This project started when my sister gave me the folder of my father’s memoirs of World War 2 a few years ago. He was a prisoner of war from November 1941, when he was captured in Libya, to early 1945.
Written in his clear hand about 40 years later, the documents need work to make them coherent and accessible to our extended family. My siblings and cousins will remember his humorous stories, told and retold in my father’s animated style, always reducing us to fits of laughter. I hope they can add stories that aren’t in the manuscripts–I can remember a few. The current grandchildren may be curious, and might come to appreciate them when older. The family may consider publishing. I’m sure that many of his former pupils, families of his fellow prisoners, and ex-servicemen worldwide would be interested to read it.
First, I’m converting the manuscripts to typescript using voice-to-text software. Reading aloud makes any text more vivid. I can almost hear my father speaking the words, in his characteristic phrasing.
Grammar and Style
As an editor, I notice South African English spelling, too many commas, varying hyphenation, his carefully inserted asterisks referring to notes in the margins, plus notes to himself to insert new pages. These pages were either never completed or are unfortunately now missing.
Stylistically, the memoir is a vivid narrative, describing incidents, people, places, life in camps and outside as a manual labourer, all in a careful chronology (while writing he also made a few pastel drawings of camp guards and scenes). Bridging the specific incidents are his reflections, and passages establishing the context. It’s an account that balances personal experience with subsequent knowledge, mature humanity, empathy, and compassion. Just what you’d expect from a school principal.
When I was a boy, he continually read histories, and talked about the other parts of the war with friends. In retirement, my father and mother toured Europe with other veterans, visiting significant places.
The Never-ending War
I inherited my father’s fascination with the war, but celebrated it lightly with children’s games. From the 50s onward, the war was of course re-fought in comics, books, and movies, always from the Allied (“Anglo-American”) perspective, and it continues. As a child and boy in the 1950s, I was obsessed with the weaponry. At every opportunity, we’d visit the National War Museum in Johannesburg. I’d ask my father to explain the mechanisms of infantry weapons, armored vehicles and aeroplanes preserved there. Only as an adult did I realize what acute stress the war had laid on my father and his generation, and how my wide-eyed questions must have probed that pain. Only in the 1970s was the term “post-traumatic stress syndrome” (PTSD) coined, but it’s safe to say that virtually all WW 2 combat survivors suffered it.
Substance and Structure
Substantively, the manuscripts show that he intended at least two parts. The first begins with training in South Africa, and describes the advance northwards from Kenya to the campaign against Italian forces in Abyssinia (contemporary Ethiopia). But this document ends tantalizingly, in mid-sentence. Who knows what intervened–an unpleasant memory? Trivial daily routine, or his painting hobby? Maybe just old age.
Whatever, I’ll have to find a way to bridge the breaks between documents. Included in the folder are two very short memoirs by POW friends–they might supply details. The second document begins with his capture at the battle of Sidi Rezegh and shipment to Italy. After several years in Camp 52 near Genoa, Italy, Italy capitulated, and the entire camp were taken north by the Germans in a train of cattle-trucks.
Then followed a year or so of construction labour near Kraków, Poland. When the Russians advanced from the east, his group was marched westward in the winter of 1944-45. The column left Poland, crossed Czechoslovakia, and in Germany turned south at Nuremberg, towards the Bavarian mountains. Then the account ends, again abruptly, sometime in the early spring of 1945.
The narrative is taken up again in a third document. It’s a draft letter he wrote to two friends. They escaped from the column in April 1945 near Nuremberg, and met the advancing Americans. My father returned safely to Britain, and the narrative ends as he prepared to board ship in southern England for the voyage home to South Africa.
Then and Now
While I’m reading to transcribe, I use Google Maps to find the towns he mentions. I compare Google’s version with a Red Cross map of POW camps published in a Johannesburg newspaper in 1942, showing a very large Germany but no Austria. The present Czech Republic has no name, just three undefined regions, labelled “Moravia,” “Bohemia,” and “Slovakia”.
My father’s memoir mixes humorous stories with unpleasant incidents and generalizations, and shows how the feelings of helplessness are mitigated by camaraderie and mutual support. This transcription process expands my memory of youthful amusement to include realization of the hardships. Like looking back through several telescopes, it sharpens my memories of childhood, of my father, and shows my father in his early 20s. All this is seasoned with contemporary hindsight about World War II and South African history.
Friends and family frequently remark on how much I resemble my father in appearance. I’m becoming more aware now, of how his experiences affected his later life, and in turn shaped me as a youth and adult. The memoir also reminds me how those dangers, oppressions and hardships forged the values of that entire generation, and how intense were the friendships.
Like many South African ex-servicemen, he was a member of the MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) association. I remember him marching in every November’s Day of Remembrance parade, standing at attention for the minute of silence, and the haunting bugle call of Last Post.
My mother left no memoir of her time as a lieutenant in the South African Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. At flight training bases, she ran the libraries of flight manuals for pilots-to-be. She preserved all my father’s letters to her, but hers to him were lost in the hurly-burly of camps and his movements.
Seems that I’m re-engaging with WW 2. Who knows what further insights this particular editing project will bring me? I’m hoping to produce a satisfying document within about 6 months. Then it may be time to start writing my own key experience of conflict and resolution. It must be the transition from apartheid in small town South Africa, when I was teaching TV in a university journalism school, 1979 – 1997. I’m not aiming at a book (don’t hold your breath!), just short anecdotes of personal experiences.