Interviewed by Ryan Davies
Where were you born?
In St Erth Cornwall
When were you born?
29th May 1920
Can you tell me what your parents were like?
They were very nice.
What was your father’s job?
Generally labouring and farming as well.
Did your father serve in the First World War?
What regiment did her serve with?
In the Devonshire Regiment. He was in Passchendaele.
Did your father talk much about the First World War to you?
Not a lot really. Some of it but not a lot really.
Muriel (Ken’s wife): He was to do with the horses in the trenches. He had frostbite. Out of the whole First World War, he was two years exactly and he spent seven months in a hospital out in Arras. He fought in Arras. He told me one story where he had three of them together – two of his friends, and the German shot and he threw down his watch, this German, and said “mercy” and he said, “I couldn’t shoot him.” Whether he did we don’t know. He didn’t have the three medals and then when Linda, our daughter, found out why not, he had the two medals because he was entitled to the two because he was in the two years, not four years because he was wounded. So he had a badge which we found out to do with the wounded they were given a badge weren’t they. So he didn’t talk a great lot.
As a child, what were you interested in? What kind of things did you do for fun?
Cricket. Our Headmaster used to put sixpence on the wicket and if you bowled him out, you had the sixpence…I had a few!
You were a demon bowler were you?
Chiefly a bowler, yes.
Did you play any rugby or football as well?
Not a lot of football really. I was a keen rugby supporter.
Who did you follow?
Penzance and Newlyn but now they’re the Cornish Pirates.
Did you do any athletics?
What can you remember about the lead up to the Second World War?
I was in a nursery working – Greenhouses and I was called up then. It was September 1940. Then I did the boys barracks in Aldershot – six weeks training and my first posting was to 25th General Hospital, Northern Ireland.
What did you do for your training?
All sorts, square bashing and whatever.
Aside from the medical side of it, you were taught how to use a weapon and load it and clean it and all of that?
All sorts, yes.
Muriel: He was told he could only use it, not for yourself, only the gun to use for his patient? We could use it for the protection of our patient but not ourselves.
What was Northern Ireland like?
Quite good really. We used to get the air-raid warning when they were raiding Liverpool. This particular night we were there we were in
Bangor and all of a sudden, it wasn’t Liverpool it was we. Belfast had it.
Did you stay in barracks?
No, we were in private buildings in the town itself. Of course, when the air raid was on, we were rushed up to the hospital for fire
watching and whatever.
So you were with a landlord or landlady in town?
No it was just one house and there was about a dozen of us in that house.
Were you all doing the same training?
Did you all get on with each other?
Yes, we got on very well.
What was it like being called up?
Quite strange, really but there we are.
Did you have any thoughts about what it might mean for you and the rest of your life going forwards?
Not really, I suppose. I was just called up and do the best we can.
What about leaving home. When you had to leave home and go to Aldershot and then to Ireland, how did that feel?
A bit strange but there you are.
How old were you at that stage?
How did it feel when war itself was declared? There was the announcement on the radio wasn’t there?
On that particular Sunday morning. Well, it was a sad job really but what could we do?
Did you have a feeling it was always going to come to that?
I had a feeling it would come to that, yes. That bit of paper that Chamberlain waved, just as well throw it away. Peace in our time but…his time probably.
Can you remember what you were doing on that Sunday morning when that radio announcement was made?
I was beside the radio.
What about the Battle of Britain? What are your memories of the Battle of Britain and all of the bombing that happened?
Well, we never had a lot in Cornwall, not really.
I was called up, in Northern Ireland, than I was posted back to this country with 35 Field Dressing Station. Our unit was formed in Gainsborough. Of course, we did most of our training in Scotland. Eventually came down to Southern England and on the third of June nineteen forty-four, we boarded the landing craft at Southampton.
Did you get any idea before the third of June that you were going to go?
We thought there was something big on because we’d never seen anything like it before.
When were you told you were going to France?
Only halfway across.
How were you told? How did you find out?
Rumours come around and that was it.
So on the third of June you went onto the landing craft…
On Saturday afternoon on the third of June we went on the landing craft. We sailed out of Southampton water, stopped there and we were there until Monday midday, orders from shore was “sail at noon irrespective of weather.” It was cancelled for twenty-four hours, we didn’t know that.
What was it like on board that landing craft?
Not bad really.
What did you do to pass the time?
Well, I don’t know. Just mucking around. Seasick.
You were seasick?
Yes. Although the biggest seasickness I ever had was going from Liverpool to Belfast!
Once you’d set off for Normandy, what do you remember about that journey?
Well, it was quite choppy. We got across there and we were going straight for the beach, hell for leather and the skipper of the landing craft said “I’ll give you a dry landing if it’s possible.” So away we went and then there was one holy bang…struck a mine. Luckily, it buckled the plate, that’s all but it was enough to stop us.
So then what happened?
Well, after so long there the ramp went down and there was a big Scammell lorry with a trailer. He went down over this ramp and phut phut phut…stopped. And out there from the shore “All RMAC personnel off.” So we had a big rucksack, climbed out on the side of the lorry and jumped into the water…(points to the top of his chest) I was up to about here. We waded ashore, fair enough, that was all and it wasn’t long before we were treating casualties.
How long between the first landings and you going ashore was it?
The first landing actually, I think, was about half past seven and we went about nine o’clock.
What scene were you met with when you went onto the beach?
Well, it was amazing how many civilians were around. (Laughing) “Wine Tommy, wine Tommy!”
Did the civilians get in the way of you trying to help people?
Not really. No, not really. Then we set up in a school there and D-day evening, seven o’clock, we couldn’t hold anymore so we started evacuating back on the beach again on the Duck, the amphibious craft.
So presumably when you first went onto the beach, you were being fired at too?
No, no, it was quite quiet then. But the shelling before wasn’t very quiet.
What could you see from where you were when the shelling started?
I could see our navy boats firing. Oh yeah. The Warspite, we passed the Warspite and she was (acting out the action of the guns firing on Warspite) “bugh! bugh!”
Did you see the men who were going ashore in the first wave?
The beach (Gold Beach, Arromanches) when you landed, what was the beach and the sand like when you landed?
The night of D-Day, as you said, you were transferring casualties back to the beach. You must have been really tired that first night. Did you get chance to rest?
Well, so much as possible and that was it. We were all in the thick of it and doing the best we could.
Were you working through the night at the school?
Not particularly, no. it was all hands on deck the next day – treating casualties and everything like that. We were taking them back to a big American transport ship about a mile off shore.
Did you accompany them to the ship or did you stay on shore?
No, the Duck went up on the ramp and into the ship.
What ship did you go over with to Normandy?
The Landing craft. We were on a tank landing craft straight from Southampton to the beach. It was quite a big landing craft, mind.
How many on it?
I should say, could be over a hundred and vehicles as well.
Did you think about what you were going to do as you went into the beach? Did it cross your mind what you were actually facing?
Well, it crossed our mind that we would be treating casualties and that was it.
What kind of problems did you face when you were trying to treat casualties?
Do the best we could and that was it.
If we go back to your training. So, you did your training and then you went to Normandy and you were faced with all of those casualties. Do you think your training was good enough for what you had to do?
I think so.
Was there anything that you couldn’t deal with?
Not really, no. We were told if we lose half of our men it’d be successful.
How many of your unit died?
Only one and I’m talking about Arnhem now. We were in Nijmegen. He went to a church in Nijmegen and Jerry came over and bombed the church. His grave is in Jonkerbos in Holland.
Muriel invites me to ask Ken about a member of the Hitler Youth.
Have you got a story about a young Hitler Youth member?
Hitler Youth? Well, he came into we and he wanted us to give him a blood transfusion. He wouldn’t have English blood. So he pulled a needle out three times and that was it.
So in the days that followed D-Day, where did you go?
Ken then shows me a map his daughter Linda has highlighted to show her dad’s journey following D-day.
So going along this journey, is there anywhere in particular that sticks out to you for a story?
On the Rhine, we were going to evacuate casualties and in the area, it was suspected mines. So one of our officers took a jeep loaded up with sandbags and went across criss-crossing everywhere. Never found anything, so we started evacuating wounded across the Rhine. He was Captain Esmond. He was awarded the M.C. for that. He was a mad Irishman.
When you say he was a mad Irishman, what else did he do to get that reputation?
Well, that I think. He took his life in his own hands really. And funnily enough, when we were in Normandy, I had our local paper, my mum used to send it, and it was in there that Captain Esmond was in Penzance to welcome home the first repatriated Prisoners of War. So I tapped him up and he said “that was me!”
What were your Commanding Officers like? Did you get on with them?
Quite good, quite good.
So if they sent you to do something, you’d trust their judgement?
Yes, yes. We were a very happy unit. We all got on very well together.
Ken shows me a newspaper article showing him receiving the Legion d’Honneur.
How do you feel seeing this?
The Legion of Honour? (Nonchalantly)I don’t know, I don’t know really. It came out of the blue really. We were in Normandy, we went into this museum and the gentleman there said “do you know you veterans are getting the Legion of Honour?” I said no, no I didn’t. He said “well, you are. I’ll get the paper.” And that was it. It took two years, mind, to get it but sadly some passed on.
How many were in your unit in France?
Just over a hundred. But of course, we had Royal Army Service Corps with us for transport and everything like that, we were all based in that one unit.
We were in Eindhoven in Holland and there was only one road going up. We knew something was coming off in Arnhem, something was coming off there. So when they started landing, the Airborne, we made one mad dash up they called it Hell’s Highway. We got just down on the outskirts of Nijmegen and everything went wrong.
What did you see when you got there then? What did you know of the chaos that was happening?
Well, absolute chaos.
What could you see around you?
Well, tanks and everything all over the place and absolute chaos.
Was it tanks that had been backed up waiting to move forward or tanks that had been involved in a fight?
Yes, waiting there. Didn’t know what to do, I don’t think.
And were people rushing around or just sat waiting?
Just hanging around waiting.
Did you see the airborne troops coming over?
No. We heard the planes going over but were never actually saw them going to land.
What happened after that, when you’d reached the point where everyone was just sat around?
We were rushed back to the Ardennes. Jerry broke through and we were rushed back to the Ardennes.
A nice place to be rushed back to!
Cold, it was absolute bitter, so then that was all over, off we go again, crossed the Rhine and into Germany.
How long were you in the Ardennes for?
About a fortnight to three weeks.
Did you have enough clothing?
Yes, but it was bitter, it was absolutely bitter cold.
Where were you working out of? Where was your base?
Namur was the place.
Did you have a building to work out of?
We were under a canvas sometime there and in a building sometime.
What about your medical equipment then. What was that like when you’d reached the Ardennes?
Alright. Of course, our unit had the medical equipment and we were rushed back there.
So you had everything you needed?
Everything we needed.
Did you work with the Americans as well?
We met some Americans but not a lot really?
During the Battle of the Bulge were you aware of the Germans fighting back?
Yes, oh we were aware of that.
How did you know?
Well, the rumours flying around.
Did you ever think that they could force the allies back?
Not really, no. I was full of confidence we were going to do it and that was it.
Did everyone feel the same? Did everyone have that confidence that the war was won by then?
I think so, yes.
So if we can just go back to D-Day. At the end of the first day, what was the atmosphere like then once you’d landed in France?
Alright really. Alright. We had a job to do and we just had to do it the best we could.
So would you say you had the same confidence at the end of that first night as in the Ardennes in terms of “we’re going to win the war and that’s it.”?
Well, we were hoping so (laughing). We were hoping everything was going to be alright.
Did you ever come close to being killed or captured?
Not really, I don’t think.
Did you ever come close to the enemy in what you did?
We had been close to them, I think, but not too close.
John – Ken’s son-in law: Did you ever have need to administer first aid to the Germans?
Yes, oh yes.
So how did that happen then?
We found him on the road in the ditch. We treated him and I don’t know what happened afterwards. We had a French girl had shrapnel wounds and we treated her.
John: A French woman came into your tent and she was expecting a baby.
That was up in Nijmegen. I was on Guard Duty and this lady had a note she was pregnant and I went in to see our commanding officer. He said what the hell do they think we are – a Maternity Unit? So we took her to a civilian hospital.
We know that you treated people irrespective of what nationality. Did everybody in your unit have the same feeling in terms of treating the Germans and treating civilians?
I think so. I think so. We were a happy bunch and that was it.
In terms of the combat that was taking place – how close did you get to the frontline combat further on along your journey?
I suppose, two to three miles away, I suppose.
Were you ever scared, being so close?
I think D-Day itself I was a bit scared over,
When you say you were a bit fearful, to say the least, what part of D-Day was that? Was that before you went in?
As we were going in.
Because you only found out halfway across, what was it that then made you fearful? Was it what you could see, what you could hear or what you didn’t know?
Well there was the navy bombardment going on.
What was the food like while you were away?
We did the best we could. We missed our bread for a long time. We had biscuits.
Muriel: When he was in Holland he saw little children starving, looking in dustbins for food and some of the men were kind and they had chocolate, little bars. When they got on the train they were told not to give because one little boy, 9, was killed trying to run for something to eat.
Can you tell me about the children in Holland that didn’t have any food?
Oh yes, poor little things. Awful really. If you had a bit of chocolate – oh! What happened one day was – train coming in and one of the boys got hit by the train. Someone was throwing something out the window. They stopped it then anyway.
What about you because you must have needed food all the time to help you do your job?
Well, it was Army rations and that was it.
And what was it like?
It wasn’t bad really. It was that or nothing (laughing).
Muriel tells me Ken was close to Belsen.
Onto Belsen then. You weren’t far from Belsen?
You could smell it! We weren’t in it but it was in the area. But you could smell it. It wasn’t very nice.
Were you aware of what it was?
We weren’t aware of what it was until after it was all over. And some people say it never happened!
Did you ever have to go into a camp?
When you crossed the Rhine and you met civilians presumably along the way, what were they like?
The Germans, not very nice really. They weren’t very pleased I don’t think. Some were and some weren’t.
What did they do when they saw you coming?
Well, what could they do? I suppose some were pleased that we’d got rid of Hitler.
Looking back on the war from now, what do you make of it all with where we are in the world now?
I really don’t know. I really don’t know. We were trying to make a better world but it hasn’t got any better I don’t think.
We talked about your father in Arras and you were quite close weren’t you at one stage on your travels?
Yes, we weren’t far off.
Did you ever think about your father when you were there?
I had some thought about it, yes.
Muriel tells me about Ken coming back home from the war.
We were just talking about what happened to you when you came back from the war and what work you did…
When I came back from the war, I worked at Hayle Chemical Works. Then in 1973, it was shut down and I was made redundant. After that I went to J & F Pool’s Engineering Works in Hayle. After about eighteen months there I was made redundant. So my last job was over on St Michael’s Mount.
So in the chemical factory, what were you doing there?
In the Fitting Shop – Tradesman’s Assistant.
On St Michael’s Mount, what did you do over there?
A Guide, more or less. He was a real gentleman, he’s passed on now, Lord St Levan. His brother was in Arnhem – Airborne, and when he landed, they were eight miles away from the bridge!