The Feature Page
Kenneth Pollitt

2nd/5th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers


by Kenneth Pollitt
sent to us by David Pollitt Kenneth's son

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 war, granddad?"
Grateful thanks to my son, David, without whose initial encouragement and subsequent practical help this chronicle would never have been written.


Chapter 1
Enlistment, training and preparation for the invasion of Europe 1

Chapter 2
Normandy and the battle for Caen 10

Chapter 3
The advance to Noyers Bocage and Château Pollitt 23

Chapter 4
Crossing the River Orne and the end of the Normandy campaign 33

Chapter 5
We join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and advance through France and Belgium to Antwerp 40

Chapter 6
Crossing the Meuse-Escaut Junction Canal (the Albert Canal) 44

Chapter 7
Relieving the US airborne troops and the burning of a Dutch farmhouse 52

Chapter 8
The battle for s'Hertogenbosch 57

Chapter 9
Wounded, and our advance to the Rhine 67

Chapter 10
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
Immaturity 89

Click here to see the photos that go with this diary

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 basic equipment.
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 of mention.
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 cheeked!
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 sights.
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 to England.
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 for him.
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.



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 see him.
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 indeed.
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 failed.
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 pieces.
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 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 target.
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 open.
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 to give.
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 open.
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.



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.



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 activity.



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, worlds away.
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 counts.
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 the rear.
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 to ground."
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.



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 would collapse.
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 us unduly.
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 officer.
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 vocabulary.



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 escape.
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.



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 arrival.
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 soil.



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 the horses.
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" him out.
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.


ALL my officers are a combination of two of the following characteristics:
1. Industriousness
2. Idleness
3. Cleverness
4. Stupidity.
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.


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 become.


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.


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.


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.


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 a god.
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 with us.


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 target.
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 retiring.
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.