- The memoir of Anita Leslie, 25, reads like a letter home of her time at war
- Working for the Mechanised Transport Corps she reports on the horror she sees
- She recalls people dying ‘in fountains of scarlet snow’ both civilians and soldiers
Book of the week
TRAIN TO NOWHERE
by Anita Leslie (Bloomsbury £16.99)
Don’t get sunburned in Africa, men hate it — that was the chief piece of advice Anita Leslie’s mother gave her when, in August 1940, the 25-year-old Anita joined the Mechanised Transport Corps and took a ship to Africa with 60 other women ambulance drivers.
Before setting sail, the girls were given a lecture on Virtue in Tropical Lands, then blessed by the Bishop of St Albans and snapped by Press photographers. ‘And now three girls waving spanners…big smiles…very nice.’
The ship’s officers were mystified as to why these pretty girls should volunteer for such work. They guessed the reason must be ‘broken hearts or dull husbands’.
For happily single Anita it was neither, but rather a thirst to do her bit for the war effort and to learn about the world. Learn about the world she certainly did: the best and the very worst of it.
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The memoir of Anita Leslie (pictured) shares her experience of contributing to the war in Africa
She happened to be a first cousin once removed of Winston Churchill — as a child she had been dressed in ‘dear Winston’s’ old baby clothes — and some of the sturdy, optimistic, un-self-pitying Winstonian spirit pervades this gripping and increasingly horrifying memoir.
The mixture of Anita’s grand connections and her un-grand war work gave her a unique experience of the war. One minute she’s driving an ambulance full of badly wounded soldiers to a military hospital; the next, she’s dining with General Alexander (who had 12 nations under his command) in an Italian villa and sleeping in a luxury guest tent: ‘The best day off in the whole war.’
The memoir is written in the style of a good letter home: concise, brisk, funny, vivid and honest. At the beginning it’s easy to be lulled into a sense that taking part in the war was the most hilarious fun ever. In Syria in 1941, for example, Anita did a spell of work delivering the troop newspaper, the Eastern Times, through snow and mud to units living in intense discomfort.
The paper was ‘set by Arab boys who couldn’t read a word of English. If a line got dropped they reset it by guesswork. Headlines were back to front and words upside down’.
The paper was full of news of grouse-shooting and yacht regattas, issued by the Ministry of Information to cheer the troops.
Anita happened to be the cousin of Winston Churchill (pictured)
Sometimes Anita played truant from the Eastern Times and went skiing by moonlight all over Lebanon with a group of off-duty submariners, under their commander Philip Ruck-Keene.
After D-Day Anita felt pretty sure the war would be over in a month. How wrong she was. In August 1944 she was transferred to the French Army as an ambulancière — and if you think the British girls were vain, worrying about their sunburn, they were nothing compared to the French girls.
One in Anita’s ambulance, even in the heat of battle, ‘never let an hour pass without setting her hair with lotion from a bottle. The steel helmet made life very difficult’.
The chief ambulancière, Jeanne de l’Espée, insisted her girls should not neglect their make-up, because nothing cheered a wounded soldier up as much as being tended to by a girl wearing lipstick.
As she drives the ambulance towards Germany, picking up the wounded, Anita’s account becomes important reportage. She happens to be a keenly observant writer, embedded with the French Army as they liberate the Vosges and Alsace.
‘Most homes had kept a flag hidden away in some cushion. They would snip open the hiding place and triumphantly pull out the long-forbidden tricolour.’ The inhabitants of the little village of Thiéfosse celebrated with flags and bells, even while battle still raged four miles ahead.
Anita drives a badly wounded French boy to hospital, taking an eight-mile detour as a Bailey Bridge is broken, and the boy dies.
Anita returned from the war to visit Churchill at Chequers in March 1945 as he worked from his bed.
Passing a shelled villa in Alsace, she goes in and finds a dead boy, his skull cracked open. ‘Nothing arouses anger like the sight of wounded children,’ she writes. The boy’s father, a dentist, cradles his daughter, also badly injured, as the ambulance drives to hospital. Later, after three operations, she dies.
Anita’s account of the Colmar Pocket is vivid: it was an island of stubborn German resistance in Alsace, surrounded by liberated territory, where a battle was fought in blinding snowstorms.
She witnessed people dying ‘in fountains of scarlet snow’; civilians and soldiers and ambulance drivers were killed. And there is the poignancy of a sapper who has to have his leg amputated, saying: ‘I didn’t think this would happen to me.’ One never does.
This long, drawn-out horror makes the final triumphal march into Germany all the more of a relief to read about. Anita nips back to Britain in March 1945 and visits Churchill at Chequers. He greets her from his bed — his favourite place to work.
TRAIN TO NOWHERE by Anita Leslie (Bloomsbury £16.99)
When she leaves, he gives her a cousinly kiss and says: ‘Give my love to the French…I think they are rather fond of me.’
‘I wished that Hitler and Mussolini could have seen their great antagonist that day,’ Anita writes, ‘looking a mixture of a cherub and a bulldog. How little they understand the mettle of England.’
In Germany white flags of surrender line the streets, and everywhere there are rows of German prisoners tramping towards France — one of them weeping, Anita notices, ‘surely for his splendid, stupid, cruel, loathed, broken country’.
When two of Anita’s great ambulancière friends, Lucille and Odette Lecoq, are killed in cold blood by German villagers, she thinks she’s seen the worst of humanity.
But worse is to come: she drives an ambulance of concentration camp survivors from Nordhausen camp and ‘got to care for each individual with an aching pity’.
‘These men wanted to tell their stories before they died’. Hearing their accounts, Anita writes: ‘I lay there wishing I could vomit mentally.’
They arrive in Berlin, and Anita soon finds herself picking wild flowers from the ruins to decorate the table for the 11th Hussars dinner.
She goes into the Reich Chancellery, with its ‘smashed marble hall deep in rubble’ — and a Russian officer gives her a piece of brocade from Hitler’s chair and some of Hitler’s own notepaper headed with the Eagle and Swastika, on which she writes a jolly letter to her family.
Sadly she doesn’t relate her mother’s reaction to her sunburned, war-weary face on her return.
Courtesy: Daily Mail Online