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Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell?
He Escaped Over 200 Times from a Notorious German Prison Camp to See the Girl He Loved. This is the Incredible Story of Horace Greasley
By Horace Greasley
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Horace Greasley and Ken Scott
All rights reserved.
Joseph Horace Greasley had enjoyed life on his parents' Leicestershire smallholding for as long as he could remember. He'd enjoyed milking the half dozen cows, tending to the hens and feeding the pigs, and he'd especially enjoyed looking after his father's Welsh ponies.
Although the elegant animals had towered over him as a small boy when he'd replaced their salt licks in the stables, turned their hay and mucked them out almost every day, he had never ever been afraid of them. In turn they seemed more than happy to have the young boy messing about under their feet, feeding them daily and replenishing their water supplies. Joseph Horace Greasley was always known as Horace; his mum had seen to that from quite an early age. No way were people going to call him Joe like his father. She couldn't comprehend why anybody would want to shorten people's names.
Horace enjoyed the backbreaking manual ploughing of the fields, sowing the seeds and generally keeping the place ticking over so the whole family could reap the rewards of the 30 or so acres left to them by their grandfather many years before. Home was number 101 at the end of a row of miners' cottages in Pretoria Road, Ibstock.
Horace, his twin brother Harold, older sister Daisy, young sister Sybil and baby Derick were luckier than most pre-second world war families at the time. Although rationing was yet to be introduced, times were still hard and even though Horace's father was employed full time at the local pit, money was tight, to say the least. No matter. Horace and his father would see that the family was well looked after.
Joseph Greasley senior was a miner, a hardworking coalface worker who would get out of bed at 3.30 each morning to milk his cows before completing a ten-hour shift at the nearby Bagworth Colliery. As he set off for work a few hours later he would give young Horace a shake and though extremely tired and bleary-eyed, Horace would continue to pick up the chores where his father had left off. The animals trusted him; he was comfortable in their company, they in his. He was their regular feed master, the person who cleaned their beds and tended to their injuries, and they seemed to sense it. They were his animals; he was the luckiest boy in the school. Including the chickens and the ponies he had nearly 50 pets. The pigs were his favourite — so ugly, so dirty. Life had dealt them a raw deal but they were his favourites, no doubt about that.
John Forster who lived at number 49 on the same street had once boasted in class that he had seven pets: three goldfish, a dog, two cats and a mouse. Pah! Horace had put him in his place when he'd begun reeling off the names of the Welsh ponies, the cows, pigs and even the hens. Twenty-two hens at the last count and each one had a name.
Only they weren't pets, Horace knew that, not really. Each November would end in an accepted sadness when his father killed a pig to supplement the family's diet. The meat took them right through to Christmas and sometimes beyond. Horace understood, at least he did when he enjoyed the regular weekend bacon sandwich or a ham joint on a Sunday afternoon complete with roasted potatoes from the fields and quite often an egg or two collected that morning.
It was the food chain, the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. Man needed meat and it just so happened the Greasley family had plenty of it walking around their fields. Horace would sit for hours after the pig kill (not through choice, but because it was kind of expected), rubbing salt into the meat to cure it. Hour after hour his father would come into the big open scullery where young Horace sat working on the body of his dead friend. His father would look at the meat, press into the flesh, occasionally take a slice off and after tasting it would announce, 'More salt!'
Horace's shoulders would drop, his fingers already red raw, swollen and stinging, but not once did he argue or complain. The pig that only a few days earlier had a name would be unceremoniously turned so that its arse pointed into the air, and another pound of salt would be expended into the body.
When the salting was complete his father would come into the scullery with a large boning knife and expertly take the pig apart. The hams would be removed and stored in a cool pantry just off the hallway and the sides of bacon would be hung up the flight of stairs that led to the family's bedrooms on the first floor. It was a strange sight but that was the best place in the house to hang them, his father had often argued with his mother. It gets the through draught of the house, a constant flow of oxygen preserving the meat by many weeks, he'd explained.
Mabel didn't argue for very long. She knew her husband was right and no other family in the street had meat on their table in such a plentiful supply. It just looked so unsightly, especially when she opened the door to the local vicar. The shame of it!
A week after one kill the priest, Gerald O'Connor, came calling. Mabel asked him in and as he walked into the hall he gave a disapproving look while following her through to the lounge. He seemed happier though after his cup of tea, though, after she'd sent him away with a 3lb joint of bacon that he swore he would turn into a huge pan of bacon broth at the forthcoming Christmas fundraising fair.
'Hot winter broth,' he announced gleefully. 'Tuppence a cup.'
Mabel attended that fair several weeks later but try as she might, she couldn't find the stall serving the bacon broth.
On Horace's 14th birthday — Christmas Day 1932 — his father presented him with his first gun: a 410 Parker Hale single-shot shotgun. It was his reward for his long hours toiling on the farm, his father's way of saying thanks. Harold got a couple of books, an apple, an orange and some nuts, and Sybil, the oldest sister, got nothing. She was too old, his mother had explained. Daisy and Derick fared slightly better: a little wooden train for Derick and a dolly — or was it a dolls' house? — for Daisy. Horace only had eyes for one thing ... his hands trembled with excitement as he handled the gun.
It had been torture waiting to fire the first shot. His father had made the family sit down to a Christmas breakfast of bacon and eggs, hot buttered rolls and steaming hot tea with the obligatory teaspoon of whisky that was a Greasley family tradition each Christmas morning. The Parker Hale sat atop the Welsh dresser, almost taunting him. Between each bite of bacon or a mouthful of hot bread he looked at his father, then the gun, then back to his father again.
'Remember, it's not a toy,' his father told him as they walked up to the small copse at the far end of the farm, each footfall crunching on the frozen earth. A dusting of snow like icing sugar covered the ground and the trees.
'You must treat the gun with respect. It's a killing machine — rabbits, ducks, hares, even humans.' He pointed to the weapon Horace held tightly in two hands while trying to ignore the penetrating cold of the steel and wishing he'd run back for his woollen gloves. But even if he'd been marooned in outer Siberia at –40 degrees, there was no way he was going back.
'That gun will kill a man, remember that, and watch where the hell you point it. I catch you pointing it at me and I'll crown you with it.'
Over the coming weeks his father taught Horace all about his new acquisition. He taught him how to take the gun apart, how to clean it and what size cartridge to use when hunting different sizes of animal. But most of all, his father taught him to shoot. They spent hours shooting at targets pinned to the trees and tin cans sitting on tree branches and fence posts. Horace shot his first rabbit after only four days and his father took it back and showed him how to skin and clean the animal ready for the pot. The family ate rabbit pie that evening and more than once Joseph senior advised the family that the food they were eating was down to Horace. Father and son's chests had swelled with pride.
His father explained how important it was to kill only for meat and how wrong it was to kill just for the sake of it. Horace grew to be an expert shot and could take out a starling or a wren from 50 yards. But each time he did, and he did so only occasionally, he suffered from guilt. He'd taken a pot shot at a young robin one day, never believing he would hit something so small. The robin's feathers exploded as the lead shot tore into its tender flesh and it fell from the telegraph cable onto the grass below. Horace whooped with joy as he ran over to examine his kill. His joy turned to anguish as he picked the small bird up in his hand, felt its warmth. Why? he thought to himself as a trickle of blood oozed onto the palm of his hand and the robin breathed its last breath. Why did I do that? What was the point?
From that day onwards, he vowed, he would never to shoot at a living creature unless it could be cooked and eaten. He would break that vow in 1940 in the fields and hedgerows of northern France.
The following year Horace left school, along with his twin brother Harold, the two H's as they were affectionately known. They were not inseparable as some twins. The simple truth was that they were different. Academically, Harold was brighter than Horace, always at the top of the class or thereabouts, and loved books and study. Horace hovered about the middle of the same class and longed for the end of each school day so he could hunt on the farm, tend to the animals or cast a roving eye towards the pretty girls on the short walk home.
Jobs were at a premium in 1933, the year a certain Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but within days of leaving school Harold's academic achievements secured a much sought-after position in the ironmongery department of the local Co-Operative. There he joined his older sister Sybil in gainful employment, adding most of his wages to the family budget. The Greasley family now had three wages coming into the house. Mabel made fresh bread, baked cakes and almost overnight, a fruit bowl appeared in the middle of the kitchen table with exotic fruits such as bananas and oranges from hot countries overseas.
Horace had just returned from yet another hunting expedition. He couldn't wait to tell his father he'd dropped a running hare from 90 yards. Number four shot, he was about to explain, when his father announced he'd found Horace a job.
'An apprentice barber?' Horace whispered in astonishment.
'A three-year apprenticeship, Horace, 12 months as an improver ...'
'Twelve months semi-qualified and one more year fine-tuning thereafter.'
'But ... but ...' Horace objected, but somehow his father didn't listen.
'You start next week. Norman Dunnicliffe's in the High Street.'
The following week four wages went into the Greasley household and Horace's involuntary career as a gentlemen's barber was under way. The two years' training soon passed and as he honed his skills in the third, his wages rose to ten shillings a week. 1936 was going to be a good year, Horace thought, as his newfound confidence gave him the nerve to ask a pretty young girl called Eva Bell to the pictures. While they wrestled with each other in the back row of the local Roxy on Saturday night, a Pathé newsreel showed footage from the Berlin Olympics with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini parading in their finery for the world to see. Horace did not see them; his hand was up the jumper and down the skirt of his new girlfriend.
Eva was a year older than Horace but a hundred years wiser. Several weeks into their courtship she suggested he bring to their next date a packet of French letters sold at the gentlemen's hairdressers where he worked. Being a barber definitely had its compensations.
Eva persuaded her mother to let Horace stay over in the spare room one Saturday night as the dance they were attending in her village of Coalville came out after midnight, far too late for Horace to catch the bus home. Mrs Bell liked Horace so she and Eva convinced Mr Bell that no shenanigans would occur. Nothing was further from the truth. Eva liked Horace; it was time to make a man of him.
About six o'clock on that special Sunday morning Horace lost his virginity. Eva's father was a miner and had left for his Sunday morning shift at 5.30. Twenty minutes later Eva crept through to the spare room. Before she had even slipped out of her nightie Horace was standing proud and as he fiddled with the rubber sheath, Eva gave him her undivided attention, so to speak. Once the rubber was firmly in place, Eva took over, straddled him like a jockey, gently easing him inside her. Horace looked on bewildered as Eva groaned and moaned and pushed herself to a climax. Each thrust and grunt convinced Horace that it was only a matter of time before the girl's mother would hear and make an unwelcome appearance, so he kept one eye on the door and the other gazed at Eva's beautiful heaving breasts inches from his face. But her mother slept on and Horace achieved his own orgasm in double quick time. No matter. They would practise this wonderful act of nature wherever, whenever and as often as they could. The Saturday night stopover at Eva's house would become a regular event.
Horace stayed with Norman Dunnicliffe until 1938 when he was persuaded to jump ship to Charles Beard, Gentlemen's Hairdresser. What a great name for a barber, Horace thought, and the money was better too. Of course he would still have an unlimited supply of 'dobbers' as they were comically known, and without the cost and embarrassment his friends had to endure. There were worse jobs, he thought to himself.
Although the money was good, Horace had to face an unenviable 28-mile round trip to Leicester every day. Even though his bike was equipped with the latest technology — an AW Sturmey-Archer three-speed gear hub — the old bike was heavy and on some days strong head winds made for impossibly slow progress. Horace didn't mind; his young body coped and developed well, and his added strength and stamina pleased Eva in the bedroom.
Towards the end of 1938 Horace was transferred to Charles Beard's shop in Torquay, the first time he'd ever left home. A little overawed at first, he settled in quickly and enjoyed life to the full. He missed Eva, sure, but there were plenty of pretty distractions to take his mind off his girlfriend in Leicestershire. He was also keeping an eye on events across the Channel.
The country breathed a sigh of relief, for a while at least, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich after meeting Adolf Hitler and announced in a speech at Heston aerodrome that there would be 'Peace for our time'. Hitler had signed the agreement containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods. Horace heard Chamberlain's statement on a radio in the backroom of Charles Beard's shop. Somehow he wasn't convinced.
He was to be proved right. The fun on the English Riviera lasted only six months for Horace and he was recalled to Leicestershire as the government announced conscription for all 20- and 21-year-olds. It was only a matter of time before Horace and Harold would be called upon to do their duty. War, it seemed, was looming.
Horace resumed work in Charles Beard's Leicester shop and sure enough, within two weeks the letter lay waiting on the kitchen table, unopened, as he returned from work on a wet Wednesday evening. The letter informed both brothers they had to report to a church hall in King Street, Leicester in seven days, where the 2nd/5th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment were handling recruitment. Harold had returned from work somewhat earlier in the day and sat at the table looking distraught. Horace's first thought was for his twin. He would not cope. In all the years they'd played and grown together on the farm Harold have never once attempted to fire the gun, skinned a rabbit or pulled the neck of a hen, or picked up a catapult or a slingshot and fired a stone in anger. He couldn't bear to knock a fly from a bread roll, his father had once commented. Harold was visibly shaking at the prospect of picking up a rifle and pointing it at a fellow human being.
By this time Harold had found God. He was deeply involved in the church, something Horace — as an atheist — couldn't relate to. Horace couldn't figure out how an intelligent man could simply believe that an omniscient supreme being sat on a cloud up there somewhere, seeing and hearing everything every person in the entire world said and did. It was just too preposterous for words, almost laughable.
Harold didn't drink or smoke and Horace was damn sure he had nowhere near the kind of fun he'd been having in Torquay with the ladies. While each weekend Horace had made sure he carried his 'pack of three' — sometimes two packets — his brother had reached for the Bible. Harold was now a practising lay preacher and every Sunday he pontificated to the converted masses at the local Wesleyan chapel. Harold's religious convictions preached goodwill to all men ... even Germans. Horace preferred a few beers with his pals and an afternoon out with Eva.
Excerpted from Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell? by Horace Greasley. Copyright © 2013 Horace Greasley and Ken Scott. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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