Saturday, 9 May 2020

MY SECOND ENCOUNTER WITH THE BRITISH ARMY -1948



My brother Rudi is 3 years and 1 day younger than I am. My mother always joked that he was my birthday present – the only one I will ever need! He was born in 1944, in the middle of the war, and although I lived with my aunt in Leoben (my mother had enough on her plate) I occasionally visited them and I was often asked by my mother to ‘look out for your brother’. He survived my well intentioned ministrations, at least physically, but there were a few near misses along the way. Like the time when we were going out together, my mother, myself and Rudi in his pram. Someone called to my mother just as we were leaving and she told me to watch the pram until she got back. I had often seen my mother ‘walk’ the pram down the stairs, so I thought; how hard can it be??? I took the first step and the pram got away from me and came to a crash landing at the bottom of the fairly steep stairs. Incredibly, my brother was fine, just a little startled. I was in shock, and so was my mother.

My brother was one of these fidgety children, who was always finding things to play with, which were not really safe and that often tried my mother’s patience. When he was two or so, he became fascinated by scissors and knives. He came close to harming himself a couple of times, so my mother asked me to take knives and scissors away from him, if I should see him playing with them. Sure enough, the day came when there he was, with a rather sharp looking knife in his hands. As instructed, I pulled it out of his hand, but he was holding it by the blade and the inevitable outcome was that he had a rather nasty cut with copious amounts of bleeding and had to be treated by a doctor. By then, I would have thought my mother would have realized that it is not sensible to ask children to watch children. But worse was to come.

The war had already ended although we were still under occupation and my mother and Rudi came to visit us in Leoben. Again, it was May time, around our birthdays. Rudi was 4 years old by then and I was 7. We were in the Glacis, the large park just outside our row of houses. My mother and my aunt were sitting on a shady bench, talking. I was playing with my friends and Rudi seemed at a loss as to what to do. He started to be a bit silly and annoying, so my mother asked me to keep an eye on him.

At the end of the Glacis, about 200m from where we were playing, there is a fast road, which takes the traffic through the town and out onto the main highway, which would then take you further towards Salzburg, or Linz or Munich etc. That road was often busy with through traffic and we were told to stay well away from it. While playing with my friends I noticed out of the corner of my eye, that my brother was running towards that road. I left my friends and started to run after him. I had recently had an operation on my left foot to correct a problem, and consequently he was a lot faster than me. I shouted for him to stop, but that only made him run faster. When we got near that road, to my absolute horror, I saw that there was a long convoy of huge British army lorries making their way slowly down that road and out of the town. I shouted for Rudi to stop, but he did not. He ran across the road between the lorries with me in hot pursuit. I was hoping to catch him on the other side, but he had already turned round and was running back across the road, between the lorries, somehow managing to avoid being hit by one of them. I seemed to have no other option than to follow. We both managed not to get killed, (a minor miracle, I think) and my brother reached the opposite pavement unscathed. I was not quite so lucky. A motorcycle, coming from the other direction, caught me and we both went down. The lorries kept rolling on, seemingly unaware of the drama we had created. In the mean-time my mother and my aunt had reached the road and my mother was relieved to see that Rudi was alright. It was only then, that they realized I was actually hit by the motorcycle and was lying injured in the road. The motorcyclist, thank goodness was ok. It could have been a lot worse. His bike was a bit battered and my main injury was a huge burn from the engine which had landed on my thigh. I was then taken to my aunt’s doctor, who was nearby.  He sent me to hospital, where they treated the burn.

I learned later that it was part of the British Army leaving our Province forever.  A contingent of the British Army went on to Vienna, where they remained with the other Allied Forces for quite a few years after the war.  Each of the Allies (Russia, America, France and the UK) were given a sector to administer. We finally saw off the last of them in 1956.

The main memory from that day, which I must admit still bothers me a lot, is that my mother blamed me for the whole debacle. Apparently, I should have known that the best course of action would have been NOT to run after my brother. Apparently he would have stopped and come back of his own volition. Well, excuse me (this is how I still feel), I felt he was in mortal danger and I was only trying to save his life!!! Clearly, I was thinking like a 6year old!

I have never forgotten how that felt, and how very young children can get into trouble for doing what is the right thing in their eyes. I think this has made me a very forgiving and understanding parent. And I don’t want to hear any contrary argument from any of my kids, thank you.



Montan Universit├Ąt, Leoben, Steiermark, where my father studied to become an engineer.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

V E - Day. a personal perspective




We are going to celebrate VE – Day in our Close tomorrow. We are going to have tea at 4pm in the middle of our Close, socially distancing as is required, and to this end, we have decorated our houses with bunting. It’s a small Close, only 4 houses, but we are a diverse lot and my friend Christine (Isle of Man) thought we should use flags from all the countries that mean something to us, i.e, where we were born, or have lived etc. The bunting that I have inexpertly strung around our house portray the Austrian flag, where I was born, the Pakistani flag, where my husband comes from, and the EU flag, which means a lot to me, because I thought that the best way to honour the sacrifices made by so many people in both wars would best be served, if we all got together and created a safe Europe. I still haven’t given up on that, despite Brexit. I am an optimist.

All that got me thinking about the actual VE Day. Where I was on or around that day. Who I was with and is there any connection at all between me and the Brits who occupied our area for a while. Well there is:

In May 1945 – the year and month of VE day - I was going to celebrate my 4th Birthday. I remember that May very well. I was living with my aunt in Leoben, in the Steirermark, the heart of Austria. My uncle was still at war and had not yet returned. My aunt used to breed rabbits for food in the back bedroom. I didn’t know the fate of the rabbits, she kept all that from me, but to feed them  we had to go to the Glacis, which is a sizable park right along the row of houses in my most favourite town, Leoben. The park, during wartime was left virtually untended. There were a number of air raid shelters dug into park, so that the people who lived there could be safe when the bombs were coming over. We didn’t have to use the shelters. We lived in a house with a very deep cellar. All the residents in our house used to go all the way down into the cellar for shelter. We used to pass many barrels of cabbage lined up on the side of the stairs on the way down. That’s where the Sauerkraut was fermenting. The walls were sheer rock which smelled earthy and damp and the air was both cool and musty. The steps were uneven and very steep and at the bottom, there was a coal cellar allocated to each resident for their personal use.  Naturally, there were rats down in the cellars and goodness knows what else. There was some light coming from the ceiling shaft, which also allowed some air into the cellar. I didn’t like being down there but what frightened me more than the rats was the talk amongst the residents as to what would happen, if a bomb did strike our building and destroyed it. The general consensus was that we would all be buried alive and that in the end, the rats would eat us. The stuff of nightmares. But back to the rabbits. The grassy areas in the Glacis were full of Dandelions and we used to dig those out for their food. They loved them.

 On a particular day in that particular month we went to the park as usual to get the Dandelions, and we found the whole area full of Army lorries and soldiers camping near them. They were part of the British Army, and I now think they were massing there before moving on out of our sector. I could see my aunt was shocked, and did not quite know how to proceed, but she could see no alternative, but to go ahead and get the necessary greens for the rabbits. I had strict instructions not to leave her side, and on no account to go near the soldiers, but my curiosity got the better of me, and when a young man in a vest and khaki pants, sitting near some kind of stove, beckoned to me, I went closer. He seemed very friendly and talked to me in a strange language, smiling at me. Then he put his hand into some kind of knapsack and took out a round, flat cardboard box, which he offered to me. After a bit I went closer and took the box and then ran straight to my aunt. Of course I was told off for my reckless behavior, but on examining the box, it turned out to be chocolate. Army rations, as I later learned.



This is the Glacis now, restored and improved. The house we lived in can be seen in the foreground, on the right, the one nearest the two Birch trees. 

We went into the park every morning to get the Dandelions for the rabbits, and every day I was handed a box or two of these chocolates by the soldiers. They seemed nice and were always very friendly and they did their best to teach me a few words of English. My aunt lost her suspicions of them. I suppose she realized what they were; a bunch of very young boys a long way away from home. One morning, before we went to get the greens, she baked a huge amount of simple oat kisses and handed them to the Brits. The next day they had gone. That was my very first encounter with the British, but not the only one. Before they left completely, a few years later, I had another encounter with one of their Army Lorries. But that’s a story for another day.

Since those days in Leoben, I have always been very fond of the British people and I loved everything to do with Britain. It is no coincidence that I eventually ended up living here.