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1938 Met Lil for the first time when she walked into the shop with two children, a very attractive women I immediately thought to myself, but no use getting any ideas she must be married with a couple of kids at least. After a few investigations I was to learn from the woman who lived in the flat above the shop, Lil was the nursemaid not the mother, from then on I knew I was in with a chance.
1939. On 15 July, I was invited by the ministry of defence to join with the first militia to be called up in peace time, to do six months military training, which in fact turned out to be six years. As requested, I reported to the Somerset Light infantry Barracks, Taunton. I am 5674421 for the duration. Rate for the soldier certainly not worth saluting for at 1/6d a day. Orders for the day square bashing, route marches, arrowhead attack formation across the park, sticking our bayonets into straw filled sacks in the correct sequence. In-twist out, if unable to withdraw first time, place left foot firmly on the object and twist again, or fire the bullet that should be in the breech.
3 September war declared, our pay increased to 2/0d(I0p) per day, now on equal terms with regular soldier
October - militia men transferred to the Ist Buckinghamshire Battalion, of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. While at Taunton I had volunteered for, and prior to the draft leaving been advised, I was to go on a driver mechanics course. Our drill arms instructor Sgt. Larkin also informed me, my name was on his list for promotion to acting Lance Corporal and that the final decision was to be my own. if I still preferred driving to marching so be it. On replying I'd stick to driving, he agreed it was a wise decision implying leading a section on patrol or into action could not be recommended as being a healthy occupation. He wished me luck on the driving course, we shook hands. I have not heard of him since and shall never forget him. On several occasions during the war I had good reason to thank him, for instance, had I been a section leader at the time of Dunkirk, I very much doubt I'd be sitting here at this moment telling the tale.
We arrived at Newbury station where the lst Bucks regimental band, were waiting to play up front as we marched through the town to the racecourse. Our sleeping quarters one horse out and four men to a stable. The battalion now at full strength, we carried on soldiering, field manoeuvres, guard duties and route marches. Come December we were sent home on 10 days embarkation leave.
At the time when called up, Lil and I had been going out together on a regular basis. The outbreak of war made Lil redundant and she moved back home to live with her parents at 61 Rochester Road Gravesend Kent. From where we were married on 20 December 1939. At Milton Church, Milton, Denton.
It was a quiet wedding and considering the circumstances Lilís parents made an excellent job of the reception. It was a pity, after the effort that must have been put into the preparation, and obvious disappointment felt, when not one from my family, could spare the time of day to put in an appearance. Lilís two brothers were in the army abroad.
Our first home was two rooms at 27 Laurel Avenue, Gravesend. The home of an old family friend who had known Lil from birth. Lil was always willing to run her errands and do her housework after school.
Endeavour is the only word to explain the first and every night of our brief honeymoon. In fear of disturbing the two old ladies sleeping in the next bedroom we were almost afraid to move. Best man Charlie Niblett responsible for setting the alarm at 0200 hours, was not to know we would still be awake at that hour whispering very quietly.
1940 January. New 30 and 15 cwt trucks arrive. On notice board following day I'm on detail to drive ĎD' Companies 15 cwt ammunition truck. So much for the driver mechanics course, one afternoon driving round the race track learning to change gear while, out on the road for a week to run the vehicles in and to gain night and day convoy driving experience, then load up for the trip across the water. Southampton was the port of embarkation and it was one of the coldest winters on record when the convoy moved off from the racecourse, and although the majority of drivers were inexperienced all arrived for loading without mishap. I had many a near miss and one in particular comes to mind, and which changed the colour of my pants. On that occasion, a dog ran across my front and to be honest, I was a little panicky when on the black ice covered road, I stood on the brakes, went into a spin, hit the offside kerb, and up on two wheels, for what seemed at the time five minutes, with my heart in my mouth and by this time in a dead panic and eyes shut I finally finished upright. I have often wondered what the end result would have been had it turned over. I do know from that moment luck was with me then and never left me all through the war.
We had a rough crossing and off-loaded in a snowstorm. All the way from LeHavre to Wahagnies near Lille, the roads were frozen over, our main problem, apart from the rats objecting to us sharing the sleeping quarters in the barn, was how to prevent the trucks from freezing up overnight. Apart from the road conditions, driving on the right without lights, following a white spot painted on the rear axle of the vehicle in front, were additional hazards, and through lack of experience, I suspect many of the drivers like myself had to stop on the hills to change gear. Our convoy of some fifty odd vehicles, were all present and correct at journey's end, an achievement if nothing else, we certainly earned our proficiency pay.
To qualify for proficiency pay in the infantry, normal procedure was to spend a day on the range and pass a firing test. Only one range was available, at Churn on the Berkshire Downs near East llsley. No company was able to make more than a single visit, the shortage of 303 bullets being the reason. Lack of shooting practice caused the Battalion to go over to France with a few men on the strength who had never fired a rifle and very many more who had never tried a Bren gun. In our case the preference was to ship the Battalion over to France and save the bullets for the Germans. So without the visit to the range and from the day we disembarked at Le-Havre, my daily rate was increased sixpence proficiency plus three pence for being in specialist company (transport). Gross earnings now 2s/9d (13.75p) a day.
Everything froze. The transport officer spent his whole time instructing drivers how to thaw out their vehicles, the carrier platoon officer, who did not know how to do it, left it to a lance-corporal who was an expert. Ink froze in the officers pens on pay parade. Private Bull, an officers mess waiter, put his dentures as usual in a mug of water on the first night, in the morning they were found completely frozen up and it was some time before they could take up their usual position again.
Wahagnies a small town on the edge of a mining district was halfway between Douai and Lille. When the thaw set in, the Battalion, while waiting the opportunity to hang out the washing on the Siegfried line, took its place with all other front line troops of the B.E.F in helping to dig the Gort line, which was part of the so called extension of the Maginot line from the northern point of the France-German border along the Belgian frontier to Dunkirk.
(Extract from Oxford & Bucks. Was Chronicle. 1939-1940)
Ist Bucks Batt.
On Friday 10th May, the enemy invaded Holland and Belgium. The news reached the Battalion early in the morning. Immediately the small emergency moves took place to vacate Wahgnies for GHQ troops. As Battalion headquarters and C Companies had remained at La-Neuville after the April scare, only A and B had to move back to the luxurious billets at Deux-villes. It was not known exactly when the Battalion would have to leave the Wahagnies district, but it was known that it would not be for a day or two. The roads were crammed with advance B.E.F. divisions going into Belgium. The Battalion could only sit tight and put its house in order, making sure that equipment and men were ready for long marches and action.
For three days an unending stream of convoys passed through Wahagnies, La-Neuville and Deux-villes. Except for the lack of armour the sight of such unbroken mechanized force was encouraging. No one could possibly foresee that within twenty days the B.E.F. as a fighting force would almost cease to exist.
On Sunday 12th May the Battalion held two church parades, one for A and B Companies at Deux-villes and another for the rest of the Battalion at La Neuville. Later in the day the padre R.J.E.Dix, left for the 145th Field Ambulance, to which from then on he was attached.
The next day a company commandersí conference was held at La Neuville and orders were given for a move forward in R.A.S.C. transport on the Tuesday. A last comb~out of un- wanted stores was arranged; as with any battalion, the static period just ended had produced accumulations of material, much of it was totally unnecessary in battle. As the soldier is loath to part with anything that might prove useful, officer inspections had to be ruthless.
14th May. After several postponements the days of waiting ended at 1430 hours on Tuesday. The Battalion left for Belgium in troop-carrying transport. The brigade joined the divisional column at Orchies and after crossing the Belgian border the route followed on through Tournai, Ath, Enghien and Hal to Alsemberg. The convoy was well organized, moving along at a steady pace with regular distances between vehicles. Although the Battalion was not bombed, there was air fighting overhead and numerous traces of bombing could be seen along the route. The waving and cheering crowds in Tournai gave men the illusory feeling of entering a relieved city in triumph. It was dark by the time Hal was reached. Just beyond Alsemberg the Battalion debussed and marched three miles back to the billeting areas in and around Alsemberg. Battalion headquarters and D and H.Q..Companies were in the south-west of the town others in the north-west.
15th May At first light the town was machine-gunned from the air, but there were no Battalion casualties. Soon after dawn there was a parachutist scare, the first of many patrols sent out returned with nothing to report. Most of the day was spent in rest and recuperation. In the morning there was a wild message about shooting all priests on sight, as German parachutists were supposed to be dropping so attired. Several were seen, but wisely left unmolested. Captain Mason spoke to one, just to see what would happen, and to his astonishment was sharply answered in a broad American accent.
The Battalion was to be ready to move at a momentís notice. At 2200hrs orders were issued to move in thirty minutes. While waiting to move off, the Battalion the Battalion had the satisfaction of seeing the only heavy tank battalion in the B.E.F. move up through Alsemberg.
16th May After a march of eight or nine miles, during the early part of which the column was sometimes halted and often obstructed by refugees, the Battalion reached a village, Joli Bios, south-east of Waterloo at first light. It was then that Second Lieutenant I.D.Watson, liaison officer to brigade, brought changed orders; the Battalion was to take up a defensive position covering an anti-tank obstacle. Very soon afterwards there was something near to panic as rush orders came up to deploy hurriedly, while wild rumours flew around that the enemy was only three miles away. There followed an interlude of unloading trucks in haste and much hard swearing. To add to the confusion, enemy aircraft flew over machine-gunning, but the Battalion was well deployed and no casualties resulted.
In the morning the Battalion was attacked by dive-bombers, but with surprisingly little effect. In the afternoon however, bombs narrowly missed A Company's headquarters and a splinter from another bomb killed a H.Q.Company driver Hammond, who was the Battalions first battle casualty. The situation being anomalous the battalion was in the front line, but was not a sign of the enemy. At intervals broken and exhausted Moroccan troops struggled through the battalion lines, while in front of the anti-tank obstacle columns of French horse-drawn transport could be seen moving slowly back.
May 17th At 0300 hrs the Battalion was ordered to withdraw and to be clear by 0800hrs. During the withdrawal most of A Company lost touch with the main body. One platoon failing to rejoin until after the survivors were back in England. During the day before the (17 May) the commanding officer had shown in- creasing signs of fatigue until at 0400 hrs he collapsed. Major Heyworth at once took over command.
18th May When the column moved on again, progress continued to be slow and practically ceased when the Enghien-Leerbeck road was reached, owing to the incredible congestion. Columns of transport, three and four abreast, struggled along mixed up with marching men. Troops were so tired that at the frequent halts they were apt to sit down and go to sleep in the same movement. Rousing them again was no easy matter. It was agreed that because of the congestion on the roads companies should move to Hattendries across country, while Major Viney should take the transport bye whatever practical route could be found.
At this embarrassing moment the divisional Commander arrived and asked what was happening. The Battalion was out of touch with brigade and had no clear orders; only B Company and the transport were present, the other companies were still heading across country to join them. The day was extremely hot and everyone was thirsty; most men were past hunger. During the previous three days the battalion had been acquiring cattle and by this time each platoon had its cow, chickens and young pigs. When Battalion headquarters moved because the enemy had found the range of the church, the medical officer, Lieutenant Gibbens, was seen driving a herd of some sixty cows to a corral with the stretcher-bearers (bandsmen) acting as cowpunchers.
Owing to the discovery in Rongy by A Company of at least one highly suspicious character found in a bedroom with a dozen Belgian uniforms, two companies, were ordered to carry out an intensive search there, and going through it systematically. They collected a good supply of food in addition to fifty Belgian uniforms and a dozen 1917 automatics.
The Battalion was to occupy the Gort line just forward of Rumegies, five miles away by the direct road. Companies were to march there, the A Echelon transport under Major Viney, taking weapons and ammunition. At the best of times it would have been a risky move in the circumstances to separate companies from their weapons, and as it turned out the transport's move was troublesome from the start. Besides being a dark night a patchy mist had sprung up, making contact between vehicles difficult. The column became divided soon after starting, and it took Major Viney four hours to find the errant vehicles. Meanwhile, the companies had arrived at the Rumegies position without any weapons except rifles and the occasional Bren gun.
There was a worse dilemma at Battalion headquarters. It was nearly dawn and still the A Echelon vehicles had not arrived with the weapons; but while searching for any troops on the Battalions right flank Captain Saunders, happened to meet Major Viney with the missing transport and directed them to battalion headquarters.
It was a boring day. Food being short, companies sent out foraging parties with success, all cooks trucks were loaded with carcasses of pigs and chickens. The Germans had broken through in the South and the Dutch had collapsed that was the sum total of knowledge. Intelligence reports, if they existed, never descended below brigade.
Battalion now on route for Hazebrouck, through Lille, Armentieres, Bailleul and Caestre. The move started slowly, as drivers were still tired and Major Viney in the rear spent much time chasing vehicles which had strayed off the routes. Nearing Hazebrouck it was noticed that every village had its homemade, rather pathetic, road blocks, generally constructed from farm carts. At 10.00 hrs. The Battalion entered the town and started cooking breakfast in the main street.
Major Heyworth had great difficulty in discovering which and how many miscellaneous troops were coming under his command. Artillery consisted of four 25 pounders and four anti-tank two pounders in support. G.H.Q. also left when they pulled out some two hundred men consisting of orderlies, runners, signallers, drivers. There was also a platoon of the 4th Cheshire Regiment with four Vickers guns and a dozen Boys anti-tank rifles a few Bren guns with a good supply of ammunition. To complete the assortment of supporting arms, there were some old French and Belgian tanks; but they were in such a bad state of repair that they could only be used as road blocks.
Hazebrouck was in the southwest corner of the semicircle round Dunkirk.
25th May During the day enemy aircraft flew over the town strafing and bombing but causing little damage.
26th May A large number of enemy reconnaissance aircraft flew over the town. In the early evening a report was issued that six enemy tanks had been seen approaching towards Hondeghem, a mile or so to the north. By this it was realized that the enemy was in the area and that some form of evacuation was taking place at Dunkirk. Again the night was quiet.
27th May In the morning the battle began in earnest, the weather had broken at last; it was cloudy, with a heavy shower in the afternoon. All day there was firing and enemy movement was visible in some part of the Battalions area. By 1100 hrs. B.C. and D. Companies had all been in action. At 1200hrs the enemy started a general attack on C and D Companies. The town was bombarded by infantry guns and heavy mortars, while a flight of enemy aircraft flew over bombing and strafing.
At 2030 hrs the enemy broke right through D Company's position with infantry and tanks, and pushed in towards the centre of the town and Battalion headquarters, at the same time working in the rear and cutting that company off entirely from the rest of the Battalion. Others of the enemy worked to the right flank of A Company and established a machine gun post covering the road running behind it.
It is difficult to piece together all aspects of the rifle companies fighting at this time, but the general picture is of a series of platoon battles; while the Germans, using tanks and infantry, gradually infiltrated through the gaps between company and company and platoon and platoon. Nearly all platoons were heavily engaged, particularly those of C and D Companies; for them the battle had begun in earnest at 0900 hrs and had continued all day.
Meanwhile, at battalion headquarters there was firing close by and suddenly a section of enemy went past at the end of the road, moving from west to east. They were fired on and scattered. Enemy fire coming from both north and west caused some casualties. Two carriers were driven into position as a road block to the north and immediately a tank began firing at the end of the street. It was obvious that headquarters were awkwardly placed and the order was given to move into the convent. The shelling had died down, although fires
raged in many parts of the town and small-arms fire was coming from all directions. There was trouble in getting the wounded back, but eventually the regimental aid post was moved into the convent cellars, which were extensive; they ran the whole length of the building with an exit at either end. The wireless truck had to be abandoned and was put out of action.
The move was completed by dusk, when odd sections which had been cut off from their companies, having fought their way through, began to drift into Battalion headquarters. All rifle companies had been overrun and cut off and very few men were able to reach headquarters. >From the very nature of the battle rifle companies, with sections and platoons cut off and out of touch owing to the wide frontages held and the many enemy infiltrations could withdraw only in scattered parties; These scattered parties were greatly helped by the action of Captain Pallet, the quartermaster, and transport officer, Captain Mason, who organized B Echelon drivers, cooks and sundry miscellaneous other ranks into a self-contained fighting force which fought a sturdy rearguard action and enabled many weary men to retire. By nightfall all touch with the rifle companies had been lost and Battalion headquarters were largely dependent for information on the garbled reports of the few men and sections which filtered in during the night. It was only plain too, however, that the Battalion had split up into "penny packets," some of which had been overrun entirely, while others were hanging on grimly until darkness gave them the opportunity to extricate themselves.
The only obvious and established facts were that Battalion headquarters and A.Q. Company were surrounded; and that the Battalion as a fighting force had ceased to exist. In a final attempt to re-establish touch with the troops which had been nearest to headquarters, patrols were sent out soon after dark, one to B Echelon and the other to B Company. Second Lieutenant Preston's patrol to B Echelon very soon bumped into the enemy in the square, where the French had surrendered earlier in the evening, and after a sharp skirmish he ordered his men to return while he tried to get through alone. He was never seen again and was afterwards reported killed.
Second Lieutenant Stebbings patrol to B Company succeeded in getting through but found the company headquarters deserted. When they returned it was realized at Battalion headquarters that it and H.Q. Company were the only parts of the Battalion available and capable of fighting another day.
In contrast to the day, the night was almost eerie in its quietness. All except sentries slept a weary sleep. Stand to was ordered earlier than usual, as no risks were to be taken. Early in the morning parties went across to the G. H. Q. building foraging for ammunition and food. Some preserved stores were found, but not much ammunition. A hot meal was cooked and distributed soon afterwards.
28th May. As soon as it was light troop movements along the Therouanne (western) road could be seen from a good observation post on the second floor. Both troops and lorries were fired on by a concentration of every Bren gun with tracer, and made good targets at fourteen hundred yards. This one sided target practice did not last long. Soon the enemy mortars were ranging on the building.
At 06.30 hrs one of the ammunition trucks, unfortunately only half unloaded, was hit and continued exploding for two hours. Firing increased and there were more casualties. To the astonishment of all, at 0900 hrs and enemy battery appeared not half a mile away, firing at Cassel from an open field. Two Vickers guns of the 4th Cheshire Regiment, manned by members of the old Wycombe machine gun company, were taken up on to the roof, their firing was most effective, but eventually it produced redoubled and more accurate fire from the enemy six barrelled nebelwerfers. At 1000 hrs some enemy got into the garden of headquarters under cover of smoke and shouted for the Battalion to surrender. Tanks appeared on both sides. Some were hit and at least one put out of action. The same sort of fighting continued for the rest of the morning by which time most of the transport was on fire, including all the carriers used as road blocks.
At 1300 hrs a more serious attack had to be faced. Several tanks came past the front and fired point blank at twenty yards. These attacks, coupled with mortar bombing, machine gun fire and sniping, but countered continually by anti-tank and 303 fire, were maintained until 1430 hrs, when there was a well marked lull for an hour or more. It was found that ammunition was seriously short, but, as over half the attached G.H.Q troops scarcely knew how to fire a rifle, their ammunition was withdrawn and they were unceremoniously consigned to the cellars. At this time, too, it was agreed between Majors Heyworth and Viney that as the remnants of the Battalion were obviously not now holding up the advance and the rifle companies had been overrun, added to which brigade had ordered a move out the day before, all who were left should march out and make for the coast that night, provided that resistance could be maintained until then.
During the lull Major Viney discovered two boxes of cigars that he had received at Lesdain. Determined that they should not be smoked by Germans, he went round the post until everyone, officers and men alike, were all smoking cigars.
But it was the lull before the storm, for, at about 1630 hrs, the artillery started again, this time it was not mortars but heavier stuff, and in quick succession the top then the second floor had to be evacuated. The chapel wing was now useless. The enemy had the exact range, there were many wounded by now and Major Heyworth decided to go across to the G.H.Q. building to see if it was worth evacuating there. He never returned. "He gave his life, so far as we can learn, in an effort to help his batman, who was also killed".
Shells were coming down thick and fast and major Viney, who had perhaps a hundred men but only two Bren guns and virtually no ammunition, found that the party was trapped, They climbed into one of the house gardens where they were concealed from view. He ordered them to stand fast there unto dark, when they would try to make a break. But, if attacked, he told them he might have to surrender because so many men were unarmed and ammunition was so short. Besides, they were vulnerably placed if discovered and attacked.
Major Viney went into the house to watch developments. It was now 1800 hrs and six tanks were bombarding the main building at short range. There was a great roar as it collapsed altogether. The tanks advanced towards it still firing hard. Then a section of infantry came noisily down the street. He ducked down at his window, but he had been seen. Just as one of the Germans threw a grenade into the house he climbed through the window and surrendered his party.
The defence of Hazebrouck was over.
The adjutant, Captain Ritchie, who led a party out the other end, was killed very soon afterwards.
The chaplain said that 28th May 1940, would remain a sad day for many Buckinghamshire families, but their memory will be tinged with pride, for according to one trustworthy report the Battalions doggedness that day was the means of saving at least 100,000 men who otherwise would not have been able to get back from Dunkirk.
Of those who fought in the Hazebrouck action, ten officers and about two hundred other ranks, mostly from rifle companies, succeeded in getting back to England. The gallant struggle against overwhelming odds which the Company continued until the evening of the 28th will remain for ever a noble landmark in the history of the Battalion and the Regiment.
They received a rare compliment from the enemy themselves. In a German broadcast it was stated that; "The defenders of Hazebrouck not only delayed the advance but resisted in a manner truly worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army.
So as luck would have it I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. On the jetty, on board and away in a matter of hours. At the time the least of my worries and still a mystery today, is the name of the ship that brought us across the water. At Ramsgate in one piece on June 4th, we were welcomed by the Womens Voluntary Service and while waiting on the train they were up and down supplying the necessary tea, sandwiches, chocolate, cigarettes and most important a free telegram form. Lil still has the telegram I sent in her box of war mementoes. When the train pulled out my thoughts were of home, Lil and what she was thinking and doing at that particular moment. Should I make a break for it going through London, or at the first opportunity on the way. But from lack of sleep and a stomach full of nourishment, I dozed off, and we were well on the way north heading for County Durham when I woke up. At Concert, where we were treated by the locals as if we had won the war, we enjoyed a pleasant fortnights rest period in private billets, while being sorted and our battalions located.
Now back on the home front where the going was far from easy so far as Lil was concerned. With enemy air attacks on the Thong Lane spitfire base night and day and sleepless nights. Customers on the milk round she had taken over, trying for the extra pint, her horse often trotting back to the yard on its own, leaving her stranded in the middle of the round without milk and a two mile chase after the horse. Also the immediate threat of a German invasion on the Kent coast or from the air. The telegram from the war office to advise her I had been reported missing coincided with my mother and father's arrival on the doorstep dressed in black, to say they had some bad news. Naturally having just received the telegram Lil thought it concerned me, when in fact, it was to inform her my grandfather on my mother's side had just died.
Ist Bucks. Whereabouts now known to be at Melksham, Wiltshire. We were given railway warrants and told to make our own way. On arrival we were interrogated and then on our way home with a ten days leave pass. With but one thought on my mind, to help Lil on the milk round.
In the papers we read about the Dunkirk Heroes, but nothing about how the government showed it's appreciation with it's indecent haste, to grab back the sixpence a day proficiency pay they so generously handed out while we were part of the B.E.F. Apparently, they were not bothered whether we could shoot straight, bearing in mind bullets were in short supply at the time they sent us out to face the Germans. The government thought it adequate to compensate with proficiency pay in the knowledge, without bullets, the soldier would have to be in close all the time and kill with the bayonet.
On return from leave priority was to be a day on the rifle range, where those who failed to hit the required number of inners and outers on the target had the sixpence a day proficiency pay withdrawn. I, being one of the many had my pay adjusted downwards accordingly from 2/6p to 2/3d(11.25p). With barrack room damages, and indirect tax known to be the biggest con trick in the British Army, whether you live in barracks or a slit trench in the front line it still has to be paid. In other words I have just had a 40% cut from my weekly 8s/9p. Gross income now.28p.
Weekly budget Cigarette and chocolate ration 2s/6d (12 1/2p) Soap~razor blades-tooth paste-boot polish-blanco-writing materials-and postage 2s/Od (10p). Net 5 1/2p. Before the reduction I could also manage an evening a week out at the cinema 6d (2 1/2P) Fish and Chips 6d (2 1/2p).
Being determined to keep up with the higher standard of living of at least one evening a week out with a few coppers in my pocket, I was left with the alternative and joined the club and in the black market, I was showing 100% profit on my cigarette and chocolate ration, and the luxury of fish and chips twice a week.
Firms such as Ford's, Post Office and Railways, made up the pay of their employees to what they would have been earning had they stayed with the company and not volunteered and were getting at least double to that of the soldiers having to manage on the basic, proficiency pay or not they were just as well off.
On the question of pay. To learn from the Ford fitters and vehicle mechanics, who were with the battalion at the time checking the trucks and Bren gun carriers, known in the army as a 406 inspection, were earning £20 plus expenses a week, women in the factory at Dagenham £6 a week, paid in pounds to produce the vehicles we had to drive for pence. While the yanks were over here, over sexed and over paid, the private with his £5 a week, did not do a lot for our morale.
After the evacuation the Battalion was formed into companies, there were no weapons except rifles, and all ranks were under canvas in the grounds at Bryngyn House, Hereford, a large Georgian mansion. The house itself was used for office and messing accommodation.
September 1940 Increases in equipment and stores included a small number of new vehicles. As a result, by September the transport looked rather like a string of cars and lorries from some old dump. "Flat-bottomed Annie", so the signal platoon stores truck was christened, and other vehicles of doubtful age remained until much later in the year. Lack of transport made it necessary for company commanders to drive around in their own cars or on motorcycle and sidecar for exercises, and companies had to share vehicles.
After several moves the battalion eventually settled in the Ashburton district of Devon. Headquarters company at Ashburton, A - Ashburton, C - Widecombe in the Moor, D - Buckfastleigh, B - Buckfast. I being B Company ration truck driver billeted in Buckfast Abbey with the cooks. Our job to patrol and guard against the German invasion, which was expected anywhere at anytime. Dartmoor being the ideal spot for an airborne landing. Had it come off, it would have been a tough job rounding up well armed German troops with nothing but rifles at our disposal, with no guarantee we would have enough bullets to go round. Also a platoon had to tour Torquay fire watching, and a 100 men daily into Plymouth to dig defences. As much of the ground was frozen solid and they were days when digging a trench meant a depth of six feet, the task was not very popular.
Tommy guns issued to all drivers in exchange for rifle, proficiency 6d (2 1/2p) returned without having to pass test on the range.
With the invasion scare behind us A-B-C-D companies were ordered to select men for active duty, (my thanks again to Sgt. Larkin). Drafts were sent at regular intervals and over a period of month all Al men had left the companies. Company and Headquarters specialist platoons stayed on in Devon as a holding battalion. Recruits were attached to complete field training on manoeuvres, we would drive on ahead to a given map reference, which more often than not was a farm house on the moor, where we would be ready with a hot meal to serve out to the troops. Often while the cook's were dishing out the bully beef stew, I'd swap our bully ration with the farmer for bacon and eggs, and cook the cooks meal of egg and bacon after the troops had moved on. We would then pack up and move onto the next map reference and have breakfast ready to serve, biscuit porridge, tin bacon beans and sausage.
After a couple of months with us the recruits were sent on embarkation leave. We would receive another draft for a repeat performance.
When in barracks everyone including officers not on duty had to be up at reveille. 0600 Summer 0630 Winter and outside on parade within 15 minutes for P.T. or five mile jog. Once a week a twenty mile route march, and on the march, was the singing that gave the morale the boost;
Down the road we went with our thumbs hooked under the shoulder straps to ease the strain of rifle and pack, and in time, we discovered the packs were lighter stuffed with cardboard, and a days spud bashing was a chance worth taking, if caught out with a snap inspection before the start.
1942 Ist November Little nine and six was born, so Lil christened Pauline, being the additional allowance for the first child. Now without a job Lil made the mistake of withdrawing all her savings to furnish our second home at; 19 Milton Place, Gravesend. Bought on hire purchase she would have been entitled to a special grant towards the move and furniture. Not being in debt, she was told when applying for the grant, was proof she was managing and that her allowance of £1/12s/6d (£1.63p) was adequate, and refused the grant.
1943 With the help of her parents with move and cost, Lil moved into our third home at 34 Peacock Street Gravesend. A three up three down terraced house with outside toilet.
Many a time without knowing where her next meal was coming from, with a baby in the house, heating had preference, often with her last shilling, pram and empty sack, off she would go to the local gas works, and without assistance fill the large sack, (bigger the sack the more you had for the money) with coke, and push it home through the town on the pram, while her mother looked after Pauline at home.
Enough of trying to manage below the poverty line, Lil decided to start her own small-holding, and at once became very popular with her meat starved neighbours. Making the hutches herself from scrap wood and cleaning them out, she had decided to breed rabbits. Collecting food from the fields with Pauline in the pram, she considered it was her bit towards the war effort.
As long as she lives, she will never forget the time her pet rabbit had to be sacrificed for the dinner table, on the occasion my parents, brother Ron and three sisters, paid a visit during the war, and how she had to sit and watch them eat it with tears in her eyes and stomach turning over.
January Rumours spread when battalion dispatched a draft of sixty soldiers to a port of embarkation, under seven officers of other regiments, and with more going every month, all that remained had that worried look, and dread the next list that went up.
July The battalion was made up to full strength and left Devon for Lincolnshire, where we spent most of the time labouring on the farms, hay making, lifting potatoes and sugar beet.
October Now on Ayr racecourse, Scotland. As at Newbury one horse out - four men in, the difference this time we had clean straw to sleep on. We are now part of sixth beach group preparing for the invasion of Europe. We spent days and nights driving on and off landing craft on the Ayr beach and at Strathpeffer, Scotland on mountain climbing manoeuvres.
Lil's new venture was into the egg production business with six chicks from the market, reared in a cardboard box, under an electric light bulb. Of the five to survive four were cock birds and not a lot of profit from the eggs. With the small holding and private enterprise business (doing odd jobs for neighbours), fresh vegetables from the farm where her father was employed, and help from her mother when required. Apart from the air raids, being able to afford the essential like a full stomach and fire in the home, change in the
purse for the odd treat, made it all worth while and rationing more bearable.
1944 May Battalion on the move South, destination Greys, Essex. First task on arrival, waterproof our vehicles, a precaution to prevent the engine stalling and leaving the vehicle as a sitting duck, should we have to drive part way up the beach with the engine under water. All electrics, distributor, coil, plugs etc. had to be sealed off with a material similar to plumbers Mait. Job was done on the grass verge of the main Southend road, Greys. At that time I must have been the only soldier in the army, who could have been only three miles from home without knowing. I had been at Greys three days when by an off chance, I overheard a couple of chaps in the next tent, shouting about the evening they had just spent in Gravesend, and positive the parents of the redcaps (Military Police) who had put them on a charge and on the ferry back to camp, for being drunk and disorderly, were not married.
The following day I was home for my one and only visit. At the time I did not know, so you can imagine my own and Lil's bitter disappointment when on return to camp the same evening the camp was closed and sealed.
2 June we moved into Tilbury docks, reversed onto a landing craft, which later dropped anchor off the Isle of Grain. Being on a landing craft within a stones throw from home for a couple of days, 1 was in a quandary with knowing Lil was expecting me to walk n as arranged the previous day and no way of getting word to her, also wondering if I'd see home again.
On board the hours were spent walking round the deck, playing solo (cards) and sitting in the cab trying to sleep. We were given a slap up meal to see us off and thankful we wouldn't be going in on feet with a pack on our backs. From there we joined the main convoy and were on our way. With so many ships around it seemed possible to walk from England to France without getting the feet wet.
6 June 'D' Day. I'm in the hold of the landing craft, in the truck sitting behind the wheel, engine ticking over and knees knocking. 1 can hear the aircraft overhead, bombs falling, shells, machine guns, rockets going in from our own battleships and havoc on the beach. I can see nothing but the ramp in front of me, just waiting for it to drop. With nothing in my stomach but that horrible feeling, a feeling indescribable, which has to be experienced to understand what it's like. I wasn't worried about the bomb or shell hole I might drive into, hit a mine, sink, drown or receive a shell in the cab or just break down. 1 was scared stiff.
At a rough estimate 1 reckon 1 lost a stone in sweat, while waiting behind the ramp. I had imagined the worst, but when out in the open, safely across the beach and could see what was going on around me, I knew I was in with the same chance as the rest. My contact on the beach was the pioneer platoon, who were responsible for keeping the beach exits clear of obstructions. I had with my load the tools to do the job, mine detectors and explosive charges ready to go off when required. Battalion anti tank and bren gun carriers went in support of the 6th Airborne, while the rest prepared the supply dumps.
OXFORD and BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY
Extract from War Chronicle Ist Bucks. Batt. 1944-45
At 1200 hours on June 7th (D plus 1) a single German aircraft chased by Spitfires flew low over the main laters, which was crowded with traffic, and dropped a bomb. A Dukw carrying petrol was hit and the burning petrol flowed down into an ammunition dump, which began to explode. Stack after stack blew up with deafening reverberations and pieces of shell started to fall all over the beaches. Soon blazing petrol added a huge column of smoke and flame which roared skyward with a mushroom of smoke. The explosions and fires which were fully visible to our troops and the enemy in the line must have been as disturbing to the former, who saw the ammunition vital for their attacks exploding in their rear, as they must have been gratifying to the latter.
Many ordnance experts hold the opinion that once an ammunition dump catches fire the only thing practicable is to let it burn out and start stacking elsewhere. In this case they were strongly of this opinion, as they were placed so close together. But anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Lieutenant-Colonel Sale knew that such counsels of despair were not good enough for him. Soon after the first explosion had taken place he was in the dump rallying the staff.
The stacks had been covered with camouflage netting, which caught alight easily; the grass was so dry that it burst into flame whenever red-hot fragments of metal landed and the result was that every stack that exploded started up a succession of new fires.
Helped by a small band of officers which included Major Geoffrey Pepper, Captain Erdle of the petrol depot (who was very soon fatally wounded) and Major T W Butcher, and a handful of pioneers, the commanding officer started to drag the nets from the stacks, beat out the blazing grass, drive out vehicles which had been abandoned by their drivers, and eventually, as more men rallied, to demolish the stacks nearest to the seat of the fire so as to create a firebreak. For nearly an hour the party worked in this blazing inferno until Colonel Sale was hit in the stomach by a piece of flying shell and carried off unconscious to the nearest field dressing station.
His place was taken by the second-in-command Major Carse and after a further two hour's hazardous work the seemingly impossible was achieved. The fire burned itself out and half the dump was saved, with the result that when an urgent call for anti-tank ammunition was received that evening from the 3rd British division the call was answered and the ammunition supplied. But 400 tons of precious ammunition and 60,000 gallons of petrol had been lost.
As the bridgehead expanded so the pressure eased, a nuisance were the German guns at LeHavre sending shells over at regular intervals, and I did not feel settled until I had converted my slit trench just off the beach, into what I considered to be a shell proof stronghold. At the first opportunity, with floorboards from the bombed houses, carpets, boxspring mattress, roof covered with mountain of sandbags. We went long spells without sleep and had to grab it when we could, now I had the satisfaction of being able to sleep feeling comfortable, safe and secure. Lying in bed, I did realize it was a fortunate position to be in, with the thought at that very moment, thousands of troops and civilians were being slaughtered in the battle for Caen.
August. Beach group now redundant, rumour battalion to revert as fighting unit. After many more rumours we are split up first 150 going to 51st Highland Division. Of the 20 drivers on the draft only one was required at 153 Infantry Brigade Headquarters. I happened to be the same build as Brigadier Sinclair, and always had the feeling I was selected on account his kilts would be a fit on me, as his driver, I had to wear one when he went to a function. I joined Brigade H.Q. at St. Valery-en-eaux, France. To learn I was the Brigadiers 4th replacement since D day. I drove his caravan come office, a converted three ton truck when on the move to forward positions, his jeep when the brigade were in action.
October Germans now in full retreat and brigade continually on the move, we pulled in at Nijmagan looking forward to a rest period over Christmas as promised, we had just about settled in, when Hitler made his move in the Ardennes (battle of the Bulge) we had to move out in a hurry, and often wondered what became of our Christmas dinner.
Of all the death and destruction witnessed on our journey across Europe, nothing could be compared to the horrors that Belsen revealed, we were prepared for the worst and received the shock of our lives. We could hardly believe our eyes which filled with tears at the sight of hundreds of tortured starved bodies thrown in a heap. To this day I still have nightmares.
After the Germans surrendered 1 rejoined lst Bucks. At Menden, Germany, from there demobilized January 1946.
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