World War II Memories: I lied Until I Even Cheered Myself Up

[Letter to Sloanie Nibley, May 17, 1945, from Heidelberg, Germany]

Dear Mother,

You mentioned in your last that I had never told you anything about my activities.  Come to think of it, I haven’t.  Of course not: your old Hugh isn’t one to go around sinking ships.  But now that it doesn’t make much difference whether ships are sunk or not I might as well ring off a bare chronicle of events as noted down in my little red appointment book, just to let you know what’s been going on all this time.

The latter part of November and early December[, 1943] were passed in barracks of the South Staffordshire regiment near Lichfield. The place was called Whittington Barracks — very cold, dark and stony, with a 150-years deposit of coal smoke and Empire tradition. Incidentally, the more you see of this sort of being that clearer it becomes that the Empah is nothing but a cheeky bit of window-dressing; top to bottom, it is pure eyewash. This impression was first borne upon me, however in the British War Office, where I worked alone on a little project for a few weeks in December and January.

The little book says I reached the HQ of the 101 on an unbelievable dark and stormy night, Jan 21.  We lived in tents without light or heat on top of a very windy hill with gliders tied down all around us. The mud was pelagic, the food unspeakable vile and very scarce ( at the foot of the hill a negro supply company lived on chicken and ice cream, but we never saw any of that unless we had some excuse to visit them).

I was quickly informed of what the role of the division was to be in the invasion, namely to spearhead the whole operation, landing 4 hours ahead of anyone else, and after being sworn to undying secrecy set about wising everyone up on the strength, disposition and honest intentions of the Germans.  To get this information we had to break all the rules of priority and procedure (this was the first Order of Battle team ever to work with a division) and became adept at falsification and intrigue, plain and fancy gate-crashing and advanced prevarication.

Since our undertaking was to be something unique in its kind a great many practice runs had to be gone through — after each one things looked blacker: it is fantastic how many things there are to go wrong in an airborne operation; everybody was worried to pieces, and I was wistfully envious of the simple linesmen who had no idea what they were in for. I gave lots of lectures to all the units about the German army, and the questions the boys asked on those occasions called for all the comfort I could give them — I lied until I even cheered myself up.

The other member of the team artfully managed to get himself transferred, after months of string-pulling, just before the invasion, but my luck was almost as good.  They had me down as No. 2 man in No. 1 glider when a lone unescorted Jeep called for a driver and I was told to take it in seaborne. The murderous British Horsa gliders were used in the invasion with disastrous effect: the crowd in my glider were all banged up and captured, my Lieutenant was never heard from again.

We sailed from Bristol on June 4 and on the sixth were off Vierville.  My fate seems always to have been first in line.  Our ship headed the convoy and as if that were not enough our party was to be the first ashore when contact was made with the division.  The ship was bombed repeatedly but never hit.  I stood at the head of the rope bladder for half an hour and then went down to the LCT without orders. Presently the very spot where I should be waiting was hit by an 88 and half a dozen tankmen blown up; the chaplain with whom I had been talking was wounded.

When we put in for shore the 88s tried hard to stop us first landing in front and then behind.  The ship was sunk.  This sort of thing goes on and on.  Who should be our naval artillery liaison man but one of my old Claremont pupils? after a lot of noise and excitement we moved into Carentan against the protest of the Germans who repeatedly tried to overrun our very thinly held position. Came the big storm and we found ourselves cut off from any support; it was what the British call a very sticky time.

On July 13 we went back to England: that was running back for another try.  A period of frantic preparation followed.  The objective would be chosen, the whole operation rehearsed, everyone resigned to fate and all set for the take-off, and then would come word that Patton had already reached the place, or was so near it that we would not have to go in.  This happened again and again and was very trying.

Finally the fantastic Holland operation, which everybody saw would be a bust unless the British commander acted his age: he gave a speech which set an all-time high for silliness and failure to grasp the most elementary aspect of the situation. The first flight went late on Sept 17 and the pilots came back with the worst possible news; terrible weather, murderous flack and waiting for us in the landing zone a division of German tanks.  But it was too late to turn back — regardless of weather we would have to make a try for it at dawn the next day.

Again I was No. 2 man in No. 1 glider on the right — the one the Germans always try for: our tow plane was the only one with a bathtub — a new and very secret device which the enemy was dying to get hold off; it was called a bathtub because it was a huge, bulky underslung affair that nobody could miss and the pilot said the Jerries would give anything to shoot it down.  With this cheering prospect we took to the air and of course I became very sick as I always do in a glider.

There was an old piece of armor plate lying on the floor and out of curiosity I wondered how it would be to sit on: just as I slipped it on my little chair with a characteristically witty remark it absorbed three machine-gun bullets while another went between my feet. This particular escape became proverbial in headquarters company.

The Dutch campaign was touch and to go with our people scattered all over the land and surrounded and outnumbered most of the time.  The other member of the team was run over by a tank while he was bringing in our jeep and the Lieutenant was wounded, but he stayed on the job — otherwise I would have had to do everything single-handed as in Normandy.  But I was pretty good at Dutch, which meant a lot of extra work and extra excitement of course.

On Nov. 27 we were back in training again, getting all steamed up for another operation. It was not a pleasant atmosphere and people started committing suicide.  Then came the breakthrough (exactly as I predicted weeks ahead) while the same day I got an order to come to Paris.  Which should it be, Bastogne or Paris?  Without regret I chose Paris, for with the order came a team which was to relieve me.  I showed them the ropes and they took over: both were killed the next day.

After Paris came Luxembourg where the big boys at Army Group insist that the breakthrough took them totally by surprise: an unpardonable state of affairs. At that exalted level no one ever thinks of anything but his career and they are worlds removed from the war — spend all their time the pinning decorations [on] each other, the Lord knows for what. After Luxembourg Belgium for a few weeks and then Paris again.  Paris becomes a terrible habit.

For the past month I have been in Heidelberg, which has not been scratched by the war.  Mannheim and Ludwigshafen have simply ceased to exist.  The weeks with the 6th Army Group have been delightful: we live in sumptuous quarters and have a club that makes the pavilions of the Golden Horn look like something on the wrong side of the tracks.  What the future holds is up to nobody.  All I control is my own mental process, which simply ignores the army, and that is all the power I ever want to have.

Hereafter when anything important transpires I will be allowed to let you know immediately.  Meanwhile we are moving with unerring compliance to prophecy straight into the Next War: nobody seems to believe even half-heartedly that the peace is permanent. We never will learn that there is no point to being clever: every sharp operator in Europe has walked right into his own trap.

If we know what’s good for us we won’t tangle with the Russians — ever: in one week the German break-through in the Ardennes had us scraping the bottom of the barrel, though we were dealing with less than a third of the German Army.  Unlike other armies the Russians have an unbelievable capacity for learning; unhampered by pride or tradition they have a positive veneration for truth and never seem to be able to learn enough; their vitality is fabulous, and their birth-rate is simply out of sight.  I think the Lord has big things in mind for them.

Love,

Hugh

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About Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, 1910-2005, was simultaneously the LDS Church's greatest intellectual defender from attack from the outside and Mormon culture's strongest critic from the inside. This blog is composed mainly from Nibley's unpublished writings, letters, interviews and conversations, with occasional posts from associates who had personal interactions with him.
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