The Thai Burma Railway – Issue 20 of Everyone’s War
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CONTENTS – Everyone’s War
- News from the Centre
- Book Reviews
- Journals for sale
- The Last Post
- The Death Railway – James Pawlowski
- My Hell on Earth – Jack Booth
- A Wren’s Story – Phyllis Puttick
- A FEPOW in the Family – Capt.Andrew Atholl Duncan
- Medics in the Far East – Capt. Harry Silman
- Malaya Volunteers – Jonathan Moffat
- At Selarang Square – Lt Page (RASC)
- A Friend in deed – John Leaver and Fred Walsh
- Behind Enemy Lines – Rhidian Jones
- A Time of Remembrance – Ken Tout
- Tales of Friendly Fire – John Pickering
- Mysteries of Cricket
- Truce or no Truce? – Graham Bebbington
- The Story of Hélène– Hélène Vagliano
- Obituary – Dr Richard Campbell Begg
Everyone’s War – Thai Burma Railway – Price is plus shipping
The Thai Burma Railway – Issue 20 of Everyone’s War
The cover theme for this issue of Everyone’s War focuses on material donated by servicemen who were held in captivity during the Second World War.
Bombs over British Towns and Cities
by Peter Liddle and Cathy Pugh
Rationing, shortages, improvisation, restrictions, ‘make do and mend’, savings and fund-raising, factory work and heavy industry, the hunger for information by Press and Radio, the maintenance of public utilities and services under wartime constraints, aspects of schooling such as evacuation, allotments, queues, cinema and dances, such experiences would feature in the lists of most people who lived through the years of the Second World War if asked to highlight what life was like in Britain’s towns and cities during the 1939-45 years.
Dr Ian Whitehead dealt with many of these topics in an excellent article in the Journal in 2002 and in depth and in precise location some of these topics and others on the Home Front were comprehensively covered in that issue. There would however probably be widespread agreement that if one were to search for the defining moment of a person’s Second World War experience on the Home Front, most townsfolk would focus immediately on an incident related to the bombing of their locality or even of their home.
The authors of this article have access here in the Centre to rich original and retrospective testimony in respect of air raids over Britain and did not hesitate in choosing to share with readers those sections from far wider accounts of life on the Home Front, specifically dealing with the experience of air raids.
We have decided against ensuring that we presented from someone’s unpublished memoir a detailed description of an Anderson or a Morrison Air Raid Shelter, of the way in which A.R.P work was conducted and coordinated or specifically of the work of the Fire Service and of agencies of Civil Defence. This was quite a difficult decision not least in that it meant that we could not select documentation of unexploded bomb disposal work or bringing medical attention to people trapped in buildings likely to collapse. In the main, though not exclusively, we were after the victims.
Then, from a wealth of such evidence, we have used two further criteria for choice; first that we should reflect that urban communities throughout the United Kingdom were subjected to air raids and second that the accounts themselves had to hold special qualities, the conveying of graphic detail, evidence of the leaving of an emotional mark across the years, drama, fear, excitement, humour and yes sometimes, of literary qualities in the re-telling of the story.
There were diary accounts which might have been used but they were usually abbreviated and of course by definition requiring context and further details; there were original letters and we have chosen one, but letters are affected by self-censorship and others are so interspersed with text beyond general interest that we have concentrated upon manuscript and typescript recollections and transcriptions of tape-recorded interviews. In this respect, the importance of Carolyn Mumford’s work as a member of staff transcribing tapes, was again confirmed, the significance of her role in this piece, incontestable.
However this still leaves acknowledgement to be paid to the interviewees or writers themselves; they are at the heart of our work. If the Centre flourishes, as it does, they are to a considerable degree, the seed, the sun, the rain and the fertilizer. That brings us to the interviewers. They are not named. Of course each interviewer brings individual qualities, capacities and perhaps eccentricities to his or her work, but he or she metaphorically wears Centre team shirts and follows an agreed procedure. Here we pay tribute to the work of all our interviewers. The Centre appreciates you now and, in due course, future generations will recognise that you have have saved that which otherwise would have been lost, ‘voices from the past’. We have chosen interview extracts which when edited for publication to exclude hesitation and limit ambiguity, we judge to be, exceptionally good in respect of the chosen field of the experience of bombing. We hope our readers will endorse our judgement.
In our drawing together of this presentation, the authors ‘feel’ for every person in the laying out of his or her account. In a different sense, we feel for others whom we have in the end not chosen. May we mention in particular a lovely lady, Lisbeth David, a WREN, after her Llandaff Cathedral emergency experiences here recorded. We have learned recently of her passing but she left a wholly positive mark on those of us who worked with her.
Rosemarie Heggie in West Acton, London
Rosemarie was born in 1926 in Islington. Her father had a confectionery factory in Acton. Rosemarie was evacuated to Weymouth at the start of the war but her parents brought her back to West Acton when South Coast air raid warnings became more frequent. Then there was a blessed pause in the bombing and we were lulled into a false sense of security. It was wonderful to spend the evenings in front of the fire, listening to the radio or reading. Best of all was the luxury of sleeping in our beds which, by this time, were downstairs, Mum and Dad’s in the dining room and mine in the sitting room.
I don’t think the air raid siren sounded on the night of the 11 December, 1940, otherwise we’d have gone to the shelter. We kissed goodnight as usual, I undressed and poked the fire to get a good blaze as it was a cold night. Then, on impulse, I went to my parents’ room. Dad was already in bed but my mother was kneeling in front of the gas fire undressing. I kissed them both again and as I left the room I said “God bless you and keep you safe”
– something we always said to each other at night. Instead of going straight to bed I sat down on the sofa and decided to cut my toe nails. It was very quiet but some instinct made me jump to my feet, then the whole house erupted and I was buried under the rubble. I fell on my left side with my right leg stretched out and it was impossible to move. The dust was choking and when I tried to call out my voice was muffled. After several hours I heard sounds and a voice calling to me. Rescuers had removed the rubble of the house above me but they were hindered by a beam which had to be sawn through. Then a doctor was able to reach down and give me an injection. I never lost consciousness and was amazed when I was finally lifted out and saw the stars shining brightly and breathed that cold crisp air – an unforgettable experience. I didn’t know then that the whole road had been flattened by a land-mine. I was amazed at being carried across our neighbours’ back garden to an ambulance waiting in a side road. I asked about my parents and was told they were safe.
In hospital I was put under an arc of electric bulbs and asked a lot of questions. My right leg had been badly burned by the embers of the coal fire. One day the ward sister put the screens around my bed and told me my parents had been killed. She gave me a leather handbag of my Mum’s which contained a fluffy powder puff attached to a silk handkerchief; there was a lingering smell of L’Aimant perfume and a propelling pencil inscribed with the name of a hotel where we’d stayed one Christmas.
I was in hospital for four months. The worst part was the daily dressings which were indescribably painful. Ultimately I was told my leg would have to be amputated below the knee. I was assured the pain would go after surgery but that wasn’t the case.
I was discharged in April 1941 with a big send-off from the staff. I was really upset to be leaving as everyone there had been so good to me.
Lawrence Edison in the East End of London
Lawrence J Edison was born in the Brick Lane area of the East End of London, his father a Jewish immigrant from Bessarabia. The family moved to Stoke Newington and opened a grocery shop in 1938. At the other end of the block of buildings in which our house was situated, was the Vogue cinema. One night a bomb landed on a trolleybus outside the Vogue making a huge crater and bursting a water main. Although it was quite a distance away water started to come into the cellar. As we were hearing a lot of noise from the guns firing and bombs dropping, it was decided to go across the road to a proper shelter under the buildings opposite called Coronation Avenue. We came out and saw the sky was criss-crossed with searchlights looking for bombers, and as we went over the road a bomb landed behind us with an enormous bang on West Hackney Church. The blast blowing out of the windows of the Star Furnishing Company which was opposite our shop. The glass just crumbled and fell to the ground like a beautiful waterfall. Amazingly all of us were untouched.
One night there was a lot of banging up above. The following morning I went up to see numerous buildings in Oxford Street on fire. Going home from Liverpool Street and going through Shoreditch, all I saw were burning buildings, among them Jeremiah Rotherhams a large old established wholesale warehouse. But the trolleybuses were still running, the theme at the time was “business as usual”. Looking around for shrapnel when I arrived home I went down Glading Terrace and saw an Anderson shelter that had a direct hit, it was just a heap of twisted metal.
The London Underground: a place of shelter but “business” as usual. [The papers of Dorothy Wakeley at the time working for an overseas press agency]
The bombing was very heavy, so it was a pleasant surprise when the King and Queen visited Stoke Newington, they came to Dynevor Road which had suffered enormous damage from a landmine. These were dropped by parachute and had a delayed action device. That was the occasion I had my photograph taken talking to the Queen. My sister saw it sometime later on a poster in the City and got some copies from a newspaper, it was also in the Everybody magazine. A water main had been hit nearby again, and as nothing was coming out of the taps, my sister and I were taking some kettles to be filled from a bowser lorry. When these lorries arrived in the area, word soon got around where to find them. We heard cheering and were told about the King and Queen, so I ran to Dynevor Road and managed to squeeze in front of the crowd. It always surprises me how little mention there is of how the Royal Family boosted the morale of the population during those bad times.
Peggy Sealey in Brixton
Peggy Sealey worked for the Post Office in the City until she married in 1938 and became a housewife in Brixton. Her husband worked delivering repaired vehicles abroad – a reserved occupation. In 1939, her brother was called up into the forces and Peggy agreed to continue collecting the contributions on an insurance book he had bought. I can remember the daylight raids. Once I was in Camberwell heading for Peckham and the siren went and, oh so quickly, the noise of the planes came over and I was frightened and just looked around for somewhere to hide. I did the stupidest thing and ran under this bridge. There was quite a heavy air raid and a dog fight. I was all by myself under this bridge and I was petrified. When the ‘all clear’ came, I started on my way to Peckham and found the little row of houses I collected from had been hit. I just stood rooted to the spot and I didn’t know what to do. It was so terrible, they were just flat. I couldn’t ride my bicycle and walked back home.
There was one family I called on and they lived in a block of flats near Westminster Bridge, quite near to the railway station. This little family, grandparents, auntie and uncle and two or three grandchildren were so afraid they would be hit, they took bundles of bedding and enough food for the night to a building called Morley College and they spent the nights there. There were fifty-seven consecutive night of raids and on one particular morning I went to their flat to collect some money but a policeman was there. He told me that Morley College had taken a direct hit and all the family except the granny and granddad were lost.
My daughter was born in 1942 and I found someone else to do the insurance round.
I had a Morrison shelter in my home. It was a big metal thing with an old mattress in it. When the sirens went, I used to get in there, on the mattress and I always used to lie on top of my little daughter to protect her. One day the milkman came for his money with his horse-drawn float. The siren went and I said, “oh dear, you had better come in”. He wouldn’t leave his horse so I told him to bring it in. He un-harnessed the horse and brought him over the doorstep so his front half was over the doorstep and the back half was in the porch. It’s funny now but it wasn’t then. We didn’t laugh, the milkman stood holding the horse, talking to him to keep him calm and I ran to the shelter with my daughter until the raid was over. Then he backed the horse out and off they went.
After Janet was born I was in that house virtually on my own all the time. There was an elderly lady called Tilly who used to come and see me every Tuesday. One day, my friend Anne came to see me with sad news, Tilly had been killed by the blast of a bomb while having something to eat in a shop on Acre Lane in Brixton. Anne stayed for a while, then she had to go down the road to get a bus back to work. I put Janet in her pushchair and walked with her. Anne got her bus and the siren went. I couldn’t hear any planes or anything, but of course it was a buzz bomb – they just came, then he engine stopped then they fell. I grabbed Janet in my arms and ran into an oil shop. There was no-one there, and I stayed until the ‘all-clear’. The bomb dropped and it was absolutely shattering, but it was a bit further up the hill. I held Janet in my arms, left the pushchair, and ran home. When I got there, all these people were milling about. I lived on the corner of Hewlick Road and my house had been blasted by the bomb. I was left with no door, no roof and all my furniture was upside down. The house was still standing, if you could call it that.
Ella Anderson in Glasgow
Ella Anderson (nee Livingstone) was born and brought up in Glasgow. During the war, she worked for the Co-operative Society’s sewing machine factory making uniforms. At the weekend we girls would get all dressed up in our long dresses and with our hair out of curlers to go dancing. On Saturday afternoon we would go on the Glasgow Subway, or take the tram car and walk the rest of the way but we would be looking forward to the dancing ahead.
We went to the Locarno Ballroom, or to the Greens Play House and we would listen and dance to Joe Loss and his band, tunes such as ‘In The Mood’, and we did a quick step to that. We danced all the dances that were popular in Glasgow, and probably everywhere else too, such as the quick step, the slow waltz, the tango and the rumba. We danced with Jimmy and Alex who were not boyfriends, just boys we danced with every week. Mind you, we also went to the Kingston Halls once a week, to do Scottish dancing where we would do the Eightsome Reel, Strip The Willow, St. Bernard, Dashing White Sergeant and the music would be both Highland and Old Time.
One Saturday night in August 1940 my friend and I had been at the dancing at the Locarno Ballroom. We bought chips and were eating them along the street on our way home when we walked past two soldiers. My friend dared me to ask them if they wanted a chip (which were rubbish anyway) and as I
One of the injured children getting refreshment after his ambulance journey to a Surrey hospital. (Joan Dillon, an ambulance driver
with the Mechanised Transport Corps)
Eileen Alexander [nee Clements] in Leytonstow, aged 11 ‘I heard the sound of the doodlebug approaching then the dreaded sound of
the engines cutting out then as I got to the door of the shelter there was a dreadful explosion and I was thrown to the end of it. I
opened my eyes and couldn’t see a thing. The air was full of brick dust, soot and smoke. I just stayed there for a long time and I
was frightened. After a while a fireman found me and helped me from the shelter, and what a terrible sight to see. The whole road
including my home was one big debris. I started to cry then. The fireman held my hand to guide me over the debris but I was so
frightened I would step on a dead body that he picked me up and carried me and that is when this photo was taken.’ (E. Alexander,
turned round, the soldiers also turned round and I plucked up the courage to ask if they wanted one. This is how I met Robert Norman Anderson and ten months later we were married. Norman used to sing a special song to me, by changing the words of ‘That’s where I met you, down Mexico way’ to ‘that’s where I met you, down Scotland Street way.’
When the Germans started to bomb Clydebank, the sirens would go off and, if we were at home, we would go with all our neighbours across the street to a big Glasgow Corporation Garage where they had an underground shelter.
One time Mum and I had been to the pictures and were walking back home. The sirens went off but we didn’t try and find a shelter because all we wanted to do was get home. Clydebank was getting badly bombed and there as a lot of shrapnel coming down around us. Mum and I weren’t aware of just how dangerous shrapnel can be so all we did was run through the falling shrapnel until we got home where we stayed under the kitchen table until the All Clear was sounded.
Alan Goldfinch, in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Alan Goldfinch grew up in Wanstead, London during the Second World War. The son of a schoolteacher, he was evacuated first to Weymouth and then to Belfast, Northern Ireland. He returned to London later in the war when a German V Rocket damaged his home. Belfast had three bad raids, and I was there during the first two. The first obvious difference I recall (and it produced a lot of criticism at the time, I remember) was that unlike Weymouth and London, the authorities seemed to have made no preparations to defend the city. No barrage balloons, no AA guns, apparently no RAF response
– the only defence was that during that raid a smoke-screen appeared over the docks and city centre.
My grandparents lived in a northern suburb, and from the first floor at the back of the house we had a grandstand view of the city centre and docks with shipyards about a mile and a half away. During the first raid, most destruction was in that area and I still have a vivid picture of a great mass of fire where there were major timber yards.
The second raid was different, and I guess was strategically less serious because of the above mentioned smoke screen which we could see from my grandparents’ house. Somewhere under it were the city centre and the docks, and Harland and Wolff’s shipyard (at that time the biggest in the UK and we kids knew well it was crammed with new ships and repair jobs) and Short Bros and Harland who were making bombers which we saw being flown off to join the war. The bad news was that in our area there were several old reservoirs which had been part of the city’s public water system. These were clearly artificial and the general opinion was that from the air they must have looked like docks, and that explained why our area got a pasting. Just beyond our garden boundary there was one of these reservoirs and the Air Raid Wardens reported something large coming down on a parachute and splashing in, but not exploding. Investigations revealed a sea-mine, hence our hurried departure in the morning.
The outcome of all his, as far as I and family were concerned, was that the travel authorities ceased calling Northern Ireland a safe area and we were permitted to return to England.
Lisbeth David in Llandaff, Cardiff
Lisbeth David was born in 1923 in South Wales. At the start of the war, she joined the WVS Ambulance Service and served with them during the January 1941 Blitz raid on Cardiff. 2 January 1941, the first heavy raid on Cardiff was a most concertedly dramatic experience altogether. I think it was about 6:15 when the sirens went and by
6:30 the Blitz started. We had two anti-aircraft guns just down the road, and when they fired we didn’t know if it was bombs or guns. A blanket dose of incendiaries far off on to the hills and all over Cardiff and some in our front garden. I think we were lucky. We didn’t have any that lodged onto the house itself but there were incendiaries everywhere, flames and I heard an almighty crash which I later learned was a parachute land mine that had hit Llandaff Cathedral a glancing blow. The parachute caught on the spire and the bomb swung round and exploded in the south churchyard. Amazingly, no-one was killed.
The Dean and the Verger were both in the Cathedral. The explosion brought down the roof and the timbers that came down did most of the damage. The windows in the south side had blown in. The Verger was trapped under some beams, he was badly burnt but they got him out and he survived. The Dean was in another part of the Cathedral and the impact of the bomb blew the West Door open and blew the Dean, who was no lightweight, through the West Door. Not only did he live to tell the tale, but was back on his feet and caring for the parish the very next day.
‘On 1 April 1941, 156 Section, 15 Bomb Disposal Company, Royal Engineers removed a 1400kg [2950lbs] armour-piercing bomb from underneath the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. This bomb had penetrated to a depth of 34 feet vertically and had travelled 20 feet in a horizontal direction. 156 Section commenced work on 11 January 1941.’ [W A Wootton]
‘On this particular day I’d had quite a lot of difficulty with my homework, or indeed I probably hadn’t done it and I cycled to school through the village to find one or two boys heading home. I asked, “What’s the problem?” “Oh, the schools been hit. There’s no school today”. So almost a sigh of relief at the thought of that! The bomb hit the armoury itself and a lot of the boys, particularly the boarders spent the day dragging rifles and things and stacking them with the uniforms.’ [Derek Clark, a schoolboy at Dulwich College.]
It caused great excitement and much was to be done in the way of tidying up. The morning after the blitz I spent salvaging the library belonging to the Warden of St Michael’s College from under the plaster of the ceiling as the college was heavily damaged.
R J Paxton in Coventry
Mr Paxton worked as an apprentice engineer prior to the Second World War. In 1939 he began work at the Coventry Gauge and Tool Company, servicing and repairing machines used to produce Merlin aircraft engines. He also served as a Fire and Rescue Volunteer during the Coventry Blitz.
I was detailed to take a doctor on his rounds in my little sports car. Once, we were off to the outskirts of Coventry to find a lady that had lost her baby. It was blown out of her arms, and I was taking this doctor to this district. When we got there it was in shambles. I was talking to the warden and asked him if there were any more incidents we should attend to. He said, “Well, there will be one.” I said, “Why?” and he said, “You are parked over a delayed action bomb!”
A cousin of mine was a senior fireman and he was killed just by the cathedral, the lead was pouring off the roof and you couldn’t do anything about it. The whole city was in flames. It actually filled me with great anger. I was very, very frustrated. If I had got a pair of machine guns in my hands I would have loved it, I could have fired back at them. But we were charging around the city knowing we were going to be bombed with no retaliation. We left the bodies for the people who would take them to the mortuary, we didn’t have the time. We were looking for the living and the wounded, to see what the doctor could do for the wounded. We were too busy to see the German aircraft – I didn’t see one. I had my eyes to the ground, looking for people who needed helping.
It was a shocking experience, but people just got on with their lives. I never saw any loss of morale. I saw a lot of people determined like I was – I had a friend who was a little Welshman and I said to him one day, “You didn’t need to be here, you could have gone back to Wales.” He said, “No. In the depression Coventry gave me a job and I am not leaving!” And that was the spirit of the people.
Nan Wheeler in Canterbury
Nan Wheeler worked for the Post Office in Dover. During the war she also served as an Air Raid Warden. Canterbury had endured a great concentration of bombs on the night of the Baedeker raid. In Dover we heard wave after wave of bombers passing over to attack and then returning. About 3:00am my father came to me – sleep was impossible with the noise – and asked if I could catch the 7:00am train to Canterbury to help out. He’d phoned the Head Postmaster at Canterbury to see how they were getting on and offered any help. He thought that any staff that could be spared would be welcome. I was once again spare duty and could leave my post at Dover. As I got off the train at Canterbury to walk through to the office, I could see plumes of smoke still rising here and there and very tired firemen among the snakes of hoses.
En route there was a huge crater in one street which went from one row of houses to the others across the street, all badly damaged. I climbed down one side of the crater and someone had put some boards across the bottom and I climbed up the other side and carried on to the office. Canterbury was a teleprinter centre so they had dozens of them and they were all pouring tape which was collecting on the floor and each one had a great wad waiting to be sent. They had put a table in the street to take telegrams in as they had mile long queues in the office. The engineers had run all the water off the radiators to give us for “gumming up” as the tape came through and they drove out into the villages to get water so we could keep working. There was no water left in Canterbury. Finally a girl came to gum-up for me so I could carry on sending and I just glanced up to greet her and saw she was all black and blue. Her arms, face and legs were all covered in nasty bruises. I just said, “are you okay?” She said, “I’m a bit sore, but they’ve only just dug me out. They dug my Dad out first and he’s not too bad and he said I should go straight to work as they’d need me. They are still digging for my Mum.”
Elizabeth Ross in Bootle, Liverpool
A letter sent by Mrs Elizabeth Ross of Bootle, Liverpool to her daughter, Muriel. Muriel was a civil servant in London. 56 Elm Road
Sunday 4 May, 1940.
Here we are after 3 nights of it. Oh what a do last night. I hope we never have to go through it again. Friday was bad enough, they destroyed all that nice Parker Avenue (opposite the anti-aircraft guns) (27 killed), Lime Street Station on fire, Exchange out of action and lots of casualties in L’pool and Bootle, so we were all feeling very pleased that we had got over it yesterday. I think Con told Pat that we were all quite happy. But darling, last night!!! Siren at 10.30 & immediately 4 land mines then for 4 hours never a moments lull, they just came one after the other without a stop – all sizes. We just, in the end, lay flat on the slope of the cellar steps waiting for one to finish us. I just can’t describe things. Today it is all chaos. We never expected to see our house whole. It just rocked and shook & seemed to be shedding parts all night. Anyway, his morning, apart from soot, plaster, broken windows, doors and slates, it is still standing. All Ewart Rd and Bedford Place were wiped out. Star of the Sea Hall just a heap of rubble. Bridge Rd all roped off, all the block of 48 from Carrolls to Irwins just rubble in the road. They were standing at 48, but not a window & most of the doors gone & ceilings down. 58 were worse, the shop just a shambles & windows and doors etc gone, but they were all ok. The dairy opposite had got a direct hit so that was another heap of rubble. You will be sorry to hear Sid Owens was killed, also Mr Moss and his sister, Mr and Mrs Kelly and the children, Mrs Carroll from the shop in Bridge Road and a lot in Croxteth Avenue. This is all I have gleaned up to now, no-one seems to be wanting to do anything but patch themselves up so when there are more details I will write again.
Nora has just been & said she will try to get through to you (via Mrs Shaw) to let you know we are alright. She has only just gone home so I will have to hurry for the post. What made it worse the electricity failed so we just waited in the pitch dark. 48 had a baby of 2 weeks old handed to them in the shelter, it was black dark & no water, gas or electric. We are going to S’port to sleep tonight. We are going after tea, then we will see whet happens. I will write again tomorrow.
Love to you all
Michael Lee in Bath
Michael Lee was a schoolboy living in Bath, Somerset, during the Second World War. He and his family survived the bombing of their house during heavy raids in April 1942. I never did hear separately the bombs which so narrowly missed us and destroyed two pairs of houses immediately behind us and in the process tearing apart our house. The front door was blown in and the kitchen door was torn off its hinges (just outside our cupboard) and pulled to the bottom of the kitchen – towards the explosion – by the inrush of air into the vacuum created. The back wall of my bedroom was bowed into a semi circle – again towards the explosion – and the whole roof of slates was lifted and dropped back in disarray, followed by a great deluge of debris. However we were unharmed!In the morning, when it was finally quiet and daylight arrived, Dad went to get our Austin 8 from the Chaucer Road Garages (he had a tiny ration of petrol for Home Guard duties) and I wandered round and up Milton Avenue to look at the back. The pair of houses immediately behind us was a heap of rubble and swathes of timber, most of it cascaded into our back garden.As we set off, early that Sunday morning, I saw that there were houses missing in Kipling Avenue, the 2nd to the 4th down from Chaucer Road on the city side, which were just a heap of smoking rubble.
We also quickly became used to the bombed sites – which made a number of extra ‘play’ areas. These soon had short-cut footpaths worn across them, and the ugliness was quickly covered by buddleia and other fast growing ‘weeds’. In Beechen Cliff, off Holloway, one bombed site opened up an entrance into the extensive cave system in the hillside, which we explored with torches and candles. There were caverns and underground waterfalls and some stone-lined tunnels leading to the ancient water supply. Bombs had collapsed some of these.
The Blitz may have lasted only two full nights, from the evening of Saturday 25 to the morning of Monday 27 April 1942, but those moonlit nights were a defining moment for us. We had lost the innocence of childhood and had been thrust into full awareness of life and death, of terror and distrust and the ugliness of destruction and hate. And yet we learnt how to care for each other and how to pull together in a unison and harmony that transcended the pre-war boundaries of society.
Tom Corner in Sunderland
Tom was an apprentice tinsmith at William Doxford and Sons shipyard in Sunderland. When he was seventeen, he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service to help the war effort. On Sunday night, 23 May 1943, the sirens went at one o’clock in the morning. So I got out of bed as usual and went back down to the fire station. Flares had been dropped over the river and I could hear the bombers coming in and dropping everything they could think of. Within seconds I was on an appliance, a lorry with a trailer pump on the back. Off we went to deal with incendiaries here and there. Then we back to the station and out again to stand by at Thorneholme, an emergency wartime fire station in Sunderland. Our leading fireman Bob Charlton went in to report. He came running out “okay lads Sunderland docks, South dock”. This was a problem, we had to go through Sunderland centre and down Holmeside and past the museum. On the Binns corner the Binns shop had already been bombed. Another bomb fell there just before we got there and we couldn’t drive through the crossroads so we had to turn left into Union Street, sharp right at the south end of the railway station to cross Fawcett Street to head for the docks. When we were crossing Fawcett Street we were thrown violently about and we thought the driver had jammed his brakes on, but he had not touched them. He got out of his cab. The bomb which fell at Binns had blown the overhead tram cables down and we were caught completely in the wires. They were on our wheels and the pump so we had to hack and cut and pull. Of course they were dead fortunately, and we cut these electric cables off until we were free. We finally managed to get to the docks.
At the docks and there was a wood building well alight, there was not much you could do about a building like that, but we got some water on. Just then a dispatch rider came along “leave that, pack up, go further along the dock here there’s a ship on fire”. Now a ship on fire is a dangerous thing, the worst fire you could imagine. Well, alongside this ship and we had to get our hosepipes out, get the pump working out from the river. Brought the hosepipes up on to the deck, and on the deck there were big ventilators, real big domed ventilators. We had to hose those down to cool them and screw them up, jam the hose nozzles down into the combing to pour the water into the ventilation system. That was the only way to get water into it. And we were crouched there with no breathing apparatus on, no eye shields on or anything and it seemed for ages. The deck was hot, and after a while a leading fireman comes along and he said “come on Tom and you Bob, go on the dockside there’s a mobile canteen there. Have yourself to a cup of tea and a sandwich and come back, these two lads will take over”.
Sure enough, there was a canteen at the dockside and we had a cup of tea and a spam sandwich. I believe the girls were Women’s Voluntary Service and they were covered in white dust. They said they had been outside the railway station when a great bomb fell there. One of the biggest bombs fell behind the Sunderland Empire Theatre. Anyway they were loading up to come down to us when this bomb hit and they were covered with, completely with dust. They must have been very brave ladies to come through the town centre. Back at the ship, at half past seven the buzzer went. We had to be at work at half past seven so another fire crew come down, a full-time fire crew. By then the fire was nearly out but the ship had been filled with water from our hoses and it was starting to list on the side. Of course, they were pumping the water out again to get her straight. But we were worried about getting back to work. We arrived back at the shipyard about ten minutes to eight, I had to walk through the centre of the shipyard from the West gates to the East gates where my workshop was. The foreman said “well, you’re late”, and I said “Late? I’ve been up all night!” He said “I know where you’ve been, I’ve got a message from the Management. Anyone in the Fire Service please go to the canteen”. The canteen was at the Depford end of Doxford’s shipyard and it had been badly damaged. A bomb had been dropped just outside the gate, it had missed the Alexandra Bridge by a few feet, and a policeman was killed there. We made it safe and got it presentable for the workmen’s dinners at dinnertime, then it was off home to bed.
Myfanwy Khan in Exeter
The youngest of three girls, Myfanwy Khan (nee Harris) lived with her family in Exeter, Devon during the Second World War. Her father was a local doctor and a Senior ARP Warden. I remember being woken up and wasn’t dressed. There was no time to get dressed because the sirens were coming and the bombers were coming in straight away. My mother and I were dressed in our nightdress and dressing gowns throughout the whole thing. I said goodbye to my father and went in to the shelter. He went off and my mother and myself and the dog, we shut ourselves in to that cage [the Morrison Shelter] and the noise was horrendous but again we were use to it, whining and screaming. The drawing room was lit up. You could read because of the flames which my mother realised were in the garden. So she went out to see if she could put the flames out in the garden and then she looked up and she realised the house was burning. So she came back and said we have got to get out and I knew that if we got out we wouldn’t go back and I begged her to stay so to keep me happy she stayed. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes and then she said, come on, we have got to go. I was on her right and she had the dog in her arms. We walked from the drawing room through in to what was called a lounge which was huge, right out in to the hall and the stair case on the left was burning as we walked. She left the front door open and shouted to the cat, there was no chance of looking for the cat. We crossed the drive and there was a shrubbery opposite the drive and we lay there as we had been told, you had to lie flat but your chest had to be slightly off the ground. You shouldn’t be completely flat. Then we were dive bombed. A couple of times people tried to rescue us. The air raid wardens tried but they couldn’t hear our shouts because of the noise of the raid. Eventually, one of the wardens came to rescue us and told us to run. I stopped to look back to see a huge sheet of flames come out of one of the attic windows. Then I knew that the house was gone.
My father had been told of a report that our house was burning and my mother and I hadn’t been found. He got in his car and put his foot down. He stopped to drag two bodies to the side of the road and to confirm that they were dead. Then he had to stop again to beat out the flames that had fallen through the car and were on the back seat. When he got home he could see the house had gone. He went in to the garden and opened his mouth to call for us and he lost his voice. He couldn’t shout, he couldn’t do anything. When he found us next door, I greeted him with what later he thought terribly funny. I said, “Hello daddy. We have been blitzed.”
The next morning my mother and I sat and watched our house disintegrate. It was still smouldering as we watched the dawn come and we heard the most glorious dawn chorus. It was a perfect day. It was a beautiful May that year and we had a lilac in full bloom and I can remember the brilliant blue of the lilac, the sky gradually getting blue, the sun mounting, the birds singing and our house collapsing.
The British Commandos
…were raised in 1940 as a highly mobile, elite fighting force able to undertake raids on occupied Europe and provide specialist support to the field Army campaigns and served in all theatres of the Second World War. The Centre has a fine collection of recorded interviews and memoirs of men who served as Commandos and the research papers of Commando veteran and historian Peter Young and extracts from some of these recollections are recounted in this overview ( the introduction to Issue 34 of the Journal of the Centre, by Cath Pugh, Editor Spring 2017 Everyone’s War)
In 1940 an appeal for volunteers for dangerous duties resulted in the formation of ten Independent Companies, the fore-runners to the Commandos.
With very little training or preparation they were raised to harass the enemy with surprise raids and acts of sabotage during the campaign to help defend Norway from German invasion. Only five of these companies saw action; experienced skier Hugh Hoppe joined 8 Independent Company and trained for arctic warfare with the Chausseurs Alpins at Chamonix but returned to Britain as soon as Norway fell, whereas ill-equipped non-skier George Parsons of 5 Commando, landed at Mojöen to defend the road to Narvik and made several patrols trying to make contact with Norwegian troops in the area. He remembers a “pretty sharp engagement” with some German machine-gunners before being evacuated from Bodø.
The ten Independent companies were disbanded on their return to Britain, many volunteers returned to their regiments but some joined a new company, 11 Independent Company, which took part in the first Commando raid on occupied France. Operation Collar
Disaster for Britain
Hitler’s swift advance through France and the Low Countries resulted, for the British Expeditionary Force, in Operation Dynamo; evacuation from the continent and a disaster for Britain. More than 66,000 servicemen were killed, missing or taken prisoner and tens of thousands of tons of weaponry, military vehicles and ammunition was left behind along with fuel, uniforms and other equipment.
The War Office managed to concentrate public opinion on the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, the incredible seaborne rescue rather than the Army’s defeat and crippling losses, very aware of the importance of developing schemes to retain this ‘Dunkirk spirit’, while the home front suffered air raids, hardships and shortages as the country prepared to defend its shores against invasion.
The possibility of developing a raiding force was raised by Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke on 4th June 1940 and on 18th June, Churchill wrote to the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces suggesting the same, “What about storm troops?… specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.”
Very quickly the Commandos were formed with specific aims to unsettle German occupation forces, conduct acts of sabotage and provide valuable reconnaissance. Any successes would help retain public morale while the main forces prepared for large scale warfare.
The first Commando raid took place five days later.
Director of Military Operations, Major General R H Dewing was responsible for planning the methods of Commando recruitment, subsistence and accommodation and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (Guards), 9, 10 (Inter-Allied), 11 (Scottish), 12, 14 (Arctic) 30 and 62 units were launched. A further four Commandos were formed in the Middle East, 50, 51, 52 and the Middle East Commando. Some units were formed with specific roles from their inception; 2 Commando was always intended as a parachute regiment and before long was re-designated 11th Special Air Service (SAS).
14 (Arctic) Commando undertook intensive training in the Arctic and attacked enemy shipping in small boats. 30 Commando volunteers were trained in intelligence gathering, 62 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force was a smaller 55-man unit under the command of SOE (Special Operations Executive).
10 (Inter-Allied) Commando was founded for volunteers from occupied Europe. It became the largest Commando unit, with volunteers from France, Belgium, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands and 3 (X) Troop of German volunteers many of whom were political or religious refugees. Josef Folger, a young German brought to Britain with the Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, aged seventeen, spent the entire war attempting to join the Allied forces. At the end of 1944 he enlisted in the West Kents and volunteered for the Commandos soon after and was still training at Wrexham when the war ended. He spent the subsequent months gathering intelligence from German prisoners in British camps.
Early Commando units were divided into ten troops of three officers and 47 other ranks. After some reorganisation, the troops were expanded to six troops of Commando units; made up of a headquarters, six troops of three officers and 62 other ranks, so each troop could be transported by two Landing Craft Assault (LCA) and two complete units could be carried in the Commando ‘Glen’ landing ships.
Each Commando unit was allocated transport for training and administration rather than for use during raids.
The Royal Marine Commandos 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46 and 47 were formed in February 1942. The RM Commandos were not volunteers like the Army Commandos, but allocated to these units after basic training. The Royal Naval Commandos (tasked with establishing, maintaining and controlling beachheads during combined operations) and the RAF Commandos (skilled ground crew trained to accompany an invasion force and build airstrips or make captured enemy airstrips serviceable) were founded in the same year. A further unit, 48 Royal Marine Commando, was formed in 1944.
Tactics of a cat burglar
The first Commando units were largely responsible for their own training. Sir Carol Mather who volunteered for 8 Commando in 1940 recalled, “We invented our own training. There were no training manuals as no one had worked out what the training was to be… but it was to be irregular warfare and so we learnt never to march in a formed body, never to march in step. We were to adopt the tactics of the cat burglar and so all this we invented ourselves and it was in our imagination.”
Training was restricted by the lack of available arms and equipment so new recruits were subject to arduous physical exercise, unarmed combat (including a team version of boxing known as ‘milling’) and field craft.
Guardsman Tom Jones’ (of 8 Commando and later the SAS) recollections are typical,
“We were told we were going to be trained as Commandos and we would kill people…. The next morning when we got up we were in working order, denims, and taken down to where we were going to be taught unarmed combat. We were introduced to two captains, one called Fairburn and the other one Sykes. They said they had been policemen in Shanghai and what they didn’t know about unarmed combat nobody had ever written!
Fairburn and Sykes taught us how to throw people over our shoulders and over brick walls, taught us the rabbit punch, the wrist crack, soft karate and how to use our fists in the soft part of the body to cripple. Then Sykes taught us a new stance for the revolver, to bow down and use two hands. We had to sign a notice saying we wouldn’t talk about what we were being taught. It was called the ‘D Notice’, and we all signed it with a sort of deep reverence and respect. We were also taught how to write secret messages with lemon juice, urine and things like that…”
Dozens of Commando depots and training establishments were brought into being throughout Britain. Unlike regular soldiers, Commandos were usually accommodated in private billets or, in the case of officers, hotels. Brian Unwin, a child living in Southampton in 1944 wrote,
“We had Commandos stopping with us. I remember they used to practice rifle shooting near the beach at Hamble and we used to go down there afterwards and find the shell cases, frequently live ones. We became quite expert in taking them to pieces and using them to make our own fireworks. When they suddenly disappeared we knew that something was on…”
The first raids on Boulogne and the Channel Islands were not very effective but clarified a need for more organisation and planning, and to develop and refine the existing Commando training with an emphasis on operating in total darkness to create the element of surprise.
In February 1941, Lieutenant Colonel R E Laycock sailed for the Middle East with 7, 8 and 11 (Scottish) Commando and this amalgamation became known as Layforce. They made a disappointing raid on Bardia then in May, 7 and 8 Commando covered the withdrawal from Crete but suffered heavy losses from German airborne troops. 11 (Scottish) Commando had success capturing the position at the Litani River in Syria and 8 Commando went into action raiding Italian lines at the first Siege of Tobruk.
Lord Jellicoe, in 8 Commando told Peter Liddle,
“Carol Mather and I had been rather aghast at one of the raids which we did carry out as a whole Commando from Tobruk. That was in a German airfield at Gazala to the west of Tobruk. The means of getting there was in an old Yangtze river sloop called the Amethyst. She only went about eight or nine knots I think, and the whole Commando was embarked on that for the raid on Tobruk but we never got there because we were spotted by both German and Italian aircraft and subjected to pretty heavy attack, we were really rather lucky not to be bombed in this.”
Operation Flipper, the famous but unsuccessful attempt to raid Rommel’s headquarters at Beda Littoria was executed by a party from 11 (Scottish) Commando led by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes who was posthumously awarded the VC for his bravery during this action.
Quite a shocker
William Dunbar of 11 (Scottish) Commando also served with Layforce,
“We went over to the Lebanon and landed against the Vichy French, which was quite a shocker. I always remember three of us lying underneath this bush and we were being fired on and the whole bush was chopped down. I could not control my bowels. After that initial shock I was alright, but there were a couple of our bods on the shore, dead. We were Commandos, we didn’t stop to fetch people up; it was all forward movement. We initiated a movement and that was it, we didn’t deviate at all. Didn’t matter how many we had knocked out”.
Eight months later, in March 1941, men from 3 and 4 Commandos accomplished a largely unopposed raid on the Norwegian island of Lofoten. They destroyed fish oil and glycerine factories as planned and during the operation the Navy captured code books and a rotor wheel for an Enigma cypher machine from an armed German trawler. The lack of German forces and the ease in which their objectives were achieved buoyed up the Commandos; Major John Smale relayed that during the raid one of his men sent a telegram to ‘A Hitler, Berlin’ saying, “In your last speech you said German troops would meet the British wherever they landed. Well we are here, where are you?”.
On 27th December 1941 3 Commando supported by detachments from 2, 4 and 6 Commando, made an attack on Vaagso to destroy oil factories and sink enemy shipping. The raid was deemed another success with objectives achieved for few losses. It resulted in Hitler diverting thousands of troops and weaponry to defend the Norwegian coast and away from other fronts to the great benefit of the Allied forces later in the war.
Corporal F Why of 1 Commando wrote an account of his ‘highlights’ of the Vaagso operation,
“We were in our LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) going in to the assault when HMS Kenya opened up. Amid the roaring thunder of guns and shells came the strains of Mad Jack Churchill playing some jig on his bagpipes. What a feeling those pipes gave me! Shivers ran down my spine, I was proud to be British – we couldn’t lose.”
“Tracer was going up at the Hampdens which we hoped would lay a smoke screen at the correct moment. I saw one swoop down in flames, poor blighter. Down came those planes in an orgy of hell let loose, everywhere was smoke and noise. I started retching and I couldn’t see a thing. My neck, hands and legs were burning as one of the bombs splashed me. 4 Troop had stopped one right in their boat, poor show! As we got ashore I rubbed snow onto my burns and that helped. I realised we had had a wet landing and felt cold and we were deficient of a Bren gunner (the falling canister had hit his head).
“Our task was to climb up the cliff and when we reached the top we had a short breather among some Christmas trees and had a smoke but with everything I had inhaled I felt like I was choking.
Out of the blue, three German planes came over; it was useless taking cover – then they were gone. We started back. Our anti-tank gunner was doing well against the snipers and we returned to find Vaagso ablaze with destroyers letting all hell into the northern portion of the town and it was snowing sardine labels due to a well-placed demolition charge. On the way back, after undressing in a bath of water, I was on anti-aircraft duty. That night we buried our dead at sea.”
Operation Chariot, often referred to as ‘the greatest raid of all’, was the audacious operation undertaken by 2 Commando and demolition parties from 1, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 12 Commando to destroy the huge Forme Ecluse at St Nazaire.
John Roderick, in command of 3 Troop of 2 Commando sailed there on board the Campbeltown, the explosive-laden warship that rammed the dock gates.
“The task of my assault party was to engage and destroy the guns and crews on the south area of the Normandie Dock, to form a defensive perimeter to prevent infiltration of enemy forces towards the direction of the Campbeltown and pumping stations etc, and to do damage (if possible) to old storage units.
Following the crash of the bows over the caisson which came with surprisingly little jolting, I quickly went forward to reconnoitre the way off. It was a bit of a shambles with many wounded chaps lying about the dock and I met with flames as I opened the forward companion door. Bill Copeland gave us his usual morale boosting order as we quickly made our way off Campbeltown. Our bamboo ladders had been damaged by gunshot, however I managed to find a length of cable down which we clambered onto the dock gate covering our actions as best we could… there had been a hell of a lot of firing and it was difficult to pinpoint where it was coming from. I cannot remember seeing gunfire coming from the first gun emplacement. I went forward with Cpl Howarth and an explosive of some sort passed over my head and wounded him in the leg. We finished off the crew there then moved on with John Stutchbury and his section, firing in turn.”
“We next had to clear the ground leading to, and over, the oil storage tanks. There were a number of Nissen huts into which we threw grenades with the most terrific bangs and it was on another concrete building that we killed a further batch of the enemy. There is no doubt we killed two more… we advanced round the seaward side of the oil tanks giving John Stutchbury cover as he went forward to engage a third group of the enemy.
“We had quite a large area to cover and with our reduced numbers it was a full-time job keeping our eyes all around. The withdrawal involved us retracing our steps back across the bows of Campbeltown which was uncannily silent in contrast to the bangs going on around and while running for cover I was shot through my left thigh. It came as a complete surprise, I was only aware of being knocked head over heels and my Bren gun leaving my hands. I moved quickly behind a stanchion and eventually made my way towards Colonel Newman’s assembly point.”
John was wounded again before he was captured and put on a small river vessel with several other prisoners from where he saw the Campbeltown explode, “With an almighty bang!”
The success of the raid left the dock inoperative for the rest of the war and the German warship Tirpitz was forced to remain in Norwegian waters until it was sunk in an RAF attack in 1944.
In May 1942, 5 Commando took part in Operation Ironclad, the campaign to capture Madagascar from Vichy French control.
Rear Admiral E F Geuritz, DSC and Bar was Beachmaster during the landings, “It was a complete success from a point of view of surprise. The Commando was able to take over the battery which commanded Courier Bay with the garrison asleep, because the orders of the French for the defence had said attack at night is impossible”.
Two Army Commandos took part in the ill-fated Operation Jubilee, the raid on Dieppe on 19th August 1942. The intention was for the Commandos to take the coastal batteries when 3 Commando ran into a German convoy and only two parties landed but managed to engage the Berneval Battery for some hours.
Vincent Osborne was in the second wave of the attack,
“We had just come up from below deck to get in to the position to take off. 7 Section, that is half of the troop, was forward and 8 section was to the rear of the twin four-inch guns. A man came and told us there were loose mortar bombs rolling about at the far end so my Number One went out to sort it out. Star shells lit up and a hell of a lot of firing took place and the same man came back and said, ‘Your mate has been killed.’ That was it! …We didn’t get ashore because the opposition was so strong, we would only be reinforcing disaster.”
4 Commando, under Lord Lovat MC were more successful and overwhelmed the Varengeville Battery and its garrison in a controlled and daring assault. Professor M R D Foot, later a Commando Intelligence Officer in the Adriatic, was posted to GSO3 intelligence at Command Operations headquarters and arrived the day after the raid on Dieppe. He recalled,
“The place was like an over turned beehive. Corridors full of staff officers crying out the first names of friends who had gone to Dieppe and not come back and saying we have made a colossal balls of it.”
Vincent Osborne of 3 Commando made the wry observation, “We had a hell of a lot of coppers as replacements after Dieppe and these taller ones helped the short arses” in later raids.
On the night of 3-4th October 1942, a party from the Small Scale Raiding Force and 12 Commando carried out a reconnoitre operation on the occupied island of Sark.
Five German prisoners were taken and with a shortage of men to guard them their hands were secured behind their backs. It is not clear what happened but after the raid the bodies of three of these prisoners were found on the beach by the occupying forces. Berlin alleged bodies of German soldiers tied up in the same way (the rope knotted round the thumbs, the method thought to be favoured by the Commandos) had been recovered after the Dieppe raid. Later that month a succession of Kommandobefehl (Commando Orders) were made directing the killing of all men found operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe and Africa.
John Randall (of the SAS) recalled,
“This was not something that we, ourselves, were notified about. Perhaps that was just as well but I don’t think it would have made a great deal of difference. But we did lose some very fine people who had the misfortune to be captured and tortured and murdered, and it has made a big scar on my life and gave me a particular attitude towards post-war Germany and the Germans in general”.
After taking part in the Torch Landings, 1 and 6 Commandos served with the Field Army throughout the campaign in Tunisia, mainly in an infantry role.
3 Commando was the first British Unit to get a foothold in occupied Europe when it landed at Sicily in Operation Husky ahead of the field Army and destroyed the coastal battery that had covered the beach at Cassibile on the night of 10th July 1943. Vincent Osborne, of 4 Troop, remembered the landing very clearly,
“We landed in Sicily quite close to Cassibile and the job was lightly opposed. We got in and were on the march when a single shot rang out. I understand it was a farmer who was a bit upset. Anyway, we formed up and did the assault on the guns.”
Three days later they captured the vital Ponte de Malati, the Primosole Bridge, enabling the 50th Division to make their advance.
On 3rd September 1943, 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mer on the Salerno Plain, scaled the cliffs and easily took their objective, an undefended gun battery.
With 41 (RM) Commando they captured a German observation post at La Molina which controlled a pass leading to the Salerno beachhead. On 13th September they defended the village of Dragone against stiff opposition then moved to Mercatello and cleared the area from German forces. Both Commandos then occupied the area known as the ‘pimple’ before they were withdrawn to Sicily. This campaign had heavy costs for the two commandos; almost half that made the Salerno landing were killed, wounded or missing.
Forced to withdraw
J E Leech MM of 3 Commando recounts this exceptional accomplishment in his memoir,
“We were to land at Termoli and block the roads and lines of communication of the retreating Germans. We secured the beachhead without a single shot being fired and followed the railway lines towards the town. Very soon we heard firing from the outskirts where 40 (RM) Commando were held up. We soon reached the scene where the only opposition came from three houses covering a forked road. We put our two-inch mortars and grenade discharger to very good purpose with one bomb setting fire to an ammunition dump. This put us in great spirits and we advanced to the station and on to a block of flats where we took up positions and covered a detachment of 2 Troop who knocked out an 80mm gun.
From there we proceeded to a building that turned out to be the local HQ of the German commander. We surprised him and ourselves when we entered the yard and found him still shaving, we put him under escort and rounded up a few parachutists to keep him company. I was still covering a section of the railway line and on occasion put several bursts of fire over the heads of Italian civilians trying to rob from the bodies of German casualties.
We settled down for the night to rest and wait for the Eighth Army to come up and the next morning the Germans broke through to the south, almost cutting our lines of communication and we had to turn out to reinforce the troops on the high ground. We were very surprised to see our forward troops withdrawing followed closely by the enemy. Through my glasses I saw a Tiger tank covering the advance of approximately 70 men and estimated the range to be 1400 yards so I fired a couple of rounds from my Bren gun and dispersed them and they made no more attempts to advance until several hours later. Instead they began a barrage that lasted several hours and caused us some casualties; at one time the shells were landing at two minute intervals.
By 1500 our position was beginning to look serious, we saw several enemy troop-carriers advancing and, as we had no supporting weapons, we just lay and watched them moving towards our right flank, clearly threatening our flank. We prepared a line of small arms and waited for them. Unfortunately for the Germans, they thought we had evacuated and advanced in their greatcoats with their weapons over their shoulders. We waited until the leading man was 50 yards from us then we let go, forcing many casualties on them and forcing them to withdraw.”
In 1943 the Commando units were reorganised into five fighting troops (divided into two sections of 30 other ranks further sub-divided into three 10-man platoons), a heavy weapons troop with a three-inch mortar and a Vickers machine-gun team, a signals platoon and headquarters. They were also allocated sufficient armoured transport to accommodate the entire unit during operations.
The role of the Commando changed as the Allies planned and executed large scale amphibious landings of invasion forces on occupied Europe and as a result, they were formed into four Special Service brigades to land at the forefront of these operations.
1 and 4 Brigades operated in North West Europe, 2 Brigade operated in Italy and Yugoslavia and 3 Brigade operated in Burma
First Commando Brigade (3, 4, 6 and 45 RM Commando with French troops of 10 Commando) was under the command of Lord Lovat.
On 6th June 1944, 4 Commando captured Ouistreham while the rest of the brigade relieved airborne troops that had captured the ‘Pegasus’ Bridge at Benouville the
night before. Lovat was gravely wounded during the Battle of Normandy the following week but the Brigade continued to support the Field Army until it returned to Britain in September to be brought back to full strength. Despite plans for service in the Far East, it was posted back to Europe for service in the Ardennes Offensive, the Crossing of the Rhine and the Weser.
4 Commando were selected for Operation Infatuate, an assault landing to open the port of Antwerp. Professor John Forfar recalls,
“At one point I was behind the leading troop. While they were waiting the Germans, at the top of a dune that we ultimately could see, mortared them. They killed eleven right off the reel and another twenty were seriously wounded. This was the kind of disastrous thing that happened in Walcheren.”
The Second Commando Brigade, under the command of Brigadier RJF Tod, served in Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece.
After a raid on the lower reaches of the Garigliano in December 1943, 9 Commando landed at Anzio with little opposition but the Brigade suffered heavy losses in their attempts to take Monte Ornito. The following spring they landed at Anzio again, this time in an infantry role.
From December 1943 to October 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Churchill commanded a force operating on the Dalmatian coast from the Island of Vis, its most celebrated raid was in March 1944 when it destroyed the German garrison on the Island of Solta. After capturing Corfu, the brigade returned to Italy early in 1945. On the 1st April, a difficult crossing of the Comacchio lagoon, (after weeks of dry weather the lake had become a muddy mire and the Commandos had to wade through dragging their landing craft), it took and cleared a narrow strip of land known as ‘the Spit’ to secure the eastern flank of the Eighth Army. It then took the bridge at Menate in the Battle of the Argenta Gap.
3 Brigade, under the command of Brigadier C R Hardy DSO, saw little action until the last Arakan campaign. The brigade occupied Akyab then fought for three days to take Myebon and destroyed a Japanese cavalry regiment. After crossing the Daingbong Chaung to Kangaw, there was a bitter fight to retain Hill 170, considered to be the decisive battle of the entire campaign.
‘What’s in a Hat?’
Dr John Paterson was a junior officer in 1 Commando engaged in combined operations in the Arakan, and in his account ‘What’s in a Hat?’ describes the nature of the danger as well as the regimental pride enduringly associated with the Commandos,
”I well remember one patrol I went on when we were led into a carefully prepared ambush which entailed our party withdrawing pretty smartly, and with some loss of dignity, in order to regroup. It was just outside a village, and there was an unusual feature in a sort of straggly hedge running down a band between two dried-out paddy fields; there was no question about it, we had to run for it.
All my chaps got over this obstacle in safety, gaining cover 50 yards further on, and then never much of a sprinter it was my turn to do my fastest ever hundred yards. Dashing at the beastly thing, I got stuck halfway over, kicking and swearing in mid- air like mad. After what seemed an age I fell down – happily on the ‘home’ side – picked myself up and started on my second lap. Halfway across the second paddy field I realised my precious green beret was not on my head. Stopping in mid-flight to look back, there it was, hanging in the hedge and ready for the Japanese to pick up as treasure trove. This just would not do! I ran back to retrieve my precious beret, putting it on carefully before running for cover once more. Happily the Japanese were notoriously bad rifle shots and of course my chaps were laughing their heads off with a ringside view of this ridiculous caper. What idiot would go back under fire for a bloody hat? I would. It meant a great deal to me.”
3 Brigade was then withdrawn to India to prepare for Operation Zipper the invasion of Malaya. Fenton Rutter, in command of a flotilla of landing craft, recalled,“We loaded up with the units of the 3rd Commando Brigade and we had our pontoons but fortunately the Japanese bomb dropped and so that was that”.
At the end of the war most Commando units were disbanded, only three Royal Marine Commandos and one brigade remained. The legacy of this remarkable force is the Special Forces that were formed from the Commandos and have since proved vital in recent warfare, the Parachute Regiment, the SAS and the SBS.
The Centre holds a magnificent collection of interviews and memoirs from men who served as and with Commandos and it is fitting to end this introduction with an extract from St Nazaire veteran Arthur ‘Buster’ Woodiwiss’ memoir;
“What made a Commando? Commitment! We were not elite, not chosen but out of our own free will were ready to fight for freedom. We came from all walks of life, all trades and professions, rich and poor. The overwhelming majority of volunteers were not regular soldiers, they were civilians in uniform for the duration of the war. Men who decided the Army needed men of intelligence eager to attack the enemy as specially trained, highly mobile, independent individuals, ready to fight in small groups or alone. The Commando was not a superman, but with stealth and endurance he was trained to be one.”
The Centre is honoured to have care of E W (Ted) Stonard’s memoir regarding life in the Royal Artillery during the retreat to Dunkirk, service in the North African campaign, and, following fierce fighting and capture at Gazala, his experiences as a POW.
Geoff Steer – Cpl 1/4th KOYLI
I was born in St Helens, Elsecar in 1923. My father worked at Elsecar Colliery as a miner. Those were the days of getting bathed in front of the fire in a tin bath, no such thing as pit baths. In the early 1930s my father had an accident which caused complications. He died at the age of 38. We then moved house to Harley, back where my mother was born, to live with my aunt. My schooling days were spent at Barrow School, Wentworth, ’til leaving time when I was given a job at Wentworth Gardens. I stayed two years at the gardens, the pay was 10 shillings a week and I then moved on to Newton Chambers Engineering Works.
September 3rd 1939, Sunday morning war was declared. How long would it last, some said 12 months, most people did not comment. They had been through the First World War. On that Sunday night the sirens went. Everybody was alerted and most people stayed up all night but afterwards we found out it was only a practice.
At work things changed. Mates went off to join up or were called up. Along with other workmates I was deferred ’til our two years were up in the Engineering Foundry. We did try to join but were sent back on two occasions. Coming home from work one night in the summer of 1940 on my pushbike, coming to the bottom of our street by the Clothiers Arms, about one hundred men were sat down on the pavement, without packs or rifles, some with just their khaki trousers on. They were absolutely shattered. These soldiers had escaped from Dunkirk. This was my first glimpse of war and the army brought to our doorstep. The soldiers were billeted in and around Elsecar, and next-door to us, so I had hours listening to their stories of the war in France. Eventually they were all recalled to their units and life settled down once again.
At work I moved from the Foundry to the Stove and Grate department making steam ovens and KH cookers for the army. The hours were long – 7 days a week and overtime every night. Meanwhile I joined the Home Guard, our LDV, while others joined the firewatchers either at work or at home. The training in the Home Guard stood me in good stead for later on in the army.
On arriving home from work I noticed an envelope on the mantelpiece marked OHMS. It said that if I signed the form enclosed, I would be deferred from the services until the end of hostilities, but I would have to go and work down the pit at Elsecar Colliery. Well, when my father passed away I made a promise to my mother that I would never go to work in the mines, so the decision was easy. I burnt the letter; hence the following letter to report to Cooper Art Gallery, Barnsley, for a medical examination for the army, which I passed A1. I got my calling-up papers and had to report to Fulwood Barracks, Preston where we had 8 weeks training on the double all day. After 3 weeks I was made a Lance Corporal and had the experience of drilling my mates on the square. As I mentioned earlier the training of the Home Guard was paying off. After the 8 weeks I was posted to Caterham to the Coldstream Guards which was the Brigade of Guards which meant square bashing for twelve weeks prior to moving to Pirbright Battle School. The first two weeks we were not allowed out of camp until we could salute properly. It was while I was there I met RSM Britton with his pacing stick. I was on my way to the Camp Barbers crossing the parade ground when he yelled out. He asked me how long I had been at the camp. I told him two days. He said that while I was there I was to conduct myself as a Guardsman at all times. Then he marched me down to the Barbers at the correct pace. What an experience.
After 3 weeks it was found that I was half an inch too short, so I was posted to Berwick on Tweed to join the KOYLIs at Magdalene Field for 18 weeks infantry training.
At Berwick I met up with comrades with whom I was later to land in France. My mate, number 2 on the Bren, was Frank Williams from Birmingham. Later he was best man at my wedding and I was best man at his. Sergeant Rawson was in charge of our platoon. For eighteen weeks he was just like a father to us. We came out on top in drilling and won the one mile obstacle battle course. I was chosen as the battalion two mile runner and relay team, We finished our training at Berwick and were posted to the Hamilton Racecourse to join the 1/4th KOYLI B Company. We were ordered to pack our kit and get ready to move off. When we arrived at our destination we were told to board the ship which was the Ben a Machrie and we sailed to Rothesay, Isle of Bute, which was a submarine base during the war. Every morning we went down to the beach to board landing craft which then took us to the Ben a Machrie ready to take us to the practice landing area at Blackpool Bay further up the Isle of Bute. Every day the Navy would stand off the beach about twenty yards so we were wet to start with. The training there was rough. It was landing craft exercises ready for D Day. Two weeks we were out there, wet through every day and the final week we had to do it at night with live ammo and live shells. Returning from the Isle of Bute to Hamilton we had a week’s rest and then we were off again, this time to Lowestoft for more training; river crossing, fast route marches, digging in and sleeping in slit trenches, advancing under fire and on top of that, PT every day, so that everybody was fighting fit. It was now May, and things were buzzing.
On the 5th June 1944 we signed for 200 francs, then we knew where we were going. This we received in the transit camp. The marshalling area was behind a Polish fighter aerodrome in a wood, under canvas. We passed the time away playing cards or listening to the wireless. Some of the lads had their hair shaved off to ward off lice. Shaving the head was a good idea but after we had been in action a few weeks some of them got wounded and were flown home, so the first thing they had to buy was a flat cap.
Orders came to move out and we made our way to Newhaven Dock where we boarded our LCT. We spent four or five hours on board waiting for the tide, then we were away at about 11pm. The sea was a bit rough and lots were seasick below decks. To put it mildly it was a complete shambles. I spent most of the night up on deck talking to the sailors and eating tins of treacle pudding and rice pudding. Daylight came at last and what a sight. Ships as far as you could see, in front, each side, and bringing up the rear, each altering course every 3 minutes. Everybody was told to stand to on deck. Behind the door at the front, catwalks on the side of the ship were ready to be dropped in the sea for easy access and we were told to disembark as quickly as possible. The ship would then turn round and head back.
As we neared the beaches we could see buildings in ruins and the harbour wall was breached from recent bombing by the RAF. The place was Ver-sur-Mer, Gold Beach. By now the noise was deafening, mostly from the warships and our tanks, which were landing and exploding the waterproofing which covered them. Machine guns were cracking all the time and ricochets off the ship were like wasps buzzing round. The ship stopped, the beach was 50 yards away, the doors were opened and the catwalks were lowered. Out we went in about 8 feet of water, swimming a bit. I was fully clothed, with a full pack and a Bren gun resting on the pack with pouches full of ammo. We hit the beach and we moved on up the road. Our destination was a field at Coulombes, a small village where we could change our trousers, our dry trousers were round our necks. The whole battalion had their trousers down. Off we went towards Bronay which was in contact with the enemy.
We approached Dudy St Marguerite towards the main railway line from Bayeux to Caen when Jerry opened up on us from outside Audrieu before we crossed the railway line, so we were held up for a while. Then the enemy withdrew and we dug in for the night, or as it turned out, for a couple of days, while the 25 pounders and the RAF softened up Cristot. June 16th D+10 we were briefed on the battle of Cristot. We formed up in a lane near a farm with banks either side of the lane. There were dead cows rotting and the stench was terrible. It was time for the barrage to start and for B Company to move off in line through the cornfield towards Cristot. The shells from our guns seemed to be touching our steel helmets before they hit the ground. We could now see the church, or what was left of it. On our left was a farmhouse and a few Jerrys were holed up in there. They kept sniping at us as we approached the building. The Sherman tanks had now caught us up. I tapped on the side of the tank with the Bren butt. Up popped the Commander. I told him we were having trouble with the farmhouse. He fired 4 HE into it and then drove the tank straight through the building. He commented that he hadn’t seen anybody when he went through the front door and out of the back. The tanks never left us right into the village. Through the corn we came. My section was bang on the village. As soon as we were on the road a sniper winged two of our section. Cristot is only a small village, 3 farms, 40 houses and a church, but we paid a high price in terms of men lost. It just goes to show the infantryman has to take the brunt of all kinds of firepower and sometimes from his own side. Speaking for myself, I never got used to day after day of shelling, small arms fire, counter-attacks, night patrols, daytime standing patrols, seeing your pals die and having to bury them. I would see another day dawn and wonder if it was my turn today.
Our next major action, on 25th June, D+19, was the 146 Brigade attack on Fontenay le Pesnel and Tessel Wood. D Company was in front and we followed behind. Someone shouted that there was a Tiger tank on the right. Once again we knocked on the tank, reported the Tiger, the Commander spotted it through binoculars, and he told us to lie down under cover. He fired 3 solid shot and 4 HE and the tank was burning all night. The co-operation of the tanks was first-class.
The battle raged on. Men were falling on each side. One of D Company was in front, walking by the side of the tanks when a mortar bomb dropped nearby. We hit the deck. We heard a scream and on getting to our feet saw a terrible sight – the lad had been hit by shrapnel through his ammo pouch where he kept his phosphorous grenades. They were all burning as these were smoke bombs. He died terribly in minutes. Times like that were very hard. We were told to dig in and consolidate our positions. Our platoon was entrenched in front of a right-angle hedgerow, which turned out to be a mistake.
The tanks stayed with us all night just in case of a counter-attack. The night was pretty quiet except for our night patrols having skirmishes with the Jerries. Imagine all the noise – being shelled, mortared, machine-gunned, covering ground as fast as you could, taking shelter, then digging a trench 6′ x 2′ x 6′. Then you had to stand to, waiting to see if the enemy would counter-attack. I haven’t mentioned the mosquitos, in their thousands, biting you day and night. After a week we were issued with ointment to put on our hands and face.
We were standing in water so what sleep you got, it was while standing up. All the time there was an inevitable drain of casualties with new recruits taking their place. I was made up to Corporal while at Tessel Wood.
Lots of things happened at Tessel, things which occurred more or less at the same time of day. When the grub came up, the motors would bring it on to the main Fontenay road, which had about 4 inches of dust on it. Jerry could see this and would start a barrage on to the road, but the jeep always managed to get through. Making my way through the hedge I looked at the Fontenay road and saw the grub wagon. Suddenly Jerry opened up with 88s. There was a terrific bang and clouds of dust. Part of the hedge fell on top of us because when I dived in there was already a lad in the bottom fast asleep. I lay still and heard the next salvo coming, but over they went towards the road. The lad under me was going berserk. When I did manage to get out he ran back down the hill. I never saw him again, reports said he was bomb happy. The OP from the end trench came hopping past me, half his boot toe missing and toes with shrapnel wounds. He said “Never mind me, see to the others”. By digging in, in front of the hedgerow, the trees brought the shells down in the trenches. We at the back were OK, the mistake was digging in, in front of the cover instead of behind. The toll was 4 dead and 2 wounded.
Major Little came across and was very upset. He asked us if we could do the honours for the dead. I dug a new trench but now you could say we were in a graveyard, with crosses each side of us.
Another disaster in our lines came one night. It was warm and we had started sleeping on top by the side of the trench with a blanket over us, when an explosion, different to shelling, tore through our section. The blankets went with the blast. We hit the trench together. Looking up, the trees were on fire along with our blankets. More explosions came, one after another. We were praying it would stop. When it did we at once put the fires out and waited for daylight which was about an hour. Sgt Ball the platoon commander and Lt Trumper were both bleeding from the ears and were taken back to HQ for treatment. Everybody was awake but not moving out of the trenches. Nobody knew what had caused the explosions. I thought “Here we go again”. I told my No 2 I was going to look round and would return. Someone from down the field shouted “Watch out for unexploded anti-tank mines”. The field behind our trenches was absolute carnage. I found Paybooks, identification disks and other personal belongings. It turned out the Pioneer Corps were carrying boxes of mines, detonated, through our lines to open ground in front of us. The first man was level with the two inch mortar team who were, like us, sleeping on the top, when he tripped up and the blast blew the others following him off their feet. The date was June 29, 1944. Fourteen men died. I collected their remains and they were buried in one grave. That was another episode to try your nerves.
We were told we were moving from Tessel Wood, our job was done. Taking our last look at Tessel it was now very quiet; the new soldiers of the Recce Regiment were in our positions. We loaded on the lorries and off we went to have a short rest and a change of clothes.
The Battalion was called on again to fight and we moved to a village south of the Antwerp Turnout Canal. As we advanced towards Rijkevorsel it started to rain, but it wasn’t cold. B Company advanced down the main street making for the church. One of the residents gave us a cup of rum each – it was just what the doctor ordered, we never felt the rain. Looking through a shop window to the church it was perfect, about 30 feet to run and into the cemetery. We decided who would go first and I would cover with the Bren, then follow. We all crossed safely and made our way through the graveyard to the road right of the church.
We then holed up across the street in one of the semis. The family were father, mother and son. They sheltered in the cellar. Upstairs we observed to the top of the road, there were Jerries everywhere but all seemed to be watching A Company over on our right. It was just like duck shooting for about an hour, then we were running out of ammo so I said I would go back to HQ, report and bring back ammo to the section.
Crossing the road to the churchyard I met the Platoon Sergeant by the Church, reported where we were and asked for ammo, which I got in bandoliers. I made my way back through the churchyard, climbed over the railings on to the road and that was when Jerry fired the machine gun. I was hit in the calf of the leg, the seams of my trousers were clipped, I was very lucky to be alive. The shock of bullets threw me back over the fence into the graveyard. I was shaking from head to foot and numb all over. The wound was bad but I still had to take the ammo back to my section. The Sergeant said I had to go back to the Field Dressing Station but I said I had to deliver the ammo first. I had to cross the road again, but this time he was waiting with his finger on the trigger. Running across to the house he fired but was too late. I was under cover but there was no escape. It was now about lunchtime. We were still upstairs till finally they found where we were and then a real battle took place. There were five of us, four were wounded.
By about 2pm we were out of ammo so we smashed the rifles up, stripped the Bren, put the breach block up the chimney and then retired to the cellar with the civilians to await the outcome. After a while we heard voices. It was 3.30pm. We thought it was A Company but it was Jerry. We were searched and marched up the street. The Jerries we saw were nearly all pushing fifty. We were locked in a shed all night with a Jerry in attendance.
Next morning we were taken in two Jerry scout cars to Breda Hospital. There we had our wounds looked at by a surgeon. The verdict on my wound? The surgeon said one inch to the right and the bullet would have shattered the bone in two. On our way up to the first floor there were soldiers laid on stretchers all the way up the corridor. Germans, British, Canadians, Americans, all badly wounded and waiting for operations. We received no treatment at all. I still had the same field dressing on which I had put on the day before. On leaving the hospital on our way to German HQ we could see evidence of the hammering they had got by the damaged vehicles left by the roadside. We arrived at German HQ and were interrogated one at a time. All they got was name, rank and number. They were interested in the tank strength we had over the canal. That night I was taken by the Jerries to a private house and taken upstairs into a bedroom where there were three more prisoners, one British, one Italian and one Canadian. The Canadian’s first name was Jim. He lived in Ontario and was a Rear- Gunner in the Canadian Air Force who was shot down during Operation Market Garden. We got to know each other pretty well, except for the Italian who could not speak a word of English. The sentries would tell you not to try and escape or we would be shot.
The next day when it was dark we were loaded into a horsedrawn cart with two guards and traveled all night over the River Waal. The bridge was still intact. Our destination was finally Amsterdam Railway Station where we met up with the 1st Airborne Division prisoners from Arnhem, hundreds of them, that’s when we knew things weren’t going too well.
We were loaded into cattle trucks, 68 in each truck, with straw on the floor and an empty 5 gallon drum for a toilet. There was no room to lie flat. The doors were locked and we were away. The door was never opened. The toilet drum had been emptied down the side of the door many times, the stench was awful. One more day, five in all, it seemed like a month. One lad had his 21st birthday that day and we still had the strength to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. What I haven’t mentioned is that for five days we had had no food or water. We arrived at Limburg station. The guards dismounted and unlocked the doors. We were told to get out and fall in, in fives. We didn’t climb out, we fell out, our legs let us down. All this time Jim, the Canadian, and the Italian were still with us, so we kept together. As we marched up to the camp, at the gate, about fifty Jerries were counting us as we entered the camp. It was good to be in the fresh air again. We had progressed about fifty yards in the camp when the Jerries started running and shouting. They came past me and Jim and knocked the Italian out of the ranks. About a minute after, a short burst of machine-gun fire and he was dead.
The camp at Limburg was nothing more than a field. There were two buildings, one at the gatehouse for the German guards and the other for the Red Cross. Our first job was to register our name and rank with Geneva Conventions 1864 1949. Now the Germans had to account for us if we went missing. We who had arrived last had to go in a large marquee to sleep. There were no beds, just the grass to lie on. I might add it had been raining for two days and outside it was a foot deep in sludge and nearly as bad in the marquee. Nobody had any shaving tackle so we did look rough and I had not had a wash since Holland. In the camp in their own pens were Russians, Indians, Polish and Allied soldiers.
We queued for a wash and then went looking for food. There was soup to be had near the guardroom if you had something to put it in. We found what we wanted out of the dustbins, a tin can. Next day Jim and I went along to the Indian camp and I swapped my wrist-watch for two British parcels which I shared with Jim. We stayed in this camp for about a week then about one hundred of us were put on a train. After travelling all day and night, sometimes very slowly, we arrived at Stalag IV-B.
Stalag IV-B was situated between Leipzig and Dresden. We were told there were about four thousand prisoners here but it was a well organised camp with about one hundred to a hut. Compared with what we had had to put up with since being taken prisoner this was like being in a hotel. We got Red Cross parcels every week while we were in IV-B. There were concerts and plays put on in different huts every night. These were first class as some of them were professional actors back in Civvy Street. There were fireplaces in the huts with ovens so you could cook something out of your parcel or warm it up. Football was played in the camp. Each hut was named after a team in England. Our hut team was Arsenal. The POWs who had been there some time had made a replica of the FA Cup out of tins and silver paper. It was perfect in every detail. We arrived about a week before Cup Final day. It was a great spectacle with a band playing before the match and at the interval we took our form out of the hut with our names on to reserve our place. The teams were Wolves and Chelsea. Wolves ran out the winners. Even the Jerries cheered, while they were patrolling outside the wire. Every morning after roll-call we would gather in the recreation part of the hut. Then an officer would come in and guards would be put on the doors to watch out for the Jerries, while he read the news from the day before, from BBC Radio. One day we were asked if we wanted to go out to work. About twenty five of us said yes, what work was it? They told us it was a jam factory. Well, that sounded OK, so we said yes.
The next day, getting our few belongings together, we said goodbye to our mates in the hut and we were marched out of camp. We boarded the train and off we went, once again a very slow journey. This was on a Friday, a day I shall never forget. It was dark when the train slowed down and stopped. We were having a bit of shut eye when the Jerries started shouting for us to get out of the train. When we opened the door we were out in the country. No station. They told us it had been bombed. Out we got and fell in, ready to move off, which we did, across the fields for about three miles till we came to some brick buildings with barbed wire around. We had arrived at our new destination. We asked if it was the jam factory, but they said no, it was a coal mine.
We had arrived at the Marionschaft, our new prison camp. The mine where we were to work was four miles away so the Americans told us. There were 125 American POWs in all, with an additional 25 British. My thoughts were that I had joined the army to escape the mine at home, and here I was going to work down in one for the Germans, as slave labour. The workforce included about 50 civilians, along with SS Officers as bosses to make sure we got our work out every day.
We were told by the interpreter that we would have the weekend to rest and on Monday we would have to start work on the day shift. Three shifts were in operation. The twenty-five British POWs were all in the same building. Each building had a large cast iron stove which burned coal night and day, so one thing was we were warm and by working at the pit we had plenty of coal. The weekend came and went. All we did was to walk round the camp which took about five minutes flat and there was nothing to see for your effort. Monday morning we were roused by the guards at 3.30am. We washed our hands and face and we were taken to a small building. It had two set pots in and a table – that was the kitchen. The fire was lit under one and the liquid was boiling. We found out it was coffee, made from acorns, without milk or sugar. We had no pots, so we went round the back to the dustbins and found tin cans, washed them out under the tap and then were given the coffee, which tasted vile. That was breakfast over. We took the cans back into the camp to use again later. We fell in and two guards escorted us out of the camp with the warning that if we tried to escape we would be shot.
It was still dark when we arrived at the pit-head. The civilian miners were arriving by pedal cycle and on foot. We were told by the interpreter where we were working and told we would be collected by the miners at the pit bottom. We made our way to the shaft and looking around you could see apprehension on all the lads’ faces. Most of them had never seen a pit never mind go down in the pit cage. At least I had been brought up in the mining area. Twenty of us were herded in the cage, the gate slammed shut and off we went down. Half-way down we thought we were coming back up. Some of the lads vomited but no-one took any notice. The cage reached the bottom, about 150 metres, I was told it was not deep according to our standards. Our miners were waiting for us, to take us to our work faces.
I was given a shovel (number 10) and a pick, along with a sledgehammer. Our lamps by the way were hand lamps. Only the civilian miners were allowed cap lamps. My first reaction was how warm it was down there, and how light the coal was. No wonder it was a number ten shovel. I was taken to a small coal face which had only been worked about a fortnight, so it was only about twenty feet from the main way. I was shown a coal tub, and where to empty it. The first thing I did was to strip down to my underpants. Then I inspected the face to see how hard it was, because we had to drill by hand about six holes for the shotfirer to blow the coal down. I was very lucky. First strike with the pick, the coal was soft and down it came. The tub was filled three times and emptied. Your quota was six tubs per nine hour shift. The penalty for not getting your quota out was another nine hours down the pit, till you did.
So the first day was over. As we made our way to the pit bottom it was getting colder and our sweaty clothes didn’t make it any better. We had to wait while the civilians went up to the surface first, so by the time it was our turn we were frozen stiff. We tramped back the four miles to the camp and arrived at about 4.30 in the afternoon, to be told our meal would be ready at 7 o’clock. Meal, ha ha! Grabbing our tin cans we formed up outside the small building with the two set pots in it and a German served us with soup out of one and German coffee out of the other. If you got a piece of meat in the soup you had done well. While waiting in the line for the soup I saw a whole leg of a horse hanging up on the wall still with the hoof and horseshoe, covered in flies.
Later that week we received our first Red Cross parcel. We got one Red Cross parcel a week. If it hadn’t been for them we would not have survived. Winter came with a vengeance, by the beginning of December the snow was a yard thick and frozen solid. The guards who patrolled round the camp were all over sixty-five. One especially, named Karl, he had two Army overcoats on, a fur hat with ear-muffs and his rifle was slung over his shoulder. His hands, with gloves on, were in his pockets, his feet were in large wicker baskets filled with straw, so he could not walk round, he had to shuffle round the camp.
With us not getting good food, if we got a knock in the mine the coal dust turned the wound septic and ulcers used to form on our legs and arms. One lad had two on each leg as big as cricket balls and had to be taken to the doctor on a sledge. When he returned, the doctor had lanced them and put drains in them without anaesthetic. He was allowed one day off.
Christmas came. We had three days off. Christmas day we were given a treat by the Captain, he let us walk round the camp outside the wire and wished us a Merry Christmas, then back inside. After Christmas the weather got worse, snowing and freezing fog, but we still had to go to work. My socks were worn out so I cut a piece of my blanket off to make two foot-rags to go to work in, then take them off to work. We went about a fortnight without parcels through the weather being bad and one day, coming in from work, we were told somebody had been stealing from us while we were working. A trap was set and the culprit was caught. It turned out to be one of our men – British. The Committee found him guilty of the worse crime in the Army, stealing another man’s rations. It was worse in a POW camp.
He was handed over to the Captain of the camp, who gave him seven days in the cooler. The cooler as we called it was a small brick building, 6 feet by 6 feet and 7 feet high with a steel door and an opening one foot square with bars and no glass. There was a wooden bed and an earth floor. He was allowed his overcoat and one blanket, nothing else, not even shaving tackle. He had one slice of dry bread and a pint of water a day. His toilet was a five gallon drum and if he wanted to see out, he stood on the bed. After the first day he started shouting to be let out. The Jerries told him if he continued shouting he would stay in another week. The guards told us he used to scream at night with the cold but at last his sentence was over and two of the lads were told by the guards to come and collect him. We watched from the windows, so did all the camp. The guard opened the door but the lads had to carry him out, back to the living quarters where it was warm and sat him by the stove. His face, fingers and toes all had frost bite, his eyes were bloodshot and he stank like a sewer. The first job was to get his clothes off. We got him under the shower and while some of the lads sponged him down we washed his clothes and hung them up round the stove. You could dry anything in under an hour round it. After a few weeks he recovered enough to return to work but he was never the same man after that.
January 13, my birthday came and went and we noticed the guards were a little bit more friendly and started telling us what was going on at the front. At the end of February we returned back from the mine after the dayshift, had our pig swill again, but this time there seemed to be a lot of activity across at the German HQ, wagons being loaded with guns, ammo and stores etc. Looking out after dark we noticed there were no guards going round the camp but plenty of activity still over at HQ. We knew next morning what had happened, we were about to go on the march. At midday we had our belongings in whatever we could carry them and were formed up in the camp ready for the off. Our destination was unknown. Looking at the weather and the way we were dressed, if it was a long journey a lot of the lads would not make it very far. Just before we set off an American gave me a waterproof jump jacket. I never asked his name but it served me well on the six hundred mile march.
Walking to work four miles there and four back, working hard at the mine and at the Marionschaft on Sundays had, I suppose, toughened us up but could we stand the cold? On top of all that I forgot to explain that all the time we were at the mining camp we were all walking with body lice. I can remember washing a vest and leaving it out on the line all night, bringing it in stiff as a board and drying it round the stove. After an hour on my body it was again full of lice. The body lice were like woodlice, only smaller and they pierced your skin for blood. We used to watch them go red on the backs of our hands as they sucked our blood. We moved out just after midday, the opposite way from the mine and towards the village. Some of the people were out in the street looking at us sadly and sympathetically but no-one said anything.
So our journey had started. We traveled slowly all day till about five in the afternoon when we were herded into a barn. It belonged to a farmer who was told to prepare some stew for us. His wife, family and farmhands were all helping out. We got our soup at eleven and ate it in the dark. The Captain and his officers slept in the farmhouse with the farmer and his wife. We were awakened by the guards at about eight, we had a wash in the cattle troughs in the yard and pumped water from the well to drink. Meantime the farmer’s wife brought out a large clothes basket full of stale brown bread and it was all eaten in less than fifteen minutes.
Looking at some of the guards, they looked worse than some of us. Four of them were over seventy years and looked fed up. We finally arrived at another farm where this time things had been organised. Soup had been cooked under a shed on mobile cookers by the Germans who had gone with the Captain in front of us in a lorry. Looking back, we estimated we walked about thirty miles a day, sometimes a little less.
Day after day we tramped on through villages where civilians tried to give us food as we marched past. They were hit by the guards’ rifles for their troubles. Some of the bread we managed to catch or pick up off the road. After about a week some of the lads had dysentery very bad and were forever dropping out by the side of the road. Two of the guards would stay with them while we kept going. Some managed to catch up but one day we heard a shot ring out about a mile back. We knew now we were up against it and it would be survival of the fittest. We started to look for those who fell out and three of us who were fit would stay with them and more or less carry them back to the column and help them to recover themselves. One day we arrived at the town of Marionbad and marched through it. We could smell the bread and see sweet shops and a butcher’s shop, something we had not seen for months.
We passed through and stopped at a large farm with a river running through the bottom of the land. Up at the main road the villagers came to bring us loaves of bread and large lumps of cheese which they threw down to us. The river at the bottom came in handy for washing, bathing and paddling. A lad and I paddled with our boots around our necks. The guards were walking among us but were getting fed up. I told this lad with me to make our way to the bridge under the road slowly. We had escaped you might say.
We carried on to the village and a door opened. A man poked his head out and beckoned for us to come in. Inside the house was a lot more people who asked us who we were. When we said English they shook us by the hand and for a while they thought they had been liberated. When we explained we were POWs on the march they were worried who was going to liberate them as we explained three nations were closing the circle round the Germans.
We were told to sit down at the table and they all got together and before long a meal was prepared for us, potatoes, lamb chops and cabbage and lovely sweet coffee with fruitcake. The smell of the food was even better than the actual meal. We ate slowly but left nothing. About fifty people must have come to the house just to have a look at us. We were asked to stay in the village and they would hide us from the Germans. This was a decision we both had to make. I had seen this happen at Rijkevorsel in Holland with the people who were hiding with us when the Germans took us prisoner. If we had stayed with the people in the village and we were found by the Germans then they could be shot and us too.
We said our goodbyes to them all and they filled a bag full of bread and fruitcake for us to take back with us. Taking our boots off, we entered the river on the other side and paddled under the bridge back to the camp. As we came out of the bridge the guard spotted us and screamed at us. As we came out of the water he got his boot in our backsides. My friend got the butt of the rifle at the back of the head which broke the skin. We had got off lightly. All in all our little escapade was successful. Believe it or not about twenty POWs escaped in about one hour using the same method. We set off out of Plan up the hills and winding roads going higher all the time till after three hours we had a rest by the side of the road.
Darkness came, and with it the cold, but on we marched. About midnight we arrived at a farm with three large barns and did not want telling to get bedded in. We packed in close together to keep warm in the straw and were soon fast asleep without food.
We had lost track of how long we had been on the road but we all smelt to high heaven. The dysentery was worse, some had scabies, and some could not keep any food down. The next day I think was the worst while on the march. The guards awakened us and it was noon before we moved off. It was teeming with rain and I wondered how many of the lads would die today. Some now were only shuffling along, not walking. One man fell out in front of me, at the side of the road, to pass his motion. The first guard passed him as he got up from crouching down. The second guard kicked him before he could get his trousers up and he fell in the ditch full of water at the side of the road. He never moved again. We protested but were told to move on or we would get the same treatment as he did.
After about an hour we came to a small village where a number of people were gathered with food for us. But also waiting for our column were those I had heard about but never seen before, women SS Corps, all of them hand-picked, equipped with jack boots, full-length overcoats, steel helmets and sub-machine guns slung across their chests. Our hearts sank into our boots. They speeded the column up and turned and fired at the villagers with the food, who scattered to the four winds. Increasing the movement of the column took its toll on the lads. More fell out by the side of the road and lay down crying. As we left the village behind we heard shots. On we marched. How many lads we lost that day I don’t think anyone knew. Down the road about half a mile we could see another column which we found out later was waiting for us at some crossroads. When we reached them we were told to fall out for a while, which we did. Looking at the other column they had more officers and NCOs than we did and looked more organised than we were. In fact we saw they had Red Cross bags with bandages and medicine. They had a look at some of our worst lads but there was one thing they hadn’t got and that was a magic wand. While we were busy talking to our new pals the women SS had left unseen and we never saw them again. Roughly we were now altogether about 800 to 1000 men.
The column moved off but after about two miles we all stopped at a sawmill with large buildings for storing timber. The soup was ready for us this time. After we had eaten we went to find a spot in the sheds. There was a small stream close by and we all took the opportunity of stripping off and having a wash down. When we were dressed we felt a lot better but the body lice were eating us alive. The officers came round to see how we were and we felt we weren’t on our own like we did when we started out on the march, we had somebody who cared.
We were told we only had fifteen miles to do that day and we would spend a few days at our next destination. That sounded great. Coming back to the guards, they were now 125 strong with the other column guards. Climbing up into the mountains, the snow was about a foot thick in places, but it was soft and thawing steadily. One of the guards who walked at the side of us got chatting and he said the war was nearly over. He was ready for going home. Who wasn’t? I asked him the date and he said 9 May. I muttered aloud “Happy Birthday Mother”. At that point we topped the rise and looked down into the valley. What a wonderful sight, the sun shining, the green grass, the daffodils and crocuses out in full bloom, blossom on the trees, the river running full, it was grand to be able to see it and smell it. We reached a small town by late afternoon. Passing the school, the children waved to us and we made our way up through the town to a large farm with a wall round it, where we were all herded in and the gate shut and guards posted.
The first thing we did was to dig a latrine in the farmyard and then we lit fires to toast a bit of bread or roast a few potatoes which we found in the barn. They tasted great. One of our pals had some tea leaves left from his parcels so we boiled a tin on the fire full of water and our pal put some leaves in. It smelt lovely. Somebody had gone to try and get some milk. There was a shout from one of the guards as we were sat round the fire. He pointed the rifle at us and we moved from the fire. He fired at the tin of boiling water and when he hit it, he laughed. He was about eighteen years old and we had had trouble all along the march with him. He was responsible for the deaths of a number of our comrades. Later, three were using the latrine and he fired at them. One of them fell in the trench trying to get away quickly. The guard once again laughed. The soup pans were brought under a shed and the officers were told we had to cook our own food. The officer detailed six men as cooks and everybody gave a hand with the potatoes and turnips. The meat was a sheep and everything went into the pot except the wool.
We were all bedded down for the night. It was a lovely evening, warm and clear. We had had our soup and bread and were trying to doze off when about six men came climbing over us. I knew by their dress they were not our lads. In fact they were the Resistance. They had got in the farm to get volunteers from us to take over the guards. I went along with some more of the lads with the Resistance, who had guns. How many volunteers there were nobody knows but one by one every guard was taken prisoner, including the Captain and his wife and along with the officers. By 9 o’clock in the morning they were all housed in the school-house, guarded by us.
The officer in charge was from New Zealand and his headquarters was just up from the school. I was made his runner. Taking a message down to the school-house from him, I stopped to talk with the lads, some were on guard outside the school on the road. They were keeping their eyes peeled on the roads in the distance, with binoculars, when suddenly they spotted a lorry about four miles away, coming our way. Off I went to fetch the officer and his staff. By the time we had returned, the lorry had arrived. It was a Russian Patrol miles out of their way. Fifteen Russian soldiers had taken the rifles off our lads and wanted to shoot the Germans there and then, but our officer explained what we had gone through and we would try them when we were relieved by our own troops. The Russians were satisfied, shook our hands and drove off through the town.
I could not wait for the Americans to come. Making my way back to the HQ at the top of the town, all the officers were out, looking up the road, which after about 200 yards bent to the right and disappeared over the hill. Trees lined the road, but the thing was we could hear a tank, but whose tank, theirs or ours? All the lads were stood together looking and praying it was ours, when finally it rounded the corner. I saw the star, it was a Sherman tank. The tank pulled up near the town green followed by a lorry with food on board. The officer of the tank looked round and said to our CO, “Bloody hell, these men are dying on their feet, get the grub out”. Boxes and boxes were brought out. There was everything you could want and cigarettes, we had a birthday, but for some it was terrible, they ate sugar and butter just as it was and drank beer till their stomachs swelled up, then they were ill. More help arrived to cope with this situation including doctors for the worst cases. The American tank commander called our officers and asked how many prisoners, German he meant. We told him 125. Twenty five in all were picked out of the prisoners, including Trigger-happy and our officer plus the guard who kicked our lad in the water-filled ditch.
They were lined up under a bank, asked if they wanted a blindfold, the officer gave us the tommy guns and automatics, shouted aim and fire, it was all over, they were dead. By now three ton lorries were arriving and loading the lads on them, the sick first, and off they went. After about an hour we arrived at an airfield. The buildings would house about one thousand personnel so we knew we should be comfortable for the night. As we disembarked from the lorries the Yanks gave us tomato juice in half gallon tins, it was smashing. We all found rooms easy. It was lovely to sleep in a bed with blankets. We were awakened next day by the sound of planes coming in to land. They were Dakotas, about fifty of them. Then there was an announcement over the tannoy to go to the dining hall for breakfast and then down to the control tower to get in the planes ready for the next journey. About twenty got in a Dakota and we were off, touching down at Reims in France where we spent the night under canvas. It was now June but we could not sleep, we were too excited. The lorries came to take us back to the airfield at Reims. Lancaster bombers were waiting there to fly us home. I was busy talking to the wireless operator and did not know we had landed at
Portsmouth. Leaving the plane and saying thanks to the crew for bringing us home, we were told to go through a large marquee where there were nurses with what looked like large fire extinguishers full of white powder, which they blew down our trousers and down our shirts back and front to help kill the lice we had brought back with us. After the white powder we were led in small parties to a large hangar where long tables were laid out with everything you could mention and a band played on a makeshift stage. After the meal we reported to the bottom of the room, gave our name, rank and number and when we walked outside a NCO put us in a lorry, about ten of us and off we went, not a very long journey, arriving at a camp in a wood not far from the airfield, we could hear the planes.
At the camp we filed in one by one to see the MO who gave us a slip of paper with LICE on. Down we went to a large ablution unit and there we were told by the NCO to take all our clothes off and leave them outside. This we did then we proceeded into the shower room where we shaved all our hairs off, stood under some blue fluid then got washed with carbolic soap ’til we were pink. The NCO inspected every one of us before we moved into the next room to get our new clothes. We felt like new men. The announcement over the tannoy said that tea was ready in the dining hall after we had settled in. The meal was first class and an officer made an announcement that we were allowed out of the camp if we wanted, or there was a cinema on the camp and breakfast would be at 8 o’clock. We would be on our way home before 12 o’clock.
It was time to leave for the station. I arrived back at Elsecar in the evening, about 5 o’clock. It was warm and the kit-bag was getting heavy as I dropped off the bus. Turning the bottom of the street I looked up and nearly ran back. There were flags and bunting across the street and in big letters it said ‘Welcome Home Geoff’. Only a couple of people were coming down the street and one said “Is it him”? And the other said “No, too thin”. Turning down the passage, on the wall at the bottom was ‘Welcome Home Geoff’ in coloured lights. I knocked on the door, my mother came and broke down. My weight was six stone. My first day home was very eventful. People came to say they were glad I had made it home safe. I was given ten weeks leave on double rations which helped me go from six stones to nearly thirteen stones. My papers to return came together with a rail ticket for Beaconsfield near Slough. After three weeks the postings came. I was to return to Alnwick, Northumberland, to the castle. The training was light and there were a lot of young men who had just joined up. Then I found I was on CO orders at 9 o’clock. About 14 were present, ten were defaulters and three were there for not behaving themselves. I was marched in with my beret still on, saluted the CO and then he told me I had been given a C in C Certificate for bravery, signed by Monty, which I still have today. We had a celebration that night in Alnwick.
The time had come to get demobbed. It was just before Christmas. I went and got my old job back in the foundry and believe it or not I started work on New Year’s Day 1946.
These extracts have been selected from Geoff’s memoir ‘Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire‘. Geoff still lives in Yorkshire and has kindly donated the jacket he wore on the march to the Second World War Experience Centre.
Maurice Naylor served in 53 Brigade of the 135th Field Regiment, 18th Division. He was captured by the Japanese following the surrender of Singapore and endured years in Japanese POW camps.
On 13 September 1944, a beautiful Indian princess lay on the floor in a concentration camp in Dachau. She had been brutally tortured and shot through the head by an SS guard. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. The Germans knew her only as Nora Baker, a British spy.