By Kenneth Roy
The widow of an old soldier once offered to let me read the second world war journals of her husband, with a view to publishing them in the Scottish Review. What she delivered was a collection of Glasgow University jotters, the logbook of one man’s war.
On a summer day in 1941, J P McCondach apologises for the quality of the pen he is using to keep these journals. Its nib had just had heavier than usual use. He will describe how a little later.
McCondach was an unlikely soldier. He was fastidious, witty, gentle, contemplative. He was a dreamer. In the trenches of North Africa, he studied (and chronicled) the behaviour of ants. He believed the Germans had to be beaten, but he had no illusions about the officer class of the British army. He called them asses and oafs. He was a poor bloody gunner, an ordinary sod, but he carried Chekhov in his kitbag. He was not cut out for rough soldiery; sweaty living was not his style. He was a gentleman and a scholar.
On the first page of the journals, McCondach had written his regimental number and his father’s address in Paisley – ‘to which address please return if I don’t’. The journals did return. For several months I went through them, editing them for publication. Revealing their secrets became not only a labour of love but a privilege.
There is space here only to give a flavour of this remarkable testament. I’ve selected a week in the desert campaign.
Monday 16 June 1941
Ordeal by battle was certainly mine yesterday. We were ordered to move – at the time I thought we were retreating – and the whole force raced off over the desert. But we were going in a northerly direction towards the sea, advancing not retreating. And no sooner had we run out of the original fire than we entered much heavier fire from almost directly ahead. We turned right into it so that we could see, straight in front, the gun flashes. Shells went screaming over, bursting in front, behind, on either side, with much din and smoke and sand.
No shelter was possible. We were perched high aloft on our overloaded 15cwt truck, tearing along full out over stones and ridges, so that we bounced up and down in the air and all the boxes and baggage with us. Shrapnel whistled around me, a fragment striking the man beside me on the leg. And now the air was filled with the whine of bullets: we were under fire from a low crest on the right, along which stood a line of soldiers with machine guns. No reply from us was possible. We were moving much too fast for any weapon to be brought to bear on them. We just kept running the gauntlet until we outranged the machine guns. And so we breathed a little more easily and reviewed the experience. The astonishing fact was that there were few if any casualties. Jerry had the range all right, but we were well spaced and fast moving, and tho’ there were many near-misses – one landed only about 12 yds in front of us – no vehicle was hit.
We began to settle down and things were fairly quiet for a little. Then five dive-bombers came out of the sun and swooped down on us. This was the most terrifying experience of the day – a concatenation of different astounding sounds that well nigh batters one senseless. The drone of the engines, rising to a deafening crescendo and a shattering explosion as they dive, fading fast as they climb, the whistle of the bombs, the rattle of machine guns, the showering of stones and shrapnel – a petrifying, shocking experience.
We had no slit trenches dug. I lay beneath the truck full-length, thinking my end had come. It did not seem possible that I could come out of this hellish maelstrom of furious sound and flying death. Thoughts of home came to me, I swear it, flashing, poignant thoughts. My fingers dug into the sand. The ground shook. And then it was over…A feeling of relief almost unbearably sweet stole over me when I found myself alive and unhurt.
Enemy aircraft returned the following day with devastating results
Tuesday 17 June
What sights these were. I do not describe them. But one I found especially – interesting? revealing? I came upon a man quite uninjured visibly and upright on his legs, but wandering blankly and stupefied from place to place, his mind drowned in a sea of terror. This man I had met at Almaza – a most aggressive, blustering, confident military type – now overwhelmed.
A 25-pounder loosed off – for the guns were still in action – and he dropped, grovelling on the ground like a whipped slave. One of our fellows was clean out of his mind and difficult to restrain. Some lay on stretchers unconscious or moaning, their wounds exposed pitifully. I cannot ever forget this scene – my initiation into violent martial death – all blood and sand and smoke.
Wednesday 18 June
Now that it is over and we are enjoying some slight respite, it all seems unreal and melodramatic – like a thriller. Yesterday we were in hell. Many of us did not come out of it and many of those who did were shattered in mind and body. This then is modern warfare of which one reads so much, the stark savagery, the inhuman scientific cruelty, the power of any individual to endure which must be limited – if not by death, by complete breakdown and nervous prostration.
Friday 20 June
As before, the feeling that death is near and inescapable…
On Tuesday I saw and aided men dead, hideously wounded and disfigured; I saw raving madness and dumb, dazed, terror-stricken men wandering aimlessly about.
I helped to bury the Padre’s broken body, the Padre who that afternoon had drunk tea from my greasy mess tin. I helped dig his shallow grave in a bomb-crater, I made his cross with two bits of a packing case, I inscribed his name and titles thereon (since when this pen writes even worse than before), I consigned his body to the earth with few, piteously few, and faltering words. I witnessed agony, anguish, distress, courage, and the yellow streak of cowardice. Impressions made that day, though unconsciously thrust behind me, must remain with me always.
Not only the journals returned. Chekhov did too; and J P McCondach in one piece.
After the war, he taught English at Paisley Grammar School. One of his pupils recalled: ‘He exemplified good manners effortlessly polished. Precision of language and speech were a joy to him; neatness also. He was compact and handsome. From a jacket cuff peeked a handkerchief dandily pressed into geometric folds. To the bare cold classrooms of postwar schooldays he seemed to have appeared from another debonair world’. His pupils nicknamed him Spiv McCondach. They were not to know. He umpired their cricket matches, dissected Shakespeare’s sonnets for them, introduced them to James Thurber.
J P McCondach liked the sleeping tortoise. He said that the tortoise was slow and that the sleeping tortoise slower. He died in November 1996 at the age of 84.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review