THIS chronicle is my personal account of the
history of 16 Platoon D Company, the 2/5 Battalion of the Lancashire
Fusiliers, 59th Staffordshire Division, later to become 16 Platoon D
Company, 7th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 53rd Welsh Division,
from its arrival in Normandy on 29 June 1944 until the end of the war
in May 1945.
I dedicate this account to my family, in particular my grandchildren,
so that they will never need to ask, "And what did you do in the
Grateful thanks to my son, David, without whose initial encouragement
and subsequent practical help this chronicle would never have been written.
Enlistment, training and preparation for the invasion of Europe 1
Normandy and the battle for Caen 10
The advance to Noyers Bocage and Château Pollitt 23
Crossing the River Orne and the end of the Normandy campaign 33
We join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and advance through France and Belgium
to Antwerp 40
Crossing the Meuse-Escaut Junction Canal (the Albert Canal) 44
Relieving the US airborne troops and the burning of a Dutch farmhouse
The battle for s'Hertogenbosch 57
Wounded, and our advance to the Rhine 67
The final chapter 73
A notice found in the headquarters of a German General 78
On the subject of fear 79
An intimate moment with the General 80
The Chocolate Soldier 81
Last man standing 82
Thoughts about money 83
s'Hertogenbosch revisited 85
Malon revisited 86
Image making 88
here to see the photos that go with this diary
ENLISTMENT, TRAINING AND PREPARATION FOR THE INVASION OF EUROPE
I HAD celebrated my 18th birthday on 5 May
1943, and a few days later I received a letter informing me that I should
report to a Sunday school at the junction of Barry Street and Huddersfield
Road, Oldham, in order to be medically examined to assess my suitability
for army training. I duly presented myself to a doctor who inquired
of my medical history, sounded my chest, tested my blood pressure and
pronounced me category Al. I was delighted with this news but my mother
was both appalled and angered at the injustice of the decision since
I had had every illness known to medical science plus at least one that
had baffled the best brains among doctors at Oldham Royal Infirmary.
This condition caused my face to swell like a pumpkin whenever I ate
raw onions. As I say, I was overjoyed to have been found to be physically
fit as I was anxious to be "called up" and play my small part
in the war. My only brother was already serving with the Royal Air Force
in North Africa. I had been fired with enthusiasm by newsreel films
of soldiers, "swinging" along down country lanes, their happy
smiling faces serving to underline how delighted they were to be serving
King and country. Although all newsreels were black and white it was
obvious to me that all our soldiers were suntanned, apple cheeked and
in the best of spirits.
I felt no personal animosity towards the Germans, despite the fact that,
one dark night in 1941, a German plane had dropped a bomb which landed
in a field about 30 yards from our family home. This bomb completely
destroyed two houses adjoining ours, and so damaged our own home that
it was beyond repair and had to be demolished. On hearing the air raid
warning siren, my mother had gone into the air raid shelter across the
road while I remained asleep in the back bedroom of the house.
The bomb's explosion caused one of the "sets", stones weighing
about 20lbs which formed the cobbled surface of Breeze Hill Road, to
be thrown into the air. This stone crashed through the roof of our house
and landed on my bed about 18in away from me. Neither the noise caused
by the explosion of the bomb nor the unexpected arrival of the heavy
stone woke me from my slumbers. In fact, it was not until a team of
stretcher-bearers entered my room through the dust and smoke that I
realised something untoward had occurred. These stretcher-bearers, ignoring
my pleas that I was unhurt and quite capable of making my own way out
of the house, insisted on carrying me to safety.
The war had at last come to Oldham and I knew that quite soon the time
would come for me to take part in it.
On 4 June 1943 I travelled by rail warrant to Beverley, East Yorkshire,
and reported to the annexe of the barracks of the East Yorkshire Regiment.
This proved to be a series of wooden huts surrounding a barrack square.
There were three other larger buildings of note - a dining hall, an
army stores and an administrative block. There was also a NAAFI canteen.
All the new recruits were issued with uniform and a number of items
of equipment. We were then told to parcel up all our civilian clothes
which were put into storage for the "duration of the emergency",
a period which implied not just the end of the war but as long after
as the army needed us. The business of the issuing of uniforms and equipment
was symbolic in that at the completion of it one had been divested not
only of all civilian belongings but also of one's individuality. The
stores unit was a long, low building with a counter down the whole of
one side behind which stood, at intervals, half a dozen stores assistants
whose job it was to issue to each man particular items of a soldier's
To begin with I was given an army battle dress. It is important to disabuse
the reader, from the outset, of any idea that a tailor, tape measure
in hand, took chest, waist and inside leg measurements in order to achieve
a suitable fitting. Montague Burton this was not. Instead a greatly
experienced stores corporal considered each new entrant, with a practised
eye, and called out size 4 or 6 or 8 as the case may be. I was size
4 and have to acknowledge that my uniform fitted as well as if in civilian
life I had been for two or three fittings. We were at the same time
given a pair of denim trousers and jacket. No matter how well formed
a man might have been, the denims always fitted loosely about his body.
In particular the neck sizes were so large that they hung about us like
halters on dray horses.
As I passed along the corridor I was given variously one pair boots,
two shirts, two vests, two pairs drawers, cleaning equipment, a holdall,
knife, fork and spoon, a forage cap and steel helmet and finally an
Army Book Part 1, the soldier's "passport", into which were
entered details of identity. Mine stated eyes hazel, mole on right side
of chin, height 5ft 10½ in. I was then allotted an army number,
which I was told I would remember for the rest of my life. And so I
became His Majesty's Own 14617791 Private Pollitt K. British Army -
for the use of.
In random fashion we were split into groups of 40 and then directed
in turn to one of the wooden huts that formed the camp. There were 20
two-tier bunk beds in each hut and I threw my equipment on to a top
bunk. A tall pale faced youth occupied the lower bed. His name was Richard
Tomlinson Easton and he came from Stalybridge. He was strong willed,
contrary, argumentative and courageous. He was to become my friend and
16 months later would probably save my life by acting as a human shield.
In turn I would carry him, seriously wounded, off the battlefield. But
that is to anticipate this chronicle. Among the other 38 men billeted
in the hut was a lad from Cheadle Hulme named John Brickell. His personal
circumstances were never fully explained but I believe his father had
left his mother for a younger woman which might have been the cause
of Johnny's pronounced stammer. Despite this handicap he was self-composed
and nobody's fool. The three of us were to become firm friends.
A daily routine was established very quickly. We rose from our bunks
at 6.30am to wash, shave and change into PE kit. There followed a period
of PT from 7.00 until 7.30. Afterwards we would return to the hut to
change into denims and go for breakfast at 8.00 until 8.45, when the
training programme would begin. The first hour might be spent on the
barrack square marching and practising arms drill. Next would be an
hour's weapon training, which included a short break for cocoa. Then
the last session in the morning could have been aircraft recognition
or map reading. After that was lunch and then the afternoon might be
taken up with field training and tactics. In this way the days and weeks
passed quickly, but two memorable events took place which are worthy
The film Casablanca was being shown throughout the country and a copy
of it came to the camp. We were all gathered in the large hall where
a screen had been put up half way down the room with men sitting on
the floor at either side such that some people saw the film as it was
meant to be seen and others saw it the wrong way round. I thought it
a super film then and having seen it a number of times since have had
no reason to change my mind.
The second special event was that each one of us in turn was to be interviewed
by the personnel selection officer who asked what kind of job we would
like to do during our service. I said I wanted to be a driver; others
wanted medical orderly, signaller, etc. Not one among us, to my knowledge,
wanted to be rifleman in an infantry battalion. In the event anyone
whose muscles had already developed was allocated to the Royal Artillery
which regiment required men fit for heavy duties, while the remainder,
under-developed weaklings, were sent for infantry training.
A year later, having had face to face contact with German soldiers from
some of their elite units, not a man of which was under 6ft 2in and
all of whom were built like brick lavatories, it was clear to me that
their selection procedures were in direct contrast to ours.
In mid-July I was part of a draft travelling to the Infantry Training
Unit at Berwick-upon-Tweed. This establishment turned out to be a carbon
copy of Beverley, save that it was perched on the edge of a cliff. The
daily routine was much the same as it had been at Beverley with the
notable exception that three times each week we were sent out on a 15
to 20 mile route march wearing battle order and carrying rifles. In
this way, North Berwick became familiar countryside to us. The weather
was for the most part warm and sunny and the scenery remote and beautiful.
At last I was beginning to find myself becoming suntanned and apple
The other innovation was the introduction to the camp's assault course.
If long route marches were no great hardship for me, as stamina and
endurance tasks suited my physique, events demanding speed and strong
arms found me wanting. The assault course measured a rough track about
half a mile long. The start point was on the cliff tops, where we had
to jump a water hazard, wriggle under about 6ft of barbed wire, vault
a five bar gate before the descending the cliff face - a slithering,
sliding, tumbling, falling experience. Down on the beach we ran about
300 yards across a boulder covered trail, all the while risking twisted
ankles and even broken bones. There followed the climb to the cliff
top and then a rush to the last obstacle, a 5ft high brick wall. This
was for me the most severe test. Strong arms were needed to pull oneself
up and over, but unfortunately for me I had little upper body strength.
The course was always run as a competition between different platoons
and in this way generated much excitement and enthusiasm.
The 13 weeks passed quickly after which we were granted 10 days' leave.
Immediately on our return we received information of our postings and
discovered that all the Lancashire lads would be "joining"
the 2nd 5th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers who were stationed
at Folkestone on the Channel coast.
Within a week of our arrival the battalion was moved a few miles up
the Kent coast to Birchington-on-Sea, actually not quite on the sea,
but a couple of miles inland. Companies A, B and C were billeted in
the town along with battalion headquarters but D company, which comprised
of the new young recruits, all aged 18 or 19, was stationed at Minnis
Bay on the coast. Each of the company's three platoons occupied adjoining
three storey houses, while headquarters was in a bungalow near by. We
were now fully formed as a fighting unit with Major Wilson commanding
and Captain Tomlinson his second in command. The company's three platoons,
numbers 16, 17 and 18, had each a platoon lieutenant, platoon sergeant
and three sections - all with a full corporal and a lance corporal in
charge of the machine gun team.
Our company commander, Major Wilson, had fought with the Lancashire
Fusiliers in North Africa where they had seen heavy fighting and he
had been returned to England to bring some much needed experience to
this newly formed unit. Although still in his twenties, he seemed quite
ancient to us youngsters. He possessed the charismatic qualities apparent
in all born leaders. He was in no sense flamboyant. He never sought
to be over familiar with us but, while discipline was always maintained,
it was tempered with fair mindedness and understanding. Captain Tomlinson
was somewhat more remote.
Oddly enough I can recall nothing of our CSM. This is extraordinary
as the sergeant major was always one of the most high profile people
in any company. But wait, I see him now, a dark thick set man, whom
I lost sight of after the early battles in Normandy.
Lt. Collins was our platoon officer. He had been an aspiring cartoonist
and had risen from the ranks. After he was badly wounded in Normandy
we managed fairly well for the rest of the campaign without an officer
in charge, although we did fleetingly have an Australian named Cluny
and later a pleasant but insignificant Lancastrian.
Our section leader, Corporal Whatnough, came from Heywood. He had been
with the battalion for three years. He became a casualty in the first
or second week of action and was replaced by Charlie Grocott, a native
of Salford and a time serving soldier. Charlie was intelligent, brave
and crafty as a cartload of monkeys. What he didn't know about soldiering
was not worth knowing. Charlie survived the war, as everyone knew he
would, and was later said to have married the daughter of a wealthy
Dutchman. Someone watched over Charlie, but there would no doubt be
a fierce debate, when he finally passed over the other side, as to whether
he would ascend into heaven or be consigned to hell. I devoutly hoped
it would be the former.
The indications were that our division had been earmarked to take part
in the much heralded invasion of Europe. In October and again in the
new year we went out on extended manoeuvres, known to the army as schemes,
living rough and sleeping in the open for days at a time. In spring,
while I was on home leave, our battalion travelled up to Inverary in
Scotland to practise beach landings. On my return friends recounted
to me the "buzz" of excitement and the rush of adrenaline
as they leaped from the landing craft into the sea and how quickly this
euphoria evaporated on finding themselves chest deep in icy water wading
slowly for the shores. A week after the event men spoke of the experience
in hushed tones, a measure of the lasting effects the whole business
had had on them. Bad news, I thought, and I wondered how much worse
this was going to be when faced with a welcoming party of Germans, well
equipped in deep bunkers, waiting to pick us off as we came into their
In the unlikely event of there being any among us who remained to be
convinced that we were soon to go into action, all doubts were dispelled
with our final "scheme" which placed the division in landing
crafts and heading for the French coast somewhere between Calais and
Boulogne. Within sight of France the naval force turned about and returned
At last we were all ready to go, but before that happened we received
a visit from our commander in chief, Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery.
The division was drawn up on open ground at Westgate-on-Sea. We stood
about two hours in open order awaiting a formal inspection by the great
man. Immediately on his arrival, he told us to break ranks and gather
round the temporary platform erected for the occasion. He then proceeded
to address us in clipped tones, with just a suggestion of a lisp, and
mixing sporting metaphors with fine abandon. I am pleased to be able
to record that he did not promise that the forthcoming battles were
going to be "a piece of cake" and for that at least I was
grateful to him. Before he left we were ordered to give him three cheers,
after which 2,000 men threw their hats in the air. My six and seven
eighths went up with the others but unfortunately came down a size seven,
the result being that thereafter, whenever there was a moderate wind,
my hat blew off. This was inconvenient but not painful, while I knew
that somewhere, someone in the battalion would be suffering a mild but
persistent headache as a result of wearing a beret marginally too small
On 6 June the world heard over the radio that Allied troops had succeeded
in landing on a shore in northern France. From then on we were on short
notice to move out but in the event we had to wait for about four days.
At last, the order came and we marched, in full kit, to the railway
station. We had been in Birchington for nine months, during which time
we had made many friends, and so it was not surprising that the whole
town turned out to see us off. Along the roads, round the open area
outside the railway station and lining the footbridge across the line,
they stood and waved a very emotional farewell. Our destination was
to be a "sealed" camp on the South Downs near Lewes. Directly
opposite, on the far side of the valley, was the white horse cut into
the hillside centuries earlier. We were under canvas and would normally
have expected to remain in this camp only a day or two at the most,
but a fierce storm in the Channel had partially destroyed the artificial
harbour anchored off the landing beaches and severely delayed the build
up of troop reinforcements and essential stores, setting back the invasion
timetable for at least week. In the meantime there were films provided
in the camp and a well known dance band leader of the time, Lou Praeger,
played popular music. For the most part however we sat on the grass
in the warm sunshine and talked.
In due course we were transported to Newhaven where a fleet of LSTs
(landing ship, tanks) had been assembled to take us by night across
the Channel to Normandy.
NORMANDY AND THE BATTLE FOR CAEN
THE LSTs were specifically designed to transport
tanks to a hostile beach. Because they were flat bottom craft they could
sail almost on to a beach before the front end was lowered. This then
became a ramp down which the tanks were driven, possibly through low
water and then on to the sand. The inside of our landing craft was cavernous
with seeming acres of empty space which, now that a landing had been
achieved, was no longer needed for the assault and had therefore been
converted into a troop carrier. The whole of the inside had been fitted
out with bunks enabling each LST to transport a sizeable number of troops
the short distance from the south coast of England across the Channel
to the beaches of Normandy. On boarding the craft we were each issued
with an inflatable life jacket with strict instructions not to tamper
with them. However the inflation system was extraordinarily sensitive
and by morning there were life jackets, like blow up dolls, all over
the ship. Lacking any amenities whatsoever there was nothing to do except
lie on the bunk and try to get some sleep. Being a flat bottom boat
it might have been an extremely bumpy crossing but in the event the
sea was dead calm and the night passed without alarm, although we did
learn next morning that there had been reports of a German U boat shadowing
our convoy. We left England in the early evening and by dawn, when we
left our bunks and went "topside", we got our first view of
the invasion beaches.
Immediately in front of us the beach was quite narrow, giving way to
flat and then gently rising ground. To the right, I could see the cliffs
sheltering the small harbour at Arromanches. There was a road running
at the back of the beach along which were dotted, at irregular intervals,
a number of private homes, every one of which had suffered damage from
the D-day pre-landing bombardment. Turning seaward the bay was full
of ships of all sizes, landing craft, supply ships, destroyers and,
farther out to sea, at least one battleship. Tethered to a number of
those ships were barrage balloons, to discourage enemy aircraft from
attempting low level attacks on what would have been very tempting targets.
In the event, however, during the whole of the campaign I saw only two
German aircraft, while our own planes dominated the skies completely.
It was one of the greatest factors in the eventual Allied victory that
our control of the air was total.
The LST was anchored alongside a continuous line of pontoons which reached
right down to the shore. And so, having scrambled down rope netting
hung over the side of the boat, we were able to walk ashore without
even getting our feet wet. On the beach road a line of three ton trucks
was parked waiting to take us to an area already prepared for us by
our advance party. The journey took some time, creating the impression
that the "bridgehead" was quite extensive. In fact we must
have had to take a circuitous route as the front line was only about
10 miles in from the coast. Alongside all the roads the fields were
marked with signs depicting a skull and the warning "Aktung minen".
Almost all the villages through which we passed had experienced fighting
and buildings everywhere had been damaged. In addition I saw two enormous
concrete blockhouses which had formed part of the Atlantic Wall German
defensive systems. There was evidence of burning against their walls
indicating that flame-throwers had been used to quell the defenders.
There was no doubting now that we had entered a war zone.
The "advance party" had established themselves in a field,
which I now know to have been somewhere between Creully and Bayeux.
This was open country, with no habitation in the immediate area. The
field was hedged in by a continuous line of trees and bushes isolating
us from the rest of the battalion, who were similarly billeted near
by. The whole of the company was together, the three platoons 16, 17
and 18, plus company headquarters and the cookhouse.
We quickly set about erecting bivouacs, two groundsheets lashed together
to make a form of tent open at both ends, but as the weather was fine
and warm the shelter was adequate. We were not required to mount guard
or serve on picket duty and so the days were free of any kind of responsibility.
Time passed pleasantly enough, chatting and reading, jealously holding
on to any magazines or English papers that came our way. We were waiting
for the arrival of the battalion's "rear party" bringing with
them our heavy equipment, Bren gun carriers and vehicles of all kinds.
It would have been possible during this period to imagine oneself on
some kind of camping holiday and I was not conscious of too much anxiety
about what inevitably lay ahead. The army conditions its men to live
one day at a time and for my part I know that I slept well and was in
a fairly relaxed state of mind.
I now believe that news of the fighting was being deliberately kept
from us but gradually, as the days passed, some information began to
filter back from the front. The Germans were in well prepared positions
from which they were defending their ground with great determination
and skill. Any field gained was paid for at a price. Front line units
were suffering heavily in casualties and equipment. The German tanks
in particular were outgunning our lighter armoured tanks, "knocking
them out" before ours could get close enough to do them any serious
damage. For the four weeks since D-day plus two, 8 June, the front line
around Caen had hardly moved.
On 6 July, the battalion, having fully assembled, was sent forward into
second line of defence, not far behind the front lines. As we moved
closer to the fighting there were signs displaying the warning "Dust
costs lives". Transport often passed over farm tracks giving rise
to clouds of dust which became targets for the enemy artillery. Also
noticeable as we moved forward were the numerous crucifixes and roadside
shrines at almost every road junction, a prophetic sight in this land
where so many men had died and even more were to suffer the same fate,
over the coming weeks.
Our new location was close enough to the front line for us to hear quite
clearly not just the shells and mortar bombs but also the small arms
fire of machine guns and rifles. We were told that these sounds of battle
were coming from the airfield at Carpiquet where the Canadians were
trying to dislodge a small but very determined group of Hitler Jugend
in order to make a much needed forward airfield available to the RAF.
About this time there was much talk of the German tactic of leaving
behind snipers in places where they had been forced to give ground.
These men typified the German soldier's determination and courage. They
secured themselves with chains or ropes, in the branches of tall trees,
where, hidden by the foliage, they were able to kill unsuspecting Allied
troops who believed themselves to be in a safe area. Not surprisingly
these Germans, once captured, were shown no mercy, as they were seen
more as assassins than soldiers. One such was found in our battalion
position. The circumstances of his discovery were never made clear,
although it was said that he was caught climbing down a tree in order
to give himself up. He was promptly killed but, instead of a decent
burial as every soldier has the right to expect, he was left on the
ground in front of battalion HQ and we were all encouraged to go to
Over 50 years later I have a clear recollection of him. His name was
Fritz Thomas. He was aged about 20, with blond hair and a fair complexion.
He was of medium height, strongly built and was wearing the distinctive
camouflage smock worn by German paratroops. Our treatment of him, displaying
him in such a way in death, seemed to me to be barbaric and totally
contrary to the English spirit of fair play which had always been the
code by which I believed we, the English, lived. Now however, many years
and many wars later, I think I can understand why the commanding officer
ordered that the man should be put on open view. If an army is to win
a war, even a single battle, it must believe itself to be at least the
equal, if not the superior, of its enemy. This was the fifth year of
the war and the German Army had had victories over all the Allied armies.
It is true we had won some battles against them in North Africa but
we had yet to defeat them in a pitched battle on mainland Europe. There
was a real danger that our troops, so far largely untried, had come
to see the Germans as supermen and invincible in combat. The dead body
of the German paratrooper served to make the point that these men were,
like us, only mortal.
Events now began to gather pace. First our commanding officer, Lt Col
"Charlie" Chads, was called to divisional headquarters for
an O (order)-group. Later all the company commanders were called to
an O-group with the commanding officer and so down the line of command
until in this way the ordinary soldiers were briefed by the platoon
commander. The British 3rd division, our own 59th division and the Canadian
12th corps were to attack the centre of the German defences around Caen
on the following day, 8 July. The same evening of 7 July the RAF was
to mount a 500 bomber raid on the city, which it was expected would
have a devastating effect on the German defensive positions and on the
morale of their troops. In addition, from early morning on 8 July, our
artillery would open up a barrage on the German forward troops unequalled
in severity so far in this war.
That evening, around 9 o'clock, we watched as RAF bombers coming from
the coast and flying low, dropped thousands of tons of high explosive
bombs on that beautiful, ancient and historic city. It was a wonderful
morale booster for the troops who were beginning to feel that the next
day all that would be necessary would be a certain amount of "mopping
up" of isolated resistance, before walking into the German positions.
We were not to know until much later that, militarily, the air attack
had been useless. The Germans later claimed that hardly a man was killed
in the attack. The reason for this was that Field Marshall Montgomery
had stressed that no bombs should "fall short" and land on
the British troops, so it was decided to set back the bombing line with
the effect that the bombs fell not on the German front line positions
but on civilian areas of the city. Thousands of civilian casualties
resulted, including many people who had fled the outlying villages to
avoid the ground fighting. On a visit to Normandy in 1990 I spoke to
a lady who had been caught in the air attack. She told me she had been
struck both deaf and dumb for seven days as a consequence of the trauma
brought about by that bombardment.
The divisional battle plan called for a concerted attack by the Canadian
12th corps and British 3rd and 59th divisions. The Canadians' objective
was the village of Buron, 2/6 South Staffs were to take Galmanche and
the adjoining wood, 7th Royal Warwicks and 1st East Lancs were to attack
St Contest and 2/5 Lancs Fusiliers the small village of Malon. On the
division's left flank the 3rd division was to secure Epron.
Lying across our axis line of attack was a deep anti-tank ditch dug
by civilians on German orders. The task of A company was to secure possession
of the tank trap, B and C were to gain a bridgehead on the far side
and D company would then drive forward to take Malon and if possible
continue as far as La Folie, another village some distance beyond.
Reveille on 8 July was at 3.30am. The only concession I had made in
preparing for rest was to remove my boots. I had slept fitfully and
was soon up, washed and shaved. A hot breakfast was served to us in
mess tins and then in the short time before getting into the three ton
trucks and leaving for the front line something happened quite spontaneously
that thereafter never again occurred. Men went round shaking hands and
wishing each other luck. Then it was off to an unknown fate.
The journey was a short one and our destination a village that was still
burning from recent action. Although I did not know at the time I now
believe that village was Cambes-en-Pleine. Dawn had not yet broken and
the only light came from the flames of the burning buildings which,
against a backdrop of smoke and dust, created a very eerie atmosphere
Having been one of the last to board the truck I was now almost the
first off and as we were ordered to form single file I found myself
next to the leading man in the column with a sergeant ahead of him map
reading. Almost at once we entered an established track that led into
and through a field of corn, over waist high now, and nearly ready for
harvest. I suspect the track was a third to half a mile long. We had
walked for some distance and the silence was absolute when, in a clearing,
we caught sight of two stretcher-bearers attending to a soldier who
had been wounded in the face, the infantryman's worst nightmare. The
image of that man remains with me still and at the time served to bring
into sharp focus the fact that we were about to experience our first
taste of action.
We continued on our way through the cornfield when the man immediately
in front of me caught his foot in a trip wire and released a coloured
flare high into the night sky. Surely, now, the Germans knew we were
coming. We were now within 30 yards of the end of the cornfield and
as dawn began to break I could see a metalled road directly ahead. On
our left side lay open ground in which a crop had recently been harvested.
It was into this "field" that we were directed with instructions
to dig slit trenches. We needed no second bidding and at once set to
work on the soft ground. In no time at all my trench was 18in deep but
at this point I struck a flinty subsoil with my spade and it became
impossible to dig deeper.
How much time had passed since the flare had given the enemy warning
of our imminent arrival it is difficult to say, but now at last they
began to react. First indication of enemy action was of several indistinct
sounds followed by what seemed like a substantial flight of geese immediately
overhead and then an urgent "swishing" sound followed by seven
sharp explosions very close at hand. Some sixth sense alerted me to
danger and I jumped into my shallow slit trench and lay face down. The
trench was just deep enough to allow my body to be below ground level
but it was a close thing and being face down I couldn't be absolutely
sure no part of me was not exposed. The Germans had opened fire with
their seven barrelled mortars known to us as "sobbing sisters"
or "moaning minnies". Their distinctive screaming noise as
bombs fell to earth was designed to put us in a state of panic. Fear,
they quite often generated, but I never saw British troops in a state
of panic throughout any actions that I took part in. As I lay in my
entirely inadequate shelter I at first counted the bombs in the knowledge
that after the seventh there would be some respite, but the barrage
achieved such a level of intensity that the bombs were falling continuously.
The noise was incredible, soil was being thrown into the air and pieces
of equipment left at the side of the trench were being damaged or destroyed.
This was our first experience of coming under shell fire. There were
to be many more such bombardments as the campaign progressed.
How long the barrage lasted it is impossible to say. I suspect that
what caused the Germans to stop shelling was that our A, B and C companies
had begun their advance and this attack presented their gunners with
more tempting targets. The relative calm on our sector coincided with
the sound of machine gun and rifle fire coming from our right flank.
Around our company lines men could be seen lifting their heads cautiously
above the level of their trenches and giving some sign with a nod or
thumbs up that they were OK.
A period of relative calm was broken by the arrival of the Bren carrier
of the battalion quartermaster, "Stand to Attention" Selby.
He was so called because no matter to whom he spoke, irrespective of
rank or position, he always stood rigidly to attention. Mr Selby had
brought not only a hot meal but also a bunch of mail among which was
a parcel for me from my Godmother, Aunt Ada. Having lived through the
First World War, Aunt Ada thought that what the troops at the front
most needed were balaclavas, scarves and woollen gloves, and so she
had set about knitting a full set for me. The temperature of the day
had risen into the 80 degrees Fahrenheit and therefore these items were
entirely superfluous to my immediate requirements although the awareness
that someone had me in their thoughts was very reassuring.
By midday we were formed up on the metalled road. It was very quiet
on our sector of the front and the battalion communication vehicle had
been brought forward. But first, the worst possible news, we learned
that our company commander, Major Wilson, had been killed early in the
morning during the German mortar barrage. We were all downcast as we
had invested all our confidence in this man. He had the qualities of
the born leader and we felt safe under his command. His second in command,
Captain Tomlinson, would become our new commanding officer. Captain
Tomlinson, later Major Tomlinson, proved to be a very safe pair of hands
and remained with those of us who survived until the end of the war.
He gained the Belgian Croix de Guerre, largely as an acknowledgement
of the company's stout defence during the German Ardennes offensive.
Overrun by a German attack the men held their ground, until a counter
attack caused the enemy to retreat.
Had I thought, I would have realised that something had gone badly wrong
with the battalion attack, since by this time we should have been moving
out of the bridgehead beyond the anti-tank ditch and fighting for the
village of Malon. Confirmation of the battalion's problems I heard for
myself as I stood by the open door of the communication vehicle and
heard someone inside say, in a very distraught voice, "I've lost
a battalion." The implication was all too clear; the attack had
Some moments later the sergeant came down the line and called me and
four or five others out. Captain Tomlinson had decided to reconnoitre
forward in order to get a clearer view of the situation and locate exactly
the German positions. Moving right, our little group skirted the trees
on the far side of the road and, keeping to the side of a hedge, entered
an open field. Holding tight in against a line of bushes we made cautious
progress to the next field which contained a scattering of apple trees.
This field having been crossed, we now progressed about 200 yards, a
very considerable advance under the circumstances, without as yet attracting
any fire. But then as we were about to break through the next hedge
we heard again the sinister sound of the German multi-barrelled mortars
and seconds later bombs were falling all around.
I lay on the ground until the explosions had ceased and then was ordered
by the sergeant to dig a trench for Captain Tomlinson. However I found
the ground so hard my entrenching tool could make no impression on it.
In the meantime, in response to the German mortar attack, we fired our
own portable mortar which, it has to be said, was to the German guns
what a water pistol is to a fire hydrant. Then, in an attempt to provide
ourselves with some cover, we tried to blow a hole in the flinty ground
with a high explosive grenade, but this effort also proved ineffective.
We were now in a terribly exposed position and what would have happened
next is pure speculation. We would, I am sure, have entered into the
field of fire of the German machine guns and since the Germans plainly
knew we were approaching we must have expected a very hot reception
indeed. In the event we had one of those strokes of good fortune that
come all too rarely at just the right time. It would seem that the divisional
commander, Major General Louis Lyne, perhaps alerted by the lack of
progress made by the Lancashire Fusiliers, had driven down to our battalion
headquarters, and on making an assessment of the situation, had decided
to call off our attack, realising that to continue with it would result
in more casualties without any great likelihood of success. Exactly
when this decision was made, and how long it took to filter through
to our company, I know not, but at the precise moment when our little
group was about to move more clearly into the sights of the German machine
gunners, a runner came from company with instructions for us to return
to where the rest of our men were waiting on the road in front of the
village. Much later, we took shelter in a near by stand of trees, where
I lay down and, without even digging a trench for protection, I slept.
This day, without a shadow of doubt, proved to be the worst day of the
whole war. We had failed to gain our objective and A, B and C companies
had suffered appalling casualties. Rumours circulated that more than
half the battalion had perished, but later this figure proved to be
greatly exaggerated. We had not however taken a yard of ground that
we had been able to hold.
I felt a tremendous sense of failure, and even wondered if our commanders
might, as a consequence of the day's events, have entirely lost confidence
in our battalion such that they may not call on us again as a fighting
unit. These were extraordinary feelings for a young private soldier
to have, especially since I was no hero, and had no desire to get killed
or wounded. I record this thought because that is the way I felt at
the end of that day.
The next day we were moved forward into St Contest, now completely clear
of the enemy. We sat in trenches built by the Germans and waited for
a possible counter attack. Thank God no German attack was mounted against
us, as our trenches were sited to meet an attack from the opposite direction.
For those who fell that day,
Went the day well? We died and never knew.
At all points the battle hardened German troops fought stubbornly, with
great resourcefulness and skill, but by the end of the day the Canadians
had recaptured Buron. Galmanche and its adjoining woods, which according
to the divisional plan should have been cleared of the enemy by early
morning, held out until nine at night. The South Staffs, having been
severely weakened, had then given way to a battalion of North Staffs.
The 7th Battalion Royal Warwicks and 1st East Lancs had fought their
way into St Contest and by nightfall were already strongly established
there. Only the 2/5 Lancs Fusiliers failed to take their objective.
The inability of 2/6 South Staffs to clear the wood close by Galmanche
led to our battalion having to advance across an open field in the face
of machine gun and mortar fire coming from their front but also similar
murderous machine gun fire from their right flank. Should anyone accuse
us of lacking determination, the official historian noted that, of the
three companies involved in the assault, one man in four would be lost
and three of our four company commanders would be killed. The one remaining,
Major Woolatt, had been taken prisoner earlier in the war and been held
in Colditz Castle. He had escaped from there with Airey Neave and together
they had first reached Switzerland and then some days later, crossed
southern France and entered Spain from where he eventually got back
to England and rejoined his regiment. His survival however was to be
short lived and he fell in the next attack, having been in Normandy
less than three weeks with only a Military Cross to console his family.
Among the many tragic stories that day was the one concerning a young
man initially placed in D company who was "claimed" by his
older brother in B company (this was the right to allow brothers to
serve together if they so wished). They became a two man mortar team
in their platoon. During the fighting, one of the bombs they were carrying,
perhaps hit by shrapnel or a bullet, exploded, blowing them both to
Casualties on both sides had been fearfully heavy but by nightfall the
German defences had been breached and Caen fell next day to the 3rd
division. The linchpin of the German defence had been taken out and
all along the front their forces were retreating. It had not yet become
a rout and further hard fighting would have to be undertaken, but for
the enemy in Normandy defeat now stared them in the face.
On a visit to Normandy in the early 1990s I was taken to the place where
Galmanche had originally stood, and found that every building had been
completely destroyed. The Glamanche of today has been built on a site
a little distance away from its original position.
Two days after the battle for Caen we were withdrawn from the fighting
to await reinforcements of officers and men. We bivouacked on a headland
overlooking the beaches and had a good view of all the naval activity
and saw the continuing landing of men and supplies. The weather was
fine and warm and one day, out of a clear blue sky, I watched while
the only two German fighter planes operational over Normandy attempted
a sneak raid on the shipping in the bay. They appeared to do little
damage and were soon chased off by our anti-aircraft fire.
Although there were no talks or group discussions (this was after all
1944 and not 1994) to reflect on the lessons to be learned after our
initiation into battle we all knew that the Germans had outfought us.
The three companies of our battalion most involved had reverted to the
First World War tactic of trying to rush enemy machine gun positions
without adequate covering fire. Courage, and there had been plenty of
that about, was simply insufficient in the face of a professional, determined
enemy. We had a lot to learn if we were to prevail in the battles that
lay ahead of us.
THE ADVANCE TO NOYERS BOCAGE AND CHATEAU POLLITT
THE pattern of the battle for Normandy had
changed dramatically. The Germans had been forced to retreat from their
strong defensive position at Caen. With the American breakthrough at
St Lo, the threat of the German Army being caught in a huge encircling
movement was becoming increasingly a reality. The German high command
were now engaged in the kind of controlled withdrawal of which they
had had so much experience on the Eastern Front in Russia.
Their tactics were to leave small numbers of men in well sited defensive
positions who would ensure disproportionate casualties on the advancing
troops before moving back a few hundred yards to resume their "hit
and run" method of defending.
We left our "start line" at the village of Fontenay-le-Pesnel
to advance by way of Tessel and Vendes to Noyers, a town on the road
that led from Caen to Villers Bocage. In this way we would cut the last
remaining escape route for the Germans returning from Caen. Tessel was
our company's first objective and we approached it across country that
was criss-crossed by tight hedgerows, typical of the Bocage. There were
no German troops in the village, which was a pleasant surprise. It was
also very fortunate since we entered by walking down the middle of the
streets, like cowboys on a "shoot out" in a Wild West film,
instead of advancing carefully, clearing house by house. Had the Germans
left a few men behind our naive behaviour would have been severely punished.
Once the village was secure, we moved out into the wooded area beyond.
We had now formed a single file of men and were progressing in a manner
described in army manuals as "approach to contact". Expressed
simply this meant that a platoon or company advanced in "Indian"
file until the forward troops were fired on by the enemy. The man at
the front of such and advance was most likely to be the enemy's first
The leading troops in the file entered the wood on what was a well worn
path. Nothing happened until the men at the rear of the column were
also well in among the trees. But the Germans had obviously been observing
our every move. What is more they must have targeted and sited their
artillery on the wood before they left it because they now opened a
fierce bombardment. Not a shell seemed to be wasted, all falling among
the trees along the line of our advance.
This barrage was different from the one we had experienced in Caen.
These were not mortars but heavy artillery firing high explosive. The
noise was indescribable; shells were falling all around, bringing down
trees and making huge holes in the ground. Mud and shrapnel were flying
everywhere. One particularly loud explosion took place desperately close
at hand, which caused me to dive for cover on the ground. The boy a
couple of paces ahead of me also went down, but when I picked myself
up he remained lying on the ground. I moved forward to look at him and
found that the whole of the lower part of his face had been blown away.
It was obvious he must have died instantly. His name was Williams, he
had been just a boy, trustworthy and well liked and now he was gone.
There was no time to mourn, men at the head of the line were shouting
"Get back" while at the same time people at the rear, who
were also coming under a heavy bombardment, began to shout "Get
forward". It was the nearest thing to panic and a breakdown of
discipline that I was to experience throughout the whole war. But discipline
just held and the advance continued. How many men had been lost I know
not, but it must have been a considerable number.
We emerged from the wood and found ourselves on high ground looking
down on to a valley through which snaked a good road. On descending
the hillside it was to find our old friends the 2/6 South Staffs already
in occupation and well supported by a battery of 25lb guns. We were
ordered to "dig in" and found ourselves looking up at a long
sloping piece of ground with a wood at its summit. It could be described
in golfing terms as a long par five. Running along the right hand side
was a continuous low hedge, obviously planted to divide one field from
the next. We were told that the Germans were holding the high ground
and we were to await orders.
Hours passed without incident before a rumour went round that the Germans
were mounting a counter attack. Almost at once a tank "nosed"
out of the wood ahead. Immediately behind me, where the 25 pounders
were sited, I heard the officer's words of command, "Load, aim,
fire". There was a tremendous crack as the gun was discharged and
we all watched as the tank, over 500 yards distant, was struck in the
turret. This surely had been an amazing shot to hit its target first
time at such a range. We all cheered and shouted and spirits rose sky
high. The feeling of elation lasted only a short time as it transpired
that the tank was one of our own. The gunners, once heroes, were now
villains and they explained their action by arguing that the tank commander
was at fault for leaving the wood with his gun pointing in our direction.
There are few things in war more distressing than firing on and causing
casualties among your own troops. A feeling of discord was beginning
to arise between the infantry and the men manning the big guns.
Before it could fester the order came for D company to advance and occupy
the wood ahead. The field in front of us was completely devoid of any
natural cover and the only resource open to us was to hug the hedge,
crouching low, and hope that in this way we would get reasonably close
to the enemy before they became aware of our approach. Our section was
the second of three.
We divided ourselves into two groups so as not to present too easy a
target once we were seen. However before we were half way to our objective
we passed by four or five small groups of South Staffs who had earlier
attempted an assault against the wood and had been caught in the murderous
fire of the merciless German machine gunners. There they lay, pale and
still, almost as if in sleep. They did not however delay us as we continued
to move forward. When we got within 200 yards of the trees the expectation
of enemy fire was almost physical but nothing happened. The wood was
silent and as we entered it cautiously we discovered the German dug
outs empty and abandoned.
I remember still those dug outs. They were superbly constructed with
roofs to protect the defenders from high explosive shells timed to explode
in the air just above their positions. We were to be grateful to the
Germans for the vacant tenancy of these trenches because once the enemy
had noted our advance and occupation of the wood, they brought down
upon us the fiercest bombardment we had yet experienced. Trees were
splinted or smashed down by the huge explosions which sent shrapnel
and mud in all directions. Holed up in the magnificent German trenches
we felt safe from anything save a direct hit.
It is never easy to recall afterwards how long the bombardment lasted
but they were long, anxious minutes for us. When the shelling ceased
and we emerged from our shelters, it was to learn that the Germans had
counter attacked the Royal Warwicks, who were on our right flank, and
been repulsed by them. This was cheering news indeed as hitherto we
had been the attacking force, exposing ourselves to fire from well held
defensive positions, and therefore more likely to suffer the heavier
casualties. Now it was the turn of the Germans to be cut down in the
After these exchanges the Germans made a controlled and limited withdrawal.
We now began a slow and costly advance towards Noyers. Fortunately for
D company we were never in the van of this advance but the other three
companies were being continuously held up by small pockets of resistance
which caused our battalion to suffer heavy losses. A divisional historian
noted that over the days that this advance took place our total casualties
mounted to about the same number that we suffered during the battle
of Caen. The momentum of the advance finally stalled in the outskirts
of Noyers. The Germans were strongly entrenched around the area of the
railway station and short of a major attack could not be moved. The
plan to take Noyers and cut the Caen-Villers Bocage road was abandoned
in favour of a wider sweeping movement that would take us directly to
Villers Bocage itself.
Now that the Germans were in general retreat, it was felt important
to keep them on the move and to allow them no time to consolidate behind
new defensive positions. Accordingly, without any time being allowed
for rest, and how badly some of us needed it was soon to become apparent,
we set out once more down the road from Fontenay-le-Pesnel to Villers
Bocage on another approach to contact. This was to be a battalion, not
a company, operation, and D company was well back from the front of
the column. Most men were so tired that some said they fell asleep on
the march - an exaggeration no doubt, but as we were unlikely to be
the first troops in the battalion to come under fire, there was less
need to be in a state of readiness, and men lapsed into a trance-like
state walking and reacting mechanically.
We made steady rather than dramatic progress without encountering any
opposition, and as night fell we "dug in" in a field on the
right hand side of the road hoping for a reasonable night's rest. Any
sleep we managed to get would of necessity be interrupted by a two hour
period on "stag" (standing guard). Desperately though I needed
this rest, in the event, it was to be denied me.
The sergeant came round as I was making good progress with my individual
trench, and detailed me and my pal Clarence (known as Carl for obvious
reasons) Abbiss to man a listening post forward of the company's position.
The three of us set out into "no-man's land" as the light
was fading until we were about 150 yards forward of the company position.
There were a number of shell holes around but we found one enormous
crater that must have been made by a bomb dropped from the air. Our
orders from the sergeant were to listen out for any movement forward
of us and, in the event of any developments, to report back to the company.
These instructions given, the sergeant left us.
I make no excuses for what happened subsequently, I simply relate the
facts as I recall them. Both Abbiss and I were bone weary and at the
limit of our physical resources. We knew that we would have the greatest
difficulty remaining awake and alert. What is more, once either of us
fell asleep, it might be impossible to wake us again. What we were experiencing
was not ordinary tiredness but absolute exhaustion. Under normal circumstances
we would have agreed to share two hours on guard and two hours' rest
until dawn. Neither of us felt we could remain awake for two hours and
so desperate were we that we decided to rest alternately for five minutes.
Looking back, it was a ridiculous arrangement that was never going to
work. Abbiss took the first five minutes and I fell asleep immediately.
I vaguely remember him telling me the five minutes were up but even
after so short a time I was too soundly asleep to bring myself awake.
Six hours passed in a moment of time, and I was eventually awakened
by someone kicking my steel helmet. I looked up to find the sergeant
staring down at me, and informing me that I was to be charged with being
asleep while on duty in the face of the enemy.
This was the first time I had ever been placed on a charge for a misdemeanour
of any kind, as I had always had a proper respect of authority. I could
therefore have been expected to have been very worried about my circumstances,
especially as this offence was among the most serious that a soldier
on active service can commit. Men in the First World War, similarly
charged as Abbiss and me, were executed by firing squad. How incongruous
that infantrymen, who faced death by enemy action 24 hours a day, were
in danger of being shot by their own men. I felt no sense of guilt.
The army had demanded one effort too many of me, and I had nothing left
Hats off, as all defaulters had to be, Abbiss and I were marched before
Major Edwards, our company commander who, even in the very front line,
had been provided with a makeshift desk and something to sit on. The
charge was put to me "Whilst on duty being asleep in the face of
the enemy". My recollection is that I didn't mumble or stammer,
even though I had not rehearsed my defence. I told Major Edwards as
simply as I was able that I had hardly slept for three nights and that
it had been beyond my powers to remain awake. Major Edwards was a reasonable
man, and knowing that the whole company was desperately in need of rest,
took no action against us, and nothing was ever entered into my AB 64
Part 1. Then it was back to the platoon, and on the road once again.
This time D company was to lead off, with 16 platoon in front, and our
section at the head of the column. To be absolutely accurate, we were
not right ahead, because we had in front of us two members of the Royal
Engineers. The job of one of them was to lift and defuse mines once
the other man had located them. The former was just over 5ft tall, perky,
self-confident, and courageous. We admired him tremendously, but although
we could not know it then, he would be killed later that day.
The two Royal Engineers led the way and then at a distance of about
10 yards we followed, first Dick Easton, then me, with the rest of the
British Army on our sector of the front trailing along behind. We made
halting progress, occasioned by the fact that the Germans, to cover
their retreat and slow us down, had placed land mines in the road at
irregular intervals. The mines had to be neutralised and it was the
job of the Royal Engineers to carry out this task.
The system employed was for the man with the mine detecting equipment
to sweep the road immediately ahead, clearing a path about 4ft wide,
by applying his equipment much in the manner of a man using a "Flymo"
lawn mower. The detecting device would detect any metal sunk below the
surface of the road, at which point the man using the detector would
withdraw about 20 yards and his mate would then prod carefully with
his bayonet in that area. When metal had been struck he would clear
all the soil and loose stones from around the mine in such a way that
he would be able to make a noose on the rope he carried with him, slip
this over the mine and secure it tightly. He would then extend the rope
to its full length, about 30 yards, and give it a sharp tug. If this
action caused the mine to explode that would be fine as we had all retired
from the danger area. If the mine failed to explode our intrepid Royal
Engineer would crawl up to it and defuse it. As you would expect, the
need to deal with these mines slowed our progress considerably, but
by late afternoon we had arrived at the top of a slight rise and could
see ahead where the road turned to the left and then joined up with
the major road that linked Caen with Villers Bocage. Indeed the shattered
town of Villers was now well within view.
Another mine halted our progress, but no sooner had it been defused
than we in the forward section heard the tell tale sounds of the German
mortars being fired. There was no obvious place to shelter and to remain
on the road would be to invite injury or death if any of the bombs exploded
on the metalled surface. At that moment a tank had come up in support
of us. This was an odd development as I had not heard its approach,
remarkable in view of the fact that a tank weighed about 20 tons and
like all track vehicles made an incredible amount of noise. Anyway,
any old port in a storm, so myself and Abbiss, who seemed to be featuring
quite prominently in my life at that time, slid underneath it. The tank's
tracks gave us a measure of protection on either side but none at all
from front and rear. After a couple of minutes in this precarious position
and with mortar bombs still falling all around us, I said to Abbiss,
"If we are still under this tank when the tank commander gives
the order to move we will be strawberry jam" or words having that
meaning but unprintable in this chronicle. He didn't disagree, as so
we crawled out by way of the rear of the vehicle.
In a field on our right, about 200 yards from the road, stood a small
but elegant chateau. We decided to make for it, but first we had to
leap the grass verge at the roadside, as it was believed that this area
also had been mined. An old trick of the Germans was to fire at us,
causing us to seek shelter in ditches by the roadside which they had
of course mined before retreating, for such an eventuality. Then we
ran crouching low across the open field and into the chateau where we
remained until the firing ceased, after which we rejoined the column
on the road. There had been at least one casualty as a result of the
shelling, our brave little Royal Engineer had been hit in the head by
a piece of shrapnel and had died instantly.
We continued our progress to the junction of the Caen-Villers Bocage
road when we made camp in a near by field. The next day we entered,
without a fight, what remained of Villers Bocage. The town had been
destroyed, having been fought over several times during the campaign.
But now, at last, it was ours.
There is a postscript to this story. Some 50 years after the end of
the war I was on holiday in Normandy when it was decided that we would
visit the chateau and tell my story to the owners in the expectation
that they might find it mildly interesting. We found the chateau unoccupied
and made enquiries at one of the small dwellings which formed part of
the estate. We were well received and invited inside to take a drink.
There we learned that the owners of the big house were absent temporarily
in order that the place could be renovated. We explained the reason
for our visit and then were told that in August 1944, the person who
owned the chateau had taken refuge elsewhere until the fighting had
passed by. On his return, he wisely decided that a certain degree of
caution should be observed in re-entering the house, and so, instead
of going in by the front door, he gained entry from the rear. Moving
around the house with care he eventually arrived at the hallway and
there discovered that the main door had been booby trapped. Anyone attempting
to open it would have been blown to pieces. I cannot remember how Abbiss
and I got into the chateau but it could not have been by that door and
so it must have been by one of the ground floor windows. It was good
luck, not prudence, that saved our lives that day.
The plight of the German Army must have been daily more worrying for
their high command. The encircling movement by the Americans through
Argentan threatening a link-up with the British and Canadians driving
down the Caen-Falaise road was making steady progress, and by this time
the escape routes for the German Army had been reduced to one - the
road from Falaise through Dives and on to the Seine. The strategy was
to carry out a controlled withdrawal while holding up the two prongs
of the Allied pincer movement and thus keep the route out of Falaise
At the same time the British and Americans were squeezing against the
German defences all along the perimeter of their ever shrinking position.
On our section of the front the Germans were now dug in behind the River
Orne, their last natural defence barrier. Once this line was breached
we could set our tanks and infantry free among troops that were queuing
up to get out of the encircling trap.
CROSSING THE RIVER ORNE AND THE END OF THE
THE enemy had melted away following our arrival
in Villers Bocage, and once again we boarded transport, passing through
Aunay and then on to the banks of the Orne River. The division had split
into two groups, the stronger force making a direct attack on Thury
Harcourt, a town which stands astride the Orne where the river bends
to make its way to Caen and the sea. The German defences here were strong
and progress was slow, while at the same time the casualty count was
mounting. Our brigade, No 197, with some support from other units in
the division, had found a bridge across the Orne at Grimbosq and had
got a small force over the river. The delay we had experienced in advancing
down the road between Caen and Villers Bocage had caused us to arrive
too late to take part in the initial assault. When we reached the river,
late one evening, it was to meet with some of the 2/6 South Staffs who,
having got on to the bridgehead, had been thrown back by a German counter
attack. They appeared to us more like a defeated, rather than a victorious,
army. They had lost all their equipment and most of their clothing,
and as they passed they told us how fiercely fought the battle had been.
"It's hell over there," they told us. Nevertheless, we were
to learn that many of the troops who had been forced to retreat had
reformed, gone back across the river, and that the bridgehead was holding.
We were expecting to go straight into the bridgehead but to our surprise
we were to remain in the little village of Les Goupilliers, which stood
on the high ground overlooking the battlefield. From this position we
had a good view of the action, and apart from being inconvenienced by
some occasional shelling, we were left untroubled.
Each day our hold on the bridgehead strengthened and the German counter
moves gradually gave way to defence. One of the greatest problems our
troops were facing was a Tiger tank which had succeeded in establishing
itself in the narrow confines of the sunken road which led from the
far side of a bridge and up to the German positions. We were unable
to bring fire to bear on to this troublesome tank which commanded the
bridge-crossing and hindered the build up of our force on the far bank.
The action lasted in total about five days, after which time the Germans
were forced to retreat. Our company then crossed the river and our first
task was to "clear up" the battlefield. This job required
us to search the area where the main fighting had taken place and to
find men killed during the battle. On locating a dead soldier, we were
to take the man's rifle and, after fixing the bayonet, stick it into
the ground so that other people could identify its position, and dispose
of the body. During the course of tackling this unpleasant task I came
across one of our men lying in the bottom of his slit trench. I made
a cursory examination of him but, at first, could find neither wound
nor blood and thought he must have died of a heart attack. However I
then noticed a small hole in his temple where he had been struck, possibly
by a sniper's shot or a machine gun bullet. There is nothing unusual
about that, as it is quite possible for a man to die without spilling
a large amount of blood. What made this case bizarre was that, lying
at the bottom of his trench, I found a paperback novel he must have
been reading during quiet periods in the fighting. The title of the
book was Heads You Lose.
The next day we established ourselves in the magnificent German dug
outs on the far side of the river, where we remained for a couple of
days, before setting out once more on the heels of the retreating enemy.
We were now on the road that leads from Grimbosq to Donnay, our next
objective. This line of advance was important because this particular
road crossed the main Falaise-Thury Harcourt road, and by crossing it
we threatened to cut off the enemy troops fighting so stubbornly against
the other two brigades of our division.
About an hour after leaving Grimbosq we came under heavy fire from our
own artillery. We were extremely fortunate to be at a point where the
road was a couple of feet below the level of the surrounding countryside.
The shells were exploding all around but so long as none hit the road
itself, we were reasonably safe. This was one of the few occasions when
a call on the field telephone, to our supporting artillery battery,
put a stop to the barrage. We were so far ahead of the rest of the division
that the forward artillery observation officer had assumed we were enemy
troops in retreat. It had been an anxious and uncomfortable few minutes.
German prisoners taken earlier in the campaign had spoken of their respect
for our artillery which they said was sometimes so ferocious that they
thought our 25 pounder guns must be "belt fed" (i.e. shells
fed into the guns on a belt as bullets are in German machine guns).
After this excitement there were no further alarms as we crossed the
Falaise-Thury Harcourt road. Unfortunately, we were too late to trap
the Germans who had already made good their escape. Arriving in Donnay
we found the village empty of defenders as were the Bois de St Clare
and Pont d'Ouilly. Fifty years later my family and I were to pass a
number of happy holidays staying in this village and driving round the
area. Indeed I was to celebrate my 65th birthday at a party for my family
and friends held at the Hotel du Commerce in the town centre. Had that
information been known to me in 1944 I would have been a very happy
young man indeed.
Our progress towards Falaise took us through three more undefended villages
before the advance was halted. We knew that we were on the verge of
winning a great victory since the Army Information Service published
occasional news sheets which informed us of towns liberated and prisoners
captured. What we did not appreciate was the scale of the German defeat.
About five days prior to our advance through Donay and Pont d'Ouilly
the Polish Armoured Division, in a brilliant night manoeuvre, had passed
through the German positions. They had crossed the line of retreating
enemy troops, apparently assisted by German traffic control who at first
thought they were their own men on the move. The traffic control held
up their own column to allow the Polish division to pass, and once the
Germans realised what was happening, were then afraid to halt the Polish
column fearful of a hand to hand fight that could have had catastrophic
consequences. Once behind the German lines the Poles found themselves
on a ridge which commanded the last German escape route out of what
had now become known as the Falaise Pocket.
For the next week the Poles were subjected to determined attacks from
trapped troops trying desperately to escape the encirclement, and in
addition from attacks on their rear, from troops outside the pocket
trying to release the stranded units. The Poles held their position
stubbornly, although they were now completely isolated. The British
and Canadian armies coming from the north were being held up by strong
German resistance, and the American divisions coming from the south
had not yet been able to reach them. With ammunition and food supplies
running low their situation was becoming increasingly desperate. Theirs
was one of the finest feats of arms of the campaign. When at last the
Canadians broke through to relieve them, one man, taking in the scene
on top of the ridge, strewn with dead, wounded and exhausted Poles,
was so impressed by the courage and determination which had contributed
so much to final victory, that he painted a sign and stuck it into the
ground. It read quite simply "A Polish battlefield".
The Allies had won their greatest land battle of the war. A proud German
army group, established behind well prepared defensive positions and
thought by some to be invincible had, over a period of about 12 weeks,
been broken and utterly crushed. Many of their troops had been killed
and thousands of prisoners had been taken. Perhaps of equal importance,
the myth of German invincibility had been shattered. The war now was
certain to be won; it was only a question of how long the Germans would
be prepared to hold out.
With the battle finally over, and the German troops who had escaped
in hot retreat back beyond the French and Belgian frontiers, our company
had the doubtful privilege of marching through part of the Falaise Pocket.
It was an experience I shall never forget. For mile after mile vehicles
of all kinds, broken or destroyed, were nose to tail on the side of
the highway. This was late August and the temperatures were in the 70s
or 80s. Dead animals, their bellies distended, now attracted maggots
and flies as they lay by the roadside. The smell of death permeated
the air to such an extent that it was almost impossible to breathe.
We walked along, handkerchiefs over our mouths, but these gave us little
protection. Men took careful, deep, gulps of air, then held their breath
as long as they were able before slowly expelling the air and then carefully
filling their lungs again. When we arrived in Falaise it was to find
the town completely destroyed, with the single exception of one building.
Oddly enough, that building was William the Conqueror's castle, built
a thousand years before and designed to withstand attacks by archers
and men hurling rocks. Now it had defied a sustained bombardment from
the most destructive explosives the twentieth century could devise.
Following the defeat of the German armies in Normandy we were withdrawn
from the fighting and returned to Les Goupilliers on the banks of the
river Orne. This was the very site of our brigade's assault crossing
of that river which resulted in the outflanking of the German defences
at Thury Harcourt and turned their retreat into a rout on our section
of the front. Here we were to be told that, as there were insufficient
reserves of men coming from their training units in England to make
up for losses sustained in battle, a decision had been made to disband
our division and send us as reinforcements to other units.
This news was met with both disappointment and dismay. Within the British
Army there is always pride in one's own regiment, coupled with a certain
disdain for other units, and hence a certain reluctance to serve under
another command. Additionally, we had begun to grow in self confidence
and sense our own strength. Following the terrible experience of that
first battle on 8 July, when we had not only suffered heavy casualties
but had failed to reach our objective, we had met the same German troops,
forced them to retreat, inflicted losses on them, and taken prisoners.
Soldiers are not made on the training grounds at home, important though
that experience is. Men must first enter into the din and confusion
of battle and survive that awful experience before becoming "battle
hardened" and learn something about how much they as individuals
can stand without breaking. They will also learn to identify the different
sounds from the incredible cacophony of battle in much the same way
as the conductor of an orchestra can pick out the sound of an individual
instrument during a performance. Against the general background of shells,
bombs, bullets and mortars, a soldier must dismiss for his consciousness
those explosions which do not place him in immediate danger. His life
might rest upon his ability to distinguish between the "rata-tat"
of the Bren gun and the "bruap-bruap" of the German Spandau
machine gun, the urgent "swish" of the German mortars and
the "crack" of the dreaded 88mm cannon. With every yard of
ground across which he must pass, his eyes will be seeking out the next
piece of land which would offer him shelter should he need it. Under
these circumstances it is not difficult to maintain one's concentration,
for a moment of inattention can cost you your life. All these things,
we, who had survived so far, had learned. What is more we had gained
growing confidence in our leaders. It was therefore with a sense of
relief that we learned we would be transferred as a complete company
and would remain so within any new regiment to which we were to be attached.
In order to appreciate our concerns that we would be allowed to remain
together as a company it is necessary to understand the structure of
an infantry battalion. This unit of the British Army numbers about 850
men when fully up to strength. It comprises four companies, in our case
A, B, C and D, plus battalion headquarters. Each company would have
140 men, three platoons of 40 men together with the company commander
and his personal staff. Within the platoons there are three, 10 man
sections, plus a full corporal and a lance corporal. I never made a
friendship outside the members of our own company or indeed knew any
individuals other than some of the officers. Whenever we went into action
we did so as a company. Within the company each individual is known
to everyone else. A company could be equated to one's own family friends,
people you encountered in the course of everyday life. Within the platoon
however, relationships where closer, more intimate, like the wider family,
aunts, uncles, cousins. But it was in the separate sections that the
closest relationships developed. Men ate together, slept side by side
in the same hole in the ground, recounted many of their best guarded
secrets while standing on watch and ultimately advanced shoulder to
shoulder against the enemy. Jealousy, frustrations and conflicts, apparent
before we left England, were soon forgotten in the heat of battle, and
idiosyncratic quirks of nature, once such an irritation, now served
to bring men closer together.
WE JOIN THE ROYAL WELSH FUSILIERS AND ADVANCE
THROUGH FRANCE AND BELGIUM TO ANTWERP
OUR company commander, Major Tomlinson, informed
us that we were to be transferred to the 1st East Lancashire Regiment,
and indeed we did join this unit briefly, only to be moved on to the
7th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers with no explanation offered for
this entirely unexpected and last minute change of mind.
The army was being urged to press forward on the heels of the retreating
Germans, giving them no time to regroup and establish other defensive
positions. We were told to take advantage of any form of transport available,
and with this in mind, and while most of the men in our company had
boarded three ton trucks, I sat astride a six pounder gun which was
attached to a half tracked vehicle (a mode of transport part tank tracks
and part wheels designed for towing guns across rough ground). It was
a romantic notion and somewhere at the back of my mind I had the idea
that I might be seen by a press photographer and later appear on the
front page of a national newspaper over the top of a caption that might
read "Young British soldier in hot pursuit of the Nazis".
This dream was rudely shattered when the half track started up with
a violent jerk, lifting me six inches off the gun barrel, to which I
returned doing what seemed at the time irreparable damage to very sensitive
parts of my anatomy. The gun and I parted company while I slowly recovered
sitting quietly and anonymously on the floor of a three-tonner.
We crossed the River Seine on a pontoon bridge at night somewhere near
Rouen. The next day marked the start of what I can only describe as
a triumphal journey across northern France. Every village and town through
which we passed was lined with French people cheering us on our way.
They gave us flowers, glasses of wine and fruit. They embraced us, waved
British and French flags, and sang their national anthem and God Save
the Queen. It was an extraordinary and exhilarating experience, similar
I suspect to being a member of an FA Cup winning team returning home
to a civic welcome. In those heady days it seemed to us that the war
was almost over, but then the advance began to slow down. Once again
we had to leave the trucks and move forward on foot. I remember passing
through St Pol and later being one of the first two or three men in
Armentiers, before finally we were "digging in" on the France-Belgium
frontier, opposite, I think, the town of Tournai. We could see the buildings
in the half light of dusk, knowing that the next day we would be required
to clear it of Germans, with the likelihood of house to house fighting
developing: not a prospect to encourage a restful night's sleep.
In the event, dramatic developments were taking place unknown to us.
A squadron of tanks had pressed forward and got into Antwerp. This city
was considered to be a great prize, as it afforded the army huge port
facilities that would enable forward troops to be supplied without the
need of transporting everything by truck from the Normandy beaches.
The tanks now in Antwerp needed infantry support. We "enbussed"
once more for a mad dash across Belgium to Antwerp and the Scheldt estuary,
the dividing line between Belgium and Holland. Throughout the whole
of this journey we were to pass through country not yet cleared of German
troops. We were all crowded into soft-sided vehicles and as these were
not bullet proof, any stray enemy, armed with machine guns and sufficient
courage, could have caused carnage in our convoy. However we reached
Antwerp in safety just as it was going dark, and as we got out of the
trucks the sergeant was stressing the need for absolute silence. I remember
still his very words, "Death lurks round every corner."
We made our way cautiously down what appeared to be a wide thoroughfare
and gained entry into a furniture making factory. There were a number
of lathes in lines across the workshop floor, and heaps of wood shavings
scattered around, which offered the possibility of some comfortable
resting places as we attempted to get some sleep. However before any
rest could be enjoyed we would have to dig trenches and we were pleased
to find we would be able to site these on the grass verges which ran
parallel with the pavement. We began digging immediately and were finished
just before dawn when every man was required to "stand to"
in the trenches until daylight came. So it was that we were standing
quietly, not knowing what to expect, when we began to hear the familiar
sounds of a city coming to life after sleep. We became aware of people
moving in the street, doors opening and closing, a few bicycles and
then cars passing by, and most surprising of all, a tram rumbled past.
The locals had no idea that British troops had arrived and they were
starting to go about their daily business while, strangely, we were
playing soldiers, heads peering out of holes in the ground. For a few
minutes the situation was quite bizarre.
We were, as usual, warmly welcomed by the Belgians and there then passed
a period of quiet which lasted a few days. The Germans had retreated
to the north bank of the Scheldt while we occupied the south side and
the greater part of the city. The main road on which we had established
ourselves ran down to the river and gave on to a substantial iron bridge,
capable of taking the heaviest traffic. It was one of a number of bridges
crossing the river, within the city. The middle spans of the bridges
had all been destroyed. This was a tactic used by the Germans right
across Europe as they retreated to Germany, and it was an effective
way of delaying our advance at every river barrier.
On our first full night in Antwerp I was detailed to go alone on to
the bridge to act as a listening post and to provide advance warning
of any enemy attempt to cross, either by the bridge or the river itself.
As I kept my lonely, cold and uncomfortable vigil, having by this time
acquired a certain understanding of the military mind, I was fairly
sure that about 20 yards away on the far side of the bridge a German
was similarly uselessly occupied. It was useless because, if either
us or the Germans were to attempt a sortie, it was certainly not going
to be by way of the broken bridge. I suppose, thinking back, I might
have called out to him and perhaps had an interesting conversation but
somehow, at the time, it didn't seem to conform to the spirit of wartime
CROSSING THE MEUSE-ESCAUT JUNCTION CANAL (THE
WE departed Antwerp probably sometime in September.
The greater part of the city was in our hands but the Germans still
occupied the north bank of the Scheldt estuary. However they had not
bothered us and we did not bother them. We had been well received by
the locals who were plainly pleased to be liberated from the occupying
German army. Moreover we had formed good friendships with some families
and during the eight months that remained to the end of the war, when
the city came under heavy bombardment from flying bombs and V2 rockets,
we were concerned for the safety of these people.
For the next week or 10 days we were placed in a rest area. This was
the first and last period out of the front line we enjoyed from June
1944 to May 1945. We were billeted with civilian families in Pamel,
a suburb of Brussels. Our hosts, of Dutch descent, were named de Seager.
There were four of us in the house, which was a good quality building
set in semi-rural surroundings. Mr de Seager was of medium height but
a thick set man and appeared, to me, to be immensely strong. He grew
fruit and vegetables under glass for the Brussels market and clearly
this business provided him and his family with a good living. He had
protruding eyes and thick lips, which together with his stocky build,
gave him the appearance of a gigantic toad. His wife was nondescript
and would have been well cast for one of those "walking on"
non-speaking parts in television soap operas. The couple had three children,
Maria Theresa (20-21), Connel (17) and a younger sister who made no
impression other than being sulky and ill-mannered. How often does one
see plain, even ugly parents, produce the most beautiful offspring?
Maria Theresa was just such a case. She was "stunning" looking,
intelligent, she spoke good English, and was an art student at one of
the colleges in Brussels. She was engaged to be married and the couple
planned to go as missionaries to the Belgian Congo when the war was
over. During our stay I prevailed upon her to sketch me. This she did
and I still have the portrait in my possession. Cornel spoke no English
but had a little French and we communicated in this language during
the times we spent together. We became good friends and I thought after
the war I might see him again, but the opportunity never arose. Shortly
before we were due to leave to return to the "front" Mr de
Seager took me to one side and suggested that when my unit left I might
remain. He would find me work with him in the greenhouses and accommodation
to go with it. The thought of desertion had never crossed my mind and
so I rejected this kind offer. A couple of days later we moved out.
The few days passed in Pamel had been a wonderful interlude, so much
in contrast to the stress of life in the front line. Moreover it had
been a "window" on our lives before our call up only 20 months
before, yet in the light of our experience since our arrival in France,
Later that day we found ourselves in Bourg Leopold (Leopoldsville) a
town just behind the front line but within the sound of gunfire. It
was here that I remember seeing a Flying Fortress shot down by German
anti-aircraft fire. One wing had been partly shot away and the plane
spiralled gently down, rather in the manner of a seed falling from a
chestnut tree. Half a dozen parachutes ballooned open and I wondered
whether these men would land behind our lines or those of the enemy.
In the latter case there would be no certainty that they could expect
to be well treated.
Very soon, word came to us that another attack had been planned. This
time it was to be an assault crossing of the Meuse-Escaut Junction Canal,
and the operation was to take place at night. River crossings were always
a hazardous business, but to attempt one at night seemed to us to add
an additional uncalled for element of terror. Wooden boats, each capable
of carrying about 10 men, had been brought up and these were to be paddled
across the canal. Once over the other side we had to cross some open
ground and then clear a wood about quarter of a mile distant. Such was
the outline briefing delivered by the platoon sergeant - simple, straightforward,
problem free. The night's events were to prove him wrong on all three
It was a fine mild night. Artificial moonlight was in operation affording
a kind of twilight which gave visibility up to about 20 yards. The boats
for the canal crossing had been delivered. It is possible that they
were purpose built, and what became immediately evident was that they
were incredibly heavy. Since there was no guidance as to how they could
best be carried, we were open to suggestions. Someone came up with the
idea that we turn the boats upside down and, with five men on either
side, carry them in the manner of pallbearers at funeral. This system
would have been fine if we had all been of equal height, but British
soldiers come in all sizes, the effect of which was that only about
seven out of the 10 of us shouldered the weight. The smaller men made
grunting and groaning noises as if carrying a great burden when in fact
they shared none of the load. It is difficult to recall, over 50 years
later, how far it was to the canal bank, but the distance seemed to
us never ending. The ground was broken and uneven and since our footings
were not clear, men stumbled and fell. We quickly realised that it was
vital to keep in step since being so close to each other, once out of
step you found yourself kicking the man in front, to his intense irritation
and in turn being kicked by the man behind. An air of tension prevailed
throughout the early part of this operation and with nerves tightly
strung patience was in short supply and men bickered and argued. Although
the importance of silence, giving us the element of surprise, had been
impressed on us, the men swore vigorously and continuously. No doubt
taut nerves had caused us to lose a measure of control. Carrying the
boats, and knowing that once we reached the canal and started to cross
one burst of machine gun fire would be enough to send us all to a watery
grave, would have been enough to cope with, but it was at this point
that our own artillery barrage, destined for the far side of the canal,
began to fall short. For some minutes shells exploded around us and
shrapnel fizzed in all directions. This was altogether too much for
our corporal, who went mad with shell shock and was promptly sent to
After what had seemed a lifetime, but was probably only a few minutes,
we reached the canal side. Silence and discretion being the watchwords,
one would have expected us to slip the boat gently into the water, but
so relieved were we to rid ourselves of our damnable burden that the
boat was simply allowed to fall into the canal, making a noise like
the simultaneous disintegration of 1,000 crystal chandeliers. Ten men
climbed into the boat, five on either side, and we began to paddle.
Hawaiian canoe men, paddling out to welcome visiting cruise ships, we
were not, and had Felix Topolski, famous coach of the dark blues been
present, it is unlikely he would have given any marks for style or technical
excellence. On the other hand we would certainly have merited three
As for effort since, while there was not a man among us who was spoiling
for a spot of hand to hand fighting with the Germans, the prospect of
coming under fire while in an open boat in mid canal with the near certainty
of bloodshed and a watery grave, encouraged our efforts no end. In the
event we reached the far bank without hindrance from Jerry, although
throughout the period of time it took us to reach the canal bank, tracer
bullets from German machine guns were passing over our heads.
Once across the canal we were faced with a steep bank, perhaps 30ft
high, and having scrambled to the top, found ourselves in a small copse
covering an area about the size of a football field. Beyond the trees
open land stretched out ahead of us. The wood which was our final objective
was not visible us at this point.
Wasting little time, we formed up in a single extended line and ventured
out into that ghostly landscape. We advanced slowly and quietly, rifles
at the ready. Suddenly, immediately to my left, I saw a candle burning
in a dug out. The occupants could not have been aware of our presence
or they would have opened fire on us, or alternatively, extinguished
their candle and lay "doggo". Dick Easton was next to me on
my right hand side and I drew his attention to the light, suggesting
that we might take some prisoners or lob in a hand grenade. In that
lofty, rather detached way that I was later to see him adopt on many
occasions, he said, "Leave them to the follow up troops."
Odd, I thought, since we both knew there were no follow up troops.
The advance continued and eventually the wood began to come more clearly
into view. We were, I suppose, about 25 yards from the first of the
trees when we first heard German soldiers calling out to each other.
They were a noisy lot, in contrast to us in our positions, which were
always as quiet as the grave. Evidently there were not two or three
men talking together, the wood was alive with them, and what seemed
like the greater part of the German army of occupation remaining in
Belgium were now taking part in some sort of jamboree. We were about
30 strong and I wondered rather petulantly, what the rest of the British
Army were doing at this moment, as we could have done with a bit of
support. There was a whispered order passed along the line, "Go
The much vaunted professionalism of the German soldier must now be called
into question. A significant number of British troops had breached their
defences and infiltrated deep into their position without their being
aware of it, first the man in the forward dug out, secondly the concert
party, now in full swing about 20 yards away, and finally two machine
gun teams who are due to enter and exit this story immediately in about
two hours' time. It had surely been the responsibility of these machine-gunners
to prevent our crossing the canal in the first place and their inattention
was to be punished with the ultimate penalty.
Looking back, there were, I suppose, three options open to our sergeant:
" Fix bayonets and charge the German positions. We had the element
of surprise on our side, but in the long run the enemy's superior numbers
would have told against us.
" To remain where we were and open fire on the German positions.
We had three Bren gun teams, one for each of our three sections, and
about 20 riflemen. We could have done a great deal of damage. However
if the Germans had been well entrenched, and returned fire, the advantage
would quickly have turned in their favour, as we were lying out in the
open without protection.
" Return to the copse, "dig in" and consolidate our defence.
This was the decision that was eventually taken.
That I was unaware of the order to pull back was not surprising, since
despite the perilous situation our small group found ourselves in, I
had allowed my mind to wander and might even have dozed off briefly.
I was brought back to consciousness by the man on my right side who
told me that the platoon had returned to the copse. He asked me if I
would lead him, and the four others who were still with us, back to
rejoin the platoon. Flattered by his confidence in me, I helped us to
make our way back safely, picking up one or two stragglers on the way.
Once back in the wood we found our comrades already well dug into their
slit trenches. The first thing an infantryman did when he seemed likely
to spend any time in one place was to dig himself a slit trench, and
so I speedily set myself to work. It was, by this time, just coming
light and I suppose my trench was about 3ft deep - that would be about
l8in short of the ideal depth - when I suddenly became aware of a German
soldier walking past me and so close I could have reached out and touched
him. He was carrying a Spandau machine gun over his shoulder, and among
his other equipment he had, draped about his person, belts of machine
gun bullets. If this was not enough, he was being closely followed by
five other Germans, similarly equipped for battle. My rifle was not
to hand since I had been busy digging, and so I leapt smartly into my
partly finished trench. Happily my mates were more alert than me, and
it should be said, better able to react since their trenches were already
complete. It was all over in less time than it takes to tell. There
was a crackle of rifle fire and five Germans lay dead on the ground
in the middle of our position. It must be one of the great mysteries
of the war that these Germans had walked in upon us without being alerted
by the sound of men digging and moving around. They, together, formed
two machine gun teams whose task surely had been to prevent any crossing
of the canal. How they could have failed to hear the noise we made as
we launched our boat and paddled across remains unexplained.
There are two footnotes to this story. One German, perhaps having become
separated from his colleagues, found himself face to face with one of
our men who happened at that time to be holding our anti-tank weapon.
This was a cumbersome piece of equipment that might, under certain circumstances,
do some damage to a tank, but was useless in close conflict. The German
raised his gun and from point blank range fired, and missed. Our man,
realising he was in no position to defend himself, fell to the ground
feigning death; whereupon the German, with arrogance, walked over and
kicked our man's steel helmet. He then made off towards his own positions
but didn't get far. He was seen and killed with a single shot.
A little while later I saw a German riding a motor cycle with side car
attachment, approaching the copse, clearly unaware that British soldiers
had crossed the canal. When only a few yards away, he must have seen
one of us, for he executed a well practised racing turn with the wheels
of the side car well off the ground and accelerated away in a cloud
of dust. No doubt his greatest need, once he got back to his own positions,
would have been to have a complete change of underwear, always assuming
that the Germans' need to make a quick exit from the wood would allow
him time for such niceties.
About an hour later, once more in a single line, we set out over the
open ground towards the wood in the far distance. We knew the Germans
were there since we had heard them only hours before. In the grey light
of early morning, as we grew closer and closer to the trees, we waited
expectantly for the deadly sound of machine gun fire. Nothing happened;
the Germans had left. What we had heard, when we were earlier that night
so close to their position, was the sound of them loading their transport
and moving out. The despatch rider had been sent to bring back the machine
gun teams, and once he returned with the news that the British were
over the canal, there was no reason to "hang about" so off
they had gone into the dawn, their departure arrangements hastened by
our imminent arrival.
RELIEVING THE US AIRBORNE TROOPS AND THE BURNING
OF A DUTCH FARMHOUSE
IN early October 1944 Field Marshall Montgomery
thought he could bring the war to a speedy conclusion by a rapid advance
through Holland, crossing the Rhine at Arnhem and in this way getting
behind the German Siegfried Line frontier defences. The way would then
be open to an attack on the Ruhr area, the industrial heartland of Germany.
Once those industrial towns had fallen into our hands the German Army
could no longer be supplied with armaments and ammunition and resistance
The plan was to drop paratroops at strategic points along a lateral
road that ran from Belgium up to Arnhem in Holland. To coincide with
the paratroop drops the British Army, at that time lined up roughly
along the Belgian-Dutch frontier, was to attack north relieving the
paras on their way.
Our battalion's night assault crossing of the Meuse-Escaut Junction
Canal was a curtain raiser for our part in Montgomery's plan, codenamed
Operation Market Garden. The day following that rather breathless 36
hours, we crossed into Holland and quickly occupied Eindhoven, from
which the Germans had already retreated. I remember going into the world
famous Philips factory. Inside there was a great variety of electrical
goods being manufactured, and I am ashamed to record that from among
these items I pocketed a bicycle dynamo. I carried this excess baggage
around with me for some time, before I realised that I was never going
to find a use for it, and threw it away.
After Eindhoven we moved north in trucks along a route cleared earlier
by our advance troops. But although the road was free of infantry it
remained within range of the German artillery whose shells took a toll
of our transport, evidence of which was to be seen in the burned out
vehicles on the roadside. It was therefore something of a relief when
we headed off this road just north of St Odendrode, where we met up
with elements of the American 82nd Airborne Division. I do not think
these troops had encountered much resistance on landing, and they were
clearly quite relaxed about their situation - so relaxed in fact that
there was no evidence of them having dug themselves into a defensive
position. This carelessness extended also to the battlefield, which
had been left in the most untidy condition. Not only were the parachutes
strewn all over the area, but there were also canvas carrier bags and
military stores of every description lying about. The paratroops themselves
were both friendly and generous. They invited us to share their rations,
which were ample, indeed almost exotic, since they included cranberry
sauce with the main dish. Our only complaint was that main meal and
dessert were served in the same mess tin. The men seemed not to have
had much experience of combat, but before the end of the year they were
to distinguish themselves greatly while resisting the last German offensive
of the war fought out in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Surrounded
and cut off from their supplies and unable to get reinforcements, they
refused to surrender and ultimately were to become the major factor
in holding and containing the German advance.
After a couple of days the Americans left us, and we set about establishing
ourselves in what promised to be a quiet sector of the front. During
those early days we watched as the British 6th Airborne Division parachuted
around the Rhine bridges. Ultimately their attack was to fail in the
face of fierce German resistance and the war was to continue for a further
eight months. But although the attack had not succeeded it had been
an imaginative plan and the troops had acquitted themselves with distinction.
Our company had been in continuous action since the first week of July
and now not only counted ourselves experienced soldiers, but also felt
more than a match for the enemy. It should be noted however that the
German soldier we now faced did not have the fighting qualities of the
elite units against which we had struggled in Normandy. Those troops
often fought to the last man and rarely surrendered in numbers. They
were soldiers of the very highest quality. Few of those men had escaped
from the Falaise Pocket, and those units that had succeeded in returning
to German soil were re-formed and held back for the German December
offensive in the Ardennes, where they were finally defeated. And so,
sensing that we held the upper hand, the initiative rested with us,
and we kept actively patrolling no man's land. In particular I remember
our corporal, Charlie Grocott, leading a fighting patrol against the
German lines which he claimed had been so well planned and executed
that it could have been included in British Army military manuals. Anyway
the patrol must have disconcerted the Germans such that they mounted
a raid on our lines a couple of nights later. There was a great deal
of noise, fire and smoke, but they never came close enough to disturb
During this time, Dick Easton was sent on a patrol through the German
forward positions. He took with him a young man named Wharton and together,
faces blackened and being only lightly armed, they crawled along a ditch,
through the German front line and into the village where the enemy command
positions were sited. Dick sketched the layout of the village, noting
in particular the houses the Germans were using, before both he and
Wharton returned safely with what could have been useful information.
In my view this was an episode which merited official recognition, but
all Dick got was a "Well done, Easton" from the commanding
Mid-way between the two front lines there stood a modern red brick Dutch
farmhouse, with a number of outbuildings situated to the side slightly
forward of it, and nearer our lines. There was a suggestion that from
time to time both the Germans and ourselves put men in this building
in order to have observation on each other's lines. However I am not
sure this was true, as our company lines faced directly on to the farmhouse,
and I have no knowledge of any of our men using this building for any
purpose. The explanation for the order to burn this house down, which
came from our commanding officer, was more likely to be that in action,
the desire to destroy, which is so evident in many children and remains
dormant in adult life, is released and given legitimacy by war. To destroy
this building was pure vandalism and not justified by the military situation.
Be that as it may, Dick Easton and I were chosen to do the job.
The plan was that we would make three visits to the farmhouse carrying
each two canvas buckets full of petrol, and on the third occasion taking
each a phosphorous hand grenade in order to ignite the building. We
set out about midnight, having the artificial moonlight to light our
way. This was a light that the forward troops benefited from, and was
produced by shining searchlights on to low cloud. This afforded us sufficient
light to enable us to pick our way forward without mishap, following
more or less the same route each time. We had no alarms or exceptional
anxieties, save the normal tingle of fear that attends such an operation.
Arriving for the third time in the vicinity of the house Dick, who had
just been promoted to lance corporal, decided he would take on the job
of setting fire to the house while I could be left with the outbuildings.
This meant that he would need to creep forward another 20 yards or so.
He left me, stressing the point that on no account should I throw my
grenade until I saw him returning.
It is in such situations that the flexible quality of time can best
be expressed. While a couple of minutes passes quickly chatting with
friends over a meal, the seconds tick by very slowly while standing
alone, very exposed, in no man's land. Suffice to say that having waited
long enough for Dick to have entered the house, made himself a mug of
coffee, sat for five minutes in a chair and strolled back taking his
time, I felt I could wait no longer and, pulling the pin on the grenade,
lobbed it in the manner described in the training manual in among the
out buildings. There was a blinding flash followed by a billowing cloud
of smoke out of which lurched Dick, rubbing his eyes and feeling his
way forward half blinded. Dick was not normally given to using foul
and abusive language but he made an exception in this case, and the
stream of invective served to show that he was quite familiar with the
THE BATTLE FOR s'HERTOGENBOSCH
ONE important consequence of the Allies' rapid
advance out of Normandy following the defeat of the German armies there
was that our supply lines were greatly stretched. The Normandy beaches
were still our only effective landing place for supplies of food, ammunition
and reinforcements. Now that the front line had been pushed forward
into Holland in the north and the German frontier in the east, trucks
were carrying supplies over 300 miles. This was an unacceptable arrangement.
There was an obvious solution to this problem, that being to open the
port of Antwerp. Some weeks earlier we had captured all of that city
south of the River Scheldt but the north bank was still in enemy hands,
thus making it impossible for shipping to pass. In order to free the
Scheldt estuary, the Canadians and the Royal Marines were ordered to
take the island of Walcheren, which stands at the mouth of the Scheldt
estuary, after which a divisional attack was to be made on the town
of s'Hertogenbosch. Once this town was in our hands, all the Germans
in the south west of Holland, including those occupying the banks of
the Scheldt, would be trapped if they had not earlier made good their
The 53rd Welsh Division was given the task of capturing s'Hertogenbosch.
The divisional plan was to use two brigades forward advancing on different
lines leaving our particular brigade in reserve. Not only was our brigade
to be in reserve, but our battalion was to be the reserve battalion
of the brigade. We were all greatly cheered by this piece of information,
leading us to think that we may not be needed at all. This, however,
was a total misconception of the role of reserve units. Such units are
held back to stand ready for use when the forward troops find themselves
in difficulty or become weakened as a result of having suffered heavy
casualties. At any rate, we would be unlikely to be involved in the
early stages of the action, which in fact proved to be the case.
There was for me a touching scene as we moved forward in readiness.
In the half light of early morning I passed by the bodies of a small
group of young Scottish soldiers who had fallen in the initial assault.
They were about to be buried, and a kilted Scottish piper was playing
the Last Post over them on the bagpipes. Moving forward into battle
I think we all felt the poignancy of the moment.
On the third day of the battle, the outlying villages having been taken,
our company was sent forward into s'Hertogenbosch itself. Separate thrusts
where being made at two crossings of a waterway and our battalion was
to try to exploit the most promising of these crossings. Once across,
our platoon was ordered to occupy a particular house on the corner of
an important thoroughfare. We approached the building on a road that
ran at right angles to the thoroughfare in question, which meant that
in order to get into the house it would be necessary to first cross
this main road. As the Germans were in control of the houses lower down
the road, we would be exposed to their fire as we made the crossing.
When I arrived at the corner of the street and looked across the road,
it was to see that two sections of the platoon had succeeded in getting
into the house, although in doing so one of our men had been killed
and was lying on the cobbles just short of the far pavement. There were,
I think, six of us still to venture across the road in face of enemy
rifle and machine gun fire. Perhaps because I was the senior soldier
in the section, I took responsibility for organising the dash across
this exposed ground. It seemed to me a good idea to send two men at
a time at irregular intervals and this worked satisfactorily for the
first four men. I then paused and waited for the next opportunity. Three
of us still remained. We waited for a time and then I gave the order
to go. Off my two companions set, bending low and running very fast.
Entry into the house was by a wide window set about 4ft from the ground.
Quite why I decided to go with them I cannot explain, but go I did and
as a consequence there were now three of us aiming to get into the house
through a window which was only wide enough to take two men at a time.
Being the last to go and the slowest of the three, by the time I got
to the window, the others were still struggling over the sill and I
was left standing on the pavement with bullets pinging and ricocheting
all around. As it was far too dangerous to remain where I was, and as
there was no shelter of any kind other than in the house itself, I launched
myself over the top of my two colleagues and straight into the front
room of the house. It was a prodigious leap taken from a standing position
and handicapped by the fact that I was wearing full battle order and
carrying a rifle. Undoubtedly I would have broken the world record for
the standing high jump had there been one. However perhaps any claim
to fame I might have made would have been invalidated by reason of the
German small arms fire acting as an exceptional stimulus.
We remained in the house until late afternoon without being troubled
in any way by the Germans. Actually we had taken six of their number
as prisoners and they were standing rather anxiously in the corridor
of the house. For them, the war was now at an end, although they were
experiencing concern about what might happen to them in the immediate
future. Actually, my experience was that front line troops tended to
treat their captives well, since it was always possible that they themselves
might be taken prisoner some time and would, under such circumstances,
want to receive similar consideration. So we usually gave them cigarettes
and if we had food to spare shared it with them. Anyway, we were aware
that they, like us, were in a war not of their own choosing.
By early evening the German activity had ceased. Soon people began to
appear cautiously from the shelter of their houses and, gaining in confidence,
to come out into the street. In no time at all there were 50 or more
people shouting and cheering, a sound which increased tenfold by the
time the platoon sergeant had ordered us to assemble on the road outside
the house. He must have had prior orders that, should the opportunity
arise, he was to move forward to the next canal. The Germans, having
now pulled back, left the way free for us to advance. There was some
delay as the locals celebrated the arrival of British troops but this
pleasant interlude was not allowed to last.
It was our section's turn to lead off but, as a number of our men were
in the upper stories of the house, and as No.1 section were already
out on the street, the sergeant changed the order of march and instead
of being the forward group we, No.3 section, were to be the second section
with No.2 section at the rear. This proved to be a fateful decision.
We were about to leave when a young Dutchman, wearing the armband of
the Resistance, joined us. He asked what our plans were and when we
told him that we were to go as far as the next canal he asked, since
he knew the town, that he might lead the way. This brave young man was
determined to be part of the liberation of his own city. He could have
remained in shelter until the fighting had passed by but instead chose
to accompany us, and ultimately paid the price with his life.
We made good speed on our advance, almost running for the most part,
in our haste to get to our new positions. I believe we passed through
the town square and in front of the town hall where the townspeople
were offering glasses of wine. Quite soon afterwards, No.1 section,
about 15 yards ahead of us and on the opposite side of the road, made
a left turn and we followed to find ourselves in a short street that
led directly to the canal bank. The daylight was now fading and this
must have been a factor in our failure to notice a German tank, tight
in against the side of a building on the far side of the canal, and
about 100-150 yards away.
Without warning there came a violent explosion. The sound of the gun
firing and the shell landing must have been simultaneous. Dick Easton,
leading our section immediately in front of me, fell to the ground.
My reaction was to seek shelter down a street on my right hand side.
A number of others joined me and we began to assess the situation. Looking
carefully round the corner and up the street we saw that the whole of
No.1 section were lying on the far side of the road, the Dutch boy among
them. As there were no sounds coming from them, we had to fear the worst.
Dick, however, was definitely alive. I told the section that I was going
to crawl out and see what I could do for him and Wharton volunteered
to go with me. Knowing that the German tank was no more than 200 yards
away, on the other side of the canal, and having in mind the damage
it had already done, we needed to observe the utmost caution as we crawled
out on our stomachs about 10 yards to where Dick lay.
He had been hit in the face, the stomach and the leg. Typically though,
he was not complaining of the pain, but expressing considerable anger
at the audacity of the enemy to attack him personally. He seemed to
have taken it as an affront that the Germans had singled him out for
special treatment. We did what we could by way of first aid, applying
field dressings over his wounds, and then carried him to safety down
the side street. He was fortunate in that he did not have to wait long
before stretcher-bearers came along to take him away.
Had I reflected on the day's events, which I certainly did not, I would
have wondered at the quirk of fate that caused our section to be so
slow out of the house we had been occupying, an occurrence that led
to the changing of the order of march. Also that Dick, immediately in
front of me, had unwittingly acted as a human shield, saving me from
the horrific wounds that he had received. Soldiers do not have time
for these sorts of thoughts - the war had not suddenly taken time out
for a breather - and even though our platoon had sustained more losses
from that one shell than at any one time in all our previous battles,
the war was still going on.
The side street in which we found ourselves gave on to the rear of a
large building which we were to discover was a monastery. We were able
to gain entry by way of an open door at the rear of the building and
once inside, we moved into the upper floors. Taking a careful look through
one of the windows we could see that we were directly overlooking the
canal, and immediately to our left, its front end protruding beyond
the end of the house, was the German tank that had probably accounted
for the whole of No.1 section. Every platoon had with them one shoulder-held
anti-tank weapon (called a PIAT - projectile infantry anti-tank). We
had carried ours the whole way up from the Normandy beaches without
as yet having had the opportunity (should I say necessity?) to fire
it. Now was our chance to earn glory, get our revenge and perhaps even
collect some medals at the same time. This weapon weighed "a ton"
and who ever had been carrying it had been happy to leave it once we
had entered the monastery. Two men quickly ran downstairs to get it
only to find, on returning, that they had arrived just in time to see
the tank reverse down the street and out of sight. Our chance for lasting
fame had gone.
We settled down for the night and awakened next morning to the sounds
of small arms fire and a good deal of shouting and cheering. Looking
outside and up to our left, we saw the East Lancashires rushing across
a bridge about 200 yards away. This was exciting stuff and we were not
going to miss it.
To our surprise we found that the window in the room we were occupying
gave on to a small balcony and five of us moved outside in order to
get a clearer view of the action. By doing so we now had a grandstand
view. But unknown to us, just across the canal, no farther away than
one could throw a stone, a German soldier was taking aim. With such
a tempting target, five British soldiers out in the open, he could not
possibly miss. All he had to do was select his man, take aim, and he
would surely have a kill. I have wondered since if, when taking aim,
he first had in turn, each one of us in his sights. An eerie thought
indeed. In the event, since there were five of us in line, he chose
the man in the middle. One shot was all that was necessary and down
the man went. He was still alive as we carried him off the balcony but
died in our arms, shot through the chest, before we could get him downstairs.
As we had been fighting as a platoon all the previous day, I was surprised
to find that the rest of the company, and perhaps even all the battalion,
had spent the night in the monastery. First thing in the morning we
were informed of our next task. It was to pass through the East Lancs,
who had formed a bridgehead across the canal, and go straight for the
town railway station. This was probably the last part of the town remaining
in German hands. As I recall there was a broad avenue leading from the
East Lancs position up to the railway station and our job was to clear
all the buildings on either side of the road before making a final assault
on the station itself.
Acting singly, we worked as speedily as possible, going through each
house in turn, and in my case meeting no opposition. We were fortunate
in this respect, because one fanatical soldier, willing to risk his
life, could have held us up for some time and caused us to suffer severe
casualties. However, fanatical Germans were, at this stage in the war,
very thin on the ground. In the event, though I entered many houses
I encountered no one and I now know that most civilians had found shelter
in a flourmill on the outskirts of the town.
I write that I encountered no one but that is not quite correct, there
being just one exception. Somewhere in the middle of a row of houses
was one building which had a door leading to a small room under the
stairs. Many people during the bombing in England had found this to
be the safest place in a house during a bombardment. I pushed the door
open not knowing what I might find, there being always the possibility
of German soldiers hiding there until the battle had passed by. In the
event, crouching in the lowest part of this narrow space were a number
of people, probably a single family, comprising of adults, young people
and children. For a moment we stared at each other until, for them,
came the realisation that the British Army, so long awaited, had at
last arrived. Then it was a case of joy unconfined. The men shook me
by the hand, the women hugged and kissed me and the children climbed
all over me. Of all the men whose courage and sacrifice had brought
our armies this far from the Normandy beaches to free these poor frightened
people I alone was to receive their thanks. It was a tremendous outpouring
of relief and gratitude. I left these people after a while and continued
up the street until reunited with the remainder of the platoon in a
large house just short of the station approach.
I was on the top of this three or four storey building when the Germans
opened up an artillery bombardment with heavy calibre guns. The shells
were falling in the area of the station, causing the house we were occupying
to shake to its foundations. Perhaps being on the top floor served to
exaggerate the movement, but it was a quite frightening time. I imagine
it would have been very similar to that experienced by earthquake victims.
Half expecting the house to collapse around me, I decided to go back
downstairs. Once there, I discovered that a decision had been made to
rush the station. It was not known if any Germans remained there, but
we were close enough to hope that a quick dash up the approach would
succeed against anything less than determined resistance.
Rushing enemy positions is an adrenaline pumping experience. It is not
unlike playing cowboys and Indians as a child, save only that the stakes
are higher. The quick charge across the open area ended with us in the
station to find the enemy had just left. We went straight through the
waiting area and on to the platform where two or three engines without
carriages were standing. Still with the feeling that we were taking
part in some sort of wild-west film, I remember getting into the tender
of one of these trains and firing the section's Bren gun in the direction
of the retreating Germans. I mistakenly believed that the steel skin
of tender would be protection should the enemy seek to make a fight
of it. But as Henry V famously said at the battle of Agincourt, we eventually
ceased firing for lack of argument.
So ended our part in the liberation of s'Hertogenbosh. There was still
some "mopping up" of isolated resistance but other units were
allocated that job. One further incident of note had yet to take place
but that would be after most of us had enjoyed a decent night's rest.
We had found shelter in a large building, possibly a school or college,
which the Germans had requisitioned for their own use. It was full of
military insignia and the paraphernalia of the Nazi Party. One of our
officers, I remember, acquired the regimental colours of a German infantry
unit, which he later gave to our regimental museum. As morning broke
I was awakened by the sound of an automatic weapon being fired at close
range. On going to the window I saw a dispatch rider slumped with his
back against a lamp standard. It was clear that he was mad with drink
for he was firing his Bren or Thompson sub-machine gun randomly up and
down the street. It was only by great good fortune that no one had so
far been injured. Standing next to me was an officer who ordered me
to arrest the drunken man. In civilian life I would no doubt have offered
him a number of good reasons why I should not undertake such a hazardous
task but in the army an order is an order and must be obeyed.
Leaving the building, I realised that I was not directly in the man's
line of fire. Crouched up as he was, his field of fire was approximately
within the area from 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock. I was approaching him
from the side, say at 3 o'clock from where he was sitting, and was therefore
relatively safe provided he did not make a substantial turn of the body.
Going slowly so as not to alarm him, I began to "soft talk"
him although I doubt very much if he heard me. When I finally got to
him he surrendered his weapon without a struggle. Then almost at once,
lots of other people arrived, and he was taken away. He was I think
the first man I had seen drunk throughout the whole campaign.
No one came to pat me on the shoulders or say "well done".
I never expected it nor even thought about it until afterwards. Like
the platoon's part in the Battle of s'Hertogenbosch, it was just another
job that had to be done.
With the fall of s'Hertogenbosch, the remains of the German Army in
Holland retreated behind the rivers Lec and Wal, which is what the Rhine
is known as it enters Holland. Effectively, the Germans were now back
on their home ground and consolidating behind the Siegfried Line, a
defensive system that ran along the German frontier from Holland in
the north, to Switzerland. Accordingly, the Allied forces lined up against
them along the eastern borders of Holland, Belgium and France.
WOUNDED, AND OUR ADVANCE TO THE RHINE
THE 53rd Welsh Division occupied an area of
the line between Venlo and Roermond along the banks of the River Mans
(which in Belgium and France is called the Meuse). Our company headquarters
was in the village of Neer and I, as a newly promoted lance corporal,
had a section of five men in a farmhouse at a road junction well forward
of the main body of the company, and as near to the river as our position
extended. The terrain on our side of the river was fairly flat, while
on the far bank, where the Germans were dug in, the rising ground gave
them the advantage of being able to observe our positions and our every
movement. This was a quiet sector as neither ourselves nor the Germans
were inclined to mount any offensive operation that would have necessitated
an assault across a major river obstacle.
Our main and continuing problem was that platoon sections had, through
suffering casualties, been reduced in number from what, fully up to
staffing, would have been eight men, down to four or five. The effect
of this was that men stood guard in their slit trenches two hours on
and two hours off, 24 hours a day. This was an exhausting schedule.
We were now into November, and although it had not yet become cold,
the days were often overcast and, as we were down by the river, mist
and fog hung around much of the time, lending an air of depression to
proceedings. Surviving the forthcoming winter "holed up" in
slit trenches, even without the aggravations of occasional skirmishes
with the Germans, was not a prospect to which one looked forward with
eager anticipation. However good fortune was, unknown to me, about to
come my way in a series of events which would take me out of the fighting
for most of the last six months of the war.
On the afternoon of 20 November I met an old friend "Jacko"
Jackson in the village and we chatted for a while. It was the last time
I was to see him as, five weeks later, he would be lying dead on the
snow covered slopes of the Ardennes where the 7th Royal Welsh Fusiliers
had been sent, with the rest of the division, to assist the US Army
who were being hard pressed by a massive German offensive designed to
drive a wedge between the British and US armies. I learned subsequently
that our battalion had advanced up the hills near the village of Menil
on 4 January. The following day our attack continued against increasing
resistance and was then hit by a German counter-attack which resulted
in our company position being overrun. The company held its ground during
the whole of the next day, 6 January, until early on 7 January the 4th
Battalion of the Welsh Regiment pushed the Germans back.
It was during the course of this battle that Jacko was killed. In recognition
of our company's fortitude in the battle, Major Tomlinson, our company
commander, was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
When I got back to my section after chatting with my friend it was to
learn that I was about to receive four reinforcements - riches indeed.
They arrived as dusk was descending, and with them came news that rations
had arrived at company HQ. I was asked to send someone to collect them.
I couldn't send any of the reinforcements and of my other four men two
were on guard while the other two were resting. In the circumstances
I thought it proper not to disturb the men on rest, and so there was
no alternative but to go myself.
Company HQ was about 600 yards up a lane which was under constant observation
by the Germans. And so, leaving my section, I sprinted up the road and
reached HQ safely. There were friends there, all gathered round a large
container of tea which was standing near the open front door of the
house. Someone handed me a tin mug and invited me to fill it from the
"dixie". I was in the act of bending low to get some of the
hot sweet liquid that passed for tea, when a shell burst in the middle
of the road immediately outside the house. Although I felt no pain I
knew at once that I had been wounded, and I said as much, out loud,
for anyone who cared to hear. My legs and arms seemed to be working
satisfactorily and there was nothing to tell me that my body had suffered.
However blood was pouring down my legs and sitting became an impossibility.
There was little enough time to undertake more than a perfunctory examination
before the company jeep came up asking if there were any casualties
and, being the only one, I was swiftly driven away. The nearest casualty
clearing station was in the town of Weart and the jeep and I arrived
there as night was falling
During the course of this journey I had had an opportunity to assess
my changed circumstances. It was already evident that I was not seriously
wounded. In fact, as I came to understand the full extent of my injury,
I reflected that if ever there was a prize or certificate to be given
to the soldier in any of the armies engaged in this conflict, be it
in the European or Far East theatres of operation, who could show the
least disabling wound which would at the same time take the maximum
time to heal, the prize would undoubtedly be mine for the taking. Nevertheless,
irrespective of the trivial nature of my injuries, I thought that on
arrival at hospital I would be afforded hero status and pestered endlessly
with questions about what life was like at the front. It was a disappointment,
therefore, to discover the casualty unit was staffed by just one orderly,
a man so engrossed in a copy of the Wizard, or was it the Adventure,
both popular boys' weekly comics of the time, that he paid me not the
slightest attention. He was following the exploits of The Wolf of Kabul
or possibly the Fifth Wicket Fosters so closely that he barely noticed
My stay in this inhospitable establishment happily lasted one night
only, before I was sent on to a hospital in Eindhoven. This building
had once housed elements of the Hitler Jugend and the walls were festooned
with paintings three times life size of members of this infamous band
in various dramatic and aggressive postures. It had to be a little disconcerting
on gently awaking from a much welcome night's rest to be confronted
by a sulky youth in the very act of lobbing a "potato masher"
stick grenade in your direction. This apart, life was indeed easy. The
beds were clean and comfortable and since I was bed-fast, meals were
served to me on a tray. There was also a feeling of camaraderie as all
the men in the ward had been wounded in action, none as far as I could
see very seriously, and all with a tale, most of them humorous, to tell.
I have omitted to make note of the fact that, on my arrival at the casualty
clearing station, the medical orderly, that avid reader of all that
is best of English literature, once he had concluded the latest gripping
episode of the Wolf of Kabul, paused just long enough to stick a hypodermic
syringe with a diameter of a No.4 knitting needle 5in into the fleshy
part of my behind without, I should say, so much as a "by your
leave" or "this is hurting me more than it hurts you".
He returned to his magazine to continue where he had left off, this
time to follow The Further Adventures of Wilson the World's Greatest
Athlete. Having apparently enjoyed this little intermission, he stuck
a label on me advising whosoever took up my case that they should give
me a single penicillin injection every three hours. His instructions
were carried out faithfully for the next three days until, during a
night train journey from Eindhoven to Lille, I took off the label, and
after opening the carriage window threw the offending note into the
darkness where it drifted away, unregretted, into the darkness, somewhere
between Antwerp and the French frontier.
At the 77th British General Hospital in Lille, where I was now safely
installed, I found myself sharing a small ward with three others. Two
were rear echelon men who had been admitted to hospital in order to
have the operation for the treatment of piles, while the third was a
youth of about my own age and an infantry soldier. This boy, for that
is all he was, had trodden on an anti-personnel mine which had blown
off his foot and while attempting to stand on his good leg had exploded
a second mine which had removed that foot also.
The two older men were good company, and the three of us had a lot of
fun together while, for much of the time, the young boy remained quiet,
no doubt considering what kind of future lay in store for him. No amount
of 'jollying" him along made much difference, and I look back now
and feel we failed him badly.
Each morning the two men who had had their operations were visited by
a doctor who put on a finger stall and then worked to keep the anal
passage clear. They suffered more discomfort during this operation than
anyone else I had seen since I entered hospital. They shouted aloud
in pain and their clenched fists and distorted faces told their own
story. It was all too dreadful to make fun of.
At about the end of the second week two doctors visited and examined
me. It appeared that they were considering whether it might be possible
to stitch up the open wounds, but concluded that the jaws of the wound
were so wide apart that stitching them together would have stretched
my skin to such an extent that I may never again have been able to close
my eyes. It was fine with me since it meant that my recovery would take
that much longer.
I remained in hospital until mid January 1945, when I was seen by a
doctor who pronounced me fit again. I felt well and was fully expecting
to be returned to my unit immediately, but in the event, and to my great
surprise, the kind man said he thought I would benefit from a period
of convalescence. Thinking back, I suspect the extreme youthfulness
of my appearance had touched him, and he was trying to keep me away
from the fighting as long as possible.
I spent the next four weeks on a former German Air Force fighter station
at St Omer. The winter of 1945 was bitterly cold and, there being just
one small stove in the centre of our large wooden hut, we all huddled
round it for warmth. At night we covered ourselves with every item of
clothing we possessed in a vain attempt to generate some heat.
Fighting was taking place in the Reichswald Forest, part of the Siegfried
Line system of defence. Heavy rain and extreme cold were the background
to one of the fiercest, but also the last, pitched battles of the war.
Progress was slow and casualties were heavy, but after some days the
British were in sight of victory. I knew my regiment was involved in
the action and early February saw me on a train tracking north. I admit
to some anxiety about rejoining my unit. Once in the front line a solider
does his duty and does not concern himself too much about the future,
but I had been away for over three months, enjoying soft living and
a freedom from fear, and now once again I would have to adjust to the
uncertain existence of the infantry soldier.
My regiment had just cleared to the forest and had advanced as far as
Munchen-Gladbach when I rejoined them. I was saddened to see that not
one member of my section had survived from our arrival in Normandy June
1944. Indeed there were not more than two or three in the whole platoon
and perhaps a dozen in the company out of a compliment when at full
strength of 144 men.
Soon all Germany west of the Rhine was in our hands, and the next operation
would certainly be the Rhine crossing. No one knew if the Germans had
held back a significant force to defend the east bank of the Rhine but
there was much talk of a guerrilla movement, comprising of older men
and soldiers who had survived the fighting. These ad hoc units, it was
believed, would fight on for months, even years to come. By this means
Hitler threatened that fighting would continue indefinitely on German
THE FINAL CHAPTER
THEN my guardian angel worked the oracle one
more time. I was called to company HQ and told I had been selected to
go on an NCOs' training course in Brussels. The course would last two
weeks and I was to leave immediately. So it was that when the Allies
crossed the Rhine, I was not among their number. Instead, I was answering
my name when the register was called in the Koenig Albert Ecole in the
Belgian capital. I played soldiers for the next fortnight. Each day
we were able to follow the progress of the British and US armies as
shown on a large scale map displayed in the school's main hall. With
the Russians in the outskirts of Berlin surely the war could not last
much longer, but in the event it was almost three more weeks before
the Germans capitulated.
In the meantime, I boarded yet another three ton truck, and set off
in search of my unit. We crossed the Rhine and started to drive north
east before eventually finding the battalion outside a town named Rotenberg.
I discovered that I had been promoted to full corporal in my absence,
but was still only a section leader in charge of about six men.
Rotenberg was our next objective and my company would be leading the
approach-to-contact march as we made our way towards the town. The company
commander decided that 16 platoon would be ahead and then the platoon
sergeant instructed my section to lead the column. Since it was my policy
to lead from the front I found myself to be the soldier the most advanced
in the British Army on this sector. The road into Rotenberg was not
dissimilar from walking from the junction of Abbeyhills Road-Lees New
Road, to Hurst Cross, but there were thick forests on either side, in
fact, conditions ideal for an ambush. Anyone could have fired on us
and then retreated into the forest, and it would have been impossible
to find them.
We knew there were Germans in the town, but we did not know if they
were prepared to fight. Walking two miles, knowing that any moment a
bullet might be coming your way, has the effect of lengthening this
distance and extending the time you would normally expect to take for
such a journey. The last 300 yards were, I suppose, the most nerve wracking,
since, if the Germans intended to defend the town, you would expect
them to open fire at that range. In the event nothing happened. As we
entered the outskirts of the town, although there were lots of Germans
about, they were not inclined to put up any resistance. All leadership
had been lost and people were milling about all over the place. One
German came to me in a very agitated state. Neither of us could understand
the other's language, but eventually, using the few words of French
that I had picked up, I gathered that he was in charge of a team of
horses (the German Army used horses to tow guns and sometimes to tow
supply wagons) and the townspeople, who had been starved of food for
months, desperately hungry, were about to kill his much loved animals.
He begged me to intervene, and could not understand that while I was
prepared to take him into safe custody, there was no way I could save
Some time later in the day, and totally unexpectedly, the town came
under German shell fire. We thought German resistance had collapsed
and now we were having to take cover again. The shells were falling
among our men, giving rise to the view that there was an enemy observation
post, calling shots down on us, somewhere in the town. The most likely
place was in a windmill close to the town centre, and I was detailed
to take two men, and check this building for German troops. This assignment
was not without its element of danger as I thought that a soldier willing
to be left behind enemy lines to direct fire on his foe would be very
likely to sell his life dearly, and from a position at the top of the
windmill, he would have all the advantage against anyone trying to "winkle"
My two companions and I burst through the door in the best traditions
of the American cop shows, and found there to be nothing that offered
shelter on the floor of the mill. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there was
no one at ground level, and if there were to be someone on lookout he
would be found in the little cabin at the top of the windmill and just
behind the sails. The way to the top of the building was by way of an
iron staircase that wound around the inside of the mill in ever-decreasing
circles until it ended at a cat-ladder that gave access to the cabin.
Up I went, followed closely by my two companions, our rifles at the
ready. We never took our eyes off the cabin door above, even though
that necessitated our walking backwards occasionally before coming at
last to the cat-ladder. I first listened for a short time and then made
a quick dash up the steps and through the door. There was no one there.
I breathed a sigh of relief, paused and then went back down to report.
It had been exciting as long as it lasted, and the adrenaline had certainly
been rushing for a while. The fact that there was no one there tends
to detract somewhat from the story, but you have to know that when I
entered the mill and while I was climbing the staircase there was always
the possibility that I would find some fanatical German soldier prepared
to fight it out.
That evening, it was decided to send out a fighting patrol as the German
shelling during the day suggested that there were elements in the area
who were still resisting. The patrol was led by a young, inexperienced
officer, a sergeant and myself, with a dozen soldiers. We were to reconnoitre
the area immediately forward of the battalion's position and cause trouble
for any enemy we encountered. From time to time we stopped to listen
but the only sound I could hear was the wind blowing through telegraph
wires which gave off a kind of buzzing noise suggesting to our officer
that there were tanks somewhere near by. This was surely fanciful thinking
since it was doubtful if at this stage in the war any tanks remained
to the German Army. I suppose we had been out less than an hour when,
during one of our occasional pauses to listen, the sound of someone
cocking a rifle and easing a bullet into the breach of a rifle, came
from very close at hand. Given that sounds seem to travel very quickly
in the quiet of the night, my estimate was that the unknown soldier
was less than 20 yards away. We waited for a decision from the officer,
but none was immediately forthcoming. If there was one enemy soldier
there, it is almost certain that there would be more of them. What is
more, they would probably be in prepared positions, while we lay out
in the open. Nor did we, on this occasion, have the advantage of surprise,
as the cocking of the rifle clearly indicated that they were aware of
our presence and in a state of readiness and willingness to fight. It
was while I was musing on the situation that it crossed my mind that
this was not the enemy we had come up against, but some of our own people
in a forward position. That famously inappropriate expression "friendly
fire" had not yet been coined, but the circumstances in which we
found ourselves could easily have led to a fire-fight between troops
on the same side. Eventually, a whisper came down the line to creep
quietly away, thus sensibly avoiding futile bloodshed either to ourselves
or the Germans when the war was within a fortnight of its end.
The final twists and turns of my part in the war were to take place
within the following four or five days. The battalion had been ordered
to halt its advance and I found' myself, with my section, in a small
village within which I had taken possession of a bungalow of some distinction.
The occupants were a 70-year-old grandfather and his teenage granddaughter.
This couple were very anxious for their own safety, not knowing what
treatment to expect from the forward elements of an occupying army.
In the event, they were treated well, and their privacy was respected.
Indeed, I never knew of an instance during the whole war when either
civilians or enemy prisoners were badly treated by our forward troops.
Any excesses - and I doubt they were widespread - were carried out by
troops in the rear echelons. My recollection is that as well as respecting
civilians and prisoners, we occasionally shared our rations with them,
since almost without exception, they had little food of their own. This
particular old man spoke excellent English, and as his confidence grew
he spoke more and more often to me as the group leader. One day, he
asked me to follow him on a short walk to a bridge on the outskirts
of the village, and then told me that he was a commander of the local
Volksturm, the equivalent of our Home Guard. His task, just prior to
the arrival of the allied troops, had been to destroy the bridge, which
had already been pre-set with high explosive. He had not carried out
this order, and now was anxious to alert me to the need to defuse the
bomb. I thanked him for the information, and having dealt with this
matter, I told him that I would be returning to England on leave the
following day. Next morning, as I was preparing to depart, he said something
to me that I have treasured ever since. "Tell your mother,"
he said, "that she has a good son." On the last day of my
personal war, my enemy had become my friend.
A NOTICE FOUND IN THE HEADQUARTERS OF A GERMAN GENERAL
ALL my officers are a combination of two of
the following characteristics:
The industrious and clever I appoint as my staff officers because of
their ability to work carefully and accurately on the fine details of
any course of action.
Use can be found for the stupid and idle.
The idle and clever people possess the necessary intelligence and nerve
for the highest commands.
The stupid and industrious, however, are an absolute menace to any organisation
and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.
ON THE SUBJECT OF FEAR
A STATE of fear, or at least anxiety, was
present on many occasions. However, fear, such that I might lose control,
and be unable to act rationally, gripped me only twice.
The first time was during the shelling in Tessel Wood when there was
a real danger that panic might spread throughout the company. Discipline
was maintained but we were, as yet, very inexperienced and only strong
leadership saved us on that occasion.
The second time was on the day of my return to the unit after being
away wounded for four months. I had just dug my slit trench and was
hoping to sit quietly below ground level, when a bullet or piece of
shrapnel passed over my shoulder and embedded itself on the far side
of my trench. I was convinced that I was being targeted by a sniper,
and remained in the bottom of my trench for at least an hour, quite
unable to move. I gradually recovered my confidence as time passed,
but I had been badly shaken. My inability to function was made worse
by the fact that I was, by now, a non-commissioned officer and responsible
for a group of men who looked to me for example and leadership. I hope
and believe that the men did not realise how paralysed with fear I had
AN INTIMATE MOMENT WITH THE GENERAL
ON a dank, overcast day in Holland in autumn
1944, as our company was advancing down a road, an armoured car pulled
up alongside me, and out climbed the Brigadier General. He spoke not
a word, but gazed rather loftily down the road in the general direction
of Scandinavia. Perhaps alerted by the arrival of an armoured car, which
implied the presence of an officer of some rank, the Germans welcomed
the great man with a salvo of high explosive shells. General and private
soldier dived together into the muddy ditch which ran alongside the
road, and there we lay, face down and side by side until the firing
ceased after which we both raised our mud-spattered faces and from a
distance of about 6in, gazed into each other's eyes. For a couple of
seconds, rank counted for nothing, and I sensed a brief moment of intimacy
between us. Thinking that a friendship had been established, I ventured:
"You really must tell them to stop doing that, sir, or mark my
words someone will get hurt." But the moment had passed and he
made no reply. Instead, displaying an agility commendable in one of
his relatively advanced years, he hopped back into his armoured car
and sped south to the safety of brigade headquarters. It is an ironic
fact, that while I survived the war, he was killed a few weeks later,
when his armoured car skidded off an icy road and crashed, during the
fighting in the Ardennes.
THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER
WE lost one member of our platoon early on in Normandy, in circumstances
which would have been unusual for any average person, but not for him.
His real name is now lost in the mists of time, but he was known to
all as the Chocolate Soldier because of the fact that, whenever he got
a parcel from home, he would save the chocolate until night time and
then eat it under his blankets so as not to have to share it with anyone.
The man was accident prone, and we eventually lost him when he poured
petrol on an improvised cooker, known to us as a Bengazi. This was,
in effect, a biscuit tin with holes punched in the bottom, then filled
with soil upon which petrol was poured. Once lighted, this gave a steady
flame on which water could be boiled or food cooked. As a consequence
of pouring petrol on a naked flame, he suffered severe facial burns
and was returned to England.
However, before that incident, he almost wiped out the platoon - completing
in seconds a task which eventually took the Germans almost 11 months
to achieve. We had dug our slit trenches in a position just behind the
front lines and many of us were cleaning our weapons, when the Chocolate
Soldier began fiddling clumsily with a hand grenade from which he had
unwittingly removed the firing pin, so activating the bomb. Once activated,
10 seconds would elapse before the bomb would explode. There was, therefore,
ample time and opportunity to warn everyone to take cover, as we were
all close together, sitting by the sides of our slit trenches. In the
event, he told no one, and slid quietly into his own trench, leaving
the bomb above ground. When the bomb exploded, incredibly, no one was
hurt. The allied chances of winning the war improved dramatically when
he suffered the burns which necessitated his return to England for hospitalisation.
He was to the British Army what the Good Soldier Sweik had been to the
Austrians during the First World War.
LAST MAN STANDING
ON our arrival in Normandy in June 1944, our
platoon, fully up to strength, numbered, I believe, 36 men. In May 1945,
when the war ended, I was the only man remaining in the platoon of that
original number. Of the others, all except one had been killed or wounded
and, if wounded, had not returned to our unit. The one exception was
my friend, Johnny Brickell, who at some time during the fighting had
been transferred to the relative safety of company headquarters.
Of the company as a whole - 144 men when up to strength, as we were
in June 1944 - only about a dozen men survived.
THOUGHTS ABOUT MONEY
I HAD, by the time I was 10 years old, spent
a small fortune playing pinball machines. But then I came to the realisation
that if I were to save money I would have a greater control of my own
life. And so it was that I began to save, yet without ever making money
Fast forward, now, to the first few days following our arrival in Normandy
and before the battle for Caen. I had made one of my daily visits to
the company latrines to answer a call of nature. The latrine was constructed
thus, a rounded pole resting on two Y-shaped pieces of wood which were
in turn secured firmly into the ground, the whole apparatus suspended
over an open trench. To remain balanced on this pole without falling
back into the trench required a high degree of concentration, which
at first prevented the mind from wandering. I had, by now, mastered
the necessary technique, and therefore at least part of my mind was
free to ponder weightier matters. So it was that I came round to thinking
about the part money would play in my immediate future - always assuming
that I had one.
What I needed more than anything was a guarantee that I would survive
the war more or less intact and, as an added bonus, that any hardship
I might have to suffer, would be reduced to a minimum. Question: Would
any money that I had saved ensure such an outcome? Answer: No. Therefore,
for the forthcoming months, money would be a complete irrelevance to
my life. I then thought, having reached this momentous conclusion, that
a dramatic gesture was called for to celebrate this sea-change in my
attitude to money.
Just before leaving England we had all been given some "Monopoly"
money called BAFS, which the allies intended would replace all the existing
currencies of the countries we liberated or conquered. Taking some of
these notes from my pocket, I used them to clean myself up and then
let them fall into the steaming pit below. Having done so, I felt cleansed
in body and mind. My soul, it seemed to me, had become purified and
released from all mean and, dare I say it, petty thoughts.
For the next 11 months, apart from a short time after being wounded,
when I was allowed into Lille and bought beer and coffee, I never spent
so much as a penny. Indeed there was no opportunity to do so. When my
time came for home leave, during the last fortnight of the war, I drew
out all the money that had been credited to me since leaving England.
The first thing I did on arriving home was to take this money from my
pocket and throw it into the air such that notes fell like snow all
over the living room carpet.
For being exposed to mortal danger, shedding blood for my country, living
in an almost constant state of anxiety, seeing good friends killed and
wounded around me, eating and sleeping outside in all weathers, not
to mention being so short of sleep that one lived in a twilight world
for the most part, I had been paid the princely sum of £100.
THE town of s'Hertogenbosch formed a liberation
committee which liaises with the Welsh and English regiments that took
part in the fighting in their town, in October 1944. For a number of
years, veterans of the battle had been visiting s'Hertogenbosch as guests
of the townspeople, staying for the most part in the private homes of
Dutch families. On the 50th anniversary of the battle, my wife and I
went along for the celebrations and stayed for four days with Dick and
Maria Verschuuren, who have since become firm friends of ours.
The people of s'Hertogenbosch have proved themselves most generous hosts,
reflecting their deep and lasting gratitude to their liberators. During
the four days of celebration on the 50th anniversary, the surviving
veterans paraded through the centre of the town, when all the streets
were lined three or four deep with Dutch people who cheered our passage
and handed bunches of flowers to us as we passed. Later there was a
grand banquet and variety show. On the last day we were taken to the
military cemetery to see most of the graves of the men who had died
during the fighting. Each grave was tended and kept by local schoolchildren,
who were present to chaperone us round the local cemetery.
IN the late 1980s, my wife and I "discovered"
Normandy and thereafter, over the next 10 years, we revisited this region
which has so many historical connections with our own country.
In 1989 we decided that the following year, when I would be celebrating
my 65th birthday, we would invite our family and friends to spend a
weekend with us in this part of France. I also had in mind to write
to the mayor of Malon to inquire if there remained in the village any
people who had been there at the time of the great battle. I duly received
a reply to my letter, which asked me to be at the church in St Contest
at 2pm on 5 May 1990.
Just before 2pm, we drove to St Contest, where we were met by four oldish
men who had been children at the time of the fighting. Each one of them
had their own story to tell of the events of 8 July 1944, all of which
we listened to with great interest.
We were told that, during the battle, some German troops had opened
up the graves in the churchyard and continued to fight from there until
either killed, wounded or captured. One determined German secured himself
into the church roofing where he remained until he was finally killed.
The blood from his wounds dripped down on to the statue of Christ, close
to the altar.
We left the church and made a tour of the villages of St Contest, Buron
and Malon, which are all part of the same commune. Gathering more people
as we went on our way, we came eventually to the cornfield just outside
Malon where, 46 years earlier, I had dug my first slit trench and sheltered
from the German mortar fire.
Among the villagers was a man named Dominique Barbé, who had
been a boy in 1944. He told me he was writing a history of the fighting
around the villages of St Contest, Buron and Malon, from D-Day until
the liberation on 8 July. He invited me to give my account of my own
experiences for inclusion in the book. The book has now been published
under the title Charnwood, the British codename for the battle. I have
been given a signed copy.
During the day we were privileged to meet the Grande Dame of Malon and
to be invited to her manor house. By this time we had attracted a caravan
of people - in cars, on bicycles and on foot. All of them followed us
as we were eventually taken to meet the mayor at the mairie. The day
culminated in a grand birthday party. Someone had made a huge cake and
later the mayor, in his speech, thanked me as a representative of the
British Army for our part in the liberation of his town.
It was an unforgettable day. We have since returned to Malon on a number
of occasions, and the mayor usually finds time to pass the time of day
DURING the fighting in s'Hertogenbosch, I
acquired a Belgian-made handgun and holster from the body of a dead
soldier. I believed that this weapon would add a touch of "swagger"
and give my erstwhile rather nondescript appearance some much more assured
image. I got rid of it after a short time when I discovered that the
muzzle velocity was such that a shot fired across the street did not
have sufficient power to break a window 25 yards away.
ON leaving England for France, in an idiosyncratic
gesture, I decided to shave only one half of my upper lip until either
hostilities ceased or my demise came about. Three months later, on our
arrival in Brussels, we had what came to be as near to a formal inspection
as we were to have, before the war ended. The officer inspecting never
noticed that one side of my face remained unshaven. This goes to show
that, although I was in my twentieth year, I was still so physically
immature that I could not produce an appreciable amount of facial hair
in a period of over three months.
NO account of the Normandy campaign would
be complete without reference to the Royal Artillery forward observation
officer attached to our battalion. He was known to us as "Stonk,"
the name he used to describe a short, sharp artillery strike on a specified
I never knew his real name and nor, I suspect, did anyone else. He was
a captain by rank, tall, spare, with a face largely hidden by a large,
handlebar moustache. He was the only soldier I ever saw during the fighting
who did not wear battle dress, preferring instead the formal officers'
tunic, which very early on had become creased, mud-spattered and comfortably
lived-in. He made no concessions to the threats to life or limb attendant
in the front-line of trenches, forsaking the wearing of a steel helmet
and giving the impression that it was beneath his dignity to crouch
or seek shelter under fire.
Stonk was the only non-infantryman who came up to the front willingly
and speedily on a request from us. Having had pointed out to him a German
strong point which was causing us some inconvenience - a wood, a house,
a bunker - he would identify the place on his map and announce his intention
to "stonk" it. It was necessary only for him to ring through
to his gun battery on his field telephone set and the barrage would
commence. He invariably waited to see the effects of the strike before
In this way, Stonk laid selective waste to numerous areas of the Normandy
countryside - not, I think, especially for the greater good of the allied
war effort but rather to provide us, his own infantry soldiers, with
the best possible support.