George Parsons was born in Birmingham in 1919, Small Heath.
I had quite a job getting into the Fusiliers because I was in a reserved occupation, I went and did two camps with the Royal Fusiliers down in the New Forest, and then I was on the rear party for the second camp and we were kept back, and then we came to Balham giving out, we were working on, sort of, getting rifles, gas masks, things like that. organising it, because I think people knew that it was all coming. And then we were sent back to our jobs and I think I was back in engineering for two days and then general mobilisation came where we were all sort of mustered at Balham. We were there two nights, then I was sent down to Streatham Ice Rink and the church hall near – there were different detachments – where we stayed for some four to five weeks. That was where I met my wife Sylvia, and we eventually married at the church by the ice rink.
Then we went down to Sussex, a place called Nutmere, Chapel Wood Manor, and there we did manoeuvres. I was in the Pioneers Corps, and I remember I went on a gas course at Tunbridge Wells. Then we came back and we spent a while digging a trench system, a complete trench system, with all the ‘A’ frames and the duckboards and we had to live in those for a week.
One Saturday we were all confined to our billets. There was no leave, and then we were all mustered in our various groups. We didn’t know where we were going and we were told there would be a one chance in ten of getting back, and that where we were going there would be no support forces or plans for evacuation or anything. So I volunteered, and then on the Sunday morning I was told that I was one of the people who had been selected, and we were put on a truck. Our colonel said “well, you’re looking for adventure George and you know you’ll probably find it now wherever you’re going”. We went to St Mary’s Bay down at Romney Marsh, and it was more like a holiday camp there, and we were introduced to our new CO. It was a Major Peddy from the Manchester Regiment. We mustered there and then in the morning we were all put on a twenty‑five mile route march round Romney Marsh. Anybody who had got a blister on their foot or anything like that, or suffered any discomfort were sent back. So that sorted us out.
The following day we were put on a truck to the station and we were put on the train and we went up to Gourock in Scotland. There, there was our boat MV Ulster Prince. We had to do quite a lot of our own loading of stores and we saw pith helmets and things like that, so it all looked as though we were going to some hot country like that. We loaded the boat and then sailed out through the Pentland Firth through Scapa Flow, and then we were told that we were going to Norway.
We were Number Five Independent Company, one of the ten Independent Companies that had been formed for this purpose, although they only used five of us, and we were told that the Germans had landed in Norway. There was only one road that led up to the north, but our main object wasn’t to hold the place itself but the iron ore at Narvik, a very essential commodity which they didn’t want the Germans to get hold of. Our code name was ‘Number Five Scissors’. We couldn’t tell anybody.
We were told that we would be landed as near to the German lines as possible, and we had a very rough journey. It was a very rough sea and the cargo started shifting and it came to the point when we had to get over one side of the boat to keep it afloat. It was so rough, I think everybody was seasick, and I remember I got up one morning and said “I want to report sick”, and several others reported sick too, and we were suddenly informed “there’s going to be no sick parades on this thing. You get up and you go and you work”. So we did what we had to do, running to the rail, coming back and carrying on.
Then we started to approach Norway. Nobody was allowed in the fore decks because it was so rough, the seas were beating over. We were informed that we were going to land at a place called Mojöen, just below the Arctic Circle. We were given hard tack rations, matches and things like that but there was so much pitching and tossing, I crashed against the bulkheads and I felt in such a rough state that I didn’t care. I didn’t care if all the German Army had been there. I just felt so rough.
The landing was quite an adventure, full of incident. We landed at this place Mojöen, and imagine how we felt when we saw a towering ice‑capped mountain in front of us standing about 2,000 feet high, we South London boys we had never seen a mountain before, most of us had never been to sea before. We landed, there was quite a detachment of people, The Foreign Legion were there and we started with a bit of ‘argy bargy’. The skipper up on the boat was shouting about wanting all our stuff unloaded quickly because he was frightened of bombers coming over and attacking.
Eventually we sorted out our stuff and then we were told to climb to the top of the mountain as the Germans were apparently just down the other side, as far as our intelligence knew. We went up there, and as I was climbing up I got landsick – it seemed as though the mountain was keep coming over on top of me. But we got up to the top and found an old farmhouse like a pig sty and we bedded down there, and there was no darkness. We saw dusk when we left Scapa and we never saw any darkness after that. In the morning we were mustered and then sent out on reccies to try and contact the Norwegian troops in the area.
We went out on several patrols. All we found were sort of Home Guard units, but apparently there were no officers. I remember having to lug heavy boxes of ammunition about three or four mile along the road, then lugging the things up to the top to get in position. We got in position on the top of the hills overlooking a bend in the road, quite a good sort of position for an ambush. Nothing happened for quite a few hours. Then we saw German cyclists coming along the road. There was a bit of indecision about what to do, no fire had been heard or seemed to be happening. Then along came motorcyclists with sidecars, then the main body came along and then all hell let loose. They dispersed quickly, got up the other side of the road up into the hills and that and then a pretty sharp engagement went on for twenty minutes, half an hour perhaps. I think I went into that first half hour a young lad of nineteen and finished up by the end of it as a man. Very experienced because, for the first time you realise you’re playing for keeps.
There were some machine‑gunners got up on the top of the hill and he got in position and we, we threw everything at them. Within a few moments after that one shot from an anti-tank rifle hit a chap walking, he must have been carrying ammunition and it just blew him to pieces with one single shot. But then it got rather alarming because we were very inexperienced and we hadn’t quite realised that behind all this there were their ski troopers, and these were the Jaeger troops, the most experienced mountain troops.
The alarm came in that they were coming round the back over the top round behind us. This was quite serious because we just didn’t know what to do. We were absolutely trapped in that respect. But there was a sort of defile and it was just enough for each one f us going one at a time to just drag your pack along. The firing went just over the top of you.
We pulled out and got back behind the shelter of a rock and, and sort of mustered there, and then the main thing was to get back to Mojöen, because we had been told that the engineers were blowing a bridge and this meant we would be trapped on the wrong side of it. Well, this was the first time I had ever done a speed march, it was really hectic, it was desperate. I mean we were sort of fighting for our lives really. And we got back into just this place just outside Mojöen, and all I can remember there I was so gasping for something to drink and had nothing, and I gathered up some snow and was just going to put it to my mouth when a Foreign Legion chap lifted me up and gave me some water and explained to me that eating snow there gave you sore blisters.
We were some two German prisoners had been captured and we were ordered to take them up to a farmhouse and look after them till we heard what to do with them. So we had these two German prisoners in sort of kitchen in the farmhouse. We could still hear fighting going on but it was getting a bit further away. I had a chat with this other chap and I said,”You know I think they are moving over there. if we are not careful we are going to finish up with prisoners of war. I don’t know what to do, we are supposed to look after them”, We agreed that we’d surreptitiously creep out and we got out and left the prisoners of war there, and we made our way back when we came across some of our troops they were trying to get out. We heard Major Schofield, “open the bloody door, let’s get on to Mo”. And that is where everybody was going to go – this town of Mo. And we just formed a sort of fighting group to make our way up to Mo. We never got there because we didn’t really know where it was. The maps we had were only Tourist Office maps, there were no Ordnance Survey maps of Norway or anything like that. We had several instances when we knew the Germans were looking for us and we got pegged down, we must have spent nearly a week sort of wandering around there and we had lost everything, we had dumped all our stuff and we were getting hungry.
I suppose there was about fifteen or so of us. We decided we didn’t know where Mo was and that we would make our way towards the coast and this we did. We got to this place and we got food from somewhere when somebody spotted German soldiers down at the other end of the quay, and Major Peddy decided that we would hide ourselves on a fishing boat and we kept down below decks while Major Peddy and the other officer were up on the bridge with the captain, ducking down and keeping low. Then there were things coming out of the sky – paratroopers. Now we knew nothing about paratroopers in those days. They were landing just outside and we assumed that they were closing in and they’d dropped these parachutes and so we were trapped. There was no way out along the quay or back across country. We decided that we’d tell the captain to try and get this fishing boat out but there was a bit of a row there because we were by the great whirlpool just off Norway and it was dangerous to cross. The captain of this fishing boat wouldn’t go. They said, “he’s refusing to go, it’s dangerous”. We thought it was probably just an excuse. We didn’t know anything about this sort of thing, and I remember somebody saying “oh put a bloody gun in his back and”, “make him go”. This is what happened.
We did clear this pool and got to the other side. We landed somewhere further along the coast near Bödo, and from there we got to a place called Fauske where we met up with the rest of the Independent Company. We stayed there for quite a while. We kept out in the hills so not to endanger the Norwegian civilians, because if word got out we were there would be trouble. The Norwegians had told us the parachutists were landing so we went out on patrols up in the mountains and out in the woods but we never came across any paratroopers until one day when we were at the quayside, and a big flying boat came over, right along the fjord. It’s engine was spluttering and it was obvious he was in trouble, it came down on the water and went round the promontory. We got the fishing boat and went out after it but as we went round the promontory a burst of machine‑gun fire came, the engine revved up and the flying boat took off. Luckily nobody was hit, but obviously it was a reconnaissance.
Very shortly after that Fauske got bombed. I always remember one high explosive bomb drop by the school and we ushered the kids over into a hall and I have very vivid memories of hearing the screams of the school children, it was quite a rough time. We learnt afterwards they, there was only one house left in Fauske after the raids. We had to move on because our orders came to make for the Swedish border to make a last stand, we weren’t going to retreat any further.
We went along there and then we met up with British troops – I don’t know if it was the Scots Guards or the Irish Guards and we took up positions. My position was by a tombstone in a cemetery looking out over the fjord. The Germans were just across the other side of the fjord, within range. We waited all night (I say ‘all night’, I suppose it was). And then we knew that something was happening, the officers all got together. News had come through that Norway had abdicated, packed in.
That left us with a bit of a problem because here we were only about nine miles from the Swedish border and we were on our own. We decided that the only way to do was to go back the way we knew the headquarters were, at Bödo, and so we started to march back. We got so heavily strafed and machine‑gunned that it became obvious we weren’t going to go very far, we were spending most of our time hiding in the ditches so we decided we would have to go to the high ground above the snow line, which was quite a long trek. Eventually we came just outside of Bödo which was being bombed so we just stayed outside. Then we were ordered into Bödo and hid among the ruins by the dock. A boat came to take us; they said, “when you’re called up, you move up into position, and you’re going to get so many seconds to run, throw your rifle up to the, to the seaman at the side and then go straight below decks. But if there’s any bombing, the destroyer will just take off and go back”. She was pretty crippled as it was.
We went up, did our forty seconds or whatever it was from the gangplank up to the top. Got down, and then we actually set sail, and it was another rough trip. We were all down below decks and they just started dishing out hot chocolate or hot cocoa – something like that and about everybody was sick. It was a most horrible experience. We sailed and then we landed somewhere up towards Narvik area and we thought, “well we thought we were going home”, but they said “no, you’re up here”. And then we did a terrific march through the mountains, the strong were helping the weak. I was wearing two pairs of socks then and later on when I took them off I found I was taking flesh off with them.
It was hectic. The thing that kept us going was getting to the boat was going to take us home, we picked up a small ferry boat over to Haastad where we met up with all sorts – Foreign Legion, French, Norwegian, it seemed everybody was mustered there who wanted to go back and continue the fight. We were there for about a week. I could hardly, could hardly walk on my feet because of that march. Then we were called down and we got on a transport vessel, we went right round the mid‑ocean and then we came, and then we came across a big liner, The Lancastria, after living out rough and everything like that and to see bunks and everything nice and clean and mess decks, you know it was quite a surprise.
They landed us back at Gourock. We had lived so rough and I always remember when I got there I was wearing what I had scrounged off a line – a Norwegian girl’s blouse, an old pair of trousers and things like that, and I had a beard, and, and we looked so rough that we got pelted with bottles and things because they thought we were German prisoners of war.