Fifteen years after peace broke out in Europe, this is a true tale of the victorious children of the war meeting their vanquished counterparts on the battlefields of France. "Who won the war - anyway!"
Paul Godfrey had a round baby and dimpled face, waved fair hair on a large head and big innocent blue eyes. He was as pleasant as he looked but his looks belied a fighting spirit passed to him, despite a year or more of his youth spent recuperating in a TB clinic, from his father.
Mr Godfrey, who hailed from London’s East End, part Jewish through his father, was the sort of man you fervently hoped was not in the car behind that you had cut up, given the V sign to as you zoomed past and jammed your car triumphantly ahead of his, just before coming upon a two mile stationary traffic jam; at which point he may decide to saunter up, lean down from quite a height and politely but firmly enquire just precisely what message you were attempting to communicate to him.
In civilian life he was a most respected manager in the Great Universal Stores Group – GUS, trouble shooting whatever problems arose in their numerous city centre furniture stores. In his previous incarnation – and this is why it would be wise to wave his car politely ahead of yours – he had been the British Army Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion; he had been a regular soldier, rising to regimental sergeant major, who had fought in every major World War Two battle and, firing a large machine gun, he had led his troops when they stormed the French beaches on D-Day. And, this big, lean, toughened and seasoned fighter had taught his only son, Paul, how to take care of himself.
Paul, following in father’s footsteps, was also invading
from his home in Fallowfield, with a platoon of energetic Brits. France
At sixteen we had both left school, casting-off our royal-blue and red striped Catholic school blazers, simultaneously abandoning any pretence of sinless, celibate behaviour, however good for our immortal souls it may have been, and gone our separate ways. Paul to precociously manage GUS’s main store on Market Street, Manchester, me as an apprentice at Bannister Walton Structural Steel Engineers in Trafford Park, through my first post-school winter, before switching to join my father’s accountancy practice in a peculiarly narrow, white tiled building, like a high rise public lavatory, next to Manchester Cathedral and opposite the deep chasm which channelled the foul River Irwell, the border with Salford, which flowed fifty feet below street level.
The next summer rolled round and, with wages in our pockets and the post-war Depression lifting, young men planned their vacations. A key element in all such plans, in fact the element outweighing all others together, was the question of how, where, when and if there would be any engagement with - any tiny possibility, however small, of meeting with - the opposite sex.
Paul, visiting us in Heaton Moor, told us how his invasion of
had worked out. France
He and five of his pals from the furnishings group, acquired a boat-like Ford Consul convertible, with a pram mechanism to raise and lower the soft top; two bench seats each adequate for three adults; no seat belts, of course, and therefore with a strong tendency for the driver, under inertial forces of gravity, to slide along the seat on tight corners, losing touch with the pedals and switches, a slide which he could counter by clinging onto the steering wheel and the steering-column-mounted gear stick, and hauling himself back into an upright position and, on most occasions, thus regain control of the speeding vehicle.
They brazened out the silent condemnation of the truculent customers in the barber’s shop, in the dark cobbled alleyway off Market Street behind the GUS store, to buy a packet of six condoms, a six-pack of French Letters – one each - which they secreted in their wallets; drew their meagre foreign currency allowance as permitted under Exchange Controls by The Bank of England, packed their suitcases and camping gear, and thus equipped and with hope in their eyes, headed for France, the South and the dream of beautiful, seductive, accommodating and available, wholly amoral, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davis and, Oo La la! Bridget Bardot, look-a-likes.
Crossing the Channel and driving down to the French Riviera was quite an adventure in nineteen-sixty. There were no motorways, no auto-routes to the sun, no motorway services, no spares for British made cars, little tolerance for poorly spoken French language; and few cheap hotels on the
Mediterranean. But these
Manchester lads had map references for seaside camp-sites, with plumbed water
and showers, shops, cooking facilities – and – most importantly, non-attributed
urban legends of single girls, French single girls who had nothing better to do
with their lives in France than to spurn all Frenchmen and wait in dedicated
anticipation for real men, from Manchester, England, driving a fashion icon
Ford Consul drop head coupe, and clutching a fistful of petrol coupons and ten
to the pound Francs.
Of course, Paul and Co had never thought to ask, or even to consider, what any of the several million Frenchmen, who lived in
with the legendary beautiful French girls, might think of the amorous ambitions
of the invading English. France
The three day journey was fun. The camp site was comfortable and the summer was hot and fabulous. Other nationalities arrived to fill the sun drenched beaches, barbecue food and drink the occasional bottle of wine. There were no drug dealers, no crack or cocaine or heroin or uppers or downers or LSD or grass and there were a few, just enough to keep the adrenaline pumping and to stave off despair for twenty-four hours a day, apparently unattached girls; their nationality now a matter of no importance whatsoever. In fact nobody’s nationality was an issue in this peaceful post-war European Union - until the German’s started playing water-polo.
The English were particularly obvious on the beach, not only for their terrible French, Stockport Baths trunks and thin worn towels, but for their pallid skins, ration-starved limbs and neglected physiques. Continental youths, more accustomed to sun, sin, sand and skiing, could not only speak each other’s languages – and English – the smug bastards, but they also led a more open air life, giving them tanned skins and a physical self-awareness of shape, muscles and resort athletics. They raced onto the beach and played pansy games like volley-ball, and pat-a-cake with a tennis ball tethered to a wooden bat with elastic, and shuttlecock over a high net. Despite the English being the undisputed Sons of the Kings of the Waves and every British child being taught to swim, the Continentals could also swim – maybe not quite so furiously and bravely – they’d never survive half-an-hour in the
North Sea, but with a lot more style. And – Paul and Co
discovered, confirming all their prejudices, even
the men wore perfume. British
The male perfume and a host of other small but obvious faults common among the Continentals, just managed to allow Paul and his friends to retain their self-respect and their sense of effortless superiority which was every Englishman’s birthright – born as we were as citizens in the largest Empire the World Had Ever Seen – on which the Sun Never Set.
So Paul and his pals could lounge on the sand or strut about, within certain sight of the girls, despite their reddened skins and stringy muscles, with reasonable confidence.
But then the German’s started playing water-polo.
The six or seven German youths were as easily identified as were the English. They were, inevitably, blonde. They had great haircuts – like film-stars. They were well muscled and tanned. Their towels and beachwear were top quality and leading in fashionable cut and colours. They spoke loudly in German, quipped with the girls in French and would ever so politely switch to English to exchange pleasantries with Paul and the
the smarmy bastards. They sunbathed; dousing themselves with expensive lotions
priced way beyond English budgets, by strolling up and down the beach – even in
that heat – with occasional dips, sudden manly plunges, into the azure blue
All this, the English holidaymakers could cope with, reassuring themselves throughout of the natural advantages of British-ness and never even once mentioning The War; at least not in public – Who Won the War, anyway?
But when the whole gang of blonde, blue eyed, sun kissed, Aryan Adonis’s dived and cleaved in the blue, blue sea, passing a seriously heavy polo ball from athlete to athlete; leaping like dolphins from the spray to take a high catch, showing off their water streaming, carved abdomens, flinging a well aimed ball with a bronzed arm and strong fingered hand – and when it was completely obvious that every female on the beach, of whatever age and status, was riveted by this brave and bold display – Paul and his pals decided it was time to assert themselves.
Subtly, not immediately so as to make it obvious, but with some diplomatic finesse and even some outright, outrageous flattery, which fooled the Germans not at all, the Mancunians worked it around to a challenge match. British against Germans. Islanders against Mainlanders. The
British Empire against the (twice defeated) Reich. All Englishmen can swim – we excel at
swimming; water is our second home. We fear not the depths of rivers, nor the
tumult of wide oceans.
It was thus - with a few practice throws to get the feel of the ball, which the British boys performed deliberately poorly, to put the Germans off their guard - that two teams of six met in the sparkling water, all smiling and exchanging pleasantries and agreeing the rules – in English of course – with all eyes upon them. The lolling, beached Frenchmen made a pretence of being genuinely neutral, Paul thought, and the girls who were dotted about the beach adopted bored countenances with half-closed eyes, while keeping a very close watch on the competing young males.
The teams were evenly matched. Though the blonde, muscular Germans looked more of a team, the pale, mousey English were stronger than they appeared and they had that sense of fair-play, for which the British nation was world famous that encouraged cooperation and team work beyond personal glory. The goalmouths, edge on to the beach, were marked with four anchored, inflatable beach-balls; the shallow side-line was agreed to be at waist height and the deep water side was up to the neck. The Germans won the toss and elected to play the first half into the sun.
Paul was a rangy six-footer and, as a strong swimmer, he put himself out on the deep side, opposite a determined grim faced opponent who was particularly well built with broad shoulders and thick arms. The ball was tossed over their heads, a bad pass from the German centre to this taut faced winger. Paul lunged after it. The German plunged behind him. Paul swam hard, churning through the water in a fast, powerful crawl. The German swam past him as if jet propelled, snatched the ball without any break in rhythm and flung it hard towards the English goal. Paul puffed and swallowed too much sea water; his eyes narrowed.
The ball came again; a hopeless pass from the English fullback out to Paul. It zoomed over his head to land twenty yards from him and a good thirty yards from the German; Paul dived after it, churning through the clear
Mediterranean at his
fastest. The gimlet eyed German, looking neither left nor right, swept past
him, slipping through the water like a seal, to scoop the ball back over his
head in a high throw, straight to his Centre – who zapped it with a practised
flick into the English goal.
One – Nil.
Paul’s team-mates gave him a look, then looked away. Paul knew he had failed them.
The ball came again. This time the German was closer but Paul had got his ginger up and he smashed his way through the water, with arms swinging like demented paddle wheels and feet threshing like flags in a gale. But the German pulled easily away and got the ball – and took a long leisurely time to decide just where to pass it before Paul puffed up to make his challenge, reared heroically out of the water as the ball went over him, arms stretched, higher than any human swimmer has a right to leap from the deep, and fell back, down and down, to rise spluttering, part drowned and exhausted; to tread water. The German, some ten feet away, gave him a look of comradely concern and made inquiring thumbs-up signs until he was sure that Paul was okay and likely to live, before rejoining the game. A very sporting gesture.
“I’ll get you, you Nazi bastard.” Vowed Paul silently, through gritted teeth that he hoped gave the impression, to the watching girls, of a good natured, devil-may-care smile.
At five goals to three, they changed ends, the English now facing into the sun and the German’s tossing the ball and the glittering diamonds which scattered from it, as high as possible into the sun, to blind and confuse them.
“There’s a Hun in the Sun.” muttered Paul grimly, again on the deep side and with the same lightning fast opponent to beat. The English fullback hurled the ball forward; Paul had his feet on the ocean bed and was able to leap into instant action, wrenching himself forwards into the blazing spray, aware of the German, at the opposite angle of a triangle, racing for the ball. They arrived simultaneously. This was a ball that Paul intended to have; at any price. As his arm broke upwards at the end of his powerful crawl stroke – and sure that the commotion and light hid his dishonour – his hand landed on the shoulder of the square faced German, and he levered himself, up and over the man; pressing him deep down under the sea – and flipped the ball across to his team-mate.
The German surfaced, coughing and choking, searching desperately for breath and thrashing around to stay buoyant. Paul trod water a few feet away, ready to help the lad – but the German recovered, saw Paul’s thumbs-up query and innocently questioning raised eyebrows – and glowered at him.
They raced for another ball. Paul was definitely ahead. He was swimming superbly, a real racing sprint. No one could catch him. The German, blonde head cutting the surface like the prow of a speedboat, passed him and, as they both lunged for the same spot at the same time, he flipped a hard face-full of water at Paul, who sucked the salty spout into his yawning maw, and felt his shoulder batted with something hard, smooth edged but quite bruising, before the German scooped the ball in to his Centre, who flipped it across to the other wing.
“What the devil was that?” Paul shouted as he coughed out the water. But nobody could hear him above the noise of the game, the wind and the waves. His opponent was already far off, making for the English goal.
“It was a flipper!” Paul told himself. “A bloody flipper. – He’s wearing flippers. …Well flipping heck! That’s cheating. …No wonder he swims so fast. Bloody Hell! Would you believe it? Flippers…”
And Paul felt something turn cold and merciless inside him. The merest hint of the cold and merciless feelings his father had had when pounding up the beach, armed to the teeth, towards a German gun emplacement, on D-Day.
“No quarter” thought Paul in quiet and deadly mood.
From then on Paul, a pacifist until such treachery brought out his excellent boxing skills, trounced the winger. He shadowed him very closely. He elbowed him hard and meanly in the ear. He kneed the man in his guts as they closed for the ball. He stepped on his thigh and pressed him under the water and then greeted him as the blonde head surfaced, mouth agape and lungs needing fresh air, with a massive swoosh of sea, aimed straight into the Germanic gullet.
Paul, under water, accidentally of course, thumped the guy hard in the solar-plexus with one tight knuckle extended into a point ahead of the others, like a bony knife. The man doubled up in pain – completely winded.
The ball flew over to them as they jostled side by side, way out of depth. Paul knew better than to go for the ball. He couldn’t outpace a man in flippers. So he went for the man. Bigger than the German, and with less water swallowed, in better trim than he was, Paul leaned on him; he pummelled him; he gouged him; he surreptitiously slapped him; he flooded his mouth with water; and he pressed him down by one shoulder to almost drown. All this Paul managed without it being apparent to the audience on the beach – though the other German players were beginning to cast very dark looks at him.
“Hey Paul!” called one of his mates “…Give it a break. We don’t want another War” he added, nodding and winking in the direction of the increasingly irate – and well muscled – blonde team.
Paul did a cartoon like whisper behind his hand to try to communicate that he, Paul, was still a nice bloke and a good sport, “…He’s got flippers” he hissed, wagging his head at the soused and battered German. “Bloomin’ Flippers.” But his pal couldn’t understand what was being said.
Paul kept up his contact-sport attacks and rapidly wore the German down. From five goals behind, the English started to catch up. Two pretty girls – without boyfriends in attendance, clapped and cheered with excitement as the English scored again. Paul, kept his man down; part drowning the cheat, part pinching and slapping him in passing – once even getting hold of his expensively styled hair under the surface and tugging it in good old rugger fashion, jerking the man’s head back suddenly, so he sucked water straight up his nose.
The game ended in a draw. Honour was satisfied. The English, never having played the game before, equal with the Germans. “We beat them at their own game” they agreed as they stumbled exhausted from the water.
Paul and his tacitly avowed enemy, the German who cheated with swim aids, had furthest to go to the beach. Some yards apart they swam to the shallow water. Paul was more tired than he had imagined and concentrated on wading through the breakers as he slipped and slid against the undertow. He attained the dry sand and turned, and looked back in understated triumph as he saw his opponent still swimming in the shallows, obviously too exhausted to get to his feet.
Paul, breathing hard, watched the man absently; fully revenged and happy that he had helped his team to a good draw. “That’ll show the bugger,” he muttered tightly as the German staggered up in the shallows, waving away his friends who were offering to help. One of them was holding out a heavy staff which the winger grabbed and used to lever himself up and forwards.
“Making a bit of a meal of it.” Paul told himself as he picked up a towel and rubbed his hair.
The German, indeed now clearly seen with his forward foot in shallow water, was, despite the visual confusion from choppy little waves, indubitably and unashamedly flapping a large, black rubberised flipper – which explained his extra-ordinary speed in the water.
He lurched to his left; clearly completely spent and exhausted. He took the staff with both hands and steadied himself. Still in a few feet of water, he waved, in German as it were, and his team mate sped down the beach with another large staff, which the winger grabbed and adjusted until he was partially supported by two staves, with the help of which he continued to haul himself up and out of the water.
“See…” called Paul to his pals, pointing to his vanquished foe, “…he’s wearing bloomin’ flippers. That’s why I couldn’t catch him.”
His English friends nodded, cautiously.
The German, broad shouldered and lean bellied, young, blonde and tanned, struggled up with the aid of the staffs.
Paul’s words froze in his mouth, which gaped open.
“He’s really, really making a bloody meal of it…” thought Paul – uncertainly.
The German, who Paul had pummelled, hopped into a vertical stance and drew himself upright in just a few inches of water. With the staves, or to be more accurate – crutches - under his arms, he swung both legs onto the dry sand, accompanied, of course, by one flipper.
“He’s only wearing one flipper…” observed one of the
The German youth, face set in handsome, heroic determination, made away from the water and up the beach – quite rapidly; considering.
“…That’s because he’s only got one leg…” added another
“…Well; one-and-a-half legs…” said another, setting the record straight, “…it’s only about a quarter missing – just an ankle and a foot gone – really…”
All the players, the sportsmen, looked at Paul the Pugilist. Manchester faces utterly neutral and non-judgemental; the German boys not quite as expressionless as the Mancunians but very still - and quizzical – making a sort of silent group exclamation of “Well?”
“Oh bloody hell. Oh bloody, bloody hell!” muttered Paul, burying his head in his towel.