Reaching the far north of Italy should be the end of my current journey. Fighting in Italy came to an end on 2nd May 1945, a week before the war in Europe finally ended on 8th May. My great uncle celebrated Victory in Europe Day with his Royal Engineer unit comrades in Italy’s far north. And that should be that.
The next day though, he and his unit picked up their tools and continued the work they were doing on 7th May – when the war in Europe still raged. There are many reasons why troops weren’t packed off home straight away. In part I suspect that Churchill’s government feared fighting could flare up again. The war continued in the Pacific against Japan for another 99 days – perhaps troops would need to be transferred to that theatre. And finally, if you ignore what would be a serious logistical headache, there was a continent that needed rebuilding.
My great uncle ending up in tiny Pontebba right up until the end of the year before receiving his army release orders and returning home. He reached Aldershot on January 3rd 1946. His unit war diaries suggest he didn’t have a whole lot to do in those last few months, which given what he had managed the rest of the war is fair enough. These diaries record just 88 rest days throughout the unit’s time abroad (of more than three years). Forty-eight of them occurred after VE Day.
He returned on army organised transport, a journey that was almost as epic as some of my previous adventures. Still the era before passenger aircraft had become the norm (it’s easy to forget how recent this phenomenon is), my great uncle’s journey home was a long, tedious and uncomfortable one in the back of an army truck on seats padded with hay.
Both train lines and roads take a sudden lurch east from Pontebba. Some of the Alps’ first snow-clad peaks block the route immediately north. The first town of any size on entering Austria is Villach. One of its suburban stations is where my uncle alighted after his first day of travel home. He camped, in winter in the Alps, in a field beside the station before his journey home continued. The wish to get home invades any journey towards its end. These last few days, with the slow progress of the army trucks, must have seemed interminable.