19 Feb 1908 – 26 Nov 1996
508 Company RASC
British 2nd Army
We had come across from England, a convoy of Liberty ships, escorted by warships, which impudently stole through the straits of Dover in daylight within range of the enemy’s guns.
We had dropped anchor off that part of the coast of Normandy which was the middle ‘beach’ of the invasion, and our breath left us as we saw the maze of shipping which lay there even on D + 43. Almost with the splash of the anchor a company of R.E.s came aboard to unload the ship. Hatches were thrown open, derricks swung round, slings were adjusted, and the great vehicles started to leave the hold, to go over the side into the landing craft that had come along.
I saw my own vehicle in the sling, and then followed it over the side but via the rope ladder.
As I sat on the prow of the landing craft which chugged its way to the beach, I tried to picture the scene as it must have been on D Day, and to imagine the feelings of those taking part as they faced the unknown risks of the greatest military operation ever undertaken. I failed miserably, for the day was bright and sunny, the sea calm, and the lazy waves lapped against the side of the craft in a musical sort of way that pushed all such thoughts from my mind and made me want to bathe.
We lay at anchor inside the breakwater, which had been made off the beach by sinking a row of ships filled with concrete, until the tide receded enough to allow us drive off without entering the water. Though disappointed at not putting our waterproofing to the test, this was the first encouraging thing that struck us. The build up was going so well that rather than lose a truck we could wait a couple of hours for the tide.
During the time of waiting, the ship’s officer commanding the craft came to ask me for a pair of boots, he had been able to get nothing since D Day and was well nigh on his uppers. I was able to supply new boots in his size from the vehicle as it stood on the landing craft – a tribute to our mobility! He gave me in return 150 cigarettes, which I accepted, knowing the fag position. It resulted in about 10 cigarettes for each man in the party.
Another incident called for comment. We watched another craft further inshore disgorge its contents of vehicles on to the beach. One wagon was driven over a wet patch of sand and the back sank down to the axle, the rest of it was quickly disappearing. From nowhere seemingly, two bulldozers raced up linked up two ropes and they had it out on firm sand again very quickly.
We had driven, after coming off the craft, to a stage 1 de-waterproofing halt, thence to a Div. concentration area, where stage 2 was carried out, and thence at midnight to our first company location, an orchard near Nonant.
We were now standing talking while the vehicles lined up to move out of the orchard on our first operational move of the campaign and I was chatting to the new 2nd i/c who had been here since D day, and had been posted to us since our arrival.
“Do you think, sir, that the operations are intentionally slow, for purposes of build-up, or are we very much behind schedule?” I asked.
He replied “It is not intentionally slow, but the weather has been dead against us. However if the plan, which is for the Americans to drive south on the right flank, and we to do likewise on the left, results in his being encircled here between the Rivers Seine and Loire, and he then gets the bashing that is prepared for him, I am positive we shall go straight to the borders of Germany without further fighting”.
That conversation took place on the 23rd July. On the 7th Sept. the Company was located North East of Brussels! British troops were across the Albert Canal, Antwerp had been occupied by elements of our own Div. and at other places the Americans were knocking on the doors of the Reich.
Of the time between 23rd July and 18th August, there is little of interest to write. We were part of Gen. Dempsey’s second army, which bore the brunt of the heavy close fighting, that engaged Jerry while the Americans broke through at Avrauches and swept along the Loire.
Our own role gave Coy. H.Q. little that was of interest, but plenty of hard work to the Platoons. There were long nights of driving from F.M.C. to guns, dumping programmes when the ammunition was taken right up to the sites, and days of dusty travelling along the lanes, seeing that the supply of 25pdr. never failed to reach the famous guns. Our drivers were worked very hard.
There were incidents, of course. There was the night when we moved into a new location which almost immediately came under fire from Jerry 88’s. Shells landed in A and B Platoon locations, passing over our heads, as we had leaguered in a ravine just in front of the transport. There were no casualties and only superficial damage to tilts on vehicles, though all were loaded with H.E. It shook us for many hadn’t had a taste of shelling before, and others not since the evacuation at Dunkirk. There were, too, the usual wisecracks as when a voice said, from the darkness, “Let’s send for Rommel, Sergeant and make a separate peace”.
There was the morning when I went forward for rations, and on entering the field housing the supply point found that they had suffered twenty seven casualties during the night, four of them fatal, from mines. One vehicle ran over and set off a mine, this set light to the petrol tank and the vehicle went up in flames. Naturally, a crowd gathered in an attempt to save the lorry and someone trod on another mine and of course the crowd suffered.
During the morning a Cpl. Butcher running to intercept a vehicle heading for dangerous ground himself set off a further mine, but the impetus of his running was fast enough to save his life and he got away with a couple of flesh wounds.
We, not the Supply Point, should have moved into that field the night before, but at the last moment it was altered. I went down straight away to the O.F.P. and collected some more batteries for the mine detectors, so that we should have a reserve!
During this time of build-up and enlargement of the bridge-head, we moved short distances at a time from Nonant to a farm on the Bayeux -Tilly Rd to Bernieres, Bocage to Coulvain, just south of Villers Bocage. This was to keep close contact with the guns as they edged their way forward, putting down their terrific barrages. In this way we lengthened our journeys to F.M.C. or Army Road head but kept the distance first line had to come back to replenish, at a minimum.
I have already mentioned dumping which occurred a number of times and would explain that the regiments carry on their own transport (their first line) their establishment of ammunition. For a special ‘do’ a far greater quantity may be ordered for the shoot (at Alamein it was 800 rounds per gun, to start the shoot with, and our boys ‘dumped’ that where the guns were later placed in front of the wire defending our own infantry!) This far greater quantity is put beside the guns before h.hour and is called ‘dumping’. It may require one, two or more visits by the RASC transport and each time it requires replenishment at F.M.C. Even when the dump is complete, the transport must go back once more to F.M.C. to replenish its own 2nd line establishment which remains on wheels ready for emergencies.
During this period also we met again the smell of death – though mostly caused by dead cattle and horses it was particularly obnoxious and pervaded whole parts of the countryside. We did a lot of burning of the carcases, and found the cure almost worse than the disease! The cattle were killed by shelling and bomb blast.
There was the pathetic farm of Coulvain deserted by its tenants, but not by the two dogs. We stayed there some days. One dog was completely bomb happy, nervous of everyone and especially of every noise. I have seen him weeks later (for he came with the company) run for cover when some of our aircraft came over! The medical orderly de-loused him, bathed and fed him and the dog wouldn’t leave him. I have never seen a better example of a one man dog. Normally pets in the unit are friendly with everyone, but even still that dog rarely leaves the side of the medical orderly.
The other dog, a small smooth haired fox terrier, refused to leave the outhouses he was guarding for his absent master, when I tried to entice him away. He bore his ‘own honourable scars’ for he had been wounded in the shoulder and below the eye. Some of the lads tended him but he remained behind. We came away with a tame white rabbit, which was later a very acceptable present for a little girl, who lived near Athis.
During this time too netball became very popular especially among the officers and sergeants, the two messes having many a battle royal. Our rules were somewhat elastic and if we did not always get the ball the man seldom escaped. The 2nd i/c was a Rugger Blue and his presence seemed to key people up, and set a pretty high standard of toughness.
The O.C. made a practice of calling a conference of officers and sergeants each evening and at that of the 18th August 1944 we were given the ‘guff’ which caused me to make the following entry in my diary:-
‘ This, I think, should be a great day for we are given to understand that the chase is on’.
To the Seine
And so that night we took up our position in a great flying column comprising an armoured division, an armoured brigade, and two infantry divisions, and moved 17 miles to a location near Condé-sur-Odon.
Condé was the scene of fierce battles as the bridgehead was being enlarged and had come in for some fearful bombardment from the air. The town was completely ruined. Everywhere the hateful smell of dead cattle. It was near here that the fateful battle of Mont Pincon was fought. That was Gen Horrock’s first engagement after taking command of the Corps and though little attention was paid at the time to the capture of this feature it has since been agreed as one of the most decisive actions in bringing about the German defeat in Normandy.
The following day we moved again and leaguered up in an orchard near Athis.
It was clear from the direction in which the column was proceeding that we were going to drive right across the southern part of the famous Falaise Pocket and finish off those Germans who remained in it.
We rested here for two days and despite heavy rain managed to do some personal and vehicle maintenance. It was very pleasant to be at least temporarily in fresh clean-smelling country, away from the odour of death and the heart-breaking sight of destruction and ruin.
I would like to digress here from my narrative of our journey to pen a few comments on the degree of mobility attained by the Company, and of course all R.A.S.C. Companies similarly employed. It is part of our life which never failed to impress me, to catch my imagination.
We were roughly three hundred strong, and had about a hundred and twenty vehicles. We were divided into five Platoons, HQ. A, B, Composite and Workshops.
In HQ. Platoon is concentrated the Domestic Administration, Headquarters Office, Pay Office, Transport Office, Quarter masters Stores, Medical Orderly, Officers and Sergeants Messes and so on.
A and B Platoons, the largest, were the transport platoons, carrying whatever commodity Divisional H.Q. demanded. Composite was the technical platoon administering the commodity carried by the Transport Platoons.
Workshops is the vehicle maintenance and repair shop. Under their care came vehicles of affiliated units too small to have their own shops, and all our own transport – plus beds for officers, shaving cabinets for ditto, penthouses for Generals, tables for the sergeants mess, Company signs for erection on the roads near our location and every other odd and end job that required carpenter blacksmith, or fitter or electrician.
I think you will now agree that this varied collection of men gives scope for a lot of work of different kinds and I want you to bear in mind as you read of our quick succession of moves, that not only all of these men of many trades continue at their various jobs all of the time but they had as well to be accommodated, fed, paid, clothed, etc and their own vehicles supplied with petrol and oils.
Each time we moved all the intricate machinery for ensuring that the things be done had to be suspended as it were, and then brought again into operation in the new area.
Bear this in mind, when I tell you of our run of 75 miles in 6 hours to Brussels. We had lunch at Appoigny, near the Belgian border in France, and we were working and area NE of Brussels 75 miles away that evening.
Take for example the workshops. A Dodge lorry had a complete overhaul during our ‘drive’. It was completed by the ‘tiffies’ working from 4pm one day to 4pm the next without a break!
New engines were fitted to vehicles during this time, while HQ cookhouse had a £12 repair job done between 9am and 6pm one day after it had hit a post, stove in the front, damaged the radiator core, fan etc.
Each week the platoons were supplied with whatever the deficiencies or exchanges of kit their men required, and there was very little demanded that could not be issued from the stored, from a bootlace to a greatcoat, from a new pair of riding breeches to a comb or tooth brush.
The Company excluding Workshops could always be on the road within twenty minutes of been given the order to move, with Workshops an hour was required. Within half an hour of pulling into a location, the whole Company including Workshops, would be fully operating.
To resume; at 7pm on the 21st August, we made a short move of eleven miles to an orchard 5 miles E of Putanges. We shared our location with some evacuees from the bombed areas. They told us of the very good impression made on them by the behaviour of the Tommies. They said they could not believe any army could enter their country and treat them the way we had done.
“When you English come in you bring your tents, or you sleep in your vehicles and leave the houses for us. Not so the Bosche, he turned us into the fields and took the houses for his soldiers.”
Many of the tents were only bituminised paper. The few proper ones we had had been ‘stolen’ from our last location in England.
The order to move on again came within twenty four hours. It came at 18.25 and HQ Platoon was ‘lined up’ waiting to pull onto the road in fifteen minutes! The move was a short one of 19 miles to much bombed Argentan. How it rained that night, though we just managed to get the tents up before it really came down. We spent the night in a field and moved on again at 11.30am.
This proved to be one of the most notable moves. There was a tremendous amount of traffic on the road, and it took us until 7.30pm to complete thirty five miles.
During this day’s journey we passed through Chamboix where the famous Falaise pocket was first closed by the junction of American and Canadian forces. Here there was no doubt of the fierce battle that had been fought and I never want to see such sights again. To the right of the road there lay a ridge, which American forces occupied and they let whatever was on the road have all they got. Vehicles burnt out and wrecked littered the sides of the road for miles, their contents, which incidentally gave evidence of the extent to which the retreating Huns had looted the houses, were littered far and wide over the countryside.
But, of course the worst of it were the bodies, all black in the suddenness of dreadful death that had overtaken them. There were so many of them No doubt the infantryman was quite inured to sights far worse, but it made me feel very depressed and grim. How can war and glory go together, advancing or retreating there is nothing of glory in this rotten business. How can I forget the sight of the lower trunk and legs of a german soldier protruding from the heap of rubble that once was a house; or the single arm and hand lying in the gutter – heaven knows where the body was; or the hideous pile of bodies, perhaps twelve or twenty of them in the gateway to a field, where they had been tidied up into a stack!
We finished the day, 23 Aug, at Gace, where the people were very pleased to see us, and told us Jerry had only moved out at 8am the previous day. Certainly when the sergeant Major reached the location with the advanced party during the morning of the 23rd our infantry were still ‘mopping up’ in the nearby woods. My diary records an entry to the effect that it was becoming much too warlike for the R.A.S.C!
Next morning, 24th Aug, we moved again at 0600 hrs (without breakfast) and travelled through L’Aigle to a point a mile and a half down the Paris road from that town. Laigle was our first objective and we covered the 102 miles to it in six days.
We had almost four days at Laigle, during which time we had a chance to clean up, baths, laundry etc.
At our evening conference on the 27th we were told we would move next day towards the Seine and that the Division would take over the bridgehead at Vernon from an American Division. We moved at 11am on the 28th and covered 65 miles to Caioullet near Evreux, again to be located in an orchard. I had ‘staged’ very close by in 1940 when 44 Div moved up towards the Belgian border. I was very impressed by the scenery in the valley of the River Eure. A wide sweeping valley of beautiful colours very green pastures and very golden cornfields, with the river placidly following a winding course through its protecting miles of tall trees. The road here runs high along the slopes of the valley and gives the most delightful view points.
On the 30th, that is two days later, we moved at 5.30pm and travelled to Ecos a distance of twenty six miles. This took us until midnight as the traffic was very heavy.
This hop involved crossing the Seine at Vernon, the only impressive part of the journey but it was certainly a feature.
Although getting dark it became obvious from before Vernon, by the traffic regulations and signs on the side of the road, that we were approaching the crossing. Nevertheless it was with a thrill that we turned the last corner and the lorry ran down the rather steep little drop on to the bridge itself.
It was by now dark, but not too dark to be completely fascinated by this extraordinary feat of war time engineering. I shall not forget the sight, nor will those with me, but I find it most difficult to convey any impression that would do justice to it.
It would have been a lovely job of work in peace time, but the fact that it was thrown across the river while the enemy was on the opposite bank is almost unbelievable. It was approximately 200 – 250 yards long, a series of Bailey Bridge sections supported on floats in the river, each float thirty or forty feet from the next. The whole was straight as a die, there was nothing untidy about it and in appearance generally it had little to suggest its temporary nature.
Each section carried a dim red lamp on either side, for the guidance of the drivers and as the great lorry rolled slowly through this double fairy chain we tried to see everything at once, the bridge, the floats, the lights, the river, the opposite bank, and the great silhouette of the permanent bridge shattered previously by the RAF and now inert and tragic in its uselessness.
We drove by winding road to the top of the river banks, and on to Ecos. I was told later that the road there from the river was littered with German dead; I was just as glad our journey had been completed in darkness.
Thank you for coming so far with me, though I am afraid there is little of interest to you in what I tell.
I would be so glad to tell of brave deeds, mighty battles, of leaders and of men, of armoured recce in the heart of enemy territory, of tank thrusts and following dashes by lorried infantry.
But no, I am just telling the simple enough tale of what happened to me on this historic drive. (I know it is going to be historic, even though I am amusing myself by writing about it while it is still going on.)
I feel that most would agree with me in saying that the outstanding difference between the two sides of the Seine was the warmth and depth of our welcome by the people.
It had improved considerably as we neared the Seine, it would be hard to expect people, who had suffered as the people of Normandy had had to suffer at our hands, to welcome us with open arms. There was a very strong feeling among our men, while we were there, that the Army of Liberation was really only an Army of Obliteration (yet though I saw many a wrecked church I never saw a wrecked Calvary.)
While receiving it I studied as closely as I could this welcome. I was fearfully anxious to decide for myself whether we got it because the people were glad, or because they felt they had to do it, we being the military party then in power and occupation. I convinced myself that it was utterly spontaneous and signified not merely gladness but delight. I closely watched many faces, I so frequently saw the face grim and set as the hand waved – a sort of mechanical gesture with which the heart was not in tune, or of which the heart was doubtful. But when one grinned back and waved in return, a delighted smile spread over the features, a mixture of relief and happiness.
From then on I tried to adopt a meticulous impartiality; not to wave only at the pretty girls – and they were legion – but also to salute the men, especially the older ones who were probably veterans of ‘la guerre quatorze-dix huit’, and to wave to the children. I was so often rewarded by such a happy and delighted childish face.
While we were at Ecos, rations were drawn from a supply point near Amiens. On the first day I got completely ‘browned off’ with the traffic on the main official route, and having a map I decided to take to the lanes.
It was not long before it became clear from the way the people in villages ran out on hearing the sound of the lorry, that few, if any, had passed that way before us. Windows were thrown open and beautiful ladies threw kisses to us, while one dear old lady thrust a beautiful bouquet of chrysanthemums through the cab window into the driver’s hand. A man with a basket of plums gave us some fruit, while the children threw us apples. Once we came upon a burnt out car, standing where it had been abandoned by the fleeing jerry. It wouldn’t move, so we drove round it on the grass.
This was all very well, but I knew that many Germans remained to be mopped up in the woods, and I realised we were on roads which offered very favourable opportunities for ambush. I thought it wise to load a sten gun. This the driver told me how to do.
However, the journey was completed without incident, save that we were once hailed by a F.F.I. chap, who had some prisoners to dispose of, but we had a lot to do, a long way to go, and were in a hurry.
Though I was never in a position fully to appreciate the assistance given to the Allied effort by the F.F.I. and the Belgian Resistance Army, it was very clear even to us, of a humble sphere, that had our infantry to be responsible for ‘mopping up’ the German stragglers, the delay would have been so great as either to lose our armour, or have to hold it back until the P.B.I. were again ready to accompany it. In many other ways, too, we saw them helping, guarding important places and so on. I feel sure their efforts greatly shortened the duration of the war.
There is a ‘Salle de Fetes’ in Ecos, and there our dance band performed for the entertainment of the men, and a disappointingly small number of villagers.
Here too we met up with two British Officers, who had been sheltered by the patriots for months in Amiens after having baled out over France on a bombing raid. They confirmed all we had read of the efficiency and real kindness, of the underground movement.
On Friday Sept. 1 we moved at 8am to Cuigy-en-Bray, a distance of 32 miles, which was completed in two hours. This was the day on which Field Marshall Montgomery’s promotion was announced to us, and, of course, the news gave general satisfaction.
The following day, sept.3, we moved a further 43 miles to Rumigny, near Amiens.
In collecting rations it was necessary for me to go through Amiens, and here for the first time, we experienced a welcome which could be truly described as ‘with abandon’. People were walking down the street shaking hands with every British soldier they met. The streets were decked with flags, and everywhere there was gaiety.
I should like to have had an opportunity to go to the Cathedral, but had to be content with the splendid view of it one gets approaching the city from either side. It reminded me of the view of Winchester one gets from the Alton road, as it stands out ‘head and shoulders’ over the rest of the city, as Saul did over Israel.
At 0845 hrs. on the 4th, two days later, we moved forward again and completed 25 miles to Temeresnil which we occupied only for a matter of hours. Orders to move on again, came at 2pm and at 3 we set off for Liervin forty one miles away.
This proved to be our first location in a closely populated area for it is in the mining district near Leus and Bethune.
Two features of this journey remain in my memory. The first, a sight of cemetries of the last war, which I had last seen in 1940. What a massacre, what a vain sacrifice, those well-nigh countless crosses, standing row upon row as far as the eye can see, represent. A glorious sacrifice made vain by German greed, hatred and stupidity, and our own apathy in the between-war years. Yet how lustily we sang “Lest we forget” on each succeeding Armistice Day!
I am glad to see that German bestiality and sub-humanity had not gone so far as to permit any desecration of their resting place. Here still they rest in peace, thank God ignorant that their sons die today in the same cause.
Through Arras and across Vimy Ridge, was the second outstanding feature of the move. Arras, in its welcome, seemed to express its relief and thankfulness that liberation had come with out the bloody toll that might have been expected from the last wars experience.
On Vimy Ridge still stands “that little bit of France that is for ever Canada” though war has left its ugly mark upon the noble monument to the fallen Canadians. The top piece has been blown off.
Though overgrown now with grass and scrub, the surface of the Ridge is so pockmarked that I easily convinced myself I was looking at shell holes of the last struggle.
Lievin and its wives and children (here there is no cause for alarm at a falling birth rate) turned out to welcome us, inspect us, visit us and scrounge from us. Hardly had the vehicles stopped in the brickyard that they were each surrounded by its own eager admiring and inquisitive crowd. As the O.C. said more in sorrow than in anger, “It looks more like a fairground than a military camp”.
A very charming little girl asked me for a bar of chocolate, explaining, needlessly, that they had a baby at home. With characteristic quartermaster generosity ( ! ) I gave the bar with one hand saying “ pour le bebe “ and with the other some sweets and “pour vous”. That did it! She was back in half an hour with a very tastefully arranged bouquet of flowers, which she presented to me with a kiss on each cheek. She insisted, too, on arranging the flowers in the jam tin which we used as an improvised vase.
We were the first British troops to stop in Lievin, though many had passed through, and the people certainly opened their hearts and their houses to our chaps.
There was one family, I remember, living in a bungalow in our brickfield, who were extremely hospitable. They housed all our Dispatch Riders and gave them and many others the most scrumptious meals, going as far as a five course dinner, with wine and champagne. That was by no means the only house in the district where the champagne was dug up out of the garden, where it had been hidden four years ago. Every man in the company could have slept in a bed, free of any billeting fees, had we been permitted to occupy houses, but we continued to live in our tents.
Some, who were with our Division the last time we were in France, had actually been located in the area before. There had been very joyful reunions. The second I/C was one of them, and he told me that when he called on the owner of his 1940 billet, the old man remembered him, fell on his neck, kissed him on both cheeks, and went off to the garden literally “ to unearth the swag”.
Of course everyone felt we stayed there by far too short a time, for we moved on again to Cysoing near the Belgian frontier on the following day, the 6th September. The length of the trip was 29 miles.
Here again we were given a tremendous welcome by the people of the village. We arrived on the morning of the funeral of two F.F.I. soldiers, one of whom, we were told, had had his fingers and his ears cut off before he was kicked and beaten to death.
We met a young French lady here who said she was engaged to an English boy since 1940, and she had tea with us in the Sergeant’s Mess. She was very charming and invited us to coffee at her house, saying that each evening since the Germans had been forced out some British soldiers had visited her house. We did not like to break the sequence, so Harold, Norman and I went along.
She spoke very ‘easy’ French so that we could understand and our evening was most enjoyable and instructive. How they hate the Hun! It is no wonder, too, from the stories she told us – the mutilation of the F.F.I. of her own village was apparently no exception. The Gestapo made a practice of it. In one nearby village they shot 86 men for no reason at all, in the South of France, she said, they buried the Maquis alive, and capped all her stories by one of their having nailed a three months old baby to the church door.
This last was so terrible we did not like to believe it, so next day I found the schoolmistress, and asked her a few leading questions on the subject of atrocities. She told me exactly the same stories of the same nearby villages, and of their own village, and at length I said “ Une autre chose, mademoiselle, une bebe de trois mois” ….. and I left the sentence unfinished; she immediately completed it in English “…..on ze door of ze church”!
Our move from Cysoing came next day 7th Sept. at 1 o’clock, after what we all felt was by far to short a stay. Our original destination was a place South of Brussels, but en route the wireless truck picked up orders to proceed through the city and on to Heppergan, NW of Brussels. This made the total distance 72 miles, our longest hop so far.
On first crossing the border, through the ineffective ‘Gort Line’ of 1940, we were disappointed in the reception given us, but as the convoy progressed towards the Capital, the people became more and more enthusiastic, and the climax was reached in Brussels where we had an ovation like none received anywhere else. The streets were dense with people, the lorries wound a precarious way through the narrow ”lane” they left in the centre, all the buildings were gay with flags, we were cheered and waved to, kisses blown at us and we were bought beer and ice cream, apples, pears, tomatoes and grapes came sailing through the car window. Whenever the vehicles stopped we were besieged for autographs, English cigarettes, chocolate and sweets.
The people shouted “Welcome, Tommy” “We have waited so long for you” etc. One girl came to our truck and told the driver, she thought “the English soldier good and lovely”.
Another girl opened a car door and said to the driver “ I love you Tommy”, he, a bit of a lad said “I love you too, girl, up you get” and he lifted her into the car and drove through the streets with her beside him!
I remember best the sight of a pathetic old man, standing to the fore of a large crowd on a crossing, beating a side drum! He had on some kind of military hat and looked a feeble personification of all that is martial and glorious in war. And then I thought of the body strewn road at Chambois.
On to Holland
We had three more locations in Belgium and then crossed the Dutch border, but that is to anticipate.
Heppergan proved to be clean and the people very kind. Despite difficulty with the language, Flemish, the boys made friends. Workshops pulled in in the middle of the night and the villagers knew they were coming, waited up for them, bought them beer, and provided bread and butter and chips as a supper. A Staff Sgt. told me he was hunting his men shortly after arrival and found them all in the cafe round a table loaded with this fare. Some of them who had also worked the whole of the previous night, were asleep with mugs poised halfway between table and mouth!
As usual we leaguered up, with the vehicles spaced round the field, each with camouflaging nets over it. On Sunday afternoon what seemed to be the whole village dressed in its best, turned out to promenade round the field, inspecting each vehicle and it’s occupants, as so many cages of exhibits in a zoo. They found interest in the cooks, the clerks, the cobbler, a soldier doing his washing and so on, Sometimes the ‘animals’ in the ‘cages’ threw them a cigarette, or a sweet, – a reversal of the usual monkey nut procedure!
We had a church service in the centre of the field, the soldiers standing in a group facing the padre and piano, and surrounded by an interested crowd of villagers lying on the grass. The local cafe or pub was the centre of attraction in the evenings. The ‘tommies’ went there in force and the local maidens ‘showed up’ too, but the latter not to drink, only to dance on the tiled floor to the music (?) of a contraption which can only be described as descended on it’s father’s side from a steam organ and on it’s mother’s from a Wurltzer, it blew bugles and rolled drums and almost anything else except serve ice cream!
After the dancing had thawed out the atmosphere properly, and introduced people to one another, they usually started the kissing game, – all stand round in a ring, a girl goes into the centre with a scarf, which she throws round the neck of the boy she wants, and pulls him into the centre where she proceeds to kiss him (or ‘love a bundle’ as the soldier telling me of it described it – they didn’t play the game the night I went there!) The kissed one then took the scarf and ‘ropped in’ the lady of his choice and so on. Of course it became a bit monotonous for everyone else when a pair who did not believe that variety is the spice of life, got hold of the scarf!
Five days were all we were allowed stay there, for on the 12th Sept. we moved forward 22 miles to Herent ur Lourain. Again the attitude of the local population were all friendliness, and in the pub in the evening we met the 2 I/C and Padre, had some beer, and an impromptu dart match between the two messes, the Padre throwing quite a dainty dart! Later a few girls came in as usual with their parents, and we danced with them. The beer shop is looked upon so much here as a centre of village social life, and as a place to which the whole family may come to spend an evening. I certainly never saw any excesses of any kind, which might detract from its value in this way.
Drawing rations from this location I had to pass through Diest and was interested in this quaint old town, with its double moat almost all round and the road leading out of it which passes through tunnels in the two ramparts, over two bridges across the moat, and gives in general a picture much reminiscent of the Castle at Dover. How everything reminds one of home!
This was to be another short stay, for on Friday15th Sept. the Company moved on a further23 miles to Schaffen just the other side of Diest, and it was on the next day that I first crossed the Albert canal in collecting rations. The other side gave evidence of the way in which the battle had flared up again in the German effort to establish a line on the canal. Our own division did good work there, when they forced a crossing and killed more Jerrys than they captured.
On the 17th we moved again. This time we travelled 18 miles to Konig Leopold, and as we pulled in were given the great news of the landing of an airborne army in Holland.
Very little of interest occurred to us while we were there. We waited with bated breath as it were, watching reports of the progress of the airborne troops, wondering whether the bold venture would succeed.
We employed the time profitably in cleaning up, resting and playing. A netball competition in which teams from all the Platoons met on a knockout basis, provided a very good afternoons sport. Our officers played the officers of another company, on the same afternoon, and gave the squaddy an opportunity to indulge one of the Englishmen’s favourite pastimes – that of a barracking spectator!
On Saturday 23rd we moved forward miles to Lommel almost on the Dutch border. This necessitated my journeying into Holland daily to fetch the rations back to Belgium! I had to travel along the road used by 30 Corps in its push to link up with the airborne troops, a venture I suggest as equally bold as the airborne landings, in that the thin line of road was open to attack from either side almost all along its length. It was in fact cut a number of times, but never I am glad to say while I was on it!
I saw the nine tanks of the Guards Armoured Division which were knocked out in one place just north of the frontier and close by a row of 14 graves. These, when I saw them were beautiful with bright flowers, a singular contrast to the humble, drab resting place that is usually the first lot of the soldier who falls in action; a mound of earth, a wooden cross, a rusted steel helmet, and a dirty, clay covered rifle.
I was much impressed by my first trips into Holland, the villages were so clean and tidy, the houses of such attractive design, ( I resolved to employ the Dutch architect for the row of houses with which I should, traditionally at any rate, end the war!) the people were well dressed, friendly and a great number spoke English. Of course I was visiting a good place, which had seen little warfare – Aalst, just south of Eindhoven.
While here in Lommel, I heard of the presence in the village of my old friend and original C.S.M. now R.S.M. with 7th Armoured Div, so I paid him a visit. We repaired to the local, had two beers, and an hours reminiscence. He had visited some of the places in which we both had been located in France during 1940 and had much to tell me.
He added this to my information on German atrocities, while in Lommel a child was brought to their M.D.S. for dressing. It had both its hands cut off by the Germans because it was caught stealing food. I suppose it was hungry.
On the 27th Sept. we moved 20 miles to Soerendoich, the Company crossing into Holland. Here our location was in the grounds of the chalet occupied by the Burgomaster for the transaction of his official business. I was shown over the chalet, and the clerk in me was thrilled by the splendidly appointed offices. The Council Chamber, as I supposed it to be, was particularly impressive. Big photographs of Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana adorned the wood panelled walls, the floor was covered with a deep pile carpet and the two long walnut tables arranged in the form of a T, with the appropriate chairs completed the furniture.
There was a ‘cage’ in the grounds in which they interned the collaborationists rounded-up locally. They were to be brought to trial later. The burgomaster was a very well educated man, who spoke English perfectly, and wore clothes which made the Tommies mouth water though to me the abnormal length of his overcoat and of his trousers, together with the super squareness of his shoulders suggested a ‘flashiness’ not in keeping with sartorial perfection!
My daily journey from this location for the collection of rations took me a round trip of sixty miles, deep into Holland, and I had some interesting trips trying to find routes across canals the bridges of which had been blown. Our supply point (RASC) had moved north of Gemert one evening, and the Divisional Infantry did not take their place until the next morning as I was making my first collection from them at this site!
One evening my friend ‘Blaneo’ went for a walk, ostensibly in search of a drink. He walked for a long time before he met a man coming from a house, so he accosted him “where can I get a drink in this place, if you please”. The man proved to be our friend the Burgomaster who replied “You will want beer I think. Perhaps the Doctor can fix you up!” So they went to the Doctor’s house and knocked him up. But as the Doctor’s charming wife explained in equally charming English, they had no beer. But she felt sure she could help and she took ‘Blanco’ along to another house, knocked on the door and explained to the boy who opened, what was wanted. The whole family then came to the door to inspect the soldier who had come to visit them He was welcomed gladly, taken inside and given a very pleasant evening. He was begged to pay another visit and to bring a friend.
And so I went visiting two nights later! When we entered the living room, bright with an incandescent lamp, and over hot from a stove in the middle the whole family were seated round the big supper table eating porridge ably helped by two other members of our Company, who had been ‘picked up’ in a ‘local’ having a drink.
Places were made for us, chairs were brought, and we joined in the porridge course. There were Papa and Mama, the former quiet, proud of his family and obviously the head of it, the latter even more quiet but very efficient and very homely. There were grown up sons and daughters, and two little evacuees from Amsterdam, altogether a delightful circle.
After porridge, there was bread and butter, sliced ham and coffee, and we were hospitably pressed to eat far more than we were accustomed to at that time of night. Then the table was cleared and beer produced. Conversation flowed merrily despite language difficulties. To watch a Tommy, totally ignorant of the language discussing Association Football with a young Dutch enthusiast was quite an education! For my own part I found Papa could speak about as much (or as little!) French as I can, and we got on famously together.
As the evening wore on, we were each regaled with a wine glass of cognac, a very smooth pleasant cognac. I asked Papa’s permission to leave, which was granted, with a pressing invitation to repeat the visit.
The next move came on the 2nd October, and took us 44 miles to Zealand, a small village S. of Nijmegen. The supply point was then close to Nijmegan and on my first visit, I found them much upset, there having been nine casualties including O.C. and C.S.M. from A.P.Bombs at one of the companies and two casualties in the other company.
On our way up I thought I could detect from the cab a fearful shouting from the back of the lorry. Much alarmed at the possibility of one of the two men, ration issuer and postman, having been bumped off, either literally or metaphorically, I told the driver to pull up. I jumped down and went to the back where they were excitedly pointing out that a Jerry plane had just been worsted in a dog fight and they did not want me to miss it!
A day or so later, I was up with the C.O.M.S. of one of the forward companies, when suddenly the Ack Ack opened up. Someone shouted “It’s coming this way” the gunner dived for his gun pit and there was a shrill blast on a whistle, followed by a shout “ Get down!”
We got down, and there was a crump of a bomb falling a little way across the road. We picked ourselves up, went to the top of a slight rise and had a look at where the rising smoke showed the bomb had fallen. Thinking that this Company seemed to have a rather good ‘alert’ system I turned to the other Quartermaster and asked who had blown the whistle “ Cookhouse, for tea,” was the reply I got!
The next incident I deem worthy of record was a concert given in the village hall by the men of the unit. Our eight piece dance orchestra played popular numbers, we had cross talk comedians, a violinist, tenors, baritone, yodeller, hill billy singer, accordionist, and the performance was received enthusiastically by a packed house of soldiers and civilians. Two very continental looking Dutch policemen stood at the doors.
I think the people really loved it, for such as this concert and the football games we played against them, unheard of during the years of German occupation, were a resurgence of social life they had long been denied.
Though perhaps a little too sentimental for some of the Tommies, I found the finale very impressive. The compere recited stirringly a piece of patriotic poetry, the baritone sang the verse and everyone of a couple of hundred Englishmen sang “There’ll always be an England” at the top of his voice. Then all stood and led by a pretty Dutch girl with a sweet voice, the civilians sang the Dutch National Anthem and to round off the proceedings we immediately followed with “God save the King”.
On the 17th October we moved forward, for the last time before the winter lull, to Beunigen, a matter of twenty miles.
Beunigen is a small hamlet south of the Waal Maas Canal which runs south of Nijmegen. We were extremely fortunate in being allocated to the farmstead of M. Bart Van Iugen, who was to my mind, the grandest fellow I met on the continent. I feel I could write a book on the kindness we received from him and his family. There were Mama, his very charming wife, Apu (the Dutch for Granny) and the two children, a boy and girl of about 5 and 3 respectively.
Every evening from the first we were invited to the house. ‘You come coffee drinking eight hours’. On Sunday this ceremony took place in the best room of the house, the lounge, and not only was there coffee, but Mama’s excellent pastries as well, and wine glasses of a delightful fruit salad, made from bottled strawberries, cherries and grapes.
They were very fond of music and Mama and Bert gave us many a lovely duet, singing Dutch folk songs. Bert always accompanied his songs with the actions, and kept us very amused while singing love songs to his wife, ogleing her, and putting his arm around her he made her quite embarrassed.
Sometimes we would get one of our chaps, who played the accordion, to come in, and then it always ended in a dance in the barn. Mama would round up some neighbours and we would dance there with the cows and pigs and horse in stalls all round us. To dance in the Dutch fashion a never ending series of revolutions in old-waltz tempo required a better head than I have got and after two or three circuits of the farm with Mama I usually had to call a halt and cling to her for support!
While spirits were available in the Sergeants Mess, I would take my bottle in to the house and we would celebrate their liberation, drinking toasts most solemnly to the King, Queen Wilhelmina, Holland and the British Tommy!
When any of the boys were on guard, they would make early tea in the morning, and take cups to Mama and Bert in bed. They just loved that! Every morning at 10.30 Mama would come to the waggon with a cup of hot milk for each of us and all the time we were there they kept us supplied with apples and pears.
On one occasion I was out on a motor cycle and felt I would like to cross the Rhine, just to be able to say I had done so. So I rode into Nijmegan , and out over the famous bridge, which took so much capturing in the days of the attack on Holland and the drive for Arnhem. It bore all the marks of the battle, (as Gen. Horrocks said “It’s a bit chipped but still we’ve got it.”) It is a magnificent structure, the single span going up to a tremendous height.
I was then on the ‘island’, that bit of country between the two lower reaches of the Rhine, the Waal and the Lek, and in which the Germans finally called a halt to the great drive that had taaken us from Caen non-stop, practically. The Germans later flooded practically all this part and we had to withdraw. I heard Monty say later ‘I’m very glad he did flood it, for whereas I used to have to keep two divisions there, I can now hold it with two brigades.’
It was very galling to find ourselves stopped there, just eight miles from Germany, but the weather was hopeless and I am sure nothing could have been done about it. Still, we had pictures, ENSA shows and football matches in Nijmegen. I saw one of the best games of Rugger I’ve ever seen, between two teams of my own Division, played at the stadium in Nijmegen.
Here at Nijmegen too we had a ‘guff’ talk by General Horrocks – our Corps Commander, to my considerable pride! I would like to record something of what he told us so that I may drive from the mind any tendency to think that after all this drive to the Rhine must have been quite a pleasant sort of party, at the Governments expense, touring de luxe. For General Horrocks told us of the kind of thing that was going on, being done by others, while the simple uneventful happenings chronicled in this little tale were taking place.
The talk was on the Invasion of Holland, which the General described as a veritable classic of its kind ‘when you are grandfathers you will be telling your grandchildren of it,’ he said, ‘they will be fearfully bored but you’ll still be telling them’!
You may remember that 2nd Army was lined up along the Exant Canal. There had been established Bridgeheads at a spot a little west of Neerpelt, and a little further north at Lommel. The latter was a fine bit of work by our own Div. which acted as a diversion and switched much enemy attention from the first bridgehead through which 30 Corps subsequently burst.
Now the General wanted to know what enemy dispositions there were at Valkenswaard , the first town over the Dutch border. So a recce regiment promised to find out for him.
Consequently a single armoured car set out from the bridgehead and at sixty miles an hour drove straight through the German lines, in to the town where they got the information they wanted from the local resistance group, under Jerry’s very nose and returned along the single road, again at 60mph, getting back untouched.
The Corps Commander said he had to be sure of two things before he could give zero hour for the attack a) that the airborne troops had actually arrived ( they might start, but have to return on account of weather) and b) that all British fighters were out of the area (otherwise in such close fighting as would follow they might shoot up our troops by mistake) so Gen. Horrocks took up his watch on the roof of a factory by the canal side. Promptly at the appointed time in flew the beautiful armada of transport and troop carriers and gliders. They had come and in what numbers! He allowed half an hour for the fighters to get clear and gave the order for the attack at, I think, 2.30pm Sunday afternoon.
At that moment one hundred guns started a ‘milk-round’ on the previously plotted German gun positions on the principle of ‘Time over target’. All our guns concentrated on a single German gun at a time, and calculations were such that all 100 shells arrived on the target together! This ‘drenching’ was followed by a second round of one hundred shells and then attention was switched to the next gun position, and so on, until all had been similarly treated.
Then three hundred guns opened up on the road itself, and under cover of this barrage our armour went forward along the single road to Eindhoven, shooting up the sides of the road as they went. The artillery barrage itself was preceded by a barrage of rockets from the Typhoons above. And that is how 30 Corps went into Holland. Whenever stopped, a radio message was flashed from a scout car on the ground to some three more squadrons of Typhoons, who were circling above waiting for just such a call, and down they came and dealt with it.
Everyone knows how the great bridge at Eindhoven was taken by the paratroops and how they were relieved by our column, and of how the Maas Bridge (9 spans) at Grave was similarly taken, but not everyone knows that an example of inter-allied co-operation saved a stop in the big drive, which was not halted until the Rhine was reached at Nijmegen.
At Sou the paratroops just failed to get to the bridge in time to prevent the enemy destroying it. An American Engineering officer with them wirelessed to the Commander of the Armour coming up the road, told him the width etc. of the river and what materials would be needed to bridge it, and added that he was having the banks prepared by his men.
The armour commander was thereby able to work a bridging section to the front of his column, with the necessary sections of a Baillie bridge. When the column arrived in the evening the tanks rested for the night, as planned, the Engineers put the bridge across and in the morning the armour was off again without losing a minute of the schedule.
The greater part of Nijmegen lies south of the river, and when the column arrived it was unable to reach the bridge, still in German hands. Fierce fighting through the streets for two days brought our men almost to the bridge, but it could not be made.
The Corps Commander decided on an assault crossing of the river, and an attack on the bridge from the other side. He asked for, and was given, the loan of, I think, the equivalent of a battalion of paratroops. These were American and had never seen a British Assault boat until they got in them to cross the river (The General added ‘and I suppose they never wanted to see them again!’) With great courage and heavy losses they made their crossing and fought their way towards the Bridge. Just as they were getting to it, a sergeant on the other side with two tanks decided on a final desperate bid, set off and managed to drive his tanks on to and across the bridge. This did it. Straightaway, a sapper officer and a few R.E.’s walked across cutting the wires for demolition with Jerry snipers still in the girders up above. When the officer got across he had 120 prisoners!
The General told us then of the abortive attempt to take Arnhem. He told us with a wealth of detail (of which he is such a master) and I cannot remember it well enough to recount. It has been fully reported elsewhere more competently than I can do it. I would like to add that a week earlier Arnhem had been empty, and it was sheer bad luck that a German Division, newly reformed and re-equipped, was passing through on its way to attack our bridgehead on the canal when our paratroops dropped.
There was one day when Gen. Horrocks had to leave the front near Arnhem and go back to Grave to confer with the Army Commander. When he set out on his return journey he found Jerry across the road! There he was stuck, miles back with all his troops forward, and pressing decisions to be made, with the enemy in between. My Div. furnished an escort of Bren carriers, the General made a wide detour across country and got through.
The administrative services, said the Corps Commander with which we set out from Normandy, (I thought, he means us now) were sufficient to carry the force twenty miles north of the Seine. With them the force reached Brussels and Antwerp!
That, I felt, was something of which we might be quite proud, even if it did mean some consternation amongst the drivers and apparent confusion in the Unit while it was being done. How after the men loaded their lorries with their normal loads of ammo. at 7am. off-loaded at 8am. went off to carry infantry, and back to re-load the ammunition that night. How after during the drive, did we find ourselves with ammo. at three locations, the last, the present and the next! We really had to run a ferry service like that to get it along, and fulfil the other calls the Division had to make upon the transport at the same time.
But we got there, and with the ammunition, too, all of it. And when I heard Monty later say ‘ A few days before the invasion, Mr Churchill came to see me, to say good bye. He told me that if we took and held the line of the Seine by Christmas he would be satisfied.’ I felt it had not only been worth it, but quite a lot of fun as well.