The Viet-Minh 6

The post had a prisoner they were very proud of. They excused themselves by saying that they had not had the chance to send him back to the army cage. But it was clear that they were really keeping him as long as they possibly could, and that he was regarded much as the pet boa constrictor had been in the ideal French post – a fabulous monster which, once rendered harmless, had become a mascot; an object of amiable curiosity. He was a German legionary who had been found, more or less by accident, after his jeep had been blown up by one of their bamboo mines. The mine seemed not to have been very powerful as the other occupants of the car got away, leaving this man who had leg injuries. The Commander said that he had been found quite sympathetic to their cause, and undoubtedly had been compelled to fight for the French. He expected that after an indoctrination course and a period of observation he would be offered the chance to enlist in the Viet-Minh army. Dinh mentioned that the loyalty of suitable candidates of this kind was tested at the end of their indoctrination, by giving them every opportunity to escape. When commando raids were made in the neighbourhood of prisoner-of-war cages, the guards dispersed, telling the prisoners to stay where they were. Those who did so received good conduct marks and some small privileges.
No guard had been placed on the hut where the prisoner lay. Apart from his leg wounds, the Commander said, neither he nor anyone could ever hope to escape through the maze of waterways. The German was small, dark and slender; diminished, too, perhaps, by his misfortunes. He lay in the bunk in his uniform with his legs in paper bandages. When he found out that I was not another prisoner he was at first rather sullen and hostile. I asked him how he felt, and he said that his legs hurt him all the time and he would give a year’s pay for a packet of cigarettes. At first he refused to give his name but later he said that it was Breczina. He was a Sudeten and had been an unterscharfuhrer in the Waffen SS – a selected man, he said – and had been wounded on the Russian and Western fronts. To my inquiry as to the treatment he had received, he said that he couldn’t complain, but that the food was filth. And was it true that he had been converted to the Viet-Minh’s point of view? He made a face. I could imagine what he thought of reds, he said, but if the worst came to the worst, he would sooner be an officer in the Viet-Minh army – and they had told him that Germans from the Legion sometimes got commissions – than rot in a prisoner-of-war camp again. His fate was of little impor¬tance, since the defeat of Germany had proved for him that there was no purpose behind the universe. At the moment he was inconvenienced only by the loss of his spectacles, and his one sorrow was that what had happened to him had still further postponed the day when he would see his parents again. He had not seen them since he left school to enter the army.
Later in the day there was some air activity. A plane came over and circled the area several times, as if it were taking photographs. The temptation to fire at it must have been great as it flew very low. Dinh thought that there would have been a fifty-fifty chance of bringing it down with machine-gune fire. He said that the Viet-Minh were badly provided with anti-aircraft defence in the south and that there was a standing order that immediately a gun had been fired it had to be removed to another site. Soon after the plane appeared, a whistle was blown as a signal for all personnel to take cover, and later an order was issued that no one not on duty was to leave the huts for the rest of the day. Front line experiences, unless with an army on the move, are very restricted in their scope, and when the sector happens to be a small island screened by walls of vegetation in a swamp, one might as well be in a submarine for all one sees.
It was arranged that we should leave as soon as it was dark, since, as there had been no daylight activity, the night was expected to be a lively one. We boarded the sampan at dusk, and from the commander’s last- minute cordiality it was clear that he was relieved to see us go.
Once again the night was of a rare and perfect brilliance, with a sky of transparent gun-metal fenced in by a tall horizon of white palms. Through shining spear-hedged lanes we thrust forward with a gondola smoothness; pulling into a bank at last, where we left the sampan and climbed a low hillock. Here once had been a village, for although the shacks housing the living had disappeared a cluster of old substantial tombs remained; a stark revelation of bone-white stone in the neutral earth. On three sides stretched out a bleached-paper jungle of palms, but ahead was clear ground. In the centre of this cleared stage, about a mile away, a tower rose up; a small, neat, medieval shape, with its low girdle of bamboo; isolated in a plain which shone with the dull granularity of an ice-rink. ‘I have a surprise for you,’ Dinh said, looking at his watch. ‘In fifteen minutes the attack will begin.’

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