I was back in hospital last weekend for more kidney-stone related merriment. I shall spare you the details, since it was all most unsavoury, my deres, but the doctors and nurses were all wonderful, as before, and again I found myself enjoying the odd camaraderie of the urology ward. Mr W-, the gentleman in the bed next to mine, was 97 years old; a former milkman from Birmingham who had moved down to Devon to start a new life as a market gardener in 1966, the year I was born.
He was a bit hard of hearing, so conversation was difficult, but I was happy to listen while he talked. He told me how, in his twenties, he'd driven trucks full of tank fuel around the Western Desert for (I think) 22 Armoured Division, until he was captured by the Germans at the fall of Tobruk. From there he'd been sent to a prison camp in Italy, and then moved on overcrowded cattle trucks through Austria to another camp not far from Berlin. As the war ended his guards, who had fought against the Russians on the Eastern Front and presumably didn't fancy meeting them again, marched him and his fellow inmates west to meet the advancing Americans.
I don't think I've ever actually heard an account like this first hand before. My own grandfathers were too old for active duty during the war, and my parents were only children at the time, so their memories are all of life on the home front. It felt very strange to be lying there in bed in Torbay Hospital and seeing through Mr W's words the battles in North Africa and the fall of Germany nearly seventy years ago. He told me how he had eked out his POW rations by trading the contents of his Red Cross parcels on the black market (one bar of chocolate = five loaves of bread); how, on the march to meet the Americans, his column had been shepherded along by Allied aircraft which returned each day, waggling their wings to encourage the POWS, before zooming off to attack German military convoys further up the road. He described what it was like to drive trucks across the desert, and how an 88mm shell sounds when it passes just over your head.
He seemed at first glance like a tiny little old fellow, and was very funny and good natured (the hospital staff all made a great fuss of him) but as he talked, I started to see that he had actually been a very big man, tall, broad shouldered, and presumably very tough mentally as well as physically. He had a big family living locally, and several little great-grandchildren came in to visit him while I was there. I hope they get to hear his stories too when they are old enough to understand them, and pass his memories on.
I tried to do a drawing of Mr W, but it made him look rather cadaverous and miserable and helpless, none of which was true. So I'll just leave this here un-illustrated, as a record of a meeting with a remarkable man.