The little sods from the !st Monchen Gladbach Scout Troop

scouts-threeIt must have been the summer of 1961. Certainly before the Beatles. The music that year was all Dean Martin and the Drifters, or itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini.* And I recall being in love with a girl in the 4th form at Queens’s school in Rheindalen, Carol, and constantly singing a song to her called “Oh Carol”.** And there was Elvis of course. Anyway, I was in the boy scouts then. Moved on I had from the cubs, left behind all that Akela and dib dib, dib, dob, dob, dob stuff. Cubs had sixers in charge. I had been a sixer when a cub. Born to command I was. Now, in that summer of ’61, I had graduated to the scouts and I was quickly made a Patrol leader. Sometimes I even wore long trousers.

They would meet once a week, Wednesday evening, in St. Georges School in Monchen Gladbach. It was set within the perimeter of Ayrshire barracks,  a huge British military vehicle depot with acres and acres and acres of military Lorries and armoured vehicles and jeeps, motorcycles and trucks of all sorts and sizes, all kept in a high state of readiness for a possible soviet invasion. The school building was possibly the oldest building left in post war Monchen Gladbachscouts-school. It had a chapel at the very top where we would go for Mass on a Sunday, presided over by an elderly Dutch Priest shipped in from Venlo. He had very little English and conducted the Mass in Latin with a Dutch accent. It was an endurance test those masses. No joy, no reflection. Nothing. The school was on the next two floors below. Headmaster was a Mr. Denton. He would laugh a lot, always telling stories and encouraging the children to do the same, he delighted in their company, believed in them. He was perhaps more important a teacher than all those that followed in the fractured educational experience that came the way of service children. He had a gorgeous daughter, Valerie, with whom all the boys were in love. The scouts and cubs met in the basement which was a vast beautifully vaulted space of columns and arches.

We would be taken there in army Volkswagen cars or vans of which the authorities had an inexhaustible store of, and would go out their way to provide them for service families. They were driven by ex-Wehrmacht German soldiers. They still wore they field grey or was it green uniforms and caps. Without, of course the SS flashes or Iron crosses or indeed any insignia or badges at all. They looked rather scruffy and forlorn. Defeated. The Volkswagens would tour the estates of married quarter’s and pick up the children of the service families, convey them to scouts and take them back home afterwards.
We wore a badge on our left shoulder, or perhaps our breast pocket.scouts-badge The same regional badge as the regular army. A Saxon war- axe, which we were told, was modeled on a real axe found by archaeologists when the British Army was building its headquarters up the road in Rheindalen.

Perhaps supervision was a bit of a problem. We found in the vast vaulted basement a large stock of red paint. It was, I think, for painting fire engines. We painted all the vaulted ceilings, the arches and columns in bright red. Even the floor. And possibly a boy scout or two. We were very proud of our extensive work and achievement and reasonably expected to get a painting & decorating “proficiency” badge to wear with our uniforms. Merit badges the Americans call them. But things didn’t quite work out. I was demoted from Patrol leader, busted to simple rank and file boy scout. A rather bitter blow, from which, to be honest, I have never quite gotten over. Thereafter we met in an old Nissan hut and never again graced St. George’s School.

Each summer, and sometimes at Easter, we would go camping. Oh what fun! We camped once at a seaside resort in Holland. We made quite an impression and If there had been a merit badge for shoplifting we would all surely have got it. And we camped up in Paderborn in the mountains. But the place I remember best of all was the forests and hills above the Royal Air Force base at Bruggen near the Dutch boarder.
The tents were of rough green canvas. Six person tents, or in those days, six man tents. scouts-tentsBut you could get eight boy scouts in a six man tent. They would be sited in neat rows and between the rows there were two or three campfires which were kept burning all day and night and upon which we cooked sausages. Lots of sausages. And beans. Lots of beans. And occasionally a fried egg ala twigs. They were set in a valley, the tents, and up at the top of the valley was a wooden hut, about two kilometers away, which served as a tuck shop. One or two afternoons a week a volunteer from the RAF Bruggen scout troop would open the hut to sell confectionery to visiting scout troops, who came to camp from all over the British Army of the Rhine area.

The hut was in truth,  a very tempting target. And we boys, with more merit badges than common sense, highly trained in field craft and rather partial to confectionery decided to raid the tuck shop hut and liberate some of the sweets therein. It was done with military precision. Lookouts posted at strategic positions to warn of any approaching adults. The warning was to be an owl hooting. Terwit terwoo, terwit terwoo. (bird impersonation/merit badge) We had swag sacks to carry away the loot, in reality the sacks that the tent pegs and mallets were stored. There was a signalling system set up with torches. (Morse code/merit badge) The simple lock on the door was prised open with a wood cutters axe. (woodcutting/merit badge)  And suddenly, we were surrounded by all kinds of boxes of sweets.

The sweets and confectionery were divided on a strict basis of equality. Packets of spangles and refreshers, liquorice pipes, scouts-pipessweet cigarettes, Pontefract cakes, Chewits, scouts-cakesImperial mints, wine gums and pastilles,scouts-spangles-2 all religiously distributed regardless of rank age and I suppose, although it didn’t quite figure in our then underdeveloped minds, sexual orientation, there was no merit badge for sexual orientation, although had there been a badge for the philosophy of equality we would all have surely qualified. I might mention the crisps. Two boxes of packets of crisps held in the hut were found, upon being tested, to be not fit for purpose. The crispiness had gone out of them and the little blue bags of salt were a bit damp. Crisp packet technology was not very advanced in those days. We left the crisps behind.

It was late in the afternoon the next day that the RAF Bruggen volunteer tuck shop man was observed approaching the hut (observer/merit badge). He was seen in an agitated condition and shortly afterwards left, only to return sometime later with a landrover following his vehicle in which there were three RAF military policemen. Snowdrops they were called. Now it wasn’t of course the crime of the century and it didn’t need a Sherlock Homes of the Snowdrops to work out who had committed the offence. A wooden hut in the middle of nowhere. Nobody around for a twenty-mile radius except for the green tents of the 1st Monchen Gladbach scout encampment, some two kilometers down the valley. Towards the late afternoon the three snowdrops and the tuck shop hut man began to walk down the valley towards the tents.
We had an early warning system in place with camouflaged observers watching their advance. (camouflage/merit badge) The wooded valley, rather suddenly, filled with the hoots of owls as a mild panic set in amongst the hardy boy-scouts as they desperately attempted to destroy all possible evidence. One of the campfires suddenly burst into fiery life as various packets of sweets were fed to its flames. Some tried to scoff the evidence. I tried, in fact I succeeded, in scoffing a whole box of Pontefract cakes, an act I was later to regret on the primitive latrines of the forested campsite. I recall another of the patrol leaders with a mouth full of sweet cigarettes. By the time the snowdrops special investigation team reached the tents they found a sizable group of scouts gathered around a suspiciously blazing campfire vigorously singing “Ging gang goolle goolie whatcha” with  a rather over the top exaggerated emphasis on the chorus “Shally wally, shally wally, shally wally, shally wally,Oompah, oompah, oompah.” ***
But it was to no avail, they were not impressed. The snowdrops found abundant evidence of the looting. Scouts had pockets full of chewits and spangles wrappers. There were liquorice pipes hidden under pillows and one of our swag bags stuffed with fruit and nu bars and milky ways, tied with a reef knot and a woggle was discovered hoisted half way up a tree. (knot tying/merit badge)
For some reason the German police were not called in. Perhaps because it was Ministry of Defence Property, or was it War Department in those days? Was there a jurisdictional problem, or did they just want to cover it up and avoid all the embarrassment of misbehaving British boy scouts. There was certainly consequences. Reparations had to be made. We had all been told to bring to the camp at least 15 shillings’ pocket money. We scouts-5-bobhad to hand it all over, any shortfall being made up from scout troop scout-10-shillingfunds. And in fairness, they recovered a fair amount of the loot.
Our parents were informed and several scouts, including myself were expelled from the troop and were never again to be allowed to participate in scouting activities. But there were no prosecutions, no arrests, just the eternal shame of it all.   I regret it. Of course I do. I have never again, in all the years since that summer of ’61, never again, sat by a campfire, beneath the stars, the smell of wood-smoke drifting upwards to the open skies, mixed with the odor of burnt sausages, and the scout master strumming his guitar, sitting in the companionship of the best friends you will ever have and singing late and softly into the night, the immortal words of Lord Baden Powell:   Ging,gang,goolie, goolie, whtcha, ging,gang,goo, ging gang goo. ging gang goolie, goolie, goolie watcha, ging, gang goo…… 

Note:  They don’t write lyrics like that anymore::  http://bit.ly/18TKrlJ

The Pleasures of Facebook – A photograph from WWII

I belong to this group on Facebook, Gibraltar Old photos 2 it’s called. It a nostalgia group whose members, mostly from Gibraltar,  post old photographs of life on and around and about the Rock. I lived there once and have many happy and treasured memories upon which I once contributed a piece to the site, some years ago, about being a boy in 1950’s Gibraltar. You can read it here. I still contribute to the site now and then, and to that purpose I was searching google for a film poster of a movie, made in Gibraltar in the early ‘60’s, staring Terry Thomas and called “Operation Snatch”. You need to be a bit careful what you type into google at times!

evacuation-happy-to-be-home
In my search I stumbled across this lovely old photograph the caption of which read “Gibraltar families returning to Gibraltar in 1945 after five years of evacuation during WWII”

I thought it quite an exciting find and duly posted it on the site. I was a little skeptical but the image came from an article by Neville Chipulina, a rather noted Gibraltar historian.

One of the endearing features of the Gibraltar old photos 2 site is that if you post any image of any person in any circumstances at any time over the past one hundred years or so then someone on the sit will know who they are, who their uncles and aunties are and the names of their children and what schools they went to and perhaps even the name of their godmother. It’s a small community on Gib!   So I was anticipating that the families in the photograph would quickly be identified.
Up popped Maurice Valentino who questioned the whole thing saying they don’t look like Gibraltarians at all!  Far too fair in completion. Someone else, Maruchi Golt, suggested they were obviously English families. And no one, no one at all, could identify anyone in the photograph, anyone at all.
Then come Earnest Falquero, one of the stalwarts of the site who referred us all to a post by one Alex Parnay who in turn, confirmed doubts that they were families from Gibraltar and confirmed too that the caption accompanying the photograph was completely wrong. And he disclosed to us the quite astonishing story behind the photograph. They were English families, survivors from a passenger ship torpedoed by German U-Boats!
laconiaresized1RMS Laconica was originally commissioned as an ocean-going luxury passenger ship for the Cunard line. With the outbreak of WWII she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and fitted with eight six inch guns and two three inch guns. She was put to duties as an armed merchant escort ship. Later still she became a troopship and was well known as such in both commercial and military shipping circles. She was deployed ferrying troops to the middle east and carrying prisoners of war back to Blighty. It is quite important to note that. Her military role, unlike that of the Lusitania, made her a completely legitimate target for the U-boats now awaiting her in the Atlantic ocean.
She left the port of Suez loaded with Italian prisoners of war, their Polish guards and many British service families. She steamed down the East coast of Africa, stopping at Durban where more British service families were taken on board, these being families who had escaped from Singapore as the Japanese defeated, overwhelmed and expelled the British from all their colonial possessions in the Far East. She then steamed out into the Atlantic and hundreds of miles to the west she turned North towards the equator and set course for England. She was doing 20 knots and taking a zig zag path to minimise the risk from German submarines.
She was now carrying 463 officers and crew, 80 civilians, 286 British soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards of the prisoners.

It was her smoke that first attracted the attention of U-boat 156.

It was to be a surface attack. In the darkness of the tropical night, at about 10 pm Captain Hartenstein, commander of the U-boat made his calculations as to distance and the time it would take for a torpedo to reach the ship which was now steaming fast and zig zagging at random. He unleashed a torpedo sometime after 10 pm and it struck the Laconia at 10.22. He immediately dived to avoid any possible counter attack. He would have watched from his periscope the explosion as the torpedo found its target below the ship’s waterline. There was no counter attack and he surfaced again and unleashed a second torpedo, this time hitting the forward starboard of the badly listing ship.. It was a successful attack on a known legitimate target and the Captain and his crew celebrated and watched the ship burn and sink. Then they heard the screams of the survivors and became alarmed for they were the screams of women and children.
He dived again and it is clear that for several hours there was a continuous and urgent exchange of signal traffic with Germany, probably on the enigma machines that each U-boat carried. Berlin advised that the Laconia was carrying Italian prisoners of war and ordered that they should attempt to rescue their allies. Hartenstein went well beyond his Berlin Orders. Or the laws of war at sea.

When he again surfaced, his crew began to rescue the civilians as well as the Italians. He took over a hundred survivors into the already crowded submarine, and another hundred or so on the top of the submarine. He collected together some four lifeboats and began to tow them in his wake, passing food and water to the survivors therein. He told Berlin what he was doing and his actions were not only approved by Admiral Donitz, he went further and ordered other submarines to assist Hartenstein in the rescue. And Vichy French forces in North Africa dispatched surface ships to meet the submarines at sea and transfer the survivors.

Red Cross flags were draped on the submarine decks and open signal traffic exchanged with the other boats making clear this was a rescue operation. Open Signals were sent to the British to the same effect, but were ignored, quite deliberately ignored by British forces available in the area and from British bases on the West coast of Africa. Hartenstein rendezvoused with another German Submarine and an Italian submarine and some of his survivors were transferred.laconia-2
He then continued to slowly steam towards another rendezvous with the Vichy French surface ships, his crew’s quarters packed with the civilian survivors, his deck full of even more and still towing four life-boats.

Then came the Americans. They had a secret airbase established on Ascension Ireland and a B-24 bomber was sent out to search for the now missing and lost RMS Laconica. They saw Hartenstein’s submarine, with its red cross flag and its life-boats in tow. And they attacked. Five passes, five bombs.bombing-of-the-laconia They killed over a 100 of the survivors in the lifeboats and Hartenstein was forced to clear the submarine of all remaining survivors and put them in the remaining lifeboats. He cut the tow lines and dived for safety. He kept on board some of the rescued military officers as prisoners of war.
The survivors were now, again, adrift in the Atlantic. But the Vichy French ships were coming and were searching for them and they were rescued again. This time they were taken to Casablanca and interned by the Vichy French who intended to hand them over to the Germans and have them transferred to Germany.
And now history threw its dice again. The survivors had been in internment by the Vichy French for some two months when, in November 1942 the Allies launched Operation Torch. The operation was commanded by General Eisenhower who set up his headquarters in Fortress Gibraltar. Sixty-five thousand Allied troops invaded French north Africa. They were to crush the Vichy French and to expel German influence from the Mediterranean area and advance toward Tunisia.
And the survivors were liberated!
The sources say they were taken by ship to America, for the Americans had provided the main invasion force of North Africa and some of her ships, now empty, had brought the invading troops directly from the American East Coast.
But this group, which Maruchi Golt on the Gibraltar Old Photos 2 site, described as looking “so happy” clearly came to Gibraltar from Casablanca.
They are pictured outside St. Bernard’s Hospital and it is reasonable to assume they had been for a check-up before being transported onwards to England. And of course, as Maruchi Glolt notes, they look so happy! They had survived the Japanese, survived being torpedoed, survived the sea, survived the Americans, survived the sea again and then, capture and internment. They had been rescued twice, once by the very U-boat that had sank their ship. And now they were safe. And on British soil! On Gibraltar. On the Rock. And sure, we can share in their joy and their happiness. Especially can Gibraltarians.
Of course, Facebook did not discover this story. There is nothing original here. The rescue is one of the most famous stories of World War II. There are several books on the incident and documentaries too. And the BBC ran a two-part television film dramatizing the story, written by the legendary Alan Bleasdale. So no one is claiming any Facebook credit for this story. No. What Facebook does, can do, is to bring such stories alive again; to refresh them, recall them, tell them to a new generation. Spark new interest, spread the word. It is one of the great pleasures of Facebook.

Some of those in the photograph are probably still alive. The infant in arms will be in his or her 80’s now. And perhaps some of the younger children still breath. It is certain that the children and the child survivors will be alive. They may even be on Facebook…….

Note: 1113 survivors were rescued. 1619 perished in the torpedo attack, most of them Italian prisoners of war, still locked in the hold as the ship was struck.

Note:  Capt Hartenstein’s submarine U-156,  some six months later was attacked by American aircraft and sank.  there were no survivors.