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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
CROSSING THE MEUSE-ESCAUT JUNCTION
(THE ALBERT CANAL)
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
an hour later, once more in a single line, we set out over the open
ground towards the wood in the far distance. We knew the Germans were
there since we had heard them only hours before. In the grey light of
early morning, as we grew closer and closer to the trees, we waited
expectantly for the deadly sound of machine gun fire. Nothing happened;
the Germans had left. What we had heard, when we were earlier that night
so close to their position, was the sound of them loading their transport
and moving out. The despatch rider had been sent to bring back the machine
gun teams, and once he returned with the news that the British were
over the canal, there was no reason to “hang about” so off
they had gone into the dawn, their departure arrangements hastened by
our imminent arrival.
RELIEVING THE US AIRBORNE TROOPS
AND THE BURNING OF A DUTCH FARMHOUSE
IN early October 1944 Field Marshall Montgomery
thought he could bring the war to a speedy conclusion by a rapid advance
through Holland, crossing the Rhine at Arnhem and in this way getting
behind the German Siegfried Line frontier defences. The way would then
be open to an attack on the Ruhr area, the industrial heartland of Germany.
Once those industrial towns had fallen into our hands the German Army
could no longer be supplied with armaments and ammunition and resistance
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
THE BATTLE FOR s’HERTOGENBOSCH
ONE important consequence of the Allies’
rapid advance out of Normandy following the defeat of the German armies
there was that our supply lines were greatly stretched. The Normandy
beaches were still our only effective landing place for supplies of
food, ammunition and reinforcements. Now that the front line had been
pushed forward into Holland in the north and the German frontier in
the east, trucks were carrying supplies over 300 miles. This was an
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
the fall of s’Hertogenbosch, the remains of the German Army in
Holland retreated behind the rivers Lec and Wal, which is what the Rhine
is known as it enters Holland. Effectively, the Germans were now back
on their home ground and consolidating behind the Siegfried Line, a
defensive system that ran along the German frontier from Holland in
the north, to Switzerland. Accordingly, the Allied forces lined up against
them along the eastern borders of Holland, Belgium and France.
WOUNDED, AND OUR ADVANCE TO
THE 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
THE FINAL CHAPTER
THEN my guardian angel worked the oracle one
more time. I was called to company HQ and told I had been selected to
go on an NCOs’ training course in Brussels. The course would last
two weeks and I was to leave immediately. So it was that when the Allies
crossed the Rhine, I was not among their number. Instead, I was answering
my name when the register was called in the Koenig Albert Ecole in the
Belgian capital. I played soldiers for the next fortnight. Each day
we were able to follow the progress of the British and US armies as
shown on a large scale map displayed in the school’s main hall.
With the Russians in the outskirts of Berlin surely the war could not
last much longer, but in the event it was almost three more weeks before
the Germans capitulated.
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.
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
time later in the day, and totally unexpectedly, the town came under
German shell fire. We thought German resistance had collapsed and now
we were having to take cover again. The shells were falling among our
men, giving rise to the view that there was an enemy observation post,
calling shots down on us, somewhere in the town. The most likely place
was in a windmill close to the town centre, and I was detailed to take
two men, and check this building for German troops. This assignment
was not without its element of danger as I thought that a soldier willing
to be left behind enemy lines to direct fire on his foe would be very
likely to sell his life dearly, and from a position at the top of the
windmill, he would have all the advantage against anyone trying to “winkle”
My two companions and I burst through the door in the best traditions
of the American cop shows, and found there to be nothing that offered
shelter on the floor of the mill. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there was
no one at ground level, and if there were to be someone on lookout he
would be found in the little cabin at the top of the windmill and just
behind the sails. The way to the top of the building was by way of an
iron staircase that wound around the inside of the mill in ever-decreasing
circles until it ended at a cat-ladder that gave access to the cabin.
Up I went, followed closely by my two companions, our rifles at the
ready. We never took our eyes off the cabin door above, even though
that necessitated our walking backwards occasionally before coming at
last to the cat-ladder. I first listened for a short time and then made
a quick dash up the steps and through the door. There was no one there.
I breathed a sigh of relief, paused and then went back down to report.
It had been exciting as long as it lasted, and the adrenaline had certainly
been rushing for a while. The fact that there was no one there tends
to detract somewhat from the story, but you have to know that when I
entered the mill and while I was climbing the staircase there was always
the possibility that I would find some fanatical German soldier prepared
to fight it out.
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.
final twists and turns of my part in the war were to take place within
the following four or five days. The battalion had been ordered to halt
its advance and I found’ myself, with my section, in a small village
within which I had taken possession of a bungalow of some distinction.
The occupants were a 70-year-old grandfather and his teenage granddaughter.
This couple were very anxious for their own safety, not knowing what
treatment to expect from the forward elements of an occupying army.
In the event, they were treated well, and their privacy was respected.
Indeed, I never knew of an instance during the whole war when either
civilians or enemy prisoners were badly treated by our forward troops.
Any excesses – and I doubt they were widespread – were carried
out by troops in the rear echelons. My recollection is that as well
as respecting civilians and prisoners, we occasionally shared our rations
with them, since almost without exception, they had little food of their
own. This particular old man spoke excellent English, and as his confidence
grew he spoke more and more often to me as the group leader. One day,
he asked me to follow him on a short walk to a bridge on the outskirts
of the village, and then told me that he was a commander of the local
Volksturm, the equivalent of our Home Guard. His task, just
prior to the arrival of the allied troops, had been to destroy the bridge,
which had already been pre-set with high explosive. He had not carried
out this order, and now was anxious to alert me to the need to defuse
the bomb. I thanked him for the information, and having dealt with this
matter, I told him that I would be returning to England on leave the
following day. Next morning, as I was preparing to depart, he said something
to me that I have treasured ever since. “Tell your mother,”
he said, “that she has a good son.” On the last day of my
personal war, my enemy had become my friend.
A NOTICE FOUND IN THE HEADQUARTERS OF A GERMAN GENERAL
ALL my officers are a combination of two of
the following characteristics:
The industrious and clever I appoint as my staff officers because of
their ability to work carefully and accurately on the fine details of
any course of action.
can be found for the stupid and idle.
idle and clever people possess the necessary intelligence and nerve
for the highest commands.
stupid and industrious, however, are an absolute menace to any organisation
and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.
ON THE SUBJECT OF FEAR
A STATE of fear, or at least anxiety, was present
on many occasions. However, fear, such that I might lose control, and
be unable to act rationally, gripped me only twice.
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.
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.
AN INTIMATE MOMENT WITH THE
ON a dank, overcast day in Holland in autumn
1944, as our company was advancing down a road, an armoured car pulled
up alongside me, and out climbed the Brigadier General. He spoke not
a word, but gazed rather loftily down the road in the general direction
of Scandinavia. Perhaps alerted by the arrival of an armoured car, which
implied the presence of an officer of some rank, the Germans welcomed
the great man with a salvo of high explosive shells. General and private
soldier dived together into the muddy ditch which ran alongside the
road, and there we lay, face down and side by side until the firing
ceased after which we both raised our mud-spattered faces and from a
distance of about 6in, gazed into each other’s eyes. For a couple
of seconds, rank counted for nothing, and I sensed a brief moment of
intimacy between us. Thinking that a friendship had been established,
I ventured: “You really must tell them to stop doing that, sir,
or mark my words someone will get hurt.” But the moment had passed
and he made no reply. Instead, displaying an agility commendable in
one of his relatively advanced years, he hopped back into his armoured
car and sped south to the safety of brigade headquarters. It is an ironic
fact, that while I survived the war, he was killed a few weeks later,
when his armoured car skidded off an icy road and crashed, during the
fighting in the Ardennes.
THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER
WE lost one member of our platoon early on in
Normandy, in circumstances which would have been unusual for any average
person, but not for him. His real name is now lost in the mists of time,
but he was known to all as the Chocolate Soldier because of the fact
that, whenever he got a parcel from home, he would save the chocolate
until night time and then eat it under his blankets so as not to have
to share it with anyone.
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
before that incident, he almost wiped out the platoon – completing
in seconds a task which eventually took the Germans almost 11 months
to achieve. We had dug our slit trenches in a position just behind the
front lines and many of us were cleaning our weapons, when the Chocolate
Soldier began fiddling clumsily with a hand grenade from which he had
unwittingly removed the firing pin, so activating the bomb. Once activated,
10 seconds would elapse before the bomb would explode. There was, therefore,
ample time and opportunity to warn everyone to take cover, as we were
all close together, sitting by the sides of our slit trenches. In the
event, he told no one, and slid quietly into his own trench, leaving
the bomb above ground. When the bomb exploded, incredibly, no one was
hurt. The allied chances of winning the war improved dramatically when
he suffered the burns which necessitated his return to England for hospitalisation.
He was to the British Army what the Good Soldier Sweik had been to the
Austrians during the First World War.
LAST MAN STANDING
ON our arrival in Normandy in June 1944, our
platoon, fully up to strength, numbered, I believe, 36 men. In May 1945,
when the war ended, I was the only man remaining in the platoon of that
original number. Of the others, all except one had been killed or wounded
and, if wounded, had not returned to our unit. The one exception was
my friend, Johnny Brickell, who at some time during the fighting had
been transferred to the relative safety of company headquarters.
the company as a whole – 144 men when up to strength, as we were
in June 1944 – only about a dozen men survived.
THOUGHTS ABOUT MONEY
I HAD, by the time I was 10 years old, spent
a small fortune playing pinball machines. But then I came to the realisation
that if I were to save money I would have a greater control of my own
life. And so it was that I began to save, yet without ever making money
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was an unforgettable day. We have since returned to Malon on a number
of occasions, and the mayor usually finds time to pass the time of day
DURING the fighting in s’Hertogenbosch,
I acquired a Belgian-made handgun and holster from the body of a dead
soldier. I believed that this weapon would add a touch of “swagger”
and give my erstwhile rather nondescript appearance some much more assured
image. I got rid of it after a short time when I discovered that the
muzzle velocity was such that a shot fired across the street did not
have sufficient power to break a window 25 yards away.
ON leaving England for France, in an idiosyncratic
gesture, I decided to shave only one half of my upper lip until either
hostilities ceased or my demise came about. Three months later, on our
arrival in Brussels, we had what came to be as near to a formal inspection
as we were to have, before the war ended. The officer inspecting never
noticed that one side of my face remained unshaven. This goes to show
that, although I was in my twentieth year, I was still so physically
immature that I could not produce an appreciable amount of facial hair
in a period of over three months.
NO account of the Normandy campaign would be
complete without reference to the Royal Artillery forward observation
officer attached to our battalion. He was known to us as “Stonk,”
the name he used to describe a short, sharp artillery strike on a specified
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.
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.
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.