Tuesday, November 16, 2010

36. Germany

Moving around in the Service was quite an exercise but Air Ministry were well organised in this regard, issuing very clear instructions, time tables, travel warrants and so forth. But the wives still had to do the packing, and the amount of personal stuff we were allowed to take was dictated by rank. My memory is vague about our allowance on this particular move, but I know that throughout our twenty five years of travel we had abandoned bicycles, refrigerators, cookers, radios and toys. You see, we were not always allocated married quarters which meant that we had to furnish our own accommodation, and all that stuff had to be disposed of when the next posting came along. Six weeks was the usual time taken between dispatching our boxes and receiving them at the other end, so there was always some heartbreak when favourite toys had to be crated because we could only take a limited amount of hand luggage. Many a teddy bear has been smuggled aboard under a jersey!

So, off we went. Tommy was only seven years old and already attending his fourth school, Jeni was almost five and ready to start her first school. Bus, train, ferry (very choppy, very nauseous) another train and then a service bus from Munchen Gladbach to Rheindahlen, where we somehow met up with Tom.

We arrived at our new married quarter and I thought I had died and gone to heaven! This was an 'other ranks' quarters, for heaven’s sake - in England officers would have been pleased with such accommodation! Central heating and constant hot water supplied from a central boiler somewhere on camp, beautiful parquet floors in the long dining room/lounge, a fully fitted kitchen to die for - though no fridge or washing machine -  and a downstairs toilet for guests! Upstairs were three large bedrooms, a bathroom and a separate toilet. The furniture and equipment had only been used by one previous resident and, not only was the house immaculately clean, the vacating wife had even left some basic provisions in the pantry for us!

The building of these houses had been part of the American Marshall Plan for getting Germany back on its feet after the war. Well equipped schools were nearby, the NAAFI shop and row of local shops, including a hairdresser, were within walking distance. There were at least four churches on the camp, two cinemas and a huge theatre which was used as a lecture hall as well as for entertainments. There were Officers’ Messes for the different nationalities, Sergeants’ Messes, Other Ranks' Canteens, a magnificent medical centre, an RAF hospital a couple of miles away and much, much more. The whole setup was like something out of an American movie which, in a way, it was. The exchange rate for the Deutchmark was in our favour and we could bathe and keep warm at last!

The house was a joy to clean, even without a vacuum cleaner, and I gladly cleaned the old polish off the parquet blocks every few weeks, using the finest steel wool and working with the grain on every tiny block. Ruinous for the hands, but good for the soul and the dusty activity also ensured that someone would call while I was in the middle of it! As was the custom in Germany, downstairs was a huge cellar which contained an old fashioned boiler for washing clothes, and where the washing could be dried in wet weather.

The headmistress of the Junior School was a beautiful, sexy young woman, and some fathers were taking a much greater interest in the schooling of their offspring than they had previously. Jeni had no experience of pre-school or day nursery but settled into her first school easily, and Tommy seemed happy. He became enchanted by the daughter of an American Colonel and, while I was in hospital, he was in big trouble for picking flowers and going courting, instead of staying at home looking after Jeni. My religious education had been sadly neglected and so I decided to attend church. First mistake, don’t go into a church of unfamiliar denomination, and if you do, bob to the alter, cross yourself and exit backwards. Jeni found this very confusing. Finding the Church of England, to which I professed to belong on my enlistment papers, I asked if I could become a member of the choir – I liked singing. Choir practice was most enjoyable and I was fitted with a long blue robe which I wore as I solemnly walked up the aisle behind the priest every Sunday. At Easter I did a three day pray-in from Friday to Sunday but, in spite of my best intentions, still felt nothing apart from the cold. All my genuine efforts over the years to become a serious church goer have come to naught, although I claim to be a decent person, spiritually I must be lacking.

I joined the RAF Drama Club and, among other things, played the mayor’s sister in “The Lady’s Not For Burning”, which was entered for the Drama Festival against other Services Clubs throughout Germany. We took the production to one station where our sceanery was found to be two feet too high for the stage, and our overworked stage crew slaved away all night, cutting the flats shorter ready for the performance next day. I was also cast as a Chinaman in the chorus of the pantomime “Aladdin”. That was a first!

A posting or tour of duty, usually lasted two and a half years, but this wonderful, comfortable, happy time in Germany was about to be cut short, because Tom was recommended for a branch commission and, if he accepted, we would have to move back to England immediately so that he could attend the next Officers’ Training Course. I knew it was something he really wanted, but could we afford it? As a Flight Sergeant he was paid two weeks in advance, as an officer he would be paid four weeks in arrears! Six weeks without pay! Then there would be Officers’ Mess Fees while he was at OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit), plus the cost of the officer’s uniform, expensive hat, mess uniform, miniature medals etc., etc. The suit I had bought for him in West Drayton would be OK, but he would need a trilby (hat) that he could 'tip' if anyone saluted him out of uniform. Other ranks had their uniforms provided free, but the best officers could do was claim this expense against their income tax.

Tom was never good with money, invariably being in debt to some extent but, ever since I had hidden from the bailiffs as a child, I had a horror of debt. There was still a little bit of my corset money left and, for the past two years, I had been secretly saving a little each month and so I reckoned that, with great care, we could get him through. And he wanted to be commissioned so much. Little did we know that, with the Officers’ Mess social life, silver fund, library fund, Commanding Officers entertainment fund, etc. etc. etc. he would actually be worse off financially than he was as an NCO. I would no longer draw my money every week at the Post Office; I would have to rely on receiving my housekeeping from Tom. I always remember the first cheque he wrote for me: Pay C.A.Winter three pounds only. My, how that “only” annoyed me. I would rather he had written two pounds nineteen shillings and ninepence!

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