LIVING IN AUSTRIA 1946 - 1947.

By Brian Spurway.Airframes.


In March 1946, just six months after VE day, my father, a FS engine fitter who had spent much of the war in the Middle East, was posted to the RAF's Austrian Comm Sqn at Klagenfurt in the Austrian state of Carinthia; a few months later, in the early winter, my mother, with my brother and I, joined him. This was to be my first, and probably my greatest, life experience - if only the passing of over seventy years had allowed me to retain all my memories of that time, however a few do exist, helped by photographs taken at the time and a few trips back to Klagenfurt since then; once when my children were in their early teens; later on, in the 1980s, when a Hercules needed an engine change at Udine, in Italy, where I hired a Fiat and, with the aircraft captain, drove across the Austrian border and spent a day there; then in 2017, when my wife, brother, sister-in-law and I took advantage of Ryan Air's cheap flights offer to the very airport where my father had been stationed seventy years previously.

In an earlier article about why I joined the RAF, which I called 'A Good Decision', I made mention of my father being stationed at Castle Bromwich in 1945 and how he and another FS had swapped houses for a while to enable a family that had lived through the war in Birmingham have a holiday in the lovely little seaside Devonshire village where we lived. There was a sad and profoundly long lasting outcome to this seemingly innocent exchange - my parents were summoned for sub-letting by the owner of our flat and, when taken to court, were found guilty and evicted. My mother always maintained that they therefore had criminal records and it remained a self- inposed stigma for the rest of her all too short life. I don't know the exact sequence of events but we left Shaldon and moved across the river to Teignmouth and, presumably knowing that it wouldn't be for long, settled in with my uncle and aunt who had a farm just outside town and lived in this idyllic looking thatched cottage - nowadays much restored, worth a fortune, and probably a weekend holiday home for some wealthy London family. In those days looks could deceive as the thatch was full of vermin, birds or whatever, whose nocturnal activities made sleeping interesting if not downright impossible; there was no hot water just cold pumped up from a well, and, of course, an outside privy fully equipped with cut up newspaper which made the government issue 'Bronco' we used at Halton feel as soft as . . .!

It was from this cottage that the three of us set off on our journey to Austria - my mother, who had spent most of her teens and her twenties in service, and two young boys, my brother who was five and I some two years older - proper yokels with Devonshire accents that would curdle your scrumpy with absolutely no knowledge of the wider world. I always had a tremendous respect for my late mother, all 4 ft 10 ins of her, who managed such a journey not just with two typical young lads but also carrying a pile of luggage - after all we weren't likely to return to Devon as we were then set on the same path as most service families post war, following the husband from posting to posting.

On the day before we left for our great adventure I remember relatives from both sides of the family gathered at the cottage for a farewell tea, the centre piece being a large cake cooked by Aunt Meg (the farmer's wife) that she insisted on calling our 'Going Away Cake'. Then the following day it was down to the station and, amid much wailing and waving of hankies, we boarded a GWR steam train which, I presume, took us to Paddington. Again much respect for my mother who had to negotiate the still bomb ravaged London to get to the terminal - I have no idea which one that would have been back in 1946 - for our onward journey to Folkestone.

Once safely at Folkestone we were shepherded on to a bus which took us to Dover harbour where we boarded a special military ferry that took us across the channel to Calais. It may be my imagination but I think the ferry had the railway carriages, in which we would complete our journey, already on board, I guess they were on fitted rails of the continental gauge - if it was different to the British that is - the carriages were certainly very continental.

I doubt that I will ever discover the route our train took from Calais to Klagenfurt but - as my mother frequently replied to people when asked - "It took us four days and three nights!" It must have been very cold outside but we were well catered for on the train; our carriage had wood burning fires and some form of central heating, plus a male attendant to look after them and to pander to our every need - I recall that he certainly wasn't British but have no idea where he was from; Austria would seem to be the most likely. The journey was a series of stops and starts because of the poor state of the rail systems that we traversed; the RAF, the USAAF and resistance fighters had bombed them almost to destruction. I can vividly remember hordes of displaced people (DPs), it seemed to be mostly women and young children, massing outside the train whenever we stopped; many, if not all, were close to starvation and were begging those of us on the train for food. It was probably not the best thing for us to have done but we threw sweets and biscuits out of our carriage windows causing fights to break out amongst the crowd as they scrambled for them; it still shames me to think that we found their 'antics' so amusing. We must have seen many tragic sights, and also some wonderful ones, as we steamed past numerous snow-capped mountains, fast flowing rivers in stunning valleys and through long tunnels before reaching the relatively undamaged Austria; I remember absolutely nothing of this scenery from that time but, in the years to come, I was to see much of it - mostly when flying over it as part of my job but also on the one occasion when I drove down to Klagenfurt with my wife and two daughters.

Sharing our carriage was just one other family, a mother and twin boys of my brother's age, dependents of FS Jack Ranson who was also based at Klagenfurt. John and Michael were to be our close play friends for the next three years but how, and where, we were not to realise at that time. Jack and Edna became life-long friends of my parents and were, much later, destined to become Godparents to our two daughters.

We eventually arrived at Klagenfurt having passed through a great portion of the continent; there was snow on the ground and filthy slushy puddles outside the station where my father had parked a car ready to take us to our new home. Not a big car suitable for the four of us with our luggage, oh no, it was a very early drab coloured VW Beetle - you probably remember the model, the one with a very tiny rear window.

It wasn't very far, just outside the town really, to the house we were to live in for just over a year - No. 11 Lexergasse; it looked like a palace to my mother and we boys from outside, and even more so when inside as it was furnished throughout with a fully equipped basement, two upper floors and a large attic; off the first floor there was a balcony and outside an enormous garden complete with a few chickens and their very elaborate coop (which was still there, and in use, sixty years later, see photo taken in 2007), garden sheds with tools plus several mature fruit trees. It was as if a family had just moved out to make room for us - THEY HAD!! Not moved out voluntarily either, 'Evicted!' is more like it. All their furniture and many possessions had been left behind; little wonder then the amount of harassment my parents subsequently encountered from them. We will never know who that family was but in 2007, when we flew out to Klagenfurt for a few days, we approached an elderly Austrian, and his much younger wife, living opposite to where we had lived and he remembered us being there in 1946 to 1947. He had been a teenager at that time and there was no doubting that he had loathed us then and that he had no particular liking for us sixty years later. Luckily his charming wife calmed the troubled waters and, with his slightly reluctant agreement, we were invited in and treated to tea and goodies in their lovely garden; he, now a retired senior consultant physician at a Vienna hospital, mellowed considerably and we chatted together quite amicably but - sensibly - we refrained from mentioning the evicted family. When members of that family used to gather outside our fence - it was barbed wire at the time, which seems strange thinking back on it - yelling at my parents, or we kids if we were in the garden, they were always dressed completely in black; I have always wondered if it all pointed towards them being members of the Jewish faith. I do recall my father showing us a service issue Webley revolver that he slept with under his pillow, just in case things ever got out of hand.

One other addition to the house which was unbelievable for my mother was the attractive young blonde who was to be our 'maid' throughout our time there; Hilde was almost certainly a DP herself and my parents must have known where she came from, but we young ones were never told - my guess is that she was a Hungarian refugee who had moved into the British zone rather than remain under the harsher regime in the Russian zone which bordered Hungary; there were hordes of such people who had done the same thing since the four-way military occupation of Austria had commenced at the end of hostilities. The division of Austria was the same as that of Germany with each of the four powers having a sector, roughly the division was: France had the west, USA the north, Britain the south and Russia the east - the latter containing the four-way divided capital city of Vienna (Wien). The British sector was made up of three states, East Tyrol, Carinthia and Styria; in the south it bordered Italy and the then Yugoslavia - now Slovenia. Klagenfurt is the largest city in Carinthia, it sits on the eastern end of the Worthersee, a ten mile long inland lake surrounded by foothills, high mountain ranges can be seen by facing in any direction; it is a truly beautiful region with - normally that is - moderately cold winters and Mediterranean type summers. Nowadays it is much favoured as a summer holiday resort by the Germans with the Worthersee spoilt to a great extent by large hotel complexes built on its shores.

We were to be in Austria for the winter of 1946 and a large part of the infamous winter of 1947 so it became advisable, almost straight away, to learn some rudimentary sledging, skiing and skating skills. A short distance from the house were slopes suitable for the former and a small lake that was already frozen over, possibly solidly, when we arrived; trying to skate there without upsetting the elderly Austrian gentlemen 'curling' was tricky but they were very circumspect towards us if there was any confliction - we were, after all, part of the occupation's authority and any antagonism towards us would only bring them trouble. In 2007 the lady who had treated us to tea in her garden later had to take her dog for a walk and she asked us if we would like to join her; we did and, of all places, included in her everyday dog walking was the exact area where we had once tobogganed and learnt to skate - it was just as I remembered it.

The summer of 1947 was a hot one also infamous in Austria because of the loss of the potato crop, caused mainly by the previously severe winter. My father got hold of, purloined or officially borrowed, an RAF 4 wheel drive Chevrolet 8 cwt (CWP) truck for our personal use; for obvious reasons we called it the 'Biscuit Box' - looked like one and inside it sounded like being in one! During the summer months we travelled extensively, sightseeing and picnicking; with the travel restrictions placed on the local population there were very few other vehicles on the roads. We found some wonderful picnic sites, often beside fast flowing rivers stocked full of trout that could literally be caught by hand - nothing quite like freshly grilled trout. We visited many historic buildings and castles right out of storybooks. My parents visited Vienna on occasions and often drove down through the southern mountain ranges into Italy and the town of Udine - where many years later the Hercules I was crewing conveniently gave me a few days off - usually accompanied by the Ransons - the twins and we two boys left in the care of our respective maids. They used to come back from Italy with the most amazing toys for us, things such as Shuco toy cars that, had we kept them, would have been worth big money nowadays.

I've never been convinced that all the travelling to Italy and back was just innocent shopping trips; Dad kept a large wooden crate in the car that was easily big enough to conceal a person, could the odd DP have been taken down to Italy? We'll never know? There was a huge 'Black Market' in post war Europe from which almost anything could be bought in exchange for the simple commodities the British forces took for granted, tea, coffee, cigarettes and spirits. Household goods like fridges, furniture, clothing and expensive toys were all easy to obtain; amongst other things my father got hold of a superb Marklin 'O' gauge electric train set.

Our schooling was run by the British forces, Army probably, and was very good indeed; the school itself was on the far side of town from where we lived and beside a canal which froze over and was yet another place to skate. I had a particular school friend, son of my father's station CO, who lived in another commandeered house; it was much more like a mansion than ours situated on the southern bank of the Worthesee, just outside the town. At the rear of this property the huge garden swept down to the lake where there were boat houses containing rowing boats, yachts and canoes for us to use as we liked - supervised of course! What a life! When we visited Klagenfurt in 2007 we hired a speedboat - complete with driver/helmsman, whatever - and traversed the whole of the lake; passing along the southern shore I recognised this property, even more splendid than I recalled, and when I explained to our driver about my being there back in 1947 he told us that it was owned by the boss of Ferrari - true or not, could well be?

One place we went to frequently was a ski lodge called Lachtal Haus; high up in the Eastern Tyrol it had been taken over, of course, by the British. We only ever went there in the summer as to get there by road in the winter would have been very difficult. Visiting this resort was an unforgettable experience, the views were magnificent and the walking wonderful. There were people living nearby on mountain farms with their cattle grazing the slopes all around the lodge, the bells hanging round some of the cows' necks could be heard ringing almost continuously - very tranquil. I remember visiting one of these farmhouses and the friendly folk showing us how they lived; the family slept upstairs with their animals, all shapes and sizes, sleeping below them - must have been fun during the day! This photo shows my brother and me with children from the farm sitting outside Lachtal house - who's who you may ask? My brother is on the right of the five and I'm on the left.

So whilst the folks back home were enduring post war austerity we the lucky service families overseas were having what would seem to be 'the life of old Riley', and in many ways we were, the kids anyway; but, as Edna Ranson once told me, there were no shops available other than a NAAFI and that only provided essentials like soap and cleaning materials, all food was provided as rations by the Army. Provisions were also provided for our maids - Hilde in our case - so long as they had been 'registered'! It must have been a strange existence for my mother and Edna Ranson, treated like Royalty yet unable to do very much; no wonder the two of them met up nearly every day for a chat - there never seemed to be anyone else for them to socialise with. There must have been a SNCOs' Mess, or a Military Club, close at hand though as our two sets of parents often went out on Saturday evenings; I doubt very much that they would have gone anywhere used by the local populace as there was still much ill will towards the occupational forces and their families.

My father took me onto the airfield occasionally and I recall there being only a small number of aircraft, as befits a Comm Sqn I guess, an Anson, the odd Spitfire, a Mosquito, a Feiseler Storch and a battered old Wellington. On one Guy Fawke's day - 1946 or 1947, most likely the latter - a firework display was held on the airfield and rather than having a traditional bonfire it was decided that a scrapped aeroplane would be burnt. The 'clapped- out' Wellington was the choice, probably because its fabric skin would burn more spectacularly than any other aircraft from the dump; it was stuffed full of oil-soaked rags and waste material and duly set ablaze - with a shot, I think, from an aircraft Very signal pistol; the result was a Guy Fawke's bonfire to beat any I ever saw later.

Come the end of 1947, amidst the cruellest of winter conditions, my father left us and travelled off to a new posting; it seems he had been persuaded to change trades from Aero Engine Fitter to MT Fitter and had been posted to No5 MTBD - Motor Transport Base Depot - at Hamburg, in Germany. We were to follow on soon after Christmas - what an adventure!