Thursday, 17 April 2014

Prisoner of War

Bill McKenzie,Archie McAlpine and Bill Murray,after the 2nd ascent of Rubicon Wall-1937:Photo Douglas Scott/SMC

Mountaineering in Scotland was the product of three years in prison camps. It was hammered out in Czechoslovakia and Germany. The first year, under the Abruzzi mountains of Italy, saw only a preliminary stoking of fires.One of Rommel's panzer divisions had scooped me up from the desert in June 1942. The first year at Chieti had nearly wasted away before I shed lethargy. My imagination took fire at last from two slow-burning matches. The first was my daily view of the Gran Sasso's snow cap. It kept mountains alive in my mind. The second was the recurring thought of a German tank commander, whose capture of me had an element of comedy that Samivel the cartoonist, might have enjoyed. I had seen nothing funny at the time.My battalion of Highland Light Infantry had been whittled down in battle to fifty men. My brigade in the headlong retreat to Alamein was left astride the coast road south of Mersa Matruh to stop the 15th Panzer Division.

Their tanks came in after sunset twenty abreast. Our two-pounder guns hit them on the nose at point-blank range. Their armour bloomed red where the shells glanced off in showers of sparks. The tanks staggered, but came on. They machine-gunned the ground for five minutes till all was still. Then the crews climbed out to deal with any survivors. I was one of the lucky few. I rose to my feet and was faced by a young tank commander. He waved a machine-pistol at me. He and it shook. He had been rattled about in his tank like a pea in a tin can, not knowing what hit him. He was just as raw-nerved as I. In his position, with crying need to release tension, I could imagine myself squeezing the trigger. I held my breath while he took quick stock. To my astonishment, he forced a wry smile and asked in English, "Are you not feeling the cold?" The question was not daft. The desert is very cold at night if one is still wearing shirt and shorts, but not till then did I notice it.

I replied, "Cold as a mountain top." He looked at me, and his eyes brightened. "Do you mean — you climb mountains?" He was a mountaineer. We both relaxed. He stuffed his gun away. After a few quick words — the Alps, Scotland, rock and ice— he could not do enough for me. "When did you eat?" he asked. I reckoned, "Two days ago." He led me over to his tank and produced bully beef, biscuits, beer, chocolate, and an army greatcoat, all British. "Take them," he grinned. "Loot from Tobruk." We shared the beer and toasted "Mountains."

An hour later, he and his tanks clanked away, heading for Cairo (he hoped). I was left to the less tender care of Italian infantry. I often wondered about that climber, whose name I never heard. He had come unbroken from the Russian front. I wondered whether he survived El Alamein. The wondering kindled my urge to write, but that was stultified by want of paper. The urge became compulsive. The clincher was my receipt from the Red Cross of Shakespeare's Complete Works, printed on thin India paper. As I took this in my hand, I could not help reflecting what excellent toilet paper it would make, thus freeing my ration of Italian toilet roll for use as writing paper. I felt confident that William Shakespeare would approve. I sat down to work that very day, but the page stayed blank.

I had no doubt what I should write. I should write about good climbs, and these only. My zest for mountains was felt and expressed on hard routes, on rock, snow and ice, and not only in walking the hills. I wanted to share the experience. That was the first compulsion (others grew later). Mackenzie, Dunn, MacAlpine and I had teamed up in 1936, when the time was ripe for progress. Almost nothing had been done on ice, or on snow and ice bound rock, for twenty years. We had taken to the long ridges and buttresses on Nevis and Glencoe. Planning in advance was needed to catch the right weather-cycles and take the rocks under snow and ice of the right quality and quantity.

Our aim was to climb the routes not when easy but hard, and sometimes with massive accumulations of ice. We made mistakes, and our first attempt on Garrick's Shelf on the Buachaille was one. I had taken the lead high up when I landed on a run of verglassed slabs at dusk, just when the worst blizzard in twenty years was breaking. We took fourteen hours to get down in the dark. We turned this defeat to good account — always thereafter we carried pitons and karabiners and maybe a sling to secure retreat. We never drove a piton as direct aid, but occasionally did for belays. Another lesson we learned was the practicality of climbing by torchlight if the winter route was known. Thereafter we devised head-torches, and proved them invaluable on the longer climbs when conditions would otherwise have stopped an ascent.

Apart from head-torches, the main equipment changes were the slater's hammer and long ropes. The normal ice-axe had a 33-inch shaft. The wrist strain of prolonged, one-handed cutting above the head was severe, and a slater's pick with a 14-inch shaft eased it greatly — the climbing time on a pitch could be almost halved. I reckoned that the ten shillings I paid to an ironmonger for my first pick was the best-spent money I ever laid down on a counter. I have rarely enjoyed anything in life more than cutting up a long, high-angled ice-pitch where the balance was delicate. The craft used had to vary with the quality of the ice: white, green, blue, black, brittle, and watery, each had a quirk of its own, which had to be learned until one could tell them apart at a glance and cut accordingly. We still used the adze of the long axe to cut handholds on white ice, for that was faster.

No climbers carried crampons on Scottish hills; they were not reckoned worth their weight, for the tricouni-clinker nailing gave a non-slip grip on hard snow, allowed much neater footwork than crampons on snow and ice-bound rock, and allowed too an occasional 'miracle' to be pulled off on thin brittle ice that ought to have peeled. I used to call such moves levitation for want of a better word — nothing so crude as a step up, but rather a float up, with no weight placed anywhere so far as humanly possible. It worked if you hit top form, and got Mackenzie and me up some nasty places on Garrick's Shelf, Deep-Cut Chimney, and the like.Hardly more than a dozen climbers in Scotland were involved in such work. The rest had little notion, and most none at all, of what Scottish rock could offer in winter. Many had the idea that our climbs were 'unjustifiable' (then a fashionable word for damning hard moves and routes). A few, when I first produced my slater's pick with its 14-inch shaft, had called me a poseur, for they had no conception of its use. I wanted to dispel ignorance of the rich harvest available on winter rock, and to propagate the fierce joys of fetching it in — I say 'fierce' in deference to Scottish weather.

Such were my limited thoughts when I first put pen to to paper in Italy. Without diary, maps, or books to refresh memory, I feared I should lack detail of the climbs, which could not be spun  out to chapter-length. I was right, but the daily concentration of  mind in trying to remember, continued day after day for weeks,  I gave at last a most astonishing result. Memory began to yield up what it held more and more freely, until it came in a flood. Every detail of experience was suddenly there, and in full colour. Nothing  had been forgotten. I discovered that memory safely holds all experience in minutest detail, and that what fails (from disuse) is the ability to pull the record out of its pigeonhole. The deprivation of reference material became a gain. Every climb had to be re-lived, which in writing terms means re-created.

I have since believed that the main reason for the dullness of many an expedition book is the author’s too easy access to diaries and printed matter. These allow him to write without re-living—a trap all the more easy to fall into when time is short and distractions many. The book, then, was going well when the Allies invaded Sicily late in 1943. The Germans dropped parachute troops on ' Chieti. We were herded into cattle trucks and trundled over the Brenner pass to a concentration camp in Bavaria. The place (Moosburg) was infested with fleas and bugs, and packed with 20,000 starving Poles and Russians. They fought over any black bread we passed to them. Writing was impossible for the next two months. I had no paper.

 We were moved at last to a camp in Czechoslovakia, Oflag ' VIII F at Mahrisch Trubau. I fell foul of the Gestapo on arrival. In a personal search they found my MS. The fact that I was secreting it on my person, not carrying it openly, aroused their worst suspicions. (A coded record of things seen in Germany?). l was photographed, finger-printed, interrogated. When I said what it was, and that I carried it under my shirt only for safer transport, they dropped their eyes to the desk and believed not a word. These were the first men I'd met who could put a shiver up my spine.They looked hard-eyed of course, but not mean or nasty, for that implies an element of humanity. I had not before appreciated how much good there is in the common criminal. The Gestapo agent was a man from whom all good had been wrung out, and the result was an animated corpse. My flesh crept. Not till then did I understand why this war had to be fought. I had known only Rommel’s  Afrika Korps, and they had my respect. The tank commander had won more than that from me.

War, I had felt, was a bloody lunacy. I Now I knew that this one had been inescapable. They had to let me go, but I never saw the MS again. Its loss hit me hard at the time, yet proved another blessing in disguise. At Mahrisch Trubau I began afresh, this time screwed to a new frame of mind by worsening conditions.The thousand bomber raids were unleashed on Germany. We 
were living on frosted turnips and potatoes—often only their peelings—a starvation diet of 800 calories a day. The guards dared no longer turn their Alsatians into the compound at night, for they went straight into the pot, and the skins would be hung over the fence before morning. Stray cats went the same way.

The Russians were on Rumania’s frontier. We had reports that the SS were under orders to machine-gun camp inmates on Russia’s path of advance. We agreed that no escapes should now be allowed. Our escapers I were invariably caught by the Gestapo, truncheoned, incinerated and the ashes returned to the camp of origin. The tunnels we'd made had to be freed from the searches that escapes entailed, and  so kept for emergencies. I no longer believed I’d climb mountains again, but felt blindly determined to get the truth about them on to paper. I no longer wanted to write just of hard climbs, or to enlighten anyone. I was writing because I must, all humbug shed off, and with it all understatement of difficulty, all exaggeration of danger, all reticence about feeling. The whole mountain scene was vivid in mind and detail. I now had good paper, had learned how to ignore distractions, and could write fast. I had in mind to say what I’d found of beauty, effort, fun, and delight. I would try for the truth only, and while knowing it could never be said, still I would try.

I finished the first draft on my birthday in March 1944. It was the day of the war’s greatest air raid. 4,000 planes had bombed Frankfurt. The fall of Rome and invasion of Normandy followed. We knew all this, for the engineers had built a wireless set and we published the BBC bulletins daily. When the Russians burst through Rumania that summer we were evacuated to Germany, and imprisoned in a former Luftwaffe barracks in a wood near Brunswick. I returned to the MS again and again at Brunswick, trying to get it right. My main anxiety was at first the Gestapo. They had still to be dodged, for their searches went on. They were maddened by our daily publication of the BBC News, to which their own people were not allowed to listen. They searched everywhere but the right  place. The set was plugged into the power line vertically under the electrified barbed-wire fence. The tunnel entrance was right out in the open compound, where they never thoroughly looked (the trap door was invisible). Random interrogations continued, but I would not again be caught with the MS on my body.A greater risk was soon bomb-blast.

The British and American armies were through France, and the Russians in Hungary. Day and night, the Allied air fleets were overhead. During these last nine months we saw neither sky by day nor stars by night -all was obscured by a vast pall of dust and smoke rising off the burning cities all around. Brunswick, Magdeburg, Hanover,and most others were engulfed. One daylight raid wiped out our German garrison, but we were unaware of it. Stupefied, we could see nothing through the wall of flaming trees round the barracks. I carried the MS under my tunic at all times, for the Gestapo menace had gone. They were off to more congenial tasks. A big purge was on following the attempt by Rommel and others to kill Hitler. Each time a general surrendered on the Russian front, public notice was given that vengeance had been taken on his family and friends. Earlier reports of the SS machine-gunning prisoners in eastern camps were confirmed. We knew it could happen here at any time.

Our twelve new tunnels running under the perimeter wire were kept A strictly unused. There had to be a last-minute chance of mass escape— supposing we were strong enough to make it. We had been given too little food for too long. TB was rife. My finger-nails were corrugated from vitamin-lack, and my hair thinning. l could no longer walk around the camp without feeling dizzy, nor climb stairs without palpitation of the heart. Hopes of survival had dimmed a bit. Day and night we dreamed of food; otherwise not once over the last year had I felt imprisoned. I lived on mountains and had the freedom of them. I waited on the machine-gunners without concem. Most of us had found our own ways of doing this. But we did prepare ourselves. At the end, the American 9th Army beat the SS to the gates. l remember still my first ration of one chocolate-bar—the swift run of heat through the body as if from neat whisky.

In May l945, I returned from the freedom of prisons to the chains of civilised society. Dent took the book. They asked for changes where I’d expressed myself too openly. I could see their point, but refused. The book had to be as it was, written from the heart of the holocaust, and not as if written on home ground.

WH Murray: Mountain 1979