But Once a Year
The following article by Harry Calver appeared in the Christmas 1970 edition of the Banks staff magazine. Similarly to Memories 55 to 57 (Bankers In Uniform),
it recalls a time that interrupted his career with the Bank -
his service in the Second World War.
Christmas can be either the happiest or the saddest time of the year according to circumstances. Personally, I'm all for it; the renewal of old contacts, the gathering of the clans as it were, the children, the lights, the Christmas trees in the windows, the giving and receiving, the walk to Church just before midnight on Christmas Eve and the bells over the silent city, these and a thousand more things add up to a magical time that only a Dickens could adequately express in words.
I don't suppose everyone has the same feelings. If you are alone in a small bed-sitter, with the awful thought that there isn't a soul in the whole wide world who cares a damn whether you live or die, or - even worse - there are people who should care and don't, that must make a mockery of the very word "Christmas". But all of us have had one or more Christmases that they remember for one reason or another. A slightly unusual one in my own experience carne to mind the other day.
It was 1941 or 1942 as I remember and the Army Unit with which I was stationed at the time contained few kindred spirits. So with no thoughts of self-sacrifice, but rather as a valuable card to play authority at a later date, I volunteered for duty on 25th December.
(I may add, and all those who wore uniform will understand, if I hadn't volunteered I should probably have been detailed for duty anyway, so I wasn't wasting any noble thoughts). It merely remained for me to discover what delights the Orderly Sergeant of the day had in store for me and I was not long kept in suspense. My name headed the list of those who were to spend the 25th on stand-to for an unusual detail entitled "Crashed Aircraft Guard".
The detail came on duty at 22.00 hours on Christmas Eve and was erroneously supposed to terminate at the same time on the following day. Should an emergency arise and an aircraft crash in the loosely defined boundaries of our Battalion, we were to sally forth by 15cwt. truck to the scene of the incident and to remain there ever vigilant until relieved. Now most of the aircraft in those days did not crash in the rustic calm of the English countryside: their bones, and those of their occupants, lay elsewhere. And so the daily detail was a commitment which had to be honoured but very rarely. Therefore, when I turned in at about 23.30 hours on the day in question, I anticipated no excitement whatever. Some ten minutes later I received a rude awakening in all senses.
Youth and usage made dressing in those days a matter of a very few minutes. At about ten minutes past midnight I, and a morose gang of some six uneager Privates rode out of Camp in a lurching truck, heavily overloaded with all manner of accoutrements, bound for a dot on the map barely discernible by the light of my torch. After an hour's ride, the truck stopped, the cheery voice of our driver bade us get out and, waving an uncertain finger into the darkness, reckoned we hadn't got more than a ten minute walk to our destination. He had every reason to be cheery - he was going back to the dubious delights of an army bed which was at least warm and dry. Shouldering our equipment we set out across fields sparkling with frost. Stumbling into ditches in the darkness and our faces stung by the branches of the trees and breaking the silence by the time honoured oaths of the army which, plus mugs of scalding tea, won us the war whatever anyone tells you.
At last we saw her. The darker shadow of a silent great bird, belly-down in the centre of a field, against the blackness of the trees. How she ever came down in one piece we never could understand. True, the wreckage of the wheels stretched a hundred yards behind her, but how on earth she had not disintegrated on impact was difficult to imagine. We pitched the tent, (not an occupation to be taken lightly in a sub-zero temperature and almost total darkness) arranged the tours of duty and I investigated the dead giant. She was a Liberator and clearly had encountered more trouble than she could handle. The tail unit was almost shot away, the fuselage pocked with holes and a carefully screened torch revealed a number of dark stains both in the cabin and the rear gunner's post which suggested that her crew had had need of something more than routine courage.
The night was all too long, and such words as we exchanged hung in the frosty air with no wind to dispel them. But, as dawn approached, so did a cat's-paw of wind from the east, bringing with it a few flakes of snow, desultory at first and then in good measure so that we soon looked like animated snowmen, stamping our feet and watching our appointed cook trying, with might and main, to light a fire with wet wood. The aircraft was quite beautiful now, nature softening her torn sides with the gently white shroud of snow and giving her a kind of aloof dignity.
We blessed the unseen friend we had in the cookhouse: the rations were enough for twice our number and included that rare delicacy a huge piece of bacon which, under the ministrations of our clasp knives, soon lay in rich sizzling rashers in the pan. Why does bacon taste and smell so much better cooked and eaten outdoors? Don't ask me, just try it. The tea, sugar and milk were as from a cornucopia and we made a handsome meal. At its conclusion those of us off watch sat in the tent smoking and yarning while the snow gradually spent itself and the world stood forth in silent beauty such as I have not seen since.
One of the doors of the plane had been torn off in the crash and - strictly against orders - we climbed in. It felt as though we were uninvited guests in someone else's home. Then one of our members produced the tour-de-force. Six bottles of beer - traditional on the soldier's Christmas Day and a gift from the NAAFI and, though I can't stand the stuff, this was a special occasion. Sitting in the wrecked plane we gave the time-honoured toast - "Happy Christmas"! shook hands and sang - not carols, I fear, but the songs of the day, army version.
Our relief detail were happily on time, and when we returned to Camp a hot meal awaited us of such lavish proportions that I dare swear some of my fellows had never eaten so well.
I often think back to those days, the adventure, excitement and new experiences that all of us took in our stride, grumbling swearing and avowing that we were fools ever to have been involved. It won't be quite like that this Christmas I know. It will be family, friends, and my own home. Distance, they say, lends enchantment. But war-time Christmases had a peculiar fascination of their own and will be remembered.
I wonder what happened to the other six?