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31st Field Bakery, Royal Army Service Corps
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Those known to have served with
31st Field Bakery, Royal Army Service Corps
during the Second World War 1939-1945.
- Dukes John. Cpl.
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Cpl. John Dukes Royal Army Service CorpsThis is my dad's story of his time in the RASC, taken from a diary he kept.
15th of April 1941
I have just come home from work having been on night work as a baker. My dear wife greeted me with a kiss, and then gave me a letter, on the top was "O.H.M.S." and inside was just one page in very nice words:
'Dear Sir, In accordance with the National Service (Armed Forces) Act; you are called on for service in the Territorial Army And you are required to present yourself on Thursday 25'" April 1941,0900 hrs -12 noon at the Royal Army Service Corps at Warwick; Reg.; I. T. C. Warwick. Travel warrant is enclosed. A postal Order for 4/- in advance for service pay is also enclosed Yours etc.'
A week went by and I had said good-by to Mother, Dad and family, but on Thursday 24th April I had to say good-by to my wife, Ivy and to my three kiddies; Jack, Christine and Brian. It was very hard and I was scared stiff for I thought I might not be coming back. I went to the station and caught the train. Two more lads got in the same camage as I did and they were both going to Warwick to join the R.A.S.C. as bakers.
When we anived at Warwick station a L/Cpl was waiting for us. He took us outside the station onto the road. There were about twelve of us and he told us to get into threes. He then marched us up to the barracks. What a Shambles it was: not one of us in step. We could see people laughing at us.
We reached Budbrook Barracks and were taken into a barrack room. L/Cpl Green told us to stand by one of the beds. After about 15 minutes a Sgt. came in and said, "Right men! Gather round. I am Sgt Harvey and I am going to train you for the next month. You do as I tell you and we will get on well together. Don't let me down!" After that we drew our kit and were given our Army number. I am S/9265637. The next day we were told we had to go and see the doctor and have the needle for TB.
Monday moming came and at 7.00am L/Cpl Green came in and shouted at us to get up and get washed and shaved for breakfast at 8.00am. We had porridge, sausage, bacon, one slice of bread and a mug of tea. One month went by and it had been very hard foot slogging and rifle drill. On the Monday morning we were told to parade on the parade ground to be ready for the Passing-out Parade. We came out of that very well. Our Sgt was very pleased with us. After dinner, Maurice Hides, also from Sheffield, and I went for a walk into Warwick for a pint or two of beer. The next morning we had to parade in our own section. Ours was 'B' section. The captain told us that some were to draw winter kit and others summer kit for the Far East. We were the ones who had to draw summer kit I then had a 48hr pass to go home.
How nice it was to see my wife, Ivy and the kiddies. How good it was to have some good food, and not have an officer come round and ask if there were any complaints. My 48hrs went very quickly, I had to say my good-byes over again and catch the train back to Warwick.
After our month's training we left Warwick and went down to Tidworth in Wiltshire. It is a base supply depot. It is also a garrison town for married soldiers, officers and military police. We had to salute an officer every time we passed one or we would be put on a charge. The next day we were taken to the bakery to meet the C.Q.M.S. master baker, Mr Brown. He said 'You are now going to show me how you can mix dough.' We stood in front of a trough with 20 stones of flour in it. He then said, 'Right! Put your salt and water in and get mixing. It wasn't too bad for me as I had mixed by hand in Civvy Street. Some of the lads had only mixed by machine and they found it very hard. Mr Brown came looking at us. When he came up to me he said, 'Right, Pte Dukes, that's good. Let me see you mould a cob.' I did that all right and then Mr Brown told me that I had passed my third class. Some of the lads were about a week before they passed. Our time was then spent in doing work in the bakehouse.
After about a month we were split up into field bakeries. I was put in the 31st Field Bakery. I knew then that I was going to be moved. The next day we got into Army lorries and we were on our way to Bourn in Cambridgeshire. This turned to be a very nice little country village. It was clean. The bakery was in the grounds of Bourn Hall. We were split into four sections. I was in No. 3 section that had a Sgt, Cpl, l/Cpl, and 8 men. We were taken to our billet, a nice little cottage. We had to sleep on the floor. The only lights were candles and there was no fire, only one paraffin stove. We had three mobile ovens and each one had two decks and was coke fired. We worked in a large Nissan hut, which had three troughs on each side and a large table in the middle. Three of us would mix two doughs of 20 stones each, by hand. When it was ready it would be cut out, put onto the table, weighed into 2lb pieces, moulded into cobs and put six on a tray to rise. When it had risen the oven man would put it into the oven.
Week one we would do night work. Week two, we stacked the flour after delivery, cleaned the camp and did guard duty. Week three was day work in the bakery. At night, Tich Hides, Freddie Hamer and I would go down to the canteen for a game of bingo or table-tennis. We would have a cup of tea and an apple pie for 3d (three old pence). Sometimes, we would go to the pub for a pint or two. Sometimes on a Saturday, Fred and I would get a day pass and go into Cambridge. One Saturday a Red Cap stopped us and asked for our passes. We gave them to him and he asked where we were from. When we told him that was the 31st Field Bakery at Bourn, he said, 'Its you who makes that rotten bread!" So I said, 'Yes, for rotten buggers like you." He just laughed and took the joke.
One day our Sgt came to the cottage and told us we had to move out as an officer was moving in. We were put in a farmhouse with a stone floor and no windows. The smell was terrible and the farmer had about 200 pigs. One day, two of the lads got hold of a piglet, tied its feet together and put it into a soldier's bed. He gave such a yell when he got into bed in the dark. Two of the lads used to do little jobs for the farmer and we used to see them going to the post office with big parcels. We found out that it was lumps of pork they were sending home. The farmer did not know.
The 83rd Field Mobile Bakery. I'm on the 2nd row up 4th from the right.
We are on the move again, and this time into Monmouthshire. We are at a small village called Bedews, right at that top of a high hill in Rupera Castle. The lad in the next bed is called Len Andrews. We had nothing to do one day so we went for a walk into Caerphilly, which is about a mile away. It is very boring here in Rupera Castle just doing guard duty and waiting to be put into Field Bakeries. The day came when we were told that we are going to be made into the 83rd Field Mobile Bakery. Yesterday, we were called out to meet our new Captain Bidwell and the C.Q.M.S., Mr B Prior.
Today we are off on the road to Louth in Lincolnshire. When we got there we stopped outside a school which had been taken over as a billet for us. Inside there were four rooms. One small room for the Sgt's Mess, a large room for our mess and two other rooms, each with six double bunk beds. Len and I took over our bed and I told him that he was on top as he was younger than I was.
It was two days before the machinery came. This consisted of 3 double deck ovens, one 20 stone mixer, one dough divider and six troughs. All of them are on trailers. They were taken up the road into a field. We had to put up the tents and a big marquee ready to start work the next day. The orders went up after tea to tell our starting times, Len and I were down to start at 8.00pm on dough mixing. LICpl Brown and four other lads came in at 10.00pm when the dough's were ready. Len and I feed the dough into the divider and it comes out in 2lb pieces. It is then moulded and goes down a chute to two lads below who put six onto a tray and then put them on a rack. When it is risen, L/ Cpl Brown takes the rack to the oven to bake the bread. He has a lad to help him. When it is baked it is taken into a tent ready to be loaded onto trucks to be distributed to other units, including the RAF at Manby. When we are finished dough mixing we go back to the billet and wake up the 4.00am mixers for their day shift. We are baking about 30,000lbs of bread a day
Last night, Len and I were on guard duty at the bakery from 6.00pm until 10.00pm. At about 8.00pm we fancied a cuppa but we had no hot water. I went across to one of the cottages and asked the little old lady if she would boil some water for us to make a cup of tea. She asked me in while it was boiling. I only had a bucket because we got water from the tank in which we boiled the water for the dough. She lent me a teapot and asked me to bring it back in the morning. I was off this morning so I took the teapot back and thanked the lady. She invited me in for a cup of coffee and a bun. I went in and sat down by the fire and stayed for about an hour. When I said that I had better go and write a letter home she said that any time I wanted to write in comfort I could go to her house. I will take her up on that! She is about 80yrs old and her name is Mrs Elizabeth Baker - the very same name as my Mother's maiden name. I did meet her daughter who was about 60yrs old. She was Mrs Nellie Reid, whose husband had been killed in the First World War.
When we are not baking we have odd jobs to do around the bakery or we do rifle drill. Sometimes, if the Staff-Sgt "Piggy" Patterson is not in a good mood he takes us out on four mile Route March. Our section Sgt is Bill Kennedy. He is OK as he doesn't bother us much. Occasionally, one of the Sgts gets a dance together at Louth Town Hall. He usually asks Len and me to take the money at the door. Some of our lads get in free! There are lads From other units and from the RAF. We get our beer money out of it.
A few mornings ago, Capt. Mason told us that he had been given orders for us to go into a field and build a jungle bakery just in case we get sent to the Far East. We went up to the field and fixed up some camouflage netting. The Cpl fitter cut an oil drum down the middle to make two mixing troughs. He then laid two drums on their sides so that we could use them for ovens. One of the lads made the scales out of wood and I made the knife out of the fin of a small bomb. I bound one end with string and sharpened the other. We had to make the yeast ourselves by boiling potatoes with the skins on and putting in a bottle of stout and leaving it overnight to ferment. Two lads made the dough and two of us lit the fires in the ovens. When the dough was ready it was taken out, put onto the table, cut into 2lb pieces and mould into cobs. When they had risen we raked the burnt wood out of the oven and put the bread on top of the ashes in the ovens. The drum lid was sealed on with clay for about an hour. Capt. Mason came and said it was very good. Since then we call him Jungle Jim.
Dad and his life long pal Len Andrews.
Yesterday afternoon, we were back in our own bakery and I was on my knees washing the trailer floor after we had finished baking when Sgt Stratton came to me. He said, "Go and get changed. The Captain wants to see you in his office.' I asked, 'What have I done wrong?" He replied, "I don't know." I went back to the billet and put on my best battle dress and went with Sgt Stratton to the office. He marched me in and I stood to attention in front of Capt. Mason. He told me to stand easy and then said that I had been recommended by Sgt Stratton to be made up to L/Cpl if I would accept it. "Yes sir!" He then sent me to the stores to draw some tapes to sew on. I was worried at first as to how the lads would take it but they seem to have taken it in good part and we are getting on all right.
When I got my L/Cpl tape I had to do Cpl duties if I wasn't down on orders to work in the bakery. I had to get the lads up for breakfast. After that I would march them up to the bake house to do odd jobs. I had to go to Louth Post Office and collect any mail for our unit. I then had to take it to the office, the billet and the bakehouse. I had to return to the billet to make sure that the lads I had left there had cleaned it up ready for inspection by the Orderly Officer or the Staff Sgt. Nothing to do then until after tea when I would book out the lads who were going out. I then dispatched the lads on guard to the bakehouse and I could then enjoy myself playing cards or table tennis. I had to stay up and book the lads in. They had to be in by 2400hrs or they were put on a charge. I booked them in myself because I knew that they would not let me down. The only problem was if the Orderly Officer came round.
On Thursday morning I got the lads outside the billet and marched them down to the baths for a shower. Just imagine! Twenty lads under six showers all at once. What a shout went up if anyone dropped his soap! The swimming baths were in the open air and I sometimes went for a swim. The water was just like spring - very cold. Not many of the lads could swim. I taught Len to swim. He picked it up quickly. At 1500hrs it was pay parade. It went like this: Name called, march into the office, stand to attention, salute the Capt., draw your pay, sign for it, salute, about turn, march out.
One day Len borrowed a bike. Capt. Mason's bike was outside the billet and as I thought that he was away for the day I borrowed it. We had a nice ride to Grimsby about 20 miles away. When we got back one of the Cpls. said, "Capt. Mason was asking for you as he wanted his bike." I said, "Oh dear!" I had to take it up to the pub where he was staying. When I saw him, he said, "Are you sure you have finished with it?" I immediately said, "Yes sir! Thank you." By the look on his face I reckon he thought that I was a cheeky devil.
We had some good times at Louth. There was a Cpl in our room called Alan Wright who worked in the office. At night, after lights out, he would lie reading his Bible by candlelight. Many a time we would spit on the candlewick and he would spend ages trying to light it. One night, I woke up and thought I could hear rain on the windows. When I had turned my head I could see that it was the lad in the bunk at the end of the room. He had been out on the booze and was having a pee in the wellies of his bunkmate above.
One night we were working in the bakehouse when the L/Cpl on the dough mixer said that he had dropped the thermometer into the mixer and it had broken. We were wondering what to do when one of the lads suggested the well at the back of the billet. We thought that was a good idea. Snakey Phillips went and fetched the handcart on which we carried our rations. We put the 20 stones of dough on it and, at four o'clock in the morning four of the lads pushed it away and dropped the dough down the well. They covered it with rubbish to hide it. Two days later one of the lads went round to have a look and he said that it was nearly at the top of the well.
One night, Cpl Bill Petty and I were on night shift at the bakery. At about 0300hrs we had our break and went into the store tent where the bread is kept ready to be sent to other units. I got down onto one of the racks for a sleep. It was a very bad thing to do because when I woke up I felt really ill with the steam from the bread. The next morning I had to report sick and I finished up in the hospital at Louth for a week.
About two weeks later, I was made up to Cpl and Len was made up to L/Cpl. He managed to get a job in the office for a while and I only saw him at nights. He used to get to know all the news from the office. One night he told me that a Cpl was going to be posted to another unit. Since my name was the first on the list, I would be the one to go. The next morning I reported sick. I said that I had boil on my scrotum and that I could not walk with it. I was not posted because I was sick. Good old Len! In a couple of days it was better!
I was sent to Leeds on a swimming course. Capt. Mason said it would be a good thing if I could come back and teach the lads to swim. When I got there I reported to a big house with twelve other Cpls. We were told to settle down until Monday morning. On Monday morning we were marched to the swimming baths. Once inside we were told to undress and stand on the side of the bath in the nude. The Staff Sgt came and told us to dive in and swim to the other end of the pool. I think this was to make sure that we could swim all right. Buster Crabbe was a good Staff Sgt but very tough. One day he made us swim fifteen lengths in full battle dress and with kit. We were told not to touch the bottom with our feet. Another day, Staff Sgt Crabbe took us to the river in Leeds. It was snowing when he told us to strip off and wrap all our clothes into our ground sheet and gas cape so that they would float. When we had done that we had to get into the water and swim across with our rifles slung round our necks. It was bitter cold and it was a good thing that we were wearing our swimming costumes. One day we had to get to the top diving board, twenty feet high, and then swing on a rope across the bath. Half way over we had to leave go and catch onto a net. Some just fell in. I was lucky: I managed to grab the net. After two weeks of this hard training, the course finished on Friday night. The Staff Sgt told us that we could leave on Saturday morning and call home if we wished, as we were not due back to our unit until Sunday night.
I caught a train to Sheffield and surprised my wife, Ivy when I walked into the house. I spent the day with her and my three children, Jack, Christine, and Brian after they had searched my kit bag to see if there was any chocolate. How nice it was to have some good food cooked well. Sunday morning and the trip back to Louth came all too quickly. It was a good-bye kiss for my wife and kiddies. It is hard to hold the tears when I leave them. When I got back to Louth I reported to the Sgt Major. He said 'What have you come back for? You could have stayed a couple of days, no-one would have known." I said, "Can I go back then, Sir?" He said, "get lost!"
It's back at Louth now doing Orderly Cpl and working in the bakehouse. Capt. Mason told us one day on parade that he had been talking to one of the officers of 119 F.M. Bakery that they were due to go to France. They did not want to go and wondered if we would like to volunteer to go in their place. The Capt. said that he had heard a whisper that we might be going to the Far East but the Capt. of 119 F.M.B. did not know that. All but four of us agreed to the swap.
One afternoon Len had gone out and I was Orderly Cpl. I thought that I would take a chance and go out myself. I caught a train to Grimsby and went to see my Uncle Harry Dukes. We went to the pub and had just had a couple of pints when the air raid sirens went. I thought, "Here I am 20 miles from where I should be on Fire Duty and my train does not leave until ten o'clock. If the Orderly Oficer goes to the billet I am in real trouble." I told Uncle Harry the mess I was in and he offered to lend me his bike. I agreed to take it back at the weekend and set off to pedal like mad for Louth. I was about five miles away when the all clear sounded. When I got into the billet the L/Cpl said that he had covered for me and the Orderly Officer did not come.
The next morning I found out that I would not be able to take the bike back. Len and I were down on Orders to go south with the advance party. We had to pack all our kit and be ready to move the next morning. We went to the station at ten o'clock in the morning and caught a train, wondering where we were going. We anived in London and got onto a tube train. We could not see out of the windows as they were blacked out. When the train stopped, a lorry had backed right up so that we could get straight on to it. We set off and still we did not know where we were going.
We pulled up in a small town and had a boring time because there was nothing to do but wait for the rest of our unit. We could not go out or even write letters home. When the other lads came, the Capt. told us that we were now 119 Field Mobile Bakery (not 83rd). This meant that we were going to France.
Two days later, 26 July 1944, we were told to get ready to move out. We went under cover by lorry to the docks at Newhaven. We were all lined up ready to board and load the troop carrying ship with tanks, lorries, ammo and food. We were told that our ovens and trailers would be coming on another ship. Very soon we were on the deck watching England going away from us. "Good-bye England. I wonder when we shall see you again." We are now with the 21st Army Group, British Liberation Army.
France - 24th September 1944
This is the first time that I have really had the chance to write about my family in France, 47 days after D-Day. The Day that will go down in history as the beginning of the Liberation of France from the grasp of those inhuman Fiends, the Nazis, who, if they had got across the channel to England would have crushed it like an egg in a vice. There was the time when the British Amy made a retreat from Dunkirk and they cold bloodedly bombed our boys on the beaches. We swore we would return that fight and so we did. After four years waiting we made a beach landing in Normandy.
I set sail with the 119 Field (Mobile) bakery From Newhaven on the 26th July 1944. I think it was the first time the channel had been as calm for months so it was a very nice crossing and I slept most of the night. I was expecting to hear enemy planes up above us but we never saw a plane or heard any guns. In fact, it was just like peacetime. Well, we landed on the 27th July at a French town called Aramanches and we had to stay there until we got the information on where we had to go. We waited in a field until 10 o'clock at night and, believe me, we were all dead tired.We had not had a proper meal since we left the transit camp in England and what food we did have was out of our 24-hour ration boxes with which each man was issued. It consisted of four bars of chocolate, sweets, compo tea, biscuits and oatmeal blocks. I myself did not think we could manage on it, but we did and were very glad to have it with us.
It was nearly 10 o'clock and everyone was looking out for the lorries that were coming to take us to our unknown destination. We saw a cloud of dust coming along the road and then made out four troop carrying lorries and we were happy when they pulled up along side of us. We all climbed up into the lonies and were soon on the road. I could see in the grim faces of the other men that they were thinking of the ones they loved across the channel. I could not speak to any of them for I wanted to sit and think of my dear wife and kiddies that I had left behind. Well, we had been on the road for about half an hour and it was still glum in the lorry and my eyes were nearly filling up with tears. I could see that the other lads were the same so I thought it was time everyone cheered up. I turned to my mate Len Andrews and said to him, 'What about having a sing-song?" So we all started up singing and everyone was happy again.
It was not long before we pulled up at a small town called Bayeux. Every one of us was as black as coal for we had not had a wash or a shave since we had left England. After we had had something to eat we thought it was about time we made a place to sleep. Three of us, Corporal Brown, L/Cpl Andrews and myself, got out our ground sheets and started to make a bivvy in the hedge. It was nearly dark when we had finished so we just got into bed as we were -in our battle dress. We had only been in the bed for about an hour when Jerry came over and started to drop his eggs. If anyone could have seen us scramble out of our bivvy, they would have laughed their stocking tops off, I must admit I was a bit scared at first, but I soon got over it. I know that I should have a lot like that to go through during my time in France. It lasted for about an hour and we decided to get back into bed. We found that in our mad scramble the bivvy had fallen down so we just had to get under the best way we could and trust to luck that it would not rain. We were called up at about 9 o'clock in the morning and we made one dash for our breakfast. It consisted of 'Slingers' biscuits and margarine with only half a cup of tea.
We stayed in Bayeux for about a week doing nothing but go for a walk or go to sleep. We then moved to a place called Luc-sur-Mer. It was there that we first started to do some baking. We were glad to be baking because we had not had any bread since we left England. We did not have such a bad time there because we used to go down to the sea front for a swim in our spare time, though we did not have much of that. Len and I have been walking along the beach in a morning looking to see if we could find any dead bodies washed up. We saw a couple which were partly eaten away.
It would open anyone's eyes in Civvy Street if they could just come over here and see how things carry on. The French people do not get any cigarettes or soap and it is nothing to have about a dozen kiddies around you saying, "Cigarettes for Papa." If you could only see the damage done by our bombers! The Jerry bombing in England is not a patch on what we have done in France.
The people were not too friendly towards us in Normandy for the simple reason that the Germans did not bother them so much. I do not think they liked the idea of us landing there. As we got further into France the people changed completely. When we left Luc-sur-Mer we stopped in Rouen for a cup of tea and some dinner. The people there all gathered round us and it was surprising to hear how many could speak a bit of English. It made it a bii better for us to be able to talk to some of the people. We stayed in Rouen for about three hours and then we were on the road again. We finished at a place called Gamanches.
It wasn't a bad little place because we could get a drink of beer - the first since we had left Bayeux. We only stayed there for five days and we were on the move again. You can tell how hard it was to be able to post any letters. It sometimes took a couple of days when we got to a new place to find the whereabouts of the post office, because that moves about just like we do.
25th September 1944 - We stopped at this place called Margurilles and we have been here four days. We can get plenty of beer at 5 Francs a two-pint bottle (about 6d in English money), so our pay goes a long way. Here I am at this moment sat on my spring bed to write this. Len is the best pal I have ever had and I have him to thank for getting the bed for me. He swiped it from a Jerry Flying Bomb site for me so now we can both sleep in comfort.
This week we are on night work and we start at 2300hrs and work untill 0700hrs. During the night it has poured down and drops keep pouring through the canvas and going down our necks. It makes working conditions a bit awkward because the trailer floor gets wet and slippery, and any of the men could easily go and slip off the trailer and hurt himself. We have got rather a busy night tonight for we have got twenty dough's, which is about six hundreds stones of bread. First thing in the morning, it will all go out to the troops further up in the front line -and they need it! We have just been working about two hours now and I have told the Lance-Jack on the mixer to make us some tea. It would make you laugh if you could see how we make our tea. The water is boiled in the Tempering Tank that is used for heating the water for mixing the dough. We make the tea in a bucket and many a time we use the same bucket to wash in or to wash the floor. We don't care as long as we get a good cup of tea I have just filled my cup and it is good and sweet. We have sugar to put in the dough so we just put the scoop in to make the tea just how we like it.
It was now 4.30 in the morning and every one of the fifteen lads is feeling tired, so Len shouts out from the ovens to one of the lads, "Give us the trumpeter, Clive". Clive comes from Lancashire and has rather a gruff voice, very much like a foghorn. Well, he has started to sing it and his voice drowns the roar of the machinery in the bake-house. I am sure that people can hear him about three hundred yards away and it sounds worse with it being night-time. The time is just about 6.30am now and I have just finished getting the last dough down. I am very pleased that I can go and get into bed, for that is a soldier's best friend. As long as we have somewhere to sleep we do not care a damn what happens.
I woke up this aftemoon (26.09.44) and I had to make a dash to get some dinner. I was feeling rather peckish as I did not have any breakfast before I got into bed this morning. It was the usual kind of dinner -Bully Beef -for that is what we mostly live on out here in France. It goes down all right. After we had dinner we went out to the village and were drinking beer and rum all afternoon. When it got to four o'clock we thought it was about time we went back to the billet for our tea, so we set off back. We were both in agony for the beer goes straight through you as soon as you drink it.
It is very rare that you see any animals in the streets of France.
We had our tea and in about ten minutes we were ready to go out again, as I was already feeling dry. We went up to the other village for a change and we started on beer again. We were trying to have a talk to the girl behind the bar but we couldn't make her understand. In a way a good job she didn't know what we were saying to her. It got to about 8.30pm and some Frenchmen came in and started to talk to us. We could understand them a bit. We were a bit crafty in handling our cigs round to them. It was not long before they bought the drinks. It was wine this time so it finished up being a good night.
We weren't feeling much like work so we had an hour in bed before we started. I was called at 10.45hrs by one of the boys in our section -Snakey Phillips. My head was as heavy as lead and I was not in the mood for going to work but, as I could not do anything about it, I had to get up and go. It was pitch black and raining cats and dogs, and when it rains in France it does rain. We had the usual amount of work to do tonight but we soon got going for Len is on the ovens and they were keeping their heat up just to his liking. It didn't give me much chance for a smoke because, as long as he keeps going I have to do so on the divider (the machine I am on this week).
We had worked for about an hour when I told old Freddie Henson to get some tea made. Bakers can work a lot better when they have had a drop of 'char'. In fact, I do not think there is anyone in the Army who drinks as much as we bakers do. Well, he made the tea in the bucket and I got a cupful. Good Lord! It was just like drinking dishwater. I asked Freddie what he had done with the tea. Had he sent it home and made ours with matchsticks? He gave me an answer, for he is a bit of a comedian. "Yes, Jack, I have sent it home in a letter. I am saving it up till I get married and then my old lass will not have to buy any for a long time." There is he, Snakey Phillips and Clive Gawthrop: they keep us awake with laughter; Clive with his singing, Fred and Snakey with their jokes and silly tricks which they got up to. Well, the night is now over and I am going to get into bed for I am really tired out.
It is now Saturday and I have just come off work and I don't feel like going to bed so Len and I have decided to go to Lille for the day. Well, it didn't take us long to get ready and we made our way up to the main road to catch one of our lorries that was going on to Brussels in Belgium. We weren't walking long before one came along and when the driver saw us he pulled up and asked where we were going. We told him, and we were only in the lorry for a matter of fifteen minutes when we pulled up in the centre of Lille.
We expected to see it partly in ruins, but we could hardly tell that there had been any war around the place at all. We had a good walk around the town and I thought it was about time that we had a drink and something to eat. We made our way to a cafe and we were lucky because the waitress could speak a bit of English. We had chips and some meat stuff, like haslet, and French bread with a pint of beer. That cost us 30 Francs. After we had had our meal we walked round again and got a bit fed up so we decided to get out of Lille and go to Labasse about 20 kilometres away. We went and caught a tramcar that would take us out of town. We didn't know how to ask the conductor how much the fare was, so Len pulled out his fag case and gave him a cig. He never asked us for any money, but we weren't going to give him any in any case so it was just the same. We did about 4 miles on the tram and then we had to walk about a mile before we could stop a lorry to take us on to Labasse. It was a civvy lorry that stopped for us and it took us right into the middle of the town.
Labasse isn't such a big town but you can buy nearly everything you want except cigs, sweets, and soap, in fact, you can get things in France that you can't get in England. I can't see where they get the idea that France is starving for the people look a lot better fed than a lot of people in England. It was nearly eight o'clock when we set off back to the camp and it was pitch black. When we got nearly there we decided to stop and have one more drink before we went in. That was the last night out I had in France for we started to pack up ready for the road again the next day.
Getting mobile oven ready for moving out.
It was Monday 2/10/44 and we were all day packing. What a day! Our section always mucks about while we are packing and when old Freddie Henson and Snakey Phillips get going, well, it's enough to drive anyone crazy with laughter. We were packing one of the trailers with kit and Snakey went round tapping the wheels with a 7lb-sledge hammer. When I asked him what he was doing he said, "I am only seeing if it will be fit for the road, Corporal." Then he dashed round to Freddie and they started to do a dance. When they started that, the rest of the section stopped to watch them because they are so crazy. What puzzles me is that we still get the work done. Our sergeant is just as bad as those two and he is the best sergeant in the unit - Bill Kemerly. He doesn't care a damn how we carry on, as long as the work is done.
We were on the road early the next morning. It was bitter with cold when we set off at about 0700hrs for Belgium. There were about ten lorries in our convoy and each section had their own Lorry. We were singing through all the towns and villages we passed. We even sang all the dirty army songs we know for the French people don't understand them.
When we passed over the Belgian border we found out how much better the Belgian people were than the French. They looked twice as clean, and were friendly towards us. We pulled up at the side of some houses for our dinner and two young girls came out with a large basket of pears, they were as big as sweet William's. I only had about six in my pocket and I did enjoy them. We passed through Brussels on our way and nearly all the people stopped to wave to us. We landed at a small town called Kapelle Op Den Bosch and we put our bakery up in a large factory. It is one of the best factories I have seen in my life for being clean. We sleep in another part of it and it is nearly as good as a hotel. It is five storeys high and we are on the third floor. We can go up in two lifts to our floor if we want to and that just pleases us. Yesterday as we were going up, Snakey Phillips was at the buttons to take us up, he said, "What floor do you want, ladies and gentlemen?" And as we passed the second floor, "Second floor for ladies knickers!" When we reached our floor, "brothel on your right, French letters on your left and MOs in the centre."
It is now Thursday 5/10/44 and we are sat on our beds wondering what time we have to start work for we weren't told last night. It's not, like No. 3 section to go and ask, so we just waited. At 0930hrs our master baker came up and asked me to take some men down into the bakery to move some flour. After a bit of grumbling we went down into the bakery. I didn't take Len with me because he was writing a letter and I had just finished mine. He had to start work at 11.00hrs and we hadn't to start until three o'clock, well, that is what we thought.
The master baker has got it in for our section so we had to move the flour and then we had to finish taking the fitters kit up to the other end of the bakery to make room for another bakery that is coming in. I don't know how we are going to go on for room because we haven't got much for our own bakery but I suppose we shall manage somehow. After we had finished moving that stuff we went upstairs to our billet to get changed into our whites ready to start work at three o'clock.
I was hoping that Len had made some good dough so that I could bat on with the ovens and get finished so that we could go out at night for a pint. I was very disappointed for I had to wait for the doughs to prove because the bakery was as cold as ice. It made me have to wait on the ovens and they were red hot so when I pulled my lirst batch out they were as black as coal. I got the usual old shouting from the lads up on the trailer. Snakey said, 'Who's dead then?'That's as much as to say whom are you mourning for? It doesn't make any difference to us because we are used to it. Well, I didn't get finished in time to go and have a drink, so I went and had a shower bath instead. I did enjoy it for the water was nice and warm, and I felt a damn site better afterwards. Then I went and got into my good old spring bed.
I was told when I first came into the army that my rifle was my best friend but I have changed my mind about that. I think it is my bed. There is nothing in the world to beat it while you are in the army, yet there is a better bed waiting for me back in England and a wife to keep me company in it. That is the day I am looking forward to, when I shall be able to go home to her and my three kiddies for good but when that will be I don't know. The sooner it comes the better it will be for all the lads in the army because it is the best part of their lives getting wasted. Yet there are men back in Civvy Street who keep going on strike for more money. I don't know how they would go on if they had three and a half years away from home like me; or five years like a lot more lads. Then they would have something to grumble about. If I had my way I would bring all the lads out of the army who came in at the beginning of the war and make the others take their places. I won't say myself because this is the first time I have been abroad and I haven't had to come up against any of the hardships like a lot of the lads. I hope I don't because I am no hero and I want to go back to England in one piece. The farther away from the fighting line I am the better. As I have said before, I have a wife and three kiddies to keep after the war. Who would keep them if I got bumped off, She couldn't manage on what she would get from the government.
It is now Friday 6/10/44 and I have just got up from a good night's sleep and I am going to make a dash for my breakfast before I am too late. I used the lift to take me down because I haven't got the bed out of my eyes yet and I don't feel like walking down all them stairs. After all, that's what a lift is made for. When I got to the cookhouse I saw that we had got a change for breakfast. It was Slingers instead of bully, and I knew then that it would be bully for dinner, tea and supper. In fact, we have eaten that much bully, instead of walking now - we gallop!
I have been thinking of my wife nearly all day today as she is expecting a baby. It makes a man think more of his wife when he is away from her; more so when he is overseas and can't get any mail through. I know that there are some letters for us but we can't get in touch with them. I am beginning to think that the army post office has forgotten that the 119 F.M.B. is over here. I haven't had much to say to anyone today for I was in one of my quiet moods. When I am like that I can soon be upset. Len had finished work early and I knew that he would be going out while I was still working. It couldn't be helped because he started three hours before me. Still I always know where he has been to if he goes out without me, and that's very rare.
I have had rather a busy week and I haven't had much time to write. We finished work early on Friday 13/10/44 and we went to Brussels for the day. What a fine place it is. I would sooner have it than London, for it is a lot cleaner. I can't understand why Jerry didn't damage it before he left because there are some shops bigger than those in London. We had a walk round a shop called Au Bon March and the first thing we saw was a place to have our photos taken. We had to have a go at that and it was only 6 Francs for six.I was the first to have mine taken and the shop assistant, which was a very nice young girl who was stood at the side of Len and me at the other side. She kept saying, "Cigarette for papa,"Chocolate for mademoisene," and "Kiss me quick," for that was all she knew in English. Len said, "She is nice, isn't she? How would You like to take it back to the billet?" Well I couldn't stop laughing at that. I must admit, she would have been OK to keep anyone warm in bed. Then it was Len's turn to have his photo taken and believe me, I had my own back on him.
After tea we had a walk round and it was nearly dark and the streets were full of nasty old molls. Two of them stopped Len and me and asked us if we wanted to jig with them. They couldn't speak any more English so we told them in plain Engish what to go and do. We know what it is like in the town and most other places because we had lads come back with a touch of the Old Dog - Army slang for VD. It doesn't pay you to go with any of them and yet it takes some resisting. We have got used to that with being away from home for so long and we know that we can make up for it when we get out of the Army and home for good.
We left Brussels at eight o'clock for we had to be in the camp for 2200hrs. It took the driver all his time to find his way back because it was very dark and he got lost two or three times. We didn't get back until 2230hrs and, believe me; it wasn't long before I was in bed for I had to be up at 0230hrs. I woke up at 0200hrs with a nasty temper for I was having a nice dream and I had just got to the best part of it when one of the lads shook me in the back and told me it was time to get up. Anyway, I soon got over it for I knew that I couldn't do anything about it. I then got ready for work. I didn't have much to do and I was finished at 0730hrs - just in time to have my breakfast. I then dashed upstairs and into my old fleapit again and stayed in there until tea time because we had to start night work at 2200hrs.
After tea we went out to our friends' house. They were waiting for us with paper and pencil on the table ready to learn a bit of English from us. They are picking it up all right. The old man works at the factory where we are billeted and is a good sort but slow at picking up English. His wife is going on fine and I manage to teach her a few Yorkshire slang words. It is surprising how many slang words there are in Flemish and it is easy for me to pick them up and use them. There are four daughters in the family. The oldest at 18 is Marguerite and there is one, aged 15, away at school in Brussels. I don't know her name. There is Marie-Louise, 10 and then our little favourite Victoria, aged 4. She is a lovely little kid. Marguerite's young man is rather scared of us and I think he will be glad when we have gone away. Marguerite and her mother and dad are so keen on learning English that they forget about him. I don't believe that they think very much about him in one way. Tonight, Len was opening a bottle of beer and it shot up into the air and some of it hit Old Nick in the face. You should have seen his face with anger. He played merry hell and thought Len had done it on purpose. What made it worse was that the others laughed at him. I thought that he was going to go for Len. If he had have done he would have been sorry for it because I had a bottle in my hand which I was going to open and I think he must have seen the wicked gleam in my eye. He soon calmed down and things carried on as usual.
I have not much to say about this week because I am on night work and I spend most of my time in bed. The weather hasn't been too good to go out. It has rained every night and I don't like getting wet if I can help it.
On Friday 20/10/44 Len and I went to an E.N.S.A. show and it was very good. The comedian gave a good crack about the Nonnandy Star. He said that it was a piece of red tape browned off at both ends! Our Q.M.said that he was going to ask our Captain to indent for some for the unit. I don't know what the Captain said. I suppose he was like us and had a good laugh. We got back from the show just in time to go to work and what a night it was! I was tired out and most of the other lads were the same. What made it worse for me was watching the moulder go round, because it nearly sends you to sleep at the best of times. I thought I was going to have trouble with the divider for it was rattling like a can of peas. I asked Snakey Phillips to get down on his knees and pray, or else we would have to weigh off and mould by hand. So, down he went on his knees and he started to pray, but he must have said it wrong because it got worse. Well, it lasted until we finished our work and the next shift took over. They managed one run and then it broke down, but, thank God, it was mended for when we started again that night.
It is now 21 October 1944 and I haven't been in bed much today because I haven't got to go to work tonight. I spent nearly all the afternoon writing letters and after tea Len and I went round to our friends to take our washing. We hadn't been in the house five minutes before the beer was on the table. We spent most of the night playing music and learning to dance. I don't think I shall ever be able to pick up the dancing. What makes it worse are my heavy boots. It takes me all my time to pick them up!
Mobile bakery (inside a factory)
At about 2000hrs we heard a flying bomb come over and explode nearby. We had got used to them as we had ten or more round us nearly every night when we were back in England. I don't know what it will be like in Antwerp for they say that it is like Hell let loose. We can see the flashes from where we are, because Antwerp is only 30 miles away and Jerry is still there. We hope our lads will soon push him out because he is too near for our liking. The further away he is, the better.
This week we are on the worst shift of the lot. We have to start at 0930hrs and work for about an hour or so. We have our dinner and then work until 2200hrs. It spoils us for going out unless we haven't got many dough's on and then, with a push, we can manage to get out for about 2000hrs. Well, on Wednesday, we didn't have many dough's on and there was a dance and we wanted to go to. Our Sergeant had to do a bit of arguing with the Master Baker before he would let us have an early night. He won! We were finished in good time. Len and I took our friends' daughter and her girl friend. The first thing we did when we got into the Dance Hall was to get some beer. I was very dry from working on the ovens. Len and I got four glasses in and we were only sat down for five minutes when the girls went on the floor to dance. Len and I just sat, drinking beer. It is more in our line than dancing! We had just about eight pints then we thought it was about time we went and had a talk to the girls. Believe me, it is a work of art trying to make them understand. We manage to do it and we can understand them just a bit.
It is now 21 November 1944 and I haven't been able to write much as I have been very busy. I started work this morning at three o'clock as I am on mixing and what a morning it was. It was very cold. We had to wait until seven o'clock for some breakfast and my stomach was empty, as I hadn't had anything to eat since teatime yesterday. You can tell how I felt and I was just dying for a cup of tea. The rest of my Section didn't start until 7.00am and I was ready for them to start for I had a lot more doughs to mix. I didn't finish until 1030am and I had just got upstairs when we heard a flying bomb come over. What a shock it was! I expected the windows to come in any moment. I asked if anyone knew where it had fallen and it was up at Ramsbonk. That's the village where we go, so I got ready and had a walk up there. There was only the windows broken so they had been very lucky. I think myself that they are trying to get the factory that we work in. I am sure that one of these days we shall get hit with one and all the four bakeries will be mixed up into one.
On Saturday 4/11/44 we finished work in good time and I spent most of the day in bed. I never heard any of the doodlebugs that dropped near the factory so I must have been very tired to sleep through it all. We didn't go until after tea and we went up to our fiend's house, We were trying to say a word in Flemish when we heard that terrible sound of a doodlebug. Into the cellar they all dashed and Len and I went outside like fools to see where it was. It was just going over the top of us with its flame still burning and we knew that we were all right. It didn't go very long before the flame went out and it dived to the ground to explode. We left the house at 10.00pm and were walking down the road when we saw a red flame up in the sky. Len said, 'here comes a doodlebug!" It was coming straight for us. There we were stood in the middle of the road looking up at it when all of a sudden its flame went out and it started to dive towards the ground. You should have seen us dive to the ground! I had a cold shiver run up my spine for I thought that at any moment the doodlebug would drop at the side of us and blast us to hell. The Lord was with us again and it exploded further up the village. We got up laughing for we had still got life left in us. Len said, 'That bastard was near!" I dare not write what I said myself but it would have made the devil turn his head in shame if he had been near me. We were glad when we got hack to the billet and into bed. I would sooner be asleep when there is anything like that dropping about because if anything hits you then you don't know anything about it.
I have not had time to write much this week for we are on night work and there are too many doodlebugs flying around at nights now to be able to sit in comfort and write. Last night, it was the nearest we had to the factory for it dropped just at the back of sergeant's biiet and part of it was blown down. There was only one got hurt and that was our master baker who had a piece of glass hit him in the head. He is going on all right now. It didn't do any damage to our bakery, thank God, for we were just starting work. During the night every one of us was fully expecting to get one on the bakery before the night was out. We knew that if one did land then it would blow us all to smithereens, but luck was with us. We have not had one as near us since - and we don't want one.
Having a crafty fag at the railyard.
On Saturday morning 11/11/44 Len and I went into Antwerp with some of the lads in a lorry for our day off. We hadn't been there long before a doodlebug came and dropped near the station. Len and I had left there only about four minutes before it dropped. It did a lot of damage and killed a lot of people including soldiers. We made our way to a cafe for a drink of wine or beer so that we could get over the shock. When we got into this cafe the chap behind the bar asked us if we were cold and when we said we were he told us to go into a little side room where there was a fire. In we went and we were the only two in the room so we stayed there drinking and smoking. After about 15 minutes two of the foulest girls in Antwerp came in and parked themselves beside Len and me. We realised it must be some kind of a brothel. Well, we had just got our glasses filled but we were going to walk out when one of the girls asked Len if he would buy her a drink. They could both speak English so he turned to her and said, 'not bloody likely!" Then they asked us if we wanted to go upstairs with them. Well that did it! I picked up my glass of beer and was going to sling it in her face when Len got hold of my arm and said, "Don't start any trouble, Jack" So with that we got up and walked out. I know it takes a lot of doing for a man to resist a woman when he has been a long time away from his wife. I myself must admit that I like to talk to girls but when it comes to old molls like that I have finished. A man can talk to girls without going too far and I know just how far to go. If I went with a girl and went too far with her there would be a 99% chance of getting a dose of VD. I don't want that for I have such a lot to lose; my wife, my family, my rank and reputation. So I just keep to myself for I know that I can get all the love I want when I get back to England and my wife.
Today it is Monday and the sergeant came up to me and told me to take four men and a lorry to fetch some coal from the docks at Antwerp. So off we went and the first thing we did when we got there was to park the lorry and go into the canteen for a cup of tea. The canteen is one of the finest hotels I have ever seen. There are girls to wait on us and a dance-band to play for us while we are having a meal. The name of it is the "Atlantic Hotel". When we came out the driver asked me where the place was that we had to get. I said, "I don't know, we shall have to ask." Well, we were about two hours running about Antwerp trying to find it. It was right in the middle of the docks and when we got down there it was in a mess. It looked as though Jerry had had a rough time. He had only been driven out of there while we have been in Belgium. In fact, we hadn't captured Antwerp when we first came to Kapelle Op Den Bosch and that's only 25 miles away. I hope he is a long way in front of us now.
Here I am again and I have been neglecting writing in my book again but it can't be helped this week. On Sunday I felt ill. In fact, I was on the verge of collapsing at work in the morning and I was sick three times within the first hour of being at work but I wouldn't give in. I don't like going to the M.O. in case he happens to send me in dock (slang for hospital). There is also every chance of getting posted to another unit when you come out and I don't want that to happen so I just carry on and take things as they come.
On Monday it went up on orders that Len and I were to go on a 48 hour leave to Ghent. Were we glad? We hadn't had any rest for a long time and we were ready for it. On Tuesday we caught the lorry at 12.00 From the bakery and got into Ghent at 2.00. It was pouring down with rain but we didn't care as long as we were getting some rest. The first thing we had to do was to wait until one of the Canadians at the leave centre took us up to our rooms. We were both in a room of our own, and our beds, they did look grand. In fact, I felt like getting on mine at once only we wanted to get out as soon as we could. We just put our kit on the bed, what bit we had, and went for a walk round the city.
What a place! It has some very ancient buildings. We went round an old castle that had been built in the 13th century and we enjoyed going round. We were very sorry when the time came for us to get ready to go back to Kappelle for we were just nicely settling down to a bit of comfort. We got back OK and, much to our disappointment we found out that our bakery was going to move again. We were wondering where it would be this time - Holland or Germany? Well, we have been very busy this week and I have not had much time to write. Now the time has come when we must go up to our friends house at Ramsdonk and tell them that we won't be seeing them anymore.
The bakery driver and me.
We were going away the next day, Saturday the second of December (2/12/44). What a time we had for the lady of the house said she didn't believe us. It was nearly an hour before we could make her believe us. When it came to 10.00 and we were getting ready to go back to the billet she asked us if we would write it them. We said that we would because they had been very good to us. The daughter insisted on giving each of us a photo of herself for she said it would help us to remember Belgium. We took it and before we left the daughter and her mother kissed both Len and me. They both burst into tears for they know as well as we did that we should never see each other again. The old man himself was very down hearted for he used to enjoy us going up and having a chat with them. We said good-bye and went on our way to the billet with that same feeling in our hearts that we have had at many a place. Believe me, it's not very nice when you make friends with anyone and then you have to leave them knowing that you'll never see them again.
We pulled out of the factory at 8.00 in the morning. As we were passing through Fappelle there were a lot of people waiting on the street to wave good-bye to us for nearly all the lads had had a house to go to. When we were going through Ramsdonk our friends were stood at the coener of the street waiting to see us for the last time. We stood up in the lorry and waved good-bye to them and then settled down to a five hours journey to Holland. What a ride it was for it was bitter cold and raining like hell. We had been going for about an hour when our convoy stopped for us to get out for a few minutes, Len went and got in another lorry to ride with the driver and I stayed to look after the other lads. Well, we had just passed through a place called Tibuny when a jeep caught us up and the driver shouted out to me, "One of your lorries has had an accident." I asked if it was towing anything and he said, 'Yes, the same as you." We were towing an oven and I know then that it must be the lorry that Len was in. There was a lorry in front of us with an oven and Len had an oven at the back of his lorry. I was wondering all the time if he was OK. We couldn't stop to see, for when you are in a convoy you have to stay in it.
We landed up at a down and out dump called Osterwlk, and what a place! We had just been here for about an hour when I saw the lorry that Len was in coming along but Len wasn't inside. The oven wasn't at the back so I started wondering again if he was OK. I asked the driver and he said, "Yes, he is OK. It was only the tow bar that broke on the oven. He is staying behind to look after it until we can send another lorry for it."
We were very lucky again for we had got another factory in which to put the bakery. It saves us a lot of trouble having to put the tents up. We also touched for a good billet for sleeping in. I think that is the main thing of all, having a good place to sleep, We were working until darkness came fixing up the bakery for them we had to wait until the next day until there was electric laid on. Len came here about 6.00 at night. He had been OK, for at the place he had stayed it was just out side of a house. The people asked him in to have a cup of coffee and wanted to know if he had had any dinner. He didn't like taking any food from them so he said that he had just had it. I know it's not very nice to think things about people's kindness, but in a way he was a bit afraid that it might have had poison in it. There have been a hell of a lot of soldiers poisoned that way and we were warned about it before we left Kappelle in Belgium.
Night time came very quickly and it wasn't long before we were in the old flea pit and fast asleep for we had had a busy day. I was called at 7.30 in the morning and I didn't feel a bit like getting up but it was a case of having to do. It was the 3rd of December (3/12/44) and we started work at 8.00. What a place! We have to walk about in the mud up to our boot tops and our feet get wet through. I didn't know what it would be like up in the front line about 12 miles away. We soon ask how far we are away from the fighting when we get to a new place. We haven't been very far away each time.
We began to think that we had gone away from all the doodlebugs when we came here but we had only been here about a week when he started to send them over. I am sure he knows that the 119 are after him so he is trying his best to stop us. I didn't think there is one man among us that would take a prisoner if he can help it. I am sure that I wouldn't. I am itching to slit one's throat and I hope I get the chance before I come out of the war. That is, unless Jerry gets me first.
It is now Sunday 17th of December (17/12/44) and I have just finished work after having a steady night. I am on night work this week and I can see myself spending most of the day in bed. That is, unless I suddenly feel like a walk out in the afternoon, and I doubt if I shall feel like that.
It is now the twenty- first of December (21/12/44) and only four days from Christmas. Every one of us lads is wondering how we are going to spend it. By the sound of the news things don't seem at all too good with Jerry making a push forward into Belgium again. We hope he does not get too far before he is back again, we don't want another Dunkirk and that's what it seems like. We just treat these things as a joke and ask one another if he has got his slippers ready. One of the lads will come into the bakery at night and say; there's a Jerry outside, Jack, and he want's to know if we can brew some tea for him. I just say, "Ask him in and I will make it for him in five minutes," I don't know what we would do if we did suddenly see a bunch of Jerry's come into the bakery with their guns pointed at us. I think we would just freeze on the spot. I know there would be no mercy for us after what we saw in Belgium.
I don't think I have mentioned it before - it was at a place called Breendonk. About 3,850 Belgian people were murdered. Len and I went in that place, it was an underground fort and it had a very sickly smell about it. I have read many a book about torture chambers and how they used to torture people. I thought at the time that the author who writes such books must be partly out of his mind to write such silly things. Now I have changed my mind, for I never thought I would go in a place where those things had really happened, and by men who are supposed to be human and have now filled my mind with hatred. We went through the gate which was very heavily covered with wicked looking barbed wire, charged with electricity, We then crossed over a moat which was about 20ft deep and 50yds across. It would have been impossible for a poor swimmer to get across and even if he did get across he would have the charged barbed wire up against him. One touch of that and he would be burned to a cinder so it was just hopeless to try and escape. We went down into the underground passages and they were very damp. They had that terrible atmosphere that there were gruesome and decayed men, not yet dead, still moving about in the shadows. It nearly made the hairs on the back of my neck stick up on end and I could feel the cold chill run up my spine as I thought of all those poor men that had been tortured to death in the horrible place. We came to one room, or I should say dungeon and it was as deep as hell. The Germans used to put a prisoner inside and make him stand in the middle of the floor and water would slowly drip on his head. He would be in there perhaps for two or three days without food or water. When they opened the door again he would be dead. Then there were the gas chambers where they would put a prisoner and slowly gas him. All these things were done just because they refused to obey Gestapo orders or refused to go to Germany to work. We came across another room that was only as big as my cellar at home. In this we could see, by the aid of a torch, iron chains on the wall and imprints of a man that must have been chained there for days on end. It was all smeared with blood. At one time there had been about 100 men crammed into that cell. They had to stand up to get in and every one was dead when the Germans came to get them out. They hadn't had any food or water and had kicked each other to death in their madness. We came across the room where they used to crush a man's hand or foot, or pull out his toe or fingernail. Then there was the W.C. Oh yes, they had a W.C. for the prisoners, but they had to go through hell if they wanted to use it. On the seat there were nails sticking up all over. A man would suffer a lot of pain using that. I said to my pal Len, 'let's get out of here and have a look outside." Seeing things Like that was turning my mind to want to do the same to Germans.
We went outside and came across a large hut. We had a look inside and to our horror it was where they used to store the bodies until they had enough to fill a grave. They would put three bodies in one coffin and when they had got ten full ones they would go and tip them in one big grave. That made a total of 30 bodies in one grave. It didn't matter what sex they were, they all went in together. We could only count about 40 graves but there were some more at the other side of the fort. We next came across 10 stakes in the middle of the yard where they would tie the men and shoot them. Then there was the scaffold where they used to hang them. Well, that's the story of Breendonk, and that name will live in my mind as long as I live. I know the Belgian people will never forget it. I used to think it was all a lot trash when I used to read in the papers about what the Germans did to the people out here; but not any more. I hope to God we can rapay them, for I would love to see one's face as we were trying to put him in the ovens or mixer. I am sure that's what we could do if we got the chance.
Well, that was back in Belgium so I had better get back to Holland, the place I have not liked from the first moment I landed here. Any time we might go out and not come back for someone might try to do you in, but Len and I would put up a hell of a fight if it came to that. We both carry daggers with us and know how to use them.
With german workers, some were supposed to POWs.
I have not had much time to write in this book for I have been very busy and now it is 15/1/45. We had a very good time at Christmas and I think it was one of the best dinners I have had while I have been in the army. We had plenty of cigars and wine that had been captured from the Germans but they weren't up to much. All week we were confined to camp for they were expecting Jerry to break through. We had all our kit packed up ready to put on the lorries and we ourselves had to carry our rifle and ammo everywhere we went. This included meal times, for we had to be ready at a moment's notice to be called out to make a fight of it. Believe me, we weren't at all very cheerfull about it for we are only about 20 miles from the front line as it is. One morning I heard one of the lorry drivers say that a Jerry patrol had been up to 6 miles away from us. Believe me, it put my mind off writing for when I started to write my mind would wander away and start thinking of home and wondering if I should ever see it again. I know it sounds silly, but it is funny what goes through your mind when you are a long way from home, and a good chance of being killed so near. We have got so used to it now, that it would be funny if we didn't hear the guns roaring away in the distance and the old doodlebugs going over at night. I have seen enough of these to last me to the end of the war and the sooner that comes the better for me and the rest of the lads.
It is now 25/1/45 and what a day for it is bitter and cold. I have just finished work for I was up at 2.00 this morning and the time is now 9.00 and I am going to get into bed. 1 have had a busy time and I am made up with cold. I have had it for about a week now and I shall be glad when it has gone away. Well, I have had my sleep and just had my dinner. It was good! I was laid on my bed reading after dinner waiting until it was time to go for a bath when Len and some of the other Lads came over to my bed and grabbed hold of me. The lads said they were going to shave off my moustache and there I lay helpless with one of the lads each holding my arms and my legs. Len had hold of my head. The other lad could not shave it off because he had not got any water so he just struck a match and burned it off. It didn't get me mad for I can stand a joke and I knew I should get my own back on them sometime. I don't know how the hell I have managed to keep my stripes for I am always playing about with the lads. One of these days I shall get caught and that will be the office for me, but who cares? As long as I get my fun I don't care what happens.
We have been having some very bad weather out here. It has been about a foot deep in snow and very cold but we have got used to all that by now. Well, today we drew out of the hat to see who was going home on leave and believe me, what a time it was. We were all in the bakery and the captain had two lads holdig a tin each. One tin had all the names in and the other had numbers in it. One lad drew a name out and another drew a number. Whatever the number was, the chap whose name had come out went on that rotation. I drew number 14, so I shall be the fourteenth man to go home on leave. It will take a long time before I go because there are only three men to go a month. I think it will be about April when I shall see England again. Believe me, I am ready for it and longing to get the touch of some good money in my pocket instead of the stuff I have got now. I would also like a drink of good beer but I don't think I shall be able to drink much with being without for such a long time.
Both Len and I have been spending the nights at some fiends' house playing cards. What a time we have for we played at solo and I had to teach Len how to play it at first. Now, we can show them the way home and it is not very often that we come away without winning. Last night they tried to show us a new game that they play over here, but could we hell as like pick it up. They were talking in Dutch and we only know a bit of that and they only know what bit of English we have taught them. We managed to get on OK talking to one another. Many a time when we are back in the billet we forget ourselves and speak in Flemish. We shall soon forget it all when we get back into England.
It was not long before we had to pack and move to another town. We were on the road for about two hours before we stopped at a place called Nchede. When we got out of the truck the Sgt. told us that we were going to be split up into pairs to stay with the Dutch people. Len and I were taken to a small farmhouse. The lady came out to greet us and take us inside. It was very clean. She took us upstairs to a very nice room that had a large double bed with white sheets. There was a wash basin in the comer and she indicated that we could use it and then go down stairs. She did not speak any Enghsh but we managed to understand her. Her husband only understood us when we asked him if he wanted a cigarette. They had two daughters, aged 18 and 16 years, and a son about ten years old. One of the girls could speak a bit of English. It was very nice here because when we were not on duty we could sit downstairs with them and write our letters home.
One day, Len and I went for swim in the canal. It was a bit dirty and deep. We were told back at the Base not to swim in the canal again because some lads from another Unit had been very ill after swimming in there. The MO. said it was from some dead bodies that must be still on the bottom.
While we were in Enchede the war with Germany was over and all the people were in the town square singing and dancing. The men and women who had been collaborating with the Germans were caught. The women were sat on a chair in the middle of the square and had all their hair shaved off. I saw the people stand three of the men against the wall, with their heels up to the wall and their hands above their heads. Every time they dropped their hands they were hit with the butt of a Sten gun. After about half an hour, as I was walking away, I could hear them being shot.
One day I saw the daughter stuffing grass into the tyre of her bike. I asked her why she was doing that, she said that they could not get any inner tubes, I told her that I was due to go on leave and that I would see if one could get one for her. I went to the office and got my 12-day pass and made my way to the station to catch a train that was going to the Hook of Holland. It was a very long journey and we had to get out half way and have a meal at one of the feeding points. The train was so full that men were laid out on the floor. I even saw one man lying on the luggage rack.
When we arrived at the Hook of Holland, we went on board and again had a struggle to find somewhere to sit. The boat sailed down to Dover, where I caught a train to Sheffield. I managed to get a good seat all the way. It was good to be home, to be able to wear my civvy clothes and walk out with my wife, Ivy, and the kiddies. We went up to see my Mother and Dad, and the rest of the family. My leave passed very quickly. I managed to get an inner tube and brought it back for the girl. She was very grateful.
It was not long before we had orders to move again. It did not take long to pack up because we had done it so many times. They were trying to keep us close behind the advancing troops and there were times when would have the tents erected and everything ready to start work the next day when the order would come to break camp and move out. Anyway, this time we stopped at Nijmegen where we were attached to the 1st Canadian Army Group. We got on very well with them. We were billeted in a very large school. Each section had their own room. Ours was No.3 section and I was in charge of the room. There was my pal, L/Cpl Len Andrews, L/Cpl Henson and eight Privates. They were all good lads and did not grumble much. There was a little pub nearby but it was difficult for us to get a drink because the R.E.'s used to get in before us. Capt. Mason had a word with the landlord and asked if he would let us buy the pub and we would return it to him when we left. He agreed, and a syndicate of the 80 men in our unit bought the pub. This was much better for us because the pub could not open until one of us arrived. One night we had a bit of a dance. Len and I were behind the bar. I had a good few pints and felt merry. I thought I would have a walk outside. The C.Q.M.S. then went up to the bar and asked Len, 'Where is Cpl Dukes?" When Len said that he did not know, he was told, "You had better go and look for him." He found me all right! Sitting in the middle of the road, trying to sing. Len brought Freddie Henson and they put my arms round their necks and walked me to the biiet.
The day before Christmas Eve we had another dance - but I wasn't behind the bar! I was just watching them dance. At about ten o'clock I told Len that I wasn't feeling very well and I went back to the billet and got into bed. About half an hour later, Len came in and said that he did not feel too good. Soon four more of the lads came in feeling the same as us. The Sgt came in and asked what was the matter with us. When we said that we felt ill he sent for the M.O. When he came, he looked at Len and me. He turned to the Sgt and said, "Right! These two to the Hospital. The rest are to remain in this room and no one else is to come in here until I say that it is safe for them to do so." We were taken to the Canadian Hospital. I was a bit miserable because I thought that we were going to miss out on the Christmas celebrations, and especially the dinner. How wrong I was! Father Christmas came round the ward and gave us one hundred cigarettes, two pairs of socks, cigars and sweets, but no beer. We were allowed out of hospital on the morning of New Year's Eve. The condition, which we accepted from the Doctor, was that we were not to drink any alcohol for a few days. When we got to the billet we found that the lads had saved our beer ration From Christmas Day. There were six bottles of stout waiting for me. That was the end of our promise to the Doctor.
The bakehouse crew
I was told that I was due to go on leave on the 16th January 1946 for 13 days. It meant another long journey up to the Hook of Holland, but it was great to be going home again. I travelled with Freddie Hamer who was going to Leeds. It was 13 days of real happiness and I was really sorry when the time came for me to go back. I met Freddie in Holland. When we got to Nijmegen we found that our unit had moved. I said to Fred, 'Wow what shall we do? He said, "You are the Corporal. What shall we do?" I said, "The 118 F.M.B. is in the next field. We will see whether they know where 119 have gone." They didn't know where our unit was. The Sgt-Major said that we could stay with them. We had a meal and after that I said to Fred, 'We are not staying here. Come on." We went into town and asked at the Red-Cap Office if they knew where our unit was going. They said, "No, but if you go into the cafe over the road, you will meet some Canadian soldiers who might know. We had a cup oftea in the cafe and eventually a driver came in. He did not know where they were but offered us a lift to the next town. We thought that it would be all right as we had reported to the MPs. So off we went. After about half an hour we saw a sign on a gateway to a field. It had a big Popeye painted on it and under that it said, '119 F.M.B.' What luck! I asked the driver to stop and let us out. We thanked him and went to report to the Sgt-Major. We told him why we were late and he just laughed and said, "I bet you thought you were lost."
We were at a small village called Wichen. There was not much to do there after we had finished work so Len and I would ask if a truck was going into Nijmegen. If there was a lorry we would travel in it and go for a few pints. We only stayed at Wichen for about two months. We were told that we were going to move into Germany.
When we left we had to leave the bakery behind. We could not understand why until we arrived at the German barracks. We were being disbanded from the 1st Canadian Army. I wondered what we were going to do now that we have not got any baking to do. I soon found out. To my horror, I learned that we were to do rifle drill, foot-slogging and guard duty. We thought that it was stupid because we had not done any of that since we left England. The Sgt came to me one day and said that I was on Guard Duty with six of the lads from the section. I said, 'I have never taken Guard duty on a Parade Ground. He just gave a laugh, and said, 'neither have I!' I marched the lads onto the Parade Ground and I could see the Major and Captain watching us from the window of the barracks. Our Sgt was standing in the doorway smiling. I got the lads into line and said to Fred Rose, 'What do I do now?" He had done it before. He said, "They can't hear you from here, so just bring us to attention and march us off to the Guard House." I was glad that it went all right for I was feeling nervous and embarrassed.
About a week later, it went up on orders that I was to be posted, with a Sgt and Private from another bakery, to a feeding point at Krefield in Germany. I had to say good-bye to Len and all the other lads that I had been with for about four years. I met Sgt Cyril Gatland and Private Bill Williams who were going with me. We anived at the station and had to squeeze onto the train. We stood in the doorway with all kit and rifles. I thought that if we wanted a tiddle it would have to be out of the window in the door, because the train was so full. It was very dark outside and when I looked out of the window I was horrified. We were going over a single-track bridge. The river below was running very fast and it seemed to be very dirty. I was glad when we got to the other side.
We had been on the train for about three hours when we arrived at Krefield. It was a big station. The Sgt had just said that we should find out some one to report to, when a Red-Cap came along. He told us to go to the big railway hotel just outside the station. We reported to the Captain, who said that he hoped that we would get on all right. He directed us to our rooms. Sgt Gatland went to the Sgt's quarters, while Bill and I found that our room had two single beds. After putting all our kit away, we had a wash and went down for a sandwich. I went back up in the lift and got into bed. I was soon asleep. The next morning I felt someone shaking me. I could hardly believe my eyes it was eight o'clock and I was being given a cup of tea by a young Frauline. She could not speak English so she pointed to her watch and to her mouth to indicate that it was time to get up and get ready for breakfast. She then woke Bill and went out. I said, "The room service is not bad, is it?" It only happened that one morning, as some of the lads at the feeding point had done it as a joke.
After breakfast we were taken to the cook-house it was a very big place for they had to feed all the troops who were either going on, or returning from leave. Trains came through all day bringing English, Scots, Irish, Canadians, Poles, and others. It was only a small bakehouse at the side of the cookhouse because we only made dinner cobs. One night, our Sgt came and asked the other Cpl if he wanted to go to the town bakery on the other side of the rail track. He would be in charge of 12 bakers but it would always be nights. He said that he liked it where he was so I told Sgt Gatland that I would like to take it on. He said, "All right, I'll arrange it. I will be coming with you."
The following week I went to the civvy bakery. I had to go up in the lift to the third floor. I met the caretaker whose name was Koolan. He could not speak any English so he called one of the lads who could. I told them who I was. They introduced Fritz, the German in charge. He was very tall and just like Boris Karloff I was to draw all the rations from the cook-house for what we had to make, as well as food for the Germans and myself to eat during the night. If we were eating sausage and bacon, the Germans would laugh at me frying it in the oven because they ate it raw. Our work was making bread cakes and sausage rolls. I didn't see our Sgt much because he went out with the other Sgts and he knew that I would cover for him if the orderly officer came round.
One night, at about 2am I was feeling tired and the caretaker told me to go to his house on the top floor of the building and have a sleep on the settee. I went up and I had only been asleep for about an hour when the lad who could speak English came up and told me the officer was asking for me. When I got down stairs he asked me what I was doing out of the bakehouse and not having anyone in charge. I had to think quickly. And I did! "I've been up to the toilet in the caretakers house because ours is out of order." He fell for it. He looked at my books to see that I had written down what had been made. He then said, "All right, Corporal." As he went I thought, thank God, I do not do any of the work myself I only see that things are made and I book it down. I then see that it goes round to the feeding point.
One night a new man came to work with us. The other Germans knew him and did not like him. They said that he was a bit of a tell-tale and would go round to the feeding-point and gossip to the Sg-Major in the cook-house. About a week later, Cpl Dickie Hatton of the Welsh Regiment came in at about 1Opm. He had been out on the beer and he had had quite a few. The new German started to call Dickie names, not knowing that Dickie could understand a bit of German. That did it. It made Dickie mad. He pulled a revolver out of his pocket and said, "I'm going to shoot you, you bastard!" Knowing Dickie, I thought he would do it, so I got in between them and told him not to be silly. He gave me a look and said, "You are taking his side." He tried to shove me away. I grabbed hold of the revolver and hit him on the chin. As he fell he hit his head on the wall and that put him out for a bit. When he came round, I put my arm around him and said, 'Come on, I'll take you home to the billet." We had to be carefull going through the street in the middle of the night as there was a curfew until 6am. When I got him back to the station, he started to cry and said he was sorry for causing me trouble.
Sgt Gatland came to me one day and said that he was going to have to appear in front of the Major and that I might have to as well, because they said that there was about a thousand pounds of sugar missing. They wanted to know if we could account for any of it. We both marched into the office and stood in front of the Major and the Captain. The Major asked the Sgt if he could account for any of the sugar. He said, 'no, Sir." The Major went on, 'What about you, Cpl?" I said, 'no Sir. The only thing that I can think is that when we asked the Germans to weigh some sugar up, they weighed it in German pounds. A German pound is a kilo and is about two and a quarter pounds. The Major gave me one look and said, "Very good, Cpl. you can both dismiss." We saluted, turned about and marched out of the office. When we were outside, the Sgt said, "Thank god we got out of that all right."
One morning at about five o'clock, I was going round the station when a Cpl from the Welsh Regiment who was on patrol, stopped me and asked for some help. He and a private wanted to bring a Yank out of one of the houses where he was causing trouble with a woman. I could not refuse because of his seniority, so I said, 'There are two of you, why do you need me?" He said, 'Well, if you shout up to him and he sees that you have not got a rifle, he might come out." "That's good, but if he has a rifle, what do I do then?" 'Don't worry we'll have you covered." Trust me to fall for something like this! Anyway, I shouted up the steps to him and after a bit he came to the door and he was unarmed. We went up the steps and into the house. The Cpl told the Yank that he was out of bounds and arrested him. He gave the woman a warning and took the Yank away.
I then went to the station to get a couple of women to go back to the bakery to pack the food that had been made. I had no trouble because they had a better time working with me than they did at the feeding point where they had the Sgt-Major from the catering corps to boss them about. I would let them take their time and have a cup of tea with us. They would not get the chance at the feeding point. At seven o'clock I would tell the driver to load up the truck and then take the women round to the station to sign out.
I was in bed one morning after night shift when I was shaken awake. I looked up and saw C.Q.M.S. Prior from my old unit - 119 F.M.B. 'What are you doing here"? I asked. "I am on my way home, and as the train stopped here I thought that I would ask where you were." I got out of bed and we had a chat about the times we'd had together. I asked him if he had had his dinner and when he said that he hadn't I took him to our Mess Room. I told the Duty Sgt who he was and he was taken into the Sgt's Mess. I knew that he would get a better dinner there than at the feeding point.
About a week later, Sgt Johnson, also from 119F.M.B. came to see me. He was a good Sgt and we all got on very well with him. He told me that Len Andrews was at Dusseldorfwith nearly all the other lads and that Len was going on all right. He didn't stay long because he had already had his dinner and the train was due to leave.
One day at the feeding point I wanted to know where I could find a swimming pool. I found a lady interpreter and asked if she knew. She told me that it had been destroyed by the bombs. I told her that she spoke very good English and asked if she had learned it at school. She said that she had lived in England. 'What part of England?" "Sheffield." "That's where I live." I found out that she had lived in Wilkinson Street, the next Street to where I lived. Her father was one of the Germans who started the cutlery firm Richard's in Sheffield. I did not have the chance to talk to her again for she moved away with some officers as their interpreter.
I was looking out of the Bakehouse window one morning at about seven o'clock. There was a six-foot wall at the bottom of the yard and I saw a parcel come flying over the top. I wondered what it was and I spoke to one of the Germans about it. He told me that it happens a great deal but that they did not say anything in case they got into trouble. I went down stairs to have a look at the parcel and found that it contained tea and sugar. I was told that someone throws it over the wall and comes round for it after he has finished work. I decided to catch him when he came to pick it up. I rang the station and asked for two guards to be sent round to the Bakehouse. When they came, I told them what had happened and what I wanted them to do. It was a bit dark, so I told them to hide behind some bins in the yard and I would stand just inside the doorway. We didn't wait long before a man came creeping into the yard. He went straight to the parcel and as he bent to pick it up we dashed out and got hold of him. We did not take him back to the station in case they involved any of the other workers. We took him to his flat and told him that we were going to search it to see if he had any more stolen goods. We found some folding umbrellas that were no good to us. We told him it would be best if he did not return to work at the feeding point. The Germans were searched when they had finished work each day. If they had stolen anything they would be sacked on the spot. It was very hard for them to find work so it was real punishment.
One night Dick Hatton came into the Bakehouse with a 7lb tin of coffee. I asked him what he was doing with it. He said that he had swiped it from the officers' Mess and they were looking for it. He asked me to hide it because the Orderly Officer might come looking for it. I didn't know what to do at first, then I told one of the Germans to clear the fire-lighting sticks and paper from one of the ovens that we weren't using. We put the tin at the back of the oven and then replaced the sticks and paper. Even if an officer came to light it he would not think to look back there. No one came, so we gave some of the coffee to the Germans for they were good workers.
It was not long after this that it came through that Group 32 was going to be demobbed. I was very pleased to hear that because I was in-group 32. On the night shift one of the Germans said to me, "You look very happy tonight, Cpl." I told him, "I am happy because I will soon be leaving and going home for good." He told the other men and they said that they were very happy for me and they hoped that they would get someone like me to work with.
A week later my Sgt came to me and said, 'Well, Jack! The time has come for you to go home. I am the same Group as you and we haven't any more work to do." I said, 'What are you going to do now?" He gave me one big smile and said, 'I'm going out with two other Sgts to celebrate." It was a very nice day. The sun was shining so I thought that I would go for a walk as my pal, Dick Hatton was on duty. I got a bottle of gin from under my bed and set off When I came to a field I had a good look round and thought how nice and peaceful it was. I went and sat in the middle of the field with my bottle of gin and drank the lot. What a feeling it was to see a field go spinning round me. I slept for about an hour, I think. I then went back to my hotel, or should I say billet? When I got back, I found that I had missed my tea so I went to the canteen and had a good strong cup of coffee. I shall never forget that last day.
The next day was Thursday 27th of June 1946. I got up and went to the office where I got my pass and my papers. I met my Sgt and we both went and said good by to the lads at the Bakery as they had come to see us get on to the train. It was a long journey and the train stopped twice for us to have a meal. We arrived at Calais and boarded the boat for Dover. When we set sail I looked back and thought how lucky I was to be going home alive, when so many of those poor lads were killed.
We had a very smooth crossing and how nice it was to see the White Cliffs of Dover. When we arrived we were taken to the station and put into sections according to our destination. I left Sgt Gatland and wished him luck. He lived in the south of England. I went with a group on the train to York. When we arrived we were taken by lorry to Stencil Barracks where we were told to go and have a wash and then report to the canteen for a meal.
The next day I had to go before the Captain for my final discharge. I thanked him and he wished me all the best for the future. I am now a civvie again! In the afternoon I went to the stores to hand in my rifle and other kit. I then had to draw some civvy clothes. I picked a nice brown suit, a raincoat, shirt, tie, vest, pants and shoes. They were all put into a box because I was still wearing my battle dress.
The next morning, Sunday 30th June 1946, I went to catch the train to Sheffield. As I was walking over the bridge to the platform I saw an old pal, Len Farrell, who was in 119 Field Mobile Bakery with me. He was going to catch a train to Nottingham. I left him and got onto the train. I was only on it for an hour before I got out at Sheffield. I caught a tram outside the station to take me home. I walked along Gloucester Street towards No.55 my parcel under my arm; it felt grand to be coming home for good.
I went into the house and put my arms around my wife, Ivy and gave her a big kiss, I gave my four children a hug and a kiss. I then thought that I must now start my life again.
Good-bye but not forgotten
Now to get out of this uniform.John Dukes Jnr
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