The wartime memories of Victor Thomas Clapton [Royal Army Service Corps]

During March 2019 I was asked about my memories of D Day. My pen ran away with me and recorded my thoughts for the whole six years of my engagement starting from when war was declared in 1939.

I was twenty years old and featured in the first call up, and if I had to go my preference would be the RAF. It was in September 1939 the government was asking for volunteers. With this in mind six of us went to Bristol Road in Gloucester which I think was a church hall. Inside were about six tables manned by Service Personnel and as you passed each table a certain question was asked. When we got to the last table the question was ‘what is your present employment’, and as we were Gas Board employees we were told that we were exempt from service in the armed forces. That was goodbye to our aspirations of being in the RAF as bomber crew or technicians. The early war months were reasonably quiet. We anticipated that I would be called up sometime in the near future so on November 11th we were married, a wartime marriage at the Parish Church in the centre of Cheltenham, (on June 30th 1941 I had a telegram from home stating my wife had had a baby girl, the start of a family of six).

At this time an expedition force had gone to Europe and during May 1940 they were at Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940 I had my calling up papers. I had to report to Norton Manor Barracks in Taunton on June 6th. I was not alone as about six or seven of us had to report to the same place. On a day early in June we caught the train at Lansdown Station for Taunton where we were bussed in army vehicles to the camp. According to our papers we were joining the 222 Second Search Light Battalion which we had never heard of.

After about two weeks of training we were all interviewed by army officers who asked a number of questions mainly transport questions and a few days later we were told that we were all transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC).

After a month we marched to Taunton Railway Station for our journey to London. We were billeted in the basement of the Osnaburgh Hotel near Regents Park. There must have been about 20 of us. Our course started the following week at Tottenham High School and for transport it was the back of an army lorry. After about a week we were in civvy billets in Tottenham. Two us of were with Mr and Mrs Fall, the husband was a London bus driver and on one Sunday we had a free bus ride around London. When our course was finished we were transferred to Lincolnshire for a driving course for 12 weeks. I must say it was good to get away from London because the Jerry blitz was just starting. After three days of this course I passed OK because of my driving in the Gas Board days. I was then made a Regimental Policeman mainly doing traffic duty outside the camp, the NAAFI was over the road.

After the twelve weeks another transfer took place, back to the blitz in Isleworth, Middlesex. We were billeted in a large empty house backing on to the Thames and in the centre of the river was a small island in which an unexploded bomb had settled. Some of the occupants had been evacuated, but as far as we were concerned it never affected us, we were only soldiers. The course we attended was in a unit inside a large car manufacturer’s premises which lasted eight weeks. We were wondering what next, and as far as I was concerned, I was transferred to a company stationed in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.

I can’t remember much about Dewsbury but I know my next station was at Jordan Hill Ladies College in Glasgow. It was quite a large area and we occupied the dormitory and the restaurant. The ladies must have been on holiday, as we never saw them at all. While we were there some of us were transferred to a Holding Company at Jordan Hill where we remained. The unit was formed for any individual to be transferred, on request, to a company who required their particular services. While we were at Jordan Hill, eight of us were taken aside and made Regimental Police. The reason being that coal had been stolen from the cook house section during the hours of darkness. We paired up and started our duties the same night – 2000 to 2200 – 2200 to midnight – midnight to 0200 – 0200 to 0400 and 0400 to 0600. On one particular night about 2300, during our duties we heard the back gate open and shut. When challenged, the intruder said he was being posted overseas the following day and he had said goodbye to his family who lived nearby. Taking his word for it, I escorted him to his bed in the sleeping quarters. Soft me. The culprit who was taking the coal was finally caught by one of our other two and guess who it was – the chief chef who was friendly with a local female and was instantly posted to another unit away from Glasgow.

Whilst being with the Police, we had passes to leave the site and go into the centre of Glasgow on a daily basis if we so wished. One day two of us were in Saucheihalll Street just window shopping when a bus drew up at the bus stop. Its destination was Milngavy. I said to my mate ‘Milngavy, never heard of it’. At that point a lady tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘excuse me young man that is pronounced Malguy’. That put me in my place. The eight police were reduced to two, me and another with various things to do and of course our daily passes out were stopped. Included at the base in Jordan Hill was a unit that housed prisoners. They were not bad people, their only crimes were either overstaying leave or missing out of certain duties. One of our tasks was to march them to meals and back which we took in turns to do. It seemed rather odd as we had no stripes on our arms only the red band stating that we were Regimental Police. Another time when on our patrol, it was a moonlit night with hardly a cloud to be seen, we heard an Air Raid warning and the enemy planes seemed to be getting closer. On looking up I saw a huge parachute with a bomb attached coming towards us and getting closer all the time. There was no point in warning anyone and I seemed to be transfixed to the ground. On looking up again a slight breeze was turning the parachute slowly towards the centre of Glasgow. My thoughts at that time were that people were about to lose their lives. Because we were on higher ground we saw the explosion and said by the grace of god that could have been us. Soon after this episode, thirty two of us were given seven injections each, obviously this was for overseas duties. The following day we were paraded outside with our full kit. As the names were given out they were told to stand aside. After thirty names were called, the number they required, I was left with one other and was told to go back to our beds. On the way in I asked my colleague where he came from, he said Cheltenham and I told him that’s where I came from and he said Grosvenor Street. It certainly is a small world.

When we finished our training and courses, myself and a few others were posted to a Holding Company in Barrhead, a district of Glasgow. Our beds were allocated in a large space which I imagine was a brewery of some sort, I would think there were about thirty or forty beds all laid out in rows. On my first night I had an awful experience. At 10 o’clock all the lights were put out. Sometime in the night I woke up standing. I had never experienced sleep walking before. I had no idea where I was as it was pitch black. What do I do? Would I awake someone? No, it could be possible my intentions would be misconstrued so I stood there. I could not retrace my steps because I didn’t know which way I was facing. My legs were touching beds so I started to walk very slowly when I realised I was at the end of the beds. What do I do now? Turn right or left. I turned left for no reason whatsoever. Taking very short steps and with my arms extended I came across a wall. What do I do now? I chose to go along the wall to my left when I came across the notice board. During the previous evening I remember sitting on my bed facing the notice board and my bed was the second one in the row. My spirits rose as I felt I could get back to my rightful place. With great care I made my way to the bed which I thought was mine. What if I was wrong? My thinking was all over the place so I went to the head of the bed and felt for my kit where I remember putting it the previous day. I felt sure this was my bed so I gingerly felt around and it was. When I woke in the morning I looked to where I went and realised I was fortunate to have turned left in the darkness at the end of the bed in front of me. If only a low voltage light could be left on overnight to guide anyone who wanted to get out in the night. If only.

Myself and one other was posted to a unit that spent two months in Scotland at various places. One of the places was Perth and while we were there I heard some disturbing news. The mother of one of the thirty who paraded with us wrote a letter saying his ship had been torpedoed with not many survivors; her son was not one of them. In the last few days of May 1944, we were stationed in the north of Scotland when suddenly we started to move south. It took us three days to reach the streets of London travelling in convoy to the gates of an enormous compound near Tilbury docks, whilst on the streets we received shouts of ‘good luck’ from the women going about their daily business. It was as if they knew more than us. Our vehicles were taken over, including our kit bags, which left us with just the small kit for reasons unknown. We were then, during a parade, asked for volunteers.

Now, before I enlisted for the Army, my Dad who was in WW1, said that whatever you do don’t ever volunteer, but I did (sorry Dad) but it turned out to be OK. About 8 of us the following day were taken to a 10 thousand ton American ship to help the crew as required. What we liked was that coffee was on tap all day. This lasted about a week and on June 5th 1944 the ship was full of troops and equipment. At 4am June 6th we could feel the ship’s engines starting, and we were away. Going down the Channel you could see various beaches, such as Bournemouth, before we altered course towards France. Later on we joined a flotilla of ships anchored about 2 miles off the French coast. Sometime in the early hours of the following day (D+1) we were joined by a small number of landing craft. As the first one tied up to us a rope ladder was thrown to its deck. The next thing was that a crane on our ship started to bring our vehicles from the hold. Guess who was first – ME! I was called to the head of the rope ladder where I was helped over the side on to the ladder and off when I reached the deck of the landing craft. Then I moved over to my 15cwt 4 vehicle where my kit bag and rifle were on the passenger seat, as it was when I left Tilbury. I was told to start the engine and keep it going while the loading was completed. We then started to move toward the beach which we were informed later was called Juno Beach.

We were about 30 yards from landing when we were informed by loud hailer (Beach Commander) to fully rev the engine and keep going. If we went into a shell hole they would pull us out. Luckily when the front opened up I was first out and there was no hole, thank goodness. It was the Canadian Army who invaded Juno Beach on D Day and as we were attached to them with our transport, carrying supplies, it was obvious that we would follow them in, our unit consisted of about 120 vehicles. Then off the beach to the road where there was one vehicle with a sergeant bending over behind it. He said ‘get out and take over’. Snipers were in the wood opposite and I could hear small arms fire which lasted about 20 – 30 minutes, after which the all clear was heard. I was then instructed to follow a staff car which had suddenly appeared and our small convoy, with a few stops and starts, arrived at the first village called Villiers Le Sec. Bayeux was about 5 miles further on. We settled on a piece of land about 100 yards square, with our neighbours being a church and a small farm. In the field next to us an ammunition dump was being prepared which didn’t please us at all. At last we were settled and on looking under the cover at the rear of my vehicle I found it was full of aircraft fuel in jerry cans. Thank goodness the snipers back near the beach hadn’t set that lot off!

In the early days of the invasion, we in the workshop and were more or less static with no lorries to attend to, so we put our efforts to other things. Our main thoughts were on the ammunition dump in the field next door, because it was in the hours of darkness that Jerry came, fortunately nothing happened but we could hear them quite regularly. To overcome this problem I dug a hole in the ground long enough for me to lie down, some of our fellow beings just got under some transport, I didn’t fancy that because of next door, if that had gone up they didn’t stand much chance. Anyway all was well.

During this period we observed American aircraft bombing the city of Caen. On the way back some of the aircraft were in trouble and we counted the number of crew that parachuted out. Not a very good exercise, later on we were on the move and passing through Caen it was just a pile of rubble, except for a church. Although it was partially damaged it was still standing.

As the front moved forward, so we were moving as well. It’s a bit vague where we got to, all I remember it was a village in the centre of 3 villages. As we arrived and stood outside our vehicles, a funeral was taking place, it appeared to be that of a young girl and what impressed me was the fact that following the hearse were about 20 to 30 females all dressed in white. We naturally thought it was something to do with the Jerries, but we were later told it was natural causes. It was from this village that we heard our trucks had broken down. The staff Sergeant had the map reference and he said for me to get my tool kit, we were going to see which the trouble was. On our way we came to an American food dump. The sergeant told me to stop and he got out and went amongst the large amount of boxes and he was reading out the contents asking me what I fancied, so he picked out 2 boxes and put them in my 15cwt lorry. Thank goodness there we no guards as I am sure they would have shot him. Anyway on to our map reference with him reading we came to a Y junction. The correct way was to take the right hand way, but instead he said to take the left. We had to slow down when we came upon infantry units who were actually crawling in the dry ditches. At this point a voice shouted ‘Hiya Vic’, I looked over to where it was coming from and it was Doug Davies who I went to school with.

We didn’t stop, but I realised what a small world it was. When we came to a T junction I was told to turn right. About ½ mile along the road a military Policeman stopped us and said ‘what are you doing, turn right here, the Jerry front line is in the woods. Doing what he said we suddenly came across our broken down truck but were told that a member of the gunnery squad which were attached had repaired the fault. A waste of time and bad map reading. The guns started firing into the woods so it was time for us to leave. What a Day!

The following day for some reason, I was sent to one of our units in one of the villages. Along the way a bullet just passed me, I could feel the draught and the twisting sensation of the bullet. As it was a hot day both my windows of the cab were open and that’s how it passed through. The first thing I did was to look where it had come from. On my left was a railway line with a wood behind, it was obvious that some Jerries were there so I put my foot down and safely got to my destination. I contacted the sergeant in charge and explained what had happened and asked how to get back as I didn’t fancy being shot at again. Luck was with me! The sergeant came to me about an hour after and said there was a train in the local station and as soon as it got level with me I started back. As I was going the same speed, the driver and fireman waved to me and I did the same to them, little did they know that the train was shielding me from the woods. The following day the sergeant who I spoke to came to the workshops and called me over with the news that on the previous day, after I left he went to an infantry unit which was quite near. When he told them what had happened, six personnel were sent to the entrance to the wood where they hid in the undergrowth. Their reasoning was that if it was Jerries, somebody was feeding them. Lo and behold, in the late afternoon four women from the village were observed going into the wood with little parcels, they were followed and the few Jerries were either shot or taken prisoner, we don’t know. The women were escorted back to the village and after a short while chairs were put in the centre of the street and the culprits were put in the chairs and had their hair shaved off. What I don’t understand is that this took place about 2 weeks after the invasion, plus the fact the Jerries were their own worst enemies by advertising their whereabouts.

After a while we were in a small town in Belgium. Workshops were placed in a disused gas plant, and we were placed in civvy billets. At the time we were there, the local people were afraid the Jerries would come, as about 15 miles away the Battle of the Bulge was taking place. Fortunately that never happened and everybody sighed with relief. We couldn’t do anything as we had no ammunition for our rifles. Going on guard with these rifles was just a ploy when the locals saw us. On walking through the living room one day in the billet, I noticed a piano with the lid open and sheet music open. Above the piano keys was a Sonata by Beethoven, I said to the lady (can’t remember her name) that I knew this music and for a while we discussed classical music which we both were interested in. When we eventually left, she gave me a present, it was the sheet music of Beethoven’s Sonata which I’d seen and treasured, and put it in my large kit bag. Following our stay in this area we then moved to a small town called Oss in Holland.

The workshops were installed in the grounds of the local football club which was quite handy for us to have a kick about. We were put into civvy billets, myself and a colleague were in the house of a Captain in the Dutch army, his wife and two children were there and he called in when he was in the area. It was from here that I had my first leave following D Day, me and a few others travelled to the Hook of Holland. We mixed with a few Canadians which was good as they were a very enjoyable bunch. It was January 1945 and the weather was not good and me being a bad sailor I was not too pleased about the crossing. When we boarded the ferry I decided that if possible I would stay on the deck. I planted myself next to the radio room. As we left the Hook I could hear the messages coming out of the radio and after about 20 minutes I heard ‘Message to all shipping. Mines have been planted in the channel so please be on the lookout’. Oh no, I wish hadn’t heard that so once again I was left wondering. However, we reached Harwich safely and boarded the train that 6 took us to Paddington. Crowds of people of all shapes and sizes were waiting to greet us, women were kissing us and men shaking our hands. It made me wish we could got back and the train and go over it all again. It was good to be home but I had to go back. For the crossing from Harwich I went for the ferry which was far better, it was calmer and I wasn’t sick. When I got back to the unit they were in the process of moving again. We finished up in the small village just inside Germany.

Our trucks were always on the move, doing what they were meant to do. Most evenings were spent either playing football or writing letters home. Nearly every evening we could see our bomber aircraft on the way to bomb one of the German targets. We wondered how many would return. One member of the cooking stall was Phil Pool from the fish and chip shop in the Lower High Street, Cheltenham, when I went in for fish and chips after the war he would always remark about the workshops unit and our mates of that time. Our next stop is a bit vague. I remember the area where we were, it was a disused farmhouse possibly near Hanover. Two units of our trucks were detailed to go to the Ruhr to take coal to Berlin. I went with a colleague with me driving the breakdown truck at the rear of the convoy. This took us 3 days. When we got back to the unit, two of our mates went with the trucks to Berlin in our place; luckily there were no breakdowns either way, and no war. I can’t remember anything of particular to mention during the next few months, when suddenly we were disbanded and workshop personnel were transferred to the Royal Army Ordinance Corps (RAOC), and posted to an area in Northern Germany, our only duties were guarding certain buildings, which was boring. Now the war was over and after being in this location for 2 or 3 weeks I was granted compassionate leave because of the health of my wife. The length of the leave kept being added to so I was posted eventually to a unit in Pittville, Cheltenham which suited me down to the ground. One of my tasks at Pittville was to drive the breakdown truck with an ambulance attached to the crane. I had to leave the depot in the morning and go to Broadway, up the Fish Hill, which was dodgy, and on to our main depot at Bicester, then home again about five o’clock. On other days with my bike I used to go home at lunch time and home again about tea time. Mornings started about 0800, I must say I was treated well, the Officer in charge being well aware of my situation. While at Pittville I requested my kit bag to be sent to my home address. When it arrived I found, on checking, that the sheet music which was given to me in Belgium was missing, everything else was OK. June 1946 I travelled to Woking in Surrey to be officially demobbed from the army and given two weeks pay and on the following Monday I went back to my job as a fitter on the Gas Board. On reflection it was good to be back, the past six years was just a memory. June 6th is a day which I shall always remember as it fell on that day in 1940 when I was called up, in 1944 it was D Day and in 1946 I was de-mobbed. In July 2019 I will be 100 years old and the happenings I’ve written about will always be in my mind. Six years, I can’t believe it. Back to civvy street. Hooray.

Shane Greer

Author: Shane Greer

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