk of the 20th century, military service was the norm, not the exception. Grandpa might have seen action anywhere from the Dardanelles to Jutland to the Western Front; your father could have fought on bombing raids over the Ruhr or with the 14th Army in Burma or in the Western Desert or at the mouth of the River Plate; friends and elder brothers, perhaps in Korea or Malaya. We were comfortable with the idea of the armed forces, and their traditions, and the fact that their job, au fond, was to wipe out our enemies.
Today, though, in an era of low-level conflict fought by a discrete group of professional warriors, we are far less comfortable with the very idea of mortal risk or bloodshed. We gauge victories not on how many baddies we kill but how few; we expect stressed, scared young men in combat to behave with the sensitivity of village bobbies; when we’re shown photographs of charred carcasses and ranks of body bags in the backs of Galaxy transport aircraft, we’re appalled and surprised and we wonder whom to blame.
For those of the 1939 to 1945 generation, such quibbles would have been an undreamt-of luxury. Most of them had no choice but to fight, because they knew that if they didn’t they would end up losing so many of the freedoms that their descendants take for granted. There wasn’t much room for nice debates about the nuances of international law or bus trips to Berlin to reassure Herr Hitler that this war wasn’t being fought in your name: there are no opt-out clauses in total war.
Which is one of the things I so envy about that remarkable generation. The fact that they were all in it together — barring exceptions like the communist dock-workers who ‘blacked’ supplies and the spivs who nicked bits of vital equipment — meant that they experienced a cameraderie of an intensity all but unknown in our own self-centred, atomised culture. Most of the veterans I speak to tell me that, despite all the horror, they’d do it all again just to enjoy the comradeship of their mates.
And yes, because I think meanly of myself for not having been a soldier, I also envy them the opportunity they had to be tested in battle. A lot of old boys will tell you that they could happily have done without that test, thank you very much, and that, besides, anyone would have done the same in their shoes. But the point is, until you’ve surged off the bow of an LCA under Spandau fire or been blasted at near point-blank range by Japanese 88s on a hillside at Kangaw or had to hold steady on a bomb run just as you’re on the verge of being coned by enemy searchlights, how are you ever going to know what you’re really made of?
‘Do you think it made you a better person?’ is a question I often ask my old boys, and most of them concede that it probably did. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it has blessed them with greater wisdom or political insight — it was war, after all, that persuaded Ted Heath and his kind of the overriding virtues of a unified Europe; and it was the end of the first world war that led to the beginning of the second — but what it has granted them, it seems to me, is a rare mixture of stoicism, tolerance and compassion. I’ve noticed this on trips with my pals from 47 RM Commando. They’re all in their eighties now, many with health problems, yet never once have I heard any of them complain about anything — not even when it’s 100?F and they’ve been standing on parade for 40 minutes in the blazing sun, while their grandchildren are cowering in the shade.
And the other thing that really strikes me about them is their consideration for the needs of others, their gentleness — the same gentleness I noted at the beginning in my other commando friend, the one who garrotted that German. Unlike the modern generation, they don’t need to prove how tough they are by being rude and showing ‘attitude’. They have no need. They’re the real thing. Which is why, at the going down of the sun, we will remember them.
James Delingpole will be contributing a fortnightly column on the wartime deeds of surviving British servicemen.