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Over the years my father had often talked about his experience in the Second World War. Old friends and relatives would visit, and they would chat. I remembered a lot of this. I loved nothing more than to sit in the corner of the room as the grown-ups told tales of their past.
Talk of the War was about exotic places and events or horrors. My father had played fiddle at ceilidhs for commandos in the north of Scotland in midsummer; had trodden on the crisp burnt heart of a soldier in an abandoned German tank at El Alamein; had seen the fear in the faces of Italians in the South as the British drove through their village; and heard the screaming from the police station that no one dared question. He had seen the pyramids by moonlight, played music for a Countess, and seen his grandmother’s ghost in Cairo at 3 in the morning…
The shouting of an Italian woman near the Battle of Bologna roused praise from a fellow soldier. “Such a beautiful language, Italian. What is she saying, Ernest?”
“She’s telling her little boy to come and change his underpants.”
In the course of the war my father travelled to Scotland, Egypt, Italy, and Austria, and told colourful stories of his experiences.
Listening to him, I imagined the scene as the Queen Mary hove to in Freetown in a thick fog off the coast of West Africa, where the cold waters of the deep Atlantic, moved by the Earth’s rotation, well up to meet the hot tropical air. Or I shared his thirst as he sneaked off with the last of the ship’s beer in a sweltering sun crossing the equator.
Egypt in particular was full of atmosphere. All fraternizing with Arabs being banned, my father would sometimes sneak off to talk with locals and improve his Arabic and exchange ideas. He loved Egyptians’ sense of humour, their superstitions and folk beliefs, like the drumming bolero rhythm to ward off evil spirits that he taught me (which I later rediscovered in flamenco); and the reason why the camel wears a smile. His descriptions of travelling down the Nile at night were full of romance, and his standing watch on its banks when King Farouk passed by on his royal yacht, no doubt returning from a night of dissipation, made the names in the news more interesting.
There were also photos in old cardboard boxes which would occasionally be brought down from their secret place in his bedside drawer, their contents perused thoughtfully and carefully, and comments made. Some of them are reproduced here. Also in that drawer was a small cardboard box labelled ‘OHMS’ containing his war medals, still wrapped in the original greaseproof paper. I still have that box.
There was his story of how to catch a lizard with a loop of grass, which his friend Mauro had taught him in Italy. I have my father on film somewhere telling this, and will post it when I can get it converted. There were tales of the amazingly named Contessa Elena di Caracciolo, who fed my father black market food near Bari in return for violin concerts on Friday evenings.
Father often spoke of a beautiful Luger pistol he found in an abandoned house in Austria, which he was tempted to bring home as war loot. In the end he didn’t dare, but when he saw a toy replica in a shop he bought it for me. It had a very comfortable feel to it.
His warmest memories were of Scotland. There were the tales of his life in Lochailort in the far north-west highlands, which was probably the happiest time of his life, and is described at length here. He wrote two separate memoirs of Lochailort. Rather than try to combine them, I have left them in their original form.
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In 1970 we spent our summer holidays in Mallaig. This was Dad’s first trip back to Lochailort since the war, and he was deeply moved. To me it seemed like ancient history, but in fact it was a mere 27 years since he had been stationed there. Much had changed. The “old road” that he repeatedly indicated on our drives down the Road to the Isles had been replaced by a decent modern tarmac road. People had died – amazingly all the young men of the Macrae family he had known had died of heart attacks in recent years. When we tried their generous food I understood why: north-west Scotland has one of the highest incidences of cardiac disease in Europe, and it’s not just the softness of the water that’s at fault. The hospitality of the Macraes in the little pink cottage on the hill above Mallaig was exemplary, and in June I lay awake in the daylight, which lasted until nearly midnight in those northern climes, looking through the window at the harbour. Amazingly, it did not rain once in our two weeks there. I put on weight. We returned the following summer to a similar experience, though a little more rain.
When he retired I urged him to write his memoirs of the war. “I’ll have to get around to it one day,” he always replied. Eventually, exasperated at his lack of progress, I sent him one – a Round Tuit – together with an outline of what he might write about.
He never used the Tuit, but he did Have A Plan. He was not a spontaneous writer, but planned everything he dictated onto tape or typed on the old Smith Corona, which I remembered him buying in Macclesfield in 1966 to type up his thesis on maths and music ability in school students he taught.
There were two outcomes. One was a set of memories of his childhood in the charmingly named village of Butt Lane, which sits on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire and also boasts among its sons one Reginald Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire aircraft, who was born in the house next to my grandparents. These were mostly dictated onto tape, and some were published in the local newspaper. I am working on the tapes.
The other was a set of written and taped memoirs of the war, which I now offer here.
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Among his tales there were occasional references to a German teacher named Maria in Klagenfurt, but these were told in subdued tones when we were alone. If Lochailort gave him his fondest memories, his greatest love was the German language and Austria. Maybe the letters transcribed and translated here suggest why. Curiously, Austria was the one period of his wartime service about which he never wrote.
I never saw those letters while he was alive. I only discovered them, and related postcards, after my mother died and I went through the empty house. They were tucked away in an old copy of Des Teufels General in the old ornate 1930s wooden bookcase, which I remembered him often reading, but since I did not as a child read German I had never investigated. I have searched the internet for Maria Wrangel or anyone named Wrangel near Klagenfurt, but to no avail. If anyone can shed light on who she was with her Prussian surname, I should be grateful.
My father Ernest Dale died on 27 May 2002.
The following are his memories of the war.
Andrew Dale, May 2002, updated November 2011