Since this is a FIAWOL-theme fanzine, it seems only appropriate to include an
article from someone who, back in the 1950s, was a member of the most FIAWOL-driven
fan organization of all time, the legendary Irish Fandom. This is not a remembrance
of that era, however -- it looks back even further, to the post-war years, where the
writer was still a member of the British military. The following tale is part of a
much lengthier forthcoming memoir of those years.
I was transferred to a Battalion of The Manchester Regiment stationed at Wuppertal, Westphalia, West Germany, as part of the British Army of Occupation of the Rhine. Wuppertal was heavily bombed in World War II, and although I was posted there some time after the end of the war, huge piles of debris had not been removed, but merely pushed aide to form clear roads bisecting the town.
The devastation was really terrible, as it was in Cologne, Essen, Dusseldorf, and other German cities I visited. However, the army barracks in Wuppertal, built of course for the Wehrmacht, were virtually untouched, because they were built to defy every sort of attack, be it bombing or heavy artillery. The buildings were huge monolith-like oblongs, three stories high, with thick concrete walls and flat roofs. Barracks were sited either side of a main road, and I noted that male civilians walking along the road touched their headwear to officers as a form of salute. I was given a platoon of thirty men, most of them young soldiers who had completed their infantry courses in Manchester.
In the summer of 1948, the Army Welfare Service circulated information to army units offering trips down the Rhine. The Adjutant in my Battalion detailed me to organise a party and take charge of the trip. A Corporal approached me and asked if he could take his wife, which was an unusual request, but the Order from the organisers did not veto wives attending, so I said I would see what I could do. We were permitted to only take ten personnel. I was going, that was for sure, but I was surprised at the small number of soldiers who wished to sail down the Rhine, and so I told the Corporal his wife could go. A few of the senior soldiers, not in rank but in service, had houses in Wuppertal -- regular soldiers, of course. The Corporal was therefore accommodated.
The army truck was parked outside the Guardroom at 08.00 hours, and our party gathered there -- myself, the driver, six private soldiers and the Corporal and his wife. She was a plump woman about forty years old; they hadn't been married much over a month or two. As Officer-in-charge I travelled in the cab with the driver, and although the soldiers were quite comfortable sitting on the hard seats along the sides of the truck, I felt this would be rather uncomfortable for the Corporal's wife, travelling the sixty miles to Königswinter, our starting point. I couldn't offer her my seat, as it was necessary for me to travel with the driver. The Corporal whispered a suggestion to me.
"Sir, suppose we drive to my house and get an armchair for my wife and put it in the back of the truck?"
I pondered. "Er, let's try it," I said.
We drove to his house; he took a couple of soldiers with him and they appeared with a small settee, a two-seater, and we heaved it into the truck. She sat there; she said it was extremely comfortable. And of course, there was more room for the soldiers to stretch their legs.
"Shall I get some cushions, sir?" he asked.
They were soft feminine items, of vivid floral design with tasselled edges. Oh well, what the hell – the soldiers were pleased. But now they were more comfortable than I was, and this wasn't good for discipline.
"Would you like one, sir?"
He used his initiative and brought out two pillows -- they were pink and really cosy. The driver didn't want one, though he gave me a couple of rueful glances. I kept mine and threw the other one in the back.
We drove on the wide, straight autobahn to Königswinter. It wasn't badly damaged; it had a preponderance of large houses, and before the war it must have been a desirable place to live. En route, the sun had blazed down, and at the soldier's request we stopped and took off the tarpaulin from the top and sides. Germans looked at us in amazement as we entered Königswinter, and some of the older residents frowned; they held the British Army in high esteem and they were surprised to see the soldiers cheering -- the Corporal and his wife appeared to be getting rather amorous on the settee. I stopped and asked a policeman the way to our hotel; when he saw me reclining on a pink pillow he also seemed to be rather disillusioned, and in the mirror I saw him take off his helmet and scratch his head in bewilderment as he espied than sprawling troops in the back of the truck.
Several other army unit trucks were at the hotel with personnel to make up the full passenger list. The Corporal's wife was the only female in attendance. All the trucks were parked in line abreast. At my insistence all the cushions and pillows were rammed behind the settee out of sight, but the settee of course was all too plainly visible. Fortunately, I was the only officer in the party, so even though senior NCOs from other units disapproved of the settee in an army truck, none of them offered any verbal criticism.
Next morning we went aboard the Rhine Cruiser. There was ample space, and the soldiers from the different army units were soon bonded into an amicable group. We left the berth and chugged into the mainstream of the Rhine, southwards. There were steep hills on both sides of the wide river, and I was surprised at the number of castles sited strategically atop them. Vineyards were also a common sight, racked horizontally up the sides of the hills.
In the late afternoon we reached Coblenz, and spent the night in an army barracks. The Corporal and his wife had their own room -- it seemed to me that they thought they were on their second honeymoon. I figured that if they dissipated their passions overnight, they would not distract the soldiers in the morning.
We left quite early next morning for the run with the flow to Königswinter to assist our passage. We had a spartan lunch on board, and arrived in Königswinter in the early afternoon. Back in the truck, I would not permit them to distribute the cushions and pillows until we had left Königswinter. I decided I'd like to go to Bonn and visit the birthplace of Beethoven, so we turned left at the autobahn and crossed the Rhine into Bonn.
It must have been a beautiful place before the war, and naturally it suffered bombing and artillery fire. Fortunately, the area of Bonn where Beethoven had lived was undamaged, and by shrewd map-reading we found it quite quickly. The other persons in my party were not interested in Ludwig, so I suggested they should go for a walk and return in half an hour. I could not get into the house, but I photographed it, and at a nearby shop I 'purchased' several postcards and a most wonderfully detailed alabaster bust of Beethoven, so detailed that every pimple on his visage was depicted. It was about eight inches high, and it took almost my whole stock of cigarettes to do the deal, but I was utterly delighted.
We met at the truck exactly on time, crossed the Rhine and drove north east towards Wuppertal. It was hot and monotonous traveling along the autobahn, and though I tried my hardest, I fell asleep. Suddenly I was awakened by a screech of brakes and was thrown forward against the angled metal of the truck below the windscreen. I suspected our driver had almost succumbed to an uncontrollable slumber, and had awakened not a second too soon. We swerved, but he controlled the truck admirably, and we stopped at an angle on the autobahn. He quickly drove us to the verge of the road.
With heart thumping and fearing the worst, I looked into the rear of the truck. There was a mass of arms and legs intermingled, but when the white-faced passengers sorted themselves out, there wasn't even the slightest injury to report. The Corporal opined that the settee, cushions and pillows had saved everyone from injury, and I agreed with him. The driver looked a very worried man.
I climbed into the rear of the truck, told the driver to join us, and then I addressed the party. "Listen chaps, and lady," I said, "the driver slightly lost control of the truck, there there are no injuries, and there is no damage to the truck. You all know I should report this incident to Motor Transport Officer, a close friend of mine, but, if you all agree, I do not intend to as there are no injuries or damage."
They loudly agreed, so we continued our journey at a somewhat slower speed. We dropped off our civilian accoutrements at the Corporal's house, and stopped outside the Guardroom as a pristine disciplined military outfit.
It turned out there had been some damage, though. The nose had been broken off my Beethoven bust...
Title illustration by Diana Thayer