- Operation Neptune during the Second World War -
Battles of WW2 Index
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6th Jun 1944 Ranville
22 April 1944 Re-equipped and on the move
29th April 1944 Air cover over Normandy Landings
1st May 1944 D-Day air cover
1st Jun 1944 On the Move
3rd Jun 1944 On the Move
6th June 1944 D-Day The Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy began.
6th June 1944 D-Day
6th Jun 1944 1st Dorsets land in Normandy
6th Jun 1944 2nd Devons land on Beaches
6th Jun 1944 Complete Suprise
6th Jun 1944 Beach Landing
6th June 1944 D-Day landings
6th June 1944 Photography
6th Jun 1944 Mistaken Identity
6th Jun 1944 Lancaster Lost
6th Jun 1944 D-Day
6th Jun 1944 Para Dog Rescue
6th Jun 1944 Landing
6th June 1944 In Action
6th Jun 1944 Landing
6th June 1944
6th Jun 1944 Advance
6th June 1944 D-day
6th Jun 1944 In Action
6th June 1944 D-Day sorties
6th Jun 1944 On the Move
6th Jun 1944 Landing
6th Jun 1944 Landing
6th Jun 1944 Landing
6th Jun 1944 On the Move
6th Jun 1944 Tank Lands
6th Jun 1944 In Action
7th Jun 1944 In Action
7th Jun 1944 Advance
8th Jun 1944 On the Move
8th Jun 1944 Radar Station
8th Jun 1944 In Action
8th Jun 1944 Patrols
9th Jun 1944 On the Move
9th Jun 1944 Reliefs
9th Jun 1944 Enemy Tanks
10th Jun 1944 On the Move
10th Jun 1944 Advance
10th Jun 1944 Wounded
10th Jun 1944 Enemy Patrol
11th Jun 1944 Waiting
11th Jun 1944 Advance
11th Jun 1944 Prisoners
11th Jun 1944 Quiet
12th Jun 1944 On the Move
12th Jun 1944 Reliefs
12th Jun 1944 On the Move
13th Jun 1944 Landing
13th Jun 1944 In Action
13th Jun 1944 Advance
13th Jun 1944 Patrols
14th Jun 1944 On the Move
14th Jun 1944 Attack Made
14th Jun 1944 In Action
14th Jun 1944 Attack
14th Jun 1944 In Action
14th Jun 1944 In Action
15th Jun 1944 On the Move
16th Jun 1944 Patrol
18th Jun 1944 In Action
23rd Jun 1944 Support
24th Jun 1944 Move
If you can provide any additional information, please add it here.
Those known to have fought in
during the Second World War 1939-1945.
- Abrams. R W . Sergeant (d.6th June 1944 )
- Allnutt Robert.
- Almond Robert. PFC
- Angers Eddie.
- Anglis Anthony Blackstone. Able Sea.
- Argo James. Parm.Mate.
- Ascough George Richard Nicholson. Mjr (Act. Col.)
- Ashcroft Trevor. Pte (d.8th June 1944)
- Baker Thomas William.
- Barker Sydney. Tpr.
- Barrett Jack. Pte.
- Bell Clarence. Cpl
- Bellamy. F W . Sergeant (d.6th June 1944)
- Bennett Robert William. L/Cpl.
- Bernhardt Gerard G.. Rifleman
- Bidmead William.
- Billen Cliff.
- Blane Jack. L/Cpl.
- Blundell Harold Mclenon. Sgt.
- Boswell George W..
- Botsford Margaret Mary. VAD.
- Brooke Harold. WOII.
- Brookman John. L/Cpl (d.8th August 1944)
- Broome Merle.
- Brown Cloyd.
- Brown. A H . Sergeant (d.6th June 1944)
- Brydon George Young. Pte.
- Bulkeley Owen Richard John. Cpl.
- Burns Daphne.
- Butler Joseph A.. Sgt. (d.23th Nov 1944)
- Butterworth James Ernest. Pte.
- Byrd Alfred Mitchell. Pte.
- Carlson Robert E.. Cmdr.
- Carter Jack. Cpl.
- Catanzaro Joseph.
- Chapman Jeff.
- Charvill Harry. Pte.
- Cicchinelli Dante.
- Coggeshall Daniel G..
- Cook Roy William.
- Coons Fred.
- Cooper Joe. Sgt.
- Cowley Samuel Henry. Mjr. (d.19th July 1944)
- Cross J. M.. Sgt.
- Darby Charles Dwight.
- DeTommaso Dominick Mark. T/Sgt.
- Distasi Nicholas. Pte.
- Docking George Herbert.
- Doohan James. Lt.
- Dossetter Arnold Edward. Pte.
- Dowler Arthur.
- Doyle Morris Vernon. Sgt.
- Eager Kenneth Richard Wilson. Sqd.Ldr.
- Eagle Leonard Arthur. Cpl.
- Eagles Charles.
- Fantacone Peter.
- Fells Charles William. Sgt.
- Ferdinand William Victor. Sgt.
- Ferguson John. Cpl. (d.3rd Oct 1944)
- Fine Ronald.
- Finnigan Thomas. Pte.
- Fischer Martin W.. Cpl.
- Fish Clifford Albert.
- Gardner John Walter. Pte.
- Gardner John Alexander. Trpr.
- Garland Alfred James. CPO.
- Gillies Colin Emrie. Spr.
- Glennie .
- Gordon Neil. 1st Lt.
- Gray Douglas E.. Sgt.
- Gregory Albert. L/Cpl.
- Greig John Albert.
- Grout Alva Lee. TEC5.
- Guarnere William.
- Guy Brian.
- Haggard William E. Staff Sergent
- Hannaford. W A . Warrant Officer (d.6th June 1944)
- Harkema Henry. 2nd Lt.
- Harley Stan.
- Harris William Ralph. Pte.
- Hart. R H S . Flight Sergeant (d.6th June 1944)
- Hickmott Edward William. Cpl.
- Higgins Steve.
- Hodgson John.
- Holder Ernest Jack.
- Holmes Joseph. Pte.
- Honeyman Frederick Harvey . Mjr. (d.11th Jun 1944)
- Hood Topham Donald. Lt.Col.
- Hornby. J B . Flying Officer (d.6th June 1944)
- Hughes Walter David.
- Hunter George Whitehall. Sgt
- Hutchins. C J K . Squadron Leader (d.6th June 1944)
- Iavecchia Veto.
- John Thwaite Jack.
- Johnson Charles. Pte.
- Jope James. Sgt.
- Keenan Wilfrid Turtle. Capt. (d.29th June 1944)
- Kendall Denzel.
- Kirkwood Thomas William. Gnr.
- Lanham George Victor.
- Lannom Leonard Edward. Lt.
- Lawrence Mark. Pte.
- Lee George. Sgt.
- Lewis William Henry. Able Sea.
- Liddell Robert Kemp. O.Tel.
- Liskutin Miroslav. Flt.Lt.
- Lucas .
- MacConnachie Thomas Finlay. Lt.
- Mahoney Patrick.
- Manning Albert Edward.
- Mavor Andrew Corbett. L/Cpl.
- May John. CSM.
- McArthur . Cpl.
- McClure Roy. Cpl.
- McCoy. W C . Flight Sergeant (d.6th June 1944)
- McGuire Vernon Lee.
- Miers Cyril Gordon H.. Act. Capt.
- Mitchell Leonard Douglas. Gnr.
- Moodie Robert John. Spr.
- Moore Stan.
- Morley Arthur Henry. Pte. (d.11th June 1944)
- Morris Raymond.
- Moss Albert.
- Muller Walter.
- Nelson James Cuningham. Sgt.
- Nesbitt Gerard. Padre (d.5th July 1944)
- Newman Bob. Pte.
- Nicklin Robert.
- Norris Anthony.
- Nunn William James F.. Pte.
- O'Leary Micheal John. Pte.
- Petfield Malcolm. RQMS.
- Player Gwilym Ernest.
- Rawlinson Walter. Able Sea.
- Reid John. F/O (d.26th June 1944)
- Ridgley Ronald. Cpl.
- Rose Robert. Cpl.
- Rudland Edward Neville. Lt.
- Sanders Arthur Henry.
- Sanders Thomas D..
- Satterfield .
- Sellman Ernest Leonard. Tpr. (d.24th June 1944)
- Sharp Arthur Bramwell.
- Shaughnessy John. Pte.
- Sheehan John. Pte. (d.30th June 1944)
- Shields James Mason. Pte.
- Shimmons Eric Bert. Pte.
- Skinner William Orval. LAC.
- Snow Ellis A..
- Springhorn Albert J..
- Stringer William. Spr.
- Stubberfield Edward James. L/Cpl.
- Tarmey Tom. Lt.
- Thorne Ronald Percy.
- Tierney Frank. Pte.
- Turnbull Robert Bruce. Spr.
- Ward Walter George. Lt.Co.
- Watt Robert. PO.
- Wells Royden. Signalman
- Whaley Leo.
- Wheeler Thomas John. Pte. (d.20th Aug 1944)
- White Leonard George. Sgt.
- Whiten Levi Reginald. Pte.
- Wilson George Edward. Pte.
- Wincott. A R . Flight Sergeant (d.6th June 1944)
- Winter Albert James. Pte.
- Wood Jack. Sgt.
- Wood James William. L/Cpl.
- Wynn-Werninck Willliam. Mjr.
- Youd Laurence. Pte.
- Young Arthur Leonard. Pte.
The names on this list have been submitted by relatives, friends, neighbours and others who wish to remember them, if you have any names to add or any recollections or photos of those listed, please Add a Name to this List
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T/Sgt. Dominick Mark DeTommaso Purple Heart Company B, 294th Combat EngineersI am the proud daughter of Tech Sgt. Dominick M. DeTommaso, Company B, 294th Combat Engineers, US Army, D-day, June 6th, 1944. My beloved father was my hero and warrior. I was very devoted to him. He was a man of honor, courage and commitment, not only to his country but to his family.
My dad was in the following campaigns during WWII: D-day, the Ardennes, St. Lo and the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal and European Campaign Medal.
He was the love of my life and greatest role model. He never liked to talk "war talk" but growing up I would always ask him questions about the war. I used to tell him all the time that he was a hero and he always told me the same thing. He would say I am not a hero; I just did what needed to be done for my country. The real heroes are those who never made it back and gave their lives for their country.
My father was just an ordinary kid from Jersey asked by his country to do extraordinary things. There was a good chance he wouldn't make it back, but he went anyway. I can't imagine the horrible memories of what he saw on those beaches on June 6, 1944. He never liked to talk much about it but he told me once a long time ago that he would never forget all of his fellow soldiers killed on those beaches that day. He told me that it was a memory that haunted him his entire life. It is my dream to visit Normandy in honor of my beloved father and I am hopefully planning a trip there next year for the 68th anniversary of D-day.Rosanne DeTommaso Romano
Sgt. James Cuningham NelsonSadly my father, James Nelson died when I was young and did not talk about the war. I know he was in the Desert Rats until he got burnt when his tank was hit. He was then in the tanks on D-Day and was one of the first to hit the beaches. What regiment he was in I do not know and would love to find more about him and his experiencs. I have no pictures of him from the war time, but have not been through my mum's personal effects yet after she died a couple of years ago.Pete Nelson
Pte. John Shaughnessy Royal Army Medical CorpsMy father, John Shaughnessy, always known as Jack or Shon was captured at Dunkirk. He took his friend Tom to the last place in a boat as he had been shot in the face and turned back to the beach, too late to get to another boat he was captured by the Germans. He was then marched to a POW camp in Germany but escaped only to be given away at a safe house in France by a collaberateur. He was then taken to Stalag XX at Thorn. I always was told that as he was a medic he was in a camp for non-combatants with doctors and padres and other medics.
One day they were being marched back from the fields, where they were made to work for the farmers, and a train had stopped below the bridge they were crossing. The guards had thrown an old Jewish man out to die on the side of the tracks. My father, being a Shaughnessy and a medic, tried to get down on to the tracks to help him. The German guard saved his life by knocking him unconcious with his rifle-butt and ordering his comrades to carry him back to camp as they could see the officer at the head of the column taking out his sidearm to shoot my dad because they did not want anyone to see what was happening to the Jews who were being taken to the death-camps.
He tried to escape again and broke his back falling. The Germans gave them Plaster of Paris and medical supplies and they contrived traction from two bunks and treated his broken back. Because of this my dad was repatriated via the Red Cross in early 1944.
The army changed his number and he was sent over to France on D-Day plus 1 in a glider. He fought through France and went down the Suez Canal to India were he spent the last months of the war in the BMH in Calcutta. From where he was demobbed in 1946 and came home.
He recovered from both the broken jaw caused by the rifle-butt and the broken back and suffered greatly with his feet because of the forced march from Dunkirk to Germany with boots that had been immersed in sea-water.
In 1957, he was diagnosed with a brain-tumour and died after a short illness. All the stories I have heard have come from my mother and my uncle and I have no way of verifying them as I never heard my father mention the war. He had two small china aeroplanes, souvenirs of Thorn, which a farmer's wife gave him in exchange for some rations from his Red Cross parcel, my brother has them now. I have some photos and paper-work from Stalag XXa, including one very similar to one already on this website, with all the men dressed up for a panto or play.Maureen Benton
Anthony Norris East Yorkshire RegimentMy uncle Anthony Norris was at Dunkirk with the BEF and landed at Ouistreham with East Yorks on D-Day. I understood that he was a Conscientious Objector and was therefore a stretcher bearer. I think his 'conversion' was between the two events. Later on, he rescued a Dutch man from a minefield and stepped on a mine that blew his foot off. He said that because it wasn't hurting at the time, carried on carrying him for which he was awarded the BEM.
I'd love to hear from anyone who knew him at all, as I know little else about his war, which was clearly interesting.Paul
CSM. John May Royal SignalsD-Day Jump - Wishaw Paratrooper's Thrilling Story
The following letter has been received by his sister, Margaret, from Sergt. John May, of an airborne division son of the late C.S.M. Thomas May, D.C.M. and Bar, Wishaw, formerly of 3rd Lk. Bn. Of the Home Guard.
Shortly before 1 am on D Day we jumped, dropped, or fell from our aircraft, over the allotted area, with mingled feelings of fear, hope and determation to do the job in the manner we had been taught. A terrific hail of A.A. and small-arms fire met us as we floated to earth. It was like Blackpool illuminations, whilst overhead roared scores more planes, dropping their troops all over the pre-arranged zones.
I landed rather awkwardly in a small garden set out like a plantation, and badly twisted my ankle. Whilst struggling to get out of my parachute harness, I heard a voice call out “O.K. Tommy,” with a pronounced foreign accent. I immediately challenged him and received no reply. Having had some previous experience of Jerry’s tricks in N. Africa, I immediately threw a grenade in the direction of the voice, and ran after it as best I could. I found my man to be a French civilian wearing an armband of some kind, and he alleged to be a member of the Resistance movement. Not feeling like trusting him very much, I questioned him closely in French (Vive La Wishaw High School), and discovered I was in the back garden of a German H.Q. I then decided that it was time to put a move on, and as he and I climbed over the wall a machine-gun opened fire on us. Fortunately, we got over the wall O.K., but in doing so I finished my other ankle as well and could only hobble along.
En route to my rendez-vous, I collected several members of another infantry battalion (still paratroopers), and we were attacked by German troops. Six of my fellows were wounded, but we shot two Jerries and captured their machine-guns, and continued on our way.
Then the glider borne troops began to come in and we had a ringside seat at the most amazing spectacle I have ever seen. A.A. was filling the sky and the gliders just floated through it. Several were hit, but very few were actually shot down out of the scores and scores that came in. No film ever made could depict such a scene.
My next adventure was the capture of a chateau, in company with two officers and two men. The place was very quiet, but we didn’t take any chances, believe me it, and it was just as well. We finished up with four prisoners, one a Frenchman in German uniform. The days following, and the general performance of all the airborne units have, I believe, been pretty well reported already, so I won’t go into any more detail about it, but all I can say is that the organisation of this party was terrific.
Having been previously in France and North Africa, I can definitely state that as far as I am concerned, with the exception of Dunkirk, itself, they were sideshows compared to this. Nevertheless, everyone here is full of confidence that we cannot fail, and we will not fail to carry out any task allotted to us. I fully expect that German propaganda will be at work at home now, but disregard it entirely and trust the BBC - slow, maybe, but none the less true.
This newspaper article is about my mother's sister's husband Uncle John, who went through Dunkirk, D-Day (with 6th Airbourne), Market Garden, and died pecefully at home some 10 years ago.Alan Taylor
Sgt George Whitehall Hunter Argyll & Sutherland HighlandersMy dad, George Hunter landed on Gold Beach in the Normandy landings. Aged 91 he travelled back to Gold Beach.George Hunter
Cpl. Roy McClure C Company 61st Reconnaissance CorpsMy Father, Roy McClure, was in the 61st Recce Corps. I found a photo of what I think is a passing out parade. It says on the back, C company and all the men are seated in rows with a large trophy in front. I know he was on Gold Beach and saw lots of action. I have bits of stories he told and some I have heard from relatives. He was originally from London but met my Mother when he was posted to Southampton. He arrived with three bren gun cariers to dig in for an invasion. He served through France, Holland and Belgium in command of three Armoured cars. I have one story of how they ambushed a staff car, found documents and he carried a Lugar pistol he took from the officer. I have other stories that may be of interest, perhaps I may find a relation of another soldier from his unit.Chris McClure
Lt. Leonard Edward "June" Lannom 941st Field ArtilleryMy father, June Lannom, was in the Tennessee National Guard when the war broke out. He was a SFC in the 181st Field Artillery, stationed in Tullahoma Tn. He was sent to signal officer training in Kansas, because he was employed by the Telephone Company when the war broke out. Upon completion of OCS, he was assigned to the 941st Field Artillery. His unit was sent to the desert in California for training. My dad's unit was put on a ship and sent to Exeter, England.
The 941st landed on Utah Beach D+6. My dad often spoke of the battle at Remagen Bridge, Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of prisoners at Bauchenwald Concentration Camp. He carried pictures of stacked bodies in his wallet till he died. My Aunt told me that dad was made Temporary Mayor of a town liberated by US soldiers. Dad died in 1981, following 45 years of service with South Central Bell.Len Lannom
TEC5. Alva Lee Grout Troop D, 3rd Platoon 85th Cavalry Reconnaissance Regt.Alva L. Grout served as a CW Radio Operator with 85th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squad Mechanized, Troop D 3rd Platoon, 5th Armored Division, 3rd Army. The Radio Operator installed and operated tactical field radio transmitting and receiving equipment. Sent and received messages by Morse Code CW ICW and tone signals. Received and transmitted CW, ICW, and tone signals at about 20 five letter random code groups per minute. We also performed 1st echelon maintenance.
Troop D consisted of 23 men who worked together as a recon unit using 2 armored M8 cars, 1 light tank, 3 Jeeps and a supply truck. Initially from landing to Battle of the Bulge, we didn’t have a light tank, M8 75 MM howitzer, instead we had 3 Armored M8 cars. In January 1945, 3 new replacements and I were assigned to a new 75mm Howitzer M8 light tank which replaced one of our armored cars. We nicknamed the new tank “DaisyMae”. I had my choice between being a mechanic or a radio operator. I thought the radio operator would be easier.
I served in World War II in Europe with a Reconnaissance Unit of the 5th Armored Division. My specialty was CW Radio Operator and Turret Gunner in an M8 Armored Car across France and then in a 75mm Howitzer M8 light tank across Germany. The CW radio required the use of the Morse code and a telegraph key to send messages. A small cryptograph unit was used to scramble outgoing messages and descramble incoming messages. Our job in recon was mainly to gather information on location and movement of the enemy and check on roads and bridges ahead of the main attack forces.
We trained in May of 1943 at Camp Campbell, Ky. The normal army training period for a radio operator was 6 months. Because of the war, this timeframe and our training was completed in 3 months, or 12 weeks. It was rigorous and we trained into the evening. We later went to the Mojave Desert in California to practice maneuvers. Then we were stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey in December 1944 near New Brunswick. This was just before going overseas to England. It took 2 weeks to go from New York Harbor to England in the crowded troop ship. We travelled a similar path as the Titanic in the North Atlantic; we were in a “Liberty Ship”. We had daily abandon ship drills. We were supposed to put on life jackets and go to where lifeboats were located, but we never actually loaded anything into the water. We never knew when it was the real thing because of German U-boats in the area. We were stationed 25 or 30 miles west of London and trained around Southhampton.
We entered the war in Normandy on July 24th, 1944 when the front line was 20 miles inland at St. Lo. We were part of General Patton’s 3rd Army. We landed 10 miles from Utah beach, 10 minutes towards Omaha Beach. Our landing was accompanied by a massive air attack on the front line at St. Lo. Over 2,000 planes, mainly B-24’s and B-17’s filled the sky flying in tight formation. The planes were bombing St. Lo. off the map. The planes kept returning to England to refuel. Then they would return and bomb more. The noise and smoke was a sight to see even 30 miles away. Our Division took part in the break-through at St. Lo and then helped to encircle the German forces in Normandy in the action known as the “Falaise Pocket”.
One of my best friends was the Lieutenant of our Troop D and rode with me in the M8 Greyhound Armored car. I befriended him while we were in England. He was from South Carolina; 21 years old married with no kids. I was usually in the lead car all the way across France and Germany in a group of 4 men in each car. My 2nd day after landing in Normandy I heard a “whoosh” sound and the lieutenant’s head was gone, blown off by a German Bazooka. The traumatic part was that his head landed right into my lap. I had to clean up the inside of the armored car. Out of these original 4 crewmembers I was the only to make it home. The other 2 member made it all the way through France with me, one died in the Battle of the Bulge, the last guy went AWOL and had a mental breakdown and was sent home. The armored car had a crew of 4 GI’s, it was made by Ford. Another GI in our outfit was also hit as the German snipers targeted officers and he was riding with his hat on.
Another close call was when I was in another armored car in Eastern France but close to Belgium. We had crossed into Belgium but I thought we were actually in France. I was in the lead M8 with another guy. I was always in the lead armored car because in artillery testing I was the only one of a few able to shoot some targets at a certain distance. This was even more eventful when you realize I didn’t have the military training that some of the other members of Troop D did. I always have wondered if some of them messed up on purpose to miss being in the lead car. Anyway, this time in France Our Gun on top of the M8 jammed. A replacement Gi was manning our turret gun, I explained to him that the leather pouch on the side of the gun was for the empty shells that would eject from the gun, and if it filled up it would jam the Browning. The replacement was trained as the same facility as I was, at the Mojave Desert in California. This leather pouch must remain clear and emptied every once in a while, otherwise it would jam the gun. The gun became jammed and I asked our Driver to pull over so I could figure out the gun. The armored car that took my place in the lead was blown up just a minute later when we rounded a corner in Ernee, France. A German anti-aircraft gun, 88 mm was horizontal hidden in the town square. The first shell went right through the lead tank killing everybody inside. A second shell hit it again and ignited the shells in the M8. 4 of my friends were killed. I believe that was the time I felt was my closest call in my whole war experience.
I had a guy in my Troop D that was a short thin red-haired guy that was a goof-off. I was always worried that “Skeeics” was his nickname was going to shoot me. Skeeics rode behind me when we were en-route and traveling in the armored cars. I was always telling him to point his gun to the left or right, not to point it in front of him, or right at my rear. We always rode with the safety off. We would get into some really intense discussions about this. One time we were pulling into a French dairy farm to spend the night and Skeeics machine gun went off near me. I really yelled at him and he laughed it off saying he missed me by a lot. Skeeics died at the Battle of the Bulge.
On August 30th, 1944, we were thrilled to be part of the liberation day parade in Paris. The French underground had liberated the city a few days before. Our vehicles were 4 wide going down the Champs-Élysées, and I was in our M8 Armored car, 3 vehicles from the front of the parade. The French people love a parade, and they gave us a tremendous welcome. When the German army came into Paris, the French didn’t fight, but just surrendered because they didn’t want their beautiful city damaged by war. We would go fishing while in Europe. We would throw a grenade into the water and fish would be stunned and come to the surface.
About 2 weeks after leaving Paris and traveling through a corner of Belgium and across the tiny country of Luxembourg, we reached the German border. A few days later on September 14th, 1944, we were part of a small combat unit that crossed the German border from Luxembourg. I believe this action made world headlines a few days later. Also Patton ordered this penetration as a diversionary tactic. We entered Germany and camped on a hill and we could view German troops and Tank’s covered in camouflage. There were around 100 American Soldiers. One of my friends in our jeep “Tex” Donald Rosson from Kerrville, Tx was a Rambo type of guy and volunteered to sneak into town and check it out. He was really gutsy; he said “I’ll find out”. He was with 2 other soldiers. They simply drove into a small town, Small town west of Trier. I remember most of the town’s people had left but a few stayed behind and were waving white stuff, sheets and such to surrender. Tex and 2 other Soldiers drove over a bridge, into town and grabbed a soldier off the street and threw him over the hood of the Jeep and drove back to camp. The German soldier who looked about 16 years old didn’t talk at first. He was beaten and kicked, then started talking and told them that the concrete bunkers were not armed because the soldiers had been diverted to Russia. I guess they had no idea that Americans were that close to them. We stayed 2 days, and were pushed back to our lines I had a lot of concern for getting my tent. Each pup-tent was shared by 2 soldiers with each soldier having been issued a side. I had wrangled 2 halves so I had a tent all to myself. When the Germans countered after 2 days, we left in such a hurry that we basically left most of our supplies at that camp site on the hill, and I was upset I had to leave my tent behind. I hastily rolled it up and tied to the back of our Jeep. That night I set it up I could see bullet holes through the tent.
Our border crossing was a 3 mile penetration through lightly manned concrete bunkers of the Siegfried Line. This was when another war-time close call happened. This was the 3rd time was when I was in a Jeep on a reconnaissance trip that earned his group of no more than 100 men world fame by being the first group of American soldiers that entered into Germany. This close call involves them leaving Germany on that episode we were being chased by the Germans when we retreated back into Luxembourg. We were only 1/8 of a mile behind us and shells were whizzing about us. At some point General Patton has issued direct orders to attack the town. Our commander at the time knew it would have been suicide and Patton was doing it for political reasons. It was a political move to divert attention from the facts that lead up to the movie “A Bridge Too Far”; Attention was diverted from the bridges to Allied action at German borders. Our commander Captain Carlson was defied orders and wouldn’t take his men in because they were so outnumbered, we were recon and had no infantry with us. Carlson saved all of our lives; he was later demoted to a tank driver after refusing to obey orders. He wasn’t sure if the German line was armed and by what force. Americans would not be in Germany until February 1945.
I remember thinking when we got into France from Omaha Beach that the war would probably be over in a matter of weeks. We were advancing at such a great pace but what happened is our supply lines were so stretched, we couldn’t get food and gas to the front lines fast enough, at least as fast as the soldiers were moving. Another difficulty was the black market of goods at that time. When the transportation trucks carrying gas for vehicles on the front lines, by the time they arrived they were mostly only half full of gas. It was thought that the negro drivers were selling gas to the French or Belgium people for a high price along the way, but I think all the drivers were doing it, black and white. The French people had not had gas for 4 or 5 years since the beginning of the war. Also Patton and Montgomery were feuding; the British Commander Montgomery hadn’t completed the conquest that had been expected of them. The British in general were more conservative in their troop advances. All of the supplies were coming in on ships but there were not really any good ports to enter, the best being Antwerp, Belgium as about the main and only port. The ports around Holland were still controlled by the Germans. I believe Germany made a mistake invading Russia because the Russians were ruthless. Sending Troops into Russia spread German troops thinner, thus contributing to them losing the war. The Germans were also at a disadvantage because they didn’t have the winter survival skills the Russians had. The Germans still had horses in their army due to the lack of gas.
Our 5th Armored Division was then sent North into Belgium to join the 1st Army. The “Battle of the Bulge” followed in mid-December. Our Division was on the North edge of the bulge in Belgium near the German border. The Battle of the Bulge started at 5:30 on December 16, 1944 when a lightening counterattack by 3 German Armies under the command of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt swept across the northern half of The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg into Belgium, with Antwerp as the objective. The assault, under cover of fog and rain, was initially very successful; opening a 45 mile-wide front, penetrating 60 miles at its farthest point. To stem this onslaught the U.S. 3rd Army, under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., was diverted from the Saar region of France. Swinging north his troops re-liberated northern Luxembourg and relieved, on December 26th 1944, the forces at Bastogne, Belgium. The U.S. 1st Army, of which we were attached now, fighting to the North, met with Patton’s 3rd Army on January 16th 1945 at Houffalize, Belgium. The weather, the enemy artillery and the casualties on both sides were unbelievable. This was Hitler’s last push even though they were losing the war. It was a large awful battle, fought in deep snow and record cold weather. I remember seeing dead soldiers being stacked up like cords of wood. I was in Troop/ Company D, our Troop A or Company A suffered %50 casualties in this battle. I spend a lot of time in a fox hold that I had dug. One time an officer came by and woke me up, there was so much artillery that there I counted 132 rounds going off per minute. The battle lasted 2 weeks. That was some of the coldest night I have ever experienced.
Later in January 1945, what was left of our Recon Unit was privileged to spend about 10 days with a farm family in Holland to recuperate and reorganize. We slept in the hay-mow next to the dairy cows. This was heaven compared to where we had been recently. The farmer’s three teen-aged daughters were also a welcome sight for all of us.
In Holland, our Division joined the 9th Army and headed East across North-Central Germany. When we entered Germany in the Spring we came up on an abandoned concentration camp at Bergen Belzen. I wanted to stop and get a fresh ˝ side of a tent. I put my ˝ tent up against the armored car, and it had gotten sprayed with bullet holes previously. The tires on the armored car were hit, but tires during war were made to seal over. We came across the recently liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belzen. The fighting was about over once we crossed the Rhine River. We could run into German soldiers who wanted to surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians because the Russians would just shoot them. Unfortunately the Americans because they had no way to getting prisoners from the front lines back, would have to go ahead and shoot them, I myself never did. The officers in charge would always ask for volunteers for this. There were always some idiots who would volunteer.
We were stopped at the Elbe River about 45 miles west of Berlin on orders from 9th Army and told to wait for the Russians coming West. This was about 3 weeks before the war ended. The Elbe River had been agreed on by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as the meeting line of the 2 armies. The Elbe river bridge was blown up anyway so we couldn’t cross easily.
From here I went to see the Buchenwald Camp. I wasn’t present when it was liberated, but I was there recently afterwards. I took 3 rolls of pictures of Jews, building, etc. I took the film to a town in Germany to be developed but the shop told me the film didn’t turn out, but he did give me a couple pictures of buildings. I’m sure this was done because he didn’t want the pictures going to the U.S. and being circulated. I have a stack of horrible concentration camp pictures that I bought along with a German Luger. I had another gun, but I sold it. From Buchenwald, I traveled to Paris and other places and eventually left to New York via Antwerp, Belgium in December. I was in Europe 2 years almost exactly.
About 7 months after the war ended, we were on our way home. One of the most welcome sights of my 3 years in service occurred on a cold, foggy morning on December 12th 1945 when the troop ship we were on sailed into New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty came into view. It had been 2 years to the day since we had left the same harbor. The Harbor tug boats pulled us in and anytime troop ships arrived all the tug boats welcomed the troop boats with long continued blasts of their fog horns. It was incredibly loud! In summary, I feel very fortunate to have survived this conflict and to be here with you tonight 49 years later.Chris Davis
Pte. Albert James Winter Dorset RegimentMy Dad, Albert Winter, took part in the Normandy landings with the Dorset Regiment. He said they had to try to take a hill which I now know was Hill 112. He didn't talk about the war much, but I know he lost 2 brothers during the war one was killed at Anzio, the other was shot down over France on the way back from a bombing mission, he was seconded to the Canadian Air Force.
My father was born in Barton Hill in Bristol in 1919, he had a what we think today as a hard childhood but was probably the norm in those days, no shoes, taking it in turns with his siblings for the top of his father's boiled egg, but like most people in those days,he just got on with it. Sadly he died of cancer in 1999 after yet another struggle.
In my eyes my father is a hero, and so are all the others that gave or risked their lives for our freedom. Love you DadMartin Winter
Ronald Percy "Snowy" Thorne HMS SiriusMy father, Ron Thorne, served as a gunner on HMS Sirius. He was called Snowy because his hair was so blond it was white. He never spoke much about the war but I know he was at the Normandy Landings and in the Mediterranean. He was also on HMS Birmingham. He met my Mother in Cape Town and in 1946 he sent her the money to travel to England. They were married in 1947 in his home town of Sherborne. They returned to South Africa, but settled in Dorset again a couple of years later.Ann Thorne
Staff Sergent William E Haggard DSM. Company H 12th Infantry RegimentMy grandfather, William Haggard was a mortar man, he was part of the first wave on D-Day, then fought through France and Belgium. I learned what little I know about his service through research. I saw 'When Trumpets Fade' without knowing my grandfather was involved in the battle that film was about. He was captured in Echternach, Luxembourg. I found out through a letter I found in his house that his squad was in a building basement and the Germans fired three artillery shells into the building and killed some of the men with him and they surrendered because they were out of ammo. They were then taken to Stalag 4B. He said they would be fed potato soup that "looked like one potato and 55 gallons of water".
I admire him and all World War 2 veterans because in my mind he was a hero and there were literally millions of men in that war who were like him.
PO. Robert Watt HMS NelsonMy late grandfather, Robert Watt, was a gunnery petty officer on HMS Nelson at the D-day landings in 1944 when it was damaged by a mine. He was still on board when the ship went to drydock in Philadelphia, USA and remained as part of the skeleton crew while it was repaired. To pass the time ashore he and some of the other crew members picked fruit on the local farms and had their photo printed in a newspaper there under the headline: "From the beaches to the peaches".Jim Grunberg
Cpl. Leonard Arthur "Jack" Eagle 2nd Btn. Middlesex RegimentMy late father, Leonard Eagle was already in the Middlesex Regiment in 1938 was at Dunkirk and D DayKevin Eagle
Jeff Chapman 582 SquadronMy Father was at Little Staughton from April 1944 to February 1945. He flew on operations until October 1944. He had completed three tours including several sorties in the master bomber crew with the squadron commander. This is his story:
Desert Song by Jeff Chapman
Where are they now;
those who went to war by night,
And those below their droning height,
who, in their terror, cried,
"Why kill our children so?"
Where did they go?
Are they yet there, with those who did not die?
And do we, faintly, hear their cry
from that land of long ago?
I went to the library to return a book. As I was still at the reception counter I saw a book that somebody else had just brought back. Normally I would not have given it a second glance but something made me pick it up. It was called 'Notable escapes during World War II' or something of the sort. I sat down to have a look through it and, curiously, it opened at the beginning of a chapter which caught my eye. It was about the crew of an aircraft of 148 Squadron who had been attacking a German-held airfield at Derna in North Africa on the night of 31st May 1942. On the way home they had been attacked in turn by a German night-fighter, had an engine put out of action and eventually crash-landed in the empty (and very sandy) spaces of Cyrenaica.
What caused my particular interest in this was that '148' was one of our 'sister' squadrons based twenty or thirty miles further west from us near a point on the map known as Fuka. Several members of this crew survived the crash and two of them decided to walk as far as they could. The others opted to stay by the aircraft, which was, depending on where you thought you were and whether you had managed to get a message back to base before you put down, recommended as the better way of staying alive.
These two chaps walked by night and slept by day anywhere they could find some shade. They had no food and no water but were able to keep themselves going by licking the dampness, which formed at the base of rocks and large stones just before dawn. By walking due north they survived long enough in this fashion to get to the coastal road where they were picked up by the German Army and became prisoners of war. A remarkable example of determination and effort.
When I got home from the library I looked in my flying logbook and saw that the previous night to this, 30th May, my crew and I had flown a similar mission against the same target and again on the 1st June, each a round trip of 5 hrs 40 minutes. I had noted in my logbook that on the first occasion the Ack-Ack at the target was particularly intense and unpleasant but much less so the second time. Perhaps our joint effort had not done them any good. I make the point about these dates because, generally speaking, our squadron went bombing one night and 148 Squadron the next on a regular sort of rota which went on for much of that summer.
Our squadron, No.70, then known as No.70 Bomber and Transport Squadron had been a veteran of Middle East affairs since the 1920's flying unwieldy Vickers 'Valencia' and 'Victoria' twin-engined biplanes. In those days bombs were dropped upon any Kurdish tribes who became restive through the presence of the British in their territory. We were now equipped, as was 148 Sqdn, with the Wellington Ic bomber powered by the reliable but rather underpowered Pegasus engines, and, we liked to think, engaged in a more worthy cause.
We were based on a flat portion of desert much like any other and distinguished from others only by its number, Landing Ground 104. Our unit straddled the tarmac road which ran, more or less without interruption, from Alexandria, 100 miles to the East, to Tripoli, 1000 miles to the West. Our aircraft were parked at the end of the landing strip which lay parallel to the road and between it and the single railway track, a mile to the south, which ran from Alexandria as far as Mersa Matruh. A few miles up the track were a few nondescript railway station buildings which were graced by a mention on maps as El Daba.
For us aircrew every other day and night came to be a sort of day off from the war. This was not so much for our benefit as for that of the engine fitters working desperately to keep the sand out of our rather clapped-out engines and making them good for yet one more trip.
Twenty minutes walk to the north was the Mediterranean, very blue, and clean and wholesome (in those days) and we swam and sunbathed at will. This was, I suppose, if one forgot about the next night's 8-hour slog to find some shipping to bomb in Benghazi harbour and being shot at rather effectively for one's pains, as near to paradise as one was likely to get for the foreseeable future.
About 6 p.m. all ranks went to their respective mess-tents for the main nosh-up of the day. If we were lucky it would be fried bully beef and some canned potatoes and a mug of tea brewed in a dilute solution of chlorine with a teaspoonful of sand in it for good measure; and if the supplies had come up from Alex, we would be able to buy a couple of pints of New Zealand beer from the canteen for afters. As it got dark the whole squadron would prepare itself for the evening's entertainment.
We had shallow hollows in the sand with a low tent slung over which served as sleeping quarters for two. These were scattered haphazardly and I shared tent No. 55 with Geoff Stayton, our front gunner. Each of us was responsible for his own air-raid precautions and Geoff and I had dug a slit trench about 3 feet deep next to our tent and we would now get into it with our bottles and await events.
In the incredible silence of the desert you could hear it coming for miles, a kind of throbbing that you knew was the usual Junkers 88. One's ears, in those days, became finely tuned to the sound of individual aircraft types. Jerry pilots were apt to de-synchronise their engines, that is they would run one engine, say, 20 rpm slower than the other thus producing a distinctive 'beat' every three seconds. There was a theory that they thought this had an effect on our radar systems (not that we had any in the Middle East) and of course this was nonsense but they nearly always seemed to do it. Maybe they just liked the noise. If any of our own pilots failed to get their engines together they would receive suitable advice from their crewmembers as this throbbing could get quite wearing on the nerves. (I express my regrets to the reader if these technical details become tedious but this wom-wom-wom noise had been a fact of life in Britain since 1940 as anyone who reads this, of a certain age, will recall.)
The Ju. 88 was the work-horse of the Luftwaffe, a very efficient twin-engined aircraft, fast, manoeuvrable, and versatile in that it was used as a night-fighter as well as a bomber. They always came from the west, the pilot map-reading his way easily enough along the coast, keeping just a little bit out to sea until he found us to avoid any stray flak as they would fly quite low. He would clearly see the three promontories one after the other along the coast, the Ras Alam el Rum at Mersa Matruh, the Ras el Kenafs at Fuka and the Ras el Daba. He would know that if he drew an imaginary line due south from the Ras el Daba he would find us at the point where it crossed the tarmac road. Not that he would see us all that clearly, if at all, for everything was heavily camouflaged. But he would have a good game with us for a while, dropping the odd bomb whenever the fancy took him, have a circle round, come in from a different angle, five minutes later drop another and so on. We usually kept our heads above ground to see what was going on until we heard the whistle of the bomb coming down and then, like the proverbial ostrich, buried our heads in the sand. When it was moonlight the aircraft would be perfectly visible at their usual height of 1500 - 2000 feet and one could judge fairly well from its course whether it was heading immediately our way. Darkness in the desert was not as we knew it back home; light from the stars was enough and there seemed such an incredible number of them; but moonlight was another thing altogether and good enough to read a copy of that multi-purpose publication, the Eighth Army News, that is if you still had a copy that hadn't been torn up into handy sized squares. As by this time the second half of our beer ration was now comfortably inside most of us a somewhat more relaxed view could be taken, especially towards the end of our occupation of L.G. 104 when we knew that in the several months of nightly bombing we had had, Jerry might have put some holes through our aeroplanes, but no-one had been even slightly injured.
We had no ack-ack as such but all the ground crew had been issued with a rifle and ammunition. There were about 150 of them and they would fire at will from their trenches as Jerry came over. One particular night it was very bright moonlight and he came over low, and very visible. He must have known how clearly we could see him because we used to bomb his airfield at low-level in just the same way. Nothing much happened at first; each time he came over he dropped one bomb, we ducked our heads, and looked again. Each time a hundred and fifty different points of aim put up a barrage of bullets he would have to fly through. After several runs over the landing ground we heard one of his engines hesitate a bit, cough a bit, and then the other engine rise in pitch as the pilot gave it full throttle to maintain height. We were all out of our trenches trying to get a look and saw it disappear towards the southeast and we knew he was in trouble because he didn't seem to be able to turn to go back home. In a minute or so we could see an orange glow on the ground some miles away. We all knew what it meant. There was a sort of half-hearted cheer. "Poor buggers", I heard someone say.
There was quiet for a moment. And then Jones-the-Voice started up. (Every squadron seemed to have one, I learned, when I was older in the Service.) Enthused by the occasion, by the New Zealand beer, and by the cool of the desert night perhaps, he launched himself with the panache characteristic of his race into 'Lili Marlene', the song of North Africa in '42; borrowed by us from the Germans and sung by either side whenever the occasion seemed to require it. He sung the official version for two or three verses, (I always like to think he was a sensitive soul), before degenerating, if that is the right word, into the squadron version, some two dozen verses I should think, most of which cast doubts about the parentage of NCOs in general, some in particular; pilots who misused their engines (but that wasn't the word he used); all politicians, Hitler and Goering; und so weiter. It went on and on. Voices from near and voices from far away entered into a sort of dismembered chorus. It was all rather moving in the otherwise now-silent desert night and, to me, it has become quite unforgettable. I have to confess that I never found the words of Lili Marlene particularly edifying, then or now, and have long forgotten the squadron version but I never hear that haunting tune without instant recall of that occasion and, I sometimes imagine, when a little carried away by nostalgia, that it was perhaps, a kind of unconscious requiem. And something else, too...the thought, reinforced by more recently received perceptions from both sides, that maybe the greater enemy had been the harsh, unyielding, and unforgiving desert itself.
It’s a strange thing why I got to remember this at all. It was those chaps in that book in the library licking stones to keep alive. It reminded me of how damp it felt at the bottom of our slit trench that night. Funny, how one small thing reminds you of what you thought you had long forgotten.
These events which returned to my mind so readily during my visit to the library made me start to think about that year, 1942, and I came to the conclusion that my recollections of it are probably more vivid after the perspective given by time than most other years.
I have therefore decided to try and write about it while I am still able. I acknowledge that no one has ever asked me, or, indeed is ever likely to, but I have noticed that many of those who bare their souls do so without any prompting by an eager public. And I make no apology for the fickle winds, or just inattention (which airmen are sometimes prone to), that occasionally take me off course during this story of what turned out to be really just a longish journey; or for a tendency, verging on the tedious at times, no doubt, to dwell on technical detail.
I had, at the beginning of that year, not long since become twenty-one. I was a newly promoted sergeant in the Royal Air Force and recently deemed to have become sufficiently proficient at wireless telegraphy and air gunnery to become part of the crew of a Vickers 'Wellington' bomber aircraft - I should say at least that I had a certificate to this effect. Such an aircraft required, in those days, two pilots, a navigator, a wireless operator/air gunner such as myself, and two air- gunners. About sixty of us, in our assorted trades, all much of an age, had arrived at Operational Training Unit No.23 at Moreton-in-the-Marsh in the heart of the Cotswolds towards the end of summer 1941. The method of forming us into crews was quite simply that of putting our names into a hat. In retrospect this turned out to be as good a system as any and I have no doubt that had we been allowed a choice we would have made no better for all that we were a motley collection - or maybe even because of it.
Bill Gunning was one of our pilots who came out of the hat; very Welsh and a schoolmaster, rather highly strung, at 30 much older than the rest of us, and a Canadian, Johnnie Carpenter, very laid back, the other. Our navigator, whose name I confess to having forgotten was Australian, extremely tall and spare of frame, also very laid back and spoke, if at all, extremely slowly. The two gunners were 'Jock' Brown, not surprisingly a Scot, and Geoff Stayton, who, with a background very similar to my own, represented the English.
We were programmed during the next three months to fly nearly every day and sometimes at night, at first with our instructor, a pre-war, regular officer who had completed a tour of at least 30 bombing operations (and whom, for that reason, we regarded with some awe); and, after we had become reasonably competent, to go it alone. Our flying consisted mainly of cross-country runs on the western side of Britain up as far as the Mull of Galloway and back down the Irish Sea, or sometimes the other way round; and sometimes short bombing and gunnery exercises. A few of the crews, including ours, were moved after a few weeks from Moreton, which was as comfortable as a peace-time base, and sent out to its 'satellite' airfield at Edgehill, near Banbury.
There we lived in wooden huts which we could never get warm - nights when we were not flying we would huddle round the communal cast-iron stove; the lavatorial arrangements were primitive and were often frozen up and we had to be taken by truck back to Moreton once a week, for instance, in order to have a bath, but service life was certainly more easy-going than the more regimental Moreton-in-the Marsh. One of the pleasures of Banbury (in fact the only one as far as I knew) was Ye Olde Tea Shop where the two delightful welcoming elderly ladies still made Banbury Cakes and always, somehow, managed to produce them in sufficient numbers when we arrived, together with the best cup of tea for miles around. We lived for a time in a state of blissful ignorance of perils to come that we had not anticipated. One night in Nov. '41, some of us took off from Edgehill, Moreton-in-the-Marsh and other training places despite a warning of snow. It did, in fact, begin to snow hard and some of them got lost and either ran out of fuel because they couldn't find anywhere to land and crashed, or crashed attempting to land at base which was to have a sobering effect not just on us but on the whole of Training Command, apparently. We, ourselves, were flying that night from Edgehill but fortunately with an experienced pilot who sensed that something was going wrong with the weather and decided on his own initiative to return early from our cross- country. Even so we lost all contact with the ground and I had for the first time, in a situation which was becoming increasingly life threatening, to use such skills as I possessed to get wireless bearings and fixes. (One of the principles of safe flying when not certain of one's position is never to come down through cloud below the height of the highest ground that it would be possible to be over. This is easy to say; not so easy in practice. When fuel runs short the temptation to go down through cloud and have a look can be dangerous.) Anyway, we 'homed' thus by wireless to Moreton where they had a D/F (direction-finding) station, made a safe, if somewhat interesting landing, thanks to our instructor, and stayed there the rest of the night.
On Sunday 7th December '41 we went for yet another 6 hour round trip up to Scotland with the Squadron Leader in charge of our unit to check us out for competence as a crew. It had been clear weather over Wales and the Irish Sea and, heading once again for the Mull of Galloway, we had passed over the south west tip of the Isle of Man right on course and flying at 19000 feet. A well-developed mass of cloud soon appeared ahead of us. Normally one would have picked one's way through it, finding the gaps as though they were mountain peaks which pilots found quite fun to do and certainly desirable within a particular range of air-temperatures because of the dangers of icing. Be that as it may, "I'll give you a little experience of icing", he said, took the controls himself and went straight into it.
I looked out of my small window which was level with the leading edge of the port wing and the exhaust collector ring of the port engine eight feet or so away. Normally this got hot enough for me to see it glow a dull red at night. I saw ice building up rapidly on this to a thickness of 4 or 5 inches and then like a sheet over the wings and, with that, the controls locked solid, both engines cut, and everything seemed to go berserk. The next 90 seconds seemed quite unreal; as though in slow motion. I kept thinking 'this is not really happening, I am not in an aeroplane dropping like a stone over the Irish Sea' But I could see, and when I think about it can now still quite clearly see the Sqdn Leader with not just his hands but also both feet on the control column trying to shift it. The navigator and I were flung about in all directions by the 'G' forces working upon us and the aircraft but with considerable effort reached the area behind the pilots and were able to see, not out of the aircraft because of the ice covering all the perspex, but the alarming revolutions of the altimeter and the non-revolutions of the engines. At about 3000 feet some of the ice shook off or melted as we lurched downwards, the wings bending alarmingly, the controls moved, both engines coughed, spluttered, and eventually re-started after some quite alarming bangs and saved us an unscheduled landing in the drink as normality was restored. There was one very sheepish (and probably quite frightened) Sqdn Ldr. and one extremely frightened crewmember, and as nobody spoke a word for some time I assume the others had much the same sort of thoughts. In retrospect, I would rate this as one of the worst experiences of my life. Even during the course of three tours of operational flying ahead of me we always managed to keep at least half our engines going. Having none over the sea is not recommended. However it was an extremely good lesson we learned that day as at least it taught us to go round large and nasty-looking clouds rather than through them. It also gave me some idea, for instance, of the physical problems to be faced in trying to clamber out of a badly damaged aircraft, (on fire perhaps), wearing a flying suit, Mae-West, parachute-harness, parachute, and gyrating all over the sky. I tried not to think about that too much. This particular day was, of course, rather more momentous for events other than this. The Japanese entered the war by striking at Pearl Harbour, Malaya and Hong Kong and, as the temperature on the Russian front went down to 40° below zero, the German forces were just, but only just, being beaten back from the outskirts of Moscow.
Three days after this, on our next cross-country exercise, with Bill Gunning in charge and at the controls, it was seen that the panel on the starboard wing which covered the dinghy storage had disappeared and that the dinghy itself was self-inflating, as it was designed to do (but only if you landed on water). As it pushed itself out of its compartment, and before it had become no more than half-inflated, it was seized by the slipstream over the wing and immediately became entangled with the tailplane and rudder in such a way that we could only shift it by landing. About the same time, and coincidentally, the wireless packed up. Needing no further reason for aborting our flight we returned to base in an untidy and certainly incongruous fashion making a surprisingly good landing considering the restriction on our steering capabilities and causing some interest in so doing. It was a fact of life that an aircraft in apparent difficulties would draw a crowd faster than a Naafi van. While one invariably felt sick in one's stomach there was always this compulsion to watch.
In the couple of weeks that followed we completed our training in the comparative and continuing calm of the Cotswolds despite these world events. Bill Gunning was designated as our aircraft captain with Johnnie Carpenter as 2nd pilot. They both had much the same experience but the older of the two had the edge, on paper at least. Perhaps I should say here that the aircraft captain was normally the pilot with the most flying experience regardless of rank; a sergeant pilot could be captain with even a quite senior officer in the crew and still make all the decisions as far as flying the aircraft was concerned. Our new skipper was good at take-offs but could make some quite exciting landings and we got quite used to bracing ourselves for the bump. In the end he mastered the art of 'going round again' by sheer necessity but somewhat at the expense of our nervous systems. J. Carpenter, however, always landed at the first attempt with confidence and finesse, so between them they did well - the rest of the crew soon realised that an unspoken arrangement developed whereby at night or when the weather was dodgy or there was a nasty cross-wind JC did the landing, much to the relief of the rest of the crew. I, certainly, having already developed something of a neurosis about aborted landings had developed a technique to cope with it (the neurosis, I mean). I will try and explain.
The Wellington was a reliable and tough aircraft without any particular vices. However, in the cockpit the separate levers which operated the undercarriage and the flaps (which slowed the aircraft for landing) were somewhat close together under the throttle levers. Coming in to land with undercarriage down and full flap, if the pilot misjudged his approach to the runway - and this was very common to the inexperienced - he had to make a quick decision whether to try and make the best of it and get the aircraft down on the ground somehow (particularly in bad weather) or to have another go at it. This is the process known as 'going round again'. If he decided on the latter the rest of the crew usually held their breath, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best. Assuming that he had put the propellers into 'fine pitch' for the landing he would have to push both throttles fully forward with his right hand to engage full power, keep the aircraft steady for the moment with his left hand on the control column at the same time pushing it forward against some pressure to keep the nose down until sufficient speed had been built up, simultaneously feel for - and lift up - the undercarriage lever under the throttles with his right hand and then with the same hand lift up the flap lever bit by bit. In the stress of the situation, especially at night, the unwary pilot could mistake the undercarriage lever for the flap lever (being, as I have said, close together) and lift off full flap in one go, the aircraft would suddenly lose the extra lift provided by them being in the fully down position and immediately lose height and fly into the ground. I saw this happen a few times from the ground and the resulting orange fireball and cloud of black smoke was horrible to watch. Whenever possible therefore I used to stand behind pilots when we came in to land to try and prevent this - not of course that I ever let on about what I was thinking. It was all quite ridiculous and in any case I was sure I would never have had the nerve to intervene. (Not until 1943 was a simple delaying device fitted in the flaps hydraulic system to stop this happening - but too late for many). I did, however pluck up courage to intervene in slightly different circumstances during 1943 while on a routine flight, just the pilot (quite a senior officer) and myself, were coming in to land at Pershore. On this occasion we were on the final approach, wheels and flaps down, throttles right back, and about a hundred yards from touch-down when I jabbed the perspex in front of him realising he had apparently not seen, near the beginning of the runway, a small gang of men doing a repair job, and who seemed not to have heard us coming. He pulled the control-column back, gave a burst of throttle and we cleared them. "Thank you", he said, "never saw them at all".
As a crew we ate together, flew together, and off-duty went out and about together. All other crews did the same so one never really got to know anyone else very well. This, I suppose, explains why, when another crew was killed or missing one felt a sense of foreboding and unease rather than the loss of a personal friend. But we certainly took heed of our instructor who gave us advice like "Never say a single word on the intercom that isn't essential and after you've said it switch your microphone off, and never, ever, smoke in the aircraft.” With this crew of which I had just become a member and other crews I joined later in the war thankfully this became almost a religion. Each crew-member, of course had a leather flying helmet with ear-phones built-in and a detachable oxygen mask with an expandable rubber tube to connect up to the oxygen system with a built-in microphone, with switch, and a longish lead, both of which would plug into a number of sockets at various places in the aircraft. When anyone spoke every crewmember would hear what he said. I have seen so many war-films in which aircrews seemed to chatter; it used to really make me cringe. I thought that they wouldn't have lasted long like that. Another aspect of crew membership was the accepting of fallibility with understanding. When for instance the pilot said to the navigator, "Navigator, where are we, please" one could sense from the number of seconds it took the navigator to reply whether he thought he knew or whether he was not quite sure. It was in those days quite difficult for anyone to be quite sure of where they were, especially at night over a blacked-out world below, or over cloud. (Electronic navigational aids were still in the future as far as we were concerned). He would as far possible work out his courses before take-off taking into consideration the meteorological wind-forecasts.
When the aircraft was airborne and the pilot settled in his seat the navigator would give him the first course to set on his compass. The pilot would repeat this back and confirm the aircraft's air speed. Providing one flew at a certain speed in a certain direction one would, theoretically, arrive at a pre-determined position at the appropriate time. It was never as simple as that. Winds were the bane of a navigator's life. The air we flew through was never quite still and he spent most of the time at his desk trying to calculate the amount of drift we were being subjected to; he would be happy if he got a visual fix from a recognisable point on the ground: if all else failed, and he could see a star he recognised he might try a bit of astro-navigation which needed much skill and even so was far from accurate. Sometimes with the help of the rear gunner who could put his sights on something on the ground he could calculate the deviation.
So, with good luck, we survived our training and as a crew we were still all good friends. Our main concern now was where were we going from here. A bomber squadron? - Coastal Command? In the event we ended up at a somewhat obscure airfield at Harwell near Oxford, which had given its name to the infamous and aptly named 'Harwell Box' which approximated to a packing case about 5 feet in all directions and in which we wireless operators under training were literally boxed in, in the early stages, to learn to receive and transmit the morse code. (If the object was to give us a life-long tendency to claustrophobia, in my case they certainly succeeded.) My wireless training took place in the late summer and autumn of 1940 at Compton Bassett in Wiltshire where for eight hours a day we (inside our Harwell Boxes) were stuffed full of the morse code and the insides of transmitters and receivers. It used to be said that all w/ops became slightly deranged by morse (handy, I suppose to be able to blame it all on something). Secretly, we probably enjoyed this distinction as we had our own world and a skill in a language which no one else could understand. Another thing which put us apart, in Bomber Command at any rate, was that on a non-operational flight the only crewmember essentially required to be on board apart from the pilot was the w/op because of his ability to obtain a navigational bearing to or from any given position.
At remote and peaceful Compton Bassett I had spent the whole of the 15th September 1940, like everyone else, digging trenches outside our living quarters. While we were thus toiling - during the whole of a very warm day - Hitler decided not to invade these islands for the time being. It has also gone down in history as the last official day of the Battle of Britain through the efforts of our gallant fighter pilots. And, rather less significantly, it was my 20th birthday… (and I wonder what happened to those trenches? they were almost certainly never used).
At Harwell our future readily became more clear when we were issued not only with some rudimentary maps of the Mediterranean and North Africa but, unbelievably, an absolutely brand-new Wellington '1c' bomber, Serial Number DV 419, to go with them. We had never seen a new one before let alone been given the opportunity to get in and fly it. Had we been posted to the average bomber squadron in England we would have been given something rather clapped out; maybe a bit better than the ones we had been flying during training. (It may be of interest that one of the Wellingtons we had flown in at Edgehill was serial number N 1032 and the fact that aircraft serial number N 2983 had ditched in the North Sea in December 1939, according to records, indicates that N 1032 was getting rather long in the tooth.)
With it came instructions, unbelievably casual, to take the thing to Heliopolis. Where on earth was Heliopolis? I had heard of it but was not quite sure where it was. It soon became apparent we were now considered to be sort of grown-up chaps and would work things out for ourselves. Seasoned officers who last week would have looked upon us (if they looked at us at all) as some sort of unworthy being, suddenly became friendly. We had entered a new world in which parades, drills, roll calls, inspections, and that all-pervasive substance universally known as bullshit, had disappeared. (Being in those days and for some years yet to come still an innocent, I had never heard about this stuff until I joined-up at Cardigan and never fully understood its origin except that it was reputed to make the grass grow green in Texas). Henceforth we would just be told what to do and expected to get on with it without supervision. And from that time my service life became much more happy and agreeable and I cannot remember ever falling out with any colleagues or officers more senior to myself.
It was about this time that quite a number of established aircrews were sent overseas together with a smaller number of those, like us, who had just finished their initial training. There is a suggestion in Air Ministry records that the cost of our very expensive training was a factor in a reduction of its duration and that that had had a knock-on effect on losses of bomber aircraft. There was also an expectation (which I doubt materialised for quite some time) that more aircraft would be manufactured to replace those lost both in training and on operational flights than in fact was the case.
A much earlier observation about Bomber Command capabilities (made in 1939, I understand, one month before the war began, by a very senior officer) was that a large proportion of our bomber aircrew would be unable to find a target in a friendly city in broad daylight - hardly encouraging, but no doubt achieved its object of spurring us into some sort of efficiency.
I think however that we felt confident enough in ourselves even though we had not been tested in the more exacting circumstances that we expected to come. We were soon to find out whether that confidence was justified.
To Biscay, Cape St. Vincent and Gibraltar
So, on the very first day of this year about which I write, I and the other members of the crew I had joined, blissfully ignorant of any such deficiencies in, or attenuation of, our training, took off happily enough in DV 419 at 14.10 hrs, so my flying log-book says, to see if everything worked and to check our fuel consumption. Under normal conditions, as far as I remember, we would use about 60 gallons of 100-octane fuel per hour at a cruising speed of around 130 knots in level flight (or something like 2 to 2˝ miles per gallon). It always grieved me that one longish flight would use up more gallons than the average car would use in a lifetime. We flew around for three hours without any trouble. The next day we went along to the Severn estuary and tested all our guns over the water. (A Wellington was fitted with two Browning machine guns in the front turret and four in the rear turret. Each gun was capable of firing about 1000 rounds of .303 ammunition per minute).
On 3rd January after some minor maintenance we carried out an air test for 20 minutes, landing at Hampstead Norris, also in Oxfordshire, and we were ready. From there we were told to go down to Portreath, near Lands End, then make our way to Gibraltar, refuel there for Malta and from there to Heliopolis, which was a tram-ride north from Cairo, they said, impressing us with their local knowledge.
At 12.35, 4th January, now employed by 44 Group (Ferry Command), we set off for Portreath. It was a mild, rainy, gusty day with 10/10ths cloud at something less than 1000 feet so we followed the railway line nearly to Bristol and then turned south to give it a good miss in case they had barrage balloons up. They were always trigger-happy there in any case and a 'Wimpey' skimming through low cloud could become a Heinkel 111 to an enthusiastic gunner. This is an example of how, on a one-off flight such as this, it was very much up to the individual aircraft skipper how he got from A to B. Despite the weather we felt we were free spirits setting out proudly on our great adventure; a small self-contained entity of the war, and let loose from the tight structure of our service life with no problems other than to keep going until we got to Cairo and completely unconcerned as to what would happen if and when we got there.
We followed the south bank of the Severn estuary flying mostly at cliff-top height, our navigator quietly enjoying himself by map-reading for a change along the coast which was pleasantly exciting as none of us except the skipper had seen this part of Britain before; identifying such places as Weston-super-Mare, Minehead, Ilfracombe, Hartland Point, Bude, Tintagel and Trevose Head. A few minutes after identifying Newquay we found Portreath airfield on the cliff-top, and landed without trouble, 2 hours 25 minutes flying, and parked the aircraft where we were told next to a couple of other Wimpeys among a motley collection of aircraft types.
We hung around at Portreath. The weather was foul but good enough to take-off. Maybe it was bad in Gibraltar - a thousand miles south? We didn't know. We were not allowed out of camp (not that there was anywhere to go). No one told us anything. Maybe there was nothing to tell. But there again nobody was ever told anything unless they needed to know, even senior officers. A good idea really. But we believed (more or less) what we read in the newspapers which was the only way we knew what was going on. At the time of writing this I am not sure that I believe anything at all, but that is another matter.
On our third day however one of the other Wimpey crews who were on the same game as us had taken off early morning in the dark, had got to the end of the runway and straight into the drink 200 feet below. The previous evening we had wished them well. Later that day they turned up in the Sergeant‘s Mess; they seemed a bit shaken and subdued and didn't say much. (I do not think I would have wanted to, either.) They had had engine failure immediately after take-off and ditched successfully in the dark, inflated the dinghy and had all piled in without injury. An example of what a well-trained crew can do with good luck thrown in.
To say this gave us food for thought was an understatement but we had little time to dwell on it because the next morning was going to be our turn. Up very early. Take-off 06.38. The runway lights disappeared at the edge of the cliff, wheels and flaps up smartly and kept going, turned onto course and gave the engines a rest at 2000 feet, and 125 knots on the clock. We could, of course, have gone faster than this but presumably at the height we were flying this was the most economical speed in terms of miles to be covered. We climbed slowly to about 6000 feet and cruised comfortably south. We were a bit jolted out of our feeling of well-being when somewhere off the tip of Brest and well out to sea someone started throwing heavy flak at us. It didn't seem to be very near us and it didn't last long. We never knew who it was (probably our own navy it was thought). 'Flak', by the way was short, and necessarily so, for 'Fliegerabwehrkanone' which meant in practice more or less anything that was flung at us in the sky, otherwise known as 'Ack Ack' or Anti-Aircraft Artillery. During the Gulf War the American aircrews called it 'Triple A' I noticed. We were somewhere over Biscay two hours after take-off when the sun came up and we had a nice clear blue sky all the way to Gib. All we had to worry about was meeting up with a long-range German 'Condor' aircraft used mainly against shipping, or the Junkers '88' which could harass our Sunderland flying-boats over Biscay on 'U' Boat patrol.
I was reminded of the time when I was a ground-based wireless operator at Mount Batten (Plymouth) in 1941, a base for No.10 Squadron RAAF Sunderlands. I had been listening-out one day when I received a running commentary in morse from one of their aircraft which was being attacked over Biscay by no less than five of these JU 88's in a pack. By dint of getting down almost to sea level they managed to shoot two of them into the sea and the other three wisely made off. The Sunderland received some damage but got back safely to base. I was on this job at Plymouth for nine months before taking an Air Gunnery course and it gave me a great deal of wireless experience which most air-crew operators were not able to get. I could, by this time, listen to morse as though it was a second language which I could understand without thinking. (This might explain the glazed sort of look that wireless operators generally were said to have.) I kept as good a lookout as I could out of the Astrodome until the engines, running very smoothly, pulled us out of the danger area. One reason why the wireless-op became the general dogsbody of the crew was that he had a longer lead on his inter-comm than the others and was expected to do all sorts of odds and ends while still doing his main job.
Somewhere off the Spanish coast our navigator, who was not known to make any unnecessary statement, suddenly spoke on the intercom to break a long silence. "Skipper from Navigator, we are now at the point of no return." The skipper said, "Thank you. An interesting thought."
Come what may we now had to keep going. Not that we were worried as the fuel gauges had a reassuring look about them. We made landfall just off Cape St. Vincent and then turned a little east for Gibraltar.
On our left...out of sight...the Algarve coast gave way to the Gulf of Cadiz and in about another hour and a half the next piece of land we saw was Cape Trafalgar. We were then able to map-read our way along a few miles out from the Spanish coast. The memory of those last few miles stays with me forever. The bright green of the land, the white, yellow and red villas dotted about, the beaches... it was all extraordinarily exotic...especially in the incredible clarity of light that often exists during a winter's afternoon in the Mediterranean. And, of course, more importantly, for this is what we had come all this way for...ahead of us... impressively visible...was the Rock of Gibraltar. The rear-gunner could, of course, only see where we had been so the skipper called him out of his turret to come up and look out of the front of the aircraft for what was to us a unique event. It was quiet in the aircraft now that the engines had been throttled back to lose height.
The runway we had to use crossed the narrow neck of land which connects Gib to the mainland (and still does but now it is very much longer having been extended out to sea). It was only 1200 yards long in those days and quite tricky to land on for that reason and, if the wheels didn't touch down at the extreme end of the runway, one was inviting a cold bath at the other, either in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean depending which way one was going. It was even trickier to take-off from, fully loaded. There used to be a string of boats at quarter-mile intervals at either end of the runway to fish out the unfortunates who didn't make it - and there were quite a number who didn't, including the Polish Commander-in-Chief General Sikorski who was intending to travel back to the U.K. in a Liberator bomber.
In the event, we made a low approach over the water from the Atlantic side and touched down in the first few yards of the runway and pulled up well before the end. 8 hours 25 minutes in the air, ground speed about 118 knots. A pleasant and relaxing flight... as it turned out... with no problems.
So far, so good. We now hung about in Gibraltar for a few days. Hanging about was a vital part of the war effort wherever one was and one made the best of it. Gib was an interesting place to hang about in anyway and was nice and warm after Cornwall. If there was food rationing we did not notice it and we visited all the sights, saw the monkeys of course, hobnobbed with soldiers and sailors in transit to somewhere or other. Not, of course, that anyone ever said where they had come from or were going to, including us; everyone minded their own business. Various aircraft landed, some took-off; we watched them perform these activities with professional interest. We looked at the naval ships in the harbour. We were told that everything that happened at Gib was under surveillance by unfriendly people with large telescopes across the bay in Algeciras and there were spies everywhere. After 4 or 5 days we began to get a bit fidgety and wanted to get on with things.
One evening there was a diversion when it started to rain. It came down in sheets with no let-up. And then inside our hut we heard the sound of aircraft engines low overhead and looked out to see searchlights weaving in all directions. We were not too sure what was happening until we heard the sort of noise a metal aircraft makes when it lands wheels-up on a concrete runway. We could still hear the sound of engines overhead. Something was very seriously up, we thought, and so it proved for there were shouts for all hands. We got onto the runway and were wet-through within seconds. The light from all the searchlights reflected off the rock and the clouds made it almost like day. A 'Hudson' twin engined aircraft had landed wheels up in the very centre of the runway. What was more important for the moment was that there were other aircraft circling the Rock waiting to get down. The cloud base couldn't have been more than about 500 feet and it was teeming with rain. They would not have had much fuel left; there was nowhere else they could land. It was as fraught a situation as could be imagined. People came from all directions and without any co-ordinated instructions some sort of rhythm developed whereby everybody pushed at the same moment shouting "push".."push".."push".. and I could see by the marks on the runway that the aircraft began to move quite literally inch by inch. Everybody was in a sort of frenzy, soaked to the skin, and shouting "push" "push". Once we got it going we were shifting the 20 tons or so of it sideways about two or three feet a minute. We managed to get it just off the runway and then stood at a safe distance and waited to see what would happen. In the foul weather it seemed to take an awful long time for the other aircraft to get down but they all (four similar Hudson aircraft) made it in the end. We felt pleased we had done our bit to get them down. We went back to our hut, hung up our clothes to dry and went to bed.
In Singapore and Malaya the Japs were having their way with us. Malta was being pounded night and day by Jerry bombers, everything was in short supply, and convoys were not getting through.
However in North Africa where we were going our troops were pushing Jerry back in Cyrenaica in splendid fashion and had in fact re-taken Benghazi. Someone at Ferry Command (wherever it was, we never knew) had a bright idea, why not send the next aircraft for the Middle East direct to Benghazi instead of staging at Malta ? This will save much-needed fuel at Malta and the aircraft won't get damaged in the eight or ten hours it will have to be on the ground for the crew to get some rest. We'll put a long-range petrol tank in this one and see how they get on, it was suggested. We were quite excited by this; we would be blazing a new trail to Africa and at the same time not have to land at Malta in the middle of a perpetual air-raid. So they fitted a long, fat, cylinder down the centre of the aircraft which was to hold our extra fuel, about 250 gallons as far as I remember. I don't think anybody at this stage had considered that not only would we be full up with fuel in the ordinary way but we would have the extra weight of the equivalent of about a third of a maximum bomb-load as well. And a 1200-yard runway. It didn't occur to us either for some time but I suppose we thought they knew what they were doing. ('They know what they're doing' became No. 1 in a very long list of Famous Last Words by 1945). Our briefing, if it could be called that, for this diversion into the unknown was, looking back, entirely farcical. It amounted to something like.. "Well chaps, the army has taken Benghazi...Have a go at it. Actually the airfield is a bit southeast at Soluch. Get some fuel there and you'll be O.K. And the best of luck.. and try not to fly over Pantelleria...they have some quite effective Ack Ack there." We were, of course, supremely ignorant of what real war, war on the ground, that is, was all about and we accepted these directions quite cheerfully. It never occurred to us to ask such basic questions as...was the airstrip at Soluch actually serviceable? how far was it, for instance, from the front line, was there a front line? (there was not, in fact) - will there actually be aviation fuel there, etc., etc,.?
(Indeed, had we had the experience to ask these very pertinent questions nobody at Gibraltar could possibly have known the answers as our experience would show in the next week or two. It is doubtful if anyone, even those close to the action on the ground and in charge of it, knew the location of anything, be it troop movements or supplies except at some few hours notice; and certainly not our H.Q. in Cairo which would be the only source of information with whom those at Gibraltar could possibly have communicated.)
A lot of sea, and a nice sandy beach
Having been so briefed we hung about again for reasons unknown and eventually took-off for Africa at 21.25 hrs on 17th January, the stars, presumably, then being judged in the right ascendant. Having checked our 'Mae Wests’ carefully and puffed a bit of air into them for luck we taxied to the end of the runway, turned around, did the cockpit drill, revved up the engines almost to maximum against the brakes with the stick right back to keep the tail on the ground, released the brakes and we were away. Our skipper made the take-off of a life-time not withstanding that if he had not he and the rest of us would have got very wet. When we ran out of runway he just raised the wheels willy-nilly and kept on flying straight and apparently level because we never hit the sea and kept on going.
It was a long drag along the North African coast with 125 on the clock. The navigation was simple enough, just keep pressing on a bit north of east until Cape Bon was to starboard and then turn right sufficiently to keep Malta well to port. The trouble with this course was that it would probably take us over the island of Pantelleria (occupied by the Axis forces as were the smaller islands of Lampedusa and Lampione further south). As I have mentioned.... somebody at Gib had told us that if we flew over Pantelleria they would probable fire at us. He was right - they did - to quite good effect too - but at least we now knew where we probably were and gave us something to think about as up to now we had been in the air for something like eight hours in the dark with nothing to see but the occasional vague glimpse of the coast to the south.
But there was something else now to think about and that was fuel. The wing tanks were getting a bit low and it was thought this would be a good time to see if we could get the spare fuel from the inside tank we were carrying into the wing tanks. If any problem arose over the transfer of fuel we would have an hour to decide what to do as we would by then be passing Malta to port assuming we kept on our planned flight path. By mutual consent of the rest of the crew this turned out to be my job. I clambered over the main spar and sat down beside the thing with my torch. It was cold down there and dark and rather draughty unlike my place between the engines. There were valves to be opened and closed in the right order. The skipper read out over the intercom from the written instructions he had been given. After I had completed each specific action I repeated it back to him. If I did it wrong there could be an air lock. Then I had to pump the handle backwards and forwards. I pumped for a while. There was no comment from the 2nd pilot who was watching the fuel gauges. I kept pumping. After a bit he said, "I think the needle's moving skipper." There was a faint and disembodied "Thank goodness for that" in a Scots accent, presumably from the rear turret. "Keep pumping,” said the skipper. I kept pumping. It was exhausting work at whatever height it was we were flying. I kept stopping to get my breath. After I had half-filled one tank I had to reverse the valves to feed the other wing-tank and half fill that, and so on until I had emptied the thing. There are many things I have forgotten but I have never forgotten that tank and those valves and the pumping and sweating and feeling cold at the same time and being out of breath. I felt sorry for myself, exhausted and sick, and went back to my seat and as we droned on and on I think I must have dozed off for a bit, ..and I didn't know this till afterwards...I missed hearing a crew discussion about the fuel position and the navigator had reckoned we might not make Benghazi and in fact the skipper went and checked the auxiliary tank for himself and found no more could be squeezed out of it.
After eleven hours and fifty minutes flying time from Gibraltar the sun had come up and we were still over the sea. There was nothing in sight, and the fuel gauges showed zero. I was dwelling on the possibilities...and trying to remember our ditching drill. It was quiet with both engines now throttled back so far that we just about hung in the air, slowly losing height. Five minutes later we saw a low coastline ahead with what appeared to be a sandy beach. Bill Gunning who was at the controls did not mess about. He just put the wheels and flaps straight down and drove us onto the beach with assurance born of desperation and we made a surprisingly good if bumpy landing on a reasonably hard surface and parallel to the tide line. I would say that this was indeed the landing of a lifetime and airmen sometimes tell these dubious stories about not having to switch off the engines because they just stop - but never, with a straight face to another flyer and expect to be believed - but this did actually happen to us. We had landed. All in one piece. And presumably in Africa.
We got out of the aircraft. The first thing was to gather around the tail-wheel and pee (a custom in the service, usually of necessity, but perhaps with even a little more urgency on this occasion engendered by recent uncertainties). We stretched our legs a bit, and wondered what to do next. After a few minutes in which there had previously been nothing whatsoever in sight except a scrubby beach in either direction we saw some khaki clad figures approaching slowly and very cautiously. They proved to be a group of Arabs, 20 or 30 of them, from very young to very old, all male, some dressed in cast-off uniforms (stripped from the dead?). We went towards them uncertainly and an old man came forward. It was obvious that communication was going to be tricky but our skipper pointed to the U.K. on one of our maps. His caution disappeared somewhat at this. Maybe they had confused our blue uniform with German grey. They all started smiling which was helpful. Our navigator now took the initiative, feeling no doubt that knowing where we were on the ground was just as important as knowing where we were in the air, and showed him a map of Cyrenaica. If we didn't know where we were, perhaps he did, he was implying, putting his professional pride in his pocket. The old man certainly did know where he was. He put a finger on the word 'Tocra' he found on the map and kept saying it, "Tocra, Tocra".
I don't know about the others because I never discussed it, but this was my very first contact with any foreign person. With all the arrogance, and the patronising Kipling-esque attitudes one could acquire at an English grammar school in the thirties it never occurred to me that a wizened, elderly Arab in makeshift clothing could read a map as well as I could. My education became somewhat born again at Tocra.
It was decided by the skipper that he and I should go inland and see what we could find. Tocra appeared to be about 40 miles north of Benghazi and seemed more evident on the map than in actuality. If it did exist we did not find it. Nevertheless the slight error in navigation, insignificant in terms of the distance flown, had certainly been in our interests and possibly saved our lives as we would never have made the extra distance over the sea had we been on our proper course and would have had to ditch. We knew later that had we more fuel and made those extra miles to Soluch probably the best we could have hoped for was to be taken prisoner.
We become guests of the Indian Army
It was still quite early in the day as the two of us walked inland. There were 2 or 3 miles of greenish, bushy country rising slightly from the coast, a break in the low hills, some semi-agricultural country which petered out into scrubby desert. We found a track going more or less east and kept on all day. We had no compass but judged our direction reasonably well by the sun. We had no food or water. About four in the afternoon we had been on the go for about 32 hours and had just about reached that state of tiredness of body and mind when it becomes easier to keep plodding along than to make a rational decision and I do not think we had yet appreciated that it would soon be dark. Any decision of what we should do, knowing that we seemed not to be getting anywhere, was taken from us when a truck appeared, coming slowly in our direction. When it was about 400 yards away we could see there were two soldiers in it. They had a machine gun mounted on the bonnet and fired two shots over our heads. We put our hands up as we had seen it done on the films, and stood still. We had been shot at. This was where the real war was. My heart, I remember well, was beating very rapidly. As they came up close we could see that they were wearing khaki battle-dress and khaki turbans.
They were Sikhs, quite obviously - even to us. We had just been rescued, in fact, by the 4th Indian Division of the 8th Army. I have always remembered things well up to this point but now my memory becomes very fragmented. I must have gone straight off to sleep in the back of the truck and then have a vague impression of a Company Sergeant Major, and a large tin mug being put into my hand. It was filled with the most delicious liquid. I think it must have been water heavily diluted with something quite strong because when I woke up some 12 hours later it took me a while to get a grip on the situation. I was lying in a huge bath let into the floor of a large and empty room. The walls, floor and the bath itself were covered with tiny blue tiles. It was quite magnificent - like something out of The Arabian Nights. It was, in fact, the bathroom of a third floor apartment in a large block of flats in the small Italian-built town of Barce, but I wasn't to know that as I woke up. There was hustle and bustle all around and I found the rest of the crew scattered about the floor of another room. They looked just about as shattered as I felt. The army had, it seemed, gone off to find them the previous evening. They, the army that is, didn't know what to do with us but looked after us well. They had their own problems which we had not immediately been aware of. It seemed Benghazi had maybe not been taken after all, or if it had, not for very long.
There was, of course, only rumour. The Sergeant Major, a grey-haired giant of a man who looked as if he had served many years on the North West Frontier, was utterly calm and cheerful. No doubt what would be, would be, he seemed to imply without saying anything. He seemed to run the company; (I have a feeling they were a company of the Rajputana Rifles but I am not sure about this. I never saw any officers). A few days passed. Even if we had known whom to get in touch with about the aircraft there was absolutely no available communication. We had some concern whether it would be still there on the beach 30 miles away, unmolested, but there was nothing we could do but, living with the Indian Army, await events. One morning, early, I recall hearing a babble of their voices, in their own language, I looked out of an inner window of the apartment which overlooked an inner courtyard and was intrigued to see some of them about their ablutions. One normally only saw them when wearing their turbans. Without them their hair was long enough to nearly touch the ground and they were helping each other to wash it in the limited amount of water available and then dry and re-arrange it carefully on their head before replacing their turbans. I had the feeling of encroaching on a form of ceremonial and was careful not to be seen in case they took offence of some kind...as well, of course, they might.
We had a look around Barce. This did not take long but what there was, was not unattractive. A main street of tall imposing Italian-looking buildings, undamaged, no water, no electricity, occupied by our army this week, two weeks ago by the German army, and, not that we knew it at that particular moment, soon by them again. The buildings were magnificent inside, nothing spoiled, no graffiti. (By today's standards this seems a curious war, as though there was a kind of gentleman's agreement not to damage anything too much because it might be needed again. Why waste an expensive shell, made many thousands of miles away and transported at the cost of many lives, perhaps, in order to demolish a fine building. In Europe no such civilised considerations applied either to buildings, however fine, or to those within them. This part of what is now Libya, but then called Cyrenaica, had been occupied by the Italians in 1932 after 6 years of warfare against the Libyan Arab leaders. (Much of the rest of Libya had been occupied by Italian troops to a varying degree since 1911 and, during 1938/9, 30,000 Italian land-workers had been settled in Libya generally and specifically in the ‘Green Hills’ of Cyrenaica.) Hence, I suppose, the Italian character of Barce. Not, I have to say, that I was aware of the history of Libya at that time. One thing that always intrigued me was that when Bill Gunning and I had headed inland, as we had walked up through the low green hills we had been surprised to find on the way through this area a neat-looking row of eight or ten quite roomy bungalows. We stopped and had a look at them. They appeared to be in new condition with tiled roofs and white stucco walls and glass in the windows. Not one pane of glass was even cracked. The doors were not locked and we went in. They were all completely empty, clean and with no evidence of anyone having lived in them. And no graffiti.
It was really quite extraordinary after more than two years of war that they had not, to say the least, been occupied or despoiled in some way or other. It is possible that we had stumbled upon an area that neither army had come across.
An encounter on the road to Alex
On the morning of 25th January (we had been there a week), there was chaos. The main street of Barce was thick with two lines of army vehicles all heading towards Alexandria. We watched this for a while and gathered there was a retreat going on. This raised the question; do we get a lift and join it or get back to the aircraft (somehow) and burn it (not that it probably would burn, there was no fuel in it). If we did we would then quite possibly, if not probably, be taken prisoner. Though I have often wondered what we would have done the choice was denied us because, and it was just as if Aladdin had rubbed his lamp, another small miracle happened. In a temporary traffic jam in the bottleneck of Barce’s main street we spotted a small tanker with ‘S.A.A.F.’ written on it. There was only the (South African) driver. We asked him had he got any aircraft fuel? “Certainly”, he said, “Why do you ask?” – or words to that effect.
He had, it appeared, about 200 gallons and would be pleased to be relieved of it. He had come from Benina airfield near Benghazi from where his squadron’s own aircraft had long since gone and from where he himself had got away just in time. Jerry couldn’t be all that far off, he said. However, he was more than willing to postpone his personal retreat and accepted our story that we had an aircraft 30 miles away on the coast which might, or perhaps might not, be coaxed off the ground. We all got onto the tanker and with more luck than judgement, perhaps, not only found it, but found it just as we had left it, a slightly incongruous object in that particularly remote setting – and rather extraordinary that a patrolling Jerry fighter hadn’t seen it as it was sitting there on the beach, presumably visible for miles.
Because of some technical hitch with the tanker we could only fill the aircraft tanks on each wing by using a funnel and putting 4 gallons in at a time from a can. This was slow going and by early afternoon we had only put about 30 gallons in each tank. The two pilots decided, as it would be dark before long, to try to take off as things were, land at Barce and the rest of the crew to go back on the tanker. (There was…we had noted…on the outskirts of Barce a fair-sized and reasonably flat area with a few empty drums scattered about which would serve as an airfield.) The take-off had to be seen to be actually believed. Personally, I had rated their chances as nil. But undoubtedly another miracle was about to happen, for, after some fierce revving of the engines to pull itself out of the ruts it had dug for itself in the sand when we came to a stop, it was able to be turned round to take off in the opposite direction to which we had landed and then, with about 20 degrees of flap and given full throttle, it swayed this way and that way, hit bumps, bounced violently several times, one final time, and quite incredulously became airborne. I had a sensation of watching some far-fetched episode from ‘The Magnet’ or ‘Beano’ of ten years previously. Fortunately it had no weight in it or the undercarriage would never have stood it. Barnes Wallis, designer of the Wellington, would have been proud. And that was more or less that. We met up again on Barce airfield, put our heads down in the aircraft as it was now virtually dark and transferred the rest of the fuel the next morning. We thanked our more-than-helpful South African as effusively as the occasion merited. He went on his way, our hero, quite cheerfully as though this sort of thing was all in the day’s work. It was probably not his first retreat.
A lady in distress
There was a small but rather interesting diversion at the airfield before we took off the next morning, 26th January. We were approached by a young, well dressed, and attractive woman of, to us, somewhat indeterminate nationality, Italian perhaps or Egyptian. She was in quite a state and urgently needed a lift to Cairo for an equally indeterminate reason and was willing, it seemed, to pay us 1500 piastres for the privilege. All this in delightful broken English. Had we had more worldly experience we would instantly told her to bugger-off and take her chance in the back of an Army truck and add a bit more to her savings. Our skipper, courteous as always, explained that it might be dangerous or uncomfortable or something of the sort. One of the crew added, not altogether helpfully…”c’est la guerre…” This incensed her….”I know eez bloody war” she screamed and shouted “..Bastards…bastards” after us as we hardened our hearts and left her, with her suitcase, to her own devices. Getting into the aircraft we thought we could hear some gunfire, faintly, in the distance. It was undoubtedly time to be on our way. Having already said goodbye and ‘thanks’ to the Indian Army who had taken us under their wing for a week, we got ourselves off the ground without further ado and headed easterly for Cairo. It seemed quite pleasant again to be masters of our own destiny.
And now the mother of all sand-storms
We had not, however, bargained for quite a nasty 3˝ hr flight to Mersa Matruh. (This was, in fact, such a violent storm that it is recorded in various accounts of the desert war that activity on the ground, let alone in the air on both sides was virtually nil). This was the only time I can recall flying in such awful conditions. The bumping was violent and we couldn’t get over the thick sandy cloud so we just had to grin and hear it and plough through it. For the first and only time in my life I was airsick and brought everything up. Fortunately I just made it to the Elsan down the back of the aircraft.
Once again we became preoccupied with the fuel gauges. If we had, as we calculated at Barce, put about 200 gallons in the tanks as we had thought, then there was not much margin for error. Once again fate was on our side. Quite suddenly there was a small clearance in the storm and we could see the ground. And there was Mersa, just below us.
We over-nighted there and thankfully the next morning was bright and clear. We walked out to where we had parked our aeroplane and, apart from losing some paint here and there and a layer of dust over everything inside, it seemed all right. We had taken the precaution of parking with the nose pointing down-wind to keep as much sand as possible out of the air intakes under the engines. We had also tied the little canvas cover, provided for the purpose, over the sensitive little instrument mounted just ahead of the tip of the starboard wing called the ‘pitot head’. This instrument measured the amount of air passing through it in a given time and it translated this information into our speed through the air on the indicator in front of the pilot. We managed to scrounge some more fuel, enough to get us to Cairo. ‘Scrounge’ was the operative word. If you didn’t belong to a specific unit, as we did not, everything in the Middle East had to be scrounged rather than obtained as in the UK as of right. This meant finding the right person who had the key to all the goodies and making a good case. We had a good case because we were obviously innocents abroad delivering something badly needed. We noticed that the airstrip was more or less enclosed by barbed wire and were told that outside this was rather uncertain territory having been mined either by us or by Jerry, nobody quite knew, but it wasn’t recommended to venture outside this perimeter.
By the time we had got our fuel and got someone to give the engines a check over and so on, it was decided it was too late to make Cairo in daylight so we decided to spend another night at Mersa. As I recall, we took the opportunity to have a much needed tidy-up of the interior of the aircraft as it was beginning to resemble a bit of a shambles. The next morning, then, we set off on the last leg of our journey. We were going nicely down the runway at just about take-off speed when the pilot saw there was nothing whatsoever registering on the air-speed indicator. This was disastrous and he knew immediately what he had not done and that was to take the canvas cover off the ‘pitot-head’ during his pre-flight check. He braked violently and we managed to stop about 30 yards short of the barbed wire at the end of the runway by virtue of a not highly recommended manoeuvre known as a ground-loop..only to be used in dire emergency ..in which the aircraft is swung into a 180-degree turn by judicious use of brakes and full rudder. This gave the option of either getting away with it or collapsing the undercarriage (sometimes worse). We got away with it. The pilots looked at each other – each should have checked, of course. I think someone said “Christ Almighty!” or words to that effect, probably from the rear turret, as the long-suffering Jock Brown must have been quite, and unexpectedly, shaken about. And so they might because there we were, all slightly bemused to say the least, looking at the notice thirty yards or so away at the end of the runway which said, starkly, ‘Minefield’. The 2nd pilot got out, took off the little canvas cover from the pitot head, got back into the aircraft and the engines were re-started on our own batteries, the switches having been thrown by the pilot….quick thinking that, during this precarious manoeuvre…to prevent us catching fire if the worst were to happen. We taxied back to our starting point, turned around, and more circumspectly this time, tried again. Any collective confusion in the cockpit and concern whether the undercarriage would retract properly after this somewhat embarrassing event was dispersed quite rapidly after an uneventful second attempt.
The 2hr flight to Heliopolis airport in Cairo was an anti-climax after all this as, rather to our surprise, nothing else happened. We landed, taxied to where there was another Wellington parked and got out. Our Wellington, registered number DV419, had been delivered. We had become quite fond of it and looked upon it as our own and flown it about 3500 miles in 28˝ hours spread over 24 days. It was still in one piece, still as good as new. We felt quite proud of ourselves. We found somebody. The skipper said that we had just brought this aircraft from England and here was the logbook and .. “Right mate”, he said, “I’ll take that”. And that was that.
We apply to re-join the war
It was the 28th January 1942. Nobody knew who we were or where we had come from and cared even less. Everybody we could see, not that there were many to be seen in fact, seemed very busy. We were in a strange world of which we had no knowledge. Eventually we found an officer and said what shall we do now please? He said that it would be a good idea to hang around the main gate and hitch a ride into Cairo and report to RAF HQ Middle East. You had to belong to someone, he said, otherwise you won’t eat and you won’t get a bed and you certainly won’t get paid so you have to get yourselves a pay-book. This seemed entirely reasonable.
We duly reported to RAF HQ after getting a ride into Cairo. This, our first experience of ‘the East,’ was interesting enough with its new and never to be forgotten sights, and more particularly smells, but we were hardly prepared for the culture shock of close proximity so seemingly dozens of small Arab boys, who, no doubt sensing our ‘newness’, demanded ‘baksheesh’ from all sides as we got out of the truck onto the pavement. It was to be some time before we learned to cope with this eternal menace.
We were soon, and efficiently, dealt with at RAF HQ which occupied what had presumably once been a large hotel or office building. We were fed and watered. And had a much needed shower. We had our clothes taken from us, thankfully, as we had been wearing them for a month and, not to put too fine a point upon it, our collective effluvia must have been quite powerful; not that we had noticed it ourselves. We never saw our RAF blue uniforms again (nobody wore RAF blue in the Middle East – they hadn’t seemed to know this back in the UK) but were issued with army battledress, worn by all ranks.
We told our story. We thought they would be impressed. Nobody was the slightest bit interested. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff. (We had, of course, unwittingly timed our arrival in Africa to coincide with major events, and had, also unwittingly, managed to keep ourselves marginally ahead of Rommel’s probing riposte. He took possession of vast quantities of abandoned stores which the Eighth Army had left behind in its haste to withdraw from overly optimistic forward positions, finding this a more attractive proposition, apparently, than chasing our lot back to the delta region there and then. Our arrival, there though no doubt welcome, was in the context of the moment insufficient to make the history books (!) which, twenty or thirty years later, would only then begin to gather together the bits and pieces of the times into something more coherent than “the fog of war” which then prevailed. One small statistic, for example, not known to us (or anyone else for that matter, except at Command level) at that time was that 440 aircraft of all types had been lost in the ME between November ’41 and 31 January ’42.)
You had best, they said, go back to Heliopolis and await events. This we did, having been quite properly cut down to size, and were there for a week, doing our best to absorb the local atmosphere. I was not to know until the end of the year when I returned to the UK that we were at this time officially posted as “Missing as the result of air operations on 18th January 1942”, my parents receiving a telegram to this effect some weeks later. As they had already received a stereotyped message from me, while at Heliopolis, saying “I am well” with a Middle East Army Post Office stamp on it they were more than mystified. My father apparently rang the Air Ministry but of course they would not say anything. It wasn’t until I was able to write a proper letter that they realised for certain I was alright but it was to be quite some time, in fact, that the events they had mentioned would give me the opportunity.
Many weeks later I was pleased to find out somehow or other that my few words in morse as we came into land on the beach at Tocra had been picked up by the duty operator at Aquir in Palestine. He didn’t know what on earth to do with my message it seemed and so, typically, filed it. One can hardly blame him in all the circumstances. (It was to be several years yet, when cynicism and delusion set firmly into my bones, that I realised that mistakes, misapprehensions, failures of communications and other events coming within the generalization of the term ‘cock-up’ more or less represented normality.)
Glauber’s Salt to the rescue
On 4th February we were told to take our aircraft to a desert airfield called, for some good reason no doubt, Kilo 17. I can’t remember where it was exactly but not too far from the delta area no doubt as it took us only 30 minutes to get there. In fact I never did know much about it at all as we had hardly got there when I remember lying in a tent feeling very ill indeed with blurred faces looking down at me.
I came round in a bed with clean white sheets and red blankets. There were lots of other chaps in other beds. I was obviously in hospital. It was dark outside. Everything seemed a long way off. Some formidable-looking ladies in uniform were walking about the ward importantly. One of them came to me and said, “Good, you’re awake, drink this” Very briskly. In a posh sort of Cheltenham Ladies’ College accent. I drank it, it was horrible. “Where am I?”, I said, “Dysentery ward, Suez”, she said. “Use this commode when you have to go”, pointing to the device next to my bed. I was very weak but soon had to ‘go’. As fast as I ‘went’ they poured Glauber’s Salts down my throat. Everyone else was getting the same treatment. During that same night there was an air-raid on Suez. I got the distinct impression that some of the bombs were not all that far away, as I could hear the whistle as they came down and the ground shook and I could see the flash, as all our lights were off of course.
Bombs had come uncomfortably close to me at Debden fighter-airfield in Essex during the battle of Britain in June ’40; during the winter of ’40 while having a weekend in Bristol; the same winter and on and off during the spring and summer of ’41 in Plymouth (and more was to come in the months ahead in the Western Desert). I think however I was the more frightened on this occasion feeling too weak to do anything but just lie there on my back. Take it from me, anyone who has not been bombed, one feels quite vulnerable lying “belly to the sky”, so to speak, in these circumstances. It was always helpful, I had found, to get into a kind of foetal position at these times. Not that I became thereby any less frightened but it just seemed the natural thing to do and gave one the feeling it would be a more comfortable way to die. Some sort of primeval urge I suppose.
Two weeks of Glauber’s every hour on the hour did wonders for the system and killed every living thing within us chaps in the dysentery ward I imagine, except for one poor chap who died and another who went berserk and attacked one of the nurses. These worthy ladies, members of the then Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Service, brooked no nonsense from anyone and could look after themselves. After I got better I spent another four weeks on convalescence in Suez. I had lost a lot of weight, not that I ever had much to lose, and was a sort of walking skeleton. Wearing the regulation ‘hospital blue’ flannel suit, white shirt and red tie I ambled around this pleasant, amiable town with its cool, shady, tree-lined streets and its fascinating architecture which I was yet to recognise as typically French. Which reminds me that while I was at Suez, not that I knew about it at the time, their submarine ‘Surcouf’ was rammed and sunk, probably by accident (although there has always been some controversy about this) by an American vessel in the Caribbean while en-route to the Panama Canal. All her crew were lost. Surcouf was then the largest submarine ever built (about 5000 tons) and not only had a forward turret with twin 8in guns but a small seaplane kept in a hanger aft of the conning tower. I mention this only because while I was in Coastal Command and stationed on Mount Batten Island in Plymouth Sound during 1940, Surcouf was anchored just offshore. Her seaplane’s air-gunner slept in the next bed to mine for a few weeks and I got to know him a little, (only a very little, in fact, his English was minimal, my French – despite an apparent knowledge of irregular verbs and all that, four years previously, was abysmal). He never told me why he in particular slept ashore and neither did I know at the time that (and I quote from a Reuters report of July 4th 1940) “Prime Minister Churchill this afternoon made a statement on the war situation before a packed House of Commons. Churchill first stated with regret that measures had to be taken to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands. Yesterday morning Britain took the greater part of the French fleet under its control or compelled the fleet by use of appropriate force to accept the British terms. Two battleships, two light cruisers, a number of submarines, including the large submarine Surcouf, eight destroyed and two hundred small minelayers and submarine hunters have been taken over in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Sheerness after a short notification to their commanders – insofar as this was possible. The operation was carried out without bloodshed except in the case of submarine Surcouf in which two British officers and one rating, and a French seaman, were killed, and several sailors wounded”.
Somehow or other I found my way back to the Air Force after six weeks with the Army who had, once again, looked after me well. A note in my flying logbook says I joined up with most of my crew again on 27th March at a landing ground (L.G. 104) in the desert. We had been posted to 70 Squadron, a bomber squadron equipped with Wellingtons, very thankfully on their part as they had been in a transit camp all the time I was in hospital and they were, in the jargon of the time, very ‘cheesed off’. When they had got a medical orderly to me in the tent I had a very high temperature, they said, and wondered if they would see me again. I never did see our original skipper again and I don’t know what happened to him. This is an aspect of life in those days that was all too common. Events followed each other so rapidly that one hadn’t time to become introspective about lost friends. People came and went. Sometimes they went for that all too common reason which nobody talked about. I have always regretted not knowing what happened to him. He was a good stout-hearted chap and I have always hoped he survived. It would, I suppose, not have been to difficult to have found out after the war but somehow one never did; maybe inertia, maybe one was afraid of knowing, best perhaps just to wonder. And there were so many, of course, for whom one had the same regard. Nor did we ever see DV419 again. Looking back, it’s a fair bet that with only some 30-odd flying hours on the clock she became a glittering jewel which caught the eye of some Flight or Squadron Commander as his personal bomber aircraft.
Henceforth we would have a series of rather desert-weary airframes and engines to contend with; more happily, though, as a crew we were taken over by a very senior Flight Lieutenant who had joined the squadron way back in the ‘thirties. He was a sort of ‘seat of the pants’ flyer with, no doubt, thousands of flying hours, and must have viewed us lot of amateurs with whom he was now lumbered with some apprehension.
The mail run
The war in general was not going all that well and our particular one rather worse than that. After our costly advance and subsequent retreat of December ’41 to February ’42 our ground forces had ended up, somewhat uneasily, on what was known as the Gazala – Bir Hacheim line, roughly speaking mid-way between Benghazi and Tobruk. Both sides had to draw a long breath and await further supplies of war. (General Rommel, though, had had something of an unexpected bonus by collecting up all sorts of useful stuff our side had left behind in our hurry to escape. Our role would be to try and prevent further supplies reaching him from Europe.) Our squadron had a long established song, the chorus of which, between the unprintable verses, ran as follows: (to the tune of “Oh my darling, Clementine”):
“Seventy Squadron, Seventy Squadron, Though we say it with a sigh We must do this bloody mail run Every night until we die”.
The ‘mail run’, of course, being the routine trip by night to Benghazi to drop nine 500-pound H.E. bombs on shipping in or around Benghazi harbour and we spent almost exactly 3 months at our new home L.G. 104 until forced to evacuate it somewhat hurriedly early one morning.
It may be of interest to hear such details as I have of our flights during this period. I have only the sparse comments in my flying log-book to refer to and only on the odd occasion can I recall anything specific about any particular flight as everything has merged into a kind of overall blur. It is now generally recognised, I think, that the medium-heavy bombers played a useful role in the desert campaign by harassing the shipping in the harbours of Benghazi and Tobruk. I look back upon this period with more personal satisfaction than with some of our activities later in the war over Europe.
Date Time Pilot Duty Flying Time
8 April 11.15 F/Lt Farr Air test of aircraft 0.15
9 April 00.10 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 6.40
10 April 10.39 “ Fuel consumption test 2.00
There was probably a good reason for this consumption test inasmuch as, although we as a crew did not realise it at this stage, Benghazi was normally about a 7 ˝ to 8 hour round trip from LG104 and we had just done it in 6hrs 40. I reckon our new skipper had pushed the throttle levers too far forward and used up much more fuel than he had bargained for, because the next night and forever after that we travelled a little more sedately.
11 April 00.27 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 7.25
AA intense and accurate 12 April & 19.40 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 7.55
14 April 20.30 “ Operations Martuba airfield 5.40 Fires started
18 April 10.00 “ Air test 0.15
19 April 20.40 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 1.55
returned early – engine u/s 22 April 0940 “ Air test 0.20
22 April 20.35 “ Operations Benghazi 7.50
Intense AA 26 April 13.45 “ To LG60 and return 0.55
28 April 20.10 “ Operations: Shipping Benghazi harbour Flak damage Landed LG106 8.30
It had been a tedious return flight; draughty too, having been made to feel most unwelcome over the target, and, low on fuel, we landed at LG106 to top-up. They asked us to see if we could find one of their aircraft which had had to force-land. Rather weary, we set off again in the general direction of where we had just come from and after a half-hour saw a Wimpey on the sand, wheels down, the crew waving like their lives depended on it. They were all dressed in khaki, as we all did. The upper wing, fuselage, tailplane etc, of all aircraft were painted a mottled sandy colour to blend with the sand below and were designed not to be visible from above. It was sheer luck that took us over them and more luck that we saw them. Luck, they say goes in threes.
The third piece enables me to write about it here and now and I remember it rather too well.
There was a feeling of some achievement by us and relief by them as we landed alongside (thankfully, and wisely, they had picked a decent bit of desert to land on). As we were restarting our engines to take off with them aboard, the port engine backfired, regurgitated some fuel into the air intake and caught fire. This was not unusual and the remedy was to stuff one’s had up the air intake and being starved of oxygen it would normally go out. I was standing by for this so I stuffed my hat up the intake as required and the fire duly went out. I was rescuing my hat, such as it now was, when the pilot pressed the button to restart the engine a bit too smartly and the tip of the propeller hit me on the jaw. It was fortunate for me the engine didn’t at that moment fire; it was fortunate for them they didn’t have to get back to base with a decapitated wireless operator. So, with myself nursing my face, we left the other aircraft there to look after itself until somebody go some fuel to it and looked forward to some shut-eye.
29 April 07.35 F/Lt Farr From LG106 search for missing aircraft 1.30
3 May 17.15 “ Air test 0.15
3 May 22.40 “ Operations Benghazi harbour & shipping 6.45 Landed LG106
4 May 06.20 “ LG106 to LG104 0.25 17 May 20.15 P/O Gourlie Circuits and landings 0.30
18 May 21.45 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 7.25
20 May 20.10 “ “ “ rly sidings 7.10
22 May 19.45 “ “ Martuba LG (Fires) 5.20
24 May 23.45 “ “ Martuba LG Fires 5.35
30 May “ To LG117 and return 0.40
30 May 14.40 F/Sgt Carpenter Fuel consumption test 2.00
30 May 20.55 P/O Gourlie Operations Derna main LG 5.40 AA very intense Somewhere about this time an ancient looking twin-engined biplane landed at LG104. It proved to be one of the Vickers ‘Victoria’ aircraft, about 1925 vintage, that 70 Squadron used to be equipped with in the years when they acted as a police force in Iran. It had a large bulbous body; the pilot’s open cockpit was on top. It turned out to be a mobile dental surgery of all things and I took the opportunity to have a few fillings done by travelling RAF dentist. (What a wonderful, crazy system, way out in the desert during a war…they were good fillings too…it was about 1960 before I had to have them replaced.)
1 June 21.00 P/O Gourlie Operations Derna LG 5.45 little opposition
3 June 23.10 “ Operations Tmimi LG 5.15 little opposition
7 June 11.00 F/Sgt Carpenter To Fayid for engine change 1.45
11 June 10.45 “ Back to 104 with new engine & mail 2.00 delivered to LG105
12 June 21.15 P/P Gourlie Operations Benghazi harbour diversion attack. AA intense 6.50
Whenever we attacked Benghazi we expected considerable opposition. It was a 4 hour slog to get there in the darkness and a bit less to get back seeing nothing at all because there was nothing below us but sand. One was on constant alert for a night fighter both there and back. It was a question of who saw whom first. The clever thing to do was not to fire your guns but spot him before he fired his and then take violent evasive action of which the ‘corkscrew’ was reckoned to be the favourite although it put not only enormous strain on the airframe, particularly if you still had your bombs on board, but upon one’s own stomach. So there was a certain amount of tension all the way there and all the way back – especially in the latter case when it began to get daylight.
The way our take-offs were staged we would get to the target all on our own and were usually ‘coned’ by every searchlight available. Every gun would then start firing at us. For a few minutes it was extremely hectic and after we had let the bombs go the pilot would do crazy things with the aircraft such as steep climbs and stall turns and all that sort of thing to get us out of the searchlight beams if he could. The enormous amount of trouble they took to shoot us down was indicative of the nuisance we were causing to their shipping in the harbour…so they used to tell us…I am not sure if this encouraged us as much as was intended.
They used to make quite a few holes which let a draught in all the way home and gave us a few worries about fuel leaks but thankfully and somewhat surprisingly never ever struck a vital part of our aeroplane or to any of us at all, in any one of our operational flights. Some, of course, did not have our good fortune.
On June 12 Rommel suddenly burst out from his long held position at the area known as ‘Knightsbridge’ with his tanks highly concentrated against the more dispersed British armour and went through them to such effect that our Infantry had virtually no protection. On June 13 an immediate retreat to the Egyptian frontier was ordered. We knew nothing of this, of course. While all this was going on by land and air, worse things were happening at sea just off the coast. The people of Malta were on the brink of starvation. Two convoys had been formed to relieve the situation, one from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria. On June 14 the western convoy escorted by a battleship, two carriers, three cruisers and seventeen destroyers was attacked from the air. There were very heavy naval losses and only two merchant ships got through to the island. The other convoy from Alexandria had to turn back after attentions by the Italian fleet.
On June 17, (here I quote from ‘Turn of the Tide’ by Arthur Bryant) “the Eighth Army was in full retreat, its vehicles streaming in interminable column along the highway to the Egyptian frontier while the Germans closed round Tobruk, and the RAF withdrawing from each improvised airfield at the last possible moment like a bird before a cat, kept up an attack on the enemy so fierce and continuous that there was scarcely any molestation of the defeated army from the air”.
18 June 19.30 To LG60 Circuits and bumps with various pilots and return 4.50 (F/Lt Stanbury….one of our flight commanders took a small bunch of 2nd pilots, including our John Carpenter to LG60).
As I have already said, I think, LG60 was a dried up salt lake really deep in the bundoo on the northern fringe of the Quattara Depression and stretched for miles, hard and very flat, somewhere about 40 or 50 miles south of our own landing ground on the coast, incredibly lonely but well away from Jerry night fighters which we would have had to contend with at 104. We kept some aircraft fuel there and some old oil barrels filled with sand as markers for a makeshift flarepath, poured some petrol into the barrels and those became our runway lights. This, of course, was common practice at all desert airfields for night flying. F/Lt Stanbury was checking the flying abilities of these 2nd pilots to see if they measured up to becoming aircraft captains. If there was one job I detested it was continual take offs and landings – generally known as circuits and bumps – especially at night.
25 June 21.30 F/Sgt Carpenter (Now aircraft captain) Operations: - troops, transport and tanks in Mersa Matruh.Sidi Barrani area 4.05
This made a change at low level. We fired our guns at anything we saw. It was quite hectic for a few minutes with tracer rounds seeming to go in all directions from our two turrets. If we did nothing else at least we kept them awake.
26 June 08.40 “ LG104 to LG224 1.00
Examination of take off times in my log will show this last entry as being somewhat early in the day for us. We were, after all, or least liked to think that we had become “…gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon…” to quote the media-speak of the time for Bomber Command activities. It sounded rather dubiously romantic, somehow, even it if did not quite match up with the reality (and had I read Henry IV for School Certificate English Lit. instead of Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Hamlet I might even have know from whence it came). We had not even got to bed after landing at base at 01.35 from a hectic low level attack on German army positions, when there was, to put it mildly, a sense of urgency in the air and exhortations to get back into it as soon as possible. We were told to pack our kit, pull down our tents, kick in our slit trenches (let Jerry dig his own – we had to), put as much gear as we could into the aircraft and take off with as many ground crew as possible and generally pull our fingers out. The motor transport chaps were left to take the rest of the gear to LG224 - yet another desert landing ground.
A little daylight flying made quite a nice change, although now being close to the front line we had to keep a wary eye on the sky for prowling enemy fighters; a little bumpy perhaps, especially at 2000 feet while looking for yet another nondescript piece of sand, but at least this was almost in pyramid country.
While we were in the air a more momentous flight was about to start from Newfoundland in a Boeing ‘Clipper’ flying-boat carrying Churchill and his entourage and CIGS Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke back to Britain after far-reaching discussions with Roosevelt about the future strategies of the war, curtailed to some extent by the serious events where we were. Which was, in fact, now in Egyptian territory itself.
We were three days at LG224; time enough for our ground staff to give the aircraft a reasonable service. Engines were the problem. The 9cylinder radial Pegasus engines in themselves were very reliable but sand, of course, got everywhere and the worst place was in the carburetion system via the air intake and thus into the cylinders where revolution of the engine ground away a bit more of the cylinder sleeves. Most of our engines consumed so much oil that the normal oil tanks behind each engine were unable to cope with the demand so we used to carry an extra oil tank down the back of the fuselage with 50 gallons in it. It was always my job, when told by the pilot, to pump this into the engine tanks. As we used to fly at about 13,000 feet without oxygen this was an exhausting job and it often used to take me an hour, with rests to get my breath back. The rest of the crew thought this was fair enough as my seat next to the navigator was the warmest in the aircraft – not only that – they thought I didn’t do much else anyway. In Europe, of course, oxygen was used at about 10,000 feet but it was dangerous to use it in the Middle East because any oil or grease, plus heat, plus neat oxygen tended to burn spontaneously.
June 29 11.30 F/Sgt Carpenter LG224 TO Abu Sueir 0.50
Abu Sueir was something like paradise. It had been an RAF station since way back between the wars with proper buildings, mess halls, sleeping quarters, unlimited running water, even showers, a proper bed and even a room to myself. It was from this airfield, incidentally, with its long hard-sand runway that nearly four years previously, November 5th 1938, three Vickers ‘Wellesley’ single engined aircraft set out in formation on a long distance non-stop flight to Darwin, Australia and obtained a word record in so doing – although one of the aircraft had to force-land in what was then called the East Indies.
June 29 21.05 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations Sidi Barrani LG 5.40 Little AA opposition
Our original crew had now been reduced to four including Johnnie Carpenter, myself, Geoff Stayton (front gunner) and ‘Jock’ Brown, rear gunner. We had lost our navigator through a reorganisation of crews and gained a New Zealander, Pilot Officer ‘Billie’ Robinson, whose main interest, pre-war, I remember, was keeping bees. We were very happy with our new skipper. He was now 21, like the rest of us. A tall, relaxed Canadian with a disciplined approach, he had complete mastery of the aircraft with an easy assurance. Perhaps what endeared him to me, personally, was that he never took unnecessary chances; never, for instance, unnecessarily showed off his skill at stall-turns, (like some pilots I later flew with who failed to appreciate the traumas induced in crew members when indulging themselves in crazy flying) except to good effect when ‘coned’ by searchlights. I can still remember looking out of the ‘astrodome’ over Tobruk with ‘G’ forcing my feet against the floor and the searchlights appearing to shine down on us from above (the thought of those 500 pounders above our feet instead of below was not altogether comforting but at least the searchlights would tend to lose us in the ensuing dive).
We had now, as a crew, completed about half a tour of operations but resisted over-confidence. We kept a very sharp eye for Jerry’s JU88 night fighters especially at dawn if we were still up. And we kept our fingers firmly crossed on takeoffs with full bomb load as the veteran engines on full revs and supercharger boost strained interminably to get us off the ground in the summer hear when ‘lift’ in the air is so much thinner. And then, to keep us at 115 knots for a 4 hour climb to the target. Throttled back, and gradually losing height we could make 125 on the way back. Three times, only, did we have engine failure in the air with a bomb load and three times got away with it; probably because on each occasion we had some few thousands of feet below us and were only an hour or so from base when it happened. The Wellingtons fitted with Pegasus engines (though these engines were reliable in the normal course) would not maintain height on one engine without the good engine overheating as, of course, it was made to work harder and under these conditions one could not hope to lose less than about 100 feet of height per minute. Those who lost engine power by enemy action or ‘natural causes’ at or near our usual target areas tried their best to ‘get home on one’ but often had to decide, depending upon all the circumstances, whether to chance it, head straight for home and risk a long thirsty walk as did those two chaps of 148 Squadron, or whether to head north to the coast and follow that home so that, if the worst happened and they ran out of air underneath them, they might, at worst, spend some time as a POW. Such choices, in the actuality of the situation, require a degree of experience, skill, determination and luck to succeed. That some did not is in no way a reflection upon the efforts of ground crews who had to work under the most primitive conditions. (It may be interesting to compare what the first class servicing facilities available in squadrons in England later in the war could do. During a longish tour of operations in a Lancaster Pathfinder Squadron during 1944 the only engine failures experienced in aircraft in which I flew were caused by enemy action.)
June 30 21.40 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations: Airfields near Fuka 4.20
July 3 01.15 “ Operations: Transport at El Daba 4.10 Some fires started
July 4 00.45 “ Operations as above 4.50
July 6 02.10 “ Operations as above at low level 3.10 A chance for me to fire the guns at ground targets where we knew the area well.
July 8 16.40 “ To LG86 with bombs 1.20
July 8 20.50 “ Operations: Tanks and transport in 3.20 Matruh area
July 10 21.05 “ Convoy off Tobruk 6.55
July 12 21.15 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.45 Flak damage to engine
This was a very long haul back on one engine and we were getting rather too near the ground as we approached Jerry’s front line so made a slight detour out to sea for a while. We got away with it.
July 16 20.35 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.20 AA intense (and accurate)
July 19 20.45 “ Operations: Fuka LG returned 1.30 Port engine u/s
July 21 10.55 “ Air test 1.00
July 21 23.40 “ Operations: El Alamein 3.20 Transport in battle area
July 23 20.15 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.35
July 25 20.45 “ Operations: El Daba, transport 4.30
July 28 19.55 “ Operations: Shipping, Tobruk 8.05 AA intense and accurate
July 30 22.20 “ Operations: Shipping, Tobruk 8.05
This was quite a month. Thirteen operations, twice returned on one engine, and the aircraft holed by flak quite a bit over Tobruk. In an article in the ‘Eighth Army News’, referring to the restrictions we were putting on the unloading of supplies at Tobruk, the AOC in C, Middle East, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur (later ‘Lord’) Tedder said “…this was carried out despite what was probably the heaviest and most concentrated AA barrage in the world. Pilots who have recently come to the Middle East after home service and the bombing of Germany tell me that the Tobruk defences were more formidable and more concentrated than anything they had previously encountered…”
I forgot to mention that sometime during June we had come back from an operation while at LG104 and found the great man wearing flying kit, smoking his pipe, and leaning against the tent-pole in the briefing tent. I think he said “How did it go?” I suppose I mumbled something – the man who later in the war became Deputy Supreme Commander of the Invasion Forces (Europe) actually spoke to me – well that was really something. (I never even saw at a distance the so-called ‘Bomber’ Harris, chief of Bomber Command at any time during the war.)
It had not all been flying, though. I between times I had explored Ismailia. A delightful place with trees and pleasant houses and, of course, situated at the edge of Lake Timsah which seemed to keep it cool. And you could get a decent meal at the Army, Navy, and Air Force Club. There was hardly anyone about. What I didn’t know until long after the war was that on June 1st, the day Rommel started his push towards Alamein, the balloon had well and truly gone up in Egypt. All the well-to-do residents of Alexandria, Cairo, Ismailia and Suez had queued up at their banks, drawn everything out until they shut the doors, and disappeared eastwards to distant relatives as fast as they could. King Farouk’s large and magnificent steam-yacht was still anchored just off-shore however.
And that was not all. There were about 25 Wrens stationed in Ismailia. Somehow or other I got onto speaking terms with one. Also somehow or other I got invited to the Wrennery to meet the chief Wren (another Cheltenham Ladies’ accent, of course) to receive approval to take Wren Whatever Her Name Was out on specified occasions and to return her in good condition at the specified time. Somehow or other I took this glorious creature and, in the context of the Middle East in 1942, they were all glorious creatures, out on every available occasion when I wasn’t flying. Sometimes we went out to the Club and had tea in the shade, sometimes we went sailing on the lake in a hired boat. These boats they hired out were about 20 feet long with a dhow-like rig and on the somewhat rare occasions when I got the rig set anything like properly would go like the clappers in a fair breeze. But I was certainly no sailor and neither, believe it or not, was the Wren. One afternoon a gust turned us right over and the boat actually sank beneath us, leaving two feet or so of mast sticking out of the water. We had a long way to swim but the water was really extremely warm, being quite shallow, and helpfully buoyant, so we rested every now and then and made for the shore a long way from where we had hired the boat and dried ourselves off in the sun and walked back round the shore. I regret to say, and it has always been a little bit on my conscience, that I preferred to lose the deposit on the boat (which wasn’t all that much) rather than face the boatman. These were desperate days for all (mostly nights for us) and yet at the same time there was an equally desperate urge to squeeze every moment of pleasure out of any situation. Some moments can become quite idyllic in the memory. I wonder if they really were like that?
One day, during July or August I was in camp at Abu Sueir when I was summoned to the Adjutant’s office where two Naval Police were waiting to interview me. Some unknown male person had apparently broken into the Wrennery after ‘lights out’ and tried to have his way with one of the residents. As I was on the list of approved visitors it was a case of “Where exactly were you at 1am this morning, Sergeant?” I was able to prove beyond doubt that at that particular time I was with some other chaps at probably 12,000 feet over the Western Desert on a course of 270 degrees or something of the sort, so my honour remained un-besmirched and my Wren-permit continued until I left the ME.
Back to the war. A bizarre sight was a Wellington bomber with a huge, circular, metal ring strapped to the nose, wing-tips and tail cruising at low level up and down the Suez Canal. It had some electrical machinery on board to generate a large magnetic field to explode magnetic-mines that Jerry used to drop at night. It must have been interesting, to say the least, when it found one.
We kept bashing away at Tobruk. It was a long haul, there and back but I suppose we must have had some effect on Rommel’s supply line because they kept on sending us there, particularly during August. Sometimes we would be the aircraft to carry a camera. I would then have to go down the back of the aircraft over the target area and stand beside the ‘flare-chute’. After the navigator released the bombs he would say ‘Bombs gone’ on the intercom. Hearing this I would release a photographic flare down the flare-chute. These flares were about three feet long and five or six inches diameter and contained a small explosive charge and a great deal of magnesium powder which would, at a pre-determined height, cast sufficient light over the target area to register an image of the bombs bursting on the photographic plate in the camera. All depended on timing and it often worked quite well. Although it was cold down the back of the aircraft I used to sweat buckets doing this job because not only did I have to make sure the fuse had been triggered as it went down the chute but also that, having done so, it didn’t get stuck in it, which they been known to do, and blow us up.
Aug 1 22.20 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations: Tobruk 7.55 Unable to locate target – 10/10ths cloud over area (almost unheard of in midsummer)
Our aircraft was now badly in need of an overhaul. We had had no leave since joining the Squadron…apart, I recall, from a day or two in Alex when we had previously had to get one of our engines changed at Fayid.
So, they killed two birds with one stone as it were and sent us, and our ground crew, Harry, our engine fitter and Jock the air-frame fitter (I never knew them by any other name) on leave with the aircraft to Palestine where the heavy maintenance was now being done.
We had a pleasant flight up to an airfield near Tel Aviv, went into town, got rooms in a small hotel, had baths, had some good food (I remember it was my first introduction to Wiener Schnitzel. I didn’t actually know what it was at the time but it tasted good) and generally lived a comfortable life. We wandered around town and looked at Arab people and Jewish people going about their business. If the racial tensions were there that would come to the surface so violently three years hence we did not notice them. Everything seemed delightfully peaceful to us. And we went on the beach and looked at all the Jewish girls and came to the unanimous conclusion that they were the most beautiful girls in the world.
One day I went off on my own by bus to a Kibbutz. What made me do this I have no idea but it turned out to be a long and interesting day. There were Jewish people there of all ages. Many had been in professions in Germany and Austria and had left in the mid-thirties while there was still the opportunity. They lived in a tightly knit and virtually self-supporting communal world of their own; keeping goats, poultry, and growing all manner of crops. What they didn’t need for themselves they sold and put their profit into a communal bank to buy whatever they needed. If this sounds a bit like communism it probably was, of a sort. They lived in what seemed to be a shady, pleasant oasis that they created for themselves in those few years out of, if their surroundings were anything to go by, nothing but sandy, stony desert. The work they must have put and were still putting into the project was immense. They seemed content. Whether they were or not I have no idea. Compared with the alternative, which they would be more aware of than I, they at least had a future. I was in uniform, of course, and they knew and seemed to approve, in a sad sort of way, of the very small part I was playing in their war as well as mine. And they seemed pleased that I had come. I have always been pleased that I went.
While we were enjoying ourselves in Palestine, Lt Gen Lord Gott had been ordered to take overall command of the Eighth Army from General Auckinleck. He was killed on August 7th when the aircraft carrying him was shot down on the Delta region between Burgh-el-Arab and Heliopolis. Monty was sent for to take his place; he wasted no time and arrived on 12th August.
However, other momentous events were taking place. On August 11th, Churchill and a large retinue including Generals Brooke (CIGS) and Wavell and our own boss, Tedder, took off from Heliopolis for Moscow via Teheran in three Liberators. They had a very long and uncomfortable flight (sleeping in the bomb-bays); conferred at length with Stalin; told him news that he didn’t want to hear (about no second front in Europe this year or next); and had another long flight back to Cairo arriving on the 17th. On the 19th they all met up in the desert with Monty who had already been going round like a well-planned whirlwind, shaken everyone about, and laid his plans to prevent Rommel over-running the whole of Egypt in his shortly-expected push forward. Not, of course, that we had the slightest inkling of any of this. If any one had said “It’s all right, Monty’s here!” one would have said “Who is Monty?”. But at least Jerry soon found out.
We had to get back to work and the dream of Tel Aviv soon faded with of course yet another trip to Tobruk as follows.
Aug 12 19.40 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.20 Moderate flak
Aug 13 19.35 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 2.15 Port engine failed Returned with bombs
This (bringing our bombs back especially with one engine gone) we would never have done in the UK. They would have been dumped out to sea somewhere as they were dangerous to land with but those bombs were more expensive things in the ME. So much for our overhaul in Palestine. Once again we just made it. The next night in an aircraft borrowed from another crew to Tobruk again.
Aug 14 19.50 “ Operations: Tobruk 7.40 Moderate flak
Aug 16 19.55 “ Operations: Tobruk 7.10
We were now really pressing on with our particular piece of the war. But when we landed back at base at 3.05am 17th August I did not know I had just completed my last operational flight for the time being.
On 18th August Monty started a new scheme. That was to have a succession of bombers over the German front line all night and every night, dropping the odd bomb at random, here and there, just to keep them from getting any sleep. To do this, all our aircraft were loaded with 16 two hundred and fifty pounders instead of the usual eight five hundred pounders. That day, about six o’clock, our entire squadron strength of aircraft was drawn up in a line, wing tip to wing tip, at the side of the airfield. All bombed-up and waiting to go. I think our particular take-off was about 20.00 because our target, the Alamein area, was not all that far and we wouldn’t have to get there until the Jerries had settled down for the night.
Having nothing better to do I walked out to my aircraft to check over my equipment. I climbed up the ladder, through the hatch on the underside just aft of the front gun-turret. Although the heat of the day was going it was still warm enough for me to unscrew the astrodome to get a bit of a draught through the aircraft. I sat at my set and switched it on. Had a listen. Everything seemed all right. (It always was. I never once had a fault in my radio all through the war on an operational flight.) I heard an aircraft on the circuit, coming in to land, but, having already become aware that a tendency to wanting to know what is going on can be of particular advantage, I poked my head out of the Astrodome aperture.
This saved my life. It was a South African Air Force twin-engined bomber, a Martin ‘Maryland’ I believe, and would have passed in front of me from right to left as it landed but as it touched down either the port tyre burst or the undercarriage collapsed on that side or both. It slewed to port off the runway which was parallel to our line of aircraft and then seemed to be coming straight towards me at 60 plus mph with both sides of the main undercarriage now collapsed and skidding on its belly with both props stopped and bent back.
I can say with some authority that to be paralysed by fear is no cliché in these circumstances. It then veered slightly to port and hit the Wellington immediately to my right, head on, with some force. Both aircraft burst into flames immediately. The impact forced the tail of this Wellington into the rear of mine which spurred me into moving, and moving very quickly. I jumped out of the forward hatch. The heat was astonishing. I had never been so close to anything like this and felt myself to be in a complete panic. I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do for the occupants of the other plane. I saw a small wall of sandbags a few yards to the rear of my aircraft, about 2 feet high, and ran for it. I managed to fling myself behind it just before the first bomb went off and all sorts of bits of aeroplane started falling all around. Bombs started to explode every few seconds. I curled myself into a ball with my face in the sand and my hands behind my head. I realised, although I could not bring myself to look that the fire had spread from aircraft to aircraft along the line in both directions. It was between 2 and 3 hours before I dared to move and I remember I then ran as fast as I could. I was probably in a state of shock because I ran all the way to my room, cleared my hair brush and comb, a small mirror, and alarm clock, from my bed which had fallen from the shelf above by the force of the explosions (I can still remember very vividly replacing them on the shelf) got into bed and went straight off to sleep.
The next morning I got up at first light and went to have a look. There wasn’t a soul about. Ten out of twenty aircraft had been completely destroyed and a few more were severely damaged, probably write-offs. One very brave person had had the bright idea of getting into one of them, starting it up and pulling it out of line to make a kind of fire break. Getting on for 200 bombs must have gone off while I was there. The small wall of sandbags was remarkably still intact but five yards or so from where I had been lying were the battered remains of an aircraft engine and bits and pieces all around. The chaps in the other aircraft would have been killed instantly of course. At least I suppose so. There is always the question of whether I could in any way have saved them. I do not think so…but after the event one will always wonder. I lessen feelings of guilt with the consideration that now, thinking about it, as I frequently do, I am not subject to that searing heat. There was absolutely no sign of them or their aircraft. It was a devastating blow and not only to the Squadron of course as replacement aircraft took so long to get. Apart from not being able to hear anything for a few days I seemed not to have any after effects whatsoever at that time. It didn’t matter anyway…there were no aircraft for us to fly.
It was not until I was actually writing this that I made any connection with a remarkably similar thing that happened to me when I was a small boy. In 1927 my father had sold his business and rented a house with several acres of land and some barns, and became a poultry farmer. It was quite isolated; there was one other house, a small cottage and a pub. We had no electricity, used paraffin lamps, and an Aga-type cooker and although water came out of taps we first of all had to pump it into an upstairs tank from the well at the back of the house. I became knowledgeable about Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, White Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks and all the rest and sometimes I would go with my father to market in our ancient open Citroen car with crates of eggs, some of which I had been allowed to collect. I went to a school in Bishop’s Stortford, where I was born, and I got a lift every morning on a sand and gravel lorry and usually walked home, about two miles. One day my father picked me up after school in the car and parked it in town by the bridge over the river Stort while he went into the RDC offices, leaving me in the car. While I was there on my own, a horse pulling a large wagon got out of control and came galloping down the steep hill towards me and the bridge. I thought it was going to hit the car and me but at the last moment it veered to its left, demolished the stone wall of the bridge and disappeared into the river, still between the shafts. I could see the bubbles coming up while it was drowning. I was only 7 or 8 but I can remember every detail because I was so frightened. For many years I have felt a sense of unease in narrow passages, gangways in shops and the like, when anyone is walking towards me, and have only recently wondered if these similar experiences have anything to do with it.
The shambles on the airfield had only just been cleared away when quite early on the morning of August 22nd we were all ordered out there after breakfast, a Liberator landed and out came Churchill. He was wearing a sunhat, his blue siren suit, and walking with a stick. He seemed very old and quite uncertain on his feet, understandably, I should think, after his very long flight to Moscow to visit Stalin (not that any knew that at the time). With him, that I identified, were Brooke and Tedder.
They didn’t stay long and I think they all went back to England the next day. It was not long after this that I was told I was to return to the UK myself. They didn’t tell me why although it seemed a bit odd for me to be sent away from my crew. I had some thoughts that my performance might not be up to standard but was reassured when the Squadron Commander endorsed my flying logbook ‘Wireless Operator – above average – showed exceptional keenness and interest throughout his tour of operations – most capable’. That wasn’t bad, I thought, put the matter out of my mind and looked forward to going home. I had already begun not to argue with fate. (I was, of course, not to know that a furious row had broken out between Tedder and Harris who wanted some of his crews back - those he had sent out at the same time as us).
Despite the now enormous demand for our services by the army the squadron could only operate in a limited way. I spent more time in Ismailia, liaising with the RN as often as I could. Once, when this was not possible, I went with a crowd of other chaps of all ranks in one of our wagons to a place on the lakeside where one could do a bit of swimming and sunbathing. There were about thirty of us lying about, all completely starkers, and not visible from the road. We heard and saw a staff car draw up. We saw two female figures, smartly dressed in army uniform, get out and stroll in our direction. They didn’t see us. Fascinated, none of us moved. Suddenly they seemed to realise they were entering a danger zone; executed a smart about-turn and walked back rather more quickly than before with considerable dignity in the circumstances. We gave them a rousing cheer to give them something to think about.
The female form, of course was a rare sight in the desert, like finding a bottle of beer in a bucket of ice, for instance. Around the delta area however the wonders of nature were more apparent as women, dressed from head to toe in black and working everywhere in the fields, would sometimes raise up their dresses, under which they seemed to wear nothing at all, as they saw us pass by in our trucks. This was presumably for our edification (or, perhaps, education) or maybe they just appreciated the inevitable cheer. It was evident that they did not exemplify a starving populace as most of them would have made two of me.
It is really quite odd the things one remembers, sometimes quite vividly. As I walked along a narrow back street in Ismailia about this time I heard sounds of a brass band so I stopped and watched as a group of 20 or 30 Egyptian bandsmen came up the road blowing their instruments, whatever they were, to good effect, and either unconcerned that Rommel might take Egypt or, more than likely preparing for it. Bringing up the rear a small rotund individual was banging an enormous drum, somewhat bigger than himself it seemed. As he could see only straight ahead he, presumably, just followed his music. When the band turned down a side street his instincts let him down and he kept marching straight ahead. It was quite a few seconds, still banging his drum, before he realised he was performing a solo act. The sight of little legs and the drum swaying precariously from side to side as he caught up with the band who seemed not to have noticed his absence was hilarious.
If I began to have slight feelings of guilt about my now indolent life I managed to keep them well under control. In the desert – away from the delta – one felt completely immersed in the war, doing our bit one night and allowing Jerry to do his the next – and, when in its better moods, there was something about the desert which has stayed with me, the silence, the sand blown into interesting shapes by swirls of wind, the heat of the day, the cool of the night, starlight, but now – here – when the whole campaign in the Middle East depended on stopping Rommel from getting any further East – I was idling my time away in the most delightful way. I had to say goodbye to my naval friend – she was nice and it was all very innocent – of necessity I may add; and ‘thank you’ to the Chief Wren. One always exchanged home addresses in these circumstances of course, as one does, so I have heard, after holiday romances, knowing full well that one is probably just going through the motions. I do wish I could remember her name though. And wonder if she ever thought about that long warm swim.
During my last few days on the squadron I witnessed yet another horrific crash. The Wellingtons of another squadron were taking off on an operation during daylight when one of them had an engine failure at about 100 feet. It just dropped out of the sky and blew up with appalling suddenness as exploding bombs and burning fuel interacted. The rear gunner survived; shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt and still in his turret which had been blown completely free and propelled like a ball across the sand. Maybe he, too, pondered about fate. I remember it belonged to a squadron which used Merlin engines. These liquid-cooled, in-line engines as used in Hurricanes and Spitfires tended to overheat rapidly when taxiing.
I packed my kit and awaited events. Not that I had accumulated much beyond what I stood up in, except, rather weirdly, a somewhat weighty Chambers ‘Twentieth Century’ dictionary which I had apparently bought, new, from a Greek-owned bookshop in Alexandria called Spiro something or other. I just cannot now think whatever at the time induced me to buy it and it was the only book I possessed but it did, at least, have a lot of words in it and in that respect was good value for money; a concept which has always appealed to me. I used it for over 30 years. And I still had my German 35mm camera, an Agfa ‘Karat’ which I had bought second-hand in 1938 and which, as always, worked perfectly, when I could scrounge some film, despite some rough handling at times in the desert.
On 10th September 1942 the New Zealand Steam Packet ‘Rangitiki’ left Suez for the UK. There was a motley collection of passengers. Some Greek sailors who seemed to have lost their ship, a number of British Army personnel who were obviously unfit – one or two with crutches, quite a number of civilian men, women and children, some miscellaneous and mysterious types who fitted into no specific category and a bunch of aircrew such as myself. About three hundred in all I would say and certainly not enough to make the ship feel crowded. Rangitiki was around 14,000 tons, two funnels, twin screws, built in the twenties or early thirties, cruised at about 14 knots, and what there was of peace-time luxury had long gone, or been covered over when she had been converted into a troopship.
We had hardly left Suez harbour when it became apparent that I and certain others were required to work our passage. The ship was equipped with a modicum of armament; a vintage 4.5inch naval gun on the after-deck near the stern and twin Oerlikon 50mm cannon mounted on sponsons each side of the boat deck aft of the bridge. I was appointed on the first day of the voyage, among others, to crew the starboard gun 2 hours on, 4 hours off. We received some sketchy instructions on how to make it work and change the large and heavy drums of ammunition but were never quite sure whether we ever mastered the technique as owing to shortage of ammunition on no account could we fire a practice shot. Whether the shells would have done any damage to a surfaced U-boat, and at what range, none of us had any idea.
U-boats, it seemed, lurked in these waters as well as the Indian Ocean and the South and North Atlantic. Also, not that we were told at the time, there were German ‘Commerce Raiders’ cruising around the trade routes far afield. These were fast merchant ships heavily armed with guns, torpedo tubes, etc., with immense range and duration, on the lookout for single vessels such as ourselves. I am glad I did not know this. I was worried enough about the U-boats. At first this duty seemed as if it would become an onerous and boring chore but there were compensations not immediately apparent.
Thus…my journey home commenced. I had never been on a large boat before. My nautical experience consisted only of crossing the Irish Sea on the ferry to the Isle of Man, in 1941, for my air-gunnery training, a matter of 4 hours or so. My sleeping quarters were in a large empty space just about at the water-line at the extreme front end of the ship, at, quite literally, the sharp end, and there was about one inch of steel plate between us and the water. The rivets joining one plate to another or to the framework of the ship looked very small. Our prospects should a torpedo hit this particular piece of the ship were not worth thinking about. One could either sleep on the floor or, if one was clever, sling a hammock. I chose to do neither as the heat and lack of ventilation were appalling and took my blanket up to my work place when the time came to get my head down. The two-foot space between the gun and the three-foot high plating which surrounded the sponson gave shelter and a nice feeling of security when the ship rolled. The steady muffled thump, a sort of ‘chumpity-chump, chumpity-chump’, of the diesels and the swish of the sea directly below us made for easy sleep when opportunity occurred. Also, I have to confess, the proximity of the lifeboats gave me quite a degree of comfort. Our varying hours of duty gave us access to the mess at odd hours and being viewed as temporary members of the crew ate in more style and also extremely well.
The days went by very pleasantly. There was nothing to do but look at the sea, enjoy the slow roll of the ship and daydream of this and that. In those days one used the word ‘posh’ readily enough without really knowing its origin. (“Port Out, Starboard Home”.) Going down the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea it was apparent that important people knew what they were about in the days of Empire when they demanded the port side cabins on the way out to India and the starboard ones on the way home, for the starboard side of the ship certainly seemed to get more than its fair share of the sun. However, being suspended over the water a few feet as we were when on duty we got the benefit of any breeze that was going.
After a few days the changes of course from South East by South, to East, and then to South indicated that the sea, although it looked much the same, was now called, more importantly, the Indian Ocean rather than Red or the Gulf of Aden and the sun at midday was almost overhead. It was also some comfort that the coast of Somalia, if invisible, was not all that far to starboard if one had to take to the boats. Any reader who had had the patience to reach this point will by now have gathered that I might be getting over-anxious about my personal safety and they would possibly be right. In my defence I would plead that the throw of the dice had so far been more than kind and no doubt thought it was unlikely to continue.
One soon gets used to the rhythms and vibrations of a ship as one does in an aeroplane. The crew far more so than the passengers, no doubt; the sub-conscious being instantly aware of the unusual. So when the cheerful chumpity-chump, chumpity-chump of the engines changed to a rather down-beat chump-chump-chump it would be a good bet that the Captain was pretty smartly on the blower to the Engine Room. And that he would be not all that pleased to be told that the starboard engine had packed up. The news of this did not filter out to us lesser beings for some time. One heard it from the steward in the mess, of course, who knew everything. Imperceptibly the ship thrust itself forward with less vigour and with some degree of the sort of quietness that overcomes a ship when it berths in harbour and the Captain rings down ‘Finished with Engines’. It was rather eerie and gave one a feeling of considerable unease, especially as the grapevine indicated we were now making 9-10 knots at best and if it was hot on deck it was, no doubt, even hotter in the engine room trying to repair a duff engine. In the event they never did and we carried on with a dignified and uneasy slowness down the African coast to make Durban in another 12 days. On the way we passed through the narrow bit between Mozambique and Madagascar, on which large island the Allies had been fighting a small war with the French, of all people, since May.
Our relief at entering the harbour at Durban was enhanced by the appearance at the end of the quay of a lady who gave us, through a megaphone, a full and magnificent rendering in a powerful contralto of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. We did not know that she was to become legendary as the ‘White Lady of Durban’ by greeting thus every troopship throughout the war, or that she was an opera singer of some note. In any event the occasion fastened itself firmly into my memory and I heard with sadness and considerable nostalgia the news of her death in very old age a year or two ago. Her name was Perla Seidle Gibbon and a statue of her, with megaphone in hand, was unveiled even more recently on VJ Day 1995, on the quayside at Durban at the very spot where she used to sing.
There were lumps in a few throats I think as the ship glided slowly past her large, plumply statuesque figure in her long white gown. We gave her a very good cheer (we had, after all, had nothing much to cheer or look at for a few weeks) which she acknowledged gracefully. We, the passengers, were dispersed ashore; some of us by train to a transit camp a bit out of town leaving most of our kit on the boat. As soon as we could we went back into town to see the sights. South Africa or, at least, Durban, was a culture shock. Affluence and Apartheid side by side. Signs everywhere. ‘Nie Blankes’, ‘Nie Slegs’ and so on. We watched other people before we knew what we could do and what we could not do. It was uncomfortable and complicated so we kept ourselves to ourselves. There was, however, a good club for servicemen where we could get a good meal, called, I believe, The Playhouse, and I think we went there every day. My recollections of Durban are necessarily limited because we were careful where we went; men in full Zulu costume with spears (I don’t know what their function was), a pool of fresh blood on the railway platform late one evening, a clash with some Military Police for not saluting an Army Lieutenant whom we passed and they were following (typical that – even if we had seen him we still wouldn’t have saluted – we obviously hadn’t been brought up properly in the ME) and got told off by the CO of the transit camp; these are things remembered but little more. All in all not one of the happiest seven days of my life and it was a relief to return to the ship, now repaired and ready to go.
Back in the security of my gun emplacement all was well as we settled down on a southerly course with the comforting chumpity-chump, chumpity–chump of the diesels pushing us along once again at full speed. But not for long. Two days out of Durban the starboard engine packed up again. Presumably and hopefully somebody would mend it again, we thought. But nobody told us anything. These were dangerous waters and we were a plump and plodding target. We thought that the Captain may have had the same idea because instead of turning west round the corner when we drew level with the bottom end of Africa we kept on southerly for two or three more days. It was reckoned by the knowledgeable that we were halfway to Antarctica as it began to get quite nippy, especially at night, and from time to time we saw the odd whale blowing which made a change from watching the dolphins effortlessly keeping just ahead of us around the bow, and on we went very much in slow motion. One night there was an impromptu concert in the forecastle and a large and impressive swarthy-looking bearded character in khaki battledress sang ‘Down Mexico Way’ not only in Spanish, but very well too. He was one of the mysterious characters previously mentioned and gave the impression of possibly being a one-time member of the Long Range Desert Group or something of the sort.
One day there was a diversion when it was decided to fire a round from the 4.5 gun aft. The gun was got ready and a large empty crate was dumped overboard. When it was a mile or so astern a round was fired (I was surprised at the tremendous noise the gun made) and I saw the splash of the shell very reasonably close to it. Evidently this was considered satisfactory and normality was resumed.
It got warmer again and then quite hot and one morning at first light the sea was absolutely flat, no wind at all to make even the slightest of ripples on the surface, which was thick with seaweed. It was assumed this was the Sargasso Sea so we knew where we were at least. I remember being slightly worried in case the seaweed fouled up the propeller and cooling water of the remaining engine.
Somewhere about this time the ship would have passed through some water that I would meet up with again in 1945 on my way via Panama to Sydney. (That time there would be no fear of U-boats, although U-boats would in fact be there, carrying their cargo of SS officers and their booty to South America.)
Another morning, about 28th or 29th October, at first light, I was sleeping beside the gun (as always, but not on duty I hasten to add) when there was a sudden commotion which woke me up and the engine stopped and there was the largest collection of big ships, liners, transports, and warships one would ever be likely to see, crossing in front of us from port to starboard. We had virtually stopped before they all passed before us and one of the accompanying warships was busy signalling in our direction with its morse lamp. It was obviously an invasion force of some sort but it was not until later we learned it was for the North African landing on November 8th (Code name: Operation ‘Torch’). Not having seen another vessel since leaving Suez this event provided a topic of conversation for some time. On our way again we carried on with our stately progress up the coast of Africa until it got quite cold again. We did not much fancy our chances across the Atlantic at the speed we were going but there was nothing to do but cross our fingers and hope for the best.
It had now got decidedly cold again and sometimes rather damp sleeping up on deck but nothing would have got me below except to wash, eat and etc..
I decided that I was not a particularly brave person although this must have been obvious to the reader for some time. The crew seemed calm enough but then maybe so did I. But nobody spoke about what was going on inside the head. Regardless of these thoughts the ship turned north-east for some days, then east and after a particular uneasy 14 days or so after sighting the convoy we turned south and early on November 16th ahead of us to starboard was a smudge of land. At breakfast the mess steward seemed more cheerful than normal and volunteered the information that not only was it the NW tip of Ireland but that with a bit of luck we would be berthed at Greenock by sunset. So it turned out. (Ship’s stewards were mostly always right.)
What we had seen was Rathlin Island and I could well remember the cross-country flights in our training days when we had seen all this from 20,000 ft and I knew that we should soon see the Mull of Kintyre to port. This was wonderful stuff. Everyone very excited. By lunchtime we were turning north up the Firth of Clyde and then there was Arran to port, so green. It was too much to take. I leaned on the ship’s rail and wept.
Well, there it was. Nine and a half weeks since Suez - all but a week at sea. A special thank-you to our Captain, whoever he was, for choosing the safest possible route for getting us home and to our Merchant Navy in general, for whom then and since I have always had the greatest respect. We would go our different ways. Tomorrow, next week, whenever, they would be facing their dangers again.
(During 1995 I listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the sinking in 1942 of the City of Cairo. I was particularly interested because this ship, of some 8000 tons, left Capetown on 6th November 1942 with passengers for the UK. Six days into the voyage home it was intercepted by a German submarine, the Captain of which allowed the passengers and crew 20 minutes to take to the boats before sinking the vessel by torpedo. Before leaving the scene he gave the boat crews a course to steer to the nearest land. The boats were soon separated and the documentary followed mostly the story of one particular boat which, after five harrowing weeks in which most of those on board had died, was sighted by a German freighter. The few survivors were taken on board and well treated. One young woman, still just alive, was operated on by the ship’s doctor but being too weak to survive was buried at sea with some sensitivity. This ship, in turn, was then sunk by a British submarine, the crew taking to their boats, together with the few remaining survivors of the City of Cairo. They were, in turn, picked up by a German submarine (maybe attracted to the scene by an SOS from the German ship, but this is conjecture on my part) which was returning to its base at St Nazaire. On its way through the Bay of Biscay the submarine was repeatedly attacked by British aircraft and surface vessels and at one point rested on the seabed, badly damaged and partially flooded for many hours. One British seaman was unfortunate to be imprisoned on his own behind a watertight door in that part of the submarine which had to be isolated (the mere thought of this makes me shudder with horror) and unaware of what was going on except the full knowledge of his predicament and fighting like every other member of the crew for every breath. Fortunately for him, with considerable skill by its crew the submarine was able to return to the surface, take in air, and eventually docked safely at its base from where he was eventually sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany and survived the war. This extraordinary story illustrates well, I think, that while no man is master of his fate, some get awfully close to it.
In September 1942, it is on record that U-boats operating in the Atlantic, off South Africa and in the Indian Ocean sank 97 merchant ships; in October 91 ships; and in November in the same general area and including the Mediterranean sank 118 ships; together in these three months totalling over 1.8 million tons. In the same three-month period 39 U-boats were sunk. In November the Allied losses at sea were the heaviest of the whole war. Perhaps my fears were not altogether misplaced. Rangitiki survived the war I am pleased to say.)
Troopships were well organised. Getting kit together took no time at all. There was some queueing to get passes and rail tickets from the ship’s Transport Officer. Someone hands out rations. All like clockwork. “Finished with engines”. Different noises, footsteps and voices. Down the gangway at Greenock, cold, damp and dark. Solid ground under one’s feet. Remembering people one had no time to say goodbye to. Crowded train going south, new faces, a long sleep in a corner seat. Euston Station early morning. Tube to Liverpool Street. Sleeping bodies piled-up on all the underground platforms (33 years later I met Tina who, then 14, may well have been one of them). Waiting around at Liverpool Street for the first train out to Bishop’s Stortford. Had lost my hat long ago. Two MPs eyed me but chose to ignore this transgression. My army battle-dress and RAF badges were perhaps outside their orbit.
Bishop’s Stortford railway station, so well known to me, had not changed, neither had Station Road, South Street or Market Square. Nothing had changed. Up Windhill, past Numbers 22 and 24 where I had spent much of my childhood, and past the Convent where, just pre-war, she with the pigtails would meet me on Sunday afternoons (in ’44 she married a 2nd Lieutenant and they had six children – serve her right), down Bell’s Hill, the Bricklayer’s Arms at the bottom. It was all just the same. As if I had never been away at all. Going back to places always gives me a funny feeling and I remember I had this kind of eerie dreaminess as I walked home. Up Hadham Road, my parents’ house, No 102, up the side path and opened the kitchen door, never locked. (My parents had returned to Bishop’s Stortford in 1934.) My father making tea, “My God!”, he said, and shouted up the stairs “Nora! He’s back!” They stared at me, laughing and crying. None of us knew quite what to say. I remember my mother saying “Your hair is almost white!” and my father, “There’s a letter for you from the Air Ministry”, which they gave to me proudly. Addressed to Pilot Officer 131138 J C Chapman…pleased to inform you…granted a commission with effect from 20th September 1942…report to Air Ministry, Kingsway, London on return to the UK, it said. And then, reading the telegram – “Regret to inform you that your son, 960708 Jeffrey Charles Chapman is missing as a result of air operation on 18th January 1942. Explanatory letter follows.”
The next day I put on my best civvies and went to the Ministry as instructed. Once again everything was well organised, paybook brought up to date and exchanged for a chit to take to Cox and Kings Bank in The Strand, clothing coupons to take to Simpsons in Piccadilly and so on. I did all these things and eventually got back home with enormous parcels of uniform, a cheque book (my first) and a bank account with more money than I had ever possessed. (I had had little chance to spend much of my pay for the last 12 months and collected what seemed a small fortune in those days). And instructions to stay on leave until told otherwise. I was, I remember, quite overwhelmed by all this; I didn’t quite know how to relate to my father and mother who, quite naturally wanted to know everything that had happened to me. I found I was quite unable to tell them and, in fact, never did.
I ambled around my home town for the next month like a lost soul not knowing what to do with myself and knowing no-one although I did rather enjoy the cold and damp for a change and it was a relief eventually to get a telegram to report to 23 OTU (Operational Training Unit) Pershore, Worcestershire, just before Christmas.
Of the remainder of 1942 I remember little. My flying logbook has an entry that I made a brief excursion into the air on Christmas Eve afternoon to air-test a Wellington.
I had my first experience that evening of what was perhaps a typical example of an officer’s mess letting its hair down. I have a vague recollection that around midnight one young local lady visitor decided to take off most of her clothes and try her hand at an exotic dance. As far as she was concerned this went down in history as an incompleted mission by her having received too much hospitality at the bar during the evening and collapsing in some disarray onto the floor; not of course without a sympathetic cheer for her good intention. There was a rumour (unconfirmed) that she was last seen being pushed out of camp in a wheel-barrow, the sentry at the Guard-room presenting arms as she passed).
I was woken up on Christmas morning by, of all people, the MO, who said, of all crazy things, that I was playing hockey against the WAAF in an hour’s time. (I must have foolishly mentioned to someone at sometime or other that I could play I suppose). I gather he realised after looking at me more closely that this was virtually a non-possibility. He came back with something in a glass which eventually put enough life into me to turn out. In the event, after I got going a bit, I quite enjoyed myself and made one or two quite useful contacts – and sometimes with the ball.
I had originally planned only to write about this year 1942. I had, in fact, decided to call it just that: “1942”. Things that happened to me in that year are more than ordinarily vivid, no doubt because my life previous to joining the Royal Air Force at 19 years of age was as uneventful as most others. For reasons explained at the end of the book I decided to go on with it.
A holiday in the West Country
On New Year’s Day 1943, I realised it was twelve months since we had set off for Africa. I felt much more than a year older. And in that a circle had been completed; from being air-crew under training and of not much account, and regarding with awe one’s operationally-hardened instructors, to becoming such myself with the thinnest of rings on my uniform instead of three stripes, and 37 operational flights behind me.
The mechanics of living were so much more simple and pleasant as an officer. The mess operated like a well-run hotel with lounge, restaurant and, most importantly, bar, where one could drink as much as was seemly until the end of the month without putting one’s hand in one’s pocket. Even then, a discreet note in one’s pigeon-hole disclosed how much one owed the bar account (payable by cheque within the next 7 days, please). Those who bent the elbow too frequently thus came to the notice of the Adjutant. (He was a white-haired Flight Lieutenant of World War 1 vintage with pilot’s wings and an MC or two, and of whom one stood in considerable awe, as well one might for he had behind-the-scenes influence in a genial and fatherly way.)
The Assistant Adjutant was a WAAF officer, thirty-ish, and very hoity-toity. She did not speak to, or even look in the direction of any male officer under the rank of Squadron Leader if she could help it. I soon discovered, however, that not all members of this remarkable body of women had such tendencies. During my year overseas I had not realised how the WAAF had taken over so many positions in the administrative and operational branches of the service. I even shared a WAAF bat-woman with seven other officers in a wooden hut divided into eight fair-sized rooms; and was generally very comfortable. And there were clean tablecloths, clean sheets, and one kept out of the way of the Group Captain (‘Groupie’), the Wing Commander (‘The Wingco’), Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants…all seeming very senior to myself…and taking care not to occupy their favourite chairs in the lounge or at table…and certainly not speaking to them unless spoken to first.
Pershore was not quite a town – more a large village; it was a long enough walk to acquire sufficient thirst to enjoy an evening at The Angel Hotel which became a second home. Life was going to be good here, I thought, and so it proved in the 15 months I was there.
There were nasty things happening in other parts of the country and more particularly in Europe and the far East but in Worcestershire they were certainly not evident. When I found my feet a few weeks later I got to know a young local lady whose parents invited me home from time to time for a meal. One would normally be hesitant in accepting hospitality because of rationing but I had no such compunction after noting the pig being fattened at the bottom of the large and well stocked garden and the side of bacon hanging in the kitchen.
My duties as an instructor on training flights consisted only of acting as a safeguard to the supervising pilot should the wireless operator of the crew under training be unable to cope with a difficult situation. This did not happen very often but, if the weather deteriorated to zero visibility in those days before electronic aids, a wireless operator was the only crew-member who could more-or-less guarantee at least to get an aircraft back to base (if not to land it – the most difficult part) or to virtually any other airfield by obtaining (using the morse code) ‘courses to steer’ from a large number of D/F (Direction Finding) Stations throughout the British Isles. Because of this, every flight undertaken for whatever purpose, even a fifteen minute air-test, required a wireless operator on board. This puffed-up our flying hours (and sense of importance no doubt).
The war was something one read about, if one had a mind to, in the variety of newspapers and periodicals delivered to the officer’s mess. I had no feelings of guilt (did anyone?) about leaving the sharp end to others for a while and I had no doubt my turn would come again. This was the time to enjoy life while one could, and by and large I did.
Occasionally however we were pressed into trying to save operational colleagues who had the misfortune to take to their dinghies on their way home across the North Sea. These were known as ‘North Sea Sweeps’ when we patrolled in daylight, singly, over a designated area at low level. We were usually not far off the German coast and, doubtless, while we were looking for our chaps in the water, jerry fighter-pilots were out looking for us so we had to keep a sharp lookout and not only at the water. We did our best but never saw a thing except the odd Danish or German fishing boat during six such flights during ’43. All crews on these activities were operationally experienced but we used to take one or two extra crew members under training for the experience and as extra pairs of eyes. These flights in fact counted in our tally of operational flights – each amounting half one operational flight – as they did present a certain amount of risk.
A lack of Wisdom
The year previously, while in the Western Desert, I had had some teeth filled which I had mentioned. The dentist had then warned me that I would be having trouble with both lower wisdom teeth which were becoming impacted. The dental officer, ‘Jock’ Sutherland (F/Lt), at Pershore confirmed this and convinced me that I should have them out. He had no facilities for doing this as it wasn’t just a straightforward pull with pliers. A bit more complicated, he said, and made arrangements to do it at Evesham Hospital.
When the day came there was a problem with transport, it suddenly became not available. No problem, I said, we’ll go on my motor-bike – I was proud of my Francis-Barnett 200cc two-stroke and it needed a run, I thought. The hospital at Evesham was of the Cottage variety in peacetime, I suppose, with a rudimentary operating room. There was a nurse waiting to help him and they got busy with local anaesthetics sawing away at my lower jawbones to lift out the teeth which were growing horizontally instead of upwards. I have to confess I didn’t feel all that good when they had finished and I had to be dosed with a large amount of codeine. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t think clearly and never, in fact, recalled the seven miles back to Pershore with the gallant Scot, hanging on to me from the pillion seat. He well deserved a citation for bravery and after a week on milk and soup and stuff like that I could open my mouth sufficiently to tell him so and ask the barman to set us up a few pints to celebrate.
(One of the perks of operational flying in the RAF was a (very) small ration of petrol for private recreational use. As most people had to give up driving for the duration, cars and motor cycles were remarkably cheap to buy. If they went wrong you threw them away and bought another. I got nearly 100 mpg from the Francis-Barnett and used it mainly to get home to Bishop’s Stortford on leave.)
There were other diversions. On one of my many visits to The Angel I had become acquainted with a Waaf. When our day-off coincided she twisted someone’s arm in the cook-house and got some sandwiches and a flask of tea and we set off on our bikes to Evesham, sat in a park by the river and had a sort of picnic. One thing led to another (it always seems to, doesn’t it?) and we went to the cinema, forgetting or perhaps wilfully disregarding the fact that it would be dark when we came out and that we had no lights for our bikes. It was bright moonlight and there was no traffic worth speaking of on the 5 or 6 miles of the A44 back to Pershore. We got as far as Cropthorne before disaster struck in the shape of a Special Constable stepping out of the shadows. As far as we were concerned it was more important to be back in camp by 23.59 hours than such a small thing as having a white light to the front and a red light to the rear. We duly appeared together in Pershore Petty Sessions, and pleaded ‘guilty’ to this misdemeanour. I was fined Ł1 and she got away with 10 shillings. I did the decent thing, I have to say, and gallantly paid both fines. My memory plays tricks here because I would have placed this during the summer because it was such a warm and pleasant day, but actually it was 20th March as will be seen,
“In the County of Worcester (the summons read) Petty Sessional Division of Pershore
To: No 131138 Pilot Officer Jeffrey Charles Chapman of Royal Air Force Station, Pershore.
In the County of Worcester, You are hereby summonsed to appear before the Court of Summary Jurisidiction sitting at the Police Court, Pershore on Tuesday the 6th day of April 1943 at the hour of 10 o’clock in the forenoon to answer an Information or complaint made before me by Thomas James Symonds, Police Inspector, for that you on the 20th day of March 1943 in the Parish of Cropthorne during the hours of darkness, namely at 10.25pm did cause a bicycle to be on the highway there situate called Evesham – Pershore main road without carrying a lamp displaying to the front a white light and a lamp displaying to the rear a red light contrary to the Lighting (Restrictions) Order 1940 paragraph 3(1)
Dated the 24th day of March 1943 (Signed) A E Rusher Justice of the Peace for the said County.”
I would never have believed that the gigantic machinery of the law could grind so small in the times in which we then lived. As it was one of the myths of WW2 that a tiny light on the ground would immediately attract the attention of a bomber crew at 20,000 feet, hence the strict blackout, the virtually universal non-use of lights on our bikes by most of us seemed to make sense. More realistically probably we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, afford the batteries. News of our joint appearance in Court caused the odd raised eyebrow in the mess (“fancy getting caught like that, old man!”) and probably in the Waafery as far as I know.
An early return to base
July 15th, 1943; Take-off 2300 hours; P/O Van Rassel, DFC the (Canadian) pilot; myself the only crew member and eight French-Canadian bomb-aimers under training.
The bomb-bay of this Wellington was adapted to take 30lb practice bombs which made a small bang and mostly a cloud of smoke when they landed. On the way to the bombing range at Defford we had hardly got to 1000 feet when the port engine stopped and caught fire. The fire spread to the wing. There was not time and we were too low for all of us to bale out so we just had to land and as quickly as possible or we would all roast. I had confidence that the pilot, who was very experienced, would get us down somehow but time here was really of the essence. I unscrewed the Perspex ‘astrodome’ which served as an emergency exit on the top of the fuselage, got my back up against the main spar (that’s a fair-sized girder which goes right through each wing and the fuselage and is the strong point of the aircraft) facing the tail, straddled my legs on the floor and got all the trainees facing the same way between my legs and each holding the next man round the waist. The port side of the fuselage was burning through as we hit the ground, wheels up, on the grass at the edge of our airfield and in those last few seconds we were beginning to feel distinctly warm.
We came to a very sudden and noisy stop. The bomb-bay under us collapsed and the practice-bombs went off to add their smoke, noise and heat to the confusion. It is quite extraordinary how one acquires miraculous powers of personal levitation in such circumstances; gravity seemingly becoming temporarily suspended; helped, no doubt, by some functioning of the adrenal glands and serious consideration of the alternative. Or so it seemed as all nine of us in the back ejected ourselves out of the top hatch onto the starboard wing and jumped to the ground. The pilot similarly got himself out of the hatch above his head. He did a fantastic job, and neither he or the rest of us had even so much as a sprained ankle.
We stood around watching and then the fuel tanks blew up and the aircraft burned right out leaving just its geodetic skeleton. We got a lift back to the mess for a much needed drink but we were too late, the bar had closed, the pilot reported to the CO and then we all went to bed. The next morning I poked around in the ashes and found the metal clasps of my parachute harness and have kept them as a souvenir. (As a matter of interest all RAF Transport aircraft these days have their seats facing the rear. Not, I hasten to add, that I make any connection; it was a well known recipe for survival.)
And a pilot caught with his trousers down
On 24th August a pilot, Dai Davies, and I took off in a Wellington to test it after repair. We were circling around Bredon Hill at 2000 feet when he decided he had to go to the loo as he had a touch of the runs that morning. This was quite a complicated business, one had to take off one’s parachute harness for a start and the facilities provided were of the bucket and chuck it variety (known as the Elsan). He left me in charge up the front and I was quite enjoying myself going round in a nice big circle and remembering to watch the air speed and all that (I had flown a bit at times but never unsupervised before).
Quite suddenly the port engine shuddered and banged and ground to a stop. I knew enough to pull the starboard throttle back a bit, apply a bit of right rudder, and put the nose and starboard wing down a little and then, somewhat frantically no doubt, looked round down the back to see where the chap was who should have been doing this. If everything hadn’t been a bit fraught it could have been hilarious at the sight of him climbing over the main spar like a hurdler and doing himself up all at the same time. He more or less pulled me out of his seat and took charge for which I was very thankful. It was no big deal flying with one engine without a load and in a few minutes we were over our airfield and then we discovered we had a problem; we had no hydraulic power to lower the undercarriage and flaps – that meant I had to pump the undercarriage down by hand with the lever provided and then the flaps. Because of the time it took to do this our approach to the runway went wrong and in normal circumstances should have gone round again but we couldn’t do this on one engine with full flap and the undercarriage down as it would not have been possible to pump them up again in less than about 5 minutes. So we did what the instruction book said should never be done in these circumstances and turned with a very tight stomach-churning circle to port, inevitably losing all our height of about 300 feet in so doing, and flattened-out dead in line with the runway and a few feet above it. As we collected ourselves together Dai looked at me “You’re as white as a sheet, man!” “You want to look at yourself” I replied.
Worcestershire has many attractions and associations with literary and musical figures of the past. Our airfield was nicely situated a few miles north of the 1000 ft bulk of Bredon Hill and a walk to the top on a fine day was an experience to remain in the memory as A E Housman had remarked long before (but more eloquently). And there was the whole range of the Malverns ten miles away with their glorious silhouette against the western sky at sunset. On the subject of air-tests it was perhaps not remarkable how often those slopes attracted our pilots, for the high points were tempting to skim over on a clear day. Elgar had the same urge on horseback and put his experience certainly to a more lasting purpose.
Somewhere about this time when I was at Pershore, the Africa Star medal was awarded to those who had served for 6 months or more in the desert campaign. I wore the ribbon with considerable pride and felt part, if a very small one, of a brotherhood of nationalities who had contributed to what Churchill referred to, somewhat prematurely perhaps, in a speech on 10th November 1942 after Rommel’s army had been severely dealt with at Alamein and afterwards. “This”, he said, “must not be considered as the end. It may possibly be the beginning of the end; but it is certainly the end of the beginning”.
I was certainly not overworked. During 18 months rest from operational flying I flew only about 240 hours, including 24 flights as instructor. Much of my flying was accompanying various peacetime senior officers around the country on what, in the guise of keeping in practice in the cockpit, were I suspected, occasions more properly described as social and/or the furthering of careers than otherwise.
However, that was none of my business and I enjoyed the experience. One such officer, a Squadron Leader, with whom I flew frequently and with whom I got quite friendly was engaged for a few weeks with investigating aircraft crashes in Training Command. We few to strange airfields and then got service transport to the crash site. This was apt to be quite gruesome. On one occasion we were walking about trying not to tread on very small pieces of human remains and I can remember the horror of seeing a complete set of teeth still attached to a portion of a lower jaw high up in a bush. While death was always lurking round the corner, we, in the RAF, tended to lesser exposure to the physical aspects of it, either of our own kind or even less of the enemy’s than was common in operation units in other services.
My first experience of death, in any form, was in May or June 1940 when I had been in the service only a few months. As an Airman 2nd class (General Duties) stationed at Debden fighter airfield in Essex I was one of a party of about fifteen, a Leading Aircraftman in charge, sent to a large field near the village of Castle Camps on the border of Cambridgeshire to form the semblance of a satellite airfield for use by our Hurricane fighters should Debden be put out of action. (It had been bombed when I was there as I well remember but not put out of action and Hurricanes did later use Castle Camps on occasion.)
We were provided with a large bell-tent within which the whole lot of slept and kept our kit. We knew so little about camping that we had no idea that one had to slacken-off the guy ropes at night in case it rained. One night our ignorance was painfully made evident when the whole thing collapsed on top of us to our great confusion. We had some means of cooking, a few sandbags, a Lewis machine-gun, manufactured, so it was stamped on the breach, in 1913, and two pans of ammunition each containing, as far as I remember 96 rounds of .303. Our function was to go to war against the enemy if he attempted to land; as it was expected he might. Our 192 rounds of .303 would, I suspect, have had little effect upon history.
While we were being transported on our weekly trip to Debden for a bath there was an air fight going on overhead and a Hurricane was shot down, the pilot making a reasonable wheels-up landing in a field close the road although it was smoking heavily all the way down. As it came to a stop it burst into flames. The pilot was unable to get himself out of the cockpit. We stopped, and ran across the field to see if there was anything we could do. The heat was such when we got there that we could but watch the pilot burn to death and avoid the exploding ammunition still left in the aircraft which he hadn’t fired. When the fire burned itself out there was just some greyish ash on the ground in the outline of the aircraft. In that part of it that would have been the cockpit, and still in the sitting position, was recognisable the body of the pilot, completely charred like burnt timber. This was my first ever experience of death. It was, no doubt at all, as horrific a death as could be imagined and I have never forgotten this image of a once human being.
Disaster at Nuremburg
My holiday from the war came to an end after Bomber Command’s ill-fated raid on the German city of Nuremburg on 31st March 1944. Of the 700 (plus) aircraft dispatched, 98 failed to return and another 10-12 crashed or were otherwise written off from other causes. A fiasco of tragic proportions, it was caused either by incompetence of planning on a breathtaking scale or, as one book written about it, entitled (I believe) ‘They knew we were coming’, claims, an intricate conspiracy at the highest level of government.
The one, was the sending of the bomber force on a night when the moon was at least half way to full. This, risky enough on such a relatively long flight, was compounded by large amounts of cloud cover there and back at about 14,000 feet; a lower height to that which the bomber force was asked to operate (a bomber’s worst nightmare, in fact). The dark silhouette of each aircraft would be sharply defined against the brightness of the lower cloud-layer and would be (and were) gobbled-up by a night-fighter pilot like a heron after a fish on the surface.
The other, more sinister if true, and there are some arguments in its favour, was an effort to induce enemy intelligence to attach credence to the signals of one of their agents who had been dropped by parachute on to our soil only to be promptly captured and ‘turned’, on inducements of being executed if he did not comply. He was to be tested by advancing, to his source, knowledge of a large air-raid proposed by us on Nuremburg and the approximate date. Whatever the truth of it, 600-700 highly trained crew-members were lost, (one of these, a 21-year old W/op-Air Gunner, Sergeant 1390097 EJP Monk, always referred to as ‘Eddie’ by his brothers and sisters, an enthusiast with the violin, is buried in a War Cemetery in the north of Germany, would, had he lived, have become my brother-in-law in later life).
Bomber Command, in a state of some shock, had to replace aircraft and crews on a large scale. The Pathfinder Force squadrons required topping-up with experienced aircrew such as myself. So it was in early April that I found myself inducted into a Lancaster squadron, No 582, recently created from an influx of crews of varying experience from 156 and 7 Squadrons. We shared an airfield at Little Staughton in Huntingdonshire with 109 Squadron’s Mosquito’s. I became absorbed into a crew to replace their wireless operator (if I remember correctly, an incendiary bomb dropped by an aircraft above had come through the top of their aircraft and taken off his hand).
The skipper of this crew had the rank of Flying Officer as I now did myself. He was a very sound flyer and a good skipper. The rest of the crew, all Sergeants, were a good bunch and we got on well but there was just the hint of a slight barrier that rank inevitably gives through not eating together or living in the same quarters; also perhaps because I was starting my second tour of operations while they were no more than halfway through their first. And I suppose it would have been too much to expect closeness with a crew in such circumstances when one had not trained together as with my first crew in 1941. Anyway, they seemed efficient and that was the main thing. I hope this does not sound patronising but I like to think that by now I was a fair judge of those who might survive, given good luck, and those who might not. I felt, like many others starting another tour of operations, not a little apprehensive. Having survived one tour the odds were against surviving a second. It was not a subject much talked about at the time but it was surprising, when it was all over, when one felt more free to chat about such things, how many of us had ‘written ourselves off’ at the start, and after each completed operation congratulated ourselves at having cheated the Great Reaper yet one more time. At the same time I doubt the casual observer would have noted any such profundity of thought among us as we tended to live each day to the best advantage (to say the least).
They, my new crew, did take off without me for some reason on a non-operational flight, failed to gain sufficient height at the end of the runway and demolished not only a church steeple but the greater part of their undercarriage but lived to tell the tale (which they did quite frequently to anyone who would listen).
After the costly experience of the Nuremburg raid, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris had been induced to discontinue his planned destruction of German built-up areas in favour of harrying the German armies in northern France, generally by attacking important railway junctions, bridges, airfields and more specifically those sites near the coast from where in the near future the pilot-less winged bombs, (the V.1s or ‘doodle-bugs’) were to be launched.
Here are extracts from my flying logbook of the flights we made in those days. Unless otherwise stated the pilot in each case was Flying Officer (later Flight Lieutenant) O’Donovan.
30.4.44 11.30 P/O Macauley Bombing exercise 1.30
My first flight in a Lancaster bomber. The power was awesome after Wellingtons. The four propellers out in front pulling us along had 6000hp of Rolls Royce Merlin engines turning them around. (And four of them rather than two was very comforting.) My personal space in the aircraft was no larger than in the Wellington – the wireless sets identical – the electrical circuit and, by now, the electronic navigational and other aids rather more complicated.
30.4.44 22.20 Operations: Somain railway centre 3.05 1 a/c lost
1.5.44 15.15 Bombing exercise 1.55
2.5.44 16.00 Bombing exercise 1. 00
4.5.44 12.00 Air test and air/sea firing 0.55
7.5.44 15.45 Night flying test 0.55
8.5.44 00.40 Operations: Nantes airfield 4.50 1 a/c lost
9.5.44 11.30 Cross country. Landed Llandow 2.50
19.5.44 10.30 Training 1.25 Operations: Boulogne railway marshalling yards Some heavy flak 4.40
22.5.44 15.00 Night flying test 0.20
22.5.44 22.40 Operations: Dortmund, some flak over Ruhr 18 a/c lost 4.05
24.5.44 10.30 (S/Ldr Coleman – self under training on ‘Fishpond’ fighter detection and bombing equipment. 2.30
25.5.44 16.00 Night flying and weather test 1.20
28.5.44 23.30 Operations: Dunkerque gun batteries 2 a/c lost
30.5.44 10.50 Training flight 1.50
31.5.44 “ “ 2.15 31.5.44 00.30 Operations: Tergnier marshalling yards. 2 a/c lost
3.55 2.6.44 10.45 (F/Lt Macauley) Training flight
Hitting the right note
It is summer, 1944. I went to the mess to have lunch. I sat down at the long table with my back to the kitchen. Behind me, a WAAF cook or waitress emitted (and this is the only way I know how to describe it) the kind of sound made involuntarily when bending low with one’s head in the oven and subject to a certain kind of unexpected attention from the rear. It was quite piercing but excited no particular comment. My still empty tumbler on the table in front of me, however, disappeared into a small heap of powdered glass. Everyone came to look and marvel (especially the lady concerned). A powerful thing, the female voice in anguish.
And a nightingale sang
I had a room next to the entrance door of a wooden hut in a small copse near the edge of the airfield and about 20 of us flying types lived there. It was quiet and peaceful. Normally we were not early risers. If we had not been on ops the previous night we would not know until we had been to the flight office about 10-ish whether our crew was on the list for the forthcoming night or not. If it was, we could expect, as it was summertime, that take-off would not be before late evening as we would not expect to be sent over enemy territory until it was dark.
Typical take-off times for a longish trip, say to Stuttgart, about 6 ˝ hours, would be between 10 and 10.30pm; fairly carefully judged so as not to be still there with the sun coming up. If one was on the list for that night it was not at all uncommon to have a practice flight, or air test, that same afternoon. Here is a typical example from my logbook; 23rd July, at 15.45 an air-test of the aircraft of 40 minutes. Take-off to Kiel at 22.30. Returned to base 03.50. Debriefing, disposing of flying kit, breakfast, say another 1 hour 45 minutes. Time to bed around 05.30. Time elapsed since having our heads down – 21 ˝ hours; and more or less ‘out’ on our feet. This was reasonable enough assuming one had had a decent sleep the previous night.
Unfortunately for myself and others a small bird with a large voice had taken a liking to the bushes around our hut. To hear a nightingale in full song is a rewarding and fascinating experience to be sure; in any other circumstances than when one is desperately trying to sleep, that is. This one, or was it a pair?, that settled in the bushes somewhere around our hut for the summer may have thought it was doing us a favour. Not so; if it ever slept it had usually had enough by midnight and then went into full voice. After a week or so I developed a personal vendetta against it by flinging stones, lumps of dirt, anything I could find, into the bushes. It was quite extraordinary how it would stop just long enough to allow me to get back to bed hoping it had taken umbrage and gone into a sulk. Not a bit of it; it just had a vicious cunning. I fought a battle of my own with the thing all that summer, I hated it. But it did have the most beautiful voice.
And then one night it was not there and it never came back. Maybe I should have enjoyed it while I had the chance as I’ve never heard one since, but I wouldn’t have said that at the time.
5.6.44 11.00 Cross-country training flight 1.35
6.6.44 03.11 Operations: Mont Fleury gun batteries 3.15
On 5th June we went for a routine practice flight using some new electronic equipment on trial whose purpose, as far as I remember, was to show on a screen under the wireless operator’s surveillance the position, as little dots, of other aircraft in the vicinity; if one of them seemed to be going faster than the others it was probably an enemy fighter. In the evening we were briefed for a rather minor raid at, of all times, about 4.30 the next morning on some large-calibre gun batteries heavily embedded in reinforced concrete on the French coast at Mont Fleury.
After the briefing I wandered out to the aircraft with the rest of the crew. “Wot’s all this then?” we said to the ground crew, “…all these funny stripes on our aeroplane?” “Dunno”, they said, “Someone came round and just did it. Said it had to be done to all aircraft.” Under our wings, previously all matt-black, were now large white stripes – all very odd we thought.
Anyhow, we took off at 03.11 and reached the south coast at moderate height. It was just getting light. And there below us was a sight which has become quite unforgettable. The sea was a mass of small craft all heading for France. The whole way across the Channel we seemed to be passing over them. This was undoubtedly it. I am sure we all felt the same sense of excitement. I also feel sure that we were glad we were where we were, rather than where they were. We certainly did not envy them. If we had known that many of them were being violently seasick we would have envied them even less. Certainly, it was a scene quite impossible ever to forget.
We dropped our bombs all in one go more in hope than anticipation that we had found the exact location – even if we had we would have done no more than shake them up a bit I suppose as they were so well dug in. We were unaware at that stage that the Royal Navy was going to give them the benefit of their attention from some large calibre guns a bit later on. Going home over the Channel we saw again the immensity of the enterprise below and in an hour and a half have covered the 200 miles to base to tell the ground crew all about it, to de-briefing, to breakfast, and best of all to bed. Thankfully the nightingale had also decided to call it a day…
Our purpose now was to hammer away at railway marshalling yards to slow German reinforcements to the battle area.
8.6.44 23.27 Operations: Mayenne railway yards Bad weather – 4 a/c lost 4.20
10.6.44 01.00 Operations: Laval airfield. Bombed from 2000ft Rather hectic, much light flak – 2 a/c lost
12.6.44 Fighter affiliation 1.45 Fighter affiliation. Air to air firing and bombing 2.30
14.6.44 00.15 Operations: Douai marshalling yards. Master Bomber shot down 3.00
15.6.44 23.30 Operations: Lens marshalling yards 2.50 6 a/c lost
17.6.44 Night flying test 0.40
18.6.44 (G/Capt Collins) to Feltwell and return 0.50
20.6.44 Cross-country training flight 1.30 Formation flying 1.10
23.6.44 Training flight 1.10
23.6.44 23.30 Operations: Coubronne ‘flying bomb’ site 5 a/c lost 2.20
24.6.44 16.00 (G/Capt Collins) Training exercise 2.05 27.6.44 00.30 Operations: Oisement Neuville flying-bomb site. Diverted to Graveley on return
3.10 3 a/c lost 28.6.44 22.30 Operations: Blainville sur L’eau railway sidings A fighter’s moon – 20 a/c lost 5.30
A rather more safe occasion
Scene: An office in an RAF Bomber Command airfield somewhere in England.
It is mid-morning during the summer of 1944. A senior officer gets up from behind a desk with papers in his hand and goes to a large safe, selects a key from a bunch held in his other hand and opens the door. He puts the papers in the safe, puts the keys down on top of them and shuts the self-locking door.
Senior Officer (shouting to subordinate in adjoining office): “Adj. I’ve shut the (xxxxxx) keys in the safe!” Adjutant: “What a nuisance, Sir!” (or words to that effect) “What a good job there are no ops tonight.” Senior Officer: “Yes, indeed, Adj. But there may be, tomorrow. And all those secret codes locked inside! Whatever shall we do?”
What a curious thing it is… as an erk, if an unexpected job turned up, in the first instance at least, volunteers would be called for even if, as usual, this produced little effect. I used then to have a theory that if one stood absolutely motionless one tended to become invisible at such times. An officer has no such opportunity. It’s an arm across the shoulder and “I’ve a special job for you, old man” – to which, of course, there is no possibility of refusal or even negotiation. I had no means of knowing whether I was specially selected or whether I just happened to be handy when the Adj. came out of his office. I suspect the latter. “I’d like you to take the Squadron safe to the factory where it was made in Birmingham”, he said. “They will take it apart and recover the keys which have been locked inside. Transport has been laid on and try to get back with it by lunchtime tomorrow at the latest if you can, old chap.”
So I suppose I said, “Yes, Sir, of course”, and got on with it. I found a 30cwt truck at the MT Section with the safe roped down in the back and Leading Aircraft-Woman driver standing by for take-off. I had never been to Birmingham and neither had she. There were no road signs, of course and no place names, but while she drove I did the map-reading. Birmingham was about 60 miles and in the event would have been difficult to miss as it sprawled in front of us from miles away and we got there about six.
Arriving in a strange city at that time in the evening is always a bit fraught. With a load of secret documents, albeit in a locked safe, it was a bit out of my orbit. I saw a policeman and assuming a tone of authority as best I could asked to be told where we could leave our top-secret cargo safely for the night. This turned out quite well and we left it round the back of a large Police Station somewhere in the City centre. Then I had to find somewhere for the driver to stay for the night. Try the YWCA, they said. We did that and she went in to try her luck. She came out again. “That’s OK”, she said. “And I’ve booked a room for you as well as there was one going. Is that alright?” “What?”, I said, “In the YW?” “Are you sure?” “Yes, it’ll be alright, they said.” So we had a wash and a meal (some funny looks at us – me in particular – in the YW canteen) and went out for the evening.
Early to work the next morning. Found the factory. I forget the maker’s name but it was well known worldwide. They were expecting us. There was a large shed, smoky, noisy, and about a dozen men working. They all stopped as we drove the wagon in and helped slide the safe down a ramp to the floor and stood it upright.
A man came and looked at it carefully for a few seconds. He seemed quite short-sighted and was of an age when Ladysmith, Mafeking and Botha were names on everyone’s lips rather than Caen, the Falaise Gap and Flying Bombs. He felt the left-hand side very carefully with his fingertips. Someone handed him a hammer and a punch. He put the punch to four places on the side in turn and gave each a smart blow with the hammer. It was quite amazing. The whole of the side of the safe just fell off together with a bucket or so of sand. There was an inner panel. He did the same to that. No bother at all. He reached in, handed me papers, books and – the keys. Just like that. Less than ten minutes must have gone by. Within another half an hour the panels were back in position, ground down flat, two coats of paint sprayed on, and that was it. I opened the door with key, put all the papers back, put the keys carefully in my pocket, shut the door, shook hands with all, expressed amazement at their expertise at which they smiled genially, got the whole thing safely roped down again on the back of the truck and we were away.
So far everything had gone smoothly. The hard bit was getting the right road out of Birmingham with not a street sign to go by. It was a bit like snakes and ladders. And it is quite extraordinary (I think it is generally known as ‘Sod’s Law’) that when one asks directions in strange places one can only find people who say “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.” If the object of taking down all the signposts was to confuse enemy agents dropping by parachute I think it might well have succeeded. It certainly confused us and our arrival back just within our deadline must have stretched the CO’s nerves to the limit. We may not have got a mention in despatches for this but did manage quite a nice evening out in Birmingham.
2.7.44 12.50 Operations: Ouisement Neuville A wasted effort. Unable to find target 2.35
4.7.44 10.45 Training flight 2.15
13.7.44 14.40 Operations: Cancelled after take-off 0.25
14.7.44 14.45 Operations: St Philliberte Ferme Oboe formation
2.45 15.7.44 15.15 Operations: Neucourt. Oboe formation 3.05 Oboe formation. All these operations were against flying-bomb sites on the French coast
16.7.44 11.00 Formation flying 0.50
17.7.44 11.15 Radar test 1.15
Co-operation with the Army
18.7.44 02.45 An early breakfast Operations: Cagny (tactical) some heavy flak A/c damaged (6a/c lost) 3. 00
Since the disaster of Nuremburg there had been (reluctantly, we now know, on the part of Harris) a noticeable shift of emphasis from the de-housing of Germans to the disruption of the railway system, German airfields and gun batteries in northern France well away from the invasion area – one of the many ruses ultimately to convince the German High Command that the Allied landing, when it came, would be in the Pas de Calais area. It was one of the many objectives of the invasion force to try and take the city of Caen on the first day. In this there had been serious miscalculation of the resolution of the well dug-in German defending forces.
The army therefore, a month later, called upon Bomber Command to attack the city area, which on 7th July they did to such effect with a force of 450 aircraft, that the ruined buildings became a barrier quite impenetrable to our own forces who were attempting to dislodge the occupying Germans. This was a futile act, in retrospect, which succeeded only in destroying a fine old city and killing a large number of French people in so doing. Not for us to reason why.
The background to this particular raid on Cagny, a village some 7 or 8 kilometres SW of Caen was its being the centre of a large concentration of German armoured vehicles. On that day, 18th July, a two-pronged attack by British forces was projected to finally clear this whole area. Just after 6.15am “one of the greatest ever air-bombardments of ground forces was unleashed upon Panzer Group West by heavy and medium bombers of the RAF and USAAF”. It is recorded, somewhere, that the four, only, 88mm flak guns which survived this bombing were then directed to fire upon the advancing British armour. This may well have been so but I can personally record that up to that point the flak thrown up by such 88mm guns was particularly intense and accurate considering the tonnage of bombs being dropped on them and incidentally causing some damage, including the starboard inner engine, of the aircraft in which I happened to be flying.
Notwithstanding the six weeks since the invasion it was less than four minutes flying time from the French coast to the battle zone below us on this, our one and only flight to co-operate directly with the army. At our modest height we still saw little except some scars to the green of the fields and wooded areas and a quick glimpse of the ruins of Caen to starboard. There was satisfaction to be asked to help with the invasion in some direct way but at the same time we were completely detached from the fierce battle to start up again below when we had finished.
In another sense it was to be many years after the war was over that the truth about the other battles came to light, those fought between General and General, Air Marshal with Air Marshal and Generals with Air Marshals, if it ever did, when these important people had retired and written their memoirs after the comfortable blur given by time.
In an hour and a bit after those few hectic seconds over the battle-field in Normandy we were back to the peace and quiet of a fine summer morning in Huntingdonshire; to another breakfast and a quiet read of the papers and then an amble round the airfield in the sunshine to chat to the chaps who were changing our damaged engine and patching a few holes. I have never been entirely sure that occasional feelings of unreality in later years were not born out of such immediate contrasts.
The Allies invasion forces had a total of 209,000 casualties in Normandy of whom 37,000 were killed. British and Canadian amounted to 2/3rds of those suffered by the Americans. Some 28,000 Allied aircrew were lost over Normandy before, during and after the invasion.
19.7.44 14.10 Operations: Mont Condon 2.55 Oboe Formation
“Pressing on regardless”
20.7.44 14.20 Operations: Foret du Croc – Oboe Formation Damaged by flak. Leader shot down 3.05
Yesterday’s jargon always seem rather silly when looked at in print. “Pressing on regardless” was a phrase much used by RAF flyers of the time. It would, for example, be used when “shooting a line” (another such phrase) and expounding upon some dashing exploit carried out, without any regard for the consequences, usually by the teller of the tale – a tall story – never meant to be taken too seriously – even sometimes with a grain of truth, and almost always followed by a chorus of groans from those forced by circumstances to listen. “There we were, in thick cloud, ice all over the windscreen, engines coughing, never got to the target till everyone else had left, etc, etc”.
On 20th July 1944, 20 Lancaster aircraft of 582 Squadron took off from Little Staughton at 14.20 hours to attack a flying-bomb launching site at Foret du Croc just across the Channel. Unusually, we had been briefed to attack as a separate unit. The lead aircraft carried a special radar device (code-named ‘Oboe’) which would be triggered from ground stations in the UK. At the given signal it would drop its bombs and the rest of us would follow suit. Hopefully 100 tons of bombs would fall with precision upon the target. In about an hour and fifteen minutes we were going in to attack in a twin line-astern formation with slight variations in height to avoid the slipstream of the aircraft in front. We were the second aircraft and flying about 15 or 20 feet above the leader with our port wing just over and slightly behind his starboard wing. (We had been practising this but it was the first time that we had done it operationally).
The leader opened his bomb doors; we opened ours, and so on down the line. It would be about 30 seconds to the drop. I was standing up next to my seat with my head in the astrodome and I could see it all; the leader just slightly below us and others staggered at different heights behind; each swaying slightly as in some slow, macabre, elephantine dance in the sky; sinister, yet fascinating to watch. It was a perfectly clear day and I felt reasonably comfortable with our situation. If fighters attacked they would get a rough time from a total of 120 Browning machine guns each firing 1000rpm.
And then it happened. One did not usually hear bursts of flak over the roar of the engines. If one did, then it was very close indeed. We heard this one. A ‘whoof’ and a ball of flame, instantly gone as we flew through it. Our aircraft was spattered with small bits of exploding shell some of which went clean through us and out the other side filling the fuselage for the moment with a cloud of pulverised aluminium dust. One piece on its way through tore the sleeve of my flying jacket. The port wing of the leading aircraft, however, was a mass of flame which streamed back as far as the tail plane in the slipstream having, I judge, received a direct hit on or near the port inner engine or one of fuel tanks. It was obvious they would have to bail out, and quickly, if they were to survive. I saw a face in their astrodome, no doubt the wireless-op, and the rear and mid-upper gunners looking from their turrets at their blazing wing. The leader kept on, straight and level, waiting for the electronic signal to drop his bombs, still with some 20 seconds to go. After what seemed like a very long 10 seconds the whole of the port wing folded upwards at a right-angle and completely broke off, the aircraft turned over on its back and went into a crazy downward gyration. I watched it for some time. I saw no parachutes open and did not expect to; centrifugal force would see to that. When the shell burst our flight-engineer, who was stretched out horizontally in the nose with his eyes glued to the open bomb-bay of the leader, was temporarily blinded and because his thumb was hovering over the bomb-release ‘tit’, inadvertently pressed it. The rest of the gaggle behind us saw our bombs fall away and let go their own. Down went the whole lot, missing the target by at least a mile. None of us spoke and it was the skipper’s somewhat measured “Course for home, please navigator,” that broke the silence. The leader carried out his instructions as far as he was able. A classic case, if ever there was one of ‘pressing on regardless’. But this time for real.
On this same day a few hundred miles away in what was then known as East Prussia, a certain Count Claus Von Stauffenburg also placed his bomb; unfortunately he, too, missed his target (by rather less than we had done) and thereby failed to change the course of world history. Hitler, shaken but slightly injured continued to live but Von Stauffenburg and his fellow conspirators suffered an extremely unpleasant death. This turn of the coin may have been responsible for more lives being lost in the last year of the war than had occurred in the previous five.
The damage to my flying jacket was remarked on by a Waaf in the parachute section on my return. I did not refuse her offer to repair it which she did by the next day most skilfully as I can still see today just by looking in my wardrobe. Mind you, I have to keep it in a strong plastic bag as, I have to say, it does still give off a bit of a genuine 1945 pong; a mixture probably of 100-octane aircraft fuel, hydraulic oil, a great deal of sweat and possibly a few tears. Any many thanks to the Irvine Leather Co. for Jacket No. H.980777 issued to me in December 1941. As well as its special aroma it has some special magic about it too for it kept all perils away as well as keeping me adequately warm in all manner of conditions.
The damage to our aircraft over the Foret du Croc was mostly repaired by the next afternoon when we combined an air test with some practice air/sea firing for the benefit of the gunners. Something wasn’t quite right however for we repeated the air test a couple of days later.
21.7.44 16.30 Air test. Air/sea firing. 1.05
23.7.44 15.4 Air test. 0.40
The Harris factor was at work again. There must have been a bit of a spat with the army for we switched back to our more familiar role, as follows:- 23.7.44 22.30 Operations: Kiel. 4 a/c lost 5.20
24.7.44 22.05 Operations: Stuttgart. 21 a/c lost 6.55
25.7.44 21.55 Operations: Stuttgart. 12 a/c lost 7.15
27.7.44 10.45 Training flight 1.05 28.7.44 22.20 Operations: Stuttgart. 62 a/c lost 6.30
Quite a week this. 99 heavy bombers did not return from 4 nights activities. Stuttgart may have had rather a pasting but so did we. We saw them going down in balls of fire all around. At least that’s what we thought and reported it at de-briefing when we got back. “Very interesting”, they said, “They’re putting up these shells which resemble an exploding aircraft when they go off – just to frighten you a bit. Not to worry – just take a note of the time and position and let us know.” So we went about our business thereafter much comforted. It was, of course, a gigantic confidence trick; kept from as many as possible. In my case it was not until 35 years later, 28th October 1979 to be precise when I bought the Sunday Telegraph, that all was explained in the magazine section. It was quite simple: Junkers 88 night fighters had been fitted with twin cannon which slanted upwards about 70 degrees from the horizontal. They would creep under us, aim for the fuel tanks in our wings, and blow us apart. (Their pilots were subject to the falling debris if they were not careful.) I’m not sure whether I should be glad I did not know about this at the time. The German phrase for this, ‘Schräge Musik’, literally ‘slanting’ or ‘oblique music’, had a kind of poetic ring about it, I suppose; but only if you happened to be German.
It might have been coincidence, but I doubt it. The rate of loss during this period could not be sustained. So back we went to the skies over France for a bit until Harris got his breath back, replacement aircraft on the tarmac and new crews to fly them.
1.8.44 Training flight 1.25
3.8.44 Training flight 0.30
Operations: Daylight attack on flying bomb site at St Leu d’Esserent 3.10
7.8.44 Training flight 1.20 Operations: night attack on railway yards At Mare de Magne. Full moon. 10 a/c lost 2.45
One morning, just after breakfast there was a large ‘bang’ from the airfield and a cloud of black smoke. None of our aircraft was off the deck so it was all rather strange. Rumour flew round quicker than speed of sound – it proved on this occasion to be correct (which was unusual). The crew of an American B17 (Flying-fortress) on its way with others to drop its bombs somewhere over Germany found it necessary to evacuate it and leave it to its own devices. Their aircraft, presumable with controls set to fly out to sea, had failed to comply and made a large hole as its bombs exploded scattering bits of B17 for a hundred yards around, fortunately far removed from any of the runways. Like others, I poked around among the bits and pieces and discovered that this aeroplane seemed to have been virtually held together with jubilee clips of various sizes. And like others I picked up a large quantity of these in first class condition, all beautifully galvanised, and being so useful for repairing elderly cars – one of the then major concerns in our lives. I gave away a fair number over the years but I still have some left to this day. Quite a lot of our spare time was in fact devoted to keeping our motley collection of transport something like drive-able if not entirely road-worthy and spare parts were hunted down relentlessly.
A sequel to the Jubilee clips bonanza evolved the very next day when a party of USAAF officers appeared on our airfield, presumably to discuss the hole they had made in a far corner. It so happened that a chap I knew had at last tracked down a second-hand universal joint for the driving shaft of his Austin 7 tourer, circa 1927 vintage. It (the universal joint) consisted essentially of a circular pad of fabric, about seven inches in diameter and half an inch thick with four holes in it to which one bolted the flanges of the two halves of the driving shaft. It looked as crude a device as it sounds to describe but would work adequately for years. This one had quite a bit of life left in it and he asked me to give him a hand to fit it. We pushed the car along a path with some long grass beside it and turned it over onto its side on the grass to expose the drive shaft. We were bolting the thing on just as this party of Yanks came by. They just couldn’t believe it. A proper car could just not be that small, they said, and how the heck would that bit of cloth take the strain of propelling it on the highway? etc, etc, and went about their business laughing at the quaint ways of us Brits.
We had our own back one day when on a practice flight a B17 (Flying Fortress) was seen ahead and on our height and track. It was fair game for our pilot who stopped two of our engines, feather the props, and overtook it comfortably. Not taking the mickey, of course, or taking a superior stance; merely, and quite properly in our opinion, showing what British technology would do in the form of a Lancaster and Rolls-Royce Merlins. We also knew through living with a Mosquito squadron that this small wooden aeroplane with its two Merlin engines and two-man crew could, and frequently did, take a 4000lb bomb as far as Berlin, while a B17 with its four engines and 10 or 11 crew and weighed down heavily with big-calibre machine guns and ammunition carried very little more bomb-load on an average trip. To give them their due though – despite their own horrendous losses they shot down an awful lot of Jerry fighters.
8.8.44 To Tangmere and return 1.40
9.8.44 Training flight 1.30 Operations: night attack on Dijon marshalling yards 3 a/c lost 5.35
Operations: 18.15hrs. Master Bomber. Formation attack on the railway bridge at Etaples 2.25
Training – fighter affiliation and bombing 20 a/c lost 4.30
There were many euphemisms for referring to empty places in the mess at breakfast time. There – you see, I’ve just done it myself. “Getting the ‘chop’”, “Buying it”, “Going for a Burton”, “The reaper at work”. Anything but referring to the dreaded official words like ‘death’, ‘killed’, or ‘missing’. And without being too morbid about it all there were many ways to die and not just aircrew.
A red light ahead
I forget the actual occasion but we were climbing up to operational height somewhere over the North Sea. There was no moon and we entered a considerable layer of thick cloud. Somewhere, above us, below us, in front of us, behind us, there were some 500 other aircraft all going at roughly the same speed and in the same direction. There was nothing we could do but just keep climbing and hope, as always, for the best. The sky above and in front of us went suddenly bright orange for about 10 seconds. We went right through it and left it behind. Nobody said a word but we were certainly thinking a bit. We eventually came out of cloud and carried on towards the target. Afterwards, when we got back to base our skipper reported at the de-briefing that two aircraft had collided at such and such a time. Twelve aircrew would have died.
…and the weather
A crew in our squadron were on their way to a target when they were carried upward from whatever height they were to something approaching 30,000 feet by getting mixed up, in the dark, with a ‘cu-nim’ (‘Cumulo-nimbus’ – or thunder cloud). Tossed this way, that way, and shaken about in high turbulence they thought, no doubt, this was their lot but somehow they survived and while I do not know whether they went on to bomb the target I do know they brought their aircraft back. Their story was treated with some scepticism until their Lancaster was inspected in daylight. I saw this myself – the whole of the upper surface of their wings, instead of being smooth, was bent into folds and ridges like corrugated iron.
…and things dropping from the sky
I also saw one of our aircraft after returning from a sortie with an elongated hole, the silhouette of a bomb complete with fin, right through the wing between the engines. The bomb must have been released from not far above them while still more or less horizontal. (This was not unusual but it was lucky to get away with it.)
…the armourers had their problems too
Bombs were dangerous, not just when they dropped on you from above, but when they were being handled. The armourers put the detonators in, set them to varying stages of delay, if required, loaded them onto aircraft, sometimes unloaded them. They had to watch out for what were known as ‘hang-ups’; bombs which had not dropped out of the aircraft when they should have done but shaken loose later on when the bomb doors had been shut and brought home unwittingly resting only on the bomb doors. It was an exacting, physically demanding and potentially dangerous occupation being an armourer and they had casualties in these and other circumstances.
15.8.44 W/C Cribb Operations: Master Bomber: St Trond airfield 3 a/c lost 3.10
The appellation of ‘Master Bomber’ was given to the skipper of the aircraft which would lead and direct an operation. It was a somewhat dubious distinction as he usually arrived early over the target and directed the main force of the bomber stream where to put down their bombs in relation to the marker flares that he and other follow-up pathfinder aircraft had laid on his directions. He (and his crew) would spend 10-20 minutes over the target area depending on the number of aircraft taking part and be the last to leave.
Until 15th August ’44 I had flown regularly with the same skipper and crew. From then on I flew only with the squadron commander Wing Commander Cribb (promoted to Group Captain in the time I flew with him) or his deputy, Wing Commander McMillan. This was, again, a doubtful privilege as these officers by the nature of things would, when they chose to fly, certainly not take part in operations against a soft target. There is an entry in my flying logbook on 5th September as follows:
5.9.44 18.00 W/C Cribb Operations: Le Havre 2.30 (Master Bomber)
“Surrender or be bombed” – that is what they had been told. It was not quite as simple as that. At the briefing it was said that this port was urgently needed by the allied forces in France, that the German forces occupying it, although surrounded, would not surrender; and that the ultimatum had been issued to them to surrender or be bombed – hence the remark in my log-book.
In just over an hour on a clear September evening we arrived over Le Havre at 7000 feet just before the main force arrived and laid our markers right in the town centre as instructed. We saw everything very clearly indeed at this height. The main force of in excess of 300 aircraft were advised by us where to bomb in relation to our markers and those of other Pathfinder aircraft backing us up, as we circled round the town for the 10-15 minutes it took, as it seemed to us, to virtually obliterate the allotted target. Surprisingly not a short was fired at us. We had expected a great deal of light flak at the height we were flying but saw no evidence of it. We were the last aircraft to leave and some 20-30 seconds after we had set course for home, and as I was looking back over the tail plane at the huge column of smoke we had left behind, I saw a very large puff of black smoke (rather more than that provided by the usual AA shell) at our own height and about a mile behind us. I thought at the time this was either an act of defiance or that some Jerry gunner below had at last found a shell from somewhere and was determined to fire it, however belatedly. And I remember having a silent chuckle to myself at this latter possibility, which was rather crass of me in all the circumstances which I was later to learn.
Another hour and were back at base. Bacon and egg and chips in the mess and a pint of beer and so to bed, no doubt, (between clean white sheets). To be quite honest I did not think much more about it until 1991, 47 years later to be precise, when I saw a 30-minute feature on BBC TV. I had not in any way until then realised the full implications; so, in 1994, a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of this raid I wrote to BBC (South) TV in the following terms.
“I ask you if you could do me a personal favour, please. During 1991 a BBC 2 programme told the moving story of how in late August 1944, the German-held port of Le Havre continued to hold out against the surrounding allied forces. The senior German officer had instructions to fight to the last man but was concerned about the fate of the French population. He asked the British to allow the civilian population through their lines. This request was refused and an order was given to attack. A British Army officer, Captain William Douglas-Home refused to carry out an order on the grounds that the civilian population would be endangered and was subsequently court-martialled, cashiered, and served one year’s imprisonment in a civilian prison. In the film the moral and legal questions that arose from his action were discussed in some detail and compared with those invoked at the Nuremburg trials in 1945. Three years before the programme was made he had petitioned the Army Board for a revue of the findings and sentence of his court-martial. The previous week to the programme the Army Board announced, without giving reasons, that they had denied his petition. Sadly, I believe that William Douglas-Home died recently. He was, I think, a man of exceptional moral courage.
I have a personal interest in this matter. I was a member of the crew of a Lancaster bomber of Pathfinder Group, Bomber Command, which led and directed the bombing of the town centre of Le Havre during the evening of 5th September 1944. The raid was considered a technical success inasmuch as the aiming-point was destroyed. I can still visualise this raid quite well in my mind but thought no more about it at the time. These were busy days and nights and the war moved on.
I became aware of the events on the ground only when I saw this programme three years ago and realised it was my own aircraft that had led this raid. I had not known until then that we had been instrument in causing death and injury (quite unnecessarily) to some unknown thousands of French civilians. As I recall no mention was made at the briefing before the raid of the implications of what we would be doing. Had we known would we have had the courage of Captain Douglas-Home? I am not sure, I think maybe not. Not one German soldier was killed. Some 12,000 of them, who ultimately surrendered, were, at the time not in the town at all but manning the perimeter of the larger area they occupied.
It will soon be the 50th anniversary of this unhappy episode. I would be grateful if you could, on my behalf, induce the BBC on this day, to honour this gallant man and remember those who died, whom he had tried to save. While I feel no personal guilt, I do, to say the least, feel uncomfortable about our part in this and you will no doubt conclude, and rightly, that this is my way of expressing regret for the decisions taken at the time.
JC Chapman (One-time F/Lt, RAFVR)
(Between 6th and 11th September a further 2000 aircraft bombed the area occupied by the German forces before they surrendered. Shortly afterwards a similar situation arose at the port of Calais. The enclosed German garrison surrendered by negotiation thus saving the port from destruction and civilian casualties. It would seem that a lesson had been learned but it did not prevent the apparently unjust treatment of Captain Douglas-Home.)
The BBC were unable, apparently, at the time, to do as I had asked but interviewed me at home regarding my personal feelings about the raid itself. This went out on BBC Television South in November 1994 and included dramatic film coverage of the actual raid; from what source I am not aware.
17.9.44 17.20 Group Capt. Cribb Operations: Master bomber V2 Store Dump near La Hage. 25 a/c on target. Much flak. No a/c lost. 2.20
This was the day of the airborne invasion of Holland and our raid was one of many small diversions in that area. On the way to and from our target we saw vast numbers of aircraft towing gliders to Arnhem.
18.10.44 F/Lt Hall Training flight. 1.35 W/Comm. MacMillan. Operations: Stuttgart - heavy flak at target. 6 a/c lost 5.40
W/Comm. MacMillan. Operations: Homberg. - heavy cloud – wasted effort. 3.40
W/Comm. MacMillan. Fighter affiliation/ Air firing training. 1.45
28.10.44 W/Comm. Macmillan. Operations: Cologne 4.15
The early bird that caught more than a worm
28th October 1944 was as beautiful a day as you get in mid-autumn. Not a cloud in the sky. Take off at 13.42. A heavy bomb load and not so much fuel for we were going only as far as Cologne and, hopefully, back. Our first venture over the Third Reich in daylight was to be with W/Commander MacMillan again as pilot, and Master-Bomber of a force of no less than 733 aircraft. The ‘ooh’s’ this provoked at briefing were mollified to some extent by being told that we would have long-range Mustang fighters as escort. (We never actually saw them in fact, but neither, probably to their credit, did we see any Jerry fighters. Now we knew why. The previous day, we had been engaged in an hour and three quarters of so called ‘fighter-affiliation’ and firing our guns over the sea.)
We were, of course, to be the first aircraft to arrive at the target to drop our markers. Cologne had been visited many times since the famous ‘One Thousand Bomber’ raid of 1942. The object of this raid was to destroy, as far as possible, the remaining built-up segment of the city so far relatively untouched. This was from the Cathedral outwards towards the North East, shaped like a large slice of cake. A few minutes before our scheduled time on target at 20,000 feet the sky was clear and the visibility perfect. I remember that I had to wear sun-glasses (those issued to me in Africa in ’42) as the sun was west of south and not very high in the sky and could well conceal a German fighter. It suddenly dawned on us – probably the rear gunner mentioned it on the intercom – that there was not a single aircraft in sight. We seemed to be quite alone in the sky.
I had a strong sense of panic – had I missed a recall signal or something on the wireless? Then the navigator piped up “I think we are 90 seconds ahead of time, skipper”. With the large mass of Cologne now almost below us there was no time to circle; to cut our speed down would have had little effect; we just had to make the best of it. I could see the Rhine and the cathedral to my left, just over the edge of the wing which had dropped as we went into a wide circuit to port over the south of the city.
The heavy-flak gunners below probably could not believe their luck at what they were seeing – one solitary Lancaster above their city for everyone to aim at? And in broad daylight and not a cloud in the sky? Seemingly every 88mm in and around Cologne got our height, speed, and direction worked out with some accuracy. Almost immediately there was quite a thump as our port inner was hit, caught fire, and stopped. Holes appeared in the fuselage. I remember thinking, all inside 1/10th of a second it seemed, everything in slow motion, - it had to be sometime – this is it – when my luck runs out – I was standing beside my seat with my head in the astrodome, as usual. I reached down with my left hand and eased my parachute out of its stowage and put it on the table in front of the wireless receiver, within easy reach and ready to clip on. Surprisingly, I now felt quite calm and detached. The flame from the region of the port-inner engine reached back almost to the tailplane. ‘Mac’ was looking back over his left shoulder, the mid-upper gunner was leaning forward in his turret, the rear gunner had his turret turned, we were all looking at it when quite suddenly it just went out. With the port wing lowered I could see the Rhine and the Cathedral standing clearly above earlier devastation. The flak followed us, surrounded us; we could see it, smell it and hear it – that was too close. ‘Mac’ ploughed on as though it just wasn’t happening but no doubt anxious for some sign of the main force as he still kept looking over his left shoulder. The rear-gunner saw them first and then, there they all were, like a gigantic swarm of bees. The flak turned its attention to this more worthwhile target and we were out of it into clearer air and heading for the aiming point, dead on track with doors open, the bomb-aimer with his thumb on the button and “Markers gone, skipper”, and then ‘Mac’ was on the R/T to the main force – ‘Bomb the green markers’ – etc – and we were out of direct trouble and doing what we had come for. Somewhat sheepishly, I remember, I put my parachute back in its stowage. We then went into a wide circuit around the target area, directing the main force where to bomb in relation to the markers burning on the ground and the other Pathfinder aircraft where to place their back-up markers. Routine for us but unusual in that it was such a large target, and in daylight with extreme visibility. One thing we had to take care with when dropping our markers and bombs was not getting caught under any aircraft which had yet to bomb but being daylight this was easier to judge. And then it was all over with utter devastation below. Back to base for us on three engines, downhill all the way, was no problem, and we landed before dark.
The next day we learned that Bomber Command had assessed the raid as having caused ‘enormous damage’ and, more importantly for us, that ‘Mac’ had been given an ‘immediate’ award of the DSO, the eventual official citation for which read as follows:-
“Act. Wing Cdr B W MacMillan AFC, RAFO, No. 582 Squdn. This officer has set a fine example of skill, courage, and devotion to duty in operations against the enemy. He has participated in a large number of sorties against strongly defended targets against such centres as Berlin, Stuttgart, Duisberg and Kiel. In October 1944 W/Cdr MacMillan took part in an attack on Cologne. In spite of considerable anti-aircraft fire, this intrepid pilot remained over the target for many minutes to press home a most determined attack. This officer is a most efficient flight commander whose sterling qualities have impressed all.”
That same day was important for me too. The Squadron Commander asked to see me. I had just completed 3 tours of bombing operations, he told me, and for me, personally, I could take it that the war was over but I could stay on the Squadron for a bit if I liked as there was all sorts of odd jobs I could do. I walked from his office several inches taller and went for an amble round the airfield on my own and thought about things.
Harris had not yet quite finished with Cologne. On Christmas Eve 1944 he dispatched a force of about 30 aircraft to have a go at the railway marshalling yards in daylight. It was planned as an ‘Oboe’ type of attack which was now reasonably accurate and the predicted cloud cover was expected to give them some protection without affecting their accuracy. On the way to the target it was realised at Bomber Command HQ that the cloud was insufficient to give adequate cover on the very prescribed run in to the target and a wireless signal was sent to cancel the ‘Oboe’ arrangement and bomb independently. The ‘master bomber’ on this raid was S/Ldr Robert Palmer, normally a Mosquito pilot of 109 Squadron, which, as I have mentioned before, shared our airfield. He was much practised in the ‘Oboe’ technique and had borrowed a Lancaster and crew from our squadron, 582, for the occasion. Unfortunately the vital cancellation signal was not received (a fear of most w/ops, I should say) and he pressed on in clear air. They did not have the same luck that we had had in ploughing through the flak in somewhat similar circumstances, for having dropped their bombs very accurately on the target they were hit by equally accurate AA fire and went down in flames.
S/Ldr Palmer was awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously, on 23rd March 1945. he was already the holder of the DFC and bar, and had completed well over one hundred operational flights.
With a slight leap forward into the future for the moment; on 22nd May 1945 I was one of the crew of a Lancaster which flew at low level over many of our main targets in the Rhineland and Ruhr valley. The devastation was absolutely appalling, none more so than at Cologne where it appeared that the great bulk of the magnificent cathedral was the only solid building left standing. I have never forgotten this sight. It is said that 300 dwellings remained intact in the city on which 45000 tons of bombs were dropped. (Coventry received 530 tons.)
My God, I thought, what is all this we have been doing?
And then, of course, Dresden
Since my last bombing sortie to Cologne in October ’44 I had not done an awful lot to be quite honest except a few admin chores and making myself useful at briefings such as handing out schedules, maps, and all that sort of thing. I was, in fact, enjoying my retirement. During December, in any case, there wasn’t very much air activity at all because of the continuous fog and, or, this cloud cover. It was a different story the other side of the Channel on the ground, where the so-called Battle of the Bulge gave concern.
On 13th February ’45, I went to the briefing for a raid on the city of Dresden. After the necessary ‘gen’ had been given on the route, the weather, take-off times, and all the usual things, an officer got up and sent the crews off with this thought…”Dresden”, he said, “is a very old German city and crowded at the moment we believe with refugees from the Russian front. Many of the buildings are of wooden construction and you are loaded to the maximum with incendiaries. It will burn well.”
That scene and the actual words that officer spoke, made their mark in my brain at that moment and have remained there. It was as though I had sensed that in the future, it would become a moment of history and that I must remember this; I have to remember.
(Some years later I established that virtually the same words were spoken at briefings throughout Bomber Command from the Headquarters of which the exhortation, no doubt, was sent by teleprinter to all stations involved.)
Later that night while I slept, Dresden’s citizens and those refugees from the advancing Russians who had gone there for shelter, died there in numbers that have ever only been estimated.
The full horror of that night became generally evident only slowly, but by the 1980’s was fairly well known in this country. I followed the arguments between the extremes of those whose verdict was ‘serve them right’ and that greater number beginning to voice doubts, not only about Dresden in particular but about the whole principles of Bomber Command itself and those who directed its activities.
In 1992 I read about certain former members of Bomber Command who had commissioned the erection of a statue of the late ‘Bomber’ Harris in The Strand in London, and which was to be unveiled by the Queen Mother on 31st May. I saw fit to write to Neal Ascherson of the ‘Independent on Sunday’, in the following terms, “…I have always felt shame and anger over this matter (the carpet bombing of German civilian centres and Dresden in particular) but not more so than at this moment. I feel I have to express this to someone and that you might just like to know that there is at least one former member of Bomber Command who has in no way contributed to the statue of Sir Arthur Harris and who would certainly not cross the Strand to look at it.” The effect was immediate and far-reaching. The resulting column in the Sunday Independent on that day of the unveiling led to a flurry of media interest and approving letters and ‘phone calls from all parts of Germany; a few, only, from this country. (A young German, on holiday in England three years later, knocked at our door, “I just wanted to meet you and shake you by the hand, he said”.)
The story of a motor car
Soon after I joined 582 Squadron I bought a motor car, a 1934 Hillman ‘Aero’ Minx, ACV 448, for Ł40 (that was about 2 month’s pay in my then rank of Flying Officer) from the widow of another flyer. It was a very fancy-looking and stylish car for its time, bright red, an open four-seater tourer with knock-on hubs, a leather belt holding the bonnet down, a white steering wheel and canvas fold-down roof, and the spare wheel bolted on behind the petrol tank at the back. As it was also the first car I had ever had, I had to teach myself to drive it which became more trial and error than anything else. There was no synchromesh, of course, and it was necessary to master the art of ‘double de-clutching’ when changing gear; my many failures to do this successfully resulted in horrendous noises from the gearbox. There was no such thing as ‘L’ plates or provisional licences or driving tests during wartime. I just got myself a driving licence, Road Fund Licence (as it was then called) and insurance and that was it. It would do 75 flat-out which was good for 10HP in those days.
I decided to go out in it one evening while I was at my parents’ home on a 48-hour pass, negotiated the somewhat tricky turn from their driveway and had gone about a hundred yards or so down the hill towards the town. I was still going quite slowly, struggling to get from 2nd gear into 3rd, as I passed a junction to my right which led to Bishop’s Stortford College when this chap in civvies hailed me. It turned out to be the Squadron Leader with whom I had flown frequently during 1943 at Pershore, who had recognised me as I passed; he having been visiting his old school.
This was an occasion for celebration to an extent that I was never able to remember what he said had happened to him since he left Pershore. All I do remember is driving home late that evening having apparently quite suddenly acquired an incredible deftness with the wheel; to such an extent that I swung with carefree abandon into our driveway in one go without touching the sides – something I never achieved before, or afterwards. (That is the last time I have ever driven in that condition – I swear it.)
Between my home and Little Staughton the old Roman road to Huntingdon, the A10 and A14, straight and empty, encouraged maximum speed on a few early mornings back to camp in time for breakfast after a 48-hour pass. Such absolute exhilaration, well remembered, would now be difficult to achieve. I have to say, though, that these days I envy my then confidence in cutting things rather too fine and on occasions arriving back on the airfield with only minutes to spare.
Far more exotic cars than mine abounded in the squadron though and I could in no way compete with the glamour of those whose purse extended to a 4˝ litre Bentley tourer (250 pound notes would do it) but these were thirsty beasts and I could at least rely on 35miles from each precious gallon.
I did no flying of any kind after my last operational flight until I was posted to Warboys, (a few miles NE from Huntington) the Pathfinder Navigational Training Unit, on 18th February 1945. A day or two before I left I sold ACV 448 to a chap on the squadron, Ted Swales, who had always admired it and made me promise that, if I ever sold it, to sell it to him rather than anyone else.
Not much more than a week later Ted died at the controls of his Lancaster. I think it would be appropriate to record here, in full, the actual citation, as quoted in The Times, of the subsequent award to him of the Victoria Cross.
“Award for Dead Master Bomber One of the Best Attacks of the War.
The King has conferred the award of the Victoria Cross, in respect of most conspicuous bravery on:- Captain Edwin Swales, DFC, SAAF, 582 Squadron (deceased)
Captain Swales was master bomber of a force of aircraft which attacked Pforzheim on the night February 23rd 1945. As master bomber he had the task of locating the target area with precision and of giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers following in his wake.
Soon after he had reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy fighter and one of his engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed. His crippled aircraft was an easy prey to further attacks. Unperturbed he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he gave aiming instructions to the main force. Meanwhile the enemy fighter closed the range and fired again. A second engine of Captain Swales’s aircraft was put out of action. Almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing his aiming instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose.
It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war.
Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; Captain Swales ordered his crew to bale out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls. Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live.
Captain Swales was born on July 3rd 1915, at Durban, where his mother lives. On the outbreak of war he left the bank in which he was working at Durban to join the South African Army, and as a Warrant Officer in an infantry regiment he fought with the Eight Army in the desert battles in Africa. He transferred to the South African Air Force in June 1943, on being commissioned as a pilot, and trained in South Africa. He received the immediate award of the DFC in February of this year. Captain Swales was always proud of his association with the Pathfinder Force of Bomber Command, and of the fact that he was the only member of the SAAF to have flown with them. He joined the Pathfinder Force last June. Captain Swales who played Rugby Football for Durban High School Old Boys, and Natal, played forward in several matches in England during the past season for the South African Services XV.
This is the 137th VC of the present war, the fourth to be won by South Africans, and the first for the South African Air Force.”
Strangely, I was copying this cutting from The Times, which I have in my scrapbook, when I realised that had he survived, Ted Swales would have been eighty that same day. He is buried at Limburg Cemetery, Belgium. In 1997, quite by chance, I came across a memorial and photograph of him in the magnificent South African War memorial at Delville Wood in Picardy. I found this very moving, when with my family, we were actually searching for the cemetery at Beaument Hamel for the grave of my uncle, Albert Victor Mumby, Lance Corporal, Royal Fusileers, who was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
I went back to Little Staughton a few weeks later, for what reason I cannot remember. I walked around to see if there was anyone about that I knew and came across ACV 448 pushed into the far corner of a hanger. It was covered in dust. I felt somewhat sick and walked away.
(W/Commander MacMillan stayed on the squadron until the end of the war and then, with other senior pilots, was invited to join the newly formed British South American Airways in association with the commander of the Pathfinder Force, 8 Group, Air Vice Marshal Bennett. Sadly, he was captain of a four-engined propeller-driven Avro ‘Tudor’ air-liner, the ‘Star Tiger’ when, in 1948 it disappeared without trace in that area of the Atlantic known in those days as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’. There was a great deal of speculation at the time as to how this happened.)
The Pathfinder Training Unit at Warboys existed to introduce pilots, navigators and bomb-aimers to the target-marking techniques required and, where necessary, ensure the all-round level of competence required. I did quite a lot of flying in the next few weeks of a not too onerous nature. The approaching end of the war in Europe made no difference to our activities as the presumption was that when it was over there would be plenty to do in the Far East. Over what remained of German-held territory Harris continued to engage his Command in a frenzy of destruction to within a few days of the actual official cessation of hostilities and losing many aircraft and crews in so doing.
It was anticipated on May 6th 1945 that the war would officially end the next day, May 7th. There was a kind of ‘end of term’ feeling about in our unit and, presumably, throughout the country at large. It was rather a blight on things then that during the morning I had to take to the air for a 15-minute flight for a Squadron Leader to perfect his landing technique.
One personal characteristic to which I will readily admit is that while I have felt that I had quite normal physical reactions, I know I am inclined at times to be a little slower on the uptake than some and this day proved a good example. Mind you, I wasn’t all that dim – I had been in the service for 5 years – so I didn’t actually hurry the business of getting back from aircraft dispersal and disposing of flying helmet and jacket in my locker and my parachute back into store (the Waafs in the parachute section were always worth chatting-up) in case I got lined up for anything else.
It was after lunch I made my first mistake. I sat in the mess reading the papers just a trifle too long and too visibly I suppose because I got a message to make myself ready for a take-off about 21.00 hrs. I couldn’t believe it – the day the war stops and I have to fly – and not only that – at night of all things. It’s something to do with some Russians, I was told. It was rather unbelievable. I was to fly with a Squadron Leader pilot, a bombing instructor, and some 7 or 8 high-ranking Russian officers. We had to demonstrate how we identified a target with target indicators and then how to bomb it. The Russians had either just declared war on Japan or were thinking about it – this may have been the reason. There was another aircraft to fly with us with a similar number of Russians but I didn’t see it or its crew. Loaded up with various kinds of target-indicators and practice bombs we spent 2hrs 20minutes about this business. The Russians didn’t speak to me, nor I to them, and they didn’t look too happy about being there at all, any more than I did. We landed at 20minutes to midnight. The Russians rushed off at top speed. I put away my flying things for the second time that day and went back to the mess for a drink before it was all gone. The whole place was more or less in darkness, just one light burning. There was nothing to be seen of the two chaps I had been flying with. I went round to the Sergeant’s Mess. There was nobody there either. The whole camp appeared to be in semi darkness and deserted. If there was a guard on the gate I did not see him. I realised, slowly, that the beer must have run out and everybody must have gone into Cambridge or somewhere before it ran out there too. Oh well, I thought, that’s it – and wandered round a bit to the airman’s cook-house or the Waafery to see if I could scrounge a cup of tea, or something. There was a dim light somewhere, I forget where. I found my way in. there was a Waaf sitting at a table reading a newspaper. She also had missed the boat. Somehow and somewhere or other we managed to find some cocoa and made the best of it. Everybody remembers VE day. I claim to remember it better than most because I was probably the most sober man in Bomber Command by midnight. But that is not quite the whole story which I did not know until I had the opportunity, many years later, to read the autobiography of Air Vice-Marshal DCT Bennett, who was, at the time, Air Officer Commanding No.8 (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. In other words, my boss. These Russians had caused him no end of a headache (and he not given to headaches – he gave them to other people. A man, so extremely efficient and experienced himself at every aspect of flying he demanded no less from everyone else). The Russians were suspicious apparently. How did they know it was not a trap, they would be dumped out over the North Sea, or the aircraft would catch fire and there wouldn’t be enough parachutes, and so on and so on. “Look”, he had said, in desperation, “I’ll fly you myself or at least half of you, I’ll be at the front of the aeroplane – if it crashes or whatever, I’ll be as dead as you are”, (or some words to that effect). So it was agreed. They all got into his aeroplane and flew to Warboys. Half of them, one General and eight Colonels, had stayed in his aeroplane (I bet they drew lots for that privilege) and the other General and the same number of Colonels had transferred to ours.
The training of Pathfinder crews continued at Warboys unabated by the end of the war. What on earth would have been done with them I do not know because the vast numbers of bombs being dropped at will on Tokyo and other Japanese cities by the huge new B52 Super-fortresses would surely make our intervention in that war quite unnecessary. (In one night during March ’45 it is said 16 square miles were destroyed by fire and 130,000 people were estimated to have died.)
However, on 15th June ’45, the proverbial bombshell well and truly dropped on me personally. I was given three days leave and told to report to Liverpool Docks on the 18th for transit overseas. Ye Gods, will it never end, whatever next, what have I done to deserve this, and so on and so on I thought.
As I walked up the gangway on RMS Andes – the ‘Tannoy’ was blaring out a tune of the times called, I think, ‘American Patrol’. The fact that I remember this does not indicate that it restored my spirits, any more than sitting in the vast dining room for a meal and being given a large and beautifully juicy apple just out of the fridge for afters, as, safely on board, they told us where we were going. Australia. It was not possible to go much further than that, I thought. But even in that I was wrong. I was now in Transport Command it seemed, and I was to be Officer-in-charge of No 196 Staging Post, Pelelieu, The Palau Islands, Pacific Ocean. But that’s where the Japs are, I thought, I couldn’t really believe it. I think that was the moment I started to go into some sort of decline.
There were quite a number of RAF types aboard, a sprinkling of 3 tour chaps like myself, an odd fighter pilot, a chap who had been flying supplies to Tito, and all sorts. And quite a number of RAAF being re-patriated.
The tale of the pineapple slices
It was mid-summer, the sea was in a kindly mood, the Andes motored along comfortably at 20 knots…and the food was good. Sitting on deck with the sun on one’s face I became a little more philosophical about the future.
I had the top bunk by the port-hole in a cabin with eight other chaps. We had an en-suite bathroom. Luxury indeed. One evening about 10pm someone produced a tin of pineapple slices and we sat on our bunks and quaffed the lot. I was in my pyjamas and ready to get my head down after an exhausting day watching the sea go by and leapt off my bunk to go to the loo. The empty open pineapple tine was right on the flight-path of my left foot and cut it open to the bone as I landed. There was blood everywhere. Everyone in the cabin decided to take charge but eventually calm was restored, someone held my left foot up in the air, and someone else went off to find out where the sick-bay was. I was carried there, one on each corner. The ship’s doctor was sent for. My leg was still being held up in the air for the 20 minutes (or so it seemed) for him to arrive. He seemed extremely cheerful. “Well, well, well, well”, he said, with a slight hint of gin and tonic on the breath. “That’s going to be a bit tricky!” This reassured me immensely. “After I’ve cleaned this up”, he said, “I’ll have to sew your instep together again using these curved needles – the trouble is the sole of the foot gets a bit tough and I shall have to use a little force to get them through it (showing them to me to prove the point. They looked slightly medieval). This could be rather painful.” “Thanks”, I said, and in this he was perfectly correct.
It turned out all right in the long run though. I was bedded down in the ship’s hospital, nicely placed on the boat-deck, the only patient and had the run of the deck with my crutches for the next two weeks. He did a fantastic job, actually, for not only did it mend together well and quickly but after a few years the scar had completely vanished as though it never happened. I always tell people, somewhat apologetically, if they are interested (which, I have to say, mostly they are not) that I went through the war without a scratch, rather than admit to making a somewhat ludicrous landing on an open tin of pineapple slices.
We reached Colon on 8th July. It was interesting at Panama – particularly the mechanics of getting our ship through the canal with, at times, only inches to spare – so few, in fact, that during our passage all us passengers were confined to that side of the ship our cabins were on so that the ship didn’t lean over. And it was very hot and sweaty.
It has been obvious to sailors since time began that the Pacific Ocean was vast and so it proved. There was still not much for me to do but watch the sea go by and with every opportunity so to do from my splendid place on the boat deck (it may be remembered that I achieved the same advantage three years before on Rangitiki but by less devious means). Not a thing did we see but the huge swell; slow, ponderous, remorselessly impressive. A reminder, if one was needed, of the unimportance of us humans and our paltry affairs, if I may say so, equally ponderously; and absolutely impossible, ever, to forget. One on these days, or centuries hence, people who fly about this shrinking globe will realise what they miss by going so fast and so high.
After something like another 17 days we reached Wellington. I do not know whether it was considered an attractive place in those days but any place seems interesting after a month at sea. My foot was mending and I could walk quite well with a bit of a limp and so was almost the last off the ship for eight hours shore leave. I got just outside the dock gates and noticed a pale blue Hillman ‘Minx’ open tourer. A young woman with blond hair smiled from the driving seat and said, “Hello”. Slow on the uptake, on this occasion I was not. I was whisked off to the outskirts of Wellington to meet her parents and younger sister and received hospitality to be long remembered. Late in the afternoon I was driven back to the ship, my spirits well restored; and on the way stopping off at a leather-shop to buy a hold-all (now showing signs of age but I refuse to part with it as it reminds me of a happy day).
“Arrival of 2000 RAF men”
“More than 2000 men of the Royal Air Force, the largest single draft to reach Australia arrived in Sydney on Saturday to join the RAF Transport Command.
Among the men are specially selected veterans of Bomber Command and highly trained members of maintenance crews. Almost all of them will take up administrative duties. They travelled on the same ship as the 660 repatriated RAAF men and showed traditional reluctance to talk about their experiences and achievements. The men expect to have little time in Sydney before receiving their postings. Several expressed disappointment at being sent away so soon. Most of them were notified in England of their departure to the Pacific in time to enable them to be granted, in some cases, from 10 to 14 days leave. A number of the officers, however, were unaware of their posting to the Pacific until 36 or 48 hours before embarkation. When the men paraded at Bradfield Park yesterday Group Captain DF Anderson spoke about the type of work they would do.
The Commanding Officer of the RAAF Station, Bradfield Park, Group Captain Ellis also addressed the men and paid high tribute to the hospitality which members of the RAAF had experienced while they were in England.
Flight Lieutenant Tony Le Hardy, of Faversham, Kent, is one of three officers who will pilot transport aircraft in the Pacific. For his work on the island of Vis, secret air base, 10 miles off the Dalmatian coast he received the OBE. He was posted to Marshal Tito’s staff in January last year. The partisans, he said, worked day and night to clear fields for the planes to fly in stores and carry out wounded.
Flying Officer HR Banner of Lewisham, London, admitted that he had been on 60 missions over France and Germany with a Lancaster Pathfinder Force Squadron. He could not remember why he was awarded the DFM.
Flight Lieutenant JC Chapman of Stansted, Essex, completed 73 missions. He flew with a Wellington Squadron in the Middle East for 12 months before returning to England for 18 months instructional duty and then made two tours in Lancasters. He could not remember much about the 73 missions over Europe. ‘Just routine’, he explained, ‘Nothing frightfully exciting ever happened’. (sic)”
This was a piece I cut out of a Sydney newspaper. Like most newspapers, bits of it were reasonably accurate.
The Andes had docked at Woolloomooloo, (accent on the second loo) Sydney Harbour, on 28th July. The Bridge dominated everything. Very impressive.
One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I did not keep a diary during the war. I have my flying logbook which has been invaluable in anchoring some events to specific dates such as, for instance, the Andes leaving the UK, arriving at different ports, in addition to purely flying activities. One memory often prompts another and so on and I have been fortunate up to this point. Many years later, when searching around in my mind for explanations for various aberrant emotions then beginning to surface, I realised that my life had imperceptibly changed about this time. It may have been the injury to my foot that triggered it off; that I will never know. But soon after landing in Australia astigmatism quite suddenly asserted itself in both eyes as it had done similarly when I was 13 or 14 after being ill with rheumatic fever. I had had, of course, 20/20 vision in both eyes by the time I joined the RAF and had better vision than most in the dark. And if the remainder of this that I write appears somewhat fragmented it may be that some things just stopped registering in my mind.
There was a long train journey north from Sydney. Endless trees and lush vegetation were the feature of the 450 miles to Brisbane and although winter the climate seemed pleasant enough along this coastal route. 194 Staging Post, Brisbane, was a clearing house for RAF Transport Command and was situated at Archer Field, a fairly primitive airfield even by 1945 standards a few miles south from the centre of Brisbane. Our camp, rather quaintly called Camp Muckley, if seemingly somewhat primitive at first glance, was really rather nicely situated at a far corner of the airfield up a dusty track to a clearing among the gigantic gum trees and after a time I grew to love the atmosphere of the place, hidden away as it was.
As I virtually couldn’t see anything very clearly I made my first acquaintance with Brisbane itself by going to find an optician and having my eyes tested. I was astigmatic again, but within a week or ten days was in possession of a pair of Billy Bunter type glasses and at least able to read things again.
On 12th August I was flown to Sydney by the RAAF in a DC3, the faithful and ubiquitous ‘Dakota’, generally known as a Dak to all and sundry. The next day, from Sydney to Melbourne, stayed there two days and the next day back to Brisbane. I have no idea why, I just have the record of the flights in my flying logbook. While I was there Japan surrendered. I, and many like me who had not yet been posted to the far corners of the Pacific, took part in the Victory Parade a day or two later in Brisbane. The only aspect of this I remember is of marching along and the band playing and a woman shouting at us, “Why don’t you buggers smile!” I’ve never been quite sure why I, personally, did not smile, but whatever the reason, presumably we all felt like not smiling. So that was the end of it; a sort of non-event in the sense that we didn’t all go a bit crazy as on May 8th in Britain.
I liked Brisbane though. It was nicely old fashioned with some good civic buildings. I got into trouble with the law for crossing the road in Queen Street, (the main street) other than at a designated crossing point and was suitably admonished by a police officer. People went home from work about 5pm and the vast majority, of the male sex, went straight into the nearest pub. I never went in one but it was said to be an experience never forgotten; they shut at 6pm and the result was an alarming exodus onto the street of those who had to feel their way home by instinct. Mind you, it was a thirsty place. I got the impression, however, that betting on horses was the first priority of the average Aussie and a sound taste for the best brew the second. Or so it seemed. And depending on what time of day it was. I can remember speaking to some rather hoity-toity well-off women in a hotel lounge in Melbourne who were interested in talking to me because I was English. Among many things, they asked me if I was going to the races – there being always a horse race to mull over in any hotel in Melbourne; like being permanently in Cheltenham on the eve of Gold Cup day. I said that not only had I never been to a horse race but I had never put a bet on a horse, or anything else for that matter in my life. I didn’t mean to be self-righteous about it, I just said it as a fact; apologetically as far as I know, but it proved to be a conversation-stopper of some magnitude.
It was, I think, 3 or 4 miles from Camp Muckley into the town centre and on the way was the Woolangabba cricket ground (known internationally as ‘the Gabba’ to all cricket buffs), scene of Sheffield Shield and Test Matches, and looking rather sad as cricket grounds do out of season.
The officer’s mess at Muckley was mostly one large wooden hut, off the ground on stilts, which served as lounge, dining room and bar as the occasion demanded, and there was a kind of veranda, an outside extension, where one could take a drink. There were communal (cold) showers and lavatories not far away.
The function of our unit appeared to be the delivery of mail to various parts of the Pacific as far as, and including, Singapore and Hong Kong, and the repatriating of ex-prisoners of war and service men and women as required. My personal function was never, actually, ever explained to me and as far as I remember I made no effort to find out. I was now, I think, in a state of mental inertia - a what will be, will be, sort of attitude and certainly not bolshie; but the sort of view that if they send me 12,000 miles to do a job and they don’t tell me what it is, that’s their hard luck. I think I was not alone in this. I and many of those who had come from Britain with me had nothing to prove, and had already achieved the greatest ambition some of us would ever have, that of staying alive; and no need to make a name for ourselves except those who had their eye on a permanent commission in the peacetime service. (One could readily pick these out.)
Some of us, a few kindred spirits, used to gather outside on the veranda, evenings, and have a drink or two. There was a portable gramophone on which one of us in particular made a small ritual of playing the only record available, an extract from The Nun’s Chorus. Halfway through there was a bit of a gash in the tracks and providing one could endure some seconds of considerable discord, it generated a little emotion into the evening air if only for 3 minutes or so. Well, it was better than nothing I suppose.
It was nearly 7 weeks after landing at Sydney that my actual posting to Peleliu took place. I saw little of Townsville, 4 hours flying from Archer Field, as we landed on the then primitive runway just before dark, and went to bed early with the unending call of the cicadas for an equally early start the next morning. I am not at all sure as the DC3 ambled down the track at 06.05 that morning that I realised it was my 25th birthday. Six hours and 55 minutes later we landed on an airstrip on the island called Manus. Small in reality, it is ever harder to find on a map but about 300 miles north of Port Moresby in New Guinea will be marked the Admiralty Islands. And there, if you look hard enough you will find a tiny dot called Manus, which was then a US Marines base camp.
Another six am start the next morning; course set for Peleliu. (The two pilots who crewed the DC3’s had no real navigation to worry about as they just followed the appropriate radio beacon; this was then quite new technology and the early starts were to avoid the tremendous cloud which built up by mid-afternoon.) And 7 hours 10 minutes later we landed into another world. (18hrs 10mins flying in all to cover 2800 miles – average ground speed 156 knots). Peleliu, almost exactly midway between Townsville and Tokyo can be found on maps at 7 degrees 0 minutes North and 134 degrees 15 minutes East as another tiny dot at the southerly end of the small chain of islands known as the Palau Islands. It is about two miles from east to west and five miles north to south and consists only of a lump of coral anchored to the seabed of which, with the exception of the so called ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’, only about 15 feet stood above sea-level. The ridge, about 250 feet high at its southern end, flattened out as it extended some 4000 yards north-east. In 1945 Peleliu was now occupied mostly by the US Marine Air Corps having been fought for by the US Marines in 1944 who suffered 7417 casualties in so doing. There was a contingent of about seven or eight RAF ground crew already arrived of whom, presumably, I was to be in charge, two Royal Navy ratings and, I found out later, a few members of the Japanese soldiery who had decided not, for the moment to give themselves up.
The Palau Islands, generally, had a history of being colonised at various times by an assortment of European nations and also by the Japanese: what had happened to the native population of Peleliu in particular during the period of this war I have no idea. What is interesting, though, is that quite recently a survey showed a very high proportion of the population of the whole group of islands lived to be more than 100 years old – more than seven times the average in Western countries. I mention this in passing only to record that in the time I was there I have no doubt I failed to find the magic weed.
Accommodation on the island was either in prefabricated ‘Quonset’ huts (similar to our ‘Nissan’ huts but rather larger) or in tents. I had a good-sized tent to myself; a well-made and elaborate affair. Before leaving England I had been issued with the standard camp-kit for officers which consisted of a camp-bed, folding chair, canvas wash-basin supported on wooden legs, and a large canvas ground sheet. (All this was heavy to lug around but beautifully made and with care would last for ever.) I put all this down in one corner of the tent and then realised I had company – there was similar kit strewn about the other side, and some time after I got myself organised the other occupant, a Squadron Leader, turned up, introduced himself, and disappeared almost immediately. All I ever learnt from him was his name (quite famous, a much decorated Battle of Britain pilot), and that he was more than pleased that I had come to relieve him. He had gone off to liaise with several hundred Indian Army personnel, prisoners of war of the Japanese just discovered on a neighbouring island and to arrange for their repatriation.
The next day I was issued not only with a Jeep for my personal use but a US Marine Corps Driving Licence to allow me to drive it. The Squadron Leader’s kit remained in the tent for a day or two and then disappeared when I was away somewhere, and I never saw him again. I was hoping he would have told me what the score was, so to speak, in this strange environment but now realised I would have to try and pick it up as I went along.
The ground crew were a good and experienced bunch with a corporal in charge. Their job was to check the DC3’s belonging to our Group as they landed and send them on their way fully serviceable, or repair them if need be. They only had their basic tools. All replacement parts were obtained from the USMAC supplies department under the so-called ‘Lend Lease’ arrangement with the USA. Their job was certainly not onerous as I found that we would be lucky to see one of our aircraft each day, one from the south one day, one returning from Hong Kong and the Philippines the next.
After I had got the hang of things a bit and learned how to find out (from the radio section) the expected time of arrival of visiting aircraft I started taking our complement in, and hanging on to, the jeep to a beach at the southern end of the island for a spot of R and R. A few palms that had not been decapitated by the cross-fire of the previous year gave us shade and relief from the all-pervading glare of sun on coral. The sea, smooth inside the lagoon, was said to be free from shark (famous last words). There was not a lot to look at except the large land-crabs dashing about at high speed but it was as pleasant a spot as could be found in the circumstances. Fifteen minutes before the appointed time of arrival we would keep an eye open for a distant DC3 and we then just had time to get dressed, get in the jeep, and be at our aircraft parking space as it was taxiing in. We got this procedure to a fine art and if I did nothing else on Peleliu worthy of mention I think at least the ground crew appreciated this bit. If the aircraft had come from the north it would probably have passengers on board requiring an overnight stay on the island. If there were any female passengers my "Welcome to Peleliu!" was about all I was allowed to say as the US Marine Police would be there in strength (mostly to get an eyeful I think) and they would be whisked away under armed guard.
Going to the beach and the airstrip was about all I used the Jeep for, but it was often borrowed from time to time in the evening by Marines to visit the cinema show the other end of the island in which case I would usually find a bottle of something pleasant under the seat the next morning.
Somewhere about 3pm each day, punctually within five or ten minutes either way, the clouds which had been massing overhead for half an hour or so could contain their moisture no longer and poured the whole lot on us for about 15 minutes. The only thing to do was to be ready for it, dive into one's tent and wait for it to finish, which it did quite abruptly. The sky cleared, the sun came out again, and within minutes the millions of gallons which had fallen on Peleliu had disappeared into the coral and there was nothing left but a bit of steam. I was foolish in that I did not realise the humidity for some time and I woke up one morning to find that mostly everything in my tent, including my rather nice service greatcoat of Crombie cloth which hung on a hanger in a corner, had gone completely green with mould overnight.
I ate, and very well too, in the Marine Corps Officers Mess. The coffee was delicious and unlimited and I soon got used to pancakes and syrup for breakfast, and meals on trays divided up into sections, and eating only with a fork. I was told that the few Japanese who had hidden themselves away for the last 12 months in caves in the ridge of high ground used to raid the 'trash' bins around the cookhouses over night for scraps of food.
The Indian ex-POW's who had been brought to the island were not my responsibility and I did not see them for two or three weeks. It seemed that they were given a medical check-up, clothing, food and quarters and allowed to fend for themselves until they were evacuated. I was invited together with members of the Marine Corps to an enormous feast of Indian cooking they prepared in gratitude for their new freedom and felt embarrassed at the depth of their hospitality as I had had absolutely nothing to do with it. I told some of them about being helped by the 4th Indian Div. 3 years previously which did at least give us something in common to talk about. I was very touched when one of them gave me a pair of primitive but practical sandals he had made out of bits and pieces, mostly from old motor tyres, and used them in fact for some years before they fell apart.
One day one of our DC3's landed with a suspect engine. Our engine-fitter would not pass it fit for further use without major overhaul. Normally we would have got a replacement from the USMAC with no problem. This time they said 'Sorry, no more spares available'. When I asked the reason I was told that 'Lend Lease' between the USA and the British Government had ceased as from now and if we wanted a new engine we would have to pay for it. I assumed it was my job to keep the aircraft flying and the mail and passengers on their way otherwise the system would get clogged up. I got a bit stroppy, 'This is a fine thing, etc, etc,' and eventually they said, 'Alright, if you sign this form acknowledging liability for the cost of the engine you can have a spare'. I reckoned HM Government would have to fork out whatever it cost so I signed the form. We got a new engine and I made sure we kept the old one for repair. I never in fact heard any more about it so I assumed in the months ahead that I had either done the right thing or else the bill had not reached Transport Command before I was demobbed. We did not have a bad record for those times in getting the mail through the islands. I used to get, weekly, an airmail edition of The Times on Peleliu five days after it was printed in the UK - 3 days to Sydney by a civilian version of a Lancaster bomber and 2 days, including the re-sorting, from Sydney. I wonder how long it would take today.
I have to say I never liked Peleliu. It was no earthly paradise but a bare and barren place with little relief from the stark and blinding whiteness of the coral except in some small corners such as where we went swimming. Being virtually on the equator there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. I cannot say that the Americans were unfriendly, far from it as they used to pass the time of day with me readily enough when I had a meal but that was about as far as it went. There were thousands of them in the UK but I had never really spoken to any except one who was actually in the RAF and with whom I flew on operations on two or three occasions. Here, though, they had their own shared experiences and culture and I just could not penetrate it or feel part of any common cause.
I had foolishly brought with me not a single book except my dictionary, no radio, and developed a growing reluctance to speak to anybody, and no light in my tent, in which, in the long evenings I tended at times, I have to admit, to become more than a little depressed.
And then, quite out of the blue, so to speak, when one of our pilots landed on 14th October he handed me a note from our CO at Archer Field to return there forthwith. I could not understand this, it was only 4 weeks since I had left and I was only just getting to grips with the place, or so I thought. The next morning at 06.30 I got myself on board the next 'plane which was scheduled via Morotai, an island in the Halmerhera group some 400 miles south of the Philippines at 2¨N.
All I can remember of the three very hot and steamy days there was the communal loo about 30 feet long under a corrugated iron roof. One found oneself a convenient hole in the long wooden bench and sat over it. Some distance below was a vast pit of lime which, reacting chemically with that which was landing thereon, threw up such heat that, combining with the ambient temperature and the effect of the sun on the roof, put one into a such a sweat that it was essential to attend to one's needs with as much speed as one could muster.
It was with some pleasure that I left Morotai for the 6˝ hour flight on 18th October to Darwin, arriving just before dark. As we took off again just after six the next morning I saw little of it except the hut I slept in which was six feet off the ground on wooden stilts. The 10 hour 20 minute flight over the Northern Territory and Queensland to Brisbane was enlivened only by a half-hour stop at Cloncurry. The field we landed on was more or less just dry earth with a small tuft of grass here and there and a wire fence to keep the cattle out. The shed in which we had a cup of tea and a beef sandwich was close to the fence and the smell of cattle was fairly powerful in the mid-day heat we noticed as we visited the 'Gents' round the back.
Back at Archer Field, no one got round to telling me why I had been recalled to base; and I did not ask. I just started eating in the mess and awaited events. I suppose I should have been grateful to have been given this experience, however unwilling at the time, if only to dispel any desire I might have had in the future to get away from it all, and no doubt it is an arguable point whether any experience is good experience. 'The Sleepy Lagoon', that theme tune to 'Desert Island Discs' on Radio 4, inevitably takes me back to Peleliu although it was neither 'desert' nor was I by any means alone. And when asked what I would like to take, apart from those apparent necessities, the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, I would certainly refuse both in favour of something to make one sleep forever.
Each of us had been given a demob number based on length of service (and I believe, age) and at the rate it was going mine was months away. A week or so after I returned from Peleliu, however, (and I can think of no-one less suited to the job) I was appointed to be the officers' mess 'bar-officer'. This meant being responsible for the takings and ordering fresh supplies as the occasion demanded. I soon realised that this was in fact quite a rewarding occupation requiring the use of a small truck to go to the wholesale store in Brisbane with the necessary cash for further supplies, and developed an enthusiasm for keeping the bar well stocked; my time being otherwise my own it was quite fun. I also developed some popularity at being able to provide lifts back and forth from town. It was a little while before I realised why the bar had such a large turn-over, particularly in gin, which, notwithstanding it was so cheap, seemed to disappear as fast as I could buy it. It took me some while to learn that a 12-pack of gin would slide neatly and not too obviously between the back of the pilots' seat and the bulkhead separating the pilots from the main passenger space in the DC3. At Manus, the next stop after Townsville on the way north, there was a considerable establishment of black GI's who were, by US regulations not allowed to buy spirits from their canteen. A 12-pack, therefore, acquired a certain premium in respect of the transit and everybody was happy, including the wholesaler in Brisbane and myself, my particular perk being the use of the truck.
There was a room behind the bar that I adopted as a bedroom at this time. I had lost touch with most of those I knew before going to Peleliu as they had been dispersed around the Pacific.
One of those I did know who had come out from the UK with me was now quite sick, diagnosed as TB. I started to visit him in hospital on the far side of Brisbane. His death not many weeks later affected me quite deeply. I acknowledge now that I had then become withdrawn and depressed and felt sorry for myself in the evenings, listening to the usual hubbub of voices through the partition. Strangely, I had lost one other personal friend, and he, from my time at Pershore in 1943, also died in Australia some months before I arrived, quite unnecessarily, when the aircraft in which he was flying collided with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When I had a day or two to spare in Sydney I found his grave.
On Christmas Eve '45 I went with a Catholic friend to midnight mass in the large and imposing Cathedral in Brisbane for no reason other than for the experience and to keep him company. The occasion must have impressed itself on me as I remember it still, as well as the long warm walk back to camp in the early hours of Christmas day with the 'Gabba' and, further on, the eucalyptus trees, ghostly in the moonlight.
After Christmas, I had an unexpected opportunity to take a week's holiday in the outback by invitation from the owner of a sheep station in the border country of New South Wales and Queensland. I went by train from Brisbane to Warwick and then changed to a branch line which more or less followed the state-line between New South Wales and Queensland for about 250 miles inland. The further one went from the coast the more exotic the names of the stations, like Goondiwindi and Dirranbandi.
The whole railway system and the engines and carriages had a distinctly Victorian look. It was a continual source of wonderment to me how long man-made things lasted when there was so little dampness in the atmosphere. Houses made of wood, Model 'T' Fords, old 'Chevvies' looked as though they would go on for ever and the railways were no exception. The Victorians had no option but to accept the hard seats and upright back-rests of their otherwise worthy railway carriages as I did and the heat of the day added nothing to one's comfort. I did not, in any case, feel at my best. I was convinced I had the beginnings of polio-myelitis; there was a severe epidemic throughout Australia at the time and I had a headache, stiff neck, lassitude, and felt I had a slight temperature. The train drew into a station conveniently at lunch-time for half an hour and all the passengers got out and were refreshed with tea and biscuits. In my best, and light blue, RAF uniform (The RAAF wore dark blue) I was the object of some curiosity, not that anyone spoke to me. Everybody fed and watered, and back on board, the train ambled on again through the heat of the afternoon and an apparently uninhabited landscape of completely dead trees looking like white bones sticking out of the ground. When we drew into Inglewood I got out. There wasn't a lot in sight except a big and battered old Chevrolet saloon, about 1930 vintage, and a couple of young chaps, to meet me. They were the sons of the owners, about 17 and 18 I should say. The twenty or so miles to their place was an education. They were showing off, of course, but we drove at a furious speed in as straight a line as possible over rough ground, occasional tracks, or anything else. The occasional small fallen tree in the way presented no problem - just straight over it - the old Chevvie took it all in its stride.
We arrived eventually at a small oasis in the desert of scrub, dried up grass, and the few trees. On some higher ground not far from the bank of a dried-up watercourse was an elaborate bungalow built on stilts with a veranda all round in what I suppose would be described as late Victorian colonial style. Round about there were corrugated iron sheds, two or three more cars of various vintage, a truck, a wind pump, a few hens passing the time, and so on. A typical outback place, I suppose. I met the father and mother. They seemed extremely busy and preoccupied with the day to day affairs of an estate of around 500 square miles. They were, they said, pleased to meet me and showed me to my room. The interior of their 'place' with its elaborate and highly polished furniture, rugs on the wooden floors, a large framed photograph of Queen Victoria, was everything of the very best of fifty years or more ago I concluded.
The two sons would normally check and/or mend the boundary fencing as required; patrolling the perimeter in different directions on horseback until they met, and then back together through the middle. This would take them about a week. I was very ignorant of their life-style and they of mine and in the week I was there little opportunity of entering each other's world. Nevertheless they managed to give me just a glimpse of life in the outback and there were some activities that I well remember.
Toad in the hole
One morning I went to the bathroom and sat on the loo. I had been there only a few seconds when I heard a kind of plopping noise from underneath and looked down because I knew at that particular moment it was nothing to do with me. The largest toad that I ever did see was emerging from under the U-bend and starting to climb up the pan, its arms and legs outstretched. Its body alone measured at least six inches I reckon - at least it seemed that big but I am prepared to accept that I might be exaggerating a bit - I have told the tale a few times and it sometimes gets even bigger in the telling. Anyway I can tell you that with its arms and legs extended it was a fearsome thing to behold in those circumstances. I must say it expressed less surprise at what it saw above than what I saw below and I can also quite safely say that in my time I have had, of necessity, to move onto the seat of a loo with some rapidity but never left one in quite the same manner as I then did. But I do not exaggerate when I say I flushed the cistern in some panic, and back it went the way it had come which was down the 150 yards or so of pipe underground down to the billabong* which probably at this time of the year had dried-up. I felt a little bit sorry for it afterwards as all it got for its considerable trouble was a quick wash. *This is an Australian word for a sort of pond. (I thought it might add some local colour).
I didn’t know at the time but it was possibly a ‘Cane Toad’. These were introduced into Queensland in the 1930’s from Hawaii to kill off the bugs which fed on the sugar cane. It so happened that while they didn’t fancy the Australian sugar-cane bug there were so many other things they did fancy that there are now millions of them all over the place and are normally quite harmless but if alarmed or attacked squirt a powerful poison. And yes – they can get very big.
The Eagle’s Nest
It had been evident that a number of lambs had not died from natural causes and it was thought the culprit was a pair of eagles. We went out in the truck one morning and searching a likely area of rising ground, found a tree with a fork about 20 feet off the ground with a substantial nest of branches and twigs about 5 feet across. There was no sign of any eagles; if there were any they would have seen us coming for miles and helped themselves to another tree for the time being, of which there were several million available. It was decided to come back that night when they would probably be back in their nest and burn it down.
We returned about midnight using no lights and walked the last few hundred yards. A prepared torch of twigs soaked in paraffin on some light rope was lit and flung up the tree. We missed the first time but eventually got it going and sat around for about two hours while it burned, disintegrated and came tumbling down. I fancy the eagles had long gone even if they had been there at all.
However, and this is mostly why I remember it, when the fire had gone out and after we had stamped out all the burning embers and it was dark again, I could see more stars than I think I have ever seen. And there was that incredible silence. The only sound I could detect was the beating of my own heart and now and then the weird maniacal laughter of a kookaburra calling its mate, which was enough to put the wind up a limey like me (too right!) even in broad daylight.
…and the death of a ‘roo
Yesterday it had been the eagles and the lambs. This was the day of the rabbits and the ‘roos. They were eating too much grass and not leaving enough for the sheep. In the summer it was a case of survival for one or the other but probably not both. So it was out in the truck with shotguns and a .22 rifle to slaughter as many as possible.
I had no desire to shoot at anything but the two young lads, who were probably as good a shot as anyone, got to work enthusiastically in all directions and rabbits went down by the dozen. We eventually came across a small collection of kangaroos grazing in the distance. They looked at us for a while and then loped off as we got closer. Over the uneven ground they could make as good a speed as we could in the truck and certainly were better at changing direction and he who had the .22 with me in the back of the truck had no luck. They wanted me to have a go and I kept saying, No, you carry on. Eventually they wore me down and I took the gun. We were belting along at about 30 miles per hour chasing after a large male making desperate leaps and turns to get away. I fired the six shots in the magazine. It kept going for a while and I assumed I had missed it until it just keeled over and lay there. I was quite amazed as I had fired without really taking serious aim and it was a sheer fluke. We looked at it closely, it was quite dead. The two brothers took their knives and skinned it there and then. They had done this many times by the look of it, all in one piece. They held it up for me to see the one small hole I had put into it.
It had been a magnificent beast, about six feet tall. It lay there now, a pathetic, revolting sight. The skin was taken back with us to be cured for use as a rug, they said. For my part I did not feel exactly happy at what I had done even if they were, as I was told, being slaughtered by the thousand all over the continent to keep the numbers down.
I realise I haven’t said anything about the flies. I thought, as many did, that one had experienced the ultimate torture from flies in the Western Desert. Not so, the Australian version beat them all ends up for numbers and persistence.
On the Saturday the whole family decided to go to the pictures. It was an hour's drive through the bush in the late afternoon in the best Studebaker. Once again I had reason to admire the suspension of these Yankee cars which seemed to insulate one almost completely from the outside world; and that, hereabouts I can tell you, was pretty rugged. It was getting dusk as we arrived at a cleared and fenced area. There were other cars already there, lined up facing a screen something like a 'sight screen' at a cricket ground, and large speakers either side. As soon as it was dark the films started and with the car windows wound down one lay back and looked and listened in some comfort. There was even a chap who came round with a tea-urn at half-time. We got out of the car then and stood around and there was a deal of chit-chat between the families as everyone seemed, more or less, to know everyone else. It was amazing to me where they all came from in what seemed uninhabited country. The ride back, charging through the bush with headlights on was, to me, quite hair-raising but the navigation was perfect and the two dogs came lolloping up to meet us as we reached the homestead around midnight. And then there was the day we went off, the whole family, to buy some cattle. We drove south for some distance into New South Wales to what I can only describe as a cattle ranch which, with the exception of the typically Australian buildings, could have been a scene from any 'Wild West' film in the thirties. The two station owners, who knew one another, shook hands, climbed onto horses and entered a stockade into which the cattle had been herded and rode round together for about twenty minutes, shook hands again and the deal was done. On the way back we diverted to a small township consisting of one (very) wide street of reddish dusty earth with a couple of stores, a saloon, and a dozen or so other assorted wooden buildings which once again reminded me of a film-set of, perhaps, Albuquerque in the 1870's; and outside the saloon, in which we had a drink, were hitching rails for the horses.
My time was now up, and it was time to say goodbye to my kind hosts. I suppose I must have caught a train at Inglewood and gone back to Brisbane but I do not remember much from now on. I still had the vague symptoms of polio, as I thought, or maybe something else, and did not feel all that well. A few days later, so it is written in my flying logbook, I went by DC3 from Brisbane to Sydney and the next day to Melbourne. Why I went there I have no idea but I do remember that although the sky was overcast the thermometer was registering 104 degrees Fahrenheit and I went in the sea like many other people just to keep cool. This may possibly have been the occasion when some of us British were being asked if we would take our demobilization in Australia and subsequently become Australian citizens. It was quite tempting the way they explained the possibilities and had I known that all my colleagues in the UK had by now sorted out for themselves most of the attractive jobs that were on offer I might have succumbed. I caught the non-stop night 'Blue' train out of Melbourne for Sydney. Early the next morning I took the opportunity to use my recently acquired Leica camera as we wound our way through the Blue Mountains. (While in transit in Morotai I had got acquainted with an Australian Army Captain who was short of cash, he said. He had this Leica camera in as-new condition with leather carrying case and I had no hesitation in offering him the equivalent of Ł40. This was a lot of money but I knew a good camera when I saw one and had the wit not to question it's provenance for where would an Aussie soldier get a virtually new, extremely sought-after, and very expensive camera from, out there in Jap country?) Very foolishly, when I got back to England I sold it to a dealer for Ł100 who equally sensibly asked no questions. Considering you could buy a decent house for Ł2000 in those days this seemed a fair deal at the time but I do rather wish I still had it.
It seems strange to me now but I remember nothing more of Australia until I took a picture, using the same camera, of the pilot boat which had just escorted the MV Athlone Castle, on which I was a passenger, out of Sydney Harbour en route to the UK. My supposed polio symptoms had gone away and I was feeling much better and looking forward to getting back to England with its new government.
In the early hours of 10th March 1946, Athlone Castle eased her way up Southampton Water. She had given me an uncomfortable 48 hours ploughing through the swell of the Bass Strait and the Great Australian Bight, given herself a dent in the side in a slight argument with the dock-side at Freemantle, and all us lot heading for our demob a chance, if two or three days in Bombay counts, to see India. I had had the opportunity to renew at a distance a slight acquaintance with Port Tewfik before we nosed into the Suez Canal, and with a few pangs of nostalgia said hello to Ismailia in the distance as we passed through Lake Timsah; could it be nearly four years?
The organisation in that England of 1946 was extremely good; straight into a special train and off to a large hangar in the depths of Shropshire. All ranks went in one door and civilians, only, came out of the other. When I caught a train to London I had that slightly bemused feeling when one doesn't quite know who one is. In reality I was now a Mr Chapman and wearing an odd-looking green 'pork-pie' hat, a quite nice brown tweed jacket, grey flannel trousers and a pair of very reasonable brown brogues. It was a strange feeling and for some time, many weeks in fact, it didn't really sink in that after six years, all but a month, and nearly a quarter of my life, one had left not only the warmth of friendship with colleagues but also the cocoon the service had become, and that one was now in a different and uncertain world. I was also mindful of having invariably been treated with scrupulous fairness and civility by all the immediate senior officers with whom I came in contact. In that sense I had had a happy war.
Such sentiments however were tempered by some immediate resentment in having been sent on a return journey of 30,000 miles to a remote Pacific island feeling that I had perhaps already done my bit. I did at times, I realise now, become more than a little paranoid about this, wondering if it was retribution for taking a certain attitude regarding the later excesses of Bomber Command; and was I not one of a small number on the squadron in late '44 who attended a talk by the 'Red' Dean of Canterbury? But there again, no doubt I flatter myself that anyone even noticed. Much more probably it was just bad luck. And yet, why was I the only one on my unit to have been sent to what turned out to be a complete waste of time on the other side of the world, and so on and so on?
These bizarre thoughts stayed with me for some time. I would have done much better to be thankful for the experience and count my blessings but I think I then accepted the fact that at least I was still alive without overmuch thought. Now, at this moment, I cannot imagine how my life would have shaped had I not flown those 1000 hours, not been at sea for four and a half months, not served in the Western Desert, Australia and the Pacific; and should feel grateful for the opportunities and good fortune put in my way.
But it is more than that. There were so many fine people I met. But while there are very few now I could put a name to, those in my own operational crews of course and those I occasionally flew with, Squadron Commanders perhaps, almost no one else, it is faces that come to mind; so many faces that came and went. One flew with one's crew, slept, chatted over a meal in the mess to whoever was around and given half a chance lived it up a bit out of camp. If somebody said to me "Did you make any friends in the R.A.F?" I would have to say that it wasn't like that. It was always a here today and gone tomorrow world. There was, for instance, a Flight Lieutenant, a flight-engineer, that I knew by sight in the mess at Little Staughton and around the crew rooms for instance, whom I never actually spoke to personally in any serious sort of way, just a 'hello' in passing, although I knew him as a friendly sort of chap. After I left the Squadron I never saw him again until sometime in the 1950's when he was acting in a film about a wartime bomber squadron and playing to perfection the typical R.A.F. 'type', I recognised him at once but only remembered his name when the credits turned up at the end of the film.
In a way the war was like 'Ole Man River' - always drifting past, it always looked very much the same but the water was different water, and people and events just kept rolling by. An occasional stick or branch would get caught up in an eddy, stay around for a while, and then be gone again back into the current and for ever. Almost everyone who lived through those days, whatever they were doing, felt, I think, a sense of impermanence at the time and much later in life regrets at lost comradeship. I make no apology for these trite and probably over emotive perceptions for there was a great deal of emotion around which then, and afterwards, one tended to keep to one's self.
Some thoughts about Bomber Command
.....A directive arrived at B/Comm H.Q. 9.7.41 - as follows..........
"Sir, I am directed to inform you that a comprehensive review of the enemy's present political, economic and military situation discloses that the weakest points in his armour lie in the morale of the civil population and in his inland transportation system. The wide extension of his military activities is placing an ever increasing strain on the German transport system and there are many signs that our recent attacks on industrial towns are having great effect on the morale of the civil population.
...I am to request that you will direct the main effort of the bomber force until further instructions towards dislocating the German transportation system and to destroying the morale of the civil population as a whole and of the industrial workers in particular. We must first destroy the foundation upon which the German war machine, the economy which feeds it, the morale which sustains it, the supplies which nourishes it, and the hopes of victory which inspires it. Only then shall we be able to return to the continent and occupy and control portions this territory and impose our will upon the enemy. It is in bombing on a scale undreamt of in the last war that we find the new weapon on which we must principally depend for the destruction of German industrial economic life and morale."
14.2.42. - a further directive, which was to remain in force until the completion of hostilities......
"..... the primary objective of your operations should now be focussed on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers..."
It is now considered probable that this policy of what would now be termed 'Indiscriminate bombing' was introduced when it had become known that the bombing of precise targets had been a considerable failure. And that failure was at high cost in men and machines. That our bombing offensive against cities was both morally and practically unsound, and highly wasteful of our human and industrial resources, is not my immediate concern in this book although I have strong feelings about it. While many of those who took part in its activities are still alive views about its place in history are still muted. Future historians may not be so kind. A/C/M/ Sir Arthur Harris was appointed to lead Bomber Command on 22.2.42 and stayed in command for the rest of the war. It is probably fair to say that while he was not personally responsible for the policy he certainly pursued it enthusiastically. It has been said that it was initiated by Portal, Trenchard, Churchill, possibly others; but we shall never know.
What we do know now is that German war production measured in tonnage of armaments was at least twice that of the United Kingdom which because of slave labour might probably be expected. What might not be expected however is that Germany's production of armaments reached a peak in 1944.
Figures produced tend to suggest that Bomber Command's concentration on the dehousing of the German population had marginal influence on their industrial capacity during nearly 5 years of bombing. At the same time, the decision to deny sufficient aircraft to Coastal Command during the darkest days of the U-boat menace defies description. If one were to tot-up the bomber-miles flown over 6 years at 1 or 2 gallons of aircraft fuel per mile that adds up to a mind-boggling amount of fuel required. Most of this was brought to our shores by the Merchant Navy at incredible risk, and loss. If anyone was at the sharp end of the war it was these men who received scant reward, then or since. (It is difficult to believe, for instance, that it was the practice for a seaman who had his ship sunk, but who survived after hardships which can hardly be imagined, to have his pay stopped with effect from the date of the sinking).
One thing that we did achieve in the whole grotesque exercise, if at tremendous cost, was to induce the vast effort of counteracting our activities, such as they were; the enormous number of 88mm anti-aircraft guns and the considerable army required to fire them, and an estimated 25000 shells fired for every bomber destroyed.
And some thoughts about survival
While engaged in operational flying I had not thought so much whether but how long I would survive. If one was written off in one's own mind, then anything else was a bonus. And yet, surprisingly, when peace came, there was little immediate sense of self-congratulation or relief. For very many years I gave it little thought, if any, for one has to get on with the business of living. It may well have been that the statistics of war took some time to get together; more probably that it was not politic to publish them too soon.
Between 1939 and 1945 the RAF lost 70,253 all ranks killed or missing on operations. Bomber command lost 47,268, plus 8,305 in training or accidents, plus 1570 ground crews, including WAAF = 55,573 total.
(1914-18 war: - officer losses of British Empire as a whole totalled 38,834 killed.)
The available published casualty rates for Bomber Command night operations during various periods were as follows:-
Nov '41 - Aug '42:- variable from 2.5 to 4.3%
"The casualty rate of the opening period of the Pathfinder Force would be 4.6%. It is not surprising that a loss rate exceeding 4% would lead to the eventual decline of the force with insufficient crews managing to survive a first tour of operations to provide the leadership and experience in squadrons for the increasing proportion of raw reinforcements. No actual figures for 1943 onwards are available (strange that!) but would appear to have been 4-5% during 1943, about 3-4% for the first 9 months of 1944, about 2% for the last 3 months. During 1945 casualties dropped dramatically to 1% as German defences became overwhelmed.."
These were the official mathematical chances of a member of a bomber crew surviving 50 operational flights at various rates of loss. Casualty Rate Survivors from 100 crews 1.0 60.5 2.0 36.4 3.0 21.8 4.0 13.0
I have done my own calculations on the chances of survival at the 4% rate. I put 25 small pieces of card, which I had marked, into a container. Each card represented a crew at the beginning of their operational life when joining a squadron. Each operational flight was represented by taking one card at random from the container (i.e. representing a 4% loss) and replacing it with a similar but unmarked card (representing a new crew), shaking them about, and repeating the process. I did this a number of times and found a remarkable consistency in that at just over 60 "operations" all the marked cards had been replaced. (This small experiment compares fairly well with the official mathematical calculations.) If, therefore, sheer chance was the criterion, no one would expect to survive this number of operations. That some did, indicates that skill and experience may have played some part but it was noted that in the later years of the war the casualty rate among experienced crews was not less than others. The reason for this, it has been suggested, was the introduction, probably in late 1943, of the 'Schrage Musik' fitted to the German night fighters (as previously mentioned).
Some diverse thoughts
As a boarder at Grammar School in the thirties, I and the rest of us endured the ritual of Sundays during term as a fact of life. In our best black suits, a clean stiff white collar which would have to last until Wednesday, and our boaters, and in a reasonably orderly crocodile, twice every Sunday, we arrived at the village church and effectively provided the vicar with a goodly proportion of his congregation; albeit tucked safely, and more or less out of sight of the more fervent, in a side chapel. We dutifully sang the hymns, psalms, stood up, knelt down as required, and patiently sat through the sermon. As parents who brought their teenage daughters to church were careful to sit suitably out of our vision we examined, and some of us could recite without error, every word of the memorials and tablets around us. On winter evenings the hiss and occasional pop of the gas lamps provided a small diversion. At our morning assembly on weekdays after roll-call boys would, on a rota basis, stand before the entire school at the lectern and read the lesson of the day from the Bible. If all this failed to produce a taste for religion, the latter did at least give confidence in public speaking.
Our headmaster, who was also a man of the cloth, and whom I greatly admired, was a holder of the Military Cross through service in the first world war and suffered terribly from the after effects of poison gas. He had a doctorate in Zoology and had written books on this subject in which he instilled much interest among many of us: so much so in fact that I bought myself a copy of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' which was not on the school's list of approved books and accepted this as the more rational explanation of affairs on earth and, or, in heaven. Despite, or maybe because of every effort to fill our heads with religious thoughts I left school at sixteen with considerable misgivings about the general conception of God.
When I joined the RAF in early 1940 I was sent to Morecombe to do my basic training known as 'square bashing', marching about, trying to remember the difference between my right foot and my left, rifle drill, and all the rest. We had the day off on Sundays and I took an opportunity on one occasion to go with others to the Lake District to do some walking and we had a strenuous but enjoyable day in the hills. A padre, a certain Flight Lieutenant The Reverend ET Killick was in charge of us. Only readers of a certain age and familiar with 'Wisden's Cricket Almanac' will remember that ET Killick was a free-scoring amateur batsman for Middlesex during the thirties. (As cricket had become a substitute for religion in my teens I well knew who he was and I was also a friend of his younger cousin.) In the 1950's he, the Rev ET that is, became vicar of St. Michael's Church which was across the road from where I grew up in Bishop’s Stortford. Then in his mid-forties, he still played cricket at club level and (I was shocked to hear) died of a heart attack while at the wicket. I mention this, not just with sadness, but to illustrate, somewhat unnecessarily, that the finger of fate is very fickle indeed.
If God as a beneficent being ever existed other than as promoted in the mind by religion then I have experienced nothing, during the war years, or otherwise, to convince me of that beneficence. And personal survival did not depend upon catching his eye, that I am sure, much though his help was sought. So what did it depend on, if anything?
I am lucky to be writing this at all after 76 operational flights, if statistics mean anything: and must have shared that luck with all those who flew with me on various occasions for none of my immediate crew was ever injured. And the only blood I saw during six years in the Service was my own (the tin of pineapple slices). And then there was that time of zero revs on both engines in a Cu-nim over the sea; finding a handy beach in the Med; rescue by the Indian Army; a slight argument with a prop; twice in a hurry to leave a burning aeroplane; among other things. Fortune continued to smile in my direction. It is said that survivors have difficulty with guilt. Why me, they say? I have nothing but incoherent thoughts or words to offer and am certain of nothing; it's just that some people call it right every time, others get it wrong. It seems to me in the end that that is what it is, - nothing more than which side up the penny drops.
and the Postscript
The lazy five weeks in the Athlone Castle and the getting home and the integration back into some sort of normal life was absorbed without any great sense of introspection. I had had the summer ahead of me and played cricket for my village side. Regrettably, my right wrist had lost the knack of flighting a leg-break onto a length but I managed to get quite aggressive with the bat. I went back to my old school; on the wall at the back of the assembly hall (how small it all seemed now) the Roll of Honour for those who fallen during the South African and Great War was now extended to include nearly half of my own class, among others.
After three months I took up the career which occupied me for the rest of my working life. I met thereby a number of ex-service men of my own age. Though we certainly formed a homogeneous group within the organisation there was not much talk about the war in general or our individual parts in it. And then, gradually, the bonding by a common purpose, normal during the war itself, inevitably withered away in our attempts to put it all behind us.
During the rest of the 'forties, and well into the fifties, times were quite hard what with shortage of almost everything and cold winters with food and fuel rationed, and it was a full-time business just getting on with living.
I made no effort, then or since, to join what are known as 'Veterans' associations or to visit old haunts. Some, I believe, made their pilgrimage and were shattered by what they saw, or to be more accurate, what they did not see. The hangers had become rusted and storage for farm machinery, the huts derelict and overgrown, weeds growing through the runways (if they had not yet been torn up); and their five or six years in the service became only their own memory just as civilians who had been bombed out of their house in the blitz returned later to what had been their home to find, sometimes, the whole street flattened and nothing there to recognise or identify with and leaving quite a hole in their psyche. Best not to go, I thought, and if I wish to remember, to remember as it was.
For me, personally, things started to go wrong in the late 1940's. I started to get stiffening of and pain in the muscles of my neck, shoulders, and back. I went to a doctor as it persisted and eventually had heat treatment as an out-patient which had little if any effect. Over the years these and various other peculiar, unexplainable and inconsequential pains, aches and other odd symptoms came and went in a whimsical way in various parts of my body none of which ever amounted to anything; I had a long spell of intermittent asthmatical wheezing and was given a test in hospital for lung cancer. I had constantly recurring frightening dreams: for over a year I took tranquilizers. which gave me relief, until I realised this was completely non-productive. In my mid-fifties I developed fears of enclosed spaces and sometimes of open places, fears of crowded places and of noise, emotional disturbances and considerable depression. When I started to look down upon myself from above, as though I was floating outside myself I realised I needed help. A visit to a psychiatrist, some pills for depression, and three weeks later I felt better - for a few weeks - until physical symptoms returned.
I was eventually, many years later, put in touch with the "Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society" with their logo 'Combat Stress', of whom, up to then I had not heard. With their encouragement and help in arranging it I was seen by (then) Surgeon Commander M O'Connell at Haslar Naval Hospital in March 1993. He took little time to make a diagnosis of 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder', saying to me among other things that I exhibited almost exactly similar symptoms as a marine he had just seen that morning who had been in the Falklands War. I was also led to believe that I had probably been suffering from it while in the Pacific, and it had then become suppressed for many years until I had an anaesthetic for an operation in my fifties which, as he put it, had unlocked the gate of the mind, as it were, and let it loose.
This diagnosis, in itself, made me feel a great deal better. At least I now had a label and an explanation for all that had troubled me for many years and that I was in good company. Commander O'Connell indicated that he would try and get me the recommended treatment at Hasler later that year. Unfortunately, the service hospitals received the same cut-back in funds as did the NHS at this time.
After a while I thought to try some do-it-yourself psycho-therapy. I bought a book, intended for would-be counsellors, on the treatment of PTSD. It seemed to me, basically, no more than people in groups being encouraged to talk through their experiences giving full vent to their emotions in the process.
I had written the first chapter of this book as a kind of short story induced only by the memories aroused by my visit one day to the library. In the writing, the emotions of that evening in the desert came easily to the surface and again in the re-writing and the tidying up of words to such an extent that I thought I would have a go at writing about the whole of that year, 1942. It took a great deal of thought, raking over memory, putting it into some semblance of order and quite some time. I printed it out and made it into book form. Then I bought a tape recorder and put it all on tape, about 4 hours of it. I would make mistakes and do it over and over. It was not without its painful moments. All this, I suppose, over a period of a year. I realised gradually that some of the demons in my life, looked at now in print or listened to on tape were having less and less effect. I felt sufficiently encouraged to go further with it as will be seen.
It is now 1998 and I am 77 years of age and as physically fit as I have a right to be. I have some residual problems: tinnitus which will never stop and which I have to accept; noise, crowded places, narrow passages, possibly a few other things tend to make me feel uncomfortable at times but I can live with them. I have remembered many things, often quite trivial, and can still picture them clearly. At the same time there is so much I can push away into the background; those long, noisy, uncomfortable, anxious, often frightened hours and they do not trouble me.
I have forgotten, or perhaps I should say I am quite unable to describe, for example, just how it was, taking off in a heavily laden bomber, engines at full revs and boost, pushing the screaming vibrations of horse-power through all one's senses, through feet, stomach, ears, brain; and the frightening thought that one of those engines might fail to any degree during those long 45 seconds or so it took to get us off the ground. And yet, now and then, perhaps a cello will pick up a particular chord at that same frequency and in that instant of sound I am back in the darkness with the runway lights flashing past and a quick shiver of fear will run through me and be gone. I can cope with it now though and I have come to realise that I would not for a moment be without my past or change it more than a little here and there. And I feel, now, in hindsight, a tremendous sense of privilege to have had the opportunity to experience so much even if I may not have seen it quite that way at the time.
Where are they now;
those who went to war by night,
and died ?,
And those below their droning height,
who, in their terror, cried,
"Why kill our children so ?"
Where did they go ?,
Are they yet there, with those who did not die ?
And do we, faintly, hear their cry
from that land of long ago ?
Jeff Chapman.Peter Chapman
Steve Higgins Seaforth HighlandersMy Grandad, Steve Higgins, was in the Seaforth Highlanders. He landed on the beaches on 6th June 1944, it was his 18th Birthday! He is from a small village called Hemington in Derbyshire. His family were farmers in the village. When he returned from war he married my Grandma, June Higgins nee Newell, she had been evacuated from London when war broke out. They went on to have 6 children, 5 daughters & 1 son.Julie Goode
RQMS. Malcolm "Lofty" Petfield 1st Btn. South Lancashire RegimentMalcolm Petfield "Lofty" as he was best remembered joined the ATC 1942 at 17 yr old , he trained and flew the Sopwith Camel. In his time with the unit he won the Heavyweight Boxing Championships. He left the ATC due to eye problems and joined the Navy and trained at HMS Arthur (land based training "ship"). When the call came for troops for D Day he went to the local recruiting office which was set up in a village hall in Ripon . A Yorkshire man in the South Lancs Regiment, I asked him how he became to be in a Lancashire Rgt , he told me "there was a large picture frame on the wall and I liked the badge"!!.
He did a few weeks basic training in Scotland and then onto D Day .He landed at 7.25am on the 6th June . His words : "We landed and I was that frightened I just kept running forward , where too didn't matter I just followed the lads in front" ,As it was he and some others went to the right and ended up getting split up from the rest of the Btn, the Btn made it to Hermanville by 9am ,my father and the others made it back to the Btn mid afternoon.
On the 8th June they were sent down to reinforce Pegasus bridge, spent time around the villages of Plumetot, Mathiau, Cresserons, Giselle woods skirmishing constantly with the Germans. They ended to the east of Caen at 2 chateaus named Chateau la Londe and Le La Londel, they took the first without much of a problem. The other unfortunately caused them to have massive casualties, they were brought back to Hermanville for R&R, regrouped with the East Yorkshire and returned back to the Chateau only again to suffer more heavy casualties .
After the fall of Caen he returned to England 24hrs R&R and rejoined the Btn. He went up into Holland, Venray and then onto Germany where he was part of the occupation force. During his time in Berlin he guarded Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer, during this time he went on a troop ship to Tripoli to bring back war criminals for trial at Nuremberg.
When the 1st Btn amalgamated with the 2nd Btn he ended up in Trieste as part as BETFOR , during his time at Lazarette he met a young lady in Muggia called Elvera Massari who he married and was happily married too for 54yrs up until he passed away.
My father stayed on as a Regular up until the 60's, during his time he was the undefeated Heavy Weight Boxing Champion of the British armed forces Played Rugby which we still have many trophy's and medals for his sporting activities, he served in major conflicts preceding WWII and was at one point attached to the Parachute Regt. He never spoke in detail about his time during WWII , I alway's remember him saying to me "If any man say's he wasn't frightened , he's a liar. There are not words that would even start to describe what it was really like, apart from we were frightened to death"
When I took him back to his first Normandy Anniversary (it was 45yrs later), I asked him where abouts he actually was in the battle area, he could never point to a specific area , but would say "we were some where around here, you didn't take much notice of where you were, you were concentrating on staying alive and doing what you'd been sent to do" When I took him down to Sword Beach at 7.25 on the 6th June (the time he landed), he walked away from me, and for the first time in my life I saw my father actually shed tears, this was a shock for me, because he was not normally the emotional type, or he kept it very well hidden.Dave Petfield
John Albert Greig Royal Norfolk RegimentMy dad, John Greig was in the D-Day landings in Normandy he said they were given bikes when they landed. The bikes dragged them under the water and some were drowned. Dad was fighting in the hedge rows near Cains, Hitler's Youth Army was there. He was there to support Canada and the USA but they never arrived. Dad was 19. He suffered a head wound, we think, from shappnel on the left side of his head. I would like to say thank you to whoever saved his life. He had 2 years of treatment. It made him deaf in the left ear, poor sight in his left eye and difficulty walking in his left leg. When he was out of the war he had to wear a special badge as people would say why aren't you fighting for your country?
He married my mum whom he met when he was sent to Eastling near Faversham to train for D-Day. Before that he was a look out for Germans landing by sea at Ramsgate and Folkstone. He had to ride a bike along the sea front and on the pier and was billetd in a hotel.
He said he never received any pay from the Army all the time he was injured. He said he saw the sargent on the bus after the war and he said to Dad "I thought you was dead!" Dad worked all his life but he was effected by flashbacks. He was in the Royal Norkfolk Regiment.janette ann belsey
L/Cpl. Robert William Bennett MM & Bar. Long Range Desert GroupRobert Bennett was awarded a Military Medal while serving in the North African campaign for carrying messages over an unchecked minefield. He was awarded the Bar to his Military Medal for landing his HQ vehicle on D-Day, while under fire from mortars and machine guns. He managed to manoeuvre it over the beach and, when another communications vehicle failed to make it to sure, used the spare radio set to maintain communications for the whole of 30th Corps.
He served with the LRDG, Royal Signals, 30th Corps and several others, including helping the French resistance, being awarded two medals for it. He was dropped into France posing as a Major and a lieutenant, yet was never actually these ranks. I am currently attempting to find out more about him as part of my Extended Project Qualification for A-Level. If anyone knows any more information about my Great Grandfather, I would appreciate you getting in touch to discuss him.Tom Tugulu
L/Cpl. Jack Blane No 3 (BR) Casualty Clearing Station RAMCThis is the account my father Jack Blane wrote for the family of his war. He wrote it in 2002, at the age of eighty three:
I entered military service at Crookham Barracks, 15th September 1939. After three months’ training I had Embarkation Leave for one week at Christmas. Having embarked for France on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve, I was sent to Number 3 Casualty Clearing Station (3 CCS) at Mondicow and remained with that unit throughout the war. It was very cold, with deep snow. I read last year, 2001, that 1940 was the coldest winter since 1815. I only had a stretcher to sleep on and two blankets, in a cold, old house with no heating. For two months I went to bed with all my clothes on, including my greatcoat and gas cape. When the “Phoney War” ended and Germany invaded, we gradually made our way to the coast. We had some dodgy times on the way, including evacuating a clearly marked ambulance train of severely burned civilians from Rotterdam, whilst under attack from German planes.
On 31st May we were ordered to leave our billet for hopeful evacuation. My sergeant gave me a big pack of medical record books, then told me to set off to Dunkirk and that on the way the others would help me. I set off into France and kept plodding along the sand. I did not see any more members of our unit but finally saw a Royal Navy man. I asked him if there was any chance of getting off. He told me to stay where I was and wait but that I could not take the pack. So I just threw it down and left it on the beach. I seemed to be alone and must have fallen asleep. When it became dark a lot of other troops assembled and a smallish boat arrived. We had to wade into the sea up to our chests. The Navy chap in charge said that when he ordered, “Stop,” we had to stop trying to get aboard or he would shoot us – and I am sure that he would have. We were all finally taken to a larger “little ship.” I thought, “Oh, Good: we should be in England by morning.” When I woke up, big shock. We were still cruising off shore and the skipper would not leave while he could see anyone on the beach. The last man to be brought aboard was in a bad way, having been shot by a machine gun. He died within sight of England. After disembarking I was put on a train and eventually arrived at Oswestry Barracks about midnight, still soaked through. I had one nightmare after this while I was billeted with nice people in Leeds, where I finally rejoined my unit all safe and sound.
From June 1940 to December 1941 I was stationed at various places in England. Kitty and I married on 9th October 1940. That Christmas was the last we had together until 1945. Our unit left Liverpool in December 1941 and we spent Christmas Day that year in Sierra Leone harbour. Later, I had four lovely days with civilian friends in Cape Town, South Africa. We then went to Palestine and to Beirut – which was a lovely place then. On our way to the 8th army I met up with my brother Bernard for four hours in Cairo. I never did know how that was arranged or by whom. I spent Christmas 1942 at Tobruk and New Year’s Eve at Bengazi. Then it was on to the last battle for the 8th Army in North Africa. After that, we went to Malta for two weeks’ rest and then it was the invasion of Sicily and into Southern Italy. Our ship came under heavy fire while we lay off Italy prior to landing.
We sailed for England from Bari on a lousy, overcrammed ship. We had half a ration of bully beef for Christmas dinner 1943. At night all the floors, the dining tables and hammocks, were full of men. In January 1944 I arrived in England and was stationed in Cambridge, hooray!! I was allowed a sleeping out pass. Kitty came to Cambridge and we had a lovely time, staying with my Aunt Alice. (Our first daughter, Jean, was born in October that year!)
On D-Day, 6th June, we sailed in convoy down the Thames. Once off Dover we could see and hear the big German guns in Calais firing across the Channel. They hit the ship directly ahead of us, setting it on fire. It was terrible to see. How lucky we were to escape unharmed. We lay off the French coast until D-Day plus two. Then we landed on Gold Beach with 30 Corps and set up our Casualty Clearing Station. We were very busy and it was very noisy from the gunfire. I slept in a ditch. The Germans shelled us one night and two Nursing Sisters were injured. The army moved us to a safer area the next day.
On we went to Brussels and then to Eindhoven. Next it was Nijmegen where the road back (our supply road) was cut off by the Germans for four days. We took casualties from the battle for Arnhem. Six operating theatres were working, three on day shift and three on night shift. I did not leave the hospital building for two weeks. After two months there we were relieved by the Canadians. Christmas Day 1944 was spent somewhere in Belgium. Then it was on to the Ardennes and the “Battle of the Bulge” to help the Americans, who suffered heavy losses. There was deep snow and it was bitterly, bitterly cold. We were back to Nijmegen for the Battle for the Rhine. Twentyfive pounder guns fired over the hospital all day. The forest flooded too and all casualties and equipment were wet through.
I had a short home leave in March, to see Kitty and meet my new daughter for the first time. Then it was back to my unit. We made our way into Germany where, after being in various places, we ended up just outside Hanover. December 1945 and back in England. I had four weeks demob leave. So Christmas 1945 I was home at last. Demobbed February 1946. There were Good Times and Bad Times – but always Good Friends.
Jack Blane, 3rd March 2002
Post Script: What my father does not include in this understated account are the horrors he experienced during “his” war. These strongly affected him to the end and when he spoke of them, which he still did only sparingly, it was with great feeling. I, and all our family, are very proud of him.Jean Flannery
Cpl. Edward William Hickmott MID 30 Corps Royal Corps of SignalsTed Hickmott, my father, was called up to serve in 1940, he was 34 years old he enlisted in Catterick on the 13th March 1941. He served in North Africa, Italy and northern Europe through D Day at Normandy soon after being Mentioned in Despatches. Throughout he was a wireless mechanic serving in the 8th Army.John Hickmott
Cmdr. Robert E. Carlson USS HambletonIn 1943 Robert Carlson was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He was honorably discharged with rank of lieutenant junior grade in June 1946. He served as a watch and gunnery officer aboard the destroyer USS Hambleton. In June 1944, he was part of the Normandy Invasion and of the anti-submarine patrol in the Mediterranean. In 1945, he was on radar duty near Okinawa, and in late August of that year, his ship entered Tokyo Bay. Dr. Carlson remained in the Naval Reserve until the mid-1960s, when he was discharged with the rank of commander.S. Flynn
Veto Iavecchia 2nd Air Division 389th Bomb GroupVeto Iavecchia enrolled in Army Air Forces flight school during World War II and was qualified as a bambardier in the 389th Bomb Group, Second Air Division, Eighth Air Force.
He was stationed in England and participated in two missions on D-Day. On a 20th June 1944, bombing run to destroy the synthetic-fuel supplies in Politz, Germany, his B-24 bomber, "Mistah Chick", with 11 aboard, was hit by enemy fire. The flak disabled the plane's hydraulics and caused fuel to leak. Unable to return to England, and uncertain how long the fuel would hold out, the crew voted to try and make it across the Baltic Sea to neutral Sweden. The crew jettisoned everything, including the machine guns, through the bomb bay doors. The plane made it across the Baltic, and, with the landing gear inoperable, the pilot landed on a dirt field. The crewman suffered only minor injuries. The Swedish Government interned the crew. Unaware of what had happened, the War Department sent telegrams to the men's families saying the crew was "missing in action and last seen over Politz, Germany". Five weeks later, the families learned that the crew of the "Mistah Chick" had been located; five months after that, the crewmen were freed.S. Flynn
Peter Fantacone Landing Craft InfantryPeter Fantacone was only 17 when he joined the Navy out of Manayunk. His mother refused to sign the enlistment papers, but his father did. His war-time home was LCI-492 (landing craft infantry) the Navy's smallest ocean going vessel, which could put troops directly on the beach. He remembers a Mass the afternoon before the invasion: "When the priest gave us absolution, I knew this was not another practice run." Seas were rough during the channel crossing, and with the smell of diesel in a tossing flat-bottomed boat it was as nauseating ride. Before the troops went in, the accompanying battleships let loose with their 14-inch guns. When his ship went in, "there was much smoke and wreckage burning on the beach." His landing craft was carrying about 200 soldiers. Although he could not see the beach from his battle station, the ship's signalman told him he saw the troops racing into almost certain death, with more following them. LCI-91, which landed nearby, ws hit by a shell from shore and the crew had to abandon ship. The LCI-91 burned on Omaha Beach all that day. But 492 survived the landings. The German defenses at Omaha Beach exacted a terrible toll on the assault force, with machine-gun and cannon fire raining down on the arriving troops. Bombing attacks by B-17's had been expected to soften the defenses, but the bombs overshot the beach because of the bad weather. Fire from battleships also did not neutralize the bunkers. Most of the amphibious tanks meant to support the invasion force sank to the bottom when lauched in the storm-tossed water. What saved the day, Fantacone said, is the destroyer captains who brought their ships in so close they almost grounded, then turned and rode along the beach, their guns blasing the concrete bunkers.S. Flynn
Pte. Nicholas Distasi 101st Airborne (Able Company)This is a story about my grandfather's WW2 experience as a sniper in the 101st Airborne. My grandfather passed away 4 years before I was born, not much was known about his service since he kept most of it to himself. What I am going to tell you is what he told his son and daughter(my mother)and what I could gather from old soldier buddies of his.
Nick, just like many other 17 year old boys of the day, convinced his father to let him join the military after Pearl Harbor. Nick and his best friend joined up in 1942 with Nick choosing Airborne because they paid more and his buddy choosing ground infantry. Nick didn't realize at the time he was joining an elite unit and at its most infantile stage. Nick was eventually assigned to Able Company of the 101st and was sent to Camp Toccoa for training. I was told that he was chosen for sniper school and spent some time away from the other troopers to train. Before the best friends left for war Nick's best friends mother tore a dollar bill in half and gave it to the best friends and told them that they would meet up again. Nick didn't think too much about it and headed off to war.
Not much is known about his jump on D-Day we do know that he gathered up with other scattered troopers that night in France. Nick said that when they jumped they were really tired and that when he landed he meet up with Lt. Muir and some other troopers. Nick explained how the Lt. was lost at night and told them to take a nap and then they would move out. Nick said he closed his eyes and the next thing he knew there were screaming Nazi's pointing their guns in his face. Being surprised and having a sense of humor he woke and screamed don't shoot I got a lot German friends back home I wanted to go fight the Japs. Nick had realized that nobody woke him and Private Archie Ponds up and that it was daylight and the spot his Lt. choose to nap at was actually right next to the road. He said the Nazi's noticed him and Archie sleeping from the road while driving.I think he was really upset that the morning of the D-Day invasion he was already captured.
The Nazis carted him off to god knows where, then he ended up in Stalag 4f where he ran into his best friend who was captured somewhere else, they supposedly connected the dollar halves as my Uncle and Mother claim. Nick was eventually freed by the Russians in 1945.
My grandfather never went to any Army reunions or talked about the war, it probably hurt him inside that he was forgotten and was captured on day one of the invasion. Maybe the dollar bill saved his life, fate had seemed to follow him to the end. Nicholas A. Distasi passed away June 6, 1974 from a heart attack at the French Hospital in NYC, 30 years to the day of D-Day in France. Don't know much more about his involvement in the War, would love to find out what happened to him during capture.Richard Michael Volpe
Rifleman Gerard G. Bernhardt 28th Infantry DivisionAged just 17, Gerard Bernhardt volunteered for the Army and served as a rifleman in the 28th Infantry Division. When his unit landed on the beaches of France in 1944 as part of the D-Day invasion, a sniper shot him in the front of the neck and the bullet pierced his left lung. He managed to survive and was awarded a Purple Heart.S. Flynn
Dante Cicchinelli 413th InfantryDante Cicchinelli landed at Utah Beach during the Invasion of NormandyS. Flynn
Albert MossFor many service members, D-Day, 6th June 1944, was the day they will never forget. After a massive naval bombardment, Albert Moss, piloted a Higgins landing craft loaded with soldiers. The capacity was 36, and we had over 44. The machine-gun fire was all around us, like rain on the water. If you stuck your head up, it would get machine-gunned off. I put a cigarette in the mouth of a soldier next to me, I turned around to get a match, a mortar went off, and he was killed instantly. I was lucky. Moss would later take part in several more landings, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa.S. Flynn
Tpr. Ernest Leonard Sellman 43rd (Wessex) Reconnaissance Regiment (d.24th June 1944)My uncle, Ernest Leonard Sellman was a trooper in the British Army, 43rd 2/5th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment. He died on 24th June 1944 when his cargo ship, the Derrycunihy, struck a mine off the Normandy landing beaches (Juno) and broke in two, killing over half the crew. This is all I know of my uncle. I don't have any photos from his military service. I would love to know if anyone has any further information about his regiment or if anyone knew him personally. This would be enormously appreciated as he was much loved by his family and I would like to be able to pass on information to my own family.
Editors Note: The unit was called 43rd (Wessex) Reconnaissance Regiment (formerly 5th battalion the Gloucester Regiment TA). HQ,A and C Squadrons sailed on the Derrycunnihy. On 18 June 1944 HQ, A and C squadrons embarked at West India Docks, London, aboard Motor Transport Ship (MTS) T72, a general purpose cargo ship named the MV Derrycunihy. T72 joined a convoy off Southend-on-Sea and arrived off Sword Beach on the evening of 20 June. High seas and enemy shelling prevented unloading for three days and it was decided to move T72 to Juno Beach for disembarkation. As the ship started engines at 07.40 on the morning of 24 June it detonated an acoustic or 'Oyster' mine dropped by one of the nightly Luftwaffe raiders. The mine exploded under the keel, splitting the ship in two, and the after part, packed with men of 43 Recce, sank rapidly. Worse still, a 3-tonner ammunition lorry caught fire, and oil floating on the water was set alight. Landing craft and the gunboat HMS Locust quickly came alongside and picked up survivors, most of whom were evacuated to SS Cap Touraine, a former French liner. The Regimental War Diary records that 'Great gallantry was displayed by all troops in the two aft holds' and lists 183 men of the regiment lost and about 120 others evacuated wounded. In addition, 25 of the ship's crew (including Army gunners) died in the disaster, which represented the biggest single loss of life off the invasion beaches. In the days following the sinking, the survivors were formed into a composite squadron and most of 43 Recce's vehicles were landed from the beached fore part of the "Derrycunihy". B Sqn arrived from England, together with the first reinforcements. A complete squadron was transferred to 43 Recce from the reinforcement unit, 161st (Green Howards) Reconnaissance Regiment. The regimental war diary can be viewed at National Archives in Kew. There are a number of websites for the Recce unit. There are family records on Ancestry which seem quite comprehensive.Ruth Curtin
Sqd.Ldr. Kenneth Richard Wilson "Johnny" Eager DFC MID B Flight 98 SquadronMy father, Kenneth Eager, was born in Exminster, Devon, England on 6th February 1921. He joined the RAF in 1940 and gained his "wings" at the end of that year, after which he was posted to North Africa as a part of Air Sea Rescue.
During his time in the desert he flew mainly Vickers Wellingtons and it was in 1943 that he was awarded the Air Force Cross, having landed in the desert behind enemy lines to rescue a downed Allied pilot. On take-off from the desert a rock punctured one of the tires of the Wellington which forced him to crash land the aircraft when they reached home base.
In late 1943 he was posted back to England to take up training on the B25 North American Mitchell. Upon completion if this training he was posted to number 98 Squadron which was a part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force based at Dunsfold in Surrey, where as a Flight Lieutenant he took part in raids over German occupied France.
On the night of June 5th 1944 my father led one of the first air raids of D-Day on the Germans with a raid on marshaling yards at Caen, in his aircraft was Air Commodore Helmore and a BBC commentator, who was reporting and recording the raid which was one of the first over Normandy on D-Day, which was then played over the BBC radio after D-Day to the world. (See the attached report from his log book below). Later in 1944 he led raids on V-1 rocket sites and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in that year.
Later on in 1944 he was promoted to Squadron Leader and at only 23 years of age, was at the time the youngest Squadron Leader in the RAF and was later asked to be Aid to the King, a position he declined as I his eldest son, had by that time been born.
At the end of the war my father was seconded to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and helped design London Airport. He remained in the RAFVR and flew for two weeks of every year up to 1955 and in 1957 he, with my mother and my siblings, emigrated to Kenya where he took up farming.John Eager
William "Wild Bill" Guarnere 101st Airborne DivisionWilliam "Wild Bill" Guarnere of South Philadelphia, a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division whose World War II exploits were portrayed in the TV mini-series Band of Brothers, died Saturday, March 8, 2014 He didn't talk about the war when his two sons were growing up, even though he organized Army reunions beginning in 1947 and even though he lost his right leg while helping a wounded comrade. "He never said a word," his son said. "I served in Vietnam in 1967. When I came home, I asked my father what he did in the war. He said, 'The war is over, kid. Forget about it.' " Forgetting was not an option after writer Stephen Ambrose immortalized the members of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division in his best-selling book, later made into the HBO mini-series. The chronicles followed the soldiers from their training in Georgia in 1942 through the harrowing battles they fought across Europe until the war ended in 1945. As Mr. Guarnere told The Inquirer in 2010, D-Day was not only terrifying but vengeful. He learned of his brother Henry's death at the hands of the Germans in Italy just before parachuting directly into a firefight in Normandy, France. "I couldn't wait to get off the plane," Mr. Guarnere recalled. "I killed every German I could. That's why they called me 'Wild Bill.' I landed in the middle of a square and they [Germans] were shooting at us. They were kind of scared; we were scared, too." Mr. Guarnere was instrumental in getting a monument erected in Normandy to honor the leadership of his unit, particularly his former commander, Richard Winters.s flynn
Patrick Mahoney Royal Army Service CorpsMy Dad, Patrick Mahoney served in the RASC. Here are his words from a piece he wrote for a computer course he did when he was 80 years old. My Dad is now 92 and has just gone into a nursing home. I so hope this may be of interest to people finding out information from the whereabouts of the RASC.
'In 1938 got my first driving licence and with the threat of war with Germany, joined the Territorial Army giving a false age. Called up in 1939 I found myself for a short time riding a bike commandeered from my firm. Being too young(even with my false age) to be sent abroad, was posted to another transport unit and was in Manchester until 1941 including the blitz when we were supplying the gun-sites with ammunition and other supplies. After the Battle of Britain most of our unit were posted to the Middle East, where I was sent to an independent transport company. With this unit I was to travel many miles and do a variety of jobs. These included twice crossing the Arabian Desert, first from Suez to the Iraqi oil wells at Kirkuk in winter, lots of snow and bitterly cold, second to Persia (now Iran) in summer in extreme heat. This trip saw us bringing back Polish women refugees who had crossed the Caspian Sea and were en route to Palestine. Soon after this Tobruk had fallen and we arrived in the Western Desert, where we carried troops, ammunition and all manner of supplies in preparation for the well known Battle of El Alamein. When this was won we followed the Axis troops across North Africa to Tunis, again doing a variety of jobs from carrying front line infantry to a field bakery. After this all our vehicles were given to other units for the invasion of Sicily and we had to take a load of worn out lorries to Egypt for repair. We made tow bars from railway lines, anything that would run towed those that would not and from Tunis to Suez was a long long way!! We then went to Italy, landed in Taranto but our repaired vehicles went to Naples from where we eventually sailed home to prepare for D-day. From D day + 10 until demobilisation in 1946 it was service across Europe from France to Germany, the main job being a shuttle run carrying coal from the Ruhr to Hamburg'.
I truly hope this gives some history to people tracing the foot steps of relatives and of interest to others. My dad is a remarkable man and I wish him a happy and long stay in his new home.Amanda Hayes
Cpl. Jack Carter 1st Btn. South Lancashire RegimentMy father in law Jack Carter was in the Assault Troops in the first wave and landed on Queen White near Caen, at 07.30 approx. on D-Day 6th June 1944. He was in charge of a mortar squad, he survived any injury up until the time a German mortar bomb landed near them and he sustained severe shrapnel damage to his back. He can remember watching the the RAF 'blanket-bombing' Caen, so it must have been after this.
After recovering from his injuries he was sent to Malta. This was with the 2nd Battalion South Lancs, as that was the unit he was with when 'demobbed' in 1946Dave Brock
Pte. Arthur Leonard Young 2nd Btn. Middlesex RegimentMy Father, Arthur Young, was a machine-gunner and range-taker with the Middlesex Regiment from 1942 - 1946. Before that, he served from 1940 - 1942 with the Royal Artillery. He was involved with the D-Day invasion, supporting the invasion of Sword Beach on 6th June 1944. He was injured in August 1944, and repatriated to England for treatment. He then saw service in Germany, where he was again injured and was again repatriated for treatment.Martyn Young
Able Sea. William Henry Lewis HMS AuroraMy father, William Lewis served aboard HMS Aurora and was stationed mainly in Malta, Convoy to Archangel [Russia] and D-day. He didn't speak much about the war but I have found his service record and torpedo launch records (St Vincent, where he had an average score 72.5%, which based on the technology of the day made this a pretty good rating. I also have a book the Silver Phantom, which is written by the crew about the exploits of HMS Aurora. Apparently the nickname was given to the ship by the Chinese, but there is no record of Aurora being stationed in the Pacific basin during WW2.
He did tell me a little of his time in Malta and how they used to look at dolphins for spotting U-Boats in the Med, apparently, dolphins dive under water when subs purge tanks. I went to Malta and was lucky to be invited into a naval facility and when I mentioned that my father was stationed in Malta, they took me to a room and showed me a large amount of records and photos.
He also once made a comment when we watched the film "Saving Private Ryan", that D-day was not like that. Apparently, my father was on bridge, responsible for gunnery onto the beaches and inland, when an American broke radio contact with "take us off the beach". The captain (Agnew) pulled the headset off my father and shouted in no uncertain terms that they were to stay on the beach and get off the f****ing radio. My father never swore, so hearing that always made me think it was true.
He once told me that they transported the king to Gibraltar and that the king had gone out to smoke and left a door open, someone shouted to close the effing door and got a very polite apology from him.
I think he enjoyed his time in the med most and the trips to Archangel the least. However, he met my mum, when stationed in Glasgow. I have a varied family, as an aunt (Scottish) married a Dane who fought for the Ling and my dad's brothers all went to Canada to train RAF bomber crew and married Canadian women.
Cpl. Ronald Ridgley 5th Btn. S.Coy Royal Berkshire RegimentRonald Ridgley served with the 5th Royal Berkshire Regiment, S. Company. These are his recollections of D.Day
After a fairly rough crossing, we arrived off Bernieres, part of Juno beach. Alongside our L.C.T was an L.C.F fitted with all kinds of anti aircraft guns, which were putting up a curtain of fire, that any attacking aircraft would have to fly through. When the ramp went down, the first thing I saw was a row of dead Canadians laid out on the beach. A flail tank was beating a path through the mined sands, so we knew that if we kept to the tank tracks it would be fairly safe. The water wasn't very deep, so I got the motorbike ashore that I had to get on to the beach for an officer to use from then on. Meanwhile the Platoon had got our six guns and towing carriers ashore, ready to move inland. We were held up for a while by snipers in a nearby church tower, but I imagine the Navy put a couple of shots through that, as they soon came out., were disarmed and marched away as prisoners. Others memories of that day were of a Free French man walking along the beach pointing out gun sites and of German prisoners being made to carry the wounded down to the boats to go back to England. All this time the Navy shells were screaming overhead at targets inland. Our job was to move inland to form an anti tank screen around the beachhead between the sea and Caen. Caen was known to be the base of the German army in that area, so it was thought that any counter attack would come from there.Celia Silk
VAD. Margaret Mary Botsford HMS Collingwood (Shore Base)Every morning at six o'clock the American Forces Network was switched on in the wards to familiar music from Elgar. The day staff came on duty at half past seven and although we had been aware that an invasion was imminent to us it was an ordinary morning. On 6th June 1944 I was twenty years old, serving as a full-time VAD nurse at a large naval camp HMS Collingwood just outside Fareham near Portsmouth. In the previous weeks in May all leave had been cancelled, we were not allowed more than five miles beyond the camp and the roads around were crammed with army vehicles and personnel. Eisenhower's headquarters were on the hill beyond the town and large staff cars with American flags were to be seen.
On the particular morning our routine was similar to any other but half way through the morning it was announced on the radio that troops had arrived in France and the long-awaited invasion had taken place. At about twelve o'clock I was told to report to the Superintending Sister's office where twelve of us were to be sent to the base hospital at Haslar to help with casualties. On arrival we were sent to bed in preparation for night-duty. This started at seven thirty in the evening and we were directed to empty wards which needed preparation. Out of the window we could see the channel but as it grew darker nothing happened and the night passed.
The following evening we were told to be ready as the operating theatres were full. The lift doors clanged incessantly during the night, all beds soon became occupied and we had little time to ourselves until going off duty, later than usual, the following morning. The patients were glider pilots, airborne troops and infantrymen and there were amputations, head and eye wounds most needing constant attention though glad to be safe. Some were anxious to talk and one boy attempted to write a letter with his left hand (the one he had left). After a few days evacuation to hospitals in less dangerous areas started along with a stream of relatives who were told they had further journeys to make. Many heartbreaking sights, tears and efforts to cope with the unknown. After a week we were sent back to camp. Sixty years later it is still fresh in my memory.
P/JX W502416 V.A.D Botsford M.M.Andrew Stewart
Lt.Col. Topham Donald "Robin" Hood Royal Sussex RegimentMy Grandfather Lt.Col. Topham Hood served with the Royal Sussex Regiment. I have information suggesting he landed on Mike beach in operation Overlord in June 1944 and that he was MLO. He later moved to Calais and in Dec was appointed OC of 112 Transit Camp. He is mentioned in the New Year's Honours List of 1946. I have some medals: the Italy Star, the African Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal. I would love to learn of any details of his experiences.Jackie Morris
L/Cpl. Edward James Stubberfield 1st Btn. Kings Royal Rifle CorpsMy dad, Edward James Stubberfield, was in 1st Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps from 1941-1946. We only had bits and pieces of his war as we understand they do not speak of their experiences. He did disobey orders by staying back to remove a casualty and in doing so lost his platoon, which resulted in his mother getting a telegram missing in action. He found his way by linking up with another platoon, for this he lost his stripes. After his death we found in his wallet a photo of his best mate, he had carried it all those years, his words “my mate caught it in the head beside me” We thought it would be nice if anyone recognises this photo, we have no name but just for his family to know he was not forgotten by my dad.Linda Mansfield
Raymond Morris 1st Btn. Oxfordshire & Bucks Light InfantryMy uncle, Raymond Morris served with the 1st Battalion, Oxon & Bucks Light Infantry and was amongst the airborne troops who landed next to, captured and held what is now known as Pegasus Bridge. Attached is an article from BSA News (where he worked) June 1962 edition, describing his involvement in that action. Having visited the Pegasus Bridge Museum I was disappointed that I was unable to find his name amongst those recorded on the memorial stones there as this was supposed to be a complete list. I would welcome any feedback that may shed some light on this.Duncan White
Pte. William James F. Nunn Oxford and Buckingham Light InfantryMy dad William Nunn was born in 1920. He lied about his age and joined the Regular Army. He was stationed in Kent where he met my mother. He served in the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry and was sent to Sword beach on the D Day landing 1944. Sadly he passed away in October 2013 aged 93. I am very proud of my dad and what he did for his country.Isabella Worster
John Hodgson Royal Electrical and Mechanical EngineersJack Hodgson was my dad. He served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was only a young lad when he crossed the channel on DDay. He made a couple of trips driving tanks onto the beach to unload them. He was very frightened along with everyone else. He spent a night in a bomb crater and remembered listening to a couple of German soldiers chatting above him and seeing the light of their cigarettes in the pitch dark, they didn't see him..... and that was the first time he thought he may just survive to return to his family. He was picked up by a Canadian unit and stayed with them until he found his own. This 70th anniversary of DDay makes me again remember what a wonderful man my dad was and how proud of him I am.Pam Gallon
Gnr. Leonard Douglas Mitchell 62 Anti-Tank Regiment, 247 Bty. Royal ArtilleryLeonard Mitchell served with 247 Bty. 52 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. Can anybody please tell me where the unit above went after they embarked from England on the 3rd June 1944 as we are trying to fill in gaps in our family tree. The unit was posted into the 62nd anti tank Regimen. any info would be very helpful.
Editor's Note: 247 Battery was part of the 62nd Anti-tank Regiment, Royal Artillery and formed part of the Order of Battle for 1st Corps. As part of that Corps they would have landed at Sword Beach during Normandy Landings. The other Battery was 246. They were part of Corp Hq units and would have been used to support any of the 3 Divisions as the need arose but remained under overall Corps Control.Malcolm Bowsher
Spr. Robert John "Jock" Moodie 963 RCER Coy, No 2 Sect. Royal EngineersMy father Robert Moodie left Pembroke Dock on 5th June for the D Day landings in Operation Overlord, but we have heard nothing about this to date. Everyone seem to have left from the south of England, what happened from Wales. My father never really spoke about the war neither did he receive any medals which I am sure would have been due to him. Could anyone please inform us of this? We saw him off on the parade square which I think might have been Sennybridge. I myself as I was in a choir went to Hertzenboch 2012 the only ladies choir through the British Legion. Please can anyone shed more light on the Royal Engineers?Anne Braund
Cpl Clarence Bell Royal Army Service CorpsMy father Clarrie Bell was a driver in the RASC in units 98 PTC, 33 GT Coy and 633 Coy. He landed in Normandy on 6th of June 1944 and moved through France and Holland ending up in Berlin.Ann Lewis
Spr. Robert Bruce Turnbull Royal EngineersMy dad, Robert Bruce Turnbull, he drove the landing craft on D-Day. If anyone knows of any info on him during the war, I would be so grateful. He died in 1981 and he did talk of the war and what he did only I was too young and ignorant to listen back then!Maggie Fleming
Sgt. Harold Mclenon "Nobby" Blundell MID. 463 SquadronNobby Blundell was born in Blundell's Cottage in Canberra in 1914. lthough a qualified mechanic he was also a wheat farmer at Weethalle (near West Wylaong) in New South Wales when he was called up in January 1940. His preliminary training was at Richmond near Sydney and then Ascot Vale in Melbourne as a Fitter 2E after which he traveled to the UK and joined 456 RAAF Nightfighter Squadron on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales.
In September 1942 he was remustered as a Flight Sergeant but a plane crash rendered him unfit for operational duties and he returned to 456 Squadron. In early 1943 he joined 617 Squadron for special duties. 617 Squadron were the Dam Busters and Nobby flew with the Lancasters during test drops of their bombs. On the night of 16/17 May 1943 617 Squadron attacked the Mohne and Eder dams causing considerable damage in Germany’s industrial centres in the Ruhr valley. Nobby Blundell’s role was to redesign the undercarriage of the Lancaster so it was able to carry the drum type bombs.
In November 1943 he was posted to 463 Squadron which was based at Waddington in England as a Sergeant Engine Fitter. He was Mentioned in Despatches for his work during the D-Day operations in June 1944 and in October 1944 Blundell was sent to Russia to service Lancaster bombers attempting to sink the German raider, Tirpitz.
After the war he ran a motor engineering business in Sydney until he retired in 1974 to live in Dubbo. He self-published five books on 467 and 463 Squadrons and was awarded a Medal in the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1995 for services to war veterans. He later moved to Cairns but died in Hervey Bay, Queensland on 13 September 2003.
Lt. Edward Neville Rudland Royal ArtilleryMy father, Edward Rudland joined the war, I think, at 19. He left his University at Oxford where he was studying medicine in order to fight. He was exempt because of his chosen profession. He landed in Normandy on D Day + ? and was with an anti aircraft battery. He went to to Belguim .
I have many souvenirs, such as a piece of the shell that landed on his bunk, which he had left only moments before. He was injured when he hit a mine which he rode over on his motorbike.Julia Smith
Pte. Eric Bert "Bub" Shimmons Middlesex RegimentWritten by Eric Bert Shimmons in 1993
My Army Career 1941 – 1946
In September 1941, at the age of 18, I joined the army, and was sent to Bury-St-Edmonds for six weeks of basic training. Once training was completed, my new mates and I we were sent to Chester where we joined the Middlesex Regiment to begin our Infantry training. After four months of extremely tough training, we were sent to the Island of Anglesea in North Wales where we joined the 51st Highland Division.
It was at Anglesea that we started our beach landing exercises. If we thought Chester training was rough, Anglesea was murder. We continued with the beach landings’ training until May 1942, and then it was called off. Our life, then, consisted of just route marches, rifle drills, and range shooting. At weekends it was fun because we had exercises with the local home guard and, 9 times out of 10, we all finished up in the local pub.
In January 1944 the beach landing exercises were resumed; however, this time it was much harder. Live ammunition was fired over our heads, and landed in the water about 20 yards behind us. These exercises continued until the night of June 1st 1944 when the Sergeant came into our hut and said, “Be ready to move at 8:30 tomorrow morning.” Anxious to know where we were going, the Sergeant would only say, “You’ll find out.”
The following morning at 8:30 promptly, we boarded our transports and headed south. After a few hours, we guessed we were going to Portsmouth. We were right. As soon as we arrived, around 6:00 that night, we went straight to a transit tent-camp not far from Portsmouth Docks, where we were assigned 12 men to a tent. After we got into our tent, the Sergeant came in and announced, “No-one is to leave camp, no letters to be written home, and no telephones to be used!” To top it all, one lad came back from a walk around the camp in disbelief and said, “Blimey, they’ve got Red Caps (Military Police) on all gates!” We felt like jailed prisoners, and spent the next 4 days doing nothing but playing cards and sleeping.
On the 4th day, around 9:00pm, the Sergeant poked his head into our tent and shouted, “OK lads, be ready to move in one hour!” Excitement and anticipation rippled through all of us, but we still didn’t know where we were going: “You’ll soon find out!” was all the Sergeant would say. But when questioned about dress code, the Sergeant’s words sent shockwaves through each of us: “Full Battle Order,” he announced. Those three words said it all; we knew something big was happening.
As instructed, we were all lined up outside the tent at 10:00 that night. The Sergeant marched us to the armory tents, and we were ordered to draw 100 rounds of ammunition and 2 grenades. We, then, marched about 1 mile to Portsmouth Docks. When we arrived, we noticed there were thousands of troops of all nationalities: American, French, and many others. Our officer told us we would be there for a few hours, so we just took it easy. Shortly after midnight our Officer stopped by and said, “OK lads, we’re moving out!” We marched, further, along the docks and boarded a big cargo boat called “The Lady of Man.” We set sail about 2:30 in the morning and, after several stops, entered the Channel just before daybreak.
Just after daybreak, between 4:30 and 5:00am, we looked around us and, to our amazement, saw an unbelievable sight that has stayed with me all my life. There were thousands of ships of all sizes, including Royal Navy ships. After looking over the Port side of our ship, we found we were very close to that great battleship “Warspite.” It was then, our C.O. came on deck and spoke: “Gather round lads. Well I guess you’ve probably figured out what’s going on. Yes, we are going to make a landing in Normandy, France. The first wave will go in at 6:00am, but we will go in at approximately 7:30am. The plan is for the 3rd British Infantry Division to land at 6:00am, and form a bridgehead about a mile deep. After we land at 7:30am, we will go through the 3rd Division and make straight for Caen. We are to take all of the high ground near Caen, and capture the city itself by nightfall. Intelligence reports state we should meet little opposition. Caen is 10 miles from where we will land. Good luck lads, see you soon.” The padre came and held a small service.
After that, we all sat on the ship’s deck, and hardly a word was spoken; we were each lost in our own thoughts. I know that I wondered if we would still be here tomorrow.
At approximately 5:30am, our thoughts were shattered when the Warspite opened fire with her big fifteen-inch guns; the noise was deafening. It was then that hundreds of Air Force bombers came over. We could see the French coast, and saw many shells and bombs exploding on the beach; we all thought that nobody could, possibly, have lived through that lot.
It was just after 6:00am when the 3rd British Division started landing. To our surprise, there was very little firing coming from the Germans; we thought just the job, they’re all dead. Another ship drew along side us, which carried the south Lancashire Regiment. We where landing with the South Lancs!
At 7:25am, we left our ship, and got into our landing craft. Several other landing crafts (Bren Gun Carriers) held our transports. We had to go about ˝ mile to the beach. Jerry must have woken up, and started to throw everything at us. As I looked to my right, I saw two landing craft, belonging to the South Lancs. get hit. We landed on the beach, and rushed to wherever we could find shelter. The 3rd Division, which had landed before us, was firing to keep Jerries’ heads down so that our Bren Gun Carriers could land.
When our Carriers arrived, we jumped aboard and went straight through the 3rd Division Line heading for Caen. We got within 5 miles of Caen and managed to take all of the high ground. Up until then, we had not fired our rifles; however, the Brens had been busy. As they say in the Infantry, we hadn’t fired our rifles in anger.
When we took the last of the high ground referred to as Hill 112, we were coming under very heavy shell and mortar fire. The order was given to dig in which meant we had to dig into our foxholes. In slang words, we called them “Dofor’s” meaning, they would “do for” when you got killed because your body was just slung in.
After we dug in, we could see Jerry down below forming up with some tanks. They came at us in strength and large numbers. We, still, didn’t have any tanks; they had not landed. The officer shouted, “We must hold the Hill until tank support can come!” It was then we knew we would be firing our rifles for the first time in anger. As Jerry approached the bottom of our hill, our Bren guns, heavy machine guns, and mortars all opened up. We had to pick special targets and fire when the chance came. My mate in the same foxhole as me yelled, “I’ve got one!” By now, the riflemen were all firing. I remember getting a Jerry in my rifle sights and pulling the trigger; he jumped into the air and down he went.
It was a very strange thing - there was no excitement about it at all. I believed we were all the same. Ever since we joined an Infantry Regiment, we knew one day it would come to this. We had all thought about how we would react to this moment. You were so close to death that you didn’t think about it.
After about ˝ hour, Jerry stopped where he was and dug in. Throughout the rest of the day and the next day, we were just taking pot shots at each other. As soon as anything moved, you shot at it. We were certain Jerry had taken heavy losses. We were waiting for reinforcements before starting again, and praying our tanks would come before his; however, we found out later, he never had any reinforcements. The Germans were still very strong in front of us. Although our armored divisions arrived after the 3rd day, they still wouldn’t give in. We should have taken Caen on the first day we landed, but it was 3 weeks later when we, eventually, took Caen.
The devastation of Caen was awful. When we first entered the outskirts of Caen, there seemed to be nothing standing above knee high, and the smell was awful. The dead littered the streets, and the sight was heart breaking. Men, women, and children all dead in the ruins, made us nearly sick. Caen was the one and only really big battle of World War II, but there were many smaller ones.
After taking Caen we broke through the German front and raced through Belgium and Holland. We came across small pockets of Germans trying to hold out, but they were, soon, dealt with. When we reached Eindhoven on the German Dutch border, we captured the bridge before the Germans blew it up, but Jerry tried all sorts of tricks to destroy it. One trick he tried was filling dead cattle with explosives and sending them down the river hoping they would explode on impact with the bridge, but our orders were to shoot at anything floating down the river.
When we crossed the German border, we where given strict orders not to talk or smile at the German people (fraternization order). As we marched through the village, I well remember the faces of the first German civilians we saw, it was a look of utter despair and fright. They had been told we would rape and shoot them on sight. Curiosity overcame fear when some young lads couldn’t resist coming up to us to look at our weapons; the ice was broken. Without being seen, we passed them bars of chocolate.
When we reached the River Rhine, we had to dig in on the banks and await our landing craft. It occurred to us that once we crossed, we would be in the heart of Germany. The night before crossing, our guns opened up to one of the biggest barrages, ever: “Operation Pepper Pot.” As we were getting into the landing craft, we could see shells exploding on the beach making it impossible for any living thing to survive. Bombers littered the sky, some pulling gliders. We counted six bombers and gliders shot down that night; some crashed very close to us but there was nothing we could do. When we landed on the German side of the river, they started to fire at us with mortars. I lost a very good friend during that attack. We had been together since our first training days at Chester and had, often, spoken about whether our luck would hold out. His never did.
After we crossed the Rhine, we made straight for Hamburg in order to take it. Since Jerry refused to surrender, Montgomery drew us back two miles and sent in the Air Force. We were positioned on high ground and had an astonishing view of the entire bombing. What a show! The Air Force bombed the Germans all night long.
We entered Hamburg at 8:30 next morning. Not a shot was fired. The devastation was unbelievable; fires were raging everywhere. There must have been thousands of dead under the rubble. We went straight through Hamburg, and stopped in a small village where we stayed for a week, then we heard the news: The war was over! I can remember that day very well because there was no shouting or cheering; it was just a very quiet day. It wasn’t until nighttime as we sat talking with our mates; we realized we had come through it. We had survived.Indra Hill
Pte. Harry Charvill Northampton RegimentMy father-in-law Harry Charvill, who has just passed away aged 90 was a D-Day veteran. He landed on Sword Beach at Lion-Sur-Mer with his Lincolnshire Regiment. His best mate, Reg, was shot and Harry ran to his aid carried him up the beach where he was attended and they both survived and stayed great friends. Harry also served in Palestine.John Drain
Sgt. Morris Vernon "Mo" Doyle D Company 5th RangersMo Doyle landed on Omaha, he fought through Brest and was wounded near L'hopital, France. He had many great stories, an all American hero. May he rest in peace. The United States of America salutes your service and your memory.Jack Girote
Sgt. George Lee GM. Black WatchMy father, George Lee, served with the Black Watch during World War 2, landing on D-Day (he hated boats and ships afterwards). I know he fought through France and crossed the Rhine into Germany. He told me he was in the Hartz Mountains and played football for the forces in Germany. Beyond that I don't know a lot apart from the fact that my mother said his commanding officer had said he wished he had 100 more like my Dad! Like many he didn't like to talk about his war experiences much and I had to pry what little I could from him.
He was a professional footballer playing for York City from the age of 14. Following the war he played for Nottingham Forest and then West Bromwich Albion earning a Cup Final cup winners medal in 1954.Susan Kett
Pte. Laurence Youd 5th Btn. East YorkshireMy dad Laurence Youd was in the 5th East Yorks and landed on Gold Beach during the D-Day invasion. He was wounded a couple of days later and was in a hospital in Bayeux.
He had a mate called Tommy Holden (Tich) who lived at 60 Lindel Road, Fleetwood, Lancashire. He had two letters from Tommy dated 25th July and 26th September 1944. I'm trying to find out more about where and when he was wounded, 8th or 9th of June possibly. It would be good to hear from Tommy or anyone who knew him. Sadly Dad passed away in March 2015.Peter Youd
Eddie AngersI don't have a lot if information as I'm having trouble finding the right Eddie Angers. We know he was stationed in South Littleton near Evesham in Worcestershire, England whilst over there in 1943/44. I believe that unit was the field artillery. Two weeks before D-Day they were confined to camp but he went AWOL as he was at the time courting my grandmother. The MPs caught up with him and took him back to camp. Apparently he wanted to stay with my gran at the time. We have been told he was a sergeant but we don't know if this is definite.
I would love to hear from anyone who knows anything. Even just a small bit or a photograph, so we can see what my mother's father looked like.Gillian Mountjoy
Mjr. Samuel Henry Cowley 9th Btn. Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment (d.19th July 1944)My great uncle Sam Cowley was killed in Normandy in the fighting around Caen in July 1944. Although listed as being in the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment, 9th Battalion, his CWGC certificate says he was seconded to the King's Own Scottish Borderers and held the rank of Major.
I have managed to work out that the 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers landed on D-Day at Queens Beach and the 6th Battalion (as part of the 15th Scottish Division) also landed in Normandy on 15th June 1944. I would like to find out more.
If by sheer fluke anyone is able to shed more light on my great uncle through personal recollection or could recommend on-line links where I could find out more I'd be very appreciative. I live in Australia, so have to rely mainly on on-line services.Phil Carter
Cpl. John Ferguson 2nd Btn. Seaforth Highlanders (d.3rd Oct 1944)John Ferguson saw action at El Alamein, as well as in Tunisia, Sicily and in the Normandy campaign. He was killed in action on 3rd of October 1944, age 36.Davy Hermans
Flt.Lt. Miroslav "Tony" Liskutin DFC. 145 SquadronMiroslav Liskutin was recently reunited with his Spitfire, MK912 which is still flying, out of Biggin Hill. He is now in 2015 96 years old and in fairly good health. An amazing man with an amazing background. On D Day he flew from Tangmere on invasion cover, and when he had to make an emergency landing to re-position equipment which had been dislodged by enemy fire, he was probably the first aeroplane to land in France during the invasion.
Lt.Co. Walter George Ward MID HMS ScyllaMy father in law, Walter G Ward, who rarely mentioned WWII, was lieutenant commander aboard the HMS Scylla on D-Day. He was on loan from the RCN to the RN and was mentioned in despatches: "For gallantry, skill, determination and undaunted devotion to duty during the landing of Allied Forces on the coast of Normandy."Gary Forget
Mjr. Frederick Harvey Honeyman MC. 6th Btn. Green Howards (d.11th Jun 1944)Major Frederick Honeyman was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry when the Green Howard's landed in Normandy on the 6th of June 1944. He was commanding A Company of the 6th Battalion at La Riviere when he earned the Military Cross. He led an attack on an enemy position guarded by seven pillboxes and defended by soldiers by throwing grenades over a six-foot wall. Although he was hit in the arm and leg by splinters, his citation records how he ‘restored the impetus of the attack and took the position, killing or capturing all the enemy. But five days later he was killed as he tried to rescue some of the wounded men from his company who were trapped in a wood. Under severe fire he went alone towards another British position to try and enlist help, but was shot.
A letter sent to Major Honeyman’s mother from his batman, Tom Harris, is in the Green Howard's Museum collection in Richmond. Harris wrote: “He was not only my company commander, but also my best friend and he treated me more like his brother. ...at the most unfortunate moment he sent me back out of the way and considered my safety before his”.Sarah Shepherd
Pte. Micheal John O'LearyMicheal O'Leary was my mum's step father. He landed on 6th June and, in his own words, lasted until 26th of September when he was hit by mortar shrapnel in Holland. Some 15 years ago he spoke to me for hours telling me all about his part in the invasion, something I will never forget. I saw a letter his captain sent to my nan explaining that he had been wounded and that he bore the pain well.Mark Jeavons
Able Sea. Anthony Blackstone Anglis HMS NelsonTony Anglis was on the "Nellie" during D-Day. No exact details but he speaks fondly of his first ship which he joined aged 15.Dave Cair
Pte. Levi Reginald WhitenMy Father, Levi Whiten, first landed on the beaches of Normandy in January 1944 – to collect sand samples for scientists to test to see which areas were capable of taking heavy equipment.
On D-Day he landed with the first wave at Arromanches as part of the Beachmasters contingent. He remembered hearing “roll out the barrel” being played over the tannoy system on one of the ships as he climbed down the netting into the landing craft. Breakfast had consisted of a ham sandwich and a cup of char. As they headed towards the beach he could hear the “whoosh” of the shells passing overhead both from both the ships and the shore – and as they got closer the whine of the small arms fire and it pinging off the side of the craft. There were also the screams of those in the water whose craft had suffered a direct hit and who they couldn’t stop to help – getting to the beach was the priority.
As they approached the beach some of those in the craft began praying. The shout came of “stand by”, my Father shook hands with his best mate, the ramp went down – and off they went up the beach trying to reach cover with the sand spurting up as the Germans opened fire. His best mate was killed within a few yards and he could see others going “man down” around him - “how the hell I made it up that beach I don’t know”. By the evening the beachhead was secure and having found a cinematograph in one of the German bunkers, complete with reels of Mickey Mouse cartoons they commandeered a generator and played the films on the back of one of the “white houses” for the wounded awaiting evacuation.Paul Whiten
Sgt. J. M. Cross Royal MarinesAn Exciting Frustration.
We in 697 L.C.M… Folitlla, a Royal Marines manned Landing Craft Flotilla, had been practising the landing of troops and light mechanised vehicles, together with other less mobile stores, on various beaches locally, from our base on the Beaulieu River, at H.M.S… Cricket, to as far afield as Bracklesham Bay, and The Witterings,…for some weeks past.
We had travelled in our twin-engined craft, sometimes loaded, otherwise not, and we reckoned that we knew these beaches well enough not to get stuck on them even on a falling tide. We had practised estimating the length of approach, so as to drop the kedge anchor from the stern of the carft and then secure it so as to be able to pull ourselves off on a falling tide, after having deposited our craft contents, (the load), on to the beach or as near to it as possible. L.C.V.M..'s were Landing Craft Mechanical, capable of carrying one 30cwt. Truck, or a Bren Carrier, or cargo. The craft was driven by twin petrol engines, mounted side by side.
We had practised in all weathers, fair (mostly!) and foul, so that neither daunted us. We had taken all our kit aboard, then after the exercises returned it to the Nissen huts, all in practise for the Great Day.
Being a sort of 'up-homer' from H.M.S… Cricket, our base at Bursledon, and my home in Gosport, I was able to spend quite a bit of my time at home in the evenings when not on duty. I would leave the following morning, having arisen about 6 am with my Mum, who at that time was working in Priddy's Hard, the local Munitions factory, or to give it it's formal title, The Royal Naval Armament Supply Depot, Priddy's Hard, Gosport.
I used to leave Gosport via Gosport Railway Station, and changing at Fareham, travel to Bursledon, just a few stations along the Southampton line from Fareham.
On each day, I had told my Mum that I would or would not return the following evening, depending on my duty requirements back at H.M.S. Cricket.
In those days anyone in uniform could be picked up and given a lift almost at will, by a variety of vehicles, lorries, vans, even buses etc. I even remember, on one occasion, having 'marched' out of H.M.S. Cricket, and on reaching the main road, I opted to try my luck on the road, rather than wait for a train, and I thus found myself travelling in a real American Jeep towards Fareham, from where I caught the bus to Gosport! It was so strange to hear the accents, which until then, we had only heard in the films, actually being used in normal conversation, by normal men!
As D Day approached, I could see, when making this journey, the build-up of troops and vehicles in the area and realised that as each day passed our departure became more imminent. Finally, it was such, that I said to my Mum, 'I don't think I will be home much more', and sure enough, on arrival back at Cricket, we were informed that all leave was cancelled from then on.
At this time I was serving as a Sergeant, Royal Marines, and had six landing craft under my command and in my sub-division. We were ordered onto our craft, with our gear (kit), and we moved off. We steamed down the Beaulieu River to Warsash, and moored at a jetty belonging to the then H.M.S. Tormentor a supply depot for the purposes of fuelling or re-fuelling. (Both before and after the War, H.M.S. Tormentor reverted to its original name of HMS Mercury, a land based 'ship' for training Merchant Navy Officers). We remained there just long enough to be fuelled and just long enough to take on petrol, can fuel for the landing craft engines, enough to take us to France, and begin work. Spare cans of fuel for after 'our trip' were stacked in-board close to the gunwales, as emergency fuel. Here, we picked up a R.N.V.R. Sub Lieutenant, named Rees, who had been attached to our Flotilla, to navigate us to our designated landing beaches.
Then we moved off into the Southampton Water, and at the southern end, we were directed to moor alongside an L.S.T.(Landing Ship Tank), which, with hindsight, I imagined to be moored at or near to Lepe Bay. We were invited aboard, and bearing in mind that most of us were like myself, only 20 years of age, we were very excited by what lay ahead.
When the news came later in the night, for us to slip our moorings, we did so and saw that some of our flotilla craft had been hauled aboard the L.S.T. before they sailed, but we were not included in that manoeuvre.
We made our slow way down the Solent, and I can remember that it was almost twilight, and it was getting darker as we moved on. The sea was becoming rougher all the time. We arrived somewhere off the Needles when we received orders to turn about, our destination at that time unknown.
However, we ended up at H.M.S. Northney, at Hayling Island, a pre-war holiday camp, and spent the night there. We were still mystified as to the reason, for the 'about turn', and to me, it remained a mystery until the 50th Anniversary D-Day celebrations. I had made contact with another Landing Craft man, and asked him why. He told me that apparently because some of L.C.A.s (Landing Craft Assault), which were smaller than our craft, and who began with us travelling towards France, had almost been swamped, due to the heavy weather. They had been ordered to return, but because we were travelling 'under our own steam', and although we started out early the following morning, we later realised that we were travelling towards the beaches on D-Day itself.
Looking around at the time, there seemed to be millions of boats, mainly small craft, just like ours, all mainly going in the same direction, towards France, in the apparently endless sea.
The trip was somewhat bumpy, because our Landing Craft were unable to ride the waves, up and down. Instead the craft had to go across the peaks of them, striking the on-coming waves as they approached, head on. We were in a flat-bottomed craft which at the time, presented a flat square bottom to the waves as we moved forward. Not exactly a comfortable ride!!
We also noticed the mustering area, which we later found out to have been nick-named, 'Piccadilly Circus', together with Landing craft and other craft trying to sort themselves out, gradually falling in with others, who, like ourselves, seemed to know where they were heading.
We also had the new Compo Ration boxes aboard, and tried the contents, which were a new experience for us. We found that the chocolate part of these rations 'disappeared' quite quickly, due to 'hunger!' and popularity. The biscuit section was probably extremely nutritious but not very tasty, so consequently was not so much sought after. In addition there was also a ready supply of tea available, and I can still see Sub. Lt. Rees wearing his uniform overcoat, hunched over the wheel in the almost open wheelhouse of our craft, peering ahead, with a mug of hot tea in his hand. His body responding to the bumpy ride, lurching mainly forward, sometimes sideways.
One craft I remember seeing, and it was one, which we actually overtook on the way. It was an old Thames Barge, which we were later told was now a Landing Barge Oil, carrying that sort of cargo she was old, and she slowly made her way lumbering forward to France, and there were others like her.
To his credit, although he did not engage in much conversation with us, Sub. Lt. Rees stayed at his appointed post all the time, and navigated us into the Mulberry area, near Arromanches, where the block-ships were at that time being sunk in their planned position, after their seacocks had been opened. This was also the time that the great concrete Mulberry constructions were being put into position. This also necessitated noise, as holes were blown in the bottoms of them. They formed the two lines of outer breakwaters, and were enough to afford shelter from the sea.
As we drew near to the French coast, we could hear, rather that see, that something was going on because the aircraft, and the gunfire of the bombarding ships became noisier and noisier. At the time the Fleet Monitor, (H.M.S. Erebus we were later told) and the Battleship H.M.S. Warspite, with other smaller ships were thundering, discharging their shells onto and eventually beyond the beachhead itself. This mainly appeared to come from the sea in front of us, when we were working.
When we arrived at the Beachhead, I beached our craft and found the Beachmaster, to whom I had received orders to report. He allocated to us the job of going just outside the Blockships breakwaters, which at that time formed the entrance to the 'harbour' and to help in unloading coasters stationary in the open sea. This we did, and we similarly serviced many other similar ships during our time there. Whilst the weather remained 'inclement', this was quite a job.
The running swell caused the landing craft to be raised up on a 'peak' usually just as the load, contained in a scrambling net, was being lowered, and by the time it had reached our deck, the craft had dropped a few feet, only to be raised again, striking the scrambling net. Thus there was something of a hastening to detach all or part of the rope eye of the scrambling net, then signal the winchman on board to raise the attached end, so as to spill the contents on to our deck. Again 'practice' came to our aid as we had met giant hooks previously when we practised on L.CA.'s
We didn't know the contents of the scrambling net until it had been 'up-ended' on to our craft deck. We then set about distributing the load evenly over the deck, and stacking it. We would take about three or four net loads, then shout to tell them up top that we were casting off, and leave the coaster. Of course by that time another landing craft had arrived, and was waiting to tie up loosely in the berth, which we had vacated, ready to take on another load. I remember on more than one occasion, we were loaded with petrol cans, and 78mm. tank shells, and if we could not off-load these supplies, we would dry out on the beach. If it was afternoon or evening, we would make a 'comfortable' area amongst the cargo and sleep there until the tide rose!! On arrival at the beach we were sometimes met by lorries which had been backed into the water, as far as possible, and we would man-handle the loan on to it, by means of a board 'gangway', (which was carried on the lorry) for as much as it would take. This sounds complicated, but it worked better than it sounds.
On one of the first runs into the beach, I saw floating logs and to the ends of each of these logs were fitted, (or tied) shells presumably designed to explode on contact. There were also steel spikes with sharpened ends, driven into the beach, so that at high water they were invisible, which we later realised were probably part of Rommel's defences to the 'Atlantic Wall'.
On another such visit, I saw an L.C.A., which had been split into two lengthwise, and was resting on the beach in that state, wide open. My thoughts were with the crew and any personnel carried in that craft at that time.
On one such return trip from the harbour towards the beach one of the stationary rhinos (a section of the as yet, not connected floating pontoons,) a large part of what was to become the pontoon roadway on to the port from the beach became detached and swung right across our path. We managed to swerve and avoid it, but as we passed it, it swung round and collided with our craft stern. Afterwards we found to our dismay that the craft would not answer to the helm. (i.e. it could not be steered using the wheel). Later, on a subsequent occasion, we 'dried out' on the beach and found that the rudder blade covering of one of our engines' propellers had been forced under the craft, and jammed the propeller in an 'inoperative' position. Using the two engines, we recovered, and by dint of reversing one engine at the appropriate times, eventually 'steered' our way to the beach where I reported our dilemma to the Beachmaster, who ordered us back into the sea to carry on as best we could until a repair could be made. This was eventually swiftly made by substitution of the rudder, with renewal, and we were back to 'easy' normal work again.
Eventually the weather cleared, and we were able to take advantage of subsequent 'drying out' periods to 'make do and mend', including a warm water shave! All this time the beach was subject to much movement by both personnel and vehicular traffic. When this traffic died down the beach became less of a 'battleground' and we settled down to servicing the approaching ships, and by the same token, the fighting boys of the Army. This was eased one day when we were beached and one of the crew noticed that one of the onboard 'jerry cans' began to swell. I ordered it to be thrown over the side, but one of the more adventurous Marines decided to go overboard just after it. We were beached at the time, and watched. I had previously told him to get away from it, but just as he stood over the can, it exploded and flame shot up to his face. We all went overboard and rendered what First Aid we could, and I reported the accident to the Beachmaster. Eventually, Marine O'Connor was taken to a field hospital and was subsequently returned to us. Now Marine O'Connor was of an Albino colouring and we noticed that even the blond eyebrows had been burned off. When he returned he seemed none the worse for his adventure.
We saw the 1000 bomber raid on Caen, or rather we saw the aircraft flying towards Caen after hearing the drone of their engines. We saw one bomber turn back with smoke coming from it, make it's way out to sea. After spotting some parachutes, we saw the plane dive into the sea and explode. This sight was almost as frightening as seeing pictures of 'condemned' ships in their death-throes just before sinking, and that is a very sad thought.
After some time, we were allowed into Bayeaux, and I was aware of rather a strange and peculiar feeling, knowing that we were actually walking on streets in a foreign land which most of us had never done before, and which, until a short while previously had been occupied by the Germans!! At Bayeaux we saw butter in large chunks and eggs etc., all the produce of a dairy countryside, but not much else was on sale. I bought some butter but when we tried to eat it on board, it tasted rancid. We also saw cows laying in a field, which were apparently blasted by explosion, and were bloated, their legs straight and rigid.
In all, we were working on the beachhead for about three months, during which time we witnessed the Mulberry being 'born', nurtured, and up and working. From the odd looking rhinos, to the small tower-looking constructions, the whole thing became a thriving, working port, which eventually made our landing craft redundant.
During those three months we had one rest period of one week, aboard a floating stationary ship, which gave us a chance to become clean, bright and upright Royal Marines once again.
Regular food was supplied and the necessary incentive to return to the beachhead and complete the job, for which we had been detailed, was restored.
The day eventually came when we saw an L.S,.D., a Landing Ship Dock, which rejoiced by the name of Princess Iris (or was it Princess Daffodil?) which lay just outside the Harbour entrance, and to which we were told to report. On arrival, the whole of the rear end became submerged into the sea enabling us and other Flotilla of similar craft to sail in. Having made ourselves secure, the dock area dried out by expelling the water and raising itself to the water surface level. It provided us with more or less 'the run of the ship' during our voyage home and it brought us home to Portsmouth!!J M Cross
L/Cpl. Albert Gregory Royal Army Medical CorpsThe following memories are typed up from extracts written in an old school exercise book found in my father's flat
Albert Gregory, R.A.M.C, attached to D Company, Ox and Bucks, 6th Airborne Division.
He was on the third glider to land on Pegasus Bridge, 6th June 1944. D-Day
Both Ida and Albert worked at Mark and Moody Printers in Stourbridge, they met when they were both working in the Bindery Dept, Albert was walking through, when his trousers got caught on the edge of a table, and he ripped the backside out of them, Ida, being very thoughtful, painted his backside green with the dye she was using to edge a book to hide his embarrassment, just a few days after this, they started going out together, thus was the start of a wonderful life together.
Albert Gregory and Ida Bowen married on a Sunday, 28th of April 1940. After just two short weeks Albert was called up for National Service and joined the army.
As a member of the St Johns Ambulance Service during his civilian days, he applied to be a medical orderly. While playing football one day during his training, he was called to the offices and asked if he would like to join a new section of the army being formed (this would later be called the Airborne Division, consisting of paratroopers), because he knew his new wife was short of money, he applied to join this force because it paid an extra 1-shilling a week (probably now worth in the year 2002 as one quarter of a penny).
He recalled his training, how his first parachute jumps were from a basket, hung beneath a barrage balloon and how the sergeant used to help the nervous with a large boot up the backside to help them on their way. Later he did several parachute jumps from the side door of a DC3 Dakota. He always stated in later life that the worst parachute jumps he had done were from the basket because you would fall for what seemed like an age before the parachute would open.
Soon after once again he volunteered for a new force …… glider borne troops ….. this was a complete new way of taking troops to war, but Albert was always a bit of a dare devil and rose to the challenge. In later life he joked that the first few times he flew, he had never landed with the aircraft he had taken off in, but this was all to change with the gliders.
Ida recalled the times he came home on leave during this training. No one in their home town of Stourbridge had seen the red beret before, and with all the badges and insignia on his arms, people used to walk by the side of him and try to read what regiment this strange soldier with the red beret belonged too. She said she couldn’t stand the people walking by her side, so used to follow him about six feet behind. The opposite view was taken by Albert’s father, when on leave, if they went out together, Albert had to wear his uniform, and his father, being so proud, would say to anyone that would listen, “You see this soldier, well that’s my son!”
During one of these weekend furloughs, Albert brought home a fellow Para from Wales who could not get home and back in the time they had for their leave. He wrote to Ida to inform her that they had a guest for the weekend. She then spent all her rations to give them a real good meal for when they arrived. Unfortunately, when they got off the train, Chris Williams and Albert stopped for a pint in the local pub, it was only supposed to be one pint, but once again the people of Stourbridge were fascinated by the two soldiers in their red berets, and one after another bought them drinks, just so they could talk to them. Eventually, two hours late for their meal, they arrived home so drunk that they could not eat the food, Albert, I believe was chasing the peas round the table with his fork, and they were both having a fit of the giggles. Ida was not amused and I believe Chris was not invited back again.
He describes the gliders as having a metal spine and then covered in cloth, this material was then soaked in dope to make the material stretch and become tight to fit over the skeleton of the aircraft.
During this training, his platoon had a very bad glider crash. During take off, the Whitley bomber, which was towing the glider Albert was travelling in, had engine failure and released the glider only a few hundred feet from the ground. The glider pilot was forced to turn, unfortunately towards the local village and finally crashed into the front door of the church. Five people were killed, including the two pilots, and Albert had severe leg injuries. He was taken to hospital for a few weeks, and on his release from hospital, was surprised to find a jeep and driver waiting for him. He thought at first that he was some kind of celebrity, but soon realised that the jeep was taking him back to the airfield, where he was put into the back of a glider on his own and taken up to face his fears.
Little did he know at that time what all the training was for, he realised that he was part of a group of men that were expected to be part of something rather special. In fact, these troops were to spearhead the invasion, some 12 hours before other Allied troops would land on the beaches of Normandy.
On his last visit home, Albert had told Ida that his was going to be involved in something special, but even he didn’t know what it was, just that it was big. He knew that soon he would be shipped out to fight in some far off place, so that his wife would know that he was on his way, he planned to send her a birthday card to inform her that she would not see him for a while. This he did just three days before D Day.
R.A.M.C attached to D Company, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment, British 6th Airborne Division
We took off and sat in silence for a while, just listening to the roar of the wind and the tow aircraft’s engines.
We were soon over the French coast and all hell started up, the anti aircraft fire exploded in the night sky, we called the shells “Flaming Onions” because of the way they looked and came towards us in a string. I looked around me, and for once, no one was being airsick. I remember being scared stiff and yet excited in anticipation of what lay ahead of us.
Suddenly, the towrope was released by the glider pilot, and we were away on our own, just the rush of the wind and the downward spiral to France and our fate.
In what seemed only a few minutes the words “Brace, Brace, Brace” were shouted and we all linked arms, awaiting the impact of the landing. I can remember the sparks, which seemed to stream down the fuselage and we touched down, screeching and crashing, till suddenly we came to a stop.
We didn’t bother to open the door of the Horsa, we just all seemed to pile out through the gashes in the fuselage, I grabbed a trolley full of mortar bombs and pulled for all my worth, only for one to fall out and smash my toe. Someone else came over to give me a hand and we ran towards the bridge.
It is very hard to explain to anyone the feelings of war, exhilaration, fear, excitement and comradeship towards your fellow troops who you have been with for the past months.
I ran to the edge of the road leading to the bridge filled with a feeling of apprehension of what was going to happen, but I know I must have had a guardian angel watching over me because I was still there with so much death around me. Perhaps one day I will know what that angel was but I thank god I survived to live a happy life. Bullets were flying everywhere, I heard the cry “Medic” and I ran towards a guy lying at the side of the road, as I ran towards him, I looked to my left and found a German solider running the same way, both trying to survive and not knowing why we were doing what we were doing.
In just a couple of minutes I had injured men who had been hurt in the crash landing, I had three men who I herded into a hedgerow to treat their wounds. I was in that ditch for hours because they would not let me cross the bridge until the snipers had been found. It was about 7 or 8 a.m. before I eventually transferred them to the café and relative safety. I remember a small French girl, ashen faced and scared to hell, I reached into my tunic and gave her my bar of chocolate, but still she did not smile.
I then joined up with about half a dozen other men who were making their way to Ranville to join up with their own companies when the rest of regiment came in on the dropping zones, it had been hours since I saw a familiar face of my own company.
The guys had taken several prisoners at the bridge; one was a young boy of 16, he now keeps a hotel in Hamburg and lets any Airborne stay there for free, I understand he goes back to all the reunions on D Day each year.
I crossed the Orne bridge and passed a Para with six prisoners and later rejoined B Company as we all regrouped at Ranville for the attack on Escoville. I can’t remember our exact approach but I remember the orchard where our mortars were set up and also the farmhouse and the long driveway, I recall digging a trench here and feeling uneasy, I moved to another spot and soon after we were heavily mortar bombed, suffering many casualties. I remember three men from our own mortar squad being severely wounded and I also recall seeing my original trench and found a bomb had landing in it, so what made me move from that position at the time I do not know.
Later we moved to the woods at Chateau St Come, the dead horses and cows were everywhere, bloating up and the awful smell when someone put a bullet in one of them and they burst. It was a smell of death that none of us can describe but will never forget. I recall going on a patrol and running into a bunch of Germans in an armoured truck, and how we ran to get away, I jumped over a low wall, but there was a steep embankment on the other side, I rolled down the bank and finished up in a stagnant pond and stank to high heaven for days afterwards, but thank God we all got away safely.
Now in the twilight of my years, I sometimes sit alone and recall the little things like the time I dug a trench only to find water seeping in, I went out and dragged two parachutes from the trees to line the trench but gave up and chose another spot.
We were shelled, mortared and machine gunned during the day and sometimes bombed at night but the worst were the air burst mortar bombs, which showered shrapnel down on top of us and caused many casualties. I remember the Tiger Tank we had knocked out and how I rolled two bogey wheels and placed them over half my trench for protection, only to find we were moving on that night, so some other soldier moved in as the 51st Highlanders came to relieve us.
I remember the turmoil when D company were cut off and B Company put in an attack to get them out. We had orders to withdraw and as we pulled out up that gulley I remember a German throwing a stick grenade over the hedge, which severely wounded Sgt Stan Bridges in his upper arm. I bandaged and splinted his arm and eventually got him to safety when I joined the other lads in the woods at the Chateau St Come. I remember how we all stepped over a German soldier lying dead across the path leading into the wood. Like many others I will never forget the awful carnage caused when the battleship Warspite opened fire on these woods not knowing the Black Watch of the 51st Highland Division had already cleared it of Germans, also the smell of death that hung over the place because there were bodies everywhere. It was terrible and made one feel sick with the stench. I remember the dug out we used as our command post, the “Moaning Minnie” mortar bombs the constant shelling with air burst shells, which exploded in the air and showered shrapnel on top of us. I remember going on several patrols with Capt Priday and some close encounters when Cpl Pontin took us out on recce and ambush patrols.
I remember how they sent us back about three fields behind the front line for a rest but it was a nightmare because we were bombed, shelled and mortared. I remember one bomb landed a few yards from my trench and the concussion caused the side of my trench to collapse on me. I was half buried and really scared stiff because we couldn’t do anything about it, so we all moved back into the words but as far as I was concerned it was chaos.
We were shelled, mortared and machine gunned during the day and sometimes bombed at night but the worst were the air burst mortar bombs, which showered shrapnel down on top of us and caused many casualties. I remember the Tiger Tank we had knocked out and how I rolled two bogey wheels and placed them over half my trench for protection, only to find we were moving on that night, so some other soldier moved in as the 51st Highlanders came to relieve us.
I remember the turmoil when D company were cut off and B Company put in an attack to get them out. We had orders to withdraw and as we pulled out up that gulley I remember a German throwing a stick grenade over the hedge, which severely wounded Sgt Stan Bridges in his upper arm. I bandaged and splinted his arm and eventually got him to safety when I joined the other lads in the woods at the Chateau St Come. I remember how we all stepped over a German soldier lying dead across the path leading into the wood. Like many others I will never forget the awful carnage caused when the battleship Warspite opened fire on these woods not knowing the Black Watch of the 51st Highland Division had already cleared it of Germans, also the smell of death that hung over the place because there were bodies everywhere. It was terrible and made one feel sick with the stench. I remember the dug out we used as our command post, the “Moaning Minnie” mortar bombs the constant shelling with air burst shells, which exploded in the air and showered shrapnel on top of us. I remember going on several patrols with Capt Priday and some close encounters when Cpl Pontin took us out on recce and ambush patrols.
I remember how they sent us back about three fields behind the front line for a rest but it was a nightmare because we were bombed, shelled and mortared. I remember one bomb landed a few yards from my trench and the concussion caused the side of my trench to collapse on me. I was half buried and really scared stiff because we couldn’t do anything about it, so we all moved back into the words but as far as I was concerned it was chaos.
During these actions I came across some horrible injuries. The worst in my opinion was the one where a piece of shrapnel had hit this man in the corner of his mouth and tore a gash to his ear. The side of his face fell down to his neck and looked an awful mess. I gave him a shot of morphine, then put a roll of lint along his gums, then I pinned his face up with four safety pins, applied a dressing held on with elastoplasts and got him evacuated to the casualty clearing station. Many years later I learned he had survived and was soon on one of the reunions but I never knew his name.
I remember the two tanks in the drive that had been knocked out and were on fire for days. It was here I was wounded in the head by an air burst shell as I ran to help Sgt Bobby Hill who had also been wounded. As I ran toward him, suddenly there was a blinding flash and I fell on top of him, it was he who bandaged me up and got me evacuated back to Bayeaux. A piece of shrapnel had pierced the top of my helmet and blown a big hole in the top of my head.
How I survived all this hell, only God knows.
I regained consciousness in a Dakota DC3 while crossing the channel back to England, I recall a young nurse saying to me that “The wars over for you my lad”! I lost consciousness again, and the next thing I remember is waking up in a military hospital in Oxford, with my wife looking down on me, it was only then that I realised I would be alright.
Being a wife of someone in the armed forces was a terrible ordeal, you did not know where they were, you did not know if they were safe, in fact you did not know if they were alive or dead.
One of the worse things to happen during the war years was the arrival of a Post Office telegram boy on his red bicycle in the road or street, for then you knew someone who lived close to you was going to receive some bad news.
I remember the day I heard the news about my husband Albert, I saw the telegram boy turn into King Street, and everyone closed their doors and looked through their net curtains to see which house he would stop at. On this particular day, he knocked on my door.
The telegram read that he had been wounded and was in a military hospital in Oxford, my heart was heavy, but at least he was alive.
The local people gathered to help me, and the next day I caught a train to Oxford in the search for my husband. On arriving in the city, I asked where the hospitals were, only to be informed that there were 17 military hospitals, and so my search began.
Each hospital seemed to be designated a particular injury, so after walking miles I approached the one I didn’t want to go to, Head Injuries.
I asked at the reception if they had a Lance Corporal Albert Gregory, and to my dismay, they said they had.
I approached the ward, not knowing what to find, and was led to a bed surrounded by curtains. There he lay, his head shaved and with wires attached to a machine, his arms strapped to the side of the bed and a 6 inch safety pin from a kilt pushed through his tongue to stop him swallowing it.
For several weeks his was in hospital, then he was transferred to a convalescent home, and at last he came home for a few weeks.
When he joined the army, he was designated as A1, but now he was C3 and would not fight abroad again.
He made a full recovery, but had a six-inch star on the back of his head where the shrapnel had penetrated his helmet.
Le Marchant German POW CampAfter recovering from his injuries, Albert, was transferred to a German POW Camp near Devises. Because of his medical experience, his job was to liase with the German doctors and English and Polish guards at the camp, thus during the day his was locked behind the wire with the POWs.
He found it quite strange, that the camp was separated into two parts, the outer ring of the camp was for the normal German soldier, but in the centre of the camp, there was a special protected part for members of the SS party.
The guards on the look out posts and machine gun towers were Polish, they really hated the Germans for the things they had done after invading Poland, so God forbid anyone who tried to escape.
I had my own office, which I shared with three German doctors and their trustee medical staff; the POWs had large white squares sewn onto their tunics. I could do no wrong in their eyes, as I was the one who said who could travel in the ambulance to take the sick to the local hospital.
I had my own German trustee, his name was Willy Welk, no matter when you asked him for a cup of tea, he would always come back with a brew, even if we had no tea, to this day I do not know where he found the tea, but he did every time.
I recall the day when there was a new influx of German prisoners, only these were coming from the Channel Islands, we found out that they were carrying British Pound notes, so I gave Willy 5 Woodbine cigarettes and sent him outside the perimeter wire, where he sold the cigarettes for one pound, I noticed which German had bought them, and after he had come through the gate, I informed him that the English cigarettes were banned, took them off him and passed them back through the wire to Willy, I made quite a packet in the hour it took to get them all through the gate.
After the new prisoners were in the camp, they were asked to strip and then we sprayed them with DDT power to kill any germs they had on their skin, more interesting to me was that they also carried German night field glasses, German wrist watches and the like, I never took personal items, but what was supplied by the German government was fair game.
These items, including butter and blankets, plus anything else I could scrounge with put into suitcases and posted home to either Ida or my mother and father. The suitcases in wartime were wooden boxes with material stretched over the carcase. These were wonderful, because you filled them up with contraband and nailed them shut, then posted them home from the local railway station. I had to post them home from different stations because the railway staff were getting wise to the tricks going on, and stealing the suitcases.
I recall one day being called with the German doctors to the SS part of the camp where a chap had hung himself from a toilet chain. He had been there for three days and was starting to smell a little, so the SS had asked for him to be cut down, we later found out that he had been murdered (see below)
If we had to go into the SS part of the camp, we had armed guards to protect us. This particular day, as we passed through to the toilet block, an SS officer spat at me, and it hit me on the shoulder, in a flash, one of the German doctors body guards stepped forward and hit him with one punch, he just went down and did not move. After cutting down the dead POW, we were coming back out, and I went forward to see to the POW who had been punched, but was pulled back by the German doctors, and told to “leave him”. Three days later he was brought to the medical centre and we found out he had a broken jaw. I later found out that the doctor’s bodyguard was the heavyweight boxing champion of Germany.
I met some wonderful people at the camp, not all German soldiers were bad people, in fact they wanted to fight a war and be away from their families as much as the rest of us.
A Birthday Surprise
Below is a clipping from The Stourbridge News on May 29, 1997. I was approached by the local newspaper regarding my father after I had asked about the certificate I had found in his belongings, after his death, and it all snowballed from there.
Below is a photograph which was also in the local paper three years earlier, after an old lady at Stourbridge Age Concern had painted a picture of my father from a black and white photo she had asked him for.
I believe that if we do not record for history, the stories of these people they will be lost forever, because now their sons and daughters are getting older, and if we don't put them down on paper, who will.
I feel I am one of the lucky people in this world who did something for their father before his death.
After the loss of my mother, he was very, very down, and eventually had to go into a nursing home because he could not walk very far. To try to buck him up, I telephoned the Airborne Regiment to ask if they would send him a birthday card for his 80th birthday (April 5, 1995), at first the lady who answered the telephone, was quite abrupt, but did ask for his details, rank, number, etc, and then told me that they did not normally do this kind of thing, but she would ask.
Two hours later, I received a telephone call from a Warrant Officer Kelly, asking me more details, i.e. about D Day etc. From then on all hell broke loose, I had telephone calls from national papers, local press, and even local TV. It seemed that the Airborne Regiment, had decided to do something special for my father's birthday, because his was one of the few surviving members of those brave troops.
At first, because the nursing home was situated out in the country, they wanted to parachute a birthday cake to him via The Red Devils parachute team, but in the end, because the national press, etc., could not help with the fuel bill for the Hercules transport, so they decided to send two chopped down Land Rovers and a troop of eight Pathfinder Paras from Aldershot to attack the home in his honour.
On the morning of his 80th birthday, myself and my family went to the nursing home, I felt that I had to tell him he was getting a surprise, but not to tell him what it was (he thought he was getting a kissogram), just in case the shock would kill him.
We sat him in a chair outside the home on the drive, TV cameras, his old pals from Age Concern, the local British Legion and the Normandy Veterans Society, plus some of his old Para chums, and he asks: "You're going to a lot of trouble for a kissogram!"
At that point, two jeeps swept up both sides of the drive, armed to the teeth with rifles and machine guns, stopped abruptly and the troops jumped from the vehicles, lined up, saluted my father and presented him with a cake and a regimental plaque.
To see the tears of joy in his old eyes made me the proudest person in the world.
That night, we all sat around the TV with his friends in the nursing home and watched it all again on Central TV.
That is a day I will take to my grave with me.
ConclusionSo concludes Albert, Ida and his fellow combatants recollections of a time their children and grandchildren now only see in films immortalising war and showing how brave the actors of today are, when in fact we should all praise God that there has been no world wars in our lifetime We go to the cinema to watch films like the Longest Day, but as we sit there, do we realise what these people really went through, I think not.
When Albert was taken ill, and had to go into a nursing home, I was sorting out some drawers in a dressing table, when I came across an envelope with the words War Department printed on the top. I opened it to read that Albert had been recommended for the Military Medal, when I asked him what he had done; his answer was the following “Oh, just doing something stupid!”
Later I found out the truth, Albert had been recommended for the Military Medal because he had ran out to rescue six men who had been wounded, the last man he carried to safety was an officer who had told him to leave him where he was, as he carried him to back to him own lines, the officer was shot again while over Albert’s shoulder, but unfortunately died several weeks later. Thus he did not receive the medal because the officer could not substantiate the evidence
When Remembrance Day comes around each year, Albert would remind me of one thing: “Yes son, remember the soldiers that have died, but also remember that the old people of today gave up six years of their life, so that you may sleep safely in your beds at night, I may have fought on a foreign land, but your mother and thousands of other mothers fought harder at home so that we could come back to a land we loved and had to leave.”
God bless them all.Alan Gregory
Parm.Mate. James Argo LCI489I served as Pharmacist Mate 1st class for LCI 489. I was the ship's "Doc". The Navy prepared us well for war. As Pharmacist Mate, I received extensive training on wound care, shock treatment, bullet/shrapnel removal, setting fractures, control of bleeding, trauma treatment, stitching, treatment of infectious diseases, dressing and bandaging wounds, chemical warfare first aid, etc.
Onboard, everybody got immunisations. I gave typhus fever vaccine every 6 months, typhoid fever every 12 months, tetanus booster as needed, yellow fever every 24 months and small-pox every 6 months.
I also served as Chemical Warfare Representative, and Lend-Lease Representative. I completed the required communicable disease reports and sanitary reports.
Our commanding officer was H. H. Montgomery, Lieutenant USNR. As I recall, our LCI ship's complement included four officers and between 25-28 enlisted men.
Around May 1944 we brought on two additional medical men in preparation for D-Day. These men were Burton H. Hockel, PhM1/C NR, and Harold Alvin Kadle, Hospital Apprentice 2/C. I set these men up in the sick bay to give IVs and plasma.
Approximately two weeks before the Normandy Invasion, our LCI was quarantined as a precaution.
My recollection is that our LCI and 5 other LCIs among LSTs, and LCMs pulled up to Omaha Beach just at daybreak on Jun. 6, 1944. Actually, our LCI didn't land up on the beach, which was the goal of LCIs. We hit an obstacle in the water and were not able to get right up on the beach. Chuck Phillips would know the details on that. There was a sandbar and we could not have made it up on the beach anyway.
I was on the bridge/conning tower with Lt. Montgomery, Neikerk and Wilson. Another man was on the bridge, too, but I can't remember who it was. Lt. Montgomery was surveying where he wanted to direct fire. Suddenly all hell broke out. Montgomery yelled, "Get off the bridge" and we abandoned the bridge immediately.
The German bunkers that were supposed to have been blasted out in an air raid weren't. Fire started coming from everywhere. To make things worse, the water was very rough. We carried men from the 1st Division (the Big Red One) to Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
Wood timbers/cross ties and barbed wire were attached to mines. One of the first things I remember seeing just before all hell broke out was a couple of dead men draped over these obstacles in the shallow water. Later I learned that these men were sent in to clear and mark channels for other landing craft and us. The fighting on the beach seemed to be the most horrendous for the first 5-6 hours.
It eased up a little around what I thought seemed like lunchtime, but the shelling continued for two days. You should have seen my helmet. I wish I had saved it for my kids to see. I was told that the Germans wouldn't aim fire directly at men in the Red Cross helmets. A few hours into battle, I took my helmet off because I was certain they were aiming right at that Red Cross. I guess the German's figured for every hospital corpsman they took out, the more overall casualties there would be. Dead corpsmen can't save lives.
During the invasion itself, the sick bay expanded to include the mess hall and the deck. The shipmates on our LCI were lucky. We did not have one single casualty. The mess hall and deck were filled with men from the Big Red One whom our LCI had carried and soldiers who had come in on other landing craft along side us. Travis Wilton Allen (Al), seaman 2/c NR, is the name of the man who secured the lifeline rope that Karl Bischoff mentioned in his story. Al Allen brought wounded men to me all day on the 6th and 7th of June. He never stopped even though he injured his knee. I think he took a surface shot across the knee. He was a good young man. He probably saved more lives than we can count in those two days, literally hundreds and hundreds. I don't know how he maintained the stamina to keep bringing the injured from the beach onto the LCI. I patched these men up the best I could and got the really injured ones transferred to hospital ships.
When Allen couldn't get the injured to me, I went to them on the beach. It was so loud with strafing, shelling, and mortar fire. I'd yell, look out behind you Allen. Allen would yell, hit the deck, Doc. We looked out for each other. It seems a miracle now that we did not lose one crewmember on our LCI on D-day. Sometimes the air was so full of fire that is seems impossible that any of us survived.
By the afternoon of June 7, disabled boats/ships that were beyond repair had been sunk out away from the beach to make a makeshift harbour/blockade. Other less disabled ships had been pulled up alongside the sunken ships. This reduced the waves a bit and made things a little easier.
I remember when we rescued men from the Susan B. Anthony. When the waves would swell, our ship would rise up and the men on the Anthony had to judge it just right to get the timing right for their jump across. I remember one young man who just couldn't make himself jump. He finally tried and had both legs crushed badly. However, he managed to hang onto the Anthony. I climbed up the cargo rope and slung the young man over my shoulders. I brought him onto our LCI and treated him. I had him transferred to a hospital ship. I never caught his name. I have wondered over the years if he made it home safely.
By this time I was 23 years old, in fact, I turned 23 on Jun. 7 1944, the day the Anthony hit a mine. Twenty-three seems young now, but at the time I was one of the senior men on board and these 18 year old fellows seemed terribly young to be fighting. My heart really went out to them.
Around 2 days out from D-Day a group of men from our LCI set out on the beach. I treated men from Omaha and Utah Beach. I believe it was an LST that brought in Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent. I think we were actually on Utah Beach when we met Ernie. We talked to him about what we had seen. We were deactivating German bombs that had not detonated and were checking for any survivors. By this time the fighting had moved inland a couple of miles. But we still got occasional shells.
It was about three days out that I was authorised to give each man 2 ounces of Brandy. It was prescribed to help settle their nerves. That was a common prescription in wartime for shell shock.
James Roland Argo.
Post Note: My Dad, James Argo, wrote this story. He reunited with two of his shipmates, Karl Bischoff and Chuck Phillips in November 2000. At the time of the email, snail mail and telephonic reunion, he was suffering from lung cancer. He died on Dec. 8, 2000.
This seems to have been a final mission for LCI 489 as far as my Dad was concerned. All the old anxieties of war were passed away and my Dad experienced a sense of healing by this reunion/
There is no doubt that he lived in the greatest generation. I salute my Dad and the many other men who fought for our freedom, cleared minefields, steered craft, patched up the wounded, cleaned out bilge pumps, radioed, signalled, gunned and died. Your parts were all significant and it is why we are here and free today.Lee Rawlinson
Lt. James Doohan 13th Field Artillery Regiment Royal Canadian ArtilleryJames Doohan was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Artillery and landed on Juno Beach on D-Day, leading his men through a mine field on Juno beach and personally taking out two German snipers in the process.
After his unit was secured in their position for the night, Doohan was crossing between command posts, when a Canadian machine gunner mistook him for the enemy and opened fire. Doohan was hit by four rounds in one of his legs, one in his hand, which ultimately resulted in him losing his middle finger, and one in the chest. The shot to the chest likely would have been fatal except that he had a silver cigarette case there, given to him by his brother, which deflected the bullet.
After recovering from his injuries, he became a pilot in the Canadian Air Force. Despite not ever flying in combat, he was once called â€śthe craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Forceâ€ť when he flew a plane through two telegraph poles after slaloming down a mountainside, just to prove it could be done. This act was not looked upon highly by his superiors, but earned him a reputation among the pilots of the Canadian Air Force.
Post war, James became an actor, preforming in over 4000 radio shows and 400 TV shows in Canada, being particularly noted for his great versatility in voice acting, but was most famous for his portrayal of Chief Engineer Scott in Star Trek.
Cliff Billen 79th Armoured Div.I served as a tank commander with the 79th Armoured Division (Hobart's Funnies), and also with the 11th Armoured Division from Normandy through to Belgium/Holland and into Germany.
Anyone interested in making contact, please do so.Cliff Billen
Denzel "Jack" KendallMy uncle Denzel Kendall landed on Omaha Beach. If anybody knows him let me know.David Kendall
Pte. Bob "Schubert" Newman 7th Btn., B Coy. Somerset Light InfantryMy dad, Bob Newman, known as Schubert (he loved classical music) served with the Somerset Light Infantry during WWII, starting in France (D+10), then going through Belgium, Holland and finally being wounded at Geilenkirchen, Germany in November 1944. He is sadly no longer with us, but I would be delighted if anyone out there served with him.Cilla Thomas
Joseph Catanzaro 29th Infantry DivJoseph Catanzaro was at Omaha Beach on D-Day with the 29th Infantry Divsion. He went on to St. Lo, Belgium and into Germany, returning to the States in 1946. Old buddies can contact him via my email.Joseph Paulin
Thwaite Jack John Border RegimentMy grandad John Thwaite was in the Border Regiment. He landed in the assault wave on Gold Beach on D-Day, 6th of June 1944. My dad has told me about the terrible things he saw when they hit the beach that morning. He landed with 231 Infantry Brigade. He also fought in Caen and finally in Belgium, where he was wounded while firing his Bren. He had been hit by either a German mortar or a grenade. He went deaf in one ear and was virtually paralysed on one side, but he still held his ground and managed to lay fire down on the advancing Germans. He was then sent home wounded.James Thwaite
Lt. Tom TarmeyMy great uncle Tom Tarney took part in D-Day, leading his men off the landing craft onto Sword Beach. He landed with the Northumberland Fusiliers. I don't know much more about Tom, but I do know he got to the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945 and actually found a piece of paper with Adolf Hitler's signature on it, which we have at home.James Thwaite
Satterfield 434th Troop Carrier Group 73rd Troop Carrier Sqdn.My father was in the 73rd Troop Carrier Squadron of the 434th Troop Carrier Group, 9th Air Force. Just prior to D-Day he was stationed at Aldermaster, where they trained and rehearsed for that big event.Mike Satterfield
Brian Guy 3rd Inf. Div.I served with Monty's old divsion, the 3rd British Infantry Divsion, also known as Monty's Ironsides or the Iron Division. I served from Sword Beach to Northern Holland, and was wounded twice.Brian Guy
Cloyd "Doc" Brown 142nd Infantry RegimentThis is the full story that went with this photo from my grandfather:
"I went through bits and pieces of this 50+ year old story. I went through the Italian campaigns - Sicily, Naples, Santa Maria, Anzio Beach, Rapido River, Salerno, Rome, Florence. Then invasion so to France, Frajtes Beach, I was captured on the 30th of August1944 at 3:30 am, in the Rhone Valley outside Valeure, France.
I was a machine gunner (30 caliber water cooled) CO. M. 142 INF 36th Division. Held in France six weeks; put in box car to Stalag 12A Limburg, Germany. Wound up in the prison hospital five days later with pneumonia. After I was released I was again loaded onto boxcar â€ś40 ton car.â€ť Locked in for 14 days. Wound up in Neubrandenburg Germany, Stalag IIA on the Baltic Sea. There I stayed till liberated by Russians in April â€™45. I escaped once, Ray Vanarsdale, Frenchie Thibadeaux and myself. Were caught 20 days later. Put in city jail til German guards came and got us. We evaded the guards when this young German soldier took us up through the compound. (Lucky).
The picture of Ray, Frenchie, Henry Morris, Rohland Stager and myself and the horse and buggy we stole five days after the Russians left. We stole a camera, too to take pictures and map. We travelled 11 days hiding out in barns, etc. We ran into the 82nd Airborne Headquarters on the 11th day. They deloused us, burnt our clothes and gave us uniforms and we were on an Army plane within 50 minutes. Taken to Le Havre, France Army Hospital."Shari Lewis
William Bidmead King's Royal Rifle CorpsMy father, Bill Bidmead, served in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, stationed at Winchester. On disbandenment he went on to serve in a tank regiment, the Highland Light Infantry where he volunteered for the Commandos. He then served with No. 4 Commando on D-day and throughout the Normandy campaign. He was also at Walcharen and later joined No. 6. Commando preparing for the attack on the Japanese mainland.Howard Bidmead
Sgt. James JopeMy grandfather Jimmy Jope was a radio operator during WW2, he was at Dunkirk during the D-Day invasion but the landing craft he was on got hit by a shell and sunk. He was alive and was picked up by one of the small fishing boats that were sent out to help the troops.
I have no pictures of him in uniform or any records I can find, maybe some one could help.Michael Gray
Cpl. McArthur HQ43 Transport Col. Royal Army Service CorpsI would like to hear from anybody who remembers HQ43 Transport Column RASC, part of 53 Welch Division and who landed on Gold Beach.MacArthur
Daphne BurnsI was a schoolgirl in England, evacuated to the country during most of the war and remember vividly thousands of trucks, equipment and men rolling through Uckfield in Sussex day after day. I also remember David Niven and Richard Green (film actors) sitting in a little tea shop in the High Street, taking a break and all of us schoolgirls staring at them through the window. It was a very heady time just before D-Day and they were all on their way to meet the enemy over the channel.Daphne Burns
Walter Muller WehrmachtMy grandfather Walter Muller (born 23rd November 1918) was a POW at Rankine POW Camp, Denny, Stirlingshire, Scotland. He was taken prisoner at Utah Beach (Normandy) on D-Day. At first he was a POW in Texas (near Austin, I think) until the end of the war. Then he went to Rankine Castle. He died in 1983.Kerstin Muller
Pte. Charles Johnson 1st Btn. Royal Norfolk Rgt.My grandad fought with the 1st Btn Royal Norfolk Regiment in Caen, France.Richard Taylor
Robert Nicklin HMS DorsetshireI volunteered at the age of 17 for the Royal Navy in 1940 and saw action on my first ship which was damaged by bomb and machine guns. It was in action against the Bismarck on HMS Dorsetshire firing 240 rounds of 8" shells. After putting three torpedoes into her and watching her sink we rescued 84 survivors. We bombarded the North African coast and took part in the landings in Madagascar. There was also lots of action in the Mediterranean, including three Malta convoys. With another destroyer we sank 13 enemy ships in an action lasting three hours. On my return to England I was just in time to take part in the Normandy landings on the cruiser HMS Emerald who, with other British warships, bombarded the shore batteries on the French coast. We were hit by a bomb and sustained only slight damage. We returned to Pompey [Portsmouth] for repairs and then went back to the landings, returning to England after things had settled down.Robert Nicklin
George W. Boswell Bronze Stars (3) 216th Replacement DepotI served with the United States Army from 1941 until May 1953. I enlisted at Alexandria, LA and did my basic training at Fort Brag, Fort Levenworth, Camp Carson and Camp Roberts. I was with the 216th Repl. Depot which went first to Fort Dix and then to Ireland, England and Northern France. We landed on Omaha Beach.George W Boswell
Daniel G. Coggeshall Bronze Stars (5) B Bty. 285th Field Artillery Observation RegimentI am looking for information about my grandfather Daniel G Coggeshall, or his unit Battery `B', 285th Field Artillery Observation Btn. He served in Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes and central Europe. He won five Bronze Stars.Daniel Rodgers
2nd Lt. Henry Harkema 612th Tank Destroyer Btn.My father-in-law, Henry Harkema, was a 2nd Lt. in the 612th Tank Destroyer Btn. His battalion went ashore on D-Day+3 and fought from there through Brest, Northern France, Huertgen Forest, the Ardennes and finally the Rhineland. He wound up in military government at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.Michael Verrengia
Merle BroomeMy grandfather, Merle Broome, fought on the beaches of Normany and at the Battle of the Bulge. Does anyone remember him?Joe Terlisner
Sgt. Joe Cooper RAF Tarrant RushtonMy father, Sgt Joe Cooper, was stationed at RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset on 5th June 1944. He recalled seeing the dozens of Halifaxes and Horsa Gliders taking off that night for the invasion of Normandy on the 6th June.John Cooper
Glennie Gordon HighlandersMy dad was in the Gordon Highlanders and landed on D-Day. He was wounded and captured and eventually ended up in Stalag 4b, where he was a POW for six months. His memory of the camp was of being hungry.James Glennie
1st Lt. Neil "Pete" Gordon A Coy. 112th Combat Engineer BtnI am trying to resesarch my father's involvement in WWII. His name was 1st Lt Neil `Pete' Gordon, Company A, 112th Combat Engineers Btn. He was at Omaha Beach in the first or second wave. Does anyone remember him?Tom Gordon
Gwilym Ernest Player 432 Coy. Royal Army Service CorpsI was in the RASC from 1944 to 1947. Landed at Gold Beach late pm on D-Day. 432 Company mascot, Poll Parrot, was painted on the front of trucks. In 1946 I was in Egypt, Alexandria with 26 Coy RASC, then 13 Coy.G E Player
Ellis A. "Buddy" Snow C Coy. 16th Infantry RegimentThe following are details of my uncle's history as related to me by his daughter, my cousin. At the age of 90, he still has an amazing memory. Maybe these details will help others who are trying to trace their relative's history during WWII.
Ellis "Buddy" Snow, served as a Browning Automatic Rifleman with the 1st Division (Big Red One), 16th Regiment, Company C (Charlie). He was drafted on the 15th of Novemeber 1943 and shipped out in September 1944 on the Queen Mary out of Camp Shank, New York. The ship reached Glasgow, Scotland, after six days at sea. They travelled in a boxcar to Southampton, England, then by boat across the English Channel to Le Havre, France. When the boat landed, they let down the ramp and the men had to get across the beach. I think it was Omaha Beach. The Germans were in the hills firing on them as they unloaded. He said there were bodies and blood everywhere.
He was in the battle of Huertgen Forest, France, and continued battles across to Germany. He has medals for each major battle.
He was captured on January 5th, 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge, when his troop ran out of ammunition and was surrounded by Germans.
He was imprisoned at Stalag 6G, a prisoner of war camp near Kirchheim and Flamersheim, near Bonn, Germany. He was a prisoner for 97 days. On April 12th, 1945, Stalag 6G was liberated by units of the US 13th Armored Division. He came home on the George Washington. The sea crossing took 15 days.Lila Havens
Ronald Fine HMS UlyssesMy dear father-in-law was on the HMS Ulysses. I would like to find out more information about this ship and get a photo.Edward
Charles Dwight Darby 489th Bomb Group 644thMy grandfather, Charles Dwight Darby, was a B-24 bombadier in the 489th Bomb Group, 644th Squadron, initially trained at Wendover in Utah, and ultimately was stationed at and flew out of Halesworth in England during the months surrounding D-Day. He participated in the D-Day mission, and only several days later did his plane crash on takeoff, killing many of his crew members. He survived and, after a year in hospitals back in the States, proceeded to live a long life and have a very large family. He was a successful CPA in Tampa, FL.Trae Williams
L/Cpl John Brookman 8th Btn. Middlesex Regiment (d.8th August 1944)My uncle, John Brookman, came through Dunkirk and then went back on D-day or very soon after. He was killed near Caen, France on 8th August 1944. Does anyone know the history of his battalion in those times? He was in the TA before the war, so presumably he was called up very early in the war. The only information I have about him is from the Commonwealth War Graves website.Brian Edwards
Vernon Lee McGuireMy brother, Vernon Lee McGuire, was a POW in Stalag 3C for about nine months in 1945. He was a paratrooper and jumped behind enemy lines during the Normandy invasion. He and eight or nine other troopers were captured by a German motor patrol several days later. Sometime after that, they were loaded into a small rail boxcar with 30 or more other men, many of whom were wounded. They were on this train for 28 days before reaching a prison camp. One night during the train ride they were in the heart of Berlin as it was being bombed by the Americans. Luckily there were not hit. He may have been in more than one camp, but was in 3C shortly before they were freed by three Russian tanks. At that time they were being marched to another camp when the tanks came upon them. He told me that the tank commander of those three tanks was a buxom blonde Russian woman. After they were freed all of the POWs scattered and slowly worked their way back to the American lines.Harold McGuire
Stan Moore 26th Assault Sqdn. Royal EngineersMy father, Stan Moore, was in the 26th Assault Squadron of the 79th Armoured Division. His CO was A. E. Younger. Dad drove and maintained AVREs.
I do not know a great deal about 26 Assault Squadron, but may be able to help you a little. My late grandad, Len Calladine, served with 16 Assault Squadron and later 557 Assault Squadron (both 42 Assault Regt). There were three regiments in the 1st Assault Brigade: 5, 6 and 42. 26 Squadron belonged to 5 Assault Regt.
In December 1943, 26 Squadron was based at Stone House, Aldringham, Suffolk. I believe they were one of the six assault squadrons that took part in the D-day landings.
The other five squadrons: 77, 79, 80 (also part of 5 Assualt Regt), 81 and 82 (of 6 Assault Rgt).
16 Assault Squadron went over in August 1944 and 557 Squadron (later a training regiment) went in december 1944.
If you haven't been already, the PRO at Kew is well worth a visit. Look up WO 166/.Lesley Holt
Arthur Dowler South Wales BorderersMy grandfather, Arthur Dowler, served with the South Wales Borderers during WW2. He never spoke of the war to anyone - the feeling was that he was deeply traumatised having watched his friends die around him. Also he lived with the guilt of "killing the enemy". I know that he served in France, Belgium and Holland through my aunt. I also know that he went AWOL for a period following the death of his daughter...he wanted to "get home" to comfort my grandmother and his other children, but was arrested for his efforts! Any information would be much appreciated as he has since passed away. My aunt seems to think that he was asked to be a "sniper" - but declined under the thought that "they die first". He was a good and loving grandfather to me and I am desperate to understand his war-time efforts. I know that he saw a lot of action, but as a child he only ever showed me fragments of shrapnel lodged under his skin in an effort to warn me that "war is a bad and ugly thing that you never quite recover from...". Can anyone help me?Emma
Fred CoonsFred Coons of Detroit, Michigan enlisted in 1942 and was wounded on D-Day. He was convalescent at the Army Hospital at Battle Creek, Michigan. Does anyone remember him?Art Morneweck
Act. Capt. Cyril Gordon H. Miers DSC Royal MarinesMy grandfather was an Acting Captain in the Royal Marines and took part in the D-day landings. He was commissioned on 11th September 1939 as a 2nd Lt. and promoted to Lt. on 16th February 1941. By 1945 he was an Acting Captain serving in India. He was awarded the DSC in November 1944 "for services during the landings in Normandy".Sarah Jayne
Leo Whaley 992nd Engineer Treadway Bridge CoyMy grandfather Leo Whaley from Bridgeport, CT also served in the 992nd Engineer Treadway Bridge Coy during WWII. I have some of his military records that show what battles they were involved. The 992nd landed in Normandy around D-day 6th June 1944 and went right up to the end in Germany. They built treadway bridges across some major rivers during the war. They even received a Presidential/unit citation for completing a bridge in record time while under heavy enemy fire.Mike Kovach
Sgt. Leonard George White Royal ArtilleryMy late father, Sgt Leonard George White, served with the Royal Artillery on Light AA Bofors Guns. On 8th June 1944 he landed on Gold Beach and during subsequent weeks provided anti-aircraft protection to what I understood to be the Green Howards around Caen. I visited villages with him such as St Contest, Villers Bocage where he was in action before being hospitalised in Bayeux. There were events he never wanted to talk about and whilst this information is unretrievable, I would like to know more about the actions in which he served with the Green Howards.Barry White
Albert J. Springhorn 430th AAAMy father, Albert J Springhorn, was a member of the 430th AAA US Army and served from D-day+1 through to the Battle of the Bulge. He acted as an interpreter at Dachau and Buchenwald.Mary E Springhorn
PFC Robert Almond 773rd Tank Destroyer BtnMy father served in the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion during WWII. They fought in the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.Diane Huggler
Stan Harley 8th ArmyMy grandad, Stan Harley, served in the 8th Army under General Montgomery in Africa. He was at the D-day landings and also at El Alamein. He recorded one year in Africa in a diary that he left me. He always spoke about a guy nicknamed Simo who he said came from Luton. Does anyone know about Simo?Fiona Harley
George Victor Lanham 5th Btn. East Yorkshire Rgt.My father was a Desert Rat with the 5th East Yorkshire Rgt. He saw action at El Alamein. I believe that only three from the regiment returned to England. They docked at Liverpool, were taken to a camp in Essex, and then on to practise in Scotland for the D-day landings. He said very little about his experiences.Ian Lanham
Pte. Arthur Henry Morley 2nd Btn. Essex Rgt. (d.11th June 1944)My great uncle, Pte. Arthur Henry Morley, was born around 1919 and died on 11th June 1944 during the landings after D-day. He is commemorated on the Bayeux Memorial, XIV.D.6.
If your great uncle was killed with the 2nd Essex on 11th June 1944 he was certainly a casualty of the first big battle of his battalion in the Normandy campaign. This bitter fight was near the villages of Verrieres and Lingevres and there were 15 memebrs of his battalion killed in action on that fateful day and quite a number of wounded. They even renamed the local wood "Essex Wood" in honour of the regiment. There was a memorial unveiled for that particular action on 7th June 2004 in the presence of several veterans of the Essex Regiment. (Francis Huijbrechts)Charlotte
Arthur Bramwell "Bram" SharpMy father Arthur Bramwell Sharp was from Ware in Hertfordshire and served in an armoured unit. He was known as "Bram" and boxed for the Army with 73 fights, (won 71, lost 1, drew 1). He was part of XXX Corp, and landed in Normandy on Gold beach on D-day+3. He fought around Caen and later in the push to support the Paratroops at Arnhem. He finished up as part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. His unit rested in Jersey briefly after the war and he returned to the UK via Poole, Dorset on a troopship.Denis Sharp
George Herbert Docking Royal ArtilleryMy father served in the Royal Artillery. I have been told that he was in the Polar Bear unit, and that he served in France and was at the D-Day landings. He joined the RA at Encliffe Hall Barracks in 1939 when he was in Sheffield.Frederick Docking
Thomas D. Sanders 32nd Armored Rgt.Did anyone know my father? He was a tank commander 3ad in the 32nd armored regiment. He was a POW until he escaped with others from Stalag 3B(?). He was in the second wave of the Normandy Campaign.William Sanders
F/O John "Jackie" Reid DFM A Flight 605 Sqdn. (d.26th June 1944)My uncle John (Jackie) Reid, RAFVR, served at 12 AFU between 25th May 1943 and 2nd August 1943. This was where he was posted after 271 Sqdn, and from 12 AFU, he went to 60 OTU to do a conversion on Mosquitos, then from there to 605 Sqdn till 26th October. He and his Observer, Sgt Ray Phillips, were killed on 26th June 1944 while on a NFT over Margate. His aircraft, NS880, exploded and crashed in flames over the main up/down London railway line. He had been promoted to Flt Lt a couple of days before his death, but had yet to receive notice of it.
It transpires that on 5th/6th June 1944, he and two other 605 Mosquitos were over the Caen area, taking out searchlights and AA guns, (obviously before the para landings) at 0011hrs on the 6th, where his aircraft dropped the first bomb on D Day. He was extremely proud of that. This was confirmed in his logbook by his Intelligence Officer.Norrie Southam
Charles Eagles 9th Btn, S Coy. Durham Light InfantryI served with 'S' Company, 9th Btn. Durham Light Infantry from D-Day on. I was nicknamed "The Parson's Son" as I didn't drink or smoke. We lost 226 men and 22 officers in about 30 minutes on the 14th June at Lingevres. A small group of us survivors were taken prisoner by a German division of the Panzer Lehr, who in turn were surrounded by the Allies and surrendered to me and my fellow men. I am keen to get in touch with anyone who may remember me from my time with the Battalion, and later service in Germany after the Germans capitulated. I would also like to contact anyone who can remember this incident from the Scottish Regiment that we handed over the Germans to.Charles Eagles
Clifford Albert Fish East Yorkshire RegimentMy late father Clifford Fish joined the East Yorkshire Regiment at 16 and served in WW2. He was at the Normandy landings, then through the rest of the war. He died when I was six months old in 1963. I have no information on him regards his army life, so any information would be welcome.Max
Gnr. Thomas William "Pat" Kirkwood HMS AnsonMy father, Thomas William Kirkwood, joined the Royal Navy to get away from the poverty in which he was brought up. He always stated that he joined because of the promise of a new pair of boots and three square meals a day. He trained as a gunner at the gunnery school on Whale Island and went on to serve on corvettes and other craft before joining HMS Anson.
He took part in a crossing the line event on an Artic convoy, becoming a "blue nose". He also took part in other convoys to Malta, Gibraltar and North Africa. He took part in the Normandy Landings/invasion, as well as Operation Pedestal.
He finished his naval career as a gunnery instructor at the Royal Naval Gunnery School, Whale Island in 1955. After his service he took a post as a storekeeper, then a shop owner before passing away in 1997.Stephen Kirkwood
Signalman Royden Wells HMS FrobisherMy father, Royden Wells, served on HMS Frobisher from March 1944, embarking from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in spring 1944, through the Suez Canal to UK, and served on Frobisher until it was decommissioned as a training vessel. He was on board through the D-Day Landings, and was a signalman. He then served on HMS Pytchley until the war ended.
He died in 2010 at the age of 87, but always spoke fondly of the warships he had served on. My mother still has a replica plaque/emblem of the vessels, and b&w photos of the ships.
Pte. Alfred Mitchell Byrd 18th AirborneI am looking for anyone who knew Private Alfred Mitchell Byrd. He was in the 18th Airborne. He fought in the Battle of Ardennes, Rhineland, Central Europe, Normandy and the Northern France Campaigns. During a battle he received a head wound. A bullet grazed him at the upper part of his forehead. We are desperately trying to find a woman he was involved with while in the war. She was a French nationalist and worked as a doctor. They had two children together (a boy and a girl) who were most likely born in the mid 40s. If anyone knows anything of him please get i touch.Alison Cox
Sgt. Jack Wood Lancashire FusiliersMy wife's father, Jack Wood, was a sergeant in WW2. We have different pictures of him during the war. In one he is in the Lancashire Fusiliers, in another he is with the 1st Battalion 'E'Coy RNF, which is a picture of their football team in 1941, we think this is likely to be the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers but are not sure.
The reason we are writing for help is we know that he was in the Paras as a Sergeant and was badly injured near Caen, Northern France. We have a newspaper clipping of him in a hospital bed being fed using a baby's cup telling his story, he was in a hospital in Wakefield.
Was it normal to keep changing regiment? What do the badges signify on his uniform - there are two strips saying 'Airborne' presumably for the top of each arm, a small purple badge with a parachute on and a small oval badge with a plane on.
Any help would be appreciated and, although he is now deceased, my wife would love to fill in the missing pieces of his WW2 life. (The story in the newspaper told of a pretty French girl from the French Resistance who led my wife's father and his men along a secret path through some marshes in France to avoid capture by the Germans).L Gosling
Pte. Joseph Holmes 9th Btn. Parachute RegimentMy dad, Joe Holmes, was transferred from the Royal Ulster Rifles into the 9th Btn Parachute Regt. He underwent extensive training around Derbyshire and again in the Newbury area of Berkshire. His battalion were to drop over Normandy and seize the gun emplacement at Merville. This was deemed to be a positive obstacle to the men landing on the beaches as it overlooked the beaches. Unfortunately, many men of the Battalion were dropped wide of the DZ (Dropping Zone) and many of them landed in marshland.
My dad was one of the lucky ones who landed safely and, with others, fought their way back to link up with the rest of the Battalion, who by this time had indeed taken the Merville battery. After many weeks of action, the Battalion was returned to the UK in September for R&R refitting. However the R&R was interrupted when the 6th Airborne Division was rushed back to take part in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
During this time, one of his recollections is of when they were lying up in their trenches awaiting the next onslaught from the German infantry and tanks, and one of the men was overheard speaking to his friend - which was heard by everyone. The conversation went along the lines of "Why don't you tell the Platoon Commander your real age and he can arrange for you to be returned to England?" The other guy apparently thought about this for a few seconds before replying, "No I don't think so, because my dad will kill me". Gales of laughter apparently went around the position as everyone who heard it burst out laughing.
Shortly after this the Battalion were relieved and moved back from the line. Later, my dad took part in the crossing of the Rhine. This, he says, was the most perfect parachute action that ever happened, until they got on the ground that is. Sometime after this my dad was wounded in a further action when his section was blasted by a grenade attack. He came to and found himself surrounded by German soldiers and with a badly damaged leg.
He, along with others, were then moved through the German lines and eventually placed in POW camp in the north of the country until they were released by an American unit at the end of the war. He still has the card he filled out in the POW camp that was sent to my mum saying that he was alive, as she had been warned that he was missing in action. He returned to UK sometime at the end of summer 1945 where he underwent various operations on his leg. He was eventually discharged from the army in 1947.
Pte. George Edward Wilson 107th Rgt. Royal Armoured CorpsGeorge Edward Wilson was my dad, and he died on 26th September 1981 of a brain tumour. I know next to nothing about his army career. I do remember sitting on his knee saying, "Tell me about the war dad". He started to tell me he drove tanks, then my mum told him to shut up about it when it started to get a bit, shall we say, gory.
It was only a few years ago that my uncle (dad's brother) told me he had been in the D-day landings and, he thinks, the Desert Rats. I had no idea.
Cpl. Robert Rose Royal EngineersBob Rose, my father, was born in Hull in 1925. A joiner by trade, he joined the Royal Engineers in 1943. He said it would be safer in the army than being bombed every night in Hull!
He was at Normandy D-Day plus 4 and went through France and into Germany. After the war he returned to Hull to start his own joinery business. In later life he took great pleasure as president of the Normandy Veterans Association for the Hull area.
Pte. John Walter Gardner 9th Btn. CameroniansJohn Gardner (my dad) was very proud to have served with the Cameronians in Normandy. He spoke very little of the fighting other than the awful waste of life on both sides. I know he took part in the fighting at Hill 112 where he encountered fanatical members of the Hitler Youth, who had tied themselves into trees so they were very difficult to remove. He mentioned the huge allied artillery barrage and the massive air raid, the biggest in history I believe, that took place before one advance in which he took part. Although he was very young at the time he never forgot the awful sights that he saw or the smell of death. He was haunted by bad dreams, terrible memories and the sad loss of friends and comrades all his life. On the lighter side he remembered an RSM, I don't know his name, who was reputedly the tallest soldier in the British Army. He talked of training exercises that went wrong, night time guard duties where rabbits were scary and and having to whitewash coal for some reason! He had huge respect for General O'Connor who he thought would have commanded the army in Normandy in Montgomery's place, had he not been captured.Richard Gardner
Mjr. Willliam Wynn-Werninck 19 MT Company Royal Army Service CorpsI sailed over to Arromanches from Tilbury with my unit, 19 Company RASC (MT) of some 250 vehicles, aboard the Canadian built Liberty ship Fort Brandon. We anchored about 2 miles off Arromanches on the east side of the Mulberry Harbour. That evening about 1000 pm a German bomber flew over us. There was some sp eculation about what th e plane was up to, the feeling being that she was dropping acoustic mines. That night, fro m a flat calm evening, it blew up Force 5-6, causing the Captain concern that Fort Brandons anchor chain could set off a nearby mine. Next morning I watched our vehicles being unloaded onto the big Rhino barges run by the Sappers and went back to my cabin for a wash and brush up before breakfast. I was just doing this when there was a heck of a bang. I shot out on deck where I was appalled to see, 2 cables away, a corvette type of ship with her bows blown off to the 4.7 gun mounting. She was blowing off clouds of steam but slowly got under way, having eased the surv ivors away, and started heading fo r the beach adjoining the Mulberry caissons. We were all saddened on deck as no lifeboat was lowered to help those in the water and, in particular, one sailor who was manfully swimming towards the beach a long way ah ead. Lifeboats were not lowered for fear of mines. I then hurried back to my cabin and did three small water-colour sketches of what I had seen.
In July 1994 I found these sketches and wrote to Navy News to ask if anyone could identify the ship. To my delight the next Navy News had several letters in it whic h gave her name as HMS Orchis (K76).Bill Wynn-Werninck
Thomas William Baker 61st Anti-Tank Regiment Royal ArtilleryI'm trying to trace my Dad, Tom Baker's WW2 footprints. My Dad passed away in 2010 but never really spoke about the war only small parts in later years. I'm 99% sure my Dad served as part of 242 Battery support unit, 61st Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, 51st Highland Division, although he did mention 193 Battery. I also know my Dad served in North Africa campaign inc Tunisia etc (Desert Rats). He also served in Sicily campaign. They returned from Sicily to UK and was stationed at High Wycombe where they prepared for D-Day
I'm sure My Dad's regiment landed on Sword beach on D-Day+1 I know my Dad was injured during this time with shrapnel wounds from a Mortar shell and was taken back to England to Hospital before he rejoined his regiment. I'm not sure though about where or when my Dad was wounded although he told me it was at Caen and after treatment back in England he rejoined his regiment in Eindhoven? I still have to get this part confirmed. My Dad met my Mom whilst billeted in Enschede, Holland before his regiment pushed into Germany towards Bremen and later he must have returned back to Enschede because he married my Mom on 19-08-1946 in Enschede.
Any help would be very gratefully accepted.Paul Baker
Pte. James Mason Shields Green HowardsMy Father, Jimmy Shields, was wounded in the D Day campaign and spent 3 days on Gold Beach before he was evacuated back to England. He was only a young lad of 18 years and had seen so much of the world, Egypt, Middle East, North Africa Sicily and North West Europe.
Dad eventually emigrated to Australia. A far cry from his family in Whitehaven and the family tradition of mining.Julie Goodman
Albert Edward Manning Yorkshire RegimentMy father, Albert Manning, served in the Green Howards in North Africa and in the D-day landings. He was wounded near Caen in 1944.Raymond Manning
Pte. Thomas John Wheeler 6th Btn. Durham Light Infantry (d.20th Aug 1944)Tommy Wheeler signed up, aged 17, to fight with the Durham Light Infantry in 1942. After training, he joined the 6th Btn, part of the 151st Infantry Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division who were preparing to take part in the Normandy landings. He landed at Gold Beach with the 8th and 9th battalions DLI at around 11.00 on 6th June 1944, D-Day. He died on the 20th August during the Battle for Normandy. He is buried at Bayeux.Peter Hale
Pte. Arnold Edward Dossetter Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light InfantryMy father, Ted Dossetter who sadly passed away in 1980, told me that during the lead up to the D-Day landings he was based at Portland in Dorset. He told me that during this time his unit were ordered to clear bodies washed up from the sea on the beach near to where they were billeted for special training. These were later identified as the infamous friendly fire personnel who sadly lost their lives in the training prior to the invasion of the Normandy beaches. This and other memories of his time in Belgium, Germany and Denmark as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force lived with him until he died. I still have his roll-call book plus other items and photos of him and my uncle in Holland, Belgium and Denmark. My father's best friend in the army, Bert Harberd, introduced his sister (my mother) Iris (nickname 'Tootie') to him on a visit to Portland and they later married. So I had two members of my family in this unit; my uncle who boxed for the regiment, and my father who was goalkeeper in the football team. Uncle Albert died at the age of 91 in 2014. I am very proud of them both and grateful for the contribution they both gave fighting for their country.Gill Waller
L/Cpl. James William Wood 2nd Btn. Middlesex RegimentWhilst we knew James William Wood (Grandad Jim) was evacuated from Dunkirk, we failed to realise that he also took part in the D Day Landings almost exactly 4 years later. We have only just obtained his records and these show that that he was wounded in August 1944 and returned to the UK spending 4 months in hospital and 2 months compassionate leave before returning to duty.Mandy
WOII. Harold Brooke Royal Electrical and Mechanical EngineersMy father, Harold Brooke, joined the R.A.O.C. on 5th August 1940 and then the R.E.M.E. on its formation on 1st October 1942 and served until he was demobilised on 23rd January 1946. He was an electrician by trade.
I know very little about his service except that he was stationed in or near Dover in 1944 as he met and, in December, married my stepmother that year. His first wife, my mother, had died of cancer in December 1943. During his service in Dover he worked on radar installations and the cross-channel guns.
I know he was in (West?) Africa at some time, probably pre-1944, and was stationed in Holland for a period following the D-Day invasion. Regrettably I have no other information about his service.David W. Brooke
Walter David Hughes Yorkshire RegimentMy dad Walter Hughes joined the Green Howards after his brother was killed in action in WW2. Dad was under age slightly but he was proud to be in the Green Howards. He never spoke of what he did, but we know he landed on Gold Beach. Not sure if dad gave his full name or correct date of birth
Any help in find out what my dad did would be great. Dad was born in 1927. Sadly he died in 2015.Beverley Wadey
Padre Gerard Nesbitt CdeG, MID Att. 8th Btn. Durham Light Infantry Royal Army Chaplain's Department (d.5th July 1944)Rev. Gerard Nesbitt was a teacher as St Cuthbert's Grammar School, Newcastle before he joined the DLI in 1940. He served in North Africa and Sicily before joining the D-Day landings. He was killed by a stray shell as he was burying his predecessor. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and was also Mentioned in Dispatches as confirmed in the London Gazette dated 12th January 1944.Gerry McGregor
Able Sea. Walter Rawlinson HMS ExcellentAble Seaman Walter Rawlinson was on ship during the D-Day landings and served on her for eight months.
Robert Allnutt 2nd Btn. Grenadier GuardsMy grandfather, Robert Allnutt, landed on the Normandy beaches (possibly a day or two after the initial landing) and pushed on towards Caen, where he and the battalion encountered fierce resistance as we all know. During this confrontation, his tank was hit. All escaped, some more injured than others, burnt and disorientated. My grandfather took cover by a hedge with another person. From what I remember, mortars were raining down and he was injured as a result. He was then recovered and taken out of the battle by half-track and eventually back to the UK. I hear that he visited one his other Sherman tank colleagues who was left with very badly burnt facial injuries. Another member of the tank team wanderered off blinded, after the tank being hit, into enemy positions and no one ever saw him again.Simon Allnutt
LAC. William Orval Skinner 411 SquadronMy father, Bill Skinner, like so many, didn't talk to those of us who weren't there about his experiences. We know he landed on Normandy (we think on June 6th) and was at Nijmagen and Appeldoorn in the Netherlands and in Germany. We know he was a ground radio operator. He was demobbed in Nov. 1945.Dan Skinner
Tpr. Sydney Barker 43rd Recce Regiment Reconnaissance CorpsSydney Barker was my father and as he did not talk about his war experiences I am now trying to find out more about his service. I know he landed in Normandy late June 1944 following the loss of a large number of men of the regiment on D Day when their boat was blown up by a mine. I know nothing much, myself, other than I know he received a gun shot wound to his arm on 3rd March 1945 somewhere near the German border in Holland. He was discharged in 1947. Sadly, my father died in 1987 from chest problems and other ailments which we believe came from his wartime service
Pte. Mark "Mickey" Lawrence 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own)Mickey Lawrence is still alive and well, living in Islington, London where he was born. My uncle Mickey has many photos of Germany. He was born in 1923 and joined the Desert Rats for deployment after the D-Day landings. He has photos of Berlin and Hitler's bunker, along with items he collected.Christine Richardson
Cpl. Owen Richard John Bulkeley 2nd Btn. Princess Louises Kensington RegimentMy grandfather, Dick Bulkeley, joined the 2nd Kensington Regiment at the outbreak of WW2, being part of the occupying force in Iceland in 1940. On his return to the UK he was based at Kington Camp in Kington, Herefordshire where he met Mary Cook and married her.
On D-Day + 6 he was a machine gunner as part of the invasion force in Europe fighting through Northern France, Belgium and finally on "the island" in Holland.
He was discharged in 1946 for a perforated ulcer and returned to Hereford were he lived for the remainder of his life. He never spoke of the war but he often mentioned the evil of the German Army at that time.
Pte. George Young Brydon 5th Btn. Black WatchMy dad George Brydon, my hero, who will be 91 this December, is due to be awarded France's highest honour, the Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur next month for his part in the liberation of France during 1944-45 when he was just 18 years old.
He was a soldier in the 5th Battalion, Black Watch and fought through Normandy against the feared Waffen SS, until he was severely wounded by mortar shrapnel trying to reach the River Seine at Mauny, before the Germans could blow the bridges and stop the Allied advance through Northwestern Europe.
He is now one of only three soldiers left in the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, who fought during WWII.
We are who we are today because of their courage and sacrifice.Gus Brydon
Capt. Wilfrid Turtle Keenan 9th Btn. Cameronians Rifle Brigade (d.29th June 1944)My birth mother, Edith Keldie Edgar served in the Women's Royal Naval Service (circa 1942) and was previously married to Captain Wilfrid T. Keenan of the Royal Cameronians from Glasgow Scotland (1942). My mom passed away in 1991 and I knew very little about Wilfrid's history. The Internet has helped me with much of the information contained herein but I also have a few photos of Wilfrid, his 9th Battalion Group and several hand written letters he wrote to Edith after he landed in Normandy, leading up to a few days before he was killed with several of his fellow Cameronians during the historic battle there.
Wilfred was killed in action on 28th of June 1944 in Grainville Sur Odon, France during the well-documented Operation Epsom and he is buried in the British Military Cemetary at St. Manvieu - Cheux, France. Wilfrid was the son of Henry and Hannah Keenan of Glasgow, Scotland but I do not have any other records of his family.
I would like to acknowledge and honour this brave gentleman for his service to his country and for his brave fight. I am also quite aware of the fact that I and other members of my immediate family, would not be here today if it were not for Wilfrid's ultimate sacrifice. God Bless all!Norman A. Edgar
Spr. Colin Emrie Gillies Royal Electrical and Mechanical EngineersMy late dad, Colin Gillies, served in WW2 with REME. He never talked about his time in Germany or during D-day. He was stationed around the Hanover and Bergen area in 1944-45 and was one of the first British troops to liberate Belsen Concentration Camp. He was from Scotland. Do any former serving mates who were with him at this time remember him?William Gillies
Sgt. Joseph A. "Gussie" Butler MM. Nottinghamshire Yeomanry (d.23th Nov 1944)Joseph Butler was a tank comander. He served in the North African Campaign as well as the D-Day Landings and Europe.Danny Thorne
Sgt. Charles William Fells MiD. 30 Corps Royal SignalsMy father, Charles Fells, was a sergeant in the Royal Signals. As with all old soldiers at that time, the information he imparted in his life time was, to say the least, sketchy. Most of what I gleaned was from my mother.
He was with 30 Corps in the 8th Army and served time in Palestine before taking part in the desert campaign in North Africa, including the 2nd Battle of El Alamein October 1942. Then it was onward to Tunisia and from there to the Sicily Landings, before he came back to England to prepare for the D-Day invasion of Europe. He landed on Gold Beach on the 6th day. Then he was involved in the battle for Caen and Operation Bluecoat. At the Falaise Gap he told me that he had never seen so many dead horses in one place. After this, it was on to Nijmegen and the crossing of the Rhine.
His name was cited in the London Gazette in March 1944, being Mentioned in Dispatches. I never knew for what this honour was bestowed. My father died at his home in December 1997.Richard Fells
Trpr. John Alexander "Blondie" Gardner 2nd Btn. Derbyshire YeomanryMy father, John Gardner, like most, did not talk about the war. I know these facts: He joined 2nd Btn. Derbyshire Yeomanry, and was then put into Recconaissance Corp in front of 51st Highland Division, he said mainly the Black Watch. He landed D Day, and went on to Pegasus bridge, Calne, Falaise Gap, Nijmegen and finished in Bremen(?). I have been unable to find anyone who can give any details. I know from a vet he was known as Blondie, aged 18 at D day. He was a motorcyclist and the vet was surprised to hear he made it through the war, as most bikers were killed.
After the war he joined 14/20th Kings Hussars and remained for many years.John Gardner
Cpl. Martin W. Fischer 70th Tank BattalionMy late grandfather, Martin Fischer, was at Stalag 4B. He was the third tank off the boat and the first tank to hit Normandy Beach. He told me on D-Day, they drove around for about eight hours then took a break in St. Mere Eglise. Their tank was hit there and set afire. They were captured. They walked for two to three months to get to the camp. He fell once and the only thing that saved his life was the fact his last name was the German spelling of Fischer.
I am trying to find out a lot of information. Was he hurt at all, how did he deal, etc? If you know him, please contact me. I am his only grandchild, his daughter, my mother was an only child too, but she has passed on. Thank you.Kim Fjelstad Perry
Pte. Thomas Finnigan 154th Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical CorpsThomas Finnigan joined up on 7th November 1939, training at RAMC Depot Crookham Camp (Near Aldershot) from 7th November 1939 to 30th January 1940. He was attached to 154th Field Ambulance in the BEF which was part of 51st Highland Division.
They shipped to France on 31st January 1940. From 28th March, 51HD were deployed on a defensive line between Bailleul and Armentieres. From April 51HD moved to the Saar front in area of Hombourg-Budange.
On 10th May the Germans invaded Belgium. 51HD fought around Grossenwald.
On 20th May 51HD moved to Etian and Varennes, where they were cut off from the rest of BEF. 51HD then to hold line along Somme from Erondelle to sea.
On 4th June the Germans attacked Abbeville and forced 51HD back to the river Bresle, where supply lines were cut. 51HD was ordered to fall back to Bethune. The plan was to evacuate 51HD, but because they were unable to use Dieppe, the decision was made to use Le Havre.
On 9/10th June Ark force (154 Brigade) split off from 51HD to break through to defend Le Havre. They took up a defensive position from Fecamp to Lillebonne and so were not encircled like the rest of 51HD. The rest of 51HD attempted to vacuate through St Valery en Caux, but were surrounded and taken prisoner. We assume that Dad was with Ark force. (He told Tommy once that they were in a copse near Dunkirk and they sent three trucks to try and break through. He went on one of the trucks. Tommy asked him how come he'd gone - because one of the other chaps on the lorries had a bottle of whisky).
He returned to the UK on 9/10th June 1940 and was transferred back to 153rd Field Ambulance. His war record reads:
He came back to the UK on 14/1/46 and was demobbed on the 26/3/46.
- 16 June 1940 Dalbeatie
- 26 Oct 1940 Nursing Orderly C III East Kilbride
- 14 Feb 1941 to 22 Dec 1941. Attached to Military Hospital at Tulloch Castle, Dingwall Lairg
- 16 Dec 1941 Nursing Orderly C II Lairg
- 14 Feb 1942 to 1 Apr 1942. Attached to Military Hospital, Gairloch, Lybster
- 5 Jun 1942 to 23 Jun 1942. Temporary attached to 170 Fd Regd RA
- 19 Sept 1942 to 26 Sept 1942. Attached OSDEF Battle School, Achavarn, near Thurso
- 27 Oct 1942 Received accidental injuries of a trivial nature.
- 27 Oct to 17 Nov Dunrobin EMS Hospital (Dunrobon Castle?)
- 17 Nov 1942 Posted to Y List
- 30 Dec 1942 Return to 153 FA Achavarn
- 17 Mar to 31 Mar 1943. Attached CR Sta (Coartal Regiment Station?) Thurso
- 17 Apr to 31 May 19431942. Attached Military Hospital Dingwall for Nursing Orderly I course
- 28 May 1943 Nursing Orderly C I Dingwall
To France 27 June 1944.
- 153 FA part of 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division land on Sword Beach.
- Operation Epsom to capture Caen (26-27 June)
- Operation Jupiter to capture Hill 112 (10-12 July)
- Operation Bluecoat to capture road junction at Vire and high ground at Mont Pinnon (30 July to 7 Aug)
- Injured 8 August shrapnel wounds leg and arm
- Return to UK 11 August 1944
- 12 Aug to 6 Sept 1944 Marriston EM Hospital Swansea
Back to France 16 June 1945
- 12Bn FDS (Field Dressing Station) 53RHU (Reinforcement Holding Unit) 8/6/45 to 17/9/45
- Back to 153 FA from 17/9/45
- 28 Dec 1945 Class A Release: Military Conduct: Exemplary Testemonial: A first class soldier with an excellent record of service. Reliable, trustworthy, capable and popular. Lubeck.Peter Finnigan
Lt. Thomas Finlay MacConnachie 6th Battalion, D Coy. Royal Scots FusiliersMy father Thomas MacConnachie landed in France in 1944 and fought at Caen, Falaise and through France into Belgium. He was taken prisoner after an assault across the Albert Canal near Escaut on the same day as Operation Market Garden was launched. He was a platoon commander tasked with setting up a consolidation in the village of Aart (now Ten Aart) when they were overwhelmed by a German counter attack. Fortunately he was captured by Wermacht troops (Herman Goering Elite) and avoided the SS who he had bitter experience of confronting. I understand that the action was to consolidate the port of Antwerp and diversionary in relation to Market Garden.
My father continued to serve in the Army until he retired in 1974, suffered a massive haemorrhagic stroke in 1976 and died in 1987. My mother celebrates her 93rd birthday this December having been widowed for the past 32 years. My father's commission certificate, swagger stick and pass out photograph from OCTU still have pride of place on the wall of her home. My father's Prisoner of War Log is still treasured by the family.Gus MacConnachie
Pte. William Ralph Harris 1st Battalion Dorsetshire RegimentMy grandad, William Ralph Harris, was born in West Ham on 20th May 1925. He died in December 1982 at the age of 57. At the time I was only 9 years old. I knew at the time that he had been in the Army during the 2nd World War but was obviously a bit young to understand what that meant. He was a brilliant grandad, but when he was gone I couldn't learn about what he had been through.
I know that he was in Italy at some point and that he was at Gold Beach on D-Day. God only knows what he went through that day. I believe he was wounded twice as I have found 2 Casualty Lists. The first one is Casualty List Number 1531, the date of incident was 11th of July 1944. The second is Casualty List Number 1542, date of incident was 4th of September 1944. I don't know what these injuries were. I have spoken to my mum and she didn't really know what the injuries were although she was aware that he had been injured. She said that he suffered with ill health for the rest of his life after the war, but like many, he didn't really let much out about his experiences during the war.
If anybody knows of any stories about his time I'd love to hear them. Thank youSteve
Pte. John Sheehan 7th Btn. Seaforth Highlanders (d.30th June 1944)John Sheehan survived the Normandy landings but was killed in action near Caen, Northern France.James Sheehan
Arthur Henry Sanders HMS BeagleArthur Henry Sanders served on HMS Beagle during WW2 - he was very proud of his service and recounted tales of his time on board ship. He was involved in the Atlantic Convoys, Gold Beach Landings and the liberation of the Channel Islands to name a few of the ship's courageous time during the war.
O.Tel. Robert Kemp "Tiny" Liddell HMS BellonaMy father, Robert Liddell was in class 238 at HMS Royal Arthur in October and November 1943. He went on to serve on HMS Bellona the light cruiser which took part in activities in the Channel, provided bombardment support to D Day, in July 1944 he crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time in an operation to attack the Tirpitz and finally accompanied three convoys to Murmansk. I now realise that the ship also took part in the celebration of Norway's liberation as the crew seem to have marched through Oslo as part of the celebrations as I have seen photographs which appear to show this. My father never mentioned this so I cannot say with certainty that he was there.
My father was in his own words a terrible sailor having no sea legs. Having said that it seems that at least one of the Arctic Convoys hit dreadful storms that almost capsized the escort carrier HMS Campania so perhaps there was some justification for being a paler shade of green for much of the time. He was an Ordinary Telegraphist. His stories of his days in the Navy are now slightly faded as he died in 1970. However, the accounts of the convoys tallies with his recollections including HMS Bellona shooting down at least one German aircraft.
I have copied the names of HMS Arthur class 238 in the hope this will be of help to others.
Left to Right
Back Row: F Harrison, Adaams, J Fraser, Ja (?) Fraser, J Batchelor, A Brockett, R Black, C(?) Bredsk(?), D Horne, W Marnock.
2nd Back Row: Gordon J Hughes, Robert, K Liddell, Gordon J Barclay, A Muir, R Birch, J Blair, J Blythe, Lynas.
3rd Row: Jake Brown (or Boon?), G Franks, S Hemingway, H Leask, Boise(?) Rudy(?) Briggs, J Fraser.
2nd Front Row: Harry Sarah(?), Hamill Bob Cantlay, Ken Carline, Bastow, L/S Gardner, Percy Good, J (or T) Atkinson, Ginger Kelman, P Kelly.
1st Row (Front): A Machicot (?), Bd Burke, Griffin, S Hemingway.Robert Liddell
Pte. Frank Tierney 2nd Btn. Queen's Own Cameron HighlandersMy father Frank Tierney served in the 2nd Battalion of the Camerons from May 1940 until just before the fall of Tobruk. Trained in Inverness he served in the Nairn Defence Platoon before shipping to serve in the Westen Desert, seeing action at Halfaiya Pass and other locations. He was part of the defence of Tobruk, serving in a mortar section prior to being evacuated following a wound on the hospital ship `Aba' prior to the fall of Tobruk. He was subsequently transferred to the REME and saw action in North Africa until the capture of Tunis, taking part in the invasion of Sicily amd Italy before transfer back to the UK in early 1944.
He landed in Normandy on D-Day plus one and served in the British Liberation Army in France, Holland, Belgium and Germany before de-mob in 1946.David Tierney
Sgt. William Victor Ferdinand Middlesex Yeomanry Royal Corps of SignalsMy father Bill Ferdinand started in the TA in 1939 in Chelsea. He was a despatch rider in 1940 and served in Palestine and Egypt. He was posted to 6th Div Signals in 1941, and then to 12 Corps Signals in 1944. Bill served in Normandy in June 1944 and thereafter in Belgium and Germany.
My father returned to England 1945 and was discharged in February 1946. (Bill's father also served with the Middlesex Yeomanry in WW1.)S M Wilkinson
Spr. William Stringer 1046 Port Operating Coy., C Coy. Royal EngineersWilliam Stringer was called up on 3rd June 1943 to Captherne Barracks near Shrewsbury. He served in C company, 1046 Port Operating Co., Royal Engineers after training in Scotland.
William landed in France on D-day+6 (12th June 1944). He worked on the Mullberry harbour at Arromanches. He then moved to Antwerp Docks, Belgium when they were captured from the Germans. He finished his overseas service in Brussels, Belgium and was demobbed in August 1946.Roger Bill
Pte. James Ernest Butterworth No 3 Regiment, 20 Squad Royal SignalsJim Butterworth is my father, a driver in No 3 Royal Signals. He was at D-day + 12 approx. In his diary he reported the number of dead. The Royal Signals recorded tank wireless traffic in Scotland and then replayed this during D-day to fool the Germans that the tanks were still in the UK. He talked about a German plane coming over and taking out one of the wireless trucks, which meant that a regiment of tanks went off the air! An officer got into bother for that should have been better hidden. All in the truck died. He went to Monte Cassino and parked at the Vatican when they entered Rome. The wireless trucks were not allowed to go into Germany.Malcolm Butterworth
Mjr (Act. Col.) George Richard Nicholson Ascough Royal Army Service CorpsGeorge Ascough was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps on 2nd September 1939.
He landed in Normandy shortly after D Day and was responsible for supply convoys in support of Allied forces pushing north through France and Belgium. He was invalided out of the service in early 1945.
Pte. Jack "Tush" Barrett 8th Btn. East Lancashire RegimentJack Barrett joined the 8th East Lancashire Regiment in 1940 and, on conversion to tanks in 1941, continued to serve in 144th (East Lancashire) Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps on Valentine, Churchill and Sherman Tanks, first as a co-driver then driver. He saw active service in Normandy, the Low Countries and Germany, taking part in the Battles of Noyers, Pierre sur Mere, Le Havre, Caen, Operation Goodwood, Operation Totalise and Operation Epsom, in the Ardennes and the Rhine Crossing. In 1945 the regiment became the 4th Royal Tank Regiment. Jack was demobbed in 1946.Michael Whitworth
CPO. Alfred James Garland HMS IndomitableDad, Alfred Garland served on HMS Indomitable during the Pedestal Convoy. He went to Norfolk Navy yard in the USA for repairs. I have his Norfolk Navy Yard pass. He was on HMS Llandudno sweeping into the Normandy beaches on 6th of June 1944. He was in charge of the winch and drank a bottle of rum.
Roy William Cook 9th Btn. CameroniansMy grandad, Roy Cook, told me he watched lots of his friends die on Sword Beach and was hit three times in his back. He told me they were ambushed. They sent him home and patched him up sent him back to front line! Grandad didn't talk about war as it wasn't something pleasant. Shame grandad died in his late 80s and his memories have gone with him. Miss you grandad and thank you xx.Paul Cook
L/Cpl. Andrew Corbett Mavor Royal SignalsMy father, Andrew Mavor, flew into Normandy in a Dakota on D Day. He was a signals para assigned to the Canadian troops trained in the UK. The plane was hit. They went down over Villiers sur Mer and Gonville, Normandy. The survivors found themselves in enemy held territory with German troops all around. My dad stayed free for 5 days and then was captured and marched and trucked around until arriving at Stalag 4b in August. While there he met a magician who taught him well.... my dad later became a member of the Magic Circle. He was freed by Russian troops on 23rd of April 1945.Jean Synclaire
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D-Day: June 6, 1944 -- The Climactic Battle of WWII
Stephen E. AmbroseStephen E. Ambrose draws from hundreds of interviews with US Army veterans and the brave Allied soldiers who fought alongside them to create this exceptional account of the day that shaped the twentieth century. D-Day is above all the epic story of men at the most demanding moment of their existence, when the horrors, complexities and triumphs of life are laid bare and courage and heroism come to the fore.More information on:
D-Day: June 6, 1944 -- The Climactic Battle of WWII
Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest
Stephen E. AmbroseThey came together, citizen soldiers, in the summer of 1942, drawn to Airborne by the $50 monthly bonus and a desire to be better than the other guy. And at its peak -- in Holland and the Ardennes -- Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Divison, U.S. Army, was as good a rifle company as any in the world. From the rigorous training in Georgia in 1942 to the disbanding in 1945, Stephen Ambrose tells the story of this remarkable company. In combat, the reward for a job well done is the next tough assignment, and as they advanced through Europe, the men of Easy kept getting the tough assignments. They parachuted into France early D-Day morning and knocked out a battery of four 105 mm cannon looking down Utah Beach; they parachuted into Holland during the Arnhem campaign; they were the Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne, brought in to hold the line, although surrounded, in the Battle of the Bulge; and then they spearheaded the counteroffensive. FinalMore information on:
Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest
Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters
Dick Winters & Cole C. KingseedAges 18 & up. They were called Easy Company—but their mission was never easy. Immortalized as the Band of Brothers, they suffered 150% casualties while liberating Europe—an unparalleled record of bravery under fire. Dick Winters was their commander—"the best combat leader in World War II" to his men. This is his story—told in his own words for the first time. On D-Day, Dick Winters parachuted into France and assumed leadership of the Band of Brothers when their commander was killed. He led them through the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany, by which time each member had been wounded. They liberated an S.S. death camp from the horrors of the Holocaust and captured Berchtesgaden, Hitler's alpine retreat. After briefly serving during the Korean War, Winters was a highly successful businessman. Made famous by Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers—and the subsequent award-winning HBO miniseries—he is the object of worldwide adulation. Beyond Band of Brothers is Winters's memoir—More information on:
Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters
We Who Are Alive and Remain: Untold Stories from the Band of Brothers
Marcus BrothertonAges 18 & up. They were the men of the now-legendary Easy Company. After almost two years of hard training, they parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and, later, Operation Market Garden. They fought their way through Belgium, France, and Germany, survived overwhelming odds, liberated concentration camps, and drank a victory toast in April of 1945 at Hitler's hideout in the Alps. Here, revealed for the first time, are stories of war, sacrifice, and courage as seen by one of the most revered combat units in military history. In We Who Are Alive and Remain, twenty men who were there, and the families of three deceased others, recount the horrors and the victories, the bonds they made, the tears and blood they shed- and the brothers they lost.More information on:
We Who Are Alive and Remain: Untold Stories from the Band of Brothers
Bryan PerrettIt's 1944 when Lieutenant Andy Pope takes part in the D-Day landings, crossing the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy. Ordered to cut off the Germans' line of retreat, Andy's company comes under sustained attack until, as the only unwounded officer left, Andy finds himself in command and fighting for survival...More information on:
Bryan PerrettIt's 1944 when Lieutenant Andy Pope takes part in the D-Day landings, crossing the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy. Ordered to cut off the Germans' line of retreat, Andy's company comes under sustained attack until, as the only unwounded officer left, Andy finds himself in command and fighting for survival...More information on:
One Man's War
Joe NethercottThis book is the story of a country boy from west Somerset who joined the RAF as soon as war was declared in September 1939, when he was 18 and an apprentice motor mechanic. Within months he was driving big lorries and cranes in the Battle of Britain, recovering crashed planes. He went on to the North African Western Desert, Egypt, Libya, Tunis and El Alamein. From there to Italy: Naples, Monte Cassino, invasion of Sicily. Then Corsica followed by France, landing near St Tropez in the D-Day of the South. Finally after four years abroad, back to the UK, a wedding and release from the RAF. Along the way he was blown up, bombed, burnt, and ill. He was not one of the commanders, or the shooting and bombing action heroes. He was responsible for the transport that contributed to everything else being possible. He tells of the problems in organising vehicles, keeping them on the road, repairing, bodging, cannibalising, improvising and inventing. This is the not often heard voice of an ordinMore information on:
One Man's War
Robert P WackTime Bomber is a powerful and intriguing story set primarily in World War II France during the final days before and after D-Day. While vividly depicting the bravery, sacrifice and human experience of soldiers who fought for the Allied nations, the author expands the story into the realm of “time travel,” providing a fascinating look at the “what ifs” of the work being done by scientists during that era. Included in that group is Dr. Willem Jacob van Stockum, whose life and work inspired this book. Although Time Bomber is a work of fiction, Dr. van Stockum was a real-life figure. A brilliant mathematics professor who has been called “one of the fathers of time travel,” he was also one of the brave soldiers who fought in the War against the Nazis.More information on:
A Sailor at War 1939-1945
Ken WelshOne man's war as seen through the eyes of a volunteer sailor, Albert Welch, who served on the Royal Naval warships HMS Mauritius, HMS Capetown, HMS Widnes and HMS Centurion during World War 2. The book represents the factual history of the ships that Albert served on during this period in the context of his detailed eye witness accounts of major battles, some of which were to become momentous events in world history. Albert’s vividly described, eye witness account is fully illustrated with over 100 photographs, many of which are taken from Albert’s wartime photo albums. This book provides a broad perspective on the war at sea, the home front and visits to exotic foreign ports, contrasting periods of humour, tragedy, danger, boring routine, and the full horror of warfare up close. Above all, it shows the risks these young men took for King and Country and the sacrifices so many of them ultimately made to preserve our freedom today.More information on:
A Sailor at War 1939-1945
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