Memoirs of Ron Bromley

6 Aftermath of war

I think it was the 4th of 5th of May [1945] that we heard of the capitulation of the German army, but official VE day for us was May 8th, when we really let our hair down.

It was May 28th when we said farewell to Tilburg and travelled NE crossing into Germany at Eschede. We passed through the bomb-damaged Osnabruck and travelled mostly on minor roads, the autobahns we were told were unusable. On the 31st we reached Westenholz on Lunenberg Heath, quite near Belsen concentration camp. Here we were in contact with Russian forces but did not get on too well, and after 2 or 3 days living in 2-man tents the powers that be decided we had come too far and we retreated south passing through the damaged Hanover, and after a quiet stay at Hunnersruck we finished up at Sarstedt, a small town midway bewteen Hanover and Hildesheim. This was our last stop, other than the breaking up camps.

Once we had settled down we found that the Russians (or so it appeared to us) did not want to mix with the other allies and the boundaries between us were marked out and a fence created similar to the Berlin Wall. I had to peg out a short length of boundary in our area. The first day we walked the line. We found it ran through properties, so we agreed we would bend it so as not to separate a family house from the outbuildings etc. On the following day when we came to drive in the posts I found the Russian had received contrary orders overnight and the line had to go in according to plan. By his attitude you would think he had not been with me on the previous day. One farmer had his house in our area and the farm buildings in the Russian zone, so he had to make up his mind would he keep his house or would he go to the other side and exist without a house. There were hundreds of acres of sugar beet, but as the factory for processing it was in our zone it rotted in the fields as no traffic was allowed through the boundary, and as all the transport as far as I could see was bullock carts it was much too far to any factory in Russian territory.

There was an official passing place north of us which was strictly controlled. Trains went from here to the British zone in Berlin. A guard had to be provided otherwise the Russians, the Germans or perhaps DPs would loot it. There was little communication with the Russians although one soldier did hand up to one of my NCOs a woman to comfort him on his long journey. My man ought to have had more sense, as on reporting sick on his return found that she had given him more than just comfort. The time was never convenient, but I regret that I did not get around to making the trip.

Whilst at Tilburg, Major Humphry left to go to the staff college in India, Chopper became Battery Commander in his place and I became Battery Captain (his 2 i/c). Soon after arriving in Germany, Chopper became 2 i/c (second-in-command) of the regiment and I became a major in charge of B Battery, later on to fill Chopper's place as 2 i/c when Uncle was posted to Italy. It was then that I put up a terrible black. Uncle asked me to go with him to Italy. I pointed out I had little time before I was due for demobilisation; Uncle said he was thinking of a permanent commission. My reply was something to the effect that there was no point in that now that the war had been won. His retort, "You do realise Bromley that I have been a regular soldier since 1916." I prayed for the earth to swallow me up. How I remained a friend until he died I will never know.

Our job was to police an area about county sized. At first we made up the rules as we went along, but slowly the country was returned to as near normal as possible when Allied military government took over. Allied staff were commonly known as "green linnets", on account of their green uniforms. Our first job was to hunt around to find important Nazi personnel who had attempted to slip back into civilian life and not face the consequences; also SS personnel. We would surround an area, say a village at curfew, and cross-examine anyone trying to get in or out. At first light we would enter each house and do a search. It was an awful business. Everywhere was overcrowded and very smelly. Mostly I spent my time with the Burgermeester who seemed to have the only records of people, just a name in a book. For a country so highly militarized it all seemed odd, no-one had an identity card, and birth certificates seemed unknown. One strange fellow was brought before us; my chaps could not get a word from him. The Burgermeester laughingly pointed into his book, he was a deaf mute and branded the village idiot. We did not pick up any of Hitler's cronies.

We were also the judiciary. I think the Burgermeester looked after minor offences; the intermediate court was presided over by a major with the help of a captain and a lieutenant. The maximum penalty was 14 years. The senior court which had the power to give the death penalty was led by a colonel or above with a major and captain as junior members.

One had to be careful not to become too bigheaded about one's position. It was quite a responsibility having power over someone's liberty or life, and for the most part we were quite young. The scene was impressive. The courts were the normal law courts and as you made your entrance from behind the judges' bench the lawyers in their black gowns (no wigs) and the rest of the court would stand and more or less bow to you. The senior judge would then salute a large union flag occupying the whole of the rear wall, and then having taken our seats the senior would signal approval for the remainder to be seated with a perfunctory wave of the hand.

Fortunately I did only one high court and that with a brigadier who was also a barrister. We had two cases who could (or should) have received the death penalty for being in possession of arms. The first was a German who had spent practically his whole life in the USA, and getting near to the end of his days returned to pay his final respects to his native land. Unluckily for him he got caught up with the war and was interned by the Nazis. When it was over he was a natural choice to be made a Burgermeester; he could speak English (or at least American) and he was very anti-Nazi. It was his job to supervise the arms amnesty and hand over all weapons to us, the army. Later he was found too old for the job and we replaced him. Someone must have had it in for him, for a rifle was found in his garden shed and he was imprisoned. Court procedure was very tedious, as evidence had to be given in the natural tongue of the accused. This was then put into German; the official language, and then into English for the judges. In this case it started in English, it was then reported in German by an inscrutable lady who throughout the day her only obvious movement was to endlessly pass her pencil through her fingers. Then it was put back into English for us. Our reply was picked up by the American prisoner who immediately responded in English. This was just too much for the German protocol. Our chairman ruled that it would be sufficient to carry on in English, the interpreter translating into German for the records. He seemed a dear old boy, and the crime unintentional, so we gave him 4 months in jail, this was the time he had already done so he was free to go. His praise for the British sense of justice was overwhelming - he would have kissed our boots if he could have got at them. He was escorted out of court. The second "capital" case did not end so well. Two Germans who had been lifelong friends fell out over a game of cards and one reported the other as having a pistol. He had - a family heirloom which his great-uncle had carried when with General Blutcher at Waterloo. We gave him the same sentence, 4 months. This did not please him as he had done only 3 months and had to go back for a further month. The court was very busy as we had a lot of DPs (displaced persons) living in camps. They had been taken by the Germans from all over Europe to work in the factories and on the land. There's was a hopeless plight, and in consequence they had little respect for the law. The brigadier was upset as we had to sit on Saturday morning. In the robing room he expressed his dislike and said "and we haven't even given one death penalty, you will have to do better than that, Captain Wright." Poor Captain Wright (our junior member) really turned white at the thought. I suppose it was a heart-rending decision to make. Colonel Eastwood ("Uncle") once had to give the death penalty. He seemed upset for some days, and he was a soldier who had served in two world wars.

I had another interesting, if heart-searching, job. I was sent down south into the American zone to be a member of a tribunal composed of a representative from America, Canada, France, England; whether there was a Russian I can't remember, but I think not. It took place at a large DP (displaced persons) camp. There was some query or dispute as to what was to be the nationality of the personnel of the camp, either Polish or Russian. We had a set of rules and after interviewing each DP gave a decision. It is interesting that even so soon after hostilities had finished no-one wanted to be Russian. One lady DP who spoke good English brought us coffee, which was made from acorns, three times each day. She seemed quite certain she would be Polish but she was very worried about her husband who she had married in the camp. He had said if made Russian he would shoot himself. An empty threat we thought as we were told the camp had been "swept" of all arms. The next we learnt one man had shot himself, so we held up proceedings whilst the whole camp was searched a second time. After that the Canadian and I felt more relaxed when we had to make the husband Russian. Imagine our chagrin the next time we were served coffee. The lady, without emotion, told us her husband was dead. He had hanged himself in his own braces.

We had one tragic event at Sarstedt. On the morning of the 16th June the whole town was rocked by a huge explosion, part of an ammunition train in the sidings of the railway station had blown up. Buildings were damaged and there were many dead and injured. Alongside the station was a building housing a large number of Latvian displaced persons. Whilst re-housing them, a second explosion caused further damage and some injuries to us. It was then noticed that there was still a portion of the train that might blow up at any moment. One of our Troop, Gnr George, walked to the end of this portion amd uncoupled the trucks so that they could be driven away. For this action he was awarded, appropriately enough, the George Medal. For our help the Latvians invited us to their Midsummer Eve celebrations when they all dressed in their highly-coloured national dress. To ask someone to dance one tapped the lady with a rush, and if she accepted she made a similar tap with her rush. A good time was had by all long into the night.

Once we got into the swing of things as an occupational force, life was pretty easy and we found time for sport and opened a club or canteen at the Kippet Restaurant where regular dances were held. It was at this time I played my best rugby, mixing with international players. I was certainly not in any way up to that standard, but rugby in the army is rather officer orientated and once you got in you were there for keeps. Or perhaps no-one else wanted to play hooker, a much more dangerous position than it is today. For a number of games our captain was, I think, Duncan Shaw, who was captain of Scotland in 1939. He knew the game well and was a good captain, but to me he seemed always a yard behind the pace. Somehow I had managed to keep fit and reasonably fast and his speed puzzled me. Later I was to find, or think I found, the reason. Early one Sunday morning I was sent for by Uncle, who sent me to a Brigade Headquarters to carry out urgently an enquiry, and on arrival I was to report to Major (or was it Captain) Duncan Shaw. The HQ was in a large castle and I could find nobody. It was Sunday and according to custom men were in bed or out of barracks. I found the officers' mess and went in uninvited and reached the sitting room before encountering anyone. The only person there was a glamorous blonde in uniform of American cloth (superior to ours) and silk stockings, a sharp contrast to our girls' lisle. I apologised for intruding and asked if she could help me in locating Maj Duncan Shaw. her reply was to the effect that the last time she had seen him he was still in bed. My question of fitness seemed to be to be solved.

The enquiry did not take long. A man had died during the night. He was celebrating his de-mob and his friends put him to bed on his back. The fools should have put him with his face down over the edge of the bed, immediately over his boots - an old army trick. He suffocated in his own vomit. What one does in such cases is to act as a Coroner would in civilian life, ascertain by interviewing witnesses the cause of death, get a death certificate from the Medical Officer, and make arangements for the disposal of the body, either a military funeral or return to his family. I had done one previously at Eythorne so I knew the drill, quite straightforward. The one at Eythorne was from the Irish Free State which was a bit tricky.

Somewhere in Holland or Belgium our Battery captured a riding school of about six horses, and somehow we managed to cart them around with us, complete with a Dutch groom who was with us to the end of the Regiment. I could already ride and had the fastest and most unruly to ride. It was half Arab and half Hanovian, a colt which one of our sergeants from the days of horse had broken in. I spent a lot of time riding, it was good open country and we did not always respect the wishes of the farmers, we just went. When we came together in Sarstedt, Major Gair took command and organised a riding school. To ride, everyone had to join his school, and he was a sadist and gave us all a terrible time. He tried his best to get me to fall off the lively colt, riding without reins or stirrups round the ring, but he did not succeed. I finished round the horse's neck from time to time, but not off. No-one was allowed to ride out without him or the groom until he had passed us out, which he never did.

I rebelled and had quite a dust up with him, telling him I could ride before him; I took out my horse without being passed out. Later, when Gair left, I took over his horse Marion, a much older and somewhat slower mare, but an armchair ride.

On the advent of winter, demobilisation started. I do not remember the method of calculation, but a combination of a person's age and his length of service gave him a number from 1 upwards, the lower the number the earlier you were discharged. My number was 25 (or was it 23), the same as all the Militia called up in July 1939. It meant nothing to me, however, as for some reason or another it was ordered that officers were to be held on to for up to six months past out demob date.

This gave me another problem, as I could see the Regiment being closed down during this period which would have meant me being posted to one with a longer life. I was anxious to get to a regiment which had a vacancy for a major. Officers were only of substantive rank in the one below their present rank. This meant that if no vacancy for a major existed I would have to revert to captain. Not too drastic, but for the fact that the gratuity on leaving was much higher for a major. I had a good friend at Corps who dealt with postings, one Len Wright who was at Shorncliff with me and took up my post as adjutant when I left Eythorne. He secured me a post as second-in-command at a CIC (Civil Internment Camp), a sort of of British Belsen. It was on Luneberg Heath, a forbidding sort of place, but it was to be for only a few months. On arrival I could find neither the CO nor the adjutant, so I went to the officers' mess to await their arrival. When the officers gathered for lunch, the CO was pointed out to me and I approached him at the bar. I took an instant dislike to him; he was not even civil to me saying he had no need of me as he had obtained his second-in-command direct from the UK. I said in that case I would have some lunch and go. He said, "I don't know about that, we are short of food." In reply I reminded him that as I had been officially posted to his outfit, he was responsible for my welfare and turned and left him. Visiting at the camp was a captain who was known to me as I had, when down at Eythorne, forgotten to send him, then a sergeant, to General Montgomery for an interview to assess his suitability for officer training. I rejoined him, and when the staff sat down to lunch there were two seats vacant, so we occupied them. A sumptuous meal was served, but when it was almost over the adjutant and the MO (medical officer) appeared; we had eaten their lunch. There was no shortage of food and they were quickly provided for. Later on in the loo the MO told me they had been delayed holding an enquiry into the death of six inmates. He stated the cause of death in medical terms and added "in your language that's starvation and exposure." Maybe it was Belsen. We were only a few miles away from what had been the notorious concentration camp. After the staff had departed for their duties, I enquired for the CO's office. There I found him and the RSM bullying half-a-dozen old men, some wrapped in blankets to keep warm, to carry heavy furniture as he (the CO) was moving his office. After a few choice words I left and returned to the 9th Survey. I then phoned Len at Corps and asked him to have another try. I gave him 10 days as Gil, who was acting CO, issued a leave pass for me to the UK.

The 10 days certainly cleared the air as far as my future was concerned. I had taken a correspondence course with the Army Education Corps and found study much harder than pre-war. Then all I had to do was to read the text with a few worked papers. I thought maybe I would ask to join Dad and Chiz on the farm to avoid a lot of study. I had grand ideas for expansion as most of the nearby farms had been taken over by the War Agriculture Committee, who would want to release them as soon as they could after the war finished. I found neither Dad nor Chiz were in tune with expansion. Dad was still on the animal side whilst Chiz was all for the mechanical, acquiring machinery much too uneconomic for the size of the farm. They seemed on different wavelengths. In the pub over a quiet pint Dad would say, "He will never make a farmer." Chiz, who never went near the pub, once said to me, "If only he was out of the way we could get on with the job much better." I could see a third would only add to the turmoil and went to Canterbury where I was assured there would be a permenent job for me on my return. This surprised me, as although employed before joining up the position was only temporary.

On my return, Len had done his stuff and I was to join an ex-Territorial Ack-Ack Regiment which had been sent out to Germany at the cessation of hostilities. Here I was given the same treatment as at the CIC, "We have no vacancy for a major, so you would have to revert to captain". I knew this was wrong and told the second-in-command that my friend Maj Wright at Corps had not only assured me that there was a vacancy, but had sent me a copy of the authority for the posting. I then acted rather rudely and reached across for the phone saying I would phone Len and get it sorted out. At this the 2i/c retreated and asked me my seniority. I was senior even to the CO in service, as a captain and as a major. Being TA they had several older officers who were being demobilised and they were promoting themselves hand over fist. In fact one poor man had been promoted the day before I arrived, well after the receipt of the authority from Len. The poor fellow wore his crown for about 36 hours, and the powers that be were insensitive enough to post him to me as my Battery Captain. He was in fact one of the nicest officers in the Regiment, being ex local government, in fact coming from Esher where I was later to work. Most of the officers were busy trying to improve their image and had taken to bridge, and on the first evening I witnessed then coming down to dinner with their Culbertson under their arms. This book was the "in method" for bridge at the time. There was one very crude officer, one Major Pincher Martin, who claimed to be a timber importer. I could just imagine him running down the gang plank with a plank of wood on his shoulder. This was the normal method of unloading timber in the London docks before the war, or so I am told. He said to me you do not want to get involved with bridge, which indeed I did not after my experience at Eythorne. He took me down to the mens' quarters, to a dance. We had taken over a bomb-making factory so there was plenty of covered space. He plunged into the crowd and came back with two German girls, and after one drink he disappeared with one, leaving me with the other. We had a dance or two and a drink, when the vehicles were ready to take the girls back to their village. Pincher was not to be found, and my girl would not go without her friend saying something may have happened to her. I told her the time that they had been away it was too late to worry about that. Eventually they were found in the RSM's quarters where she had been sick on a valuable Persian carpet that the RSM had looted. Pincher said we must get the girls home but as his transport was out of action could he have the use of mine. I had no idea what I had, I had arrived at 3 o'clock that afternoon, but he could certainly have it. He went off and came back with a closed-in Jeep. I was putting the girls in but they insisted I came with them. I got in the back and we drove off into a snow storm. After about ten minutes we arrived at a housing estate which appeared to be mostly 5-storey flats. We went in and Pincher and his girl disappeared. I said goodnight to my partner and settled down alongside a large all night burning stove to keep warm. I cannot recall how long I waited but a third female appeared, warmed some milk and put it in a baby's bottle. We just exchanged nods. When Pincher arrived he said I must drive as he was too tired. I took the wheel and said, "Which way?" Although he was driving on the way out, he had no idea. I turned through 180 degrees hoping to see our tracks but a new snow fall had obliterated them. I drove on and came to a level crossing, and I sent Pincher to enquire of the gatekeeper. I could see him through the snow pointing up the railway lines. After we had repeated this twice more, we may have been going round in circles, I could not see the man manning the crossing clearly from the Jeep. At the third attempt, I turned the wheel and we bumped our way up the line until we reached our HQ. On Pincher's directions I parked the Jeep. It was first light, and when the guard saw two majors he called out to the guard to present arms. I was mortified to find that the NCO in charge was the only other rank I had spoken to the day before, and he was the NCO in charge of what was to be my battery office. I can only wonder what stories he told of the battery commander who arrived at 3 o'clock in the afternoon one day, and the next morning came back to barracks bumping up the railway line.

It really was an awful place. I cannot recall what our job was, just to keep an eye on the natives I think. There was no sport and no horse riding. I spent a lot of time doing a correspondence course. I got friendly with the MO, who like me had been posted from an infantry regiment that was to be broken up. He also held the MC, so we thought ourselves a little superior to the rest. I was troubled with a bad shoulder, the result of trying to keep two huge props from breaking out of the pack when playing rugby. I said I wanted a cure but not using the "witch oils" commonly prescribed as they made you smell and ruined your clothes. He gave me a chit to take to the Hermann Goering Luftwaffe hospital which was nearby. A wonderful place. Goering certainly spoilt his boys in blue. A British nurse read the note and just said, "Wait over there." There I was sitting amongst the other ranks. This never bothered me much, but generally as an officer you were given preferential treatment. In time the place became empty, all six or seven physiotherapists packed up and left (they were operating in a large room). There just remained me and the girl who had received me. She then said quite offhand, "I suppose we must now look at you," then went on to add, "Oh, I think it's tea time." I was nearly ready to explode. Having kept me waiting for a long time she was now off to have her tea. She pressed a bell on the wall and a German girl appeared with the largest silver tray I have ever seen. It was laid for tea for two people, complete with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. We sat over tea discussing things in general for a bit, and then she said, "I think we will just take a look, perhaps a little massage, and decide on future treatment." This she did. Time was getting on, and I said, "Well that's the day gone, what about the evening?" We fixed things up, I think it was the cinema. I attended the next day, and we went out again in the evening, and thus it went on until my de-mob came through. I discovered I knew both her father and uncle. They owned a sewer pipe making factory and took turns on the road selling their wares around civil engineering contractors and local government. They were always helpful to pupils like Ken and I, not like some travellers who only wanted to see the senior staff. Johnson was the name, I cannot remember her Christian name. She had a fiance, a doctor, who was posted to India, so she volunteered for overseas hoping to be posted to India, but she got sent to Germany. I consoled her by saying she would never meet up in a large country like India, it was very dirty, and once her time was up it would take six months to get back to the UK, not like three days from Germany. We travelled around a lot. I was not officially allowed to use my transport, but I never bothered and no-one questioned me; I was just supervising the area. It was such a terrible posting, it was only this chance encounter that kept me sane.

It was April 1st [1946] that I said farewell and left for the UK. I travelled light as all my gear had been sent home by RTO (Rail Transport), just a hand bag made from the seat cover from a half-track vehicle and a portable radio set.

The radio has its own story. It was an Army Welfare set, given by the Americans to British army units, and I "liberated" it from the 9th to compensate me for a wrong which I believed had been done to me. Whilst 2 i/c to the 9th I did various things before absolutely necessary to facilitate the closing down of the unit. I had both battery imprest accounts and did all of the financial side myself from Regimental HQ. On pay day I drew money from the bank, always in brand new notes in tidy bundles. I gave to the two battery captains what they had asked for to pay the men in their battery. This they signed for. On one occasion, one captain after signing came into our mess for a drink; what happened to the money then and whilst he was at lunch I do not know. After he had "paid out" he found he was 600 marks short. He insisted he was given short measure and refused to make up the deficiency. Chopper, who was now the commander of the regiment, declined to give a decision, and ordered an enquiry. This was sent to the Brigadier in charge of Brigade HQ. Nothing was heard for some time, and I was getting anxious, as I could face difficulties if it was not cleared up before the Regiment was disbanded, or indeed if my demobilisation turned up. I asked Chopper to tackle the Brigadier, which he did. The Brigadier said he was too busy to deal with it, and asked who was the imprest holder. On my name being given, he said "Bromley will pay". I was required to write a cheque for £15. Please note the rate of exchange, 40 marks to the pound, and also note that £15 was a lot of money at that time, about a week's pay. I was determined to get some compensation and the radio seemed the most obvious at the time.

We took the quick route home via Calais and Dover. This presented a bit of a problem as I knew from pre-war that the powers that be always put recruits in the Customs Hall at Dover, it being the busiest port in the UK it gave them an oportunity to cut their teeth. When we docked, however, and the porters came aboard to carry the officers' baggage, I had an inspiration. I had no luggage for them, but I asked one of them if he would carry a message to Mr Frank Ellis that Major Bromley would like to see him (rank does help on some occasions). Frank, who was in charge of all the porters in the docks, was well known to me as we used to play darts together in the Plough Inn at Hougham. He readily agreed to take the radio to avoid me having to lug it to Aldershot and back. I said that I would collect it from his house, but it was at Church Farm before I was.

The customs men had targetted the officers, leaving the other ranks to stream through. When I declared just one roll of film, he almost demanded to see the camera, "You must have one as you have film". My reply, "Don't you have cameras in England any more?" This upset him, and he asked to see my wrist watch. This had a broad arrow and a number on the back which signified that it was government property. I said, "You can see that was not purchased abroad." He pulled out the contents of my bag, but found nothing - a very despondent customs man.

©2003 Ron Bromley