Bull Leaper

I often wonder about her, that girl we ran over on the way home from Troy. Is she still alive? She would be 70, give or take, a grandmother perhaps. Did she tell her children about that day? Did they ask about the scar on her forehead? I imagine it must still be there. The gash looked deep. Did she explain why she ran out into the middle of a lonely road that summer afternoon in 1967?

We were on holiday. Let’s go to Turkey, someone had said. We could take a tent. It wouldn’t be like camping in Norfolk. We would be warm and dry. As a boy scout, I did not rate my family as campers. Bloody amateurs, I called them. At 11, I had through emulation of my elders learnt to express myself robustly.  Mother purchased a tent big enough for the four of us. Up, it was a handsome enough pavilion; down, less so. It came in two burlap bags which we roped to the roof of the Morris 1100 along with folding lawn furniture and sleeping bags wrapped in plastic. The overall effect was of a family fleeing a dust bowl, or so I thought as I eyed the spiffier kit of everyone else. And so we set off, several hundredweight of bodies and impedimenta, packed like early astronauts into the valiant little car that was to haul us halfway to Samarkand. I have owned motorcycles with larger engines. First, though, we had to cross he channel. For that we flew. 

In those days, if you wanted to save time, you could put your car on a Bristol Superfreighter that would take you and it, in separate cabins,  from Lydd in Kent to Ostend in Belgium. When the cabin attendant came round with the duty free, my parents would normally have purchased the maximum allowance of Kents, their brand of smoke. But something came over them.  This, they decided, was the moment to free themselves for nicotine’s chains. For my father, it made a sort of sense. For him, writing and lighting up were inseparable. He had been doing them in tandem since well before the Associated Press hired him as a cub reporter in Cairo in 1942. On the job, he was a two to three pack a day man. You could tell by the serried ranks of burn marks along the edge of his desk.  A month now stretched before us in which he would not have to bash out a syllable, though the Olivetti came with us just in case.  For mother giving up would be easier, she said. She had never really liked smoking, had only taken up the habit because the men in her life had all smoked and she took pleasure in its flirtatious and post-coital rituals. The man lighting two cigarettes simultaneously and transferring one to the woman’s lips, before and after. To admit that she was as hooked as any other smoker did not mesh with her story of herself. The coming journey would test its veracity.

We Barbers liked to travel flexibly. We were not ones to let planning and booking interfere with the thrill of not knowing where we would be that night, or the arguments to be had on the way. We established a routine soon enough though.  Each morning we would consult the map and decide upon a route that would get us a few hundred miles closer to Istanbul, home of the one booking we did have.  After lunch we would start consulting the Baedeker of camp sites mother had been provident enough to acquire, paying particular attention to its hieroglyphs which, once you had located the Rosetta Stone in the appendix, let you know what amenities to expect at each site. Would there be be showers? Did they work? Would one be sitting on or squatting over porcelain? Was the porcelain likely to be clean? Would there be porcelain? And, most important, what would the night’s stay cost?

Decisions were seldom simple or consensual.  We each had different needs and wants and ways of expressing them. Bear in mind that the drivers were in nicotine withdrawal and the driving, mostly on two-lane roads, took stamina. Even though we occupied the lower quintiles when it came to capacity for speed, there was much overtaking to be done nonetheless, generally on winding roads and blind hills, mostly of buses and lumbering pantechnicons. Ours was an English car so the steering wheel was on the curb, or wrong, side, leaving the driver to what guess what might be coming the other way. The onus was therefore on the occupant of the front passenger seat to make the call. If the co-pilot was dozing or there was a difference of opinion, the driver might throw the car into the line of fire in an exploratory lunge, yanking it back if need be.  Then, if the decision was go, the real drama would begin as the driver double de-clutched into second, we held our breaths and the engine screamed like a rabbit in the claws of a hawk. The excitement was draining. Come dusk, there was not a lot of energy left for the putting up of tents. There would be a row which would end with three of us stomping off in different directions with no tent to sulk in. At least until Charles erected it.  By then we were past sulking. To be continued

Brassard

Let us now praise some un-famous men: the several hundred African conscripts killed or wounded fighting on the orders of their French overlords to liberate the Italian island of  Elba from the Nazis 75 years ago last Monday.

The big news in Marina di Campo this week was that the beach had been re-sanded in time for the tan-seeking summer crowds. That it had once been littered with dead and dying Senegalese tirailleurs (riflemen) — grandfathers, perhaps, of the immigrants now pushing Europe to the xenophobic right  — went unremarked.

I would not have known about Operation Brassard either had not my father covered it for the Associated Press. He landed with the first wave. In the cable he dictated from a hospital bed next day, he reported: “Senegalese never faltered even though many fell”. They had carried him to shelter after shrapnel put him down.

Victory was hard earned. The first troops ashore were stranded as German mortars, machine guns, artillery and phosphorus forced those still at sea to turn back and seek a less defended bay. Of 48 British commandos who went in to deal with a German flak barge whose 88’s flanked the primary landing beach, 38 did not come back.

Between the outbreak of the war in September 1939 and the fall of France in June 1940, the French mobilised some 100 000 troops from their West African possessions, writes Myron Eichenberg in Colonial Conscripts. In the face of blitzkrieg, “Africans fought tenaciously and retreated in orderly fashion before overwhelmingly superior forces”.

10 000 died between May and June 1940, Eichenberg estimates.  Another 15 000, including Leopold Senghor who would lead Senegal to independence, were taken prisoner.  As many as half did not survive. Captured Africans, read an order from the German high command, were “to be treated with the greatest rigour”.

While it still controlled French West Africa, Vichy France conscripted Africans to defend against British invasion. After November 1942, these and subsequent recruits found themselves serving De Gaulle’s Free French.  Many, according to the Italian writer Francesca Camminoli in her deeply researched — and very moving — novel, La Guerra di Boubacar (Boubacar’s War), were more or less press-ganged from rural villages. Men like these would form the core of the Free French Army’s rank and file until France’s liberation.

Did it make sense to sacrifice them against a well-dug-in but ultimately beleaguered German garrison on Elba? By June 1944, the allies had won back the mainland across from the island that had briefly housed Napoleon as well as the surrounding Ligurian sea. Some French authors like to paint Elba as the inspiration for the Guns of Navarone — threatening vital sea lanes with its mighty guns — but that is a reach.

This was more about restoring French amour propre after the humiliation of 1940 and the shame of Vichy. As my father wrote, “the action provided a definite lift for General (Jean) de Lattre Tassigny’s forces. They had hoped to invade France (on D-Day, 11 days earlier) but failing in this, they were willing to settle for any operation in which they stood a chance of killing Germans.” They actually did invade France — from the south — the following August in Operation Dragoon.

The Senegalese veterans were not to taste the fruits of final victory or share in the accolades. Before there was no more war left for newly freed Frenchmen to fight and reclaim some honour in, De Gaulle ordered the “blanchissement” — whitening — of the French army. The fact that France’s contribution to the allied cause had relied so heavily on its African subjects was not compatible with De Gaulle’s conception of French greatness or national morale.

So the Africans were abruptly ordered home before 1944 was out.  My father next saw them in 1954, defending France’s collapsing empire in Indochina, a job Frenchmen themselves no longer wanted.