by Sir Roy Redgrave

Orient Express Magazine
©Venice Simplon Orient Express Inc., 1986

This is copyrighted material and intended for personal use
only. For any other purpose, please contact the publisher.

An encounter with a burly Turk and the unexplained removal of fellow passengers leads former major general Sir Roy Redgrave to conclude that the Orient-Express, on which he travelled between Rumania and England as a schoolboy "was not always as glamorous as we would care to believe."


The cramped luxury in which I may have been conceived on the Orient-Express was well matched by the splendid room in the Athene Palace Hotel, Bucharest, where I was born. Links between my family and the Orient-Express go back to 1877, a year after Georges Nagelmackers bought the International Sleeping Car Company. My grandfather, a captain in the Rumanian Army, returning from a military course in France, travelled on the new Wagons-Lits service which went only as far as Vienna.


About 10 years later the Orient-Express was extended to Bucharest and also, via Belgrade, to Constantinople. Twenty years after his first trip, my grandfather, now a colonel, married my grandmother, and they spent their honeymoon on the Orient-Express and in Paris. My mother was born the following spring in 1897.


By 1906 the Orient-Express had acquired considerable distinction and displayed an impressive list of European capitals outside each coach. Not every stop was recorded, yet some stations took great pride in having been selected as worthy of one. One such town was Cimpina in Rumania, 10 kilometres from our home at Doftana. Grandfather, then a general and the Provincial Governor, had insisted that his favourite train should stop there. This it did for just two minutes before making its final run to Bucharest through fields of maize and sun-flowers and past clusters of tall timber oil derricks.


The First World War put an end to the Orient-Express; but by 1921 the service resumed and became increasingly popular. Europe, however, had become a much more suspicious and dangerous place. Only Turkey had required a passport in 1876, but now every country imposed its immigration and customs controls. There was always tension as officials in an array of different uniforms tramped through the train at every frontier crossing. This was a challenge to my mother who smuggled the white satin for her wedding dress into Rumania by sleeping on it beneath the customs officers' eyes. In 1923 she brought a collection of silver in the bottom of a kit-bag on top of which she had packed numerous boxes of face powder with loose lids. The unfortunate officials got their uniforms covered in powder and looked no further.


There was great excitement at Cimpina before the train made its twice-weekly stop. Platforms were swept with long-handled straw brushes, the geraniums and petunias were watered and the stationmaster put on his best tunic. He then paced up and down, glancing at an enormous chronometer and would dart into his office to crank the handle of his telephone to speak to distant signal boxes. Smart horse-drawn carriages lined the approach roads while spectators crowded onto every vantage point to catch sight of the first wisp of smoke. I became familiar with this scene because from 1934 I was at a boarding school in England and passed through Cimpina up to six times a year.


The train's arrival was followed by frantic activity to make sure not a second of the precious two minutes was wasted. The first problem was to find the blue Wagons-Lits coaches among the motley selection of other rolling stock. Then came the search for the correct coach. The sleeping cars seemed terribly high off the ground and porters preferred to load through open windows rather than to try to drag a school trunk up the steep steps while hanging onto a brass rail. Mother always delayed our departure, to the stationmaster's despair and to my embarrassment, by inspecting my berth and checking whether there was paper in the WC. Then a shrill whistle blast, a loud hiss of steam, much spinning of engine wheels before they began to grip and we pulled away with handkerchiefs fluttering from every window until we disappeared into the Carpathian foothills.


After two trips in the care of adults, at the age of nine I was allowed to travel alone. My father took the brown-uniformed attendant aside, gave him a tip and asked him to look after me, but it soon became evident that he had other things to do. There were tickets to check, passports to collect, baggage to move, bells to answer and business to be organized for the ladies who travelled farther down the train. After all, three days alone in a first-class compartment could be dull indeed, and those girls chatted, played cards and provided far more than today's "in-flight" entertainment.


My first trip started well; at each stop I lowered the window to watch the milling crowds, the fresh walnut and yoghurt vendors and the engineer tapping the wheels with a long-handled hammer. The dining-car attendant announced first and second service and was followed by a column of my fellow travellers. But here was something for which I was totally unprepared—it was impossible to enter that awesome dining car alone, to select a table, to sit opposite a stranger and then read a menu. For the next day or so I eked out a packet of biscuits and two bars of chocolate which my grandmother had slipped into my hand. By lunch-time on the third day I was hungry and feeling sorry for myself as the by now familiar line of passengers passed down to the dining car. Suddenly the door slid open and a lady asked, "Do excuse me but would you like to accompany me? I do so hate eating alone."


I leapt to my feet and followed. She was connected with Missions to Sea-men and had guessed my dilemma. The waiter saw I had not used any of my meal coupons and gave me a generous helping. This lady was my idol, a dream in pale blue, and she restored my self-confidence.


One of the hazards of traveling alone was that I never knew with whom I might have to share the compartment. In 1936 an enormous Turk got on at Berlin. All my life I had been brought up to fear the Turks. They had skinned an ancestor alive in 1714, and my grandfather had fought them in Bulgaria in 1877, as had my father in Palestine in 1917. They massacred Greeks and Armenians; I was terrified. He tried so hard to be friendly, showing me a huge box of cigars he hoped to take through customs, a wooden box with seven cut-throat razors and a book full of photo-graphs of the Olympic Games in Berlin. Perhaps he was a weight-lifter. Anyway, I lay in the bottom bunk too scared to disturb him, let alone to use the remarkable china sauceboat which was stored beneath the wash-basin. I lay motionless long after dawn longing to lift the blind and see where we were. Eventually the attendant looked in and told me he had been taken off the train during the night by customs officers. I heaved a sigh of relief and dived for the receptacle beneath the wash-stand.


I estimate that I spent between two and three weeks a year on the Orient-Express and had less holidays than any boy at my school. The journey was no longer fun: my letters contained descriptions of people being taken off the train and in 1938 there was a wreath at Vienna station in memory of the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss who had been assassinated by Austrian Nazis in 1934. There were searches for Jews and lots of black uniforms. When war began in September, 1939, I was in Rumania, the Orient-Express route was closed and I hoped I could stay at home. But Italy was still neutral and the Simplon-Express still ran. The journey to the Gare du Nord in Paris took six days and we arrived to an air-raid alarm.


My parents lingered on in Rumania hoping the war would not spread, but on Saint Valentine's Day, 1941, they were ordered to leave with the British Embassy staff The city was under curfew and there were armed guards everywhere, but they were cheered to see the familiar blue Wagons-Lits coaches which appeared from some remote siding. My parents travelled in coach No 3 to Constanta where German troops and six light tanks guarded the train until they were all on board the Izmir, an old ship bound for neutral Turkey.


For a brief period in 1942-43, when the whole of Europe was occupied by Axis forces, an ersatz Orient-Express ran from Paris to Bucharest. After the war ended and the Iron Curtain came down across Europe, the service was never quite the same. Competition from airlines and lack of co-operation from Communist states reduced demand dramatically.


On the 100th anniversary of the Wagons-Lits Company in 1976, I was the Commander of the British Sector in West Berlin. One of my tenuous links with West Germany was the British Military Train. This unique train leaves Charlottenburg station daily for Brunswick and among its coaches is a blue Wagons-Lits dining car with a Union Jack and the badge of the Royal Corps of Transport painted boldly on its side. The doors are all locked on departure, the train carries a military guard, a radio transmitter and dry rations in case it is held up by the Russians. As my grand-father 100 years earlier might have done, I walked to the dining car, ordered a bottle of Pommard and gazed at the proud steam engines which can still be seen throughout East Germany. I reflected on the extraordinary history of these blue coaches and the thousands who escaped to freedom on them.


Now, as the 110th anniversary approaches and you walk through the magnificently restored railway carriages to the dining car, do check there is not a hungry young boy in the next coach. It was not always as glamorous as we would care to believe.