Memories of Charles Hanaway
A March to Manhood
By Charles Hanaway
Early DaysWhere to start is always the poser, so I start with my birth. I was born in Paddington, London in 1923. My earliest memory is of sitting on a tin trunk, prior to moving from an old Victorian house at 41 Waverley Road. My mother, father and baby brother, were about to leave the squalid pair of rooms that had been our home since my birth 4 years earlier. The tin box held the sole possessions of the family. We moved to live with my father's parents in Fulham.
These were tough economic times, working class families were poor, unemployment was rife throughout the country. There were no State handouts - no Social Security services - no counsellors to run to. The word 'stress' was seldom used and certainly public servants such as the Police, were not able to obtain compensation, and early retirement, because they had been involved, in difficult situations in the course of their duties. Crime was very low, we did not have to lock doors at night. There was no central heating in our homes. Many houses did not even contain a bathroom. Through coal burning everywhere in London, fog blanketted our days regularly, this took a terrible toll on people's health. We were not a soft, whingeing, country in those days - we just got on with our lives. Few of us realized we were living in days that people in Britian would never see again. Poverty was everywhere but there were no riots in the streets.
People do survive, families banded togther to help one another. Neighbours were of the "same race and culture", who extended their hands to one another in times of trouble. The 1939/45 War which was to break out some ten years - later was to change this state of affairs for ever. We were to learn that when war breaks out - countries always manage to find money. My father who had fought bravely in the 1914/18 war, and was awarded the Military medal, was a lucky one. He had a regular job with the Gas Light and Coke Company as a gas-fitter, so we were able to live fairly well. Times were often burdensome for my Mother, every Monday morning she visited the local Pawnbrokers to pawn my one and only Sunday best blue serge suit. She received about 1/6d ( 45p today) - and retrieved the suit the following Friday. I was always given the instruction, "Don't tell Dad".
I attended a local Infants' school until I later moved to a small Roman Catholic school which was dominated by three spinster teachers. The school in Ashington Road, Fulham, as far as I was concerned, was a disaster for education. All we had pumped into us day after day, was RC religious dogma. However, I was, I think, a bright lad and managed to become top pupil in the 11 plus school examinations. This event was to have repercussions, which did not do me a lot of good and certainly affected what I did in my later years. Pupils who were successful in examinations became eligible for selection to move on to a Secondary school in this case, The Oratory Central Chelsea. Before this happened an interview had to take place with the Head Master of the Central school. If I was selected by Dr. Summerskill it would mean my education would continue until I was 16. The head mistress a Miss Shannon, a real battle axe, asked me if I wanted to be considered for an interview for this step up in life. Naturally I replied I would be delighted to be considered.
Just prior to this momentous meeting I had seriously hurt my right knee in a football match. I limped and was unable to stand for very long without support. At the interview Miss Shannon - who did not have a lot of time for boys - it being a mixed school, asked me to stand to attention at her desk. At that stage I was standing with my right hand resting on the top of her desk, she barked at me to stand up properly. "Sorry Miss! I cannot I have a bad knee." With this said, she replied "You are dismissed" adding, "You can not see the Doctor like that." With that curt dismissal my chance of further education was truly finished. I went home and reported the events to my Mother. She being a fiesty Irish lady was outraged at my treatment, she next appeared at the school to take this up with Miss Shannon. My Mother did a marvellous execution job for me. I was to be expelled immediately on the grounds that I was a disruptive influence. So on Armistice Day - which was the following day, the whole school was assembled to be told I was on my way out of her school. My crime, a trumped-up charge of insubordination to the Head Mistress.
The next best school to the Oratory Central school was their Elementary offshoot in Cale Street, Chelsea, I was duly enrolled there by my Mother. This was to mean a two mile walk both ways along Fulham Road twice a day. That was all right with me, the new school had men teachers and I was to get on fine with them. My life was to blossom, within weeks I was playing football for the school team, and a short time later, I was selected to play for Chelsea schoolboys team in the London School League. I was on my way to becoming a professional footballer, or so I thought.
One day a lady came into the classroom, she was Lady Kerr a school governor. She was looking for a house boy, for her nearby luxurious house at 12 Pelham Crescent Chelsea. The boy who volunteered was to work 5 days a week before school, starting at 7.30am. Duties were to help the cook, fetch in the coal, wash down the front steps, and clean the brasswork. Reward for these tasks, was a lovely cooked breakfast - very welcome - and 4 shillings a week wages. All for about 1 hour's work each morning before I went on to school. I enjoyed working for Lady Kerr very much. At that time her brother lived with her, he was a Catholic priest at the nearby Oratory Church.
These were good days, I got on well at school. For the first time I was learning about music and other subjects, which were completely new to me. A couple of years soon went past when one day I was told there was nothing more the school could do for me. This was a blow as I really enjoyed my life in the school, I believe the real reason for this decision was that the school was under pressure to take in younger new entrants, so the oldest pupils had to move out. I was just 13 and I had no idea what I was to do as far as work was concerned.
Working daysI was employed by a local engineering company at 11 shillings a week, they manufactured ball-bearings. My Mother received 10 shillings which I am sure was a very welcome addition to the family budget. I did not stay there long, it was monotonous, using a micrometer all day. So I left and started a whole sequence of useless jobs finishing up as a delivery cycle boy. I went to work for J. Sainsbury the Grocer's at their number one Branch at Sloane Square Chelsea. I worked long hours, cycling around the district and adjourning areas delivering orders: I well remember delivering Xmas food until 9.00 pm on Christmas Eve. I was delivering to "Lords and Ladies" of this prosperous area, many who lived on extended credit for months on end, who considered Sainsbury were lucky to serve them. Those were great days for the middle and upper classes.
World War 2The 2nd World War clouds were at last appearing, life was beginning to change for all of us, things were never to be same again. On Sunday 3rd September 1939, everybody who had a radio set was huddled around their radio, to hear whether we were again about to go to war with Germany. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave us the ominous news at 11.00 am that we are at war. My father - a student of historic events - suggested that John, my young brother, and I should jump a bus to Westminster. He said you will see a lot happening this day, I suppose he thought we would see Cabinet members in and out of the Houses of Parliament. We found a number 11 Bus and within 20 minutes we were in Victoria Street walking up towards the Seat of Government. An air raid warning sounded. People looked around wondering what to do, a man was running towards us blowing a whistle and waving his hands about.
This strange person was an Air Raid warden, a middle-aged man, who was wearing nothing more than his pyjamas, perched on his head was a tin-hat. He was instructing us to go to a shelter. People looked on with amusement not knowing what to do next. After the siren stopped we continued on our way towards the Houses of Parliament at the top of the street. A short time later the All-Clear siren sounded, it was just another normal Sunday. We walked on to Downing Street hoping to see some members of the Government, it was not to be, so we returned home.
The phoney war then to commence: weeks went by without any real news and some people were saying that the affair would end within months. I was feeling unsettled in my present mundane job, so I decided to do something towards the War effort. I joined a local engineering company turning out component parts for aircraft, working on a Turning lathe. My home life was not at all happy, my Father a strict, old-fashioned disciplinarian was constantly criticising me for what I was wearing, or how I was spending my non-working hours. Worst of all, he was adamant in what time I should be in at night, when I was out of the house for the evening.
In the block of Council flats where we were then living, I was mixing with all types of lads. We played a lot football with a 6p rubber ball about the size of a melon. I was being instructed to be home at 8.00pm in the Summer evenings that upset me. I would be in the middle of a game watching the clock, then, to hide my embarrassment, I used to make silly excuses such as having a head-ache so that I could comply with my Father's rules. Although at this stage mixing with girls never entered our heads, unlike today, my Father was always telling me to keep away from girls. I resented all these petty rules. I was a working and growing up.
The nonsense about girls was to have a negative effect on me for a long time. A few years later when in the presence of a girl I tended to be shy, feeling uncomfortable. I was not able to feel at ease at all in their company. Traces of this unnatural state of affairs still remained many years later.
The humiliation of Dunkirk of the evacuation by the BEF from this French coastal port in May 1940 was suddenly with us. Life was now going to change for all of us. The war was now serious and talk and fear of invasion by the Germans was a daily subject of comment and conversation. On a Saturday afternoon later that year I left a film cinema in Chelsea. It was about 5.30pm, in front of me was a bright red sky. Someone said " It's the East End - there's been an air raid on the docks". The German attack on our country had begun, which was to last on and off for a further five years before the attacks ceased.
Much has been recorded about the Battle of Britain which then commenced. Air raids by day and night, dog-fights a daily show for us Londoners, nights spreading over months, spent in damp, cold concrete Air raid shelters. Gone were the days of British reserve, strangers just bedded down together to become friends after a week or so. The summer wore on and it had become a normal life to hear and see Fighter Planes fighting overhead during the day, and enemy bombers scouring the sky dropping their bombs at night. Londoners were told how they 'could take it', but who wanted to take it?
In November 1940 I decided that I had enough of arguments at home, so I decided to leave. I talked my situation over with a friend who was also unhappy at home. The upshot was we one day wrote notes to our families and left. The next thing we were on the North Circular Road hitching a lift from any vehicle that would stop. There was not much of this done in those days, and motorists were kind and more trusting. Later that day, we were in a Salvation Army hostel in Leicester. A night's sleep and local farmers were being contacted and informed that there were 2 strong, willing lads who were eager to give Farming a try.
My farmer, a Mr. Jones, arrived from nearby Lutterworth in his Rover car. He could take one lad, his neighbour who had accompanied him, the other, so off we went to go "down on the farm". My farmer had a sad wife, and 2 strapping sons who were to make my subsequent life very unpleasant, costantly being difficult, giving me all the worst jobs. Now I was to learn what hard work was, and what life must have been like for young people in the days of Charles Dickens - for I felt I was now living in the 19th Century.
This new life commenced with a fire-engine type bell ringing out in my small bedroom, that was always cold, at 5.30 am. Together with the sons, I then went up to the cow-shed to apply the Milkimg Machine suction cups on to the udders of the cows. Once removed from the cow's udder we had to "strip" the remaining milk from the udders. This done, we them "mucked out" the shed, laid new straw and fed the cows. Then after about 2 hours spent, went off to our breakfast, which was cold meat on many occasions. The family were far from being sociable, in fact they were downright miserable as far as I was concerned. A typical day then was spent "muck-spreading" on the fields with the cow dung, or hedge-laying which I was to learn with rough and sore hands.
It was a cold miserable existence. My friend Bob and I used to meet up every evening, huddled around the boiler in the Boilerhouse, exchanging views about the wonders of life on the farm. This was the pattern for weeks. In my misery on Xmas Eve I wandered into a local pub, my first ever visit and sampled my first experience of drinking a pint of beer. After 2 pints I felt awful and wandered "home" 2 miles away through the snow. It was in late January 1941 that Bob and I called it quits: in the boiler house one night we decided we had had enough of farming, being in London even when being bombed was better. So one morning a few days later, when the fire engine bell rang. I was off legging it across the fields to meet Bob with my few possessions in my hand.
That evening, still wearing our mud-stained Wellington boots, we were back in Fulham with our respective families. My homecoming was not exactly overwhelming, but Mother and Brother were glad to see me again. So off I went to find another engineering job, which I soon found in Acton doing similar work to what I had done previously. I soon felt that I should be doing more for the war effort. Many of my friends were disappearing into the Armed Forces so one day I decided to join them. I appeared at a recruitment centre for the Army, in nearby Horn Lane. I was volunteering, under-aged, and after a brief medical examination I was ready to receive the King's Shilling. It was the 5th March 1941 and now I was in the Army at seventeen years of age.
Army LifeI went home with the news at which my Father said that I could not join any Army without his permission. "Sorry Dad, there is not much you can do now". A short while after I was off to join my regiment on Hurst Park race course, not far from Hampton Court alongside the River Thames. I had enlisted in the 70th Middlesex Regiment which was a Young Soldiers' Battalion and discovered a great number of my comrades were ex-Borstal (Youth Prisoners) boys who had been given the option of joining the Army, or staying in their jailed confinement. They chose unknown freedom and in the following weeks we were shown how to be Soldiers by regular NCO's from the peacetime Army. We were not an easy crowd to train, some on parade did their best to be obstructive by falling out of step, when marching in parade ground drills.
Sargeant George Hunt was a middle-aged, long-serving soldier, who was a real character and the lads called him "soldier daft". One drill session he became so upset with the performance of the squad he was trying to drill that suddenly he fell to his knees, looked up to the sky, with hands raised as in prayer, shouted out for all to hear "Please God! do send me down some Soldiers".
There is no doubt the Army had a problem with their young soldiers, so much so the C.O. thought he would introduce a new form of punishment to all offenders of Army rules and regulations. The culprits were to have their heads shaven, so that every other recruit would soon know the "baldies" had been bad soldiers. Mothers and young wives of the offenders, went berserk and it was not long before the 4 million circulation "Daily Mirror" newspaper, had the whole story displayed on their front page. Uproar followed: questions were asked in Parliament, the womenfolk protested with letters sent to newspapers.
This outburst of protest had its immediate effect, no more hair was to fall on the barber-shop floor. One amusing story needs to be told about this situation, a Pal of mine - Bill Saberton - had received the 'hair all off' treatment and in those days all soldiers wore forage caps that we perched on the right side of the head. Bill to hide his loss of his locks, obtained a peaked cap, wich totally covered his embarrassment. He was given a 24 hours pass once he had served his "jankers," and he went home to visit his young wife. All the time he spent at his home he refused - despite appeals from his wife - to remove his hat. To crown the story - he later told me that he even went to bed without removing his hat so deep was his shame. His wife May never knew that her husband had been a skin-head but I suspected she well knew. I also wonder if he was stringing me along.
London and the South of England were still being bombed on a daily basis and invasion fears were still the subject of concern, and every possible obstacle was being put in place to prevent the event. Airfield defence was a priority item. We had finished our initial 12 weeks training, most of it done "Square Bashing." We moved to Northolt Aerodrome just outside London which was a Fighter station. The whole airfield was surrounded at intervals with concrete "Pill-Boxes" - hideous hexagonal buildings, which some genius had invented. The walls were about 18 inches thick and at eye-level around the construction were placed "Look Out Slits " which were for the purpose of seeing the enemy, and, if necessary, be able to shoot with our rifles at the same time.
The theory was great but to man those horrors 24 hours a day, on and off for weeks on end, was morale-sapping. They were constantly cold and damp. When it rained we could be standing for hours on end, in up to 6 inches of water. The only type of relief to this daily boredom, was to see the Polish Fighter Squadrons "Scramble" to meet the Luftwaffe and count the numbers when they returned from a sortie. Almost daily there were rumours such as enemy agents in 'long grey rain-coats with radio sets' in the vicinity.
After 3 months of this monotonous exsistence the powers to be reckoned our morale was at an all time low, so a change of venue was required. A change is good as a rest and so we moved to another Airfield, this time Kenley near Croydon. It was the same old routine all over again. We envied the glamourous "Brylcream" boys of the RAF, driving off during the day in their Sport cars, pretty WAAF girls alongside them, off for a day in the West End. The time came for another move - we had done about 3 months at Kenley. Our next move was to Hounslow Heath where we spent another boring time filling "Square-Bashing". There was all sorts of comings and goings, some of the lads were sent to the Middle East to join the Desert Army, others went to other Regiments. The only good thing about this place was that it was near to my home, which I could reach by Tube Train from East Hounslow station.
Mainly because of boredom I seemed to get involved in petty disputes with NCO's, I certainly disliked some of them, likewise I suppose they had a similar opinion of me. On one occasion, returning from a 24 hour pass, I was late. Put on a charge, I was sentenced to 7 days "Pack Drill" punishment which in effect meant that every evening at 6.00pm, I paraded on the Drill Square wearing full marching order kit. The kit weighed about 25lbs. The routine was to be marched up and down reversing every 25 yards to march back again, on the instructions of an NCO, who barked out all sorts of orders to us. This went on for one hour non-stop.
One particular evening I was marching with another poor soul who had been given the same punishment. It was very warm evening and we were sweating profusely, we were instructed to don gas-masks, which we carried in a pack on our chests. This was a stupid order and cruel considering the circumstances. Both feeling "All In" we still continued to march up and down. Suddenly my companion collapsed to the ground, he was unconscious. The drilling stopped and my sick companion was carried to the Sick Bay for treatment. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards he died, a post-mortem was held, the unfortunate victim was found to have had only one lung. The gas mask folly, had killed the man, after this tragedy all further punishment of this type was abolished. The NCO was in my opinion guilty of man-slaughter. The punishment in the way it was carried out could have killed a healthy man with two lungs.
London Irish RiflesOn the 20th May 1942 a batch of us "squaddies" were transferred to another Young Soldiers' Regiment. This time it was the 70th London Irish Rifles stationed at Elstree near the film studios. I was placed in the Carrier Platoon where I was to learn in time how to drive the tracked Carrier. We spent our time on maintenance, marching and more time-wasting exercises. One day I was sitting in a cafe in the village, when an officer who I did not know entered. There were about 8 of us there, he shouted, "Is there any one here who knows how to drive a "Beaverette." I didn't have a clue as to what this vehicle was, but to relieve the tedium of our daily routine I said, I did. To my surprize he said "Right we are off to Plymouth to pick one up". I was shaken and panic-stricken as I had no idea as to what I had let myself into.
We took a packed train to Plymouth, he in a first-class compartment, me in with the workers in the third. On arrival we went to stay in the Royal Ulster Rifles (Sister Regiment) barracks in the City. Next morning we were to take (what we were to call), the 'monstrosity' back to Elstree. The vehicle was a brainchild of Lord Beaverbrook then a Cabinet Minister, a great friend of Winston Churchill the Prime Minister. When the war started the old Standard Car Manufacturer had about 500 car chassis left in stock. Beaverbrook thought they could help to make a perfect Armoured Desert Vehicle. These were to be constructed with about 2 ton of steel plate-fitted on 3 sides of the chassis, with an open back and top.
On the driver's side there were 2 slits at eye level, one directly in front the other on the extreme right-hand side, so that he could see what was happening on his right hand side when turning. The slits measured about 8x2 inches wide and deep. This contraption was impossible to drive without a second person. On the left of the driver a person had to stand up, to look over the front and sides, to help direct the driver. It was a crazy set-up, only a politician could dream up such an idiotic machine. Whether it was all right in the open desert I do not know. It was a "death-trap" as we learned the previous driver had been killed when it had overturned, because of the sheer weight, when turning a sharp bend. I was seriously alarmed when I realized that I was to drive this 'monster' some 200 miles with the officer standing beside me. We started off and immediately I discovered that because of the weight, it was unbalanced, the brakes were virtually useless. Devon with its main roads, then long winding roads, up one hill and down another, was challenging and frightening.
Within about 10 minutes the Officer was screaming at me "I thought you said that you could drive this bloody thing" and I was driving too fast. I told him that I could not drive any slower, the weight of the thing was the problem. We carried on a bit further and he became annoyed with the situation, saying I could not drive at all. He said "I'll have a go", we exchanged places. I was overjoyed to hand over. Within two minutes he was saying "I now know what you mean, its a terrible thing to handle". We then decided to take it in turns to drive, literally crawlng all the way to Bath where he lived in a grand house in beautiful Georgian Royal Crescent.
I was consigned to the basement to spend the night in the quarters of the domestic staff, the Officer was naturally upstairs a real "upstairs and downstairs" situation, reminisent of the earlier Victorian era still present at this stage of the war. Next morning we were off on the road again inside the "Monster". By degrees we finally arrived in Elstree. I never saw the Beaverette again, and outside the desert I think they were never used again. Training continued, one day a month or so later a crowd of us were told that we were to be transferrred to our Sister Regiment the Royal Ulster Rifles in Northern Ireland.
Royal Ulster RiflesWe had an awful long journey to arrive in Northern Ireland finishing up in Quanset huts in a country area called Carndue, just north of the Port of Larne. To get there we endured 24 hours of stopping and starting on a packed train from London. To travel in trains then was a test of endurance, sometimes packed standing in the coach corridors for hours on end. At Carndue we continued training in the Carriers. We used to drive them up the grass slopes of the hill side until we were virtually in a vertical position - nerve-wracking stuff. When allowed out our social life was spent in the Larne pubs drinking the lovely creamy Guiness Porter beer. One night Bill Saberton and I visited a dance it was full of girls dancing together. We got together with a bunch of girls who invited us to a party once the dance finished.
Down the road we walked where we were to see painted on the walls ominous signs " Death to the British invaders". Bill and I started to become concerned thinking we could be walking in to an IRA trap. We were obviously in a area of the Republician movement. Eventually we arrived at a terrace house where there were even more women. Chairs lined the four walls of what was the front room. We all sat down, Bill and I surrounded with women of all ages. Suddenly the room lights were switched off, within seconds there was much laughter, and we were attacked with hands fumbling all around our "privates." After a minute or so of this game the fumbling stopped, the room light went on, and the fondling women were back on their seats smiling at us. All sorts of rumours were flying about, every day we were going to be drafted somewhere, the Middle East, Norway, etc, so life was very unsettling. I received 7 days leave which, in effect, was a punishment enduring 2 more long exhausting train journeys of up to 20 hours each time stuck in packed train corridors. Then there was the awful sea crossing to and from Larne in a ferry packed with service men, sleeping in every square inch of the boat. As usual the rumours were daily being spread we were going everywhere on the planet. Then one day it was official we were to join a Scottish Regiment in England. Fortunately my old pals were also on the draft with me so the transfer was not too bad.
Royal Scots FusiliersIn May 1943 it was to be another Infantry Regiment - the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. We were to join the Regiment on the Yorkshire moors where they were in combined training with the 6th Guards Armoured Brigade. After another ghastly sea and land journey, which took some 20 hours we arrived at a remote station. We fell out of the train tired and hungry, after a very unpleasant journey to be faced with a 3 mile march all uphill to the encampment.
The Regiment was living in tents and after a punishing march carrying all our kit, we were greeted by the Regimental Sergeant Major a man named "Hoot" Gibson. This man proceeded to berate us saying we looked like a bunch of rogues, ill-disciplined. etc, etc. He was going to show us how we would be changed by him. It seemed to us we were going to have some rough times ahead. We all took a dislike to this character immediately. We "Sassanachs" were now joining a 'sharp' Battalion to quote him. The 6th Guards Army Brigade were stationed opposite us, both outfits were doing their upmost to outdo the other in the realms of B-------t. It really was a pathetic scene with white-washed stones and painted green grass.
Norman Wilkinson a Sergeant who was in our draft, was a peace-time soldier, a good soldier. When he saw how we had been greeted he said "That's it! I'm getting out of this shower". From that day he started to "Work his Ticket". For weeks he feigned insanity, he was put under medical observation, he fooled them all. When we met him in our canteen. he had us us all in fits of laughter, regailing his "madness" campaign. Within 12 weeks he was discharged from the Army. Later he visited us as a civilian, he was now a "Bevin" boy, (Ernest Bevin was Minister of Labour) he had been conscripted to be a coal- miner, the Army had lost a good and clever soldier.
I was put in the Carrier Platoon alongside a few more of the 'rogues' of course the majority of the Platoon were 'Jocks'. For the next several days we carried out training with Tanks of the Guards, all very stimulating which was to help us once we were in the real thing. After ten days we en-trained to Hexham, Northumberland, further north, which was a nice historic town. Billetted in Nissan huts we spent more time training, constant route marches, and night exercises. Life was now getting serious. We were now a part of the 15th Scottish Division and we were bonding together with other regiments of the division. At this time our training was intensifying, our food rations were better, obviously feeding us up for the kill. After about 2 months we were off for a move South to lovely Knaresborough. Here we started long tiring field exercises for ten days at a stretch, these were called "Eagle" and "Blackcock". They were more than realistic. Days were bitterly cold, we were practising all types of battle situations on the Yorkshire moors. Some of the days spent on these exercises were just as bad as any spent later in real action. We were wet and cold for days on end and the Division was to lose men being drowned on one night exercise on a practice river crossing due to the weather being so bad.
We had visits by General Montgomery Commander of the 21st Army Group (1st American Army-2nd British Army) and Prime Minister Churchill who both gave us encouraging "pep" talks, telling us how good we were, and how we were going to win the oncoming battles. All very heady stuff. By now we were aware that our training was based a the Break-out from the Bridgehad once we got into Normandy, (which at this stage few knew) where the invasion was to take place. After a delightful stay in this pleasant Yorkshire town we were on the move once more. All signs pointed to the fact that before very long we were going to see the "Balloon go up".
Our next and final move in England was to Worthing, on the South coast. Here we water-proofed our Carriers and all the other vehicles. We were billetted in houses which had been requisitioned on the sea front. All the South coast was a confined area, for a distance of 3 miles inland. Military equipment was everywhere, and we all sensed we would not be in Worthing very long. On the 24th May before we were to move from Worthing, the whole Battalion assembled in the Dome Theatre by the pier. The purpose was to listen to our C.O as to what we were going to be doing shortly once D- Day was announced.
We also listened to a lecture from American Officers as to how we were to get on together once across the Channel. All very interesting for at that stage there were about 1.5 million Americans in England but for obvious reasons we did not know where they were. I believe the policy of the Government determined this situation, as they knew the Americans were better paid and better provided for than the British the much poorer cousins, in every respect.
For me an interesting and enlightening thing occurred at the conclusion of this assembly. We were instructed by RSM Gibson to form up outside on the seafront prior to marching off. Shuffling out of the hall I decided to take the opportunity to have a few "drags" on a cigarette, in consequence I was dragging my feet, not desperate to get on parade. I was in for a surprize when I got outside, the RSM proceeded to dress me down in front of the lined-up company, shouting "It had to be you - you horrible man" - his usual form of address. I had by this time, made up my mind about this man, he was all "Mouth and Trousers." I grinned back at him where upon he shouted, "Take that supercilious grin off your face" pointing to the Channel he said "Just wait till I get you over there". I grinned again and said, "Sir, I am looking forward to that." Events later were to prove my comments were well-aimed.
Three days after 'D-Day' (6th June 1944), we were on our way. From King's Cross station in London we drove through the East End of London where the pavements were thick with people cheering us on. It was very emotional, but also uplifting to know the people who had suffered so much in those parts were going with us in spirit. Londoners were great that day, we finished up in a barbed-wired encampment on Wanstead Flats to stay in tents. The camp had been occupied by the men who gone over on D-Day. Civilians still had to walk on the other side of the road, which was a little bizarre as everyone was aware the invasion had started and where it was taking place. I looked out on to the road around us, it was 12th June. I saw a number 96 bus going by. I was so near, yet so far, from my home; that bus was going to pass my home.
To my old pal Bill Saberton, I said, "I am going to jump a 96 bus Bill. Like to come?" He agreed to my plan, we crept under the wired fence and within minutes were on a bus. My Mother and Father were amazed to see us, they thought we were already in Normandy. We went to celebrate in the local pub, giving away our French francs as souvenirs to the locals who were buying us our beer. We arrived back at the guard-house at about 11.00pm that night to discover that all the Company had embarked on their way to Normandy. We were put under Close Arrest; cowardice in the face of the enemy, was suggested as a charge that we could face. We settled down to sleep on the ground, when at about 2.30am there was one almighty explosion that seemed to lift us some 6 inches off the ground. It was to be the first Flying bomb which had landed on England in a street in nearby Bow.
NormandyAt about 9.30 pm two days later we were lying off the coast of Normandy. A fantastic display of shipping of all shapes and sizes surrounded us; aeroplanes were buzzing about overhead, it was breath-taking. Like others I knew then there was no way we could be pushed off the bridgehead with this support around us. We assembled on the beach at Courselles and started marching inland. It was raining, past midnight, we were tired and weary. In the first village we halted, slumping down against a house wall ready for a nap. A delightful thing then happened that I have never forgotten. The upstairs window of the house we were sitting against opened, a young girl was at the window. She said "Bonjour" then started to sing. The song was "J'attendrai" and she sang it beautifully. When she had finished we heard her mother's voice telling her to close the window and get back in bed. That young girl never knew how good she made us feel that memorable night.
Later we met up with the rest of our Platoon in a field further inland. Gunfire was heard in the distance, otherwise it was difficult to believe we were so close to the enemy. Days passed, all sorts of moves were being planned, then cancelled, we stayed and the next battle plan was being discussed. Finally came the night we were on the move forward, we assembled in another field to be addressed by our Commanding Officer. "Tomorrow we will go into action" he said. "You are going to meet the cream of the German Army - the 12th SS Hitler Jugend Division. You are the pick of the British Army - so it is going to be an interesting party" he added. The rest of that night was unbelievable, our Bagpipers were playing their pipes, there was singing, some men were even dancing reels. It was all very inspiring - though a little saddening, for men were to die hours later.
Early on the 26th June we moved to the start line area. It was quiet, rain was falling, it was chilly. We sat around talking in hushed tones, smoking, just waiting for the hours to pass until 7.30 am arrived. The time had arrived to move forward, this then was what we had been training for over the past many months and years. The sky suddenly erupted with a tremendous noise as 345 guns of all sizes opened up over our heads. It was nerve-shattering. We moved past a single Piper who was playing his pipes on the doorstep of the small village Church. It was a nice gesture, but the noise drowned out his playing so we just waved to him. We then entered the fields of corn leading to the village of St. Mauvieu - our objective. On our right were the Royal Scots whose objective was the village of Chuex. Our men were marching ahead, holding their rifles over their heads the corn being so high. We were advancing under a "Creeping Barrage" of our own guns, the shelling was planned to lift 100 yards forward in front of us every minute. This was fraught with danger, we had done it in training, a few men fell from shells falling short.
The 12th SS "Hitler Jugend" Division was everywhere in the fields popping up and then disappearing. It was a scene of inferno; so much noise, calls were being shouted out for stretcher-bearers, we were having lots of casualties. The day wore on so slowly, we had lost a lot of men. Finally, in the late afternoon, we managed to occupy the village. The KOSB Regiment of our Brigade came in to relieve us. Major Agnew Commander of "A" Company passed us in the village asking "Has anyone seen Major Korts" his brother-in-law, a C.O. of another Company. Someone said that he thought he had been killed.
The Major continued walking through the village towards the enemy. He never returned and today both Major's are buried in the cemetery of the village, among many other men of the Brigade. That day we lost 2 out of 6 of our Company Commanders of the battalion. That day was horrific. My last abiding memory was seeing a three-ton truck driving by, full of our dead. Legs of the bodies were protruding out of the back of the truck that had been collected from the battlefield. We retired to a rear village and started to dig graves. We had lost 21 killed, 113 wounded, 9 missing presumed killed, in just ten hours. Thus our first action had cost us 25% casualties of the Battalion strength. At this rate we would soon all be gone. We had well and truly been initiated to battle in our first action.
We rested that night exhausted and numbed with shock, we had lost so many good men. The next morning we received reinforcements and then we were off again, forward into action against the 'Cream'. The Division was certainly having its baptism of fire, the battle was to continue for several more days. The village Chuex which the Royal Scots of our Brigade had taken was like a scene from the 14/18 war - nothing but rubble. So much so that our tanks had difficulty in passing through the village. Casualties of the Division were heavy - some 800. Today, the fine village church which survived has a plaque on a wall, detailing the story of the Battle of the 15th Scottish Division. The battle which was to become known as "Battle of the Scottish Corridor".
For the next 48 hours it was non-stop shelling and mortar fire from the "Cream" - they were proving to be a very tough bunch, one could only admire them for standing up to the punishment we were dishing out to them. My admiration for them grew as the weeks passed. I honestly do not think we could have withstood the same type of attacks and weight of ordinance from the air that we threw at them. On the evening of the 29th June we suffered a heavy counter-attack. Men from different regiments of the Division had become confused and terribly mixed up. I finished up in a large Bocage hedgerow, which had a wide gully inside the hedge-row. Here many men of assorted regiments were lying, pouring fire on the enemy who were advancing about 200 yards ahead of us.
An Officer with revolver in hand, was moving up and down behind us lying figures shouting "No man moves another yard back" the implication was clear he would shoot any man who fancied a walk. I told this Officer we were running low in bullets (303 rounds) for our rifles. He told me to scour around the ground, also from the ground behind us through the high hedgerow. I took off glad to be out of the hedgerow. I started to pick up ammunition when I heard men shouting and running. They were running to get on to a 15cwt truck that was driving back out of the area. After I had collected a good supply of ammunition, I went back and reported the scene that I had just witnessed to the Officer. We held on to our position with the help of 25-pounder guns and machine-guns which came right up alongside us into our position, so desperate had the situation become. We saw the enemy withdrawing with much relief all round. It had been a close call but we had held the line.
I have described earlier in this narrative of my encounter with RSM Gibson just before we left England, the sequal to the scene just described is - that when we were being counter-attacked - some men had retreated in panic, they were probably thinking that another "Dunkirk" was about to happen. Our brave RSM Gibson, who had threatened me just weeks earlier in Worthing, was one of the men who took off heading for the beaches that evening. He was found on the beach, it was said organising parties for a possible sea evacuation. Later we learned that he had been court-martialled, and sentenced by being reduced in rank to a CSM. An extremely light sentence indeed, for his cowardice. We were told that he had been put in charge of a "Rest Camp" many miles behind the lines. Some punishment, he survived the war. I was later told by my pal Alf Burnett who had been promoted to Sergeant in the field, that this coward, had had the audacity to ask the Sergeants' Mess, once the fighting was over, if he would be welcomed back into the Battalion. Their answer was a resounding NO! My earlier doubts about the character and guts of this man had been justified.
Our Division had fought a tremendous battle over 7/8 days. The River Odon had been crossed and, despite the fierce counter attacks, we were able to maintain our bridgehead over the river. The long battle was to be called the battle of the "Scottish Corridor" in the course of the battle we had held 3 Panzer Armoured Divisions fighting us on 3 sides. A wedge had been driven into the German lines, we had advanced 7 miles creating a corridor. This whole area of Normandy is now named after our Division, and a splendid memorial stands in the Village of Tourville which over 50 years later veterans of those days visit including the writer.
Moving up to the front one hot, dusty, July day, I recall we were in a walking pace moving very slowly, motorised convoy. I was driving a carrier in a section of carriers. As we moved along the roads people from houses and farms, would hand out drinks to the boys marching along in file. Many of these drinks were the powerfully strong cider drink of the region 'Calvados' made from apples. This drink was virtually 100% pure alcohol, so one did not need many swigs of this drink before it had its effect. Our boy's did not realize the potency of this stuff and some were soon affected. As we were proceeding along the road suddenly, a carrier from behind us overtook me. No sooner had it got in line in front of me, when we saw a soldier sprawled out on the back of the carrier, he was out of this world, obviously drunk. He had collasped whilst marching, and his mates had placed him on the back of the nearest passing vehicle.
Seeing him my co-driver laughingly said "Look at him" no sooner had the words left his lips, when the carrier exploded, it had hit a road land-mine. With astoinishment we saw the soldier fly through the air some 20 feet to land in a field. We rushed over to him, he sat up and to our query "Are you alright?" He just said "Where am I" there was not not a scratch on him, he had sobered up from the explosion and his flight. The crew of the exploded carrier were all killed.
Americans and even some British had been asking what was wrong with the British being so slow in their progress in the Caen area. Little did all these wise critics know the British Army - a smaller Army, had been faced wiith 7 out of the 8 German Armoured Divisions the enemy had in Normandy. Was there any wonder the Americans moved quickly, whilst we were "Bogged Down" in the Caen area? The next weeks wore on, it was hot, we were filthy, not having removed our clothes for weeks, the fighting was still very tough. Names like Evercy, Baron. Gavrus, Villers Bocage were just some of the places where good British Blood of the Division was shed.
At Baron we had a very sticky time, we spent about 3 days under constant Shelling and the terrible "Moaning Minnies" which was an ear-splitting 6 barrel Mortar used very effectively by the Germans. The Mortar could terrify which it did my Slit-Trench mate "Webby". He and I had dug the trench, then drove our Carrier over the top to give us a lid for added protection. There we sat for some 72 hours with shells exploding all around us. Food or drink could not be brought to us so severe was the shelling. The Chateau on top of Baron Hill, still there, bears today the scars of that period. My poor companion after hours of the intense shelling went "Bomb-Happy". I advised him to report sick - later I saw him in the Medical Station and he was in a bad shape, poor fellow. His nerves were shot. I never saw him again.
In July we moved into the American sector at Caumont, it was like moving into the English countryside - so peaceful the Americans had spent weeks digging beautiful deep-lined trenches. They were works of art, it was obvious that they had experienced long undisturbed periods to carry out their skills. We could not believe our eyes. The situation soon changed once our field guns replaced the American guns and opened up, then Jerry knew we were there. A funny interlude occurred the first night of the switch over. I was ordered to take a written message back to the Company Commander who was at Headquarters behind. I wondered along green and pleasant lanes dreaming I was back in England, I continued down one road which was deserted, I could hear a voice singing. I walked on to see a chateau about 200 yards off the road, the singing was becoming louder.
I went to investigate: I entered the front door and realized the singing was coming from the cellar, I descended the stairs to a room the size of a football field with high ceilings. The walls were lined with huge wine vats. The singer - an American soldier - was slumped on the ground between 2 enormous vats. The cellar was full of vats - we had found a winery. My American was as "drunk as a skunk" - he must have been there days. He welcomed me with slurred speech to join him. I did not need much tempting - I had never tasted wine in my life. Within minutes I was well on the way to forgetting all about my message. My comrade was well away from his unit, they being in another area.
The message was not delivered so next day I was on another charge and received 14 days Field Punishment for disobeying orders. We put in an attack the following day and, to our relief, started to move forward. Then 1000 USA Bombers came over on the right of us at St. Lo, and pulverised the ground around, it was devastating: but still the enemy stayed. Life was now different, gone was the grind, grind of the Caen area. Now we were on the move: it was the start of the Breakout, it had taken us about 6 weeks of very fierce fighting. We fought our way south for days. The Americans had broken through on the right of us into Brittainy, our progress was easier and we all felt we were on our way out of Normandy. Eventually we came to Estry where we had another hard battle and suffered many casualties. After 4 days finally Estry was captured and the war in Normandy was now drawing to a rapid close.
We rested for 10 days, the first since landing. The Falaise Gap, where a great proportion of the German Army had been trapped, was closed. Later we were to pass through this area of utter devastation. It was a sight never to be forgotten, men, horses in their hundreds littered roads and fields. All types of vehicles, tanks and guns were everywhere upturned and wrecked, our guns and the Typhoon fighter planes with their rockets had wreaked a terrific toll on the enemy. The smell was awful and this whole scene covered miles. The German Army had suffered a tremendous defeat, but, skilfully, many units - particularly the SS Divisions - had got away. On the roads to the River Seine I was driving my Carrier with the platoon Commander, Captain Stuart Streeter alongside me. He was a "devil-may-care type", for which he was to pay dearly, as will be revealed later. We had an uneventful, quiet journey, approaching the River Seine.
Leading the Battalion in convoy, I confess I used to feel apprehensive when the Captain would wave me on so confidently to move ahead when we reached road junctions. In other areas which looked and felt very scary I used to feel very anxious indeed. I had seen our tanks 'brewed up' - split open and burnt out, after the Germans had used their deadly 88mm Anti-Tank Guns with such effect. We never had a gun to compare with this weapon. I was aware that only one shot from this gun concealed in a hedgerow, could send us all in the Carrier to Kingdom Come.
Bye Bye NormandyOur crossing of the Seine was uneventful as the Germans were in full flight so we were in the chase. The next days remain unforgettable for anyone who was in the liberating vanguard: we were mobbed by delirious people every mile we travelled. We had never seen so much joy displayed by people before: when we stopped the happy folk would ply us with flowers, drinks which took their toll, as we had been teetotal for so long. On we travelled through Flanders, passing the towns and villages which were household names from the war of just 26 years earlier. These were the areas where my Father had fought, to be decorated with the Military Medal. The further we travelled, the greater was the welcome. At times we were brought to a standstill with the density of the crowds. We were hugged and kissed, and one happy Father even offered his daughter to a pal indicating it would be an honour for him to sleep with her. He had no such luck, we had to move on, probably the Father was aware of this so his daughter remained chaste.
Cities started to be liberated, jubilation was everywhere, we entered the Kortriae area and arrived at a small town called Deerlyek. Here in front of us, as we overlooked the village from higher ground, a horse-drawn German convoy was passing completely oblivious that we were watching them. We opened fire on this golden opportunity: men and horses fell from our onslaught, within minutes the convoy was wrecked, horses and men were killed. The road soon cleared of the remaining Germans. Then to our astonishment Belgians leaving their homes that overlooked the slaughter and proceeded to carve up the dead horses. Many good horse steaks were on the menu that night in the houses.
We stayed in the town and at each entrance into the village we posted defence squads. My carrier and another were placed in defensive pattern in one village entrance. Two carriers were placed nose to tail and so arranged they virtually blocked the road entrance. Behind the side of the carriers each crew of 4 stood being protected by the carrier shield ready to fire on any oncoming enemy.
It must be appreciated that at this juncture as our advance had been so rapid we had no idea where the Germans were, nor they us. On the open road in front of our carrier barrier we had a man posted some 200 yards ahead of us, lying in a ditch at the side of the road. He had a whistle to use and if he saw or heard any movement or sound, he was to blow the whistle, to alert us at the barrier. At about 1.00 am we were half asleep when suddenly the whistle sounded, and towards us out of the darkness we could see the outline of vehicles. Our Bren machine guns came to life, we raked what we assumed to be German vehicles with our fire. What we had caught was a convoy: we stopped about 5 of the leading vehicles, the remainder reversed and fled.
All the occupants of the lead vehicles were killed, the first was a small car carrying 4 Officers. We searched the dead officers and the car, to our delight we found thousands of German Mark bank notes. We had got the payroll of a Company. We proceeded to stuff our battledress jackets with our windfall, and I took a much prized and sought after Luger revolver, from one of the dead men. Later that early morning, we were relieved and went back in to the village to a small church being used as our Headquarters. We were rich men, and we were making our comrades envious with our story of the loot we had received. I pulled out my Luger revolver, none of the audience had seen one before. To demonstrate its action, I pointed the revolver to the stone floor and pulled the trigger.
To my horror Sgt Kenny Woods let out a yell and started to hop about. A bullet, the only one was in the revolver, and the bullet hit the floor, then richocheted into the leg of a nice Sergeant. I had shot one of my own, but I gave Kenny a lovely "Blighty". The word got around concerning our riches and shortly afterwards all of us unlucky fellows had to return our foreign currency to the Quartermaster. We often wondered who was the eventual beneficiary of our fortune.
We moved steadily on still being feted by the population, we shared their happiness as we were now "motoring". Gone were the awful Caen days. It was not long before we came to the city of Malines which to us at that time was the largest place we had entered. Again the population went wild, we were billetted on these very kind folk for one night. On the following morning we moved out to head on to the Albert Canal, where we relieved units of the 50th Northumbrian Division. They had come up against some tough resistance. I had now fallen sick with an attack of dysentry, which was very uncomfortable and made life very unpleasant as we were on the move all the time. It got so bad that Captain Streeter, who I was still driving, leading the Battalion, told me to report sick at the first place where we would stay awhile.
The Guards Armoured Division passed through us, they were on their way to relieve, which was to come later, the 6th Airborne Division who also were to land later at Arnhem. This was to be an extremely risky operation as our forces had to try to push some 90 miles through territory still in enemy hands to reach the men in Arnhem. But all this was to come in the future.
In the meantime we pushed on to the town of Gheel; some 3 miles north of the town was the Escault Canal, which was to be strongly held by the Germans. We were to force the Canal to widen the corridor which the Guards were taking, at the same time hold down the enemy from moving to attack our troops trying to progress along the 90 mile long corridor. In hindsight the British had bitten off more than they could chew. The Royal Scots of the Brigade forced a bridgehead over the Canal against some ferocious opposition. We were given the task to try to strengthen their precarious bridgehead. This day was one when the good Lord kept me alive. Captain Streeter told me to rest, see the Medical Officer and try to get rid of my sickness. A relief driver was to take over my position. At about 2.00pm they proceeded to head to the bridgehead. Knowing how confident the platoon commander was with his "devil may care attitude" I was apprehensive, I had been driving him for months now so I knew full well his thinking.
I remember cautioning him just prior to leaving, saying something like "Mind how you go up there, Sir, don't take any chances". They took off: it was just 2 hours later when a 15 cwt. truck drove into our compound. To my horror I saw the Captain lying in the back, his legs raised up, resting on the tail-board of the truck. Both his lower legs were gone, and his bloody stumps were oozing blood. He was rushed to the medical station for urgent attention. Happily he survived to become in time a Circuit Court Judge. My unfortunate relief - with the other members of the crew - were killed.
The Brigade was having an awful time across the Canal fighting off numerous counter-attacks, prisoners taken had signs of drug injections in their arms, now it was obvious why they had fought so desperately. The bridgehead held. Suddenly there was a terrific sound of aircraft approaching, it was Sunday 17th September. We looked up and saw a marvellous sight, planes towing gliders, it was the 6th Airborne Division on their way to Arnhem. This went on for about 1 hour, many were shot down. The enemy seeing the same knew their stay on the Canal was now over. We then realized why our boys across the Canal had had such a rough time these past few days. Within minutes the noise from the Canal area ceased and the enemy was in retreat. Next day the Battalion was relieved, they had withstood the heaviest shelling yet. We lost 18 killed, 104 wounded, 50 missing, many later pronounced dead.
We started on the move into Holland. Within 2 days we reached Eindhoven to be overwhelmed with the welcome the Dutch gave us, presents of all types were handed to us. We stayed just one night. The next morning we were on our way to put another bridgehead over the Whilelmina Canal, again we met fierce resistance. On the 24th September we broke out of the bridgehead and headed to the town of Best some 6 miles up the road. Although we did not know it our Airborne men at Arnhem were in serious trouble, the Germans were defending stoutly everywhere including the Best area, particularly at the crossroads which the enemy had pinpointed to the inch with heavy mortar and shellfire. Best was to be a another scene of relentless fighting.
The Division was here fighting hard for several days particularly for the Brick factory that changed hands several times. The Glasgow Highlanders suffered servere casualties and had to be withdrawn. We were luckier, holding a line amongst woods on the outskirts of the town, where we received a lot of sniper fire as well as shelling. We called in the RAF with their marvellous Typhoon rocket firing planes. This was a terrifying weapon for the enemy. Patrolling was very nerve-shattering throughout the woods. We had loudspeakers set up to speak to the Germans informing them of safe passage if they surrendered, very few did being tough nuts. On the 29 September we were relieved by the 51st Highland Division; we were very happy to be out of it back to some type of sanity.
We now moved to the safety of Helmond for a rest, re-equipping, and more reinforcements. This was the first real good rest since we landed in Normandy. I remember this place for our billet, we were housed in a barn in a farmyard, sleeping in comfortable straw in its sheds. One thing that was unpleasant was lining up for our meals around the farmyard, shuffling forward we were always confronted with the farmer, who we suspected was a German sympathiser. He had a large dung pile in the centre of the yard, and whenever we were standing in line, this man would use his pitchfork to stir the pile of dung. Steam and foul odours followed and some foul language was then hurled at him. Otherwise our rest was fine, we had visits from various big-wigs, and our pipe band entertained the locals.
On the 23rd October we moved on, back to the Best area which was now in our hands, badly devastated. We carried on to a village just beyond Best towards the City of Tilburg which was to be our next objective. We moved forward on the 26th October to attack Tilburg, this proved too easy, as the enemy had in the main withdrawn overnight. What resistance there was we soon overcame and we moved into the south east of the City. The population then appeared from their homes and within minutes we were mobbed by delirious people of all ages. I was in my Carrier driving the C.O. Colonel McKenzie. It was proving near impossible to get through the cheering crowds.
We eventually got to the City Hall where the C.O. met the Burgermeister to hand back the city to its citizens. We moved into their houses expecting to be in the City for about 24 hours at least. Women who had fraternised with the Germans during their 4 Year occupation were rounded up and taken to the City centre, where people were waiting with scissors to remove their hair, to the delight of the onlookers. Eventually we had to move in to stop the practice which was getting out of hand.
The next day was one of celebration, everywhere we walked we were mobbed, autographs were given and girls gave us their kisses freely. We were being called the "Red Lions" because of our divisional shoulder emblems. However the fun was due to stop. At 1:30 am next morning ordered out of bed, we moved out to move to the village of Deurne. It was Sunday and we were off into battle again. A crisis had blown up, the 7th US Armoured Division had been holding a line about 28 miles long along several canals. They appeared to have relaxed too much to say the least, and the German tanks managed to secure 2 crossings across the Canal and to give the Americans a mauling. At 10.00 am we took up defensive positions south of Duerne, the whole area was a network of dykes, ditches and canals, not a very pleasant area at all.
We then moved south to Aston, an important road junction, then on to Liesiel where we dug in to await the enemy. The rest of the Division was now around us, and we had secured a good defence. Next mornig we attacked Liesiel, the Germans were well dug in the shattered houses and the going was very slow and tough. This was an awful country, flat, sparse, downright miserable and we were to suffer the consequence of these conditions for weeks to come.
The fighting on the 30/31st October cost us 3 killed, 27 wounded, 1 missing. The Germans withdrew and we moved on to a large wooded area on the road to Meijeil, where we sent out patrols in a very scarey area. We then advanced towards Meijeil with the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders on our right, tanks of the Grenadiers were in support, we were holding ruined houses and were under extremely heavy shelling. We were in the village of Broek preparing to attack two other small villages. This was a very unhealthy place, and for several days it was misery with the weather and intense shelling. We put in several attacks about 700 yards on the road to Miejal. Our flail tanks hit a minefield and were blown up, we ran into other minefields but we pressed on without the tanks.
Fighting was grim: 4 of our Churchill tanks were hit, and we had to proceed without support. Fire from Miejeil was intense, 2 of our Carriers evacuating wounded were blown up. It was at this time Sgt Rees of B Company went crazy. He left his company and started to crawl forward, suddenly he popped up escorting a number of Germans who had tumbled out of their slit trenches. He searched them - 18 in number, and took them back to his company. For this brave crazy action, he was awarded the Distinquished Conduct Medal. Asked why he did it, he said "I wanted a watch and a Luger pistol". He was killed 3 months later in another fierce battle at Schloss Holbeck in Germany when we were fighting towards the River Rhine.
We finally received the order to withdraw, and moved back to Liesiel, the remainder of the Division still in battle, so ended Black Sunday 5th November we were never to withdraw again. We went into reserve in Aston area, a cold wet miserable area, casualties in recent fighting, had reduced our strength and reinforcements arrived. As I was now an old - timer I and a few others received a 48 hour pass to stay in Brussels. On our return, despite our new arrivals, the Battalion was still understrength, so companies were merged. We were, in effect, still in the front line as there was no unit between us and the enemy still in possession at Miejiel. On the 10th November we moved closer to the enemy, patrols were out and we in the Carriers had a testing time probing forward. Mines were everywhere, eventually these were cleared from the woods. The next task was to cross the canal ahead: the enemy had withdrawn from our side of the canal, because of Divisional attacks on our flanks. We now crossed the canal and occupied small wrecked villages, finally we were relieved by the Cameronians. We stayed in this awful area for 2 weeks patrolling the whole area.
Whilst most of the civilians had been evacuated some were to remain. On patrol one night, I was with a droll, very funny Yorkshire man "Williams" going down one quiet country road when we saw a torch light ahead. On investigating, not knowing if it was the enemy or not, we came across an old man in the front garden of a house. He was picking up potatoes, he said "Binner Commer" indicating we should follow him which we did, we were at the back of the house, gradually walking downwards underground. A door was knocked, and we entered a large room. It was full of women and children who on seeing us went crazy. Their menfolk had been rounded up that day by the Germans to be sent into Germany. Some who tryed to escape had been shot and killed. We stayed talking to these unfortunate people, who could not stop touching us for about 1 hour. As we indicated we were to leave, they all in chorus started to sing the British National Anthem.
Somewhat embarrassed by this tribute, my patriotic companian turned to me at the conclusion of the Anthem, took off his tin helmet and said to me with all these poor souls looking on, " Three cheers for Queen Whilhelmina" and he started to cheer. I started to remonstrate with him, he took no notice and gaily continued to the end, to the delight of the assembly. When we left I told him what I thought about his cheering. Later when I repeated this scene to my mates the story went round the Battalion like wildfire. For weeks after wherever poor Williams went the cry would go up "Hey Williams". When he looked round the caller would take off his Tam o Shanter bonnet, and shout "Three cheers for Queen Whilhelmina". Williams in time enjoyed the fun.
After 2 weeks in this miserable, flat, uninteresting area, preparations were made for the next move. This was to be the attack on Blerick which was a heavily fortified town on our side of the River Maas with 2 bridges over leading into the town of Venlo. The battle which was to follow has been described a 'classic' in every respect, inasmuch as all arms and units of the Army was used in unison to create a perfect operation. I believe this operation is still practised in training the Army some 55 years later. The Germans had turned Blerick into a fortress but with considerable skill by all arms, the town fell relatively quickly. It would take too much time to describe the various actions which combined to make the complete picture. Tanks with flails circulating led the way to clear lanes through dense minefields, anti-tank ditches were bridged and barbed wire barriers had to be surmounted. A tremendous barrage by a mass of all types of guns plastered the whole area for nearly 3 hours prior to the attack going in.
Rain had been falling for days before, so the ground was soft and very muddy. The battle went like clockwork, every unit dovetailed with each other. All the company's men were transported in 'Kangaroo' Armoured vehicles, we were to attack the Northern part of the town. We moved off at 9:30 am, got bogged down in the mud, but eventually we got into the town at 1:30 pm. With a little street fighting the operation was over. Our platoon took over houses in the east of the town. All civilians had evacuated and we proceeded to use the houses as observation posts overlooking the River Maas - looking into the enemy territory on the opposite bank in Venlo.
We occupied all day the loft of our house for observation. Sniping was the pastime. The weather was foul, snow had now fallen and it was bitterly cold. The nights were spent sitting in a slit-trench just yards from the river bank, this was a nerve-wracking business and very unpleasant. I occupied the trench night after night with my good pal Alf Burnett, on a 2 hours on 4 hours off basis. The 2 hours were an eternity, frozen stiff, talking in whispers and, all the time, imagining we could see enemy patrols in front of us. This existence continued up to Xmas Eve and on that night the whole area was a scene like daylight with flares and coloured Verey lights being put up into the sky by both sides. It was like a peace-time fireworks display and we could hear the Germans celebrating and we received their taunts to 'come over and fight - you Scottish bastards'.
On New Year's Eve 1945 we put on a show for the benefit of the Germans. The company occupying the centre of the town started a hell of a noise, shouting, bagpipes were playing, all designed to give the enemy the impression we were all drunk, and thus invite an attack. We - of course - were very sober, waiting to greet the enemy. The Germans never accepted the bait. Daily shelling and mortaring was the routine and our sharpshooter-snipers picked off the enemy. We were relieved briefly on Xmas day to visit a village some 5 miles behind us, to sit down in the village hall to enjoy a very good dinner, but it was back to the listening trench that evening.
It was during this period when the Americans were surprized south of us with a powerful German attack in the Ardennes. We were thin on the ground in our sector and it was feared we could also be hit. The Germans sent over patrols, and were broadcasting how we were to be 'in for it' shortly. It was a very eerie period. The weather continued to be atrocious, snow packed on the ground, bitterly cold. It was later said to be the coldest winter for some 40 years. It certainly was no weather for sitting in a slit trench for 2 hours at a stretch, just listening and staring ahead. At last we were relieved and preparations were being made for a quick speedy move to an area South of Brussels.
The reason was General Mongomery had taken control of the battle where the Americans had been clobbered in the Ardennes sector. We were back in Belgium as a reserve to be called on if the situation worsened. Fortunately we were not needed, so we spent five lovely days in rest in a delightful village called Appelterre. The natives welcomed us with open arms as we were the first British they had seen, as the area had been by-passed in our dash through Belgium months earlier.
Alas, we were soon on the move again after this short rest, this time back to Tilburg in Holland. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice so the journey took some 16 hours - slipping and sliding all the way. Now I was to receive very welcome news - 7 days leave in England. It was being granted because by now I was an old-timer in action and men who had served in Normandy were given preference in the sweepstake draw for leave. We arrived at Victoria station on a wave of emotion, the station was packed with people waiting to greet their loved ones. My Mother and Father were among them, once we were reunited we adjourned to the nearest Pub to Victoria Station. My old pal Alf Burnett was with me, so for the few days we celebrated by drinking good British beer. All too soon our luxury life was over and we were off on our way back to Tilburg in Holland.
When we arrived we found the Battalion had moved up to the border of Germany. The Battalion left Tilburg for Nimegen on the 4th February: the weather was still foul, very cold and lots of rain. My pal and I rejoined our platoon in this area, which was crammed full of units for the next battle - the entry into Germany. All movement was made at night to avoid air photography: vehicles, tanks, etc. crawled forward without any lights which made the journey hair-raising. This plus the treacherous road conditions made the situation very unpleasant to say the least. We arrived at the Graves suspension bridge over the R. Maas which was under continuous shelling. The Germans had the bridge pinpointed to the inch. During the night of 7/8 February waves of the RAF heavy bombers were overhead to unleash their payloads on Cleve and Goch - German towns ahead off us - our next objectives.
At 5.00am a huge barrage went up from our guns, over a 1000 of all sizes were raining down shells on a 4-mile front. Four hours later the Division started its' attack on the Siegfried Line with all its' fortifications. Our Battalion was ordered to clear a dense, thick wood; it was here, overlooking Cleve, at a place called Cleverberg, we were faced with a high wooden look-out tower, which gave the enemy wonderful observation for miles ahead. Two sections of our Carriers with two fitted with Wasp flame-throwers attacked the Tower spewing flames up and down. We could hear the screams of the occupants, and shortly afterwards some enemy surrendered. Here we lost the Commander of this operation, Major Hunter, a very popular, likeable man, he was wounded badly, and died shortly afterwards.
This action allowed the rest of the Battalion to advance on Cleve: because we were on a very narrow front much confusion between units was taking place, our own Artillery was dropping its shells on our own lines with inevitable casualties. The town of Cleve was captured by the 43rd Division entering from the South West; we entered the town, it was devasted, scenes very like the earlier Caen area. The enemy then opened their Dams and the whole area became flooded for miles around. We became an Army in boats and very unpleasant days were spent in these conditions. On the 18th February we moved out of Cleve and started on the road to the next town objective - Goch which was about 8 miles towards the River Rhine. Our two other Battalions of the Brigade - The Royal Scots and the Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) were to attack the town and we in the RSF were to move through them.
The enemy were tough Parachutists whom we had fought earlier, who always fought like tigers. The attack was made on the successful "Blerick" pattern with all Arms, Tanks, etc. co-ordinating in the attack. We were approaching the town in conjunction with the 51st Scottish Division so the battle was to be an all-Scottish affair.
The battle was very rough, we were enduring heavy shelling, and in 2 days we lost 35 killed and wounded. After the two days of non-stop fighting we were relieved. We moved eastwards to thickly-wooded area, which was to become notorious for terrific opposition and murderous shelling, with the tough parachutists still facing us. Amongst the woods was an old crumbling Castle which of course the enemy had pinpointed in retreat. The place was known as Schloss Calbeck, a place never to be forgotten by those unfortunate enough to be there. Up the road from the Castle was a small bridge over a narrow river which became a focal point of contention. The 2nd Gordons were dug in: it was for us in the RSF to rush the bridge and form a bridgehead across the river. The enemy was softened up with mortar and shelling though they resisted fiercely: but the bridge was taken. The following day another attack to widen the bridgehead by our Companies failed, the Germans had been reinforced. Although we were supported with tanks of the Grenadiers, we could not proceed, we dug-in to sustain very heavy shelling.
The mortar and shellfire was the worst that we had ever experienced, we suffered many casualties, we stayed dug-in in our shallow slit trenches all through the night. At about 14.00 hours men from our Division's 227 Brigade were to pass through us. As the men were running up the road to the bridge a particularly heavy period of shelling took place. I was in a trench with 2 others with no room to spare. Suddenly 2 of the men coming up the road made an effort to come into our cramped trench. It was impossible to allow them in our trench, there simply was no space. We pointed to an empty trench virtually opposite us: they dashed across and jumped in, and immediately they had disappeared. A direct hit from a shell exploding ended their lives. We soon retired back to spend a quieter night north of the Castle. What had supposed to have been a Company operation to form a bridgehead, had turned into a bloody full Brigade affair.
The following day we moved up again to relieve forward companies, once more we were under heavy sustained shelling, and there were more casualties sustained. On the 25th February we were finally pulled out of the area - which had been far worse than Normandy in intensity. So after 18 days spent in action we were to have rest. In that period we had lost 9 killed 75 wounded and 23 missing; many wounded later died and many of the missing were presumed killed. We then moved back into Holland to rest up in Tilburg, but the billets due for us, had been destroyed by V1 Flying Bombs so we moved on to Turnout. There we enjoyed our first baths for months, received clean clothing and good food, we were able to take short 48 hour trips to Brussels, and all in all we enjoyed our brief stay in this hospitable city. Our Pipe Band played to the locals to their great delight. We left Turnout on the 6th March to move south where we stayed in a nice village called Herck-La-Ville to be billeted in farms surrounding the village.
We then started training and carried out rehearsals for the coming battle of the crossing of the River Rhine. We practised loading on and off the "Buffalo" - the Water Tank that was to ferry us over the river. All these exercises were carried out on the River Maas, we studied aerial photographs of the area where we were to cross. A message from Prime Minister Winston Churchill was read out to us, (he had commanded the Battalion in the first WW) which was pleasing. We enjoyed concert parties and generally relaxed. We moved forward on the 22nd March passing through our old battle areas - Best, Blerick, Venlo - into Germany. We travelled through the night to reach our assembly area at Xanten at daybreak. The whole of the West bank was covered in smoke. The smokescreens had been laid down for days, to blind the enemy to our activities on the other side.
We rested for the rest of the day. It was here that I became withdrawn, and wanted to be on my own, which was not normal for me. It was difficult to understand my feelings, it was a foreboding of things to come. It was the Eve of the crossing, I was later to learn that on this night my Mother visiting relatives in London, suddenly broke down in tears. Asked what was the matter, she replied "I do not know but something is happening to Charlie". She was right: some hours later the 'happening' occurred.
In the evening we received our final briefing, we had a visit from a BBC commentator, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, who was to accompany our Battalion to broadcast this historic event to the British people. A recording I still possess. Our Division was to make the assault in the centre of the 2nd British Army, we were to be transported across the river in 'Buffaloes', the water and land vehicles. The R. Rhine on our stretch was about 400 yards wide, and each shore side had ramparts known as 'Bunds'. We loaded into our Buffalo at 23.00 hours, the opposite bank was a mass of flames along the whole front. Our target was the town of Bislich. We were to attack at 2.00am to link up with the Airborne Troops who were to land at 10.00am some 5 miles ahead of us.
The RAF bombed our target at 24.00 hours. All along the Rhine, at different times, the rest of our Army was to cross. All hell broke loose. A tremendous bombardment with every conceivable gun started, the noise was deafening with the fires raging on the other bank, tracer and verey lights, the whole scene was like a carnival. Our Carrier platoon on foot was in the first wave to hit the enemy Bund. Now the time had arrived to assault the heartland of Germany, after nearly 6 years of war which they had caused. The crossing was very quick and smooth, our craft hit the Bund and we clambered out to mount the Bund. Enemy fire was raining down on the shore: as we got to the top of the Bund we saw the area directly in front of us strewn with what appeared to be a series of short sticks protruding from the soil. They were prongs of anti-personnel mines, "Schumines".
We started to run through the field of mines, jumping from one foot to another, then it happened, my left foot fell on a mine prong. I recall flying up and then down, being in terrible pain. I felt down my leg and was relieved to feel I still had a foot, but the whole leg and foot were wet. I laid there, others had fallen, a few, I learned later, were killed. Within minutes men from the Second wave appeared over the Bund. I shouted "mines" and 2 men picked me up and carried me onto the craft that they had just arrived in. It was 2.30 am 24th March 1945: daily since - some 56 years later - I am still reminded of that day by having spasmodic jabs of pain in my foot. However, I still consider I was a lucky man.
The next thing I remember was lying on a table with men in smocks standing over me. I was in an advanced dressing-station. I felt no more pain, I had been injected with Penicillin and Morphia. I looked around and on my immediate left lay a man with his back wide open. I could not imagine how he would survive. The next hours I lapsed into sleep, my next memory was lying on the ground, with civilians looking down on me. Overhead there was a terrific din as hundreds of planes were going over, they were the Airborne troops, so I now knew it was about 10.00am. I had been pulled out of an ambalance by the crew to witness the scene overhead.
I next woke up in bed with nursing "nuns" around me, I was in a convent in Ghent, Belgium. I was still under sedation and the next thing I remember was lying on a Station platform with British WVS ladies around me. I had arrived in Bradford, Yorkshire and it was 2 days later. Within minutes I was in another ambulance on the way to hospital.
The hospital was in a small village in the Yorkshire countryside, I was soon in the Operations theatre where all the metal was cleared from my foot and leg, but today I still have small pieces remaining which do not bother me. From the news daily we were informed that the War was now coming to a close quickly. I stayed in bed until the glorious day of the 8th May 1945 known as VE Day. There was joy everywhere, the radio informed us that the man who had led us to victory Prime Minister Winston Churchill was to make a nationwide broadcast at 3.00pm. Fortunately in my ward was a patient who lived in the village outside. The ward Sister allowed me to be put in a wheel-chair so that my friend could push me to his house which he did to hear this historic broadcast. We listened to the PM and after tea I was pushed back to the hospital.
My brief outing encouraged me to want to celebrate the day in proper style by visiting a pub. I asked the Sister if she once she was off duty later in the afternoon would take me out in the wheelchair. She was a nice person and later we were on our way to a local pub. The pubs were open all that day. Once we arrived outside the 'local' we saw it was packed with people. Immediately we were seen outside people surrouded us offering us drinks. While enjoying my first pint for 5 months a man approached me, he said "Where do you come from?" I replied 'London', "No! I mean what hospital are you in? The Sister was standing right behind my chair, I told the man the name of the hospital. A minute later there was a light flash, it was the flash of a camera, the man who questioned me was a newspaper reporter. Shortly afterwards Sister pushed me back for me to return to bed.
Next day there was an uproar, a photo of the Sister and I was on the front page of a Yorkshire newspaper with the caption underneath stating- 'Nurses and war wounded enjoy VE Day'. The picture did a lot of damage, as in those days it was a rule that hospital staff do not associate with patients. The Sister poor lady, was immediately transferred away that day, I was never to see her again. The following day, I was also transferred, fortunately it was to Fulham Hospital, just minutes from my home. But I was still very upset for the way we had both been treated.
I was not concerned for myself but I was very upset for the poor Sister, who had been so good to me, on what should have been one of the happiest days of our lives. In December 1945 I was discharged from the Army, in my pay-book the reason given, was discharge due to being "medically unfit" nothing else, one would assume that I had nothing but bad health. Nothing to add, it was just another perfect example, as to how the British Army treats its employees once it has finished with them, and today nothing has changed.
The average life of an Infantry-man in action is, I believe, about 6 weeks, I had survived 9 months. My Battalion was disbanded shortly after the war. During the N.W. European campaign, we had suffered a 125% casualty rate: this was not, the highest in the 15th Scottish Division. When I received my "Marching Orders" I was just 22 years old, now 55 years later I think, I can safely state, I served my country well, I had well and truly reached my 'manhood' in the early days of my life. I continued on to enjoy a varied, interesting and fascinating working life, in this country and abroad. I have been lucky thanks to our good Lord. June 2001