The Wartime Memories of Edward Oates [RAOC / REME]

Lovely, so the date today is the 8th of December 2018. This is Matthew Smaldon for WarGen. I shall be speaking with. Mr. Edward John Oates at his home in Wendover. We should be discussing his experiences during the Second World War where he served with the 9th Army Field Workshop RAOC in Belgium and France 1940 and REME in Egypt and North Africa from 1942 to 1946. So to start could I ask when and where you were born, please?

Well, I was born in London. I don’t know exactly where but it was in London.

And can I ask when that was? 

Yes, this should be the 15th of April 1920. 

Thank you. 

So I’m old.

And could I just ask a little bit about your family, were your family from London? Did you grow up in London? 

No. No, my father was born in somewhere near Huddersfield I think it was, it’s neither and then he was in the RAF. Well, it wasnt the RAF then it was the RFC.

Yes

So thats how he came down to here Holton and my mother came from Wendover, cottages where they lived theyve been pull down now.

And where did you grow up?

Huddersfield… in Paddock Huddersfield?

And what did your father do for a job after after he left the Royal Flying Corps?

I dont know what he…. he’s a chauffeur for a chap called Joe Main in Huddersfield.

And where did you go to school. 

Royce Hall, Huddersfield?

And did you have any brothers or sisters? 

Yeah, I’ve got a brother and a sister.

Were they older or younger than you?

Younger.

And can I ask what age did you leave school?

I left.  I don’t know I left before I should I went into secondary school, but I left in the fifth form after a lot of people did it because…

So was that when you were 14 or were you…. 

Oh, yeah. Wouldnt let me go before.

And did you have a job did you go to work anywhere? 

I worked at Hopkinsons of Huddersfield they were makers of steam valves in steam traps and that sort of thing.

And what was your job there? 

I was a clerk. Orders

And this would have been in the mid 1930s then at that stage did you know anything about did you hear anything in the news about the war or what was happening?  I understand that you joined the territorials and why did you do that? 

I dont know why, everybody else did I think.

Were there quite a few people from your… your the factory. 

It was a big firm. Yes Hopkinsons of Huddersfield.

And… and everybody a lot of people joined the territorials together. Is that right? 

Maybe the unit.

And that was RAOC Territorial.

Sheffield unit… the headquarters thats where we mobilized.

And when when you were with the territorials did you did you have any training did you go on a weekend camps and things.

Didnt gon camps but we used to go down I forget… once or twice a week, I think.  Wasnt that long before the war started.

And do you remember hearing that war had been declared?

I can remember it vaguely yes. 

Did you hear it on the radio or….? 

Probably we did have a radio. Yeah.

And then when war was declared were you then called up? 

Yeah. Yeah we were called up to take all our stuff down to the drill hall.  Sleep on the hardwood floor. Then we went to Sheffield.

And what happens when you went to Sheffield?

Nothing much.  We had a few parties and things like that. 

And were you then waiting to be….

And then after that we just moved… I forget where we went and we were various places. Then got on a ship and over to France. 

And when you went over to France, did you go from Southampton? 

Yes. 

And was that over to was it to Le Havre? 

Yeah.

And what happens when you arrived there? 

Actually I think the place we went to was called Vaqueville (sp)

And what were you doing when you got there?

I was a clerrk. 

So you were a clerk with the RAOC as well. You were a clerk with the RAOC. 

Yeah.

And and when you when you went over to France and and then did you go then on to into Belgium is that…

Yeah sure into Belgium. 

And was there any activity or are you mostly training and digging… digging trenches and things like that? 

We werent doing anything! I don’t know what we did really.

Yeah, I think I got up to Sergeant before we moved out of France.

And could you tell me I mean there was obviously a period where there was not much that activity and you were waiting but then obviously the Germans advanced into Belgium and then into France and what happened to you when that started… 

When the Germans started. I don’t know what…. everybody was on tender hooks I suppose but we were messing about a bit and then I know it was one dark night we just marched and marched I didnt know where we went.  We finished up on the coast.

And did you have any vehicles with you or had they all been…

Well, yeah. Well, yeah we had lots… we were the Army Field Workshop… lots of vehicles dunno what happened to them all.

Did you have to did you have to dispose of the vehicles? Did you have to damage them all because you had to leave them behind? 

Yeah I had to knock the cylinder box out of them… things like that puncture the tires, make them unserviceable is the word.

And do you remember where… which area you were… did you go to to Dunkirk itself or were you going into Le Pan? 

Le Pan was one of them? I think we were there for a bit and then then we went into… we’d got towards Dunkirk and eventually we kept trying to get some of these stranded ships off the sand but we didn’t do it and eventually we got on the boat on the quay and I remember having a jolly gorgeous meal…

Did you remember what you had?

It was the boat rations the captain said help yourselves.  I got meself underneath a nice big girder in one of the holds with a tin of plum…. no peaches. I werent that fond of peaches, but it was, you know, glad of them!

Can I ask because I understand you were on the beaches and then you went down to Dunkirk. When you were on the beaches. Can I ask what that was like? Were you under fire and were there lots of other men there… 

We werent under fire exactly but we’re under attack. 

And if the Germans came over and were German planes came over, what would you do? What could you do? 

Nothing much.  Just move about out of the way.  There were a few but very very few RAF planes there.  I know we were worried because we didn’t see any of them and we thought we had been left.

And were you still with other men from your group. 

Yeah.

Had you had many casualties had you lost anyone? 

Not through the war and what I think we lost about three people.  It wasnt through actual fighting.  Casualties.

And how long were you on the beach? 

I can’t remember.  About a week… a fortnight something like that. 

Did you did you sleep in any of the buildings along the beach? 

No kept out actually on the sand.  Digging in a trench and everything if you see.

And when the boats were coming in and taking people off the beach. Did you have to join a long queue? 

We joined queues but we didn’t get off for a long while and then when we did eventually get of we got off one of the quays. 

So you went down the beach. 

Yeah.

All the way down to Dunkirk. 

Yes.

And then so the quay at Dunkirk you had the boats which were coming in but obviously… 

This Russian boat came in and he said help yourselves. I’m not ready. So that’s what I did.  And I went to sleep and when I woke up in we were the middle of the ocean.

Do you remember which boat you were taken home on… was it a large was it a Royal Navy ship.

No it wasnt the Navy. It was a civilian boat. … they say it was used to take the Russians over with.

So it was a small…

Course when he got there he didnt unload..

Were there many where there many other soldiers on that ship out….

Thousands of them… 

And on the boat that you were on…. 

I dont know I went got myself under anice girder and went to sleep when I woke up we were in the middle of the ocean see.

Where did you land? Where were you brought back? 

I think it was Folkestone. And there’s a lot of women there with sandwiches and cakes and cigarettes and oh we had a fine time.

And when you were on the beach did you ever wonder… did you ever think we’re not going to get out. 

No… I don’t think so. Too busy looking after ourselves scrounging food and that. 

How did you I mean, where did you get food from? 

Wherever we could.  We…. the town was pretty deserted. You know, there were things there. So I don’t know how we got, you know, I was only a little Sergeant so….

Did you have many men that you were in charge of who were with you? 

I suppose I was in charge of them but we were all in the same boat.

Did you receive any… any wounds or anything when you were at Dunkirk or were you uninjured? 

No, no, I didn’t.  Touch wood.

Because there were a lot of casualties who were being carried onto boats and things like that.

Yeah there were casualties. 

Did you ever… did you have to help any casualties? 

We had to carry stretchers and when we got on the boat that we came back on and the first thing we had to do is to take a lot of stretchers to the hospital boat and then take them to the boat put them down… come off and get on the boat and come home.

So you were taking casualties in Dunkirk on the long pier? 

Yeah.

Was it was it damaged at that time? 

Oh, yes there was a time you had to put the stretcher down push it over a shell hole, where the shell had gone through somewhere and then go around and pull it.

Goodness!

Memories have faded a bit, you know.

And when you came back you you said you landed at Folkestone. Were you then put on a train and sent…? 

Yes, we got on a train and I can remember getting that and I can remember getting 2 pounds. We all got two pounds.

Did you fill in a card or anything to tell your family that you were back? 

Yes, there’s a lot of women with Telecom forms and postcards and all that.  As well as food and cigarettes and everything else.

And where did the train take you?

I don’t know I finished up finished up in Sheffield I think.  I never thought to think I was just glad to get back in England. 

Yep. So what… so what happened after you returned? Did your unit reform or were you… 

Well something happened? Yeah. We were all reformed with I think wasnt made the same as before it was an Army Field Workshop but they did away with them… too big.

Can I just ask the the Field Workshop that you were with when you were in France? Were you responsible for mending and maintenance of vehicles and things like that? 

Oh, yes.

Tanks. Carriers…. Lorries.  Everything.

So you had the entire workshop with you in Lorries yourself then so there’s a lot of …

Yes Yes all six wheeled Leylands we had then.  Mine was the office lorry. All fitted out in the back with desks and cupboards and all that.

And that…. all had to obviously be left in France when you when you came back everything. Yeah, 

I don’t know about that stuff… I didnt care.

No, and and so you when you were back in England and then the unit reformed was it that point that you were transferred to REME? 

REME was formed then wasnt it yeah.  We were an Ordnance Army Field Workshop.  9th Army Field Workshop.

And then I think that looking at the photo there you were in East Grinstead or…

Yes East Grinstead was where we were I think yes, we forget where we went from there.  Over to France I think… 

I think it may have been after that that you perhaps did you go on a troopship? And is that when you went to to the Middle East to North Africa.

That was after everything was more or less lost.

And so when you did go overseas again, did you travel on a troopship to South Africa?

It was an American ship? 

Oh.

And I was a warrant officer and American troops Warrant Officers are apparently their counted as officers. So we dined with the officers and we had very good food and it was a beautiful journey.

And did you go down around Freetown and then…. 

All the way down around Africa.

Did you stop at Durban?

Yes.

Did you did you go on shore then? Did you did you see anything of the time.

I dont think we went onshore at least not for long anyway.  I mean things were hotting up by then.

And then did you end up in going up the Suez Canal and landing? 

I don’t know…. we went up to Suez.  And and we werent far from Cairo…. so we used to have weekends and time off on the weekends and go into Cairo.

That’s where that pot came from wherever it is.

When you were in… when you landed in and ended up in North Africa… did your unit participate in any of the battles I mean were you supporting tanks and troops who were involved in El Alamein?

We were repairing them.  Hadnt really started then had it….1942 that’d been… 

Yes, so that’s when you got to North Africa 1942.

Then we went all the way out into the desert.

Did you.

Yeah.

To Tunis.

And your workshop was responsible for repairing vehicles and tanks and things like that.

Armoured vehicles yes… by memory. Tanks.

And did you… were those brought into your workshop or did you have to go and recover them yourself… 

Both…. I didn’t I was a clerk but yeah, some we used to fetch and some brought in?

What sort of tanks did you have to work on?

Matilda’s… Centurions…. and those little Whippet tank things…

Did you ever have to work on Sherman the Sherman tank?

Yes the Sherman tanks yes… Americans.

Are these tanks that had broken down or were they ones which were battle damaged? 

Both.  As we went up the desert because we got more battle damaged.

Did your unit ever come under fire where you went? Were you affected by German bombing or shelling…. 

Be careful at night because we used to get bombed if we showed too many lights. And then there’s those dreadful little stick things that they had… the Germans used to plant him.  When… when they left the place and this big stick thingand if you knocked it… it went off.

So that was that was a type of mine. 

Yes. Yes.

And what were the conditions like in the desert?

Oh it was nice, sunshine?

How did you do for food though? Things like that?

Food? Yeah, we got food. We had cooks.

Did you ever get ill I know quite a few people got ill when they were…. 

Delhi belly… yes.  I had that and I was working… I was working from my bed in the tent.

Did you go to hospital or were you was that when you were still at the workshop?

Stayed at the workshop?

Did you ever get malaria or did anybody?

No, only I thing I got was this dehli belly thing.

And were you ever troubled with things like scorpions?

I saw some scorpions but wasn’t troubled with them. They kept away… all these things did if they could.

And did you ever have any dealings with Arabs at all?  Did you ever see anybody…? 

Eggs and bread… yeah. 

Oh really…

They used to come around with eggs and bread.  Three akars…

So they just they would just appear with things to barter… 

So when we were working we had a few Arabs about and there’s an Arab who’s boss of all the workers so we used to deal with him… cigarette every morning, you know.  

And were you also working on lorries and other vehicles as well? 

Anything yeah…

Yeah anything and everything. 

Yeah.

How many people were there in the workshop altogether… 

Oh it was a big thing? It was several hundred. 

Wow. 

Yeah.

And I assume you must have been working 24 hours sometimes if there were lots of things going on.

Well, I didn’t… 

No I was thinking more the people in the workshop if things are being repaired.

If they needed some things… tanks… some of them say get it done I want it in 24 hours because we’ve got to push on or something.

And where were you where were you living? Were you in tents? 

Yeah.

And your working area did you have an office in the back of a lorry?

Yeah.

Yeah picture there…

I will just have a look at the photos…

I think that it started out in Egypt very nearly.

So there’s a…. there’s a photograph there. 

That’s the back of the lorry. 

Yeah.

Thats Bri, he was a storeman, he used to come down for his tea.

So did you have a motorbike to get around  on or was that somebody elses?  That was yours. 

There was motorbikes there… if there’s a spare one you took it.  There was no-one else no dispatch riders to go about you see.

I see the office Lorry entrance. 

Yeah, and is that you sat there? 

Probably.

That’s nice to see you. And that’s Joshua. I think that might be lets me in it.

Yeah.

That’s October 1942 as well. 

The first thing I did when I got to Egypt to buy a little camera.  I dont know what’s happened to it now? It’s gone. 

Now just looking at one of the other photos here orderly room and signals truck staff with loot in a safe lane in a minefield near Xerte. Yes a photograph of them all with Italian helmets on. 

That’s right. Yeah. Loot.  We didnt come across very many free live Italians… they disappeared.

Was it was it mostly the Italians rather than the Germans that you encountered? 

Mainly Italians really didnt see many Germans.  Didn’t want to because they were far more efficient than the Italians.

And so as you said you you went all the way up through the desert up to Tripoli that you said. 

Yeah. Well past Tripoli.  And then we’re back to Tripoli and we got orders deopt over there.

I think he was an Italian. There is this colony and they they had this as a storeroom for the colonists if they wanted to land there.

And was that then where you were based did you stay there? 

Yeah for a while. Yeah.

And that that job then was working. It was it was it working as a clerk with in the stores for the unit of work? 

I was chief clerk there. They weren’t always there then.

And what sort of things were you what could you explain what sort of things you were responsible for as being chief clerk? 

All sorts of… pay for a start… discipline.  All that sort of stuff.  Anything that happened to come down?

Did you ever have any problems with discipline?

Not really.  When you were a warrant officer you didnt have disciplinary problems.

And how often did you hear from home? Did you get letters? 

Yes all we got regular letters.  If you look at you see on those lorries there’s a post box at the back of the lorry and peoplecould all put the letters in there and the cards and that.

And did you have to censor them. Did you have to approve them or is that done by one of the officers. 

No warrrant officers did it as well.  Everybody knew what to put there very rarely would you have to cross anything out?

If you did have to cross something out what sort of thing would it be… 

Well troop movements and that sort of thing.  

Anything which was identifying places…

Yeah anything that would give the enemy something to go on. So we managed.

And so you were you were still in North Africa, when a lot of the a lot of people went over to Sicily didn’t they in and went over to to Italy but you stayed… 

North Africa.  We were at the base really in Tripoli for all the North Africa stuff?

So so you were responsible for maintenance of any vehicles which were still within the area within the Tripoli area and…

Well not in the end no…. we were in a Depot but we just held the stores and that’s whats there. 

And when you were in Tripoli then, were you billetted or did you have your own room in a house? 

We had the store place… there Tripoli was there because the Italians apparently…. people went there and started to work there in this big store place was where they gave her a plow and a shovel and all that and then let him loose and that’s what we got.  We had a few Italians there who used to have to go up to the roof every morning and pump up the water.

How did you get on with the Italians there? Were they happy for you to be their?

Yeah they didnt mind.  That’s where I learnt to speak a bit of Italian. 

Oh right. Can you remember any? 

Yeah, some.

And you managed to travel around a little bit. I mean, I presume you had some leave and things did you go to other places? 

Yes, every time we used to go into Tripoli.  You knew the town itself and I had some friends there. They were Italian. Well sort of English/Italian.

Was that a family that you met? 

Yeah theres pictures of them in there somewhere.

 I did see a photograph of a family. 

Yeah.

There’s the Benjamins Benjamins. 

That’s the ones yeah.

They are mostly of Jewish persuasion. So, you know they didnt mind us… we weren’t supposed to mix with the Italians. But with those we could… thats why we used to go there for tea and all sorts….

So the Moses Benjamin’s 57 Bia Lazio, Tripoli. So I see yes a son and two daughters and so the depot was 2 sub-depot is that correct.

2 sub-depot yes.

And that’s the way you were in Tripoli.  Oh, yes, I see here is the photograph of your room with your bed in the Ordnance Depot which we shared the room was shared with with Barker… 

Barker. Yeah he was another Yorkshireman.  Herbert Barker.

And then this photographs here of Leptis Magna near Hommes.

They were ancient Roman cities. 

Yes. Wow.

Ruins. 

Yeah.

And can I ask this photos here of somebody called Noggin?

Noggin Lightfoot yeah. 

Who was that?

Eric Lightfoot yeah, well he worked with me in civvy street.  He was in Hopkinsons store room.

Did you stay together all the way through then or did you… 

Not… not all of it. No, mostly in that unit was what we were formative what was left of Dunkirk stuff.  He was one of them there was a rare one or two.

And there’s another photograph of you from April 1944 which says in the grounds the prisoner of war compound.

Yeah they worked, had a few prisoner sof war in their compound.

And they were Italians… Italian prisoners I think. 

Yes…. some German I think.

And then there’s you with with Blackie. 

Blackie. 

This looks like the dog Blackie the dog.

The dog. Yeah, is he pet? 

Yeah for everybody.  Oh, yes. Yeah, that is a pup and we had people there who would knew about dogs and one of them Doctor Tail.

And when you were travelling in the desert, did you always travel at night or did you travel during the day?

Yeah travelled during the day….didn’t do a lot of night travelling.

And during the day…. 

Plenty desert. You know… you could stop anywhere.

Did you have to watch out for German aircraft? 

Oh, yeah, didn’t watch out for him they came… 

Did you ever have that were you ever attacked by German aircraft when you were traveling?

Well a few bombs dropped whether they dropped them because they didn’t want to take them back or what? I don’t know…  we got a few not many…. didnt worry us.

But you weren’t you weren’t straffed or anything.

They were too busy defending themselves. I think.

And I see here this photograph of the Roll Call of Native laborers each has a disc for the identification number. So these are the chaps who were the Arabs who were working for you? 

Yeah. Yeah they had the thing on the wrist.  If they didnt do that they didnt get paid.

And so you were in Tripoli when the war ended? Is that right?

No… where was I when the war ended? I dont know. I think I was back in England when the war ended.  The Middle East war ended and we just came back? Then it ended before we were sent anywhere else.

And when were you de-mobbed?

When was I de-mobbed? Oh.  I can’t remember. 

Was it 1946.

About yes, will be. Yeah, it sounds it sounds familiar.

Well, thank you very much for having for letting me have a look at the photographs. So we’ll take some copies if that’s okay. 

Not many people who wants to look at them now. 

Oh, no their fascinating though. They’re there. I mean the fact that you captioned them as well and you’ve got the you’ve written down who they are where they’re taken is marvelous because so many photographs don’t have that and no I mean they’re they’re fascinating. So thank you for letting me see them. 

Could I could I just ask a couple of questions just about when you were in France and Belgium, I forgot to ask when you were pulling back to the beaches were you with your unit or did you did you get split up at all?

It started off of with the unit.  I was a Corporal… or Sergeant I think and yeah, I carried a rum jar for a while.  And then I filled my water bottle with rum and through the jar away. It’s too heavy.  And at night time when we were walking up this road over where it was. We finished up on the beach.

And did the rum come in handy?

Yeah. Yeah. I was I was a rum dealer you know, all the lads used to come up for it.

And did your officer know where you were going? Did he did you don’t like it? 

No, I was just a sergeant officers were far above me then.  I don’t suppose they knew.

I’ve seen photographs of of the beach of Dunkirk and there was a seems to be a lot of smoke coming up was is that do you remember that? We’re there with their fires? 

I don’t know what it was but yes there was smoke there.  I don’t know what it was we never went into the town. We were on the beach the open we should get some sailor boys to come and take us of you know.  They didn’t… eventually with the concerted efforts two or three ships pulled onto the mole and we got on that. Yeah.

And did I mean… was it on the beach was it organized and was it? 

Well, I don’t know. I’m only a Corporal then or a sergeant… sergeant perhaps.

But there was was there a feeling of everybody was patiently waiting or were there’s 

We were all milling about.  We could do anything about it could we.

No.

But you got off. 

Yeah we got off. 

Yeah. 

I don’t remember getting on this boat and remember getting meself underneath he door next to it, this girder and it was full of rations out of AC and I go and then I go to the beaches.    And then we got to England. Then there was all these ladies with sandwiches and cakes and  Oh, that’s her see very nice.

Have you seen have you seen the film that came out recently about about Dunkirk.

I did see one yes. Yes. We went up to London. I think to see it didnt we.

What did you think of it? 

I don’t know. Yeah, it didn’t mean much to me… I’d already seen it.

Yeah.

Yeah it was alright.  Memories fade, you know? 

Yeah, but it was over 70 years ago. 

Is it … s’pose it was yeah. 

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Im that old!

Well, thank you very much for your time. It’s been very nice to speak with you. And I think we’ll leave it there. So thank you very much been very interesting thankyou.

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