A memoir by Peter Ustinov
In January 1942, as the bombers droned overhead, I received my call-up papers. I had made enquiries earlier about the submarine service, since I had once read a book by Lowell Thomas which had fascinated me, but I had been told I was of more value where I was, in the only entertainment running in London apart from the static nudes. Why on earth 1 should have been attracted to submarines I cannot now understand. After all, a small boy who had felt an acute pang of claustrophobia when told the facts of childbirth would not seem drawn to the selection of a steel womb for military service. 1 am very glad they turned me down.
At my selection board interview, I was asked if 1 had any preference as to the arm I might serve in. I told the oilicer I was interested in tanks (once again, the lure of the airless womb!). His eyes blazed with enthusiasm.
“Why tanks?" he asked keenly.
I replied that I preferred to go into battle sitting down. His sparkle faded abruptly, and I shortly afterward received a letter ordering me to report to an infantry regiment. I arrived in Canterbury on January 16. 1942, and was allowed to keep my own clothes a day or two in the absence of anything to tit me. For me, if not for the Allies, this date marked a turning point in the war.
It is, of course, possible that I was abnormally sensitive to the brutalizing effects of military life because 1 already considered myself destined for better things than being a successful robot, and it is not without reason that 1 have entirely overlooked a date of primordial importance in my life. It was June 22, 1941, the day on which I Hitler launched his fatal invasion of the Soviet Union. At that time, I was not yet in the Army.
While appearing in Diversion at Wyndham’s Theatre, I had written a play, partly in my dressing room, partly at home during the nightly bombardments. It was written in pencil in a couple of school exercise books. When I deemed it to be finished, I rather shyly gave it to my habitual benefactor, Herbert Farjeon, who took it away to read. Four weeks passed, and I heard nothing. I began to believe that either it had displeased him or he had mislaid it. Although it was in manuscript—I have never learned to type, nor could I, at that time, afford to take it to a typing agency—I was not convinced that it was a very great loss. Whenever I saw him, and dropped a hint of my impatience to know his opinion, he was subtly, smilingly evasive.
Then came the weekend of Hitler’s greatest initiative. I was down in Gloucestershire with my parents when the news broke. The village postmistress, Miss Pitt, rode recklessly over the somnolent Sundaymorning landscape on her ancient bicycle, shouting “Russia Invaded" as though selling newspapers in a crowded thoroughfare.
We seized the papers and began speculating about all the imponderables that an event of such magnitude automatically turns up. I even toyed with an old radio, capturing in a hail of static garbled voices which we imagined were both Russian and hysterical. It was only after lunch that I settled with the interior pages of the Sunday newspapers to find out what had been going on in calmer backwaters. In James Agate’s column of the Sunday Times I glimpsed a headline, “A New Dramatist,” and felt a pang of envy. The foremost dramatic critic of the day had seen fit to bestow his accolade on some fortunate soul; good luck to him.
Then I read the article. The new dramatist was none other than myself. I reread it several times before daring to impart my secret to my parents. Now I understood the mischievous smile on Farjeon’s face, the cool, uncharacteristic evasiveness. He had had the play typed at his own expense and had given it to Agate. The article was superb. It ended with the following words: “When peace permits the English theatre to return to the art of drama as opposed to the business of war entertainment, this play will be produced. Let not the ordinary playgoer be dismayed at the prospect before him. This tragi-comedy is funny to read and will be funnier to see. Yes, a new dramatist has arrived, and his play will be seen.”
I showed it shyly to my father as though it were an item which might be of vague interest to him, and I must record that he took the news remarkably well.
It is hard to accept the rigors of military life when you have been so flattered, and yet this unique happening also gave me a glow of serenity, even when the sergeant major of our company was lavishing his choicest obscenities on me. There was, I remember, an odious procedure called kit inspection. All of one’s kit had to be laid out in prescribed geometrical patterns, with the socks somehow arranged in square shapes, flanking the oblong greatcoat on top of the blankets. Now it is all very well for square people to have square socks, but once they have been worn by round people, they faithfully adopt the shape of the wearer. I did what I could to hammer them into the squareness demanded by military protocol, but to no avail. The moment 1 left them alone, the wool expanded slowly into a voluptuous rotundity, and they lay there like buns on a breakfast tray. The sergeant major entered my room in a fairly jovial mood, but when his eye fell on my socks, I fancied I saw smoke emerging from his flared nostrils. He just had time before the appearance of the inspecting officer to promise me the direst punishments in the nastiest of manners.
The officer entered the room. “’Shun,”screamed the sergeant major, his expression fixed on my socks with a kind of Satanic premonition. The officer didn’t even glimpse the kit. He came straight over to me and asked me if I was indeed Ustinov. I confirmed it.
“I read about you in James Agate’s column,” he said agreeably, and then spoke warmly about the theater for about ten minutes. He had, apparently, been assistant stage manager at the Shakespeare Festivals in Regent’s Park and found military life intolerable. He was, he confided, near a nervous breakdown. I told him I understood him only too well. He agreed that it was of some consolation to him that it must be worse for me. We both laughed, and he went out. The sergeant major came over to me with a perplexed expression.
“What ‘e say?” he inquired.
I looked at him in quiet, compassionate triumph. “He said that he had read about me in James Agate’s column—sir!” I said.
“What’s ‘e talkin’ about?”
And he followed the officer, murmuring about the decadence of the modern Army owing to the influx of civvies.
As one of the coldest winters on record gave way to one of the hottest summers with hardly a hint of spring in between, life became more bearable, even under these circumstances. As a result of one of the innumerable administrative breakdowns to which all armies seem to be prone, we welcomed to our ranks a Polish Jew who could neither read nor write, who spoke practically nothing apart from Polish and Yiddish, and who stood five feet in his socks. Even before the arrival of the computer to add chaos to society, it was practically impossible for the Army to undo a mistake of this order once it had been made. Consequently the powers that be were forced to improvise, and our padre, a Welshman who looked like Beethoven but with a predilection for dull hymns sung in unison, appealed for anyone capable of speaking Yiddish to come forward. One man stepped forward, but he was a gypsy with an earring who thought Romany might do the trick. It didn’t. Eventually I asked to be able to try German. For the first time a tiny ember of recognition flickered in the eye of the newcomer. It was not his favorite language, of course, but Yiddish is merely a distortion of medieval German mixed with a few onomatopoeic and exotic elements, and a bridge of sorts was created.
With the help of the padre, I was given moments of compassionate leave in the regimental canteen, or rather my new friend was, and I was instructed to help him decipher love letters from his wife, who could not read or write either. These letters, written by a neighbor I never met and was never meant to meet, were extremely touching by virtue of their ingenuous eroticism, and my mind was broadened considerably in struggling with the replies.
On parade, human contact was less easy to maintain. The British Army at the time formed threes rather than fours, so that whichever direction a platoon turned, the central tile was always somewhat hidden from view. It was therefore normal that the two of us were relegated to this central file, and I received formal instructions to translate the orders into German out of the corner of my mouth, so that seconds after the body of men accomplished their movement, we would follow suit. Since he was not sure which was left or which was right, it stood to reason that links and rechts didn’t mean much to him either. He, however, was saved by his five feet, whereas I was more prominent. After a while, tired of getting the blame for his sake, I gave up my German whispers and told him just to do what I did, which he succeeded in doing with increasing artfulness, sometimes even forestalling the rest of us by guessing correctly whatever was going on in the drill sergeant’s mind. When we eventually obeyed the order, he had already done so, and was even manifesting impatience.
At about this time, somebody decided that I was potential officer material, which meant that L I was put in temporary charge of a position which dominated the western cliffs of St. Margaret’s Bay. This position was an earthwork imitation of a pillbox, part of a rapidly improvised system of frontline defenses linked by a path which snaked hither and thither on the edge of a precipice, and which no selfrespecting mountain goat would ever hazard, leaving such wild risks to boys of the British Army festooned with obsolete equipment. Inside the dank and perilous position, there was room for three men to squat and peer into the unpromising darkness through tiny slots. It was a place ideally suited to study the habits of seabirds but hardly adequate to stem the attack of a German division. In the center, on a small trestle table, there was a wooden box full of the phosphorous grenades which had been described as detrimental to enemy morals, presented as a huge and rather austere selection of liqueur-filled chocolates, and in one corner lay a small aerial bomb, bright yellow in color and covered in technical information in red, with, next to it, a wooden ramp. We had the orders to push the bomb manually down the ramp and over the cliff edge in case the Germans got a foothold on the beach.
The powers that be gave me two men to hold this position with, one a Berkshire farmer with a face purple as beetroot and a pair of joyous and bloodshot eyes to match. The other was the inevitable little fellow from Poland, who had nowhere else to go. We each were armed with rifles, of which mine was the most modern, dated 1912.
The beach, which we often had to patrol at night, was a sinister and even tragic place. Apart from the noise of the sea on the pebbles, there were rodents under the duckboards and bats in the eaves of the mined houses, and endless bits of flotsam landing—a burned aviator’s cap; a few sodden pamphlets exhorting the French populace to fresh efforts, which had missed their mark and been blown back; crumpled and twisted pieces of metal and charred wood from sunken ships; even a shattered case full of dripping erotica, the life’s savings of some solitary voluptuary, which landed at my feet on a blanket of boiling surf early one morning, and caused me to call out the guard.
Rumor had it that before our arrival a German commando had abducted the entire guard of the regiment which had preceded us, leaving no trace of their absence apart from the mugs of spilled cocoa and the vague signs of struggle. True or not, we were armed with four grenades each, which hung from our belts, as well as submachine guns, recently arrived from the United States, so that to the military this was clearly a position of some sensitivity.
It was against this background that the invasion alarm sounded one night, a wail of sirens. There had not been much sleep in any case. The RAF was bombing the French coast, and there was the crisp bark of artillery as well as the rumble of war, an indefinable noise like a magnification of silence. I struggled into my equipment and ran blindly along the clifftop path, my grenades beating a tattoo on my uniform as they danced on my belt. I had no faith in the damned things. All I saw was a child’s drawing of conflict. There were fires burning near Calais, and the sky seemed to have a scarlet pulse. In the inky Channel, I noticed spasmodic lines of tracer bullets, which suggested there was some kind of engagement between motor torpedo boats. Perhaps this was it, what we had been led to expect. I plunged through the canvas curtain at the entrance of my stronghold. The farmer was already there, his goofy chuckle echoing against the dank walls. The little Pole was there too, fingering the glass grenades and shaking them in his hot little hands as though they contained cough medicine.
“Little bugger got ‘ere afore I did.”giggled the farmer, “an’ I reckon I’se a fast dresser.”
I was less concerned with the Pole’s uncanny ability to forestall events than with his reckless handling of the odious little grenades, which had been known to explode when held or shaken in the hand.
“Das mtissen Sie nicht anruhren!” I cried. “Diesen handgranaten sind mit phosphor gefüllt! Sie können in ihren händen explodieren!”
In a sudden rage, I understood why we were being invaded. Hitler, of two minds about whether to try his luck, had received information from a spy that the British position nearest to the French coast contained two private soldiers who could only communicate in German. Immediately the adrenalin began to flow. Hitler slammed his fist on a map of the British Isles and shouted to his entourage:
“Meine Herren, Wir fahren gegen England!”
My lightning reverie was interrupted when the Pole put the grenade back in the box and complained that he had found it difficult to sleep.
“Why?" I asked, incredulous.
“Zu viel lärm.” (Too much noise.)
As is often the case in the Army, before you have the time to savor one absurdity, it is already replaced by another. The sergeant major burst through the curtain and held it for our company commander to enter. In the dim light of a torch, I could see that the officer was wearing pajamas, over which he had flung his greatcoat, a map case, a revolver, and other martial accouterments. He was a paunchy but energetic man, his hair in an iron-gray crew cut, and a moustache bristling chaotically on his upper lip. At the moment, he blinked furiously. The coolness notwithstanding, he was perspiring freely, and the prickly drops flowed in a continuous stream into the corners of his eyes.
Despite the agitation on his face, he spoke softly and calmly, with almost a tinge of melancholy.
“Men,”he said, “I can now reveal to you that we are a suicide battalion. Inland there are massed mortar and artillery batteries trained on this beach. In the very nature of things, some of the shells are bound to fall short. Good luck. Good luck. Good luck.”
He shook all three of us by the hand and bowed his head, to sweep out and carry his message of great joy to those still blissful in their ignorance. The sergeant major screeched again, and followed the company commander.
The farmer laughed serenely. “I never seen the old man in such a state,” he observed, amused. “All that sweat . . .”
The Pole was less reassured. He didn’t much care for handshakes under such circumstances.
“Was sagt er?” he asked.
I heard my own voice, as though from far away, speaking in immaculate German: “Der Herr Major hat soeben festgestellt das wir ein Selbstmord Batallion sind.”
Before I had time to elaborate and explain about the ”Minenwerfer” trained on the beach, our diminutive friend had decided to carry his questions to a higher level. Sinking to his knees, his face turned to the humid walls, he began a religious chant as old and as lacerated as time itself.
Naturally, such a sound in the midst of battle had all the noncommissioned officers running hither and thither like hens on an arterial road. The quizzical whistle of shells and bombs, earthshaking explosions, the barking of incomprehensible orders—all that was natural; but the lamentation of a tiny Jeremiah whose forehead was streaked with mud where he had beaten it to claim attention—that was a disruptive influence in the midst of a grand show of sterile manliness.
I could not silence him, nor did I see much point in it. He was merely expressing what I felt, an exasperation with mortal folly, and making his point much more eloquently than I could ever have done. Two sergeants, tugging with all their might, couldn’t budge him an inch. It was only after silence had fallen over the seascape that he consented to go with his captors. It had been either a false alarm or a sortie in strength to test our defenses. We never fired a shot. The yellow aerial bomb and the tray of phosphorous bombs lay tidily where we had left them. We returned to our palliasses, removed our equipment, and set out to sleep through the little that was left of the night.
It was impossible. From far away, the guardhouse no doubt, thin and pure as a flute, the strains of an ancient Hebraic song permeated the midsummer night and gave no more peace than the sounds of war. At dawn it ended. Shortly afterward, the Pole was released from the Army, to go back to his craft of tailoring. He, with the help of a few prophets and of God, had taken matters into his own hands and had convinced the British Army that he was not for it, and therefore that it was not for him, and all this without knowing a single word of English—simply by singing songs.
Months later, on leave, I crossed Piccadilly on foot. Who should I meet on an island in the center of the thoroughfare but the hero of St. Margaret’s Bay. On his arm was a dumpling of a woman, an inch or two shorter than he, a grin wrapped halfway around her head.
“Wie geht’s?” I asked.
He answered in English: “Diss my vife.” I nodded. “Tings moch better. I now make ooniforms,” he said gravely, in the knowledge that at last his full potential as a man was being tapped in the interests of the war effort.
I was happy for him, and yet somehow saddened that he had become so much more ordinary. The purity of his gesture could not possibly be renewed. He was interpreted into a new society, and was busy acquiring the color of his surroundings. Soon he would share its prejudices and its small talk as well.
Not long after this incident, we were marched away from St. Margaret’s to make way for elements from another regiment. We passed our successors, whistling the same silly songs of masculine loneliness as they marched toward the pretty little village we had just left. They seemed robust and jolly chaps as they chanted, “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes,” and I thought to myself, “There, but for the grace of God, goes a suicide battalion.”
Our next duty was to try and capture the town of Maidstone from the Home Guard, that civilian task force of veterans and the infirm who were supposed to harass the Germans in case of a landing and hold vital positions until better-armed units of the Army could be deployed.
We were, on this occasion, supposed to be German. As soon as the battle began, I detached myself from my unit and advanced alone to the center of the town by the simple expedient of knocking on people’s doors. When they were opened, invariably by men in pajamas or women in nightdresses (for it was a little before six in the morning), I would explain the vital nature of the maneuver, without ever revealing which side I was on. Flushed with patriotism, the good burghers of Maidstone forgot their annoyance at being awakened so early and let me through their houses and into their gardens. From there I would climb into a neighboring garden, and knock on the back door of another house. These people would then let me out their front doors. Looking both ways, I would race across the road and knock at another front door, and the process would repeat itself. It took me over two hours to penetrate into the center of the city at right angles, as it were, to the traffic.
There, I suddenly found myself before the Home Guard headquarters. A choleric general emerged. I aimed my rifle at him and fired. Since the rifle was empty, it only produced a click, which neither he nor the umpire, a very stout lieutenant, heard. I consequently shouted “Bang!” and then informed the general, politely, that he was dead.
Death was the furthest thing from the general’s mind, and he spluttered, “Don’t talk such tommyrot. Who are you. anyway?”
The umpire turned out to have a terrifying stammer. His face scarlet with effort and apology, he told the general that he was indeed d-d-d, but the word simply would not come.
It was the delay in the verdict which more than anything seemed to enrage the general. “Look here.” he snorted, “it’s not good enough. Fellow points a gun at me and says bang. May be a bad shot for all I know. Might have come out of the encounter unscathed, what?”
“Would you have preferred me to use ammunition?” I asked.
The general lost his head.
“Who asked your advice?” he blustered. “Haven’t you done enough harm?”
“D-d-dead!” the umpire managed at length.
“I won’t accept it. Won’t accept it, d’you hear? Not from a mere lieutenant.”
It was the lieutenant’s turn to be annoyed.
“I am the acc . . . the . . . oh . . . acc . .
“I don’t give a damn about all that,” ranted the general. “I’m off to inspect the forward positions, and I’d like to see the chap who’s going to stop me.”
”Sie sind tod!” I cried.
The general spun on me, suspicious for the first time.
“What did you say?”
“Sie sind tod, Herr General!”
“Are you talking some foreign language, or something?” asked the general, as though he were on the trail of something big.
“leh bin Deutseher
“German, eh?” the general asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Acc . . . redited umpire of this exc . . . exc . . . sss.” the lieutenant declared.
Just then, some other Home Guards appeared out of headquarters.
“I’ve caught a German prisoner.” cried the general. “Put him under lock and key.” And then, brushing the umpire aside, he jumped into his staff car, and told the driver to leave the scene of his humiliation as quickly as possible.
The umpire was boiling with frustration. “I’m s-s-so . . .” he hissed.
“So am I, sir,” I said as I was led away.
A Home Guard major read all my correspondence, culled from my pockets, and then began a cross-examination.
I refused to answer in any language but German.
The major became very irritated.
“Now look here. I’m going to report you to your unit if you don’t pull up your socks and answer a few questions.”
“Das ist mir ganz egal,” I rasped.
“That’s your final word?” he asked, evilly.
“Heil Hitler!” I shouted.
“That does it.”
They chose to lock me in the armory.
I seized a Sten gun, broke open the door, upset the stall’ table, and smeared ink on the maps and plans of the local high command before I was overpowered by a cohort of old gentlemen, to whom I wished no harm and whom I therefore allowed to lock me into a disused scullery. They were all very angry indeed, and I felt that the frontier between fact and fiction had become unclear. One or two of them looked at me as though I were indeed a Nazi.
In the midafternoon, the colonel of my battalion arrived. He was a man whose voice rarely rose above a whisper, and whose head emerged from the front of his uniform at such an extravagant angle that from the side one could read the name of his tailor inside his jacket. He had the curious prehistoric look of a bemused turtle, and I always felt that if we ever had to face actual warfare in the company of this gentleman, he might well, in a moment of difficulty, disappear into his uniform until the storm blew over.
“Now what is all this?” he asked me almost inaudibly.
I explained, as so often, my version of the truth.
“I see,” he murmured. “But was it really necessary to confuse the issue by speaking in German?”
“It’s a manner in which the Germans are likely to confuse the issue, sir, if they should ever land in Maidstone,” I suggested.
“See what you mean,” he said, “although that’s an eventuality I consider to be most unlikely, don’t
I was a little surprised to be consulted, but decided to suggest that if there was no likelihood of the Germans landing in Maidstone, we were all wasting our time.
“Quite, quite,” he agreed absently, then smiled briefly. “Full marks.”
On his way out, he hesitated a moment.
“You are one of my men, are you?”
“I’m wearing the uniform, sir,” I pointed out.
“Yes, yes. I just thought you might belong to the Home Guard. But then, of course, there’d be absolutely no point in your talking German.”
Muttering confirmations of his own opinion, he left the room and secured my release by suggesting the Home Guard should all learn German in order to know how to deal with recalcitrant prisoners if, of course, the Germans ever had the bad taste to come to Maidstone.
Something happened to the British Army around this time. While it was loath to abandon the extraordinary abstract attitude of many of its officers, to which it believed it owed many of its successes in history, it was nevertheless exasperated by the endless retreats before Germans and Japanese, who seemed to have got hold of something new by way of battle procedure. The result of these meditations in high places took various forms, all of them immensely unpleasant. It was determined that a new, more aggressive fighting man would arise like a khaki phoenix from the fires of abandoned supplies and gutted citadels. We were made to rush up and down the pebbled beaches barefoot in what were called “foot-’ardenin’ hexercises” by the noncommissioned officers who ran by our side, boots on their feet, encouraging us to ignore the pain of jagged stones, broken glass, and desiccated seaweed. Then there were the battle courses, usually converted golf courses, in which the conditions and some of the idiocy of battle were simulated, officers lying in ambush among the bushes with pots of animal blood with which they would try to spray you in order, so they declared, to get a man used to the sight of blood. These traps were quite easy to avoid since the officers were not very adept at concealment and had no great Faith in the psychological soundness of their task. Machine guns would blast away over our heads to give us confidence in covering fire, which didn’t prevent them from killing a man running near me. Those responsible had negligently mounted their guns on sand, and when they began firing, these automatically dug themselves in, with the result that instead of giving us covering fire they were merely shooting through us. This may be another reason why the officers lay low with their pots of blood.
Then there was a new secret weapon called Battle Drill, in which an infantry unit was subdivided into platoons, each man having a specific and prescribed duty during an advance on an enemy position. I have no idea what was supposed to happen during a retreat, because we never practiced those anymore. Anyway, linking the activities of this combat group was a runner, who was supposed to charge over exposed ground with vital messages. My battalion was selected to produce the demonstration squad that would inject the whole South-Eastern Command with this new formula for success. My battalion commander selected my company for the honor of forming this squad. The company commander then picked my platoon, and I need hardly add that I found myself in the demonstration squad, not as one of the chess men but as the connecting runner! Out of the entire South-Eastern Command, they had to pick on me as a runner. Their horribly fallacious theory was that, being an actor, I was trained to commit long and complicated messages to memory. What they failed to realize was that, on eventual arrival at my destination, I was far too out of breath to deliver the message, and that by the time I had recovered my breath, I had forgotten the message.
All over the counties of Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, and Kent we traveled in trucks in order to demonstrate this new method of defeating the Germans. I must have run hundreds of useless miles carrying information I was unable to deliver. For many years, before the advent of new highways, I was never lost in these counties. I recognized every hedgerow as a refuge where I had panted my lungs out, with the grass going in and out of focus as I stared at it in order to avoid looking at the corporal who cast his shadow over my wheezing form.
“Deliver the fucking message, damn you!”
I recognized every hillock as an obstacle I had had to run across, doubled up in order to lessen the target. I recognized every ditch as a gaping mouth ready to snatch my ankle in its jaws. Dante had his inferno, I had mine.
There was still one lesson to learn.
When eventually an invitation arrived to join Carol Reed, in Scotland, in order to write a film about the techniques of Combined Operations, I was marched in to see the colonel. He vaguely recognized me from somewhere,Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Maidstone. . .
“You don’t want to leave us, do you?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“How very odd.”
He informed me that I could leave the very next day after lunch. I spent the morning in the rifle butts where I was so intoxicated with relief at being able to leave this Alice-in-Wondcrland unit that I shot like a sheriff in a western, fast and furious and carefree. When they fetched my target, it was revealed that I had shot all ten bullets into the same hole. The center of the target was just demolished. The colonel affixed the target to his notice board, my posting was canceled, and I was sent on a sniper’s course. Not only did Great Britain have Battle Drill up its sleeve, it also had a Wyatt Earp. The only trouble, as they were to find out, was that however good a shot I might be, I needed the help of ten men to lift me into a position from where I could wreak havoc. A few days later I left for Scotland after all.
And here is the lesson I learned in the Army. If you want to do a thing badly, you have to work as hard at it as though you wanted to do it well. □