Leaving Blighty to Mention the War


The Flemish lady from Europcar took our car keys back and asked me where we’d been. “Ah, Luxembourg,” she sighed as if she were a sweating tragic character by Graham Greene. “Full of the poorest Dutch. And now we have the same from Luxembourg here on this coast.” I sympathised. But our necklacing of some of Europe’s camp sites had been more indelible.

Earlier, the Schwarzwald’s gentility was wrecked by the massed arrival of a hairy biker gang whom it turned out preferred the soundtrack to Grease and a German version of The Wurzels. A rotund local was dispatched by the nervous elderly folk to ask them to turn it down a bit and next morning in the shower house, a long-term caravan resident demanded to know if I was Dansk? The steely-eyed German with hands so large they would smother my face, warmed as I spoke Essex-German in reply. As I scraped my midgie-spotted face with a sharp razor, he confessed to being a PoW in England. I’d never met a PoW before so I was utterly hooked.

“My mother was Danish and my father a German from Flensburg,” he said “but I was pushed into the German army at age 16.” Sent to a railway siding in Kiev for four days then shot in the leg by a Sherman tank near Arnhem after mortaring and machine-gunning falling paratroopers, he was lucky to be captured and treated by British doctors to serve the rest of the war digging potatoes and almost marrying a local girl called Mary. “But I had dreams of going home,” he said sadly. His best friend from school made it home too. Minus his youth and three limbs. My 10 year-old son was so taken with this story that he actually stayed and listened.

When we parted, we were firm friends and I shed a quiet tear after he told me he was about to have a major operation for something ‘down,down ..’ He could have been my own ex-soldier father who also survived bridges too far.

Later, we dodged infra-red speed cameras that checked our 50km geschwindigkeitsbesrängkung, haunting every first village bend. We ate genuine Black Forest Torte; gawked across panoramic mountain top views akin to Eva and Blondi’s Berghof terrace and saw once-grand villas, the homes perhaps of Jüden stock, long-dispatched to the gas chambers and now occupied by local families who might say, “Ach but this was a long time ago..” And so it is.

On to Luxembourg where Flemish pensioners oversaw the camp site with arms folded, scowling at their fellow caravanners like bitter villagers (‘You need to move your car, Menheer!‘). Bloated women wandered back from the block with half-used toilet rolls and then there was Van Gobshite, the owner of a pair of phlegm-filled Dutch lungs whose Rottweiler was the size of a hog roast. He drank and spewed his mucus till late.

Germany is still occupied in the same spirit of 1945 and now of course, like Iraq, it suffers from ZZ Top and that theme from Robin Hood by Bryan Adams. In our rented cruise controlled Volvo, we scanned the dial for anything but Schlagemuzik or Techno or Schubert. AFN Eagle’s drumming patriotism soon captivated us just as it had when I listened in my teens from Brussels to its brilliant late-night riffs over a Grundig transistor. Now the bugle call is “We deliver the music, you deliver the Freedom!” and I thought of our boy soldier friend fighting for his own release from God-knows-what.


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