Saturday, 18 June 2011

Stand easy! - a short story

Reginald Clark was conceived in 1919, not long after his father returned from the trenches. By September 1939, a boy of 19, he had been called up, drilled, trained, armed and nicknamed Nobby; nine months later he had been sent off to Cyrenaica to fight the Italians. At first the war in North Africa went his way. Nobby's regiment, the King's Royal Rifle Corps, saw success in action after action - he could hardly believe the vast columns of Italian soldiers that were surrendering to them. One of 'Wavell's thirty-thousand', Nobby's first taste of war - despite the physical discomfort of army life in the North Africa desert - was a glorious one. Tobruk fell, then Benghazi - the British fighting alongside Indian and Australian troops and sweeping the foe before them.

Nobby's mates were in superb spirits. They'd sustained miraculously low casualty rates, swept five hundred miles across the desert, capturing goodly stocks of Italian wine along the way. Morale was high, but disciple was maintained. The unit drilled in the heat of the desert spring: "By the right... quick MARCH! HALT! About - TURN!" Soldiers that had come out of battle victorious instinctively knew the value of square-bashing - it was why the British Empire has trounced those dolce vita-loving Italians. Discipline! "Present... ARMS!" "Right... TURN!"

But even the King's Rifles' discipline and close-order drill could not protect them against the superior equipment and strength of will of Rommel's Afrika Korps. The Germans had been sent to prevent an Axis collapse in North Africa after the destruction of the Italian 10th Army. They were a formidable enemy, having fought victoriously in Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France; they were experienced and they were ruthless and hard. Unlike the Italians. On the day of his 21st birthday, Nobby's position was overrun by German troops. He was to spend the next two years as a prisoner-of-war, first held by the Germans in a barbed-wire compound in open desert near Benghazi, then shipped off to a camp in Sicily.

Life in the PoW camp was tedious and depressing; lice everywhere, hunger. At least the Italians were more humane captors than the Jerries or the Japs. The camp was physically small - there was little to do. To keep up morale, Nobby and his fellow prisoners would drill smartly, and keep their louse-ridden uniforms pressed, keep their barracks tidy - so that they could show up the slovenly, half-hearted parade drill of their Italian guards. After a year and half, the camp was liberated by advancing American troops.

Nobby returned to England determined to have another crack at the enemy before it was all over. He was not deemed medically fit enough to re-join his unit until early 1945, by which time the King's Rifles were on the German border. The war was over before he'd had a chance to get stuck into to the enemy once again.

He met Flo shortly after coming back to England. She was a former Land Girl; a country lass from Lincolnshire. They married, but had no children. Whether this was the result of Nobby's captivity or something Flo had caught off an Italian captain from a PoW camp near Peterborough, you and I will never know. The couple settled down in a council house in Colchester; Nobby felt a sense of security and familiarity living near the army barracks although he was now a civilian - working in the Essex County Council's Highways Department.

Nobby's younger brother (also nicknamed Nobby but within the family, Alfie) had three boys born in quick succession in the early post-war years; Stephen, David and Nicholas. Nobby and Flo doted over the youngsters; Alfie and his wife Joyce also lived in Colchester and would often be round. Flo was house-proud and Nobby was proud of that; the house was always immaculately kept. Whether going to work, popping out to the shops or dropping into the Stockwell Arms for the occasional pint, Nobby would wear his regimental blazer and tie, perfectly creased trousers and highly polished shoes.

While the war was a period of intense contrasts and experiences, the post-war decades were to prove somewhat dull for Nobby - and all around him, he saw more and more things that he did not like, that appalled his soldierly eye.


This time three years ago:
God Save The Queen!

This time four years ago:
Legoland

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