A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Unky and the Sniper

Great Uncle Alf, my mum's uncle, has been dead for 40 years at the very least. My recollection of him is just snatches - I remember he was a life-long chain-smoker, which meant that whenever he laughed everything collapsed into an evil, bubbling spasm of coughing. I also recall that he still rode an old double-knocker Norton at an age when most of his contemporaries just sat by the fire. He talked a lot, but didn't say much - mostly nervous guffaws and small stuff. My cousin and I, as young lads, knew that he had had a pretty hard time in WW2, and we used to ply him with sherry at the family Christmas get-togethers at my Nan's, to get him to tell us about his adventures. Again, there wasn't much, but there were occasional glimpses of Hell which seemed to contrast strangely with Unky's normal role as an elderly buffoon, and they fascinated us.

A fitter with Liverpool Corporation Trams before the war, Unky seems to have been an Army Staff driver in France early in the War, but later was in the REME. We got some fragmented tales about removing the remains of the crews of disabled tanks with a hosepipe, which produced appropriate standing-up of the hair (we were about 12, after all). He also told a few eye-witness stories of the evacuation from Dunkirk, which didn't seem to correspond with the John Mills movie - we got a few details about officers using their pistols to commandeer boats, British soldiers shooting at each other in the general panic to get off the beach - things like that. Unky and his great mate Sefty finally managed to board a small steam cruiser, which was immediately hit by a bomb (from a Stuka, he said), and sank in minutes - but they simply stepped onto another small boat which was alongside and were taken back to England without further incident. Unky used to tell these stories without any emotion at all - I believe that he did not have the imagination to tell us much apart from the truth. The most emotional he would get was reminiscing about the generals' staff cars being burned at Dunkirk to avoid them falling into enemy hands - as a born mechanic, Unky was far more upset by the demise of classy cars than by the butchery of the troops - or so it seemed.

This all came to mind because I have been reading a book about snipers. Unky had a sniper story. After D-Day, his unit was camped for a while near the edge of a small wood in France, and a German sniper in the wood caused them a lot of problems. They all used to fire back, blindly, whenever shots came in, but they were mechanics, and didn't really know what they were doing (Unky's own words), and after a while the sniper would start up again. After a couple of days, the company cook was killed - and this was just too much. Since a mass advance into the wood might have been a bit like a duck shoot, it was decided that a couple of volunteers should go around to the far side of the wood, and prowl through, trying to spot the sniper and take him by surprise. Though he could not remember how it came to pass, Unky found to his astonishment that he was one of the volunteers, and spent an interesting hour creeping through the wood, praying that he would not find anything. He said that he had a very clear idea of what kind of a physical specimen the sniper was likely to be - capable of breaking him in half with his bare hands - and what an ill-matched struggle might result from this adventure. As he said, "I was walking through the wood, stumbling over things, and I felt as if I had great big target rings painted on my f***ing back!".

He found nothing, and there was no further firing, so the next day they did send a big gang in, and they found the sniper, dead, in some bushes. Presumably some lucky return shot had hit him - he had obviously been dead when Unky went in, but, of course, he wasn't to know. He just spent the rest of his life mentioning it occasionally at Christmas, if we kept the sherry coming.

Poor old Unky. I still get a shudder when I think about it.


  1. Aural history like this should be preserved, my father was in the Tank Regt and was wounded trying to link up with the Paras at Arenhem ,wish I had asked him more questions when he was alive.

  2. Absolutely - one of the things which fascinates me about conscripted armies is the way in which perfectly ordinary blokes (inept, in Unky's case) were placed into almost unimaginable situations of extreme danger as a matter of routine. Mind you, I think people had a slightly different mindset in those days - they were less obsessed with their own comfort and their own rights.

  3. In 1981 a former infantry man told me that the Japanese did try to surrender on the big island where only three were captured.

    I think he was talking about Okinawa, but it may have been Iwo Jima, whichever had three POWs total at the end. He was also in the Palaus and Philippines in the late part of the war.

    He explained that the problem was that if you escorted your prisoner back to brigade you could just be thrown in with people you don't know, they don't know you--and so you end up as the anonymous FaNooGie who soon gets killed yourself.

    He showed with his hands on an 'air' M-1 what they did to the ones surrendering, for that reason.

  4. I've heard, from Unky and also from a couple of old guys who were at El Alamein, that advancing armies would avoid taking prisoners as a matter of course. The logistical difficulties of looking after them, plus the personal inconvenience and risks involved in accepting the surrender of individuals, resulted in a lot of surrendering troops being shot, by accident if necessary. Practical, maybe, but not Geneva Convention.

    Let's not (for God's sake) get emotional or political or patriotic or sanctimonious about any of this, but has anyone ever heard of anyone on the winning side in a war being tried for war crimes? Maybe it's commonplace, but I am not aware of any examples, and ask out of genuine interest.