In 1999 the Centre received material relating to the wartime experiences of former Cpl R.H. Ely, a member of 61st Reconnaissance Regiment RAC, and later a tank commander with 23rd Hussars. His material consists of written accounts, letters, service documents, photographs and other memorabilia.
Ronald Higgins Ely was born in 1916 in Rothwell, Leeds and before the war he worked locally as a tailor. In August 1939 he and some friends went on a cycling holiday in Germany, and among his donated material are the diary entries he made of that holiday.
Germany’s expansionist aims were evident, for example he discussed politics when staying in the house of a German family:
‘the Germans said that within one year Germany would have back the colonies she had lost in the last war…’
‘we asked if Germany would get them without war, they said maybe …’
‘they laughed and said England had no courage and they quite frankly believed that England would not fight’
He stayed in a youth hostel in Bonn and on the first morning there he was:
‘ awakened at 6.30 am by the raucous voice of a fellow in Hitler Youth Uniform – Black shorts, khaki shirt, Swastika on left arm and Sam Brown belt with dagger. All the hostels have a majority of members of this organisation. After breakfast the Hitler Youth .. stand to attention round the table and hold hands then they shout to one another, some party cry I suppose (Sieg Heil) Hail Victory’
He noted evidence of anti-Jewish sentiment:
‘I have noticed in shop windows in German towns a sign saying ‘Juden Verboten’ (Jews Forbidden) and every town has a sign board on which are shown copies of ‘Der Sturner’ the anti-Jewish newspaper. One cartoon I saw in this paper showed a globe representing the British Empire on one side of which was a policeman and on the other a Jew’
Ron enlisted in the Army in Feb 1940 going into 12 Bn Green Howards with whom he served for two years until a spell in the RAF from 1942 to 1943. In 1943 he was back in the Army with 61st Recce Division RAC, and he volunteered for active service with them in 1944. He soon got his wish, and landed on Juno Beach Normandy on D Day as part of a liaison unit of 61st Reconnaissance Regt. with the 3rd Canadian Division. His unit’s role was to form a radio link between 3rd Canadian Division and the 50th British Infantry Division. By nightfall on D Day he was still on the beach perimeter, and was told to bed down for the night by an officer. Seeing a group of soldiers apparently asleep in a ditch he was so exhausted he laid down with them and immediately fell asleep. He was awakened the next morning by ‘the clink of spades’. Peering out from under his blanket he realised he was in the middle of a funeral service and
‘a startled padre gazed at me in astonishment as I arose from the dead – literally – my companions of the night before were the bodies of men killed on D Day’
He gives an account of his first action with the enemy when sent on a reconnaissance patrol in an area near Villers Bocage. He and the patrol came under fire and he was somewhat surprised to realise that the Germans were firing wooden bullets at him! He was armed with a Bren gun which unfortunately jammed, but he and the remainder of the patrol were able to return to their unit and make their report despite encountering a minefield on the way back.
61st Reconn Regt gradually moved out into northern France and eventually entered Belgium and later Holland in support of the ground action of Operation Market Garden. His squadron followed up the Guards Armoured Division and came up against stiff resistance from German troops.
After Market Garden, 61st Reconn Regt faced disbandment such had been their losses, but this decision was delayed and they continued on patrol duties in the Arnhem/Nijmegen area. In November 1944 the regiment was withdrawn to Belgium, and then moved to the Ardennes with 11th Armoured Division patrolling and seeking out the enemy in the Namur-Givet area.
After the Ardennes campaign was over 61st Reconn Regt was finally disbanded, and Ron Ely was posted to the Recce troop of the 23rd Hussars commanding a Stuart tank (M3) with a crew of four.
In early 1945 Ron and his unit were in Belgium being refitted and trained on a new tank, the Comet, in preparation for advancing into Germany. He witnessed the 6th Airborne Division going over for the Rhine Crossing, and V1 rockets going the other way to their targets in Brussels and Antwerp. Finally, he and his unit were on the move as part of 11th Armoured Division, crossing into Germany on 17 March ironically not too far from the same section of the frontier he had entered on his bicycling holiday six years earlier. It was all very different this time with much destruction and shell shattered buildings.
By mid April 1945 they were approaching the River Alle beyond which was the village of Belsen. A German officer approached Ron’s column under a white flag to explain that there was a ‘camp of some 66,000 political prisoners’ at Belsen, many of whom had typhus’.
The officer suggested a 48 hour truce as the British moved through the area as any fighting might result in the escape of the prisoners and the spread of typhus in the area. Truce negotiations were protracted, and eventually it was only agreed that there would be no fighting in the camp area. Ron’s unit moved across past the camp but did not enter it. Amazingly, outside a German military barracks block just past Belsen camp he saw: ’the officers’ wives and girl-friends in light summer dresses sat at tables with gay sunshades sipping their drinks and waving to us as we drove by!’
Later the same day, just outside the village of Bornstornf, Ron’s tank took a direct hit from a ‘bazooka ‘ (likely a Panzerfaust), and he was wounded in the shoulder and face. He was evacuated by air to Brussels for medical treatment, and then on to Lille for operations and eventually a convalescent unit. The war ended while he was still in hospital in Lille.
Once recovered, he re-joined his unit at Husum on the Danish-German border, and remained there until March 1946 when he was demobilised in the UK.