"People, unless they're very stupid or very unintelligent, do feel fear. You live with fear."
My name is Ian Syme. I joined the British Army in 1940. I was under age as far as joining up is concerned. The minimum age was 18 years and I was actually just 17. But it was at the time of Dunkirk, which looked like, and very nearly was, a complete disaster. I was in a training regiment, initially. And I applied to join, what looked to be an interesting and rather exciting branch of the service, which was called The Reconnaissance Corps. They were similar to the Royal Armoured Corps which they eventually became a part of. And their job was to go out ahead of the main army and try and locate enemy positions.
I suppose from my viewpoint, looking back at some of the old black and white photographs of those days, I look at pictures of myself at 17, as a very callow, inexperienced young person. And then there's another picture of me six years later, having gone through my particular war, and looking, I guess, very much more self-assured. I had also been honoured by being mentioned in dispatches for Distinguished Service for my service in the European campaign. After the nine or ten months of the campaign in Europe, the people who had survived were very relieved because living with the possibility of being killed or wounded is very much on people's minds. And anybody who says that's not so is not accurate at all. It... it is a thing that you live with.
In any event, it all finished, the whistle blew in early May, 1945. And we were ordered to put on a victory parade in the north German city of Bremerhaven. And for the first time for months and months, we cleaned up our scout cars and polished them and cleaned up our weapons, cleaned up everything we could. And had a huge parade. Actually it would be called a divisional parade. There'd be seven or eight thousand men, including my regiment, The Reconnaissance Regiment. And I suppose there was one slight irony, when I think back on these things, I think of the quirky little things that happened. As we were cleaning up weapons, getting ready for this great parade. Cleaning our badges and uniforms, one unfortunate soldier had a bullet in his gun, without realizing it and as he was cleaning it he pulled the trigger and killed himself. This was right after the battles were all finished and he had every expectation of going back to doing whatever he wanted to do and ... that was a real tragedy. War is always sad, but that is a terrible tragedy that happened and I still remember that incident. I didn't know that particular soldier very well, but he was in one of our units, right over there in Bremerhaven.
People, unless they're very stupid or very unintelligent, do feel fear. You live with fear. And Hollywood and John Wayne tried to make one think that it's not that way, but it is that way. I suppose the great feeling for all the people I knew was relief. One thing that I remember very clearly is that, right after the victory parade, we had a church service - we took over a German church - and had a service of remembrance for all the soldiers. Many of whom had been with the British 8th Army in the desert and had been, literally, fighting for years, you know, risking their lives. And I sat as lieutenant with my 20 men or so and there were other people. There were probably several hundred of us. And it was very solemn. And as I looked around the walls of this church, a German church, I saw little things like shields made of satin, perhaps eight or ten inches across. Black-edged, and in the white satin centre there'd be printed "oberleitung" so and so or the Luftwaffe or the German marine service or the Wehrmacht, which is the German Army, and "In Memory". Because these were the Germans who, on their side, had also been killed sometime during the previous few years. And I remember thinking to myself, "Well, who's side is God on anyhow?" (laughter)