Viersen. It must have been a small agricultural village at one time. Set in vast acres of open fields of sugar beet and potatoes which ran all the way to the Dutch border. It became a satellite village, or a town, to Monchen Gladbach but I suspect it retained its primary agricultural nature until the coming of the railways. A major permanent way was built across the fields to the southeast of the village, with sidings and sheds and workshops and a very handsome Bahnhof. The rail line ran all the way into Belgium and Holland and North to the industrial Rhur. It was undoubtedly this that attracted the attention of the occupying British forces at the end of the second world war. It became, with its easy rail access to the ports at Antwerp and Ostend, the perfect place to locate a forward supply depot for the Army of the Rhine. Initially, they took over the railway sheds and workshops but eventually built a vast depot that employed hundreds of local German civilians and lots and lots of soldiers.
For the soldier’s families, they built a series of terraced married quarters, clustered fairly close to the Bahnhof. They were not at all unpleasant, not the kind of terraced housing of coronation street or industrial England. They were of good quality with a mix of local German civilian housing, both social and private, with large gardens and well-kept parks and open areas. Being military, they were of course, all painted the same colour with the same coloured doors and the same coloured curtains and the same inventory of furniture inside each property. But we children wouldn’t have noticed such things. For us it was a wonderful place to live. There were five children in our family so we got an end-terrace, right next to an open park, 32 Lessing Strasse.
We would go down to the Bahnhof area to watch the trains and to play on the wooded banks of the railway lines. It was the age of steam and the German trains were handsome black beasts snorting and steaming and chuffing and clattering along the tracks, some at high speed others, towing long industrial wagons and cattle trucks of cargo, crawling along for what seemed like hours. On the wooded banks, we would play at soldiers. And why not? All our fathers were soldiers. In fact, most of the regular soldiers, Sgts and so on, had fought in the second world war and had chests full of medal ribbons. Some had been here as occupiers and were now, no longer occupiers but defenders of democracy and the western way of life. The Germans had so recently, within the past 10 to 15 years, been the greatest enemies known to civilisation. It was natural for us to play at soldiers killing imaginary Germans on the banks of the Deutsche Bahn. We had picked up, mostly from a regular diet of Commando comics, the
necessary bits of the German language with which to play war games. “Achtung!”; “Donner und Blitzen”; “Mien Gott”; Kamerad!” Yawholl mein Kapitan”: “for you Fritz, the war is over” “Britisher tommy, Kamerad Kamerad!”.
We would play for hours, with wooden stick tommy guns and bazookas, ambushing each other and killing Germans until tea time. The elderly Germans tending their allotment gardens at the base of the railway banks would pause and look at us at play and perhaps wonder how the hell it was that they lost the war.
There was a baker’s shop just around the corner from Lessing Strasser, on Schiller Strasse, and my Mum would send me there each morning to buy some freshly baked bread rolls. It was of course, an ideal opportunity for one to practice and display ones increasing command of the German language
“Achtung!, funfh brochen bitte mien Frau” The lady behind the counter would always smile and say “Ahh, Englisher kinder, you would like five bread rolls? “Yawholl mine frau” You see she understood me immediately and without the slightest difficulty. Supplied with my fresh and warm bread rolls, or brochen, in a brown paper bag, I would then cross the road to the butcher’s shop on the other side, always busy with rather stout German ladies buying sausages’ Again I would display my command of German, “Achtung! Ein viertal shickenwrust bitte” The butcher would smile and say “Ahhh, Britisher kinder, you would some slices of ham sausage like” “Yawhol mien Herr” And he would go to his slicing machine and would often say, for he liked to practice his English “Zee weather is not so gut, ya?” “Yawhol mein Herr” “You zink it rain might?” “Yarwhol mien Herr, vielendank mien Herr”
I am a modest enough chap but I do think they appreciated and were impressed with my attempts to speak their language, certainly I was myself, although I admit to some surprise when, many years later, I failed my German ‘O’ level exams. Back home we would have a warm brochen with butter for breakfast, we were obviously quite sophisticated, we were having continental breakfast before continentals were even invented. And we would have another bread roll mit schinkenwurst, to take to school for lunch. School was in Rheindalen and there was a military school bus to take us there each morning, driven by German civilians, usually, ex-Wehrmacht types who all wore old rather shabby field green Wehrmacht uniforms. Getting on the school bus was another opportunity to practice your German. “Achtung!, Gutten Morgen Fritz” “Miner name ist Hans” he would say, and touch the soft peak of his Wehrmacht forage cap and wonder how the hell they managed to lose the war.
There was a rather superior house, a private German residence, on the other side of the small park. There lived therein a fierce German lady who often complained about the noise of the British children playing war games in the park. She ran a business from the house selling overcoats. I know this because my mum bought a coat from her and I went to the house with Mum to choose her coat. The front room was full of rails of overcoats. They were all pretty much the same as far as I could see. Long heavy lengths of woolly material that hung straight down, like a tube, to just above the ankle. I don’t think fashion had been invented then. The German lady was a walking advertisement for her coats and would move around the area in a long tube of material looking terribly fierce. If we saw her coming we would ambush her with our wooden stick tommy guns. “Achtung, donner und blitzen, here Kompt der mantle frau” and we would riddle her with British bullets. I suspect her coats were probably bulletproof. I suppose it might be helpful if I was to put in a footnote or two translating these odd German phrases into English. Especially for those who never picked up the language. However, I don’t want this piece to be too academic and if I may be so bold as to suggest that if you are having difficulty then you might just type them into Google translate.
For my thirteenth, or maybe my fourteenth birthday my Dad bought me a bicycle. It changed my young life. It was second-hand. The army was closing an accommodation block in Viersen town, used since the war. It was a billet for the National Servicemen, it was on the hill as you pulled out of Viersen en-route for Rheindalen, Anyway, the soldiers had the use of these bikes, and now, National service was finishing and my Dad had bought one of them for me. It was a Raleigh racing bike, with drop handlebars and a long uncomfortable leather saddle. It had a crudely hand-painted white WD 008 serial number on the black frame. I suppose it is possible it was previously owned by one of those 00 M.I.6 agents, but in truth that is hindsight for I do not recall that for the period I am writing about that James Bond had yet been invented. It was a little battered, but for me, it was as if it was solid gold and encrusted with diamonds for there was never ever, since the beginning of time, or for all eternity a better present for a boy than a racing bike! The world became our oyster and we would ride through fields and orchards, woods and forests, lakes, and rivers and to Monchen Gladbach, White City, Wildenrath, Krefeld, and Wickrath, and Rheindalen and all over the world. Of course, most German roads had dedicated cycle paths so it was quite safe, and predatory pedophiles had not yet been invented so we always felt secure and happy, our bikes, a brochen mit schinkenwurst and a few Deutschmarks to buy a bottle of coke or an ice cream.
I had a lot of friends in Rheindalen and would often cycle up during the school holidays. It was about 10 miles away. We would meet friends in the woods and forests that edged the garrison married quarters. It was there, with, I think, Teasdale and Griffiths and a few others that we discovered bomb making. Tin cans filled with a mixture of sugar and weed killer and detonated with cheap bangers from Brooks fireworks boxes. We spent a glorious day or too blowing up every can we could find, until we ran out of bangers. Proper little jihadists. Of course today we would probably come under surveillance and our every movement tracked by computers and satellites, but then, well, boom boom.
And it was the bike that conveyed me to my first ever date with a girl – of the opposite sex, you know.
It was Janet, who was in my class at Queens. Her dad was in the RAF and she lived out in Bruggen but I met her for a date at the Astra cinema in Rheindalen
for a Saturday Matinee. We snogged in the back seat. My first ever snog. Janet’s too, I think. It had a strange physiological effect upon me, all that kissing. I got the most enormous protruding erection. Didn’t quite understand why. Nor did Janet. Sex education hadn’t been invented then, but we knew it had something to do with all that kissing. It was all a bit embarrassing really. When the lights came up for the intermission before the main feature came on I left Janet to go and buy a couple of tubs of ice creams from the cinema usherette. The physiological phenomime would not subside and I walked down the aisle with an awkward projection beneath my trousers. At least it was pointing in the right direction. Today, whenever I see those Hagen Das ice cream adverts I tend to have erotic thoughts about Janet. Not that we licked ice cream off each other, although there was rather a lovely cold vanilla kiss, it just that, well, ice cream, Janet, and the Astra cinema, in some respects life doesn’t get much better than that.
I said goodbye to Janet with another snog around the side of the Astra, by the bike shed where I had parked WD 008. Again, that strange reaction. Janet was rather small and I may have given her stomach or possibly her chest a rather difficult to understand sensation. The reaction would not subside, even when I got on my bike to ride home it persisted. The first two kilometers or so were rather uncomfortable on that hard leather seat. But at least I was pointing in the right direction. I never saw Janet again. Her father was posted out to Singapore and suddenly, she was gone. That tended to happen quite a lot with service family friendships. Made you a bit wary in the end Another advantage of the bike was that it enabled me to take up a paper round. Each Sunday the guardroom at the big supply depot would send a car to Rheindalen to collect the English newspapers. We would cycle to the guardroom and select the newspapers as ordered by each married quarter. All the other rank houses took the News of the World. The officer’s houses also took the News of the World but they liked it inserted inside the Sunday Telegraph or the Sunday Express. Off we would go to deliver the Sunday papers. The tips we received were extremely generous for the soldiers and their families loved getting the English papers, it was really important, there was no telly and news from England was so welcome and they were just delighted to see British schoolboys doing such an English thing as a paper round.
Once a week the estate, if I may call it that, was visited by a mobile NAAFI van. An occasion of great excitement for the families. It was if a relief column had reached an isolated group of survivors under siege in a foreign country. The mobile shop brought us a bit of England, real English products, boxes of Kellogg’s cornflakes, Scots porridge oats, jars of marmalade with golliwogs on them, Marmite and mars bars, and packets of spangles. And of course tea. Teabags hadn’t been invented then and tea came loose, if I recall correctly, in small oblong red boxes. It was the highlight of the week for quite a few rather lonely service housewives.
And once a month a mobile library came. It was run, I think, by the WRVS it was there I discovered the famous five novels. I’ve still got one that I perhaps ought to return.
My neighbour, a few doors down, Orwell, had a fantastic collection of dinky toys. All military dinkys. Great rows of tanks, armoured cars, jeeps, trucks, artillery pieces, tank transporters, bren-gun carriers. He would line them all up in the front room. His father was a Sgt in a big vehicle depot in Monchen Gladbach which had acres of real military vehicles drawn up in endless lines, tanks, armoured cars, jeeps, trucks, artillery pieces, tank transporters bren-gun carriers, motorcycles. He was obviously trying to recreate the vehicle depot at home. Practicing I suspect. Orwell may have become someone important in car-parking when he grew up. He used to come to my house with some of his dinkys. I had the most amazing model train set. A German make, Marklin, yards, and yards of track with electric points and signals, model train stations, tunnels and bridges, carriages and wagons. He would blow up my trains with his tanks or we would put the Dinkys on flatbed wagons and watch them go around and around, under the settee and the dining table, into the kitchen, and through the tunnels. I think service children did very well for toys. We usually inherited them, really cheaply from soldiers’ families who were being posted elsewhere. That’s where I got my train set from. When we left it was all sold to some other family much to my despair. I have this fantasy that when I retire I will buy another railway set, just for me. Of course, now that Brexit is here it will have to be a Hornby set rather than a Marklin. But if that is the price of sovereignty, then I shall face it bravely. Another neighbour was Billy Carter with whom I had a fight about Manchester Unitised. I knew nothing about man united or about English football. But
Billy was a fanatic. I must have said something derogatory about them and he cracked me across the head with his arm that happened to be cased in plaster of Paris. I’ve been planning my revenge ever since.
And there were the Hartly girls. The freckle-faced Hartly girls. I really fancied the eldest one, Anne I think she was, we got quite close to a snog on the school bus. But after the experience with Janet in the Astra, I was a bit worried and it all came to nothing. It is one thing to have a physiological reaction in the dimmed lighting of the Astra cinema, it would be quite another in the broad daylight of the school bus, with Fritz keeping his eye on us all.
I eventually signed on for the Army at the great supply depot where my father worked. I was fifteen and a half!. There was very little else for a service family to consider in the way of work. I did have a spell at the NAAFI shop in Rheindalen before I finally left for my Junior Leaders regiment. Quite enjoyed that. They put me in this small section which sold duty-free booze and duty-free cigarettes to service families. Very busy as servicemen seemed to drink an awful lot of booze and smoke an enormous amount of cigarettes.