With the likelihood of invasion of the continent about to take place, the Regiment moved on May 1st 1944 to the Chelmsford area. 532 Battery was stationed in Great Baddow. We were back on home territory and, for many of us, it meant that we were able to get home frequently. So, for the next month, I paid a weekly visit to Colchester. The Regiment was busy ensuring that all vehicles were tested for adequate waterproofing and making certain that there was a good stock of spares in hand. In the middle of May the Lord Lieutenant of Essex, Sir Francis Whitmore, visited the Regiment to carry out a final inspection … … and so the month of May passed, a pleasant interlude – the calm before the storm.
On June 1st we left Essex for the marshalling area preparatory to embarkation. This was, literally, a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire, in a park at Snaresbrook in N.E. London. This was to be our home for the next six days, except for one short excursion when officers and senior N.C.O.’s were marched out under armed guard to a hall in Wanstead to hear Brigadier Todhunter, who was formerly Commander of 104th (E.Y.) Regiment in Africa (who had been captured and had recently escaped from a P.O.W. camp in Italy) give a lecture on the art of escaping. It was in this camp that I attended my first communion service, in a marquee. It was conducted by a Methodist padre and it made a profound impression upon me.
On the morning of June 6th the radio was full of the news of the landings by men of the 6th Airborne Division near the River Orne in Normandy, and we knew we should be on our way very shortly. By the afternoon of that day we were en-route for the Royal Albert Docks in London to board a Liberty ship. This was very basic, used for military transport, with virtually no facilities but no-one seemed to mind – we were on our way at last.
We sailed down the Thames to a point off Southend pier where we stopped, waiting for the formation of a convoy to pass through the Straits of Dover. There we remained all next day, until the morning of June 8th, when we again weighed anchor at last. By mid-morning, as we were passing through the Straits, our ship’s engine broke down. For two hours we were stranded, midway between France and England, while the crew struggled to get us under weigh again. The convoy, escorted by naval ships, continued on its journey and we were left alone, a sitting duck for German guns or U-Boats. Fortunately we were not spotted, or perhaps they had more important matters to concern them, and we finally joined up with the convoy again as it approached the coast of Normandy.
When we arrived at a point a mile or so off shore we were amazed at the sight which confronted us. There were, literally, hundreds of ships lying off-shore – as far as the eye could see. There were battle ships (we actually anchored beside H.M.S. Rodney); destroyers; tank landing craft; L.S.T.’s, Landing Ship Troops; DUKW’s, small amphibious craft used for ferrying stores from ship to shore; in addition to numerous troop carriers (mainly converted Liberty ships) similar to the boat we had crossed the Channel in.
It was evening when we arrived and, before dusk, everyone was ordered below deck. We could not understand why this was necessary, until we heard the throb of the engine of a German bomber. Then all hell was let loose. The battleship opened up with its anti-aircraft guns and shrapnel rained down on the metal deck like a hailstorm. Then we understood!
After a restless night, we awoke to a fairly calm sea. This was just as well as all the vehicles and guns had to be transferred to a landing craft. The allies had air superiority by day so there was little chance of an enemy plane attacking, and the transfer took place without incident. I, as a senior N.C.O., had previously been briefed with the co-ordinates of the place where we were to rendezvous after landing, and I had been issued with a set of maps of the area for that purpose. The coastline from Ouistreham to Cherbourg had been marked out in sections, each section being given a code name. We were to land at a place called Graye-sur-Mer on ‘Mike’ (a section of ‘Juno’) beach.
Our landing craft ran in to within about 100 yards of the beach and we drove off the ramp into about 2 feet of water. After proceeding for about a couple of yards the near side front wheel dropped into an under-water shell hole and I thought we were going to tip over, but fortunately the vehicle righted itself and we managed to get ashore without further problems.
My orders were to take my truck (Q1), which was carrying (apart from the driver and myself) the stores clerk; two storemen; and a bren gunner plus a small amount of essential stores, to the Assembly area. This was code-named Manfield and was an area of about ½ sq. kilometre, about one mile from the beach.
The beach-head was by now, on D plus 3, between 5 and 8 miles deep. 532 Battery was ordered to proceed to the village of Cainet, a further 4 miles inland and take up position ready to go into action for the first time. We had been in the Army for more than four years but we were still very green, never before having experienced action and had no idea what to expect.
In the fortnight before our embarkation I had asked a member of the workshop staff to make me a frame with some camouflage poles and some large metal hooks from which, with a sheet of canvas, I could make a camp bed which could be hung from the roof of my truck. On that first night in Cainet I decided to try it out. There was, of course, no question of undressing but I took off my tunic and boots, took a blanket and wrapped myself in it, and climbed into my new bed at about 10 p.m.
Around midnight I was awakened by the well-known sound of a German plane circling over-head, and bombs began to burst about ¼ mile away. They turned out to be small anti-personnel bombs set to burst a few feet above the ground. Immediately, I jumped out of bed, out of the lorry and into a near-by ditch. After a while, everything quietened down and I thought I would give the bed another try. About two hours later the same thing happened again, and this time the bombs were a good bit nearer, in the next field.
I decided there and then that discretion was the better part of valour and I never used my specially designed bed again. There was only one really safe place to sleep and that was below ground level, so from then on I either slept in an individual hole or a multiple one, which usually consisted of a canvas bivouac over a foot deep hole lined with ground-sheets, large enough for our truck party of six.
Waking up next morning, we met our first locals. Ablutions were carried out in a stream in which the women of the village washed their laundry. This was done on a large stone slab situated beside the stream. Another memory I have of this place was the sight of six or seven young lads, about eight years old, cadging cigarettes “pour papa”, and watching them puffing away at these same cigarettes shortly afterwards. We were, at that time, issued with 50 free cigarettes a week and these were much sought after by the locals. It was possible to barter them for almost anything and as, by then, I had given up smoking (having agreed with Frances to do so to save money after our marriage in 1942)I had plenty available. Eggs were always acceptable in exchange.
The Regiment’s first task was to support the 46th Royal Marine Commando, whose job it was to clear the Germans from villages in the Mue valley, from Barbiere to Rots. To this end, we moved on the evening of the 10th June to the village of Thaon where the Commandos, supported by tanks of a troop of the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment, were to begin the operation. Fighting lasted all day and, at times, was very fierce. Then we were moved to Barbiere, expecting a German attack to divide the allied forces. However, this did not materialise.
The woods south of Barbiere were soon cleared next morning. During the day heavy fighting took place before Le Hamel and the surrounding villages were captured, in which our Regiment played an important role. Next day the Germans attempted a counter-attack but were repulsed, greatly discouraged by the Regiment’s accurate fire.
On June 18th we moved a few miles west to Secqueville-en-Bessin in support of the 9th Canadian Brigade, preparing for operation ‘Epsom’ to secure crossings of the River Odon with the objective of capturing Evrecy. The operation was to be spearheaded by the 15th Scottish Division.
On June 23rd, that the Regiment’s first casualties occurred at Bretteville l’Orguelleuse, when both the Regiment’s Medical Officer and Signals Officer being wounded. We also saw our first VI, the flying bomb or doodle bug, which was the first of Hitler’s secret weapons. It gave us enormous pleasure to see that it had been deflected and was aiming for the German lines.
Re-enforcements had been seriously delayed by bad weather in the Channel but, by June 24th, two more divisions (the 15th Scottish and the 49th) had arrived in our sector and, with their supporting armour, were ready to begin an assault to reach the River Orne south-west of Caen, with the ultimate objective of by-passing the city.
On June 26th operation ‘Epsom’ began, with an artillery bar rage. The Regt.’s 24 guns fired 11,000 rounds of ammo in 3 hours (450 rounds per gun, 5 tons approx. per gun), with one rest of 1/4 hour to let the guns cool off. The 15th Scottish Division reached the Odon successfully, but other divisions could not progress because of dug-in German S.P. guns at Carpiquet aerodrome and it was finally realised that a frontal assault on Caen would be necessary. It was some weeks before their objective was finally achieved.
The Regiment moved back to Barbiere on June 27th waiting for the next move; from fronts to the north-west; north; and north-east of the city. The Army was to be backed up by naval guns off¬shore and R.A.F. bombers. On July 4th, the Regt. supported the 8th Brigade to capture Carpiquet aerodrome, which was finally taken on July 9th. On July 7th, there was a softening up barrage by twelve Field Regiments, including 191st and the 1st Corps Medium regiments, supported by heavy naval guns and in the evening 460 bombers of the Tactical Air Force dropped 2,300 tons of bombs on the German fortifications to the north of Caen. This heralded a massive operation on the city by ground forces the next day, during which the approaches to the city from the north were cleared of enemy troops, after some heavy fighting.
On the following day (July 9th) our Commanding Officer, Col. Maurice Hope, in company with Major Pearson, 532 Battery Commander, acted as Forward Observation Officers with infantry of the 3rd Canadian Division in the western suburbs of Caen. The infantry was ordered to halt at this point, whereupon Col. Hope, with tanks from the 10th Armoured Regiment, progressed to the Abbaye aux Dames in the centre of the city. Here he found 3,000 people sheltering in the building, many since D-Day, and he was able to convey to them, in French, news that they were now liberated. He became the hero of the hour.
It was decided that another crossing of the Orne was required (in addition to Pegasus Bridge taken on D-Day), because the bridges in Caen had been destroyed by the retreating forces. On July 11th, 191st Regiment was moved to Bieville to prepare for this operation. Here the Regiment was to support the 6th Airborne Division and the 1st and 4th Special Services Brigades. This village, together with the neighbouring village of Beuville, is less than a mile from the Orne, and within sight of Caen’s suburbs. Just north of Caen is Colombelles, an industrial area which contained large brickworks whose tall chimneys were being used by the enemy as observation posts. These were the Batteries targets while we were in action in these villages. Despite several direct hits, because of the thickness of the walls of these chimneys, we were unable to destroy any of them but we achieved our main objective which was to make them untenable as O.P.’s by the Germans.
By this time the Americans had captured Cherbourg and the peninsular on which they had landed, and had moved in an arc into the southern part of Normandy with the intention of advancing as quickly as possible to Paris and the Seine, encircling as many enemy troops as possible. For the British troops to move eastward it would be necessary to bring a considerable proportion of them over the River Orne.
Until mid-July the only allied troops east of the river were the 6th Airborne Division, who had parachuted in on June 6th to secure Pegasus Bridge, and the Commando units. Before any further major armour could be brought over the river it was necessary to provide better defence of the eastern flank, and this was to be 191st Regiment’s next assignment. And so, on July 20th, we moved via Pegasus Bridge, to new positions at Herouvillette, barely a mile from the German forward positions, we approached the village from Ranville, moved down through the main street and turned sharp left. Almost a quarter of a mile along this road were the entrance gates to a chateau. I was instructed to take the ‘B’ Echelon vehicles through these gates and down the drive towards the chateau, then follow the path round the house to a field surrounded by a thicket.
I had been told to get the vehicles into harbour (parked) within this field. As I neared the end of the drive I could see ahead of me the burnt out shell of a large mansion, which had obviously suffered in the initial battle and, skirting this with some misgiving, I entered the field. I could see that it was already occupied by one of our gun troops and the vehicles of other units. However, I turned right along the edge of the field with the surrounding thicket on my right, and continued until I reached a point immediately opposite the point at which I had entered the field.
I took out my map and it seemed to me to be such an obvious target for an enemy wondering where guns might be deployed, that I wasn’t at all happy. There was a gap in the thicket to my right and I decided to take the vehicles through this gap into the adjacent field, which seemed much less forbidding. However, this was surrounded by white tape indicating that mines had been laid there, either by our forward troops or by the enemy, so I got out the mine detector and swept that part of the field that we intended to use. I didn’t find any mines, so I brought the vehicles through to harbour there for the night. Unfortunately, they proved to be too close to trees in the hedgerow.
By this time it was 8 p.m. and I had just instructed the crew of my vehicle to construct the usual dugout for use that night, when the Battery Captain gave me orders to go with Gnr. Mason and Q2 (the water truck) back across the Orne to obtain water for the Battery. I made my way back over a pontoon bridge which had been constructed across the river to the water point, having escaped without damage when a shell exploded in the water beside the pontoon as we crossed.
After collecting the water we made our way back to the Battery position, arriving some 2 to 3 hours later. Normally I had been in the habit of bedding down in the bivouac next to its entrance in case I was needed in the night but, when I returned on July 20th, the crew were in bed and Gnr. Jesse Brook (my storeman) was in the position I would have expected to occupy. Rather than disturb him I decided to get in where I could, which happened to be next but one to him.
Shortly after midnight all hell was let loose. I woke with a start. There was complete confusion. I hadn’t even discovered where our bolt-hole trench had been dug, and there was no moon. We were not permitted to use lights under any circumstances, so all I could do was to follow the other members of the crew to the trench, about 10 yards away. After a few minutes, when I had become accustomed to the darkness and things had quietened down, I decided to call the roll.
To my consternation, when I called out the name Brook there was no reply, and I had a feeling that something serious had happened to him. I went back to the bivouac and found him lying on his back. The jugular vein in his neck had been severed and there was no sign of life. After retrieving one of my boots (and borrowing another), I set about trying to find out what had happened to the rest of the men in ’B’ Echelon. I also noticed that blood was trickling down my leg from a wound in my calf, where a piece of shrapnel had embedded itself.
At this moment B.S.M. Griffith contacted me and asked if I would help him take L/Bdr. Denis Bell, the Battery Clerk, to the Regimental Aid Post, as he had been badly hurt. I needed attention myself and had no idea where the R.A.P. was so it seemed a sensible thing to do. We lifted Denis, who had been put on a stretcher, on to the top of the B.S.M.’s Jeep and began a nightmare journey to the Medical Officer, whose post was situated near the church in the village. Without lights we trundled along a rough track which led to the village. At one point the vehicle, with its top-heavy load, nearly overturned, and we were challenged by men from another unit en-route, who were on guard near the village.
We eventually arrived at the R.A.P., where I remained for attention after L/Bdr Bell had been looked at. The Medical Officer soon realised that his wounds were far too serious to be dealt with on the spot and he needed immediate hospitalisation. He then looked at my wound, quickly dealt with it, and asked me to go along to the road junction in the village to direct an ambulance to the R.A.P. (which he had radioed for). This was all taking place in a strange village without light of any sort.
I made my way to the road junction to await the arrival of the ambulance. About a quarter of an hour later I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching and it came to a halt at the junction. It was closely followed by another vehicle. I thought this was rather strange so I decided to await developments before revealing myself. The drivers got out of their cabs and I was relieved to hear broad north country accents. I crossed to where the lorries were waiting to find that they were R.A.S.C. vehicles loaded with ammunition for our guns. I directed them to our gun position and advised them to deliver the ammo and get out as quickly as possible as things were pretty hot there. I continued my vigil and, after another fright when a further salvo of mortar bombs landed, the ambulance arrived and was directed to the R.A.P.
I returned to our location and learned the full extent of the disaster that had struck the Battery. One gun had received a direct hit and all the crew were either dead or injured and a quantity of ammunition had been destroyed. There had been a total of 19 casualties, including 6 men killed. Apart from our own casualties there were considerable losses among the other units in the field. At the spot on which I had first halted, a vehicle belonging to a Survey Regiment had received a direct hit and its occupants killed. The July 21st proved to be the costliest day in the Regiment’s short history.
Following the events of the night, the Echelon was moved next morning to an orchard near the road to Ranville and the guns were also moved to a point a quarter mile north of their original positions. This move was not without incident as the ‘B’ Troop signals truck ran over a mine which blew off its rear axle. Fortunately no one was hurt, but next day the driver of a quad (a gun-towing vehicle) lost a foot when his vehicle hit a mine.
Apart from the human casualties there were other losses. Shortly after landing in France we noticed there was a large quantity of livestock roaming free in the countryside, apart from hundreds of dead cattle lying in the fields. All these animals had been abandoned by their owners when they fled their homes and farms immediately after the D-Day landings. The crew of almost every vehicle acquired animals or birds. Q1, my vehicle, was no exception. We had a large trailer attached to our vehicle and we were able to add to its load a converted packing case and a roll of wire netting. We proceeded to acquire a number of French hens. These hens were nice looking birds and, wherever we harboured for the night, we were able to stake out a chicken run for them.
There was no shortage of grain in the fields, it was harvest time and most was being ruined by warfare. To my amazement, we never ceased to have a plentiful supply of eggs. Unfortunately, all but two of these hens were killed by the shell-burst on July 21st. Many trucks carried hens but, it was not until the C.O. spotted a pig jumping from a quad when the guns were going into action some time later that, the order went out that no livestock was to be carried on our vehicles. It was a great pity when this happened but we decided to make a good meal of our two remaining hens.
One member of B.H.Q. was a butcher in civilian life so I asked him to kill the hens and put the carcases on the tail-board of our truck. When I went to investigate, shortly afterwards, there was only one hen there. I couldn’t understand what had happened as he was a trustworthy individual and he assured me that he had done what I had asked him to do. At the time, we were parked just inside the imposing gates of a large chateau situated on the outskirts of a village and, on taking a look outside the gates, I could see the hen – its neck completely bald, running down the village street. We had to make do with one chicken between the six of us.
Night after night, in our new position, mortar shells dropped a few hundred yards away (aimed mainly at the cross-roads a quarter mile away) and it was necessary to improve our protection. We dug our individual slit trenches, 18” deep, lined them with our rubber ground-sheets and covered them for about two-thirds of their length with a board or metal sheet on which we piled earth – then we crawled inside – like a snail in its shell. We felt fairly safe but it was very difficult to extricate ourselves in a hurry.
One end of the orchard, in which we were situated, became the temporary burial ground for local casualties and hardly a day passed without a burial. One of these was for the B.Q.M.S. of 533 Battery, who had been accidentally killed by a member of his staff while cleaning a Bren gun. A few days after arriving in Herouvillette, the Battery Captain agreed to hold a short burial service at the temporary grave of Jesse Brook, my storeman. One of the men in B.H.Q. was a joiner by trade and he made a very nice cross to put on the grave, and my crew wanted to go to the service.
Our route took us through the village: down the road we had taken to our original position past the burnt-out chateau; and on towards ’no man’s land’ a mile distant. It so happened that, as we arrived in the village street an infantry battalion was moving back out of the front line and there was considerable military traffic passing through the village. The enemy had obviously become aware of this and began mortaring the street. I had just reached the point where we had to turn left when the shelling started.
I had a premonition that we were in a very vulnerable position so I told my driver, Fred Long, to turn left and then stop. We immediately jumped out of the vehicle and ran for shelter to an empty house across the street. The shelling stopped a few minutes later and I discover that the infantry, which had moved into the place I had vacated, had received a direct hit – resulting in a number of casualties.
The Regiment remained in the vicinity of Herouvillette for almost four weeks. It was not until 17th August that the German resistance in Normandy finally crumbled and the advance to the Seine began. Supplies had been building up, for the Americans, via Cherbourg; and for the British, through the artificial harbour (called Mulberry Harbour) at Arromanches – and the great push forward was ready to begin.
Vast numbers of German troops were being caught in a pincer movement between the Allied Forces and would surrender or be killed at Falaise in the next few days. Early on the morning of the 17th, we moved down the road to Troarn, which we passed through with no resistance, continuing on through Dozulé where we found the shops and houses burning on both sides of the street. These had been set alight by the enemy with the intention of delaying our advance. However, we eventually got through the town and on to Pont L’Eveque where the enemy were entrenched above the valley, on its eastern side. In the actions which took place during this advance Major Norman Butler, the officer commanding 534 Battery, was badly wounded.
Despite this unfortunate incident we pressed on towards Beuzeville. At this time, the Regiment was supporting the 6th Airborne Div. who had landed on D-Day at Ranville, on the River Orne. As they had arrived by parachute they had very little transport and were totally unequipped for a rapid advance. Here our Regiment became very useful as we had ample transport and were only too happy to allow their men to hitch lifts on our vehicles. Outside Beuzeville, resistance became stronger and an unfortunate incident occurred when Pte. Denney, one of the Battery cooks, was mortally wounded by a piece of shrapnel deflected off a blade of a shovel.
We were then in the grounds of a chateau belonging to Baron de Rothschild which, until a few days earlier, had been used as the German H.Q. in the region. We remained here for a day or two and were then transferred to the command of the 49th (Polar Bear) Division, under Major General Barker. On 26th August we were ordered to push forward again to Pont Audemer, and next day made the final move to the Seine at Quilleboeuf, where the Germans gave up their resistance later that day.
Everyone was elated to have reached the Seine at last. It was the main barrier between the West and East in Northern France. Once it was crossed we felt there would be nothing to stop our army anywhere in France. Paris had been liberated by American and French troops under General De Gaulle on August 25th.
We rested for 48 hours at Routot and, on 31st August, the Regiment was ordered to support the 4th S.S. Commando Brigade, whose intention was to carry out reconnaissance on the east bank of the Seine. It was decided to make a ferry crossing at Duclair, using storm boats and rafts but unfortunately the tidal bore was very strong at that time and the first jeep on a raft toppled into the river and one of 534 Battery’s signallers, Gnr. Dudley, was drowned. The plan was then scrapped and the 2nd i/c of the Regiment was ordered to recce up stream until he found a suitable means of crossing the river. There was already apparently so much traffic crossing the one remaining road bridge in Rouen that there was little chance of the Regiment being able to use it so another route needed to be found. By a stroke of luck, Major Proudlock discovered a broken railway bridge which, although badly damaged, might take military traffic over the river – with care.
So, on September 1st, the Regiment (followed by many other units), bumped and rolled its way over the bridge. Just before I arrived at the bridge my vehicle got a puncture in the outskirts of Rouen. While waiting for our Battery workshop vehicle crew to carry out a repair, I was invited into the house of M. Rene Macquinghen, who was the author of a Franco-British compendium of useful phrases for travellers. He kindly presented me with an autographed copy.
When we got on the move again we had, of course, lost touch with the rest of the Regiment but we followed the military traffic over the bridge and continued on through cheering crowds; through Yvetot; and on to our rendezvous at Doudeville for the night. We were the first troops through this part of France and they were exhilarating, heady times. Of course, we needed to be careful not to accept everything that was thrust into our hands. One of our men drank what he thought was a glass of wine, only to find he had been poisoned – no doubt by a collaborator, of whom there were quite a number. We saw several women who had had, or were in the process of having, their heads shaved by the French. They were eager to show their hatred of the women who had lived off the fat of the land while they starved. Revenge is sweet.
The speed of the advance meant that Le Havre had been cut off, and a large German garrison remained to hold the port, which was strategically very important to the Allies. If it could be captured intact it would be of great value, cutting the length of the supply lines to the troops (particularly the Americans) by over 100 miles. High Command decided it must be captured as soon as possible and 49th Division were given the task. As a result the Regiment was, by September 4th, moved to Epretot, a short distance from the city.
By September 9th all troops were in position ready to make an assault on it, and the action began the next day. On September 11th the advance was held up by German tanks dug in to form defensive positions. These were spotted by our C.O., Colonel Hope, while he was acting as Forward Observation Officer, and he directed the Regiment’s fire on to these guns from a house a short distance away. As a result they were silenced, enabling the advance to continue. For this action Colonel Hope received the D.S.O. The final surrender came at 9p.m. on September 12th.
After the assault on Le Havre, the Regiment moved for a few days to St. Nicholas, a village outside Dieppe. We occupied part of a clock factory and, before leaving, everyone was given the opportunity to purchase an alarm clock very cheaply. I bought a pink enamel one which we used after the war for many years.
Our next role was to assist the troops besieging the port of Dunkirk. This was not considered to be a port of much value to the campaign but the German garrison in it had to be contained and it was, in fact, not taken before the war ended. 532 Battery moved to a very depressing area six miles inland from the town, in a village called Wormhoudt. There were extensive German fortifications in the area, which would have been very hard, to crack, if the troops manning them had attempted to hold them, but fortunately they did not. After the excitement of the past couple of months this was an anti-climax. However, we were able to visit one or two interesting places nearby. In particular, I was able to see Ypres and the Menin Gate, with its vast number of names of the men who were killed in the battles around Ypres, during the First World War. It made me realise how lucky I was that warfare in the 2nd war was conducted on entirely different lines; on wheels rather than on foot; and in which the Generals appreciated the value of the men.
In September the attempt to take Arnhem failed, and it was now imperative that the port of Antwerp should be made secure and usable by the Allies. While the port itself had been captured, the estuary of the Scheldt was still firmly in enemy hands, making it impossible for shipping to reach the port. Thus it became the Allies’ first priority to take the land on the north bank of this river. The 52nd Lowland Division was ordered to carry out this operation and Colonel Hope was seconded to the Division as C.R.A. for the purpose.
On October 8th the Regiment received orders to link up with 1st Corps at Turnhout in Belgium, preparatory to making a push up to the Maas. We left the Dunkirk area next day, travelling across Belgium to St. Leonard, on the Antwerp-Turnhout canal. From there 532 Battery moved to Hilvarenbeek on October 11th where we found, for the first time, that we had no infantry support and were, in fact, the front line troops. Trenches were immediately dug at various points around our positions and I had the unfamiliar role one night, of being in charge of a detachment manning a line of trenches.
There was a little activity from the enemy and it was decided to send out a party of men, under Lt. Berry, to storm a German outpost that had been spotted. The Germans were taken by surprise and twelve of them were captured, one of whom was wounded. Others withdrew and, as a reprisal, fired shells intermittently on to the village. L/Bdr. Paterson was unfortunately killed by one of these. For a week we remained in this location, until everything was ready for the next move.
We were back once more with the 49th Division and we also had assistance from the Americans in the form of the 104th (Timberwolf) Division. The battle began on October 20th October. The Regiment was engaged, with five other artillery regiments, in putting down a barrage prior to the infantry moving forward. Wustwesel was captured that day and I remember spending the night in a bungalow which had been vacated by its owners. By that time it was too cold to sleep above ground outside and the ground was so low-lying that it was not a feasible proposition to dig trenches. A shell burst in the garden during the night but, apart from slight damage to a vehicle, only one man was slightly hurt. The Battery had an exciting time next day when German tanks counter-attacked and almost succeeded in cutting us off. The guns were fired over open sights and eventually the tanks withdrew.
On October 22nd the fighting re-commenced and, after a great deal of activity, Esschen was captured – although the surrounding area was not cleared until a few days later. On the 25th the Regiment moved into the town and two days later pushed forward to the next objective, which was the town of Roodendaal. This was finally taken on October 29th. This remained our H.Q. until the whole of the water-logged land north of the town, up to the banks of the Maas, was captured on November 6th 1944. The Regiment was withdrawn from action on 10th November and rested at Etten. On November 13th mopping up operations were commenced to clear small German pockets of resistance, which continued to the end of the month. Meanwhile H.Q. was moved again to Rosendaal.
News was received that the Regiment was to be disbanded and on December 2nd the final shoot was carried out across the Maas. Everyone returned in time for a farewell dance in the town and on 3rd December we paraded for inspection by General Sir John Crocker, 1st Corps Commander, with the Royal Artillery Band in attendance. It was a very moving experience; the streets of the town were lined with Dutch people, with whom we had built up a great rapport. I had even attended a church service with one of them.
The following four photographs complete a set of six that were taken of the Disbandment of 191 Herts. & Essex Yeomanry Field Regiment R.A., by a Sgt. Wilkes. They are in the Imperial War Museum’s archives. The date of 4.12.44. is quoted on photographs’ backs but the afore-shown programme, from the actual day of that last parade, quotes the date as “3 Dec 44”. It is deduced that Felix and fellow comrades had access to all six photographs and Felix chose his three. The Imperial War Museum’s photographs are appropriately credited:
IWM: Original wartime caption: “DISBANDMENT OF 191 HERTS & ESSEX YEOMANRY FD. REGT. R.A. B.12472. For story see caption sheet. Right: Lt-Gen Sir J. Crocker, CB, CBE, DSO, MC inspecting the parade, in company with, Lt-Col M W Hope, DSO, OC191 Herts & Essex Regt, and Brig. L.C. Manners-Smith, CBE (C.R.A. 1 Corps). Taken by Sgt. Wilkes. 4.12.44.” https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205412150
IWM: Original wartime caption: “DISBANDMENT OF 191 HERTS & ESSEX YEOMANRY FD. REGT. R.A. B.12473. For story see caption sheet. Right: Lt-Gen Sir J. Crocker, CB, CBE, DSO, MC inspecting the parade, in company with, Lt-Col M W Hope, DSO, OC191 Herts & Essex Regt, and Brig. L.C. Manners-Smith, CBE (C.R.A. 1 Corps) Taken by Sgt. Wilkes. 4.12.44.” https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205412150
IWM: Original wartime caption: “DISBANDMENT OF 191 HERTS & ESSEX YEOMANRY FD. REGT. R.A. B.12474. For story see caption sheet. 191 Herts & Essex Regt move off for Church Parade with the Band of the Royal Regt of Artillery. Taken by Sgt. Wilkes. 4.12.44.” https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205412151
THUS, the short life of the 191st (Herts. & Essex) Yeomanry Field Regt., R.A., which had made a proud name for itself, came to an end. On December 4th we started making our way back across Belgium, to a little village called Werken which was not far from the French border. Here the process of disbandment took place. A considerable number of gunners were transferred to the infantry, some men returned to the 147th Regiment.
I was away returning stores to an Ordnance Depot when an officer from that regiment visited the Regiment asking former Essex Yeomen if they wished to return so I didn’t get the opportunity, although there was a vacancy for a B.Q.M.S. at the time. I was a bit disappointed but, on reflection, perhaps it was for the best as I had not always seen eye to eye with the Capt. Quarter-Master.
I was posted, with many other Sergeants and Warrant Officers, to 46 Re-inforcement Holding Unit where I spent 2-3 months kicking my heels. Fortunately there were one or two redeeming features. The 46 R.H.U. was at a place called Lier, six miles from Antwerp, so we were able to visit that city frequently. Life was made bearable because the Hotel Metropole had been converted to form a W.O.’s and Sgt’s Club.
However, the Germans’ second secret weapon, known as the V2, could reach the city easily and frequently fell on it, or its surrounds – as, of course, did the VI buzz bombs. V2’s were rockets which were fired many miles into the sky and returned to earth without any prior warning. In fact, the sight and sound of the exploding bomb was followed by what sounded like the roar of an express train. They were very inaccurate and there was no defence against them.
I have one other memory of my stay in Lier – I became very friendly with a Belgian family named Guillaume and paid them many happy visits. Before I left the army I was able to introduce their daughter to another army friend, Sgt. Rex Fifield and they later married and settled in Croydon.
Then, at the beginning of 1945, the Germans made their last big air raids on aerodromes being used by the Allies on the Continent, one of which was near Antwerp, destroying many planes on the ground. This was the fore-runner of the final battle for the Fatherland – the Battle of the Ardennes. As a result of this event the British High Command felt it necessary to provide defence for these aerodromes so eight combined Light Ack-Ack/Searchlight Batteries were hastily formed, and I was appointed B.Q.M.S. of the 8th L.A.A./S. Battery, R.A. under Major Ellis. Thus it was that, early in 1945, I was posted to Faumont, near- Lille in France to gather the equipment together and help set-up a camp where 300 men, almost all straight from Air Defence in England, were brought together to form the new unit.
It was a new experience for me. Whereas, in the 191 Regt. there was magnificent ‘esprit de Corps’, there was none in this organisation. I had no senior officer with any quarter-mastering experience and I had never dealt with this type of equipment before. There was, of course, a manual called a G 1098 which detailed everything required to kit out this type of unit, but it was still a hectic job over the next five or six weeks getting everything in place.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the end of the war in Europe was close. Towards the end of April we were ready.
At the beginning of May we moved to Rheine Aerodrome in Germany, to begin the job for which we had been formed. This marked the most memorable map-reading achievement of my whole service. When the Battery moved off from its position in France I was given the six-figure co-ordinates of a map reference without its letter pre-fix, which I was told was the position of an Ordnance Depot from which I had to pick up a quantity of camouflage nets for use in Germany. I set off with my driver, Gnr. Youngs, in a 3-ton lorry, heading for the nearest point matching the co-ordinates I had been given. On arrival, I could find no sign of a depot. I considered what I should do.
I had no means of communication with the Battery, which in any case, was on the road to Germany. I figured that it was very probable that the depot was 100 Kilometres west rather than forward, particularly as this meant it would be close to Le Havre. I therefore told the driver to make for this point, where we found the depot which had been set up in a field. By that time it was afternoon and I still had to find a map reference in Germany before nightfall.
We drove, almost without stopping, eastwards across France and Belgium, to a point in Holland south of Njmagen where we crossed the Rhine by pontoon bridge, and then journeyed another fifty miles or so north-east to Rheine airport. For this part of the journey we were on our own in a Germany still at war. There were no road signs and one wrong turning would have been our last. However, at 10p.m., when it was almost dark, we arrived at our destination. We had travelled a distance of some 340 miles. I felt very pleased with myself that day.
On arriving at the airport I was dismayed to see the accommodation we had to live in. It had been occupied by the slave labourers imported into Germany, foreigners who had been forced to work in terrible conditions. Every-where had to be fumigated before it would be used. A few days after we arrived the Armistice was signed, and the only time the guns were fired was on V.E. Day when we gave a glorious searchlight/Ack-ack display, firing a quantity of ammunition in celebration.
Next day was hot and anyone who wanted to go was taken for a swim in the river near-by. Unfortunately I went along. I should have realised that, as most German towns were a heap of rubble, the rivers were being used as open sewers. This didn’t dawn on me until I had swallowed some water and, as a result, I suffered from Dysentery for the next six weeks. I later became convinced that this was the cause of my tonsils becoming infected, which ultimately made it necessary for me to undergo a tonsillectomy in September 1946.
A week after the war ended I was back in Belgium, disposing of stores again. We were in the little town of Neuwenkerken. I remember the Battery Captain (the officer responsible) coming to see me one day in great consternation. He had been told to return stores and equipment in a couple of days’ time, complete with the necessary forms in duplicate – detailing the items handed in – which were to be signed for by an officer at the Ordnance Depot. Neither he nor I had any written records of what we held so I suggested I should copy out the G 1098, leaving out one or two items as I thought appropriate, and take this along to the Depot near Antwerp.
Six 3-ton lorries loaded with equipment and stores were returned. I took the forms to the office where they were duly signed. I was then told to take the lorries a quarter mile further down the road to a very large warehouse where they would be unloaded.
There was absolutely no control over what was happening to the stores. Local people were used as labourers at the site and they seemed to be sorting out what they wanted for themselves, particularly the clothing. Who could blame them; they had been so short of everything for years. In the aftermath of war it was too much to expect that there would be an audit check on everything.
It was during my service with this Unit that I received notification that I had been awarded a Mention in Dispatches, relating to me service in 191st Regt. [See entry in the 22 March 1945 edition of The Supplement to the London Gazette, afore-shown. HAJ]
Having seen the demise of the 8th L.A.A./Searchlight Battery I was posted back to the 46th R.H.U. again. This time I was drafted to one of the sections of the Re-inforcement Holding Unit as B.Q.M.S. It was not a happy time, although I was glad to have a job. I was very pleased when Major A.E. Lawrence, a former officer in 191 Regt. was posted in charge of the Unit.
[In October] I had been able to squeeze in a 3-day break in Paris, which I greatly appreciated – seeing many of the tourist attractions and attending shows at the Moulin Rouge and the Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique.
Demobilisation was now uppermost in my mind. All personnel in the Forces had been given a Group number, related to their age and length of service. Mine was 24. Many of the younger men, in Group 27 and above, were posted for service in the Far East after the war ended in Europe. I was glad I didn’t have to go there, even though it transpired that the war with Japan would be over before they would have to go into action.
My demobilisation date was January 3rd 1946. I travelled home to England, up to Northampton where I was issued with various items of civilian clothing, and dispatched by train to Colchester.