Rekruten uit Midden-Oosten - Prinses Irene Brigade

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Rekruten uit Midden-Oosten

In Vaandeldrager  nr. 43 schreef Abbie Lipschutz, Houston, Texas U.S.A. behorende tot 3rd Unit 3rd Infantry Platoon een ingezonden stuk in het Engels. Abbie Lipschutz  schrijft en publiceert short fiction en memoirs. Een roman van  zijn hand verscheen in het Hebreeuws. Om het originele karakter van zijn  verhalen te behouden heeft de redactie van de Vaandeldrager (nr. 43) besloten de  tekst niet te vertalen.
A  dozen of us, Dutch nationals all, were called up  for duty in the Netherlands forces in 1943.
We  were issued British uniforms with a shoulder patch reading "Royal Netherlands Forces" and assembled at the Tel Aviv central bus  station on a hot day in June. From there we  were sent to a transit camp in Haifa that was  infested with bedbugs.
In  the Haifa transit camp we met a number of  Soviet prisoners-of-war who had been liberated  in North Africa, a place where they had  been  taken by the Germans for slave labour. They  were on their way back to the USSR.(1) A five-man chorus had been formed among  them. Celebrating their liberation, they sang  passionate, heartrending Russian folksongs with  wonderful musicality and dynamics.
l  learned to accompany them on my little accordion, which they called a Garmoshka.(2) After three days in the transit camp we were put  on a train to Egypt with other military personnel, among them a bunch of Sikhs who spent much of their time picking lice from their turbans. When we crossed the Gaza strip, we were  confronted by hundreds of Arab urchins congregating around the train, begging. Many had  eyes infected with trachoma. It was the sort  of poverty we had not seen before, for the Jewish parts of Palestine lived in relative prosperity compared to the life of Palestinian  peasants. (Today Israel is an affluent country.  The  Israeli Arabs and Druze  and the Bedouin all live well but the refugee camps in the Occupied Territories  and especially in the Gaza Strip are stilt poverty-stricken. In spite of the  Israeli oppression and exploitation, the standard of living has risen  substantially for the Palestinians in the West Bank since the Six-Day War in  1967.)
We changed trains in Ismailia, a flower-drenched tropical  city on the banks of the Great Bitter Lake and arrived in Suez at the tip of the  Red Sea at six in the evening. As we descended from the train, the heat hit us  as if we had entered a baking oven. How could anyone survive in a climate like  this?
We were put up in tents in the adjoining desert. Each day at  three pm a howling sandstorm arose and we were issued goggles to protect our eyes from the scouring effects of the swirling  sands. At night we required two blankets.
After five days of heat, cold nights, sandstorms and sand  flies, seven-thousand military personnel embarked on the Mauritania, one of the  Cunard passenger flagships.(3) Although the name of the ship had been painted  over and the whole ship was the colour of dirty water, the letters were still  visible in bas-relief. The soldiers were a mixture of Aussies, New-Zealanders,  Sikhs, Indians, British, Czechs and Canadians, plus our twelve-man Dutch  contingent. To transport twelve man from the Middle East to England in the midst  of the war must have involved an enormous expense. This action of collecting  Dutch nationals from all over the world to organize what became a brigade of  1300 troops was a political move. The Dutch government-in-exile wanted to be  seen as having participated in the liberation of Europe. It would have been made  little military difference if there had never been a Princess Irene Brigade but  once it came into existence, it did, of course, have military value.
On the Mauritania we slept in hammocks in the hold except  during our passage through the red Sea, when most of us spent the nights on  deck. The Australians and New-Zealanders played poker and the Czechs kept a  lotto game going at all hours.
Among our Dutch group was a schlemiel of a reserve sergeant,  who was put in command of our unit. Suddenly infused with power, hè insisted we  do calisthenics and close-order drill on deck, to the consternation of the 6988  others on board. When we arrived in Madagascar and hit the southern winter, it  suddenly turned cold. We returned to our hammocks in the hold, where we met  bedbugs hiding everywhere. They dropped on our bodies from the ceiling and kept  us sleepless at night. The ship zigzagged because we travelled at high speed,  trying to shake any lurking German U-boat whose speed was less than half of  ours.
In Cape town we were given shore leave and were warned not to  mention our origin, our destination or the ship's name. We were informed that  South Africa was full of German spies and large percentage of the people were  Nazi sympathizers. The weather was cool and crisp, the city was beautiful. l  took a cable-car trip up Table Mountain with Sol Schwarz, took a leak over the  edge, then took the cable-car down. (4)
In the afternoon a Dutch family invited us for tea. l recall  a furry white cat and one of our men exclaiming, "Wat een mooie poes!" There was consternation among the listeners, whereupon the  embarrassed man pointed at the hostess, "Ik bedoel niet deze poes, maar,"pointing  at the cat, "die witte poes."
In Cape town we picked up a large contingent of Springboks.  The ship took on fresh provisions, mainly lobster which was produced in large quantities but could not be exported for lack of  shipping during the war. Lobster is a delicacy, but after consuming lobster  morning, noon and night for three weeks, l still get seasick from the smell.
We refuelled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the temperature  was thirty-seven degrees and where it rained without letup. Fungi big as  mushrooms sprouted between our toes.
 Finally, after a six-week hegira from Egypt, we arrived in Liverpool, from where  the Dutch contingent was immediately shipped to Wolverhampton. Our spullen were  inspected and when l opened my bag, bedbugs paraded out like a Napoleonic army.  We had to surrender every last stitch of baggage, clothing and other  possessions, all of which were incinerated. We ourselves were sent through a  shower laced with poisonous insecticides that killed every insect in every  crevice of our bodies and came close to killing us too.
Basic  training in Wolverhampton was not a glowing experience. For occasional  excitement we could go to the great metropolis of Birmingham where there were  still certain foods lo be had such as pigs knuckles and jellied calfsfoot,  preferable, l thought, to baked beans on toast.
In  hindsight, seen from the experience of actual combat, the training of "Going  Over the Top" in frontal attack while howling like rabid dogs, was based on the  experience of trench warfare in World War 1.(5) Not a single time during our  months on the western front did we use any of the tactics we were taught in  Wolverhampton.
One  thing basic training did achieve however was that it made us physically fit.  After a 5 mile cross-country run early in the morning, we  could sprint the last three hundred yards without getting winded. Sleeping  anywhere any he was an acquired and necessary skill. In Normandy we were kept  awake for days on end and often would fall asleep standing up.
The  covered foxholes we sheltered in during mortar barrages were dank, stinking  underground cavities, with millions of hungry mosquitoes zeroing in on our  exposed flesh. Some hoods made of netting were available, but those went to the  officers and non-coms, while we remained the unprotected bites. Our latrines  were open pits with a tree trunk suspended over them. Those of us unfortunate enough to be in the latrine when a mortar attack started either cut the session  short or wound up with freckled achterwerken.
(1)    Once they arrived home, they were immediately shipped to the Siberian Gulag by  Stalin who feared that they had been infected by what they had seen in the West.  That was the fate of all liberated Soviet war prisoners. Millions had been  starved to death in German prison camps; millions more died in Stalin's prisons.
(2)    The word garmoshka is derived from the Russian term for harmony, pronounced  garmony. The literal translation of garmoshka would be harmonium.
(3)    All large passenger ships that were in Allied hands were converted to troop  carriers which ferried troops around the globe. Their itineraries were: New York  - Panama Canal - San Francisco - Australia - Bombay - Suez - Cape town -  Liverpool - New York, half the ships  running westward, the other half in opposite direction.
(4)    Sol Schwarz was a member of our Palestine contingent. During basic training   he proved to have no dexterity in handling weapons, so he was assigned to the  bomb-disposal squad.
(5)    De Gaulle was unable to install the notion of mobile, armoured war in the French  General Staff. The British were stuck in hierarchies of antiquated doctrines as  well and a fair percentage of their officer corps consisted of members of the  Empire's ruling classes. The image of Colonel Blimp was not fiction.   Exigencies of combat caused many of the incompetents to be culled from the command structure, but it was a slow process. Had we been subjected to anything  like the German Blitzkrieg of 1940, we would have been decimated. Even the  Soviets, after the Nazis attacked them in June of 1941, tried to fight   tanks with cavalry. The Soviet generals of 1941 such as Budyenny and Timoshenko  were Civil War commanders experienced in guerrilla tactics but without knowledge  how to fight armour. By the time the Germans had penetrated the suburbs of  Moscow in December, 1941, they had been replaced by generals who were versed in  fighting a  modem war.
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