Lieutenant Edmund Filford Scrivener
Unit : No.10 Platoon, "A" Company, 1st Battalion The Border Regiment
Army No. : 292013
Edmund Scrivener was born in Fulham, London, on the 10th September 1916, the third of four children. His grandfather, Richard Scrivener, was a stonemason and had built the Victoria Monument that stands outside Buckingham Palace. Edmund became a cub reporter with the Evening News but parted company with them at the age of 17. He became a grocer and, in 1936, married Elisabeth Ball. In 1939, he joined the Royal Artillery as a private soldier. The following is Edmund Scrivener's account of his wartime career, "Episodes From an Uncertain Memory".
WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR DADDY?
To be frank, not a lot. An extraordinary run of good luck, kept me in England for most of the war, and apart from one or two isolated incidents, my service career was more a joke than anything else. At the outbreak of war, my wife and daughter evacuated themselves back to her home in Northumberland, and I was left on my own here in London until my calling up papers arrived. My younger brother, Wally, had been conscripted just before the war began and in about October I decided to pay him a visit. He was stationed at the time with his anti-tank regiment in Potters Bar, just north of London. When I saw him in uniform… my little brother who I had played with so often… I decided there and then, that I had no alternative but to join up. Had I waited for my calling up, I daresay I could have had another year as a civilian, but the prospect of Wally holding back the hordes of Germans with out my help was a situation that could not be tolerated. At Acton Drill Hall I had my medical, and was instructed to join a Royal Artillery Heavy training Regiment in Blackdown. And so the whole idiotic train of events began. Fifty years ago almost to the day.
The squad I was in was a mixed group, covering all classes of English society from top to bottom. After a month’s square bashing one of our number caught measles… this is the truth, I swear it! We were isolated in a barrack room for a whole month. Our food brought to us, forbidden to go out; well we did go out once; and the rest of regiment was confined to barracks till we were safely back in our cage. This delay in our training meant that we missed being sent to France; we weren’t ready, but at the end of it all we were sent to a depot at Watford. My God, what a dump that was. I swear that there are still gunners in Watford living in empty houses waiting for a posting. After a few weeks we were all set again for a move (I’ve no idea where), and again I missed it. My father died while working on building the new Waterloo Bridge, and at last left his miseries behind and found peace.
Compassionate leave meant that I missed the posting, and after my dad was well and truly buried they shipped me off to Hull where I joined the 9th Super-heavy Regiment. Sounds great doesn’t it? 9th Super heavy Regiment Royal Artillery. “Ubuque Que Fas et Gloria Ducunt”. The RA motto which meant “Everywhere; Where Right and Glory Lead”. This time it led to a goods yard at a railway station in Grimsby. The Super heavy consisted of two railway mounted twelve-inch howitzers, last used at Amiens in 1918. It took at least three days to get these magnificent old guns into action, and each time we did so, the powers that be decided that the enemy weren’t going to invade there, and shifted us off somewhere else.
Winston Churchill met me once, not on a social occasion but in the course of our duties engaged in defeating the Hun. The meeting is not mentioned in any of his biographies, at least, as far as I am aware, so I thought I would set the record straight and report it in mine. In all fairness I think I should point out that it wasn’t a meeting in the sense that I shook him by the hand and enquired after his health, but he passed by me as close as I am to you. I could clearly smell his cigar smoke. The Duke of Kent nearly met me at the same time, but he just stood at a safe distance and looked at us; somewhat despairingly I thought at the time. However, I am sure that you are eagerness itself to know the details of this meeting that was not quite on the same level as Casablanca, of Yalta, but interesting at the time.
It was the early summer of 1940 when the bedraggled British army had recently arrived from Dunkirk, angry and humiliated, and we were all waiting for the onslaught that we were sure was going to follow it across the Channel. The 9th Super-heavy Battery R.A. was in the station yard somewhere near Hull where gun crews were engaged in trying to dig holes in ten feet of concrete in which to sink huge baulks of timber that would be chained to the guns to act as anchors. These anchors were vital, and without them the two seventy-six tons of ordinance could not go into action; when fired they tended to fall over. After three days we had managed a three inch dent into the concrete, and were seriously considering giving up and going home. Gunner O’Riley suggested that it might be worth while sending a telegram to Herr Hitler asking him not to invade yet as we weren’t ready. Gunner O’Riley, being Irish, convinced everybody that he wasn’t joking, but said he could use a pneumatic drill if we could get hold of one. We were saved by a phone call from the War Office.
“Awfully sorry, old chap, been a bit of a mess in the communications. I shouldn’t have told you to go to Hull; seems that the jolly old enemy can’t stand the smell of fish. Could you move down the line a bit? Dover. Be jolly grateful if you could tootle off down there. Soon as poss. The jolly old Hun may be knocking at the door soon. Good man.”
Our two railway mounted monsters and their ammunition set off in one train, and the railway coaches that we lived in set off in another. To our great surprise the two trains met at Dover East station, where one gun was sent off somewhere, and my gun was despatched to a deserted station on a single line section of the line a few miles out of Dover. To call it a station was exaggerating a bit; it was a wooden platform about twenty yards long, with a garden shed that served as a waiting room, and, when we arrived, as our battery office, cookhouse, and sleeping quarters. It would accommodate one sleeping soldier lying down, or three of four sleeping soldiers standing up. There was nowhere to play cards, the nearest NAFFI was about ten miles away, and the closest we could get to any crumpet was a village where the youngest female appeared to be at least fifty, so there was nothing for it but to pass the time by getting the gun, Cleopatra, into action.
It was at this time that our great leader (referred to as WC from hereon) set out on a tour of the defences of his country in those areas where it was considered the enemy might attack; he wanted to find out if we had, indeed, got any defences, and at the same time to put some heart into us poor sods who were expected to throwback the Hun with little more than our bare hands.
On the great day we all had a wash and lined up ready to be inspected by the great man. A cavalcade of cars swept along the cart track that led to our gun site, carrying WC and his staff, a couple of generals, and redcaps by the dozen. In the very last car sat the Duke of Kent all on his own, with the air of a man who has got out at the wrong station while travelling on the wrong train. He got out of his car and stood beside it pretending to be vitally interested. We would have presented arms, but we only had one rifle, and Sergeant “Cush” Cannon pulled rank on us and kept it for himself. Wasn’t any use any way, the rifle was 300 calibre and the only bullets we had were 303. Cush did his best with more energy than skill; too much energy really… his false teeth jumped out, as they were to do on a number of occasions. Not that it mattered, WC strode straight past and completely ignored us as did the tons of brass and acres of red tabs who were in tow; he took one look at the gun, then the waiting room, turned to one of his minions and growled something, then made straight for his car. In a few minutes the cavalcade disappeared down the track in a cloud of dust.
He never asked for our opinion of the situation. We would have been very happy to tell him. We afterwards learned that for the whole of that summer he had a plane standing by to whip him off to America if the Germans did come, so he couldn’t have been very optimistic.
There are two things about that period of the war that have always puzzled me. One, why didn’t Hitler invade? It would have been a doddle for him. Two, why didn’t Churchill, after seeing us, head off at top speed for his plane and hotfoot it to Washington?
Holding back the Hun
For about a year we drifted up and down the east coast, bored out of our tiny minds, until, at last, the General Staff decided that we should settle down a branch line running from Ipswich to Felixstowe, where we became more of a menace to the local population than to the foe. By this time I had been promoted to Bombardier and given two stripes, which meant that in the event of our gun being fired, I had to do it! I grew very fond of our two great weapons, all 152 tons of them, and I looked forward to the day when I would pull the lanyard and the huge thing would spout fire and venom. We fired it three times; the first time it sucked the entire roof of the crossing keepers house; the second time it sucked the windows out of a passing bus and peppered a Harwich fishing fleet with large chunks of white hot metal, and the third time it fired, it fell over. A stupid colonel declared that we didn’t need all those anchors and precautions needed to hold the gun down when it was fired; she was quite capable of firing without them. To prove his point we were directed to a stretch of the London to Clacton line and ordered to fire off a few rounds into the sea. The first round was a disaster; she fell over backwards… I know… I was on it at the time. I fired it too. ‘Cush’ Cannon decided that this time the glory should go to somebody else. Cleopatra was never fired again! She was called Cleopatra because she had two boob-like contraptions sticking out the front. Part of the recoil system. For the next two years we idled our time away. Going on leave every three months, the occasional exercise. Most of the gun crew had girl friends in Ipswich, and when their wives sent them some money, spent the night with the girl friend. When it was obvious that the Hun was not going to invade, we were given an old 15cm gun to protect ourselves against enemy tanks. We took it to the firing range to get some practice on moving targets, but nobody could hit one until the officer in charge dared me to have a go. I did, and hit the target three times. The Major was so delighted he promoted me to sergeant. “Can’t pay you for it, Scrivener, but jolly good show.”
There are many tales I could tell you about life with the supers, but they are so ridiculous you wouldn’t believe me anyway.
Early in 1943 the Major sent for me. He had received orders that he was to forward the name of at least one man to be tested for becoming an officer. At first I though he was joking. Me? A scruffy London urchin, with no money, no family, and no education, becoming an officer and a gentleman. But he was serious. I protested that I hadn’t a chance of passing the required tests, and he suggested that was fine. He’d put my name forward; I’d fail and come back to the unit, everybody happy. Everyone not happy. To my utter amazement I passed all the required tests, and after some leave was posted to Woolwich to wait until joining the OCTU. Meanwhile, my colleagues on the supers were posted to a 25 pounder regiment (what a comedown) and were soon on their way to North Africa, secretly relieved, I suspect, that at last they were to be called upon to do something to win the war. I met one of them in Acton High Street after the war. They had all survived except Millington. He was killed.
And so it came about. Mr. E. F. Scrivener, Lieutenant R.A. officer maybe, but no gentleman. I was posted to a scruffy regiment in Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend. It was an old Manchester infantry mob that had been turned over to anti-tank regiment. They really were the pits. I wasn’t there long. The High Command suddenly discovered that they were killing off infantry officers at an alarming rate, and decided to grab as many artillery officers, of which they had far too many, as they could; send them off on a six weeks infantry course, and push them off to replace those they had killed. I was sent with 599 others to Dunbar for a course, and there was nearly a mutiny, until they made an example of a few by sending them to an infantry mob…. As privates. And so it was that my one true army friend, Sid Turney and I arrived at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire to discover to our horror that we had joined the airborne forces. Bloody gliders! Made of three ply and firewood. At last I was going to have to live up to my promise made in 1939, that I would fight for king and country. My army career was no longer a joke. There was every possibility that at last I would come face to face with the enemy, who would be trying his damdest to kill me.
At last on the 17th September 1944, I went into action. The wicked Hun was about to get his comeuppance. All that summer we had been sitting in a piggery, (yes a piggery, but we were the only pigs) waiting for orders to take off for somewhere in France to assist in the final destruction of the Nazi state. We were on the verge of setting off two or three times, but on all the occasions, the speed of the Allied advance had made our presence unnecessary, and the operations were aborted. The code word Fabian was the order to cancel, and we expected that our latest briefing, the attack on Arnhem, would be stopped by the ubiquitous Fabian. This time it wasn’t. We took off from one of the many airfields in southern England that we had visited at one time of another, in Horsa gliders towed by Albemarle’s and Halifax’s. After forty-five years the memory of it all is very hazy, but there are one or two things that are still very clear in my mind. I remember being very calm, without any of the fears and apprehensions that one would expect, and it would be flattering to ascribe it to my valiant and courageous character, but, in truth, it was because I didn’t really believe that it was all happening. After kicking my heels for nearly five years I was certain I would end my service career with out firing a shot in anger. When, however, I looked down and saw the North Sea beneath us, and the fighters buzzing around us ready to beat off any enemy attacks, it began to sink in that very soon action was going to be the name of the game. Even then I wasn’t really worried, for had we not been told that we would meet no opposition to speak of. All we had to do was to secure the landing zones for the paras, and then belt off to Arnhem and the bridge and keep an eye on it till the Guards Armoured Division arrived to take over. Piece of cake. Better take a field dressing with you in case somebody scratched themselves on a bush.
What a load of bullshit that was! In reality we were flying into the biggest shambles of the war, for which 17,000 men would pay the price for the stupid incompetence of those in authority. A railway line bisected the field, which was to be out landing zone; the track was electrified so be careful in case Jerry hadn’t turned the power off. We arrived to find that the power was in an overhead cable, and the poor glider pilots coming in to land had suddenly to zoom up to get over it, and many of them couldn’t get down again before they crashed at sixty miles an hour into the trees lining the edge of the field, killing or badly wounding most of them. Much of the intelligence we were given at the briefing was equally wrong. No opposition? Within hours we were pinned down by vicious machine-gun fire, and when at last we were able to start our march to the bridge, we were stopped by non-existent Tiger tanks and never got past them. As a consequence we were never able to secure the landing zones for the paras, and they landed right on top of the German infantry who must have thought that the Glorious Twelfth had come again. We never reached the bridge, and were pushed into the woods at Oosterbeek and kept there.
But worst of all, we were totally unprepared both mentally and physically for what we were to face. It’s quite a shock to be ensconced in the comfort and security of a billet in England one moment, and then, a few hours later, find yourself in a foreign country where nasty men are shooting bullets at you. For some the shock was too great and they took refuge in a half-mad world of their own where they just sat and shivered. For six months prior to going to Arnhem we prepared for various operations, but never once did we have any training or exercises to give us some idea, at least, of what we might expect. And how to deal with it! We thought we were going on a picnic. Moreover, our Regimental Commander, one Colonel Haddon, crashed in the North Sea, was rescued, set off to get to Arnhem by road, and was captured.
The memory of my ten days in Arnhem is mostly like a half-remembered dream, with an occasional emergence into wakefulness. I had no idea what to expect, and how I managed to avoid the consequences of my ignorance I’ll never know. Once I was sitting in a ditch when I heard a dull thud close by; I looked around trying to work out what it was, and then heard it again, only closer. Then the penny dropped, and not a moment too soon; some goon somewhere could see me and was shooting at me! I found a more desirable residence. Later I was trying to get my platoon into some kind of defensive position when I heard what sounded like a thousand tin cans being rattled. Curious, I strolled to the end of an avenue of trees and looked along it. Coming towards me were two Tiger tanks and their supporting infantry. My sergeant and I dashed behind a coal shed just in time. The tank fired a couple of shells into the other end, but it must have been full of coal. Unfortunately my sergeant made a run for it. They shot him down before he had gone five paces. I managed to get back to my Company HQ along a hedge, only to learn that my company commander. Major Montgomery, the only man in the regiment for whom I had any respect, was dead. I felt sick at heart, and began to feel for the first time that we were on a hiding to nothing. Out of food, out of ammunition, we were getting a bit desperate. The relief troops should have been here days ago, and as we weren’t where we should have been, supplies dropped from the air, dropped into the laps of the foe.
I was on my way back from battalion HQ, where I had been given orders to take my platoon to C Company who were having a pretty thin time, and it was then that I met the young soldier of my poem (see below). We were both hiding under the same tree trunk, yet he received a fatal wound while I got up and walked away, not realising until later that he was dying. I wondered at the time why it was he didn’t answer me when I spoke to him; He couldn’t, he had a chunk of shrapnel in his neck.
Death In Oosterbeek
At the dawning he came to me again,
That gentle smile, and blood upon his cheek
Reminding me, for his end had come
In the dappled woods of Oosterbeek.
A passing shower of German mortar bombs
Had driven me beneath a fallen tree,
And when, at last I rose, prepared to go,
I saw him turn his head and look at me.
The wonder and compassion in his eyes,
The friendship of the smile upon his face,
Mocked the blood that trickled from his lips,
And made me curse aloud the human race.
He knew they could not hurt him any more,
No longer would he feel the pains and fears,
Forgiveness shone from that young soldiers face,
The mem'ry brings a flood of angry tears.
I wish these tears would wash away the thought
That e'en in death we humiliate them so;
I saw him later at the First Aid Post,
A label tied to his bare and lifeless toe.
I often wonder who that young lad was,
Who gave his life to cross the bloody Rhine;
And if no loved ones have him in their thoughts,
Come haunt me lad, and live again in mine.
But of course it couldn’t last. Sooner or later my luck must run out. I came to a long gully, and met a glider pilot in a bit of a state. He asked me if I could fire an anti-tank gun, and when I said yes he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the end of the gully. There was a six-pounder, its crew dead around it, and one round of ammunition left. What a scenario for Errol Flynn! I’ve never moved so fast in all my life. I clambered up to the gun, shoved in the round of ammo and looked around for the tank. I couldn’t find it! They found me though. A hail of bullets hit the metal shield and white-hot bits of metal flew off, some of them into my leg. I fired my shot off – God knows where it went. It wouldn’t have done any damage even if it had hit the tank. I slid down into the gully and limped away to the First Aid Post, where I saw again that young soldier. He needn’t worry anymore. The MO wrapped my leg up; it wasn’t very serious, just a bit awkward to walk, and made for the door to try and find my way back to my platoon. The MO stopped me. He had received information that we were surrounded, and it was only a matter of hours before we were captured. He would appreciate it if I would stay and help him with the walking wounded. We got a bed sheet, pinned a red cross on it with some red curtains, and hung it outside in a prominent a place as we could. Then we just sat and waited.
As dawn broke there was a hammering on the door, and when I opened it there stood two Germans with guns at the ready. The MO and I gathered together all the wounded who could walk, and lined them up outside. We straggled off to captivity.
Long forgotten memories sometimes drift back through my mind. Sounds as well as sights. Why does a man’s scream sound so much worse than a woman’s?
A jeep that had been hit by a flamethrower the driver sitting there like a pile of grey ash shaped in the figure of a man. A puff of wind would blow it away.
Three Germans laying on the ground their heads disappearing into a hole in the ground.
Its forty-five years since we set off for Arnhem, and still we have learned nothing. Still we kill and torture and starve. What is the matter with us? Perhaps when the last tree has died in a poisoned atmosphere; when the last fish has died in a poisoned sea; when the last cattle have died in a poisoned field, man will have learned his lesson. But by then, of course, it will be too late.
When I limped out of the first aid post at Arnhem, and joined a long parade of prisoners, I had mixed feelings. Firstly, that I had got away so lightly, and a strange feeling that it wasn’t me at all; it was a dream and I was watching this drama being enacted from the outside. Some rather edgy Germans with nasty looking guns soon brought me back to reality. They had managed to gather together some Lorries to carry the walking wounded, and the prospect of getting a lift brought a sudden worsening of my war wound; in fact it got so bad I could scarcely walk. The ploy worked, and we scrambled aboard and were carted to a huge shed in a town called Apeldoorn some miles north of Arnhem. There we were sorted into other ranks and officers; the other ranks marched off to a Stalag somewhere and the officers locked into cattle trucks and taken off on a tour of Germany that ended in Offlag 79 at Brunswick. When it comes to being a prisoner of war, it’s the other ranks that come off best. They are allowed to promise not to escape, and therefore the supervision much more relaxed. Indeed, many of them were sent on farms, where their food rations were supplemented. Not so the officers. We were forbidden to give any promises of good behaviour, and were expected to take every opportunity to escape that offered itself. We, therefore, were much more closely guarded, and never given the chance to relieve the boredom by working outside. For some, who had been prisoners for a long time, as long as five years in some cases, it became just too much, and they slowly mentally declined. When they were eventually released they were afraid of freedom and took a long, long time to recover. Some never did.
Offlag 79 was a very large group of barracks that had been the home of a German parachute regiment, and after being photographed, finger printed, and given our name rank and number, we were allocated to a room in one of the large three storied buildings.
I recall with some amusement how we had it drummed into us that never were we obliged to give the Germans any information other than our names, rank, and number. In spite of torture and death, our lips were to be sealed. The Germans didn’t seem to be interested in any information apart from our names, ranks, and numbers which they were required to pass on to the International Red Cross. They had separate camps for Army, RAF, and navel personnel and I was more than a little surprised to see standing in front of me in the queue at the table to give our names, ranks etc, a sailor! Complete with bell bottoms. The look on the face of the German officer when he looked up and saw him was worth at least three months of my incarceration. An airborne sailor? It appeared that he was on leave while his brother was piloting a Dakota that was dropping supplies at Arnhem, and he had been invited to go along for the ride. Some ride, they were shot down and captured! The poor soul was absent without leave until he got back home.
If my army career was a joke, my time as a prisoner was a sick joke. It seems incredible that my six months as a guest of a crowd of pantomime Germans really happened, and I haven’t made it all up. The farther one gets away from the events of the past, the more one wonders about their authenticity; but I couldn’t have made all this up, could I? I have tried my best not to be economical with the truth, but it may be that some of these events as I describe then are but an approximation. Which is true of all autobiography. Anyway, why make such a big deal of it any way? After all I was a prisoner for only six months out of a life, so far, of 73 years. Well, you may be interested; it’s good for a laugh.
The camp was in one of three woods that were about half a mile away from each other. Of the other woods, one was empty, and the other had a Herman Goering aircraft engine factory, the latter being a target for American bombers. Unfortunately the yanks chose the wrong wood. Our camp was bombed and the aircraft factory left intact. They knocked hell out of Offlag 79, fortunately before I arrived, but a considerable amount of damage was done; worst of all the cookhouse was flattened, which meant that we had no hot food except German coffee which was made from acorns and tasted vile. Miraculously no prisoners were killed, indeed one of them saved the life of a German soldier, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross! Imagine fighting a war and the most prestigious medal you get is from the enemy.
Our name for the Germans was Goon, and most of them were unfit for active service because of age, or had been wounded. Some had very nasty frost bites from service in Russia, missing fingers and toes and ears hidden beneath black patches. One of them spoke to me in quite good English and, after searching in his pocket while I held his rifle (!!) he produced a photograph of his wife and children and told me their names. I told him of my two girls, and then looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Why are we fighting each other?” He hesitated for a long while, as if he had never asked that question before, then his eyes began to fill with tears, I touched his arm and walked away. To tell the truth I was damn near to tears myself. What utter stupidity. There were we, ordinary family men what ever language we spoke, trying to kill each other. What madness had we come to? We smiled and admired each others children, and then done our best to make them orphans. If that doesn’t qualify us for the Looney bin, what the hell does?
The rest of the time in the camp would have been very enjoyable if we hadn’t been so bloody hungry. We had nothing else to do, so we spent most of our time just making a nuisance of ourselves. Every morning and evening we had to parade our barracks and were counted, and about once a fortnight were kept from going back to our rooms while they searched looking for any forbidden belongings. We had three radio sets hidden away, and were told every day of the content of the BBC news, which displeased the goons no end because it meant we were learning the one thing the goons never wanted broadcasting; that the Allies were winning. The amazing thing is that the radios were never discovered. We also used to make ourselves a little stove to heat up some of the food from the Red Cross parcels, and the occasional cup of cocoa. These were forbidden because they operated on wood, and since the only wood around was in their buildings, we were gradually pulling the barracks apart. Had the war gone on for another year the entire set of barracks would have collapsed. On some occasions, before they let us back in the buildings they would check us against their files. For each of us they had a card on which was recorded our names, finger prints and photograph, and it was this last that they wanted to check. They would often find that though the photo showed a clean shaven man, there stood before them a fellow sporting a splendid beard. He was marched off to the photographer and soon another photo adorned his card, this time with a beard. Alas, the next time they checked the photo boasted a beard but he didn’t. Off to the photographers again, and so it went on.
At least twice a day a couple of goons would wander into a building, hoping to catch somebody up to no good, but as they were spotted cries of “Goon up” would be heard all over the building, warning anybody who was up to some nefarious activity. Even the goons would join in the fun, and upon entering would themselves shout out ”Goon up” before starting on their tour. Whether they realised that they were warning us of their presence I don’t know. They must have been incredibly stupid if they didn’t. But food was the problem. There was nothing to do all day but think about being hungry. The rations dealt out to us from our captors were a bare minimum; a few boiled potatoes a day and a small piece of black bread once a week. And once a week was enough; it tasted awful. However, with the Red Cross parcel every week, which about the size of a shoe box and contained all sorts of goodies like cigarettes, corned beef, dried milk, spam which made life bearable. But it couldn’t last. By Christmas the country was in such a state that no trains from Switzerland, or Lorries from Sweden could get through, and soon the number of parcels dwindled first to one a fortnight, then to one a month, and finally stopped completely. Life was no longer a joke and some astonishing trading went on. Those who didn’t smoke had saved up their cigarette ration and now began to trade them in the most avaricious way. I saw gold watches worth hundreds of pounds change hands for a packet of fags. These so called officers and gentlemen indulged in the kind of greedy behaviour that no private would have dreamed of sinking to.
In the same room as me were six Canadians, and while we were getting our parcels we all set aside the packet of sultanas that each parcel contained that we eventually put into a globe shaped lamp shade with sugar and left them to ferment. The theory was that in a month or two we would have some delicious white wine. It worked! We found some bottles and decanted the precious liquid into them, to discover later that the bottles had been used before to store paraffin. Came the day for our booze up, we got stoned out of our minds and created some mayhem, but no ill effects, except scowls from our fellow inmates. One chap, a South African Colonel, ventured to protest, but when the six Canadians advanced on him he took to his heels. I have never discovered why Canadians and South Africans hate each other so much, but they do.
If we were to accept all that one sees in films and on TV, then we should have spent every moment of the day in planning escapes, but towards the end of the war it just wasn’t like that. Mind you, there was what was known as the cloak and dagger dept., who seemed to be able to get up to the most amazing antics. There were even two men in the camp that the goons didn’t know were there. I knew because I found them tucked away in the corner of the attic when I was up there trying to find some wood for my stewfor. They hadn’t seen me so I made my way to the office of the SBO (Senior British Officer) to warn them of the two shady characters who were hiding in the roof, only to be told politely but firmly to keep my big mouth shut or else. I later discovered that these two guys had been planted there to help in any possible escape plan. If somebody wanted to escape one of them would take his place in the roll call for two or three days, and then disappear back to his hidey-hole. This left the goons starting to search for a runaway who had actually taken off days before. While I was there one chap made the attempt but he didn’t get far; he was brought back and spent a month in solitary for his impudence.
Another, and only other attempt, was a laughable mass escape that literally collapsed. In the basement the walls consisted of large stone blocks about two feet square, and a group managed to lever two of the blocks out and started digging a tunnel. They were fortunate in that they were able to surreptitiously dispose of the earth into the bomb craters left by the yanks. It turned out to be an appalling wet winter, and when they had dug themselves under the fencing a whole section of the barbed wire fencing, and the poles that supported it slowly subsided and leaned over at an angle of 45º. We were all lined up for roll call at the time, and captors and captives alike watched fascinated as the twenty foot high fences collapsed. And that was the end of any bursts for freedom. Without decent food we were too weak to try a breakout, and we just sat back and tried to survive until our liberators arrived, which they did in the form of a huge red-headed Irish American Sergeant and a squad of GI’s. The guards trotted off happily to the guard room and dumped their arms, and then vanished. All night long we had heard the sounds of battle going on in the distance, but fortunately the fighting by-passed Brunswick. The freedom we now had was a bit of an anti climax; we had nowhere to go. One or two brave spirits set off to find food, without much success, and another chap and I went and had a look at the Herman Goering works. It was a mess. Workers, who had been draughted in from countries the Germans had overrun, wreaked their revenge on that place and then set off in search of some of their tormentors. They found one or two.
Because our camp had once been a parachute camp, it had its own airfield next to it, and we were told that we would be repatriated by air as soon as possible. There was some delay in finding available aircraft, which wasn’t surprising, but after a fortnight suddenly, out of the blue, a whole crowd of very dilapidated looking Dakotas landed neatly dodging a number of craters. Half were flown straight to England, and my half was taken to Brussels where we were deloused, fed and bedded for the night. I remember going into a large hall that crammed to the ceiling with every kind of food that a human could eat. All free! Cigarettes too. Maddeningly our stomachs had shrunk, and we were able to eat very little. The next morning we were flown on to England near Aylesbury, and driven to a sort of staging camp where we were given battledress, passes, money and identity papers. It is said that it is happier to travel than arrive, and on that train journey to the north I was so happy that I almost didn’t want it to end.
When I arrived at Lynemouth, Elizabeth had gone to Ashington to queue outside the butchers to get a few sausages. Winston, Elizabeth’s younger brother, set off to fetch her, and when the women waiting heard the story, pushed her to the front of the queue. Geordies are like that. What’s more, I came home a hero. A wounded veteran of Arnhem. (I had to keep reminding myself to limp) Stand back, give the lad a seat, and buy him a drink. What a phoney I was. Six years in the army, two weeks fighting, well skulking in a wood, six months idling in a POW camp, and I come back home a hero. They even let me into the cinema for nothing. My red beret was the Open Sesame! Shamefully I made the most of it. My two brothers had done more fighting in an hour than I had done in six years. Praise God they also came back alive. Truly, the Scriveners are like whiskers… They always come back.
How it was that we escaped with our lives God alone knows. I must ask him when I meet him. As I’m sure I shall in due course.
E. F. Scrivener 1992
The following is an account of Edmund's Scrivener's first return to Arnhem, in 1991.
The Return 1991
I went back to Arnhem with mixed feelings and lots of questions in my mind. There were so many “whys” to which I wanted to know the answers, and some of them I found, and others I didn’t, and I don’t suppose I ever will. I was curious to find out why for 47 years men had gone back every year to the scene of what was really, in the context of the whole war, a very minor skirmish. Even though victory would have had far reaching effects on when the war would end. The preparations and the intelligence reports were desperately poor in the first instance and, it seems to me, totally ignored in the second. This last is a charge that is almost criminal and one rather suspects that the yearly celebrations are encouraged by the top brass in order to divert people’s attention from the wicked crime they committed against the men of the First Airborne Division.
Nevertheless I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be. One of the problems of growing old is that one loses, as time goes by, the power to control one’s emotions. I knew only too well that tears would come and I dreaded not being able to stop them in public. In the event the tears, of near tears, did come but not where I expected them. The big occasions where I thought I would not be able to hold them back, I found I was strangely unmoved; sudden small events caught me unawares, and I had to run away from them. Big boys don’t cry.
The other members of the coach party I was with, many of who had their wives with them, were resplendent in what appeared to be a uniform that the great majority of veterans wore. Blazers with regimental badges, or the sign of the flying horse, and medals that rattled and shone, and, of course, the inevitable red beret. I had none of these things, and felt positively naked. Fortunately I was able to loan a beret and a Border Regiment badge, but this still didn’t stop the rest of the party regarding me with some suspicion, not without reason it seems, for there had been many gatecrashers seeking advantages and rewards to which they were not entitled. But I soon became accepted and, at least, most of them bid me good morning when they met me first thing in the morning.
This will serve as an introduction, and I propose to tell the rest of the story in the form of captions to the photographs I have taken.
The title of the yearly commemoration is called Pilgrimage to Arnhem, which isn’t really fair. It was the fighting in spite of the film, which seems to suggest that the only warriors at Arnhem were those attempting to take the bridge. Not so.
It looks a barn of a place and it was; the rooms were about 12ft tall, which made for a lot of stairs between floors, and us poor old folk did not find it easy. The bedrooms were clean, tidy, and well equipped with all the en suite fittings. Food average, and average Dutch is not to be encouraged.
We began with a meeting of all the Veterans, as we were politely called, at the Monument at Oosterbeek, where there is also a museum. This so called “Victory Arch” bears the inscription in both English and Dutch “Welcome Veterans”. It was here also that I first encountered the members of the local population who always seemed so eager to make us feel at home; and here it was also that I met for the first time for 47 years the men of the Border Regiment. I knew one or two of them but the others were men of other companies. You’ve got to remember of course that I had only joined the Borderers a few months before they set off for Arnhem so I hadn’t a lot of time to become familiar with anybody outside my own “A” company. And I didn’t get too matey with them.
However, all the vets climbed aboard the coaches, with the disabled being loaded into a fleet of police vans, which they had provided for the occasion. The convoy, escorted by Arnhem police headed for Appeldorn, a few miles from Oosterbeek. During the conflict the number of British casualties was so great that the medical team needed desperately to find some kind of hospital. There was one at Apeldoorn, but it was behind enemy lines, so the chief British medic, under the protection of a flag of truce, asked the Germans for permission to drive his red cross jeeps through their lines to Apeldoorn where the wounded could be given the treatment that would save their lives. The Germans agreed on the understanding, of course, that the wounded would automatically become prisoners of war. Hence the service of remembrance that was held every year, and this year we were now attending.
This picture I took of my two friends, George Mathew and his wife, and the Military Police barracks. I was intending to take more, as there were rows of big wigs and flags and a piper to play a retreat, and the inevitable band to play the last post, and the inevitable Abide With Me. Then I saw a man whose presence was to make the whole trip worthwhile for me; ex-Sergeant Andy Hartshorn and some of my old 10 platoon. He looks amiable enough in this picture, but when I first saw him 47 years ago he had a mass of vivid red hair, and recruits trembled in their shoes at the sight of him, because he was no midget; but we had always had a great rapport with each other, and I was sure that he was as glad to see me as I was to see him. The rest of the occasion was forgotten. We all repaired to the large gymnasium where food was presented and then we went into the bar where I was able to chat with the other half dozen of my erstwhile platoon. The one nearest the camera on the left is corporal lever, but the rest I could not remember, but they were adamant they remembered me. Hartshorn was wounded and reminded me that I had come to him and asked him how he was, and told the medical orderly to “get a bloody move on.” Now, why should I forget that?
Friday, the day that I was looking forward to with more than a little dread. This is the occasion when I might get stirred up a bit. It is the only ceremony that actually takes place in Arnhem. Just by the bridge, where Colonel Frost and the rest of 1st Para fought so well trying to hang on until the rest of us from Oosterbeek could reach them, there is a monument to these men. In a town square all the veterans assemble and march (?) silently to the bridge; they used to actually go on to the bridge, but some of them now find it too much of an effort, so now we just go to the monument. A short service is held and a representative from each regiment lays a wreath. I found Andy Hartshorn and half a dozen of my old platoon, together with another dozen from the regiment. They seemed a little surprised that I wanted to join them, but I placed myself right in the middle of them, and then came the first unexpected event that set the tears welling up; they insisted that I be the one who would lay the Border Regiment wreath at the monument. It was probably stupid really, because I didn’t really know whether they wished me to do it because of me personally, or whether it was because I was the only officer present. I’ll pretend it was the former. It makes me feel good.
At any rate, when I returned to the group after I had laid the wreath. Hartshorn patted me on the shoulder and growled “Yer done well, lad.” Lad indeed. I’m about eight years older that he. A cup of coffee at the Rathaus after. What an appropriate name for a town hall. The place was packed, as the streets had been as we made our way to the monument. I began to realise that the Dutch people really did care, really did think that they owed us in spite of our failure.
Is this what the men were seeking? For recompense for having lost the battle? For reassurance that they really are the men they think they are?
At Ginkel Heath occurred the greatest and most shameful tragedy of the whole Arnhem story. On the second day of the invasion, 10th Para regiment came in to drop, form up, and make their way to their comrades at Arnhem Bridge. What they didn’t know was that a battalion of German troops was encamped in the trees surrounding the heath, and shot them down, literally, like birds in a pheasant shoot. There are pictures of German soldiers standing in the shade of the trees picking the paras off as if they were ducks in a sideshow. I cannot believe that British Intelligence didn’t know they were there. If our own spies hadn’t told them I’m sure the Dutch underground did.
Some of 10 Para managed to escape that hellhole, but they were hunted down and died, or were captured in the town of Oosterbeek, where a Dutch family have erected a small monument to them in their front garden. I came upon it by accident. It was decorated with fresh flowers when I saw it. With brimming eyes I made for cover.
Another monument was built on Ginkel Heath, and every year the modern 10th Para fly 300 men from Britain to land on the heath and attend a short service. Also attending was half the population of Arnhem and Oosterbeek. I was deeply moved at the faithfulness of the Dutch people; they came in thousands. In cars, in coaches, on bikes, adults and children alike, refusing to be morbid, but with a cheerful reverence. It was their tribute to indomitable courage.
The paratroopers landed to applause and marched up to the monument where they removed their berets and joined in the service of remembrance. God knows I’m no jingoist, but I was proud to be British, and from then on walked a little taller. A Dutchman turned to me and said, “They are professionals, of course?” I squared my aged shoulders and replied, “In every sense of the word.”
The Airborne Memorial Service at Ooserbeek Military Cemetery should have been the most impressive of the large gatherings, but it wasn’t. It is a beautiful little cemetery, but the morning was cool and overcast, with rain almost certain before the final hymn. I sat with Andy a while and then he took me to see the grave of my senior platoon sergeant, Hunter, and also the grave of Major Montgomery, my company commander. As we resumed our seats the proceedings began, and so did the rain. Not much at first, but threatening a hefty downpour. Then some militarysome dickhead of a military parson started his sermon, and what a long dreary rigmarole it was. If by now there still was any interest in the ceremony, he did his best to kill it. I made my way to the front to take a picture of the wreaths being laid, mostly by various branches of the British Legion, when the skies opened and I dived for shelter. And that was virtually it.
Andy then took me in his car to the place where Sgt. Hunter was killed and Andy himself was wounded. The house on the left stands at the end of an avenue of trees, and it was here that I first placed my platoon. To the left of the house is a road that wasn’t there 47 years ago, instead there was a long hedge and just inside the hedge was a coal shed. We had scarcely dug in when along the avenue of trees came German infantry, using the trees as cover, but worst of all they had a Tiger tank with them. We had no weapons to deal with it, and as long as we could, concentrated our fire on the troops. It was useless. I was armed with a pistol, and when the tank arrived Hunter and I took cover behind the coal shed, which mercifully must have been full of coal. Hunter thought he could find a better hole and ran towards the back of the house, but before he had gone a few yards he was shot down by a hail of bullets. I was within a few feet of the hedge, so I crawled under it and along the other side for about twenty yards, came back through the hedge to Major Montgomery and company headquarters. We waited till dark and got as many men back as we could, and it was then that I was ordered to take my platoon to C company, who were apparently in an even worse state than we were. It was here that I saw the last of the wounded Sgt Hartshorn, and it was here, 47 years later that we stood in the pouring rain and wondered what the hell it was all for.
And that was the end of the official Pilgrimage to Arnhem. We had, however, one more sad trip to make. The men of 6th Airborne had taken part in the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945 that led soon to the end of the war, and some of our party had friends who were buried in Kleves war cemetery that is situated a few miles into Germany. The sight of those eight thousand graves lined up as if they were on parade struck a chill in my heart that I will never forget. Nor will I ever forget the two marine commandos I met there, and the one who pointed to his comrade and said, his voice choking with emotion, “He buried my brother you know.”
George Rees, one of our party, took my photo standing at the entrance to the cemetery; He took my address and promised to send me a copy. Dear God, I hope he never does. I don’t need any reminders of than place.
It has been a strange, upsetting experience, and I’m not sure even yet what my feelings about it really are. It was like a visit to another world, another time that is vaguely familiar, and more deeply emotional than I am prepared to admit. It seems so long ago. Then the years rolled away and it seemed to be yesterday. All those men laying there, the woman I met who regularly comes back to “see her George”, and her daughter who had never seen her father, talking of him as if he were still there, the huge comforting figure of Andy Hartshorn.
I can’t even be sure that all I have described is not a lie. There is one certain truth, though. As we sit here there are out there the remains of all those men and I want to know why I’m not there with them. And I hear over and over again, “He buried my brother you know”
E. F. Scrivener
After the war, Edmund Scrivener
became a teacher and was also an Acting Member of the Questers Theatre, Ealing,
the largest and most prestigious amateur theatre in the country. He retired from the teaching profession in 1981, having held the post of Deputy Headmaster. After suffering a stroke, Edmund Scrivener died in January 2003.
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