1944-45. ENGLAND - ARNHEM - GERMANY – ENGLAND.
by Stanley Holden.
This is yet another book about Arnhem, not as the main feature, but as a prologue to my service in the Palestine Police.
My piece on Arnhem started approximately 12 years ago, when Charlie Mason living in Uppingham, a nephew of a 10th Battalion Scotsman, who had married a local girl.
Charlie thought it would be a good idea to write up our history from its formation in Palestine in 1943, when the 4th Brigade was being formed in the capable hands of ‘Shan’ Hacket. As I had only joined the 4th, in March or April 1944,I promised to put down as much as I could remember. I did manage twenty single pages, which took me to Tuesday 26th September at Oorsprong, and my meeting with the Borders.
Eight years passed with our annual gatherings and I had now written another forty pages of life as a
Kriegie [POW]. By now Charlie had typed my twenty pages and put it in a nice white plastic folder with large letters on the front ‘NINE DAYS IN SEPTEMBER’. I had now shown it to a couple of squadron members whose names appeared in the tale, ‘Vic’ Capper and Jack Standen, who didn’t laugh too sarcastically, another chap asked to see the original copy, and as it is exactly the same I wondered why? He probably thought a ‘Richard Head’ like Holden couldn’t put two sentences together. (Could be right). I was kick started into drawing up the four chapters I had now written, some a couple of times, into some sort of order. I showed my posh copy to a pretty blonde lady married to a Glaswegian, running a Bed and Breakfast, at 3 Candacraig Square, Strathdon, about fifty miles inland from Aberdeen. My wife and myself had gone to Scotland for a wedding in Strathdon. The organiser of the ‘do’ had sent us a map, and a list of B&B’s. We visualised a smallish village, with maybe a square and few shops, we had a surprise when we arrived, after a fourteen hour journey up the length of England and half-way up Scotland, to find our imaginary village stretching for about two miles along the road with a sparse scattering of houses all well kept. The hotel having the wedding being at the other end of the village.
It was after a very well cooked evening meal by cook/owner Ian Edgar and his wife Mary when I showed them my story, and they asked to borrow and peruse. Next morning Mary gave a few well chosen words of encouragement and, as Mary had been a television producer, maybe she read in my tale more than I was able.
Anyway, I will now carry on my tale in my plastic folder with my arrival in the 4th.
I joined the Squadron in March/April 1944 with about a dozen others from the 1st Squadron, before which we had been in the 591 Squadron, in the 6th Airborne Division. Most were younger soldiers who found it a bit strange mixing with the older, seasoned campaigners.
Some of the pre-Arnhem memories are of Saturday nights in Leicester, our usual destination. Dancing above Burtons with a quick dash to a hotdog stall before catching the truck back to camp. Sometimes the stall was sold out, so roll on breakfast. We could sometimes stop overnight in an air-raid shelter for 6d (2.5p) with a cup of tea in the morning. We then had to get up early to catch a paper van, at about 5.00am which would travel via Market Harborough, and villages, and eventually reach Glaston in time lor breakfast; it usually cost 6d for the driver. One night, about a dozen of us missed the truck and had to walk the 23 miles to Glaston. We set off after midnight and arrived home at breakfast time and were put on a charge, not for being late, but for taking so long to walk 23 miles; I think it was George Harris! Another time we again missed our transport, and whilst debating what to do, an RAF 60ft trailer drew up, the driver and his mate happened to be ‘Paddy’ Watson and ‘Jock’ Patterson, they had acquired the lorry from somewhere. As I bunked in the same room as them I got in the cab: the rest had to make do in the wind on the trailer. It saved walking. The lorry was taken along the road beyond the village and left.
Uppingham was our nearest metropolis; there was a forces canteen in the corner of the square for the usual tea and cakes. Dances were run in the village hall; never enough ladies. Pubs were of the quieter type, darts and dominoes, the lower orders never frequented the Falcon Hotel, unless to drink in the bar! One evening a crowd of Americans were in the village, a fight soon started which went up and down the main street until the MP’s came and sorted us out. Once we went into the school for a hot bath in the boys’ pool, for another we went to the swimming pool in Leicester at the same time as a party of RAF aircrew were practicing their dinghy drill. In between enjoying ourselves we were training and generally being kept busy, usually by Troops or Sections. My first officer was Captain Scott-Fleming who had transferred from the 1st Squadron at the same time as our little group. He believed that as paratroops, we had to be self-sufficient and carry everything we would need. So he would have us using four pouches for our ammunition and grenades, instead of the usual two. He was eventually transferred to the War Office, I thought well of him, in my lowly strata of society.
One exercise the Squadron was on took place on the Yorkshire moors over period of three or four days, marching all day then sleeping out in sleeping bags in the heather. The weather was good so it wasn't too bad. The last night of the exercise was spent in Scarborough in a pub with the longest bar in Britain. It looked deserted with just a dozen sappers spread along it, most of us being a little footsore! Another exercise was down south, in conjunction with the 6th Airborne Division training for D-Day; again this was about three days. I missed it as I had been naughty for some reason, and was left in Bisbrooke with one or two others. As we had nothing much to do we decided to go hunting for rabbits to supplement our diet along with another bloke who had been in Italy with the Squadron and had acquired a Beretta rifle. As we had office hours it was after ten before we got out, all the rabbits must have gone to bed because we didn’t see one. We then decided to go fishing, so we armed ourselves with half a dozen gun cotton primers and trotted off to a small river down in the valley across the road from Bisbrooke Hall. We were fairly successful and managed to get enough for a meal, taken in the splendour of Bisbrooke Hall kitchens, followed by a siesta. Army life is not too bad.
Just before Arnhem our Troop went to a lake on an estate where some Poles were stationed to practice watermanship. That is crossing rivers by various methods, such as tying logs together and using jeep trailers to float across. It was the first time I had seen men wearing hairnets to keep their hair in place, it was a regular practice with Polish men and it raised a few comments amongst us.
During this time I blistered my hand and it turned septic, it became so bad I had to go into hospital in Oakham and have a couple of operations to clear it up.
To get home from the local villages and towns, bicycles were often acquired and the local police once called at Glaston looking for them. They found about twenty or so, some stuck up trees! As the year rolled on apples and pears in the orchard at the back of the Hall were becoming ripe and the old gardener came complaining about the fruit disappearing. Young ‘Georgie’ Boyle was with him, dressed in brown shorts and shirt looking very serious.
The inside of the Hall had protective plywood put over some of the walls to save the decorations, and strips of wood on the stairs as a safeguard against our hobnailed boots. ‘Georgie’ Boyle said that the house had not been too badly knocked about. In fact we had improved something, which was the septic tank. Corporal Robert Taylor was in charge of it. I remember seeing him, stripped to the waist, digging holes near the kitchen. Also a sump was dug in the field in front of the house, near the main road. It was quite a hole: about 15ft long, 6ft wide and 6ft deep with a foot or two of dirty water in the bottom.
One afternoon, eight or ten of us were sitting and admiring it when someone suggested it could be jumped over. It was then decided that we all give 6d to anyone who could do it. There were one or two half hearted jumps on the side and a few glances at the dirty water. Sapper ‘Bill’ Coleman said he would have a go, as he was slightly built and fairly fit, as most of us were. He took a long jump and cleared it easily, collecting 4 or 5 shillings which was good money. There were no other takers, the rest of us being too faint hearted. Somebody said it was easier to jump from a plane.
Another moneymaking scheme of the ‘old’ soldiers was working on the land. After duty and at the weekend they were hired by the local farmers to work for a couple of hours. It was a bit of a closed shop, and was only rumoured at and strictly unofficial. Another pastime was playing rugby against local civilian teams, again a bit of a closed shop, probably because of a certain amount of free beer and refreshment. I believe popular opponents were the steelworkers of Corby.
I was on guard in Headquarters when D-Day came over the wireless on the Tuesday morning. That started a succession of operations which never materialised, on some occasions we even loaded the aircraft ready to go the next day. On other occasions we had foreign currency issued which was smartly taken back. I believe there where seventeen aborted operations in all. In the operation before Arnhem, our Division was going to do what was attempted with two American and one British Airborne Divisions. Our Troop was going to drop at a place called Grave, which I didn’t like the sound of!
On the 16th of September we were all ready to go again. It was a Saturday and we were confined to camp. It seemed unusually quiet, the blokes with wives, girlfriends and fiancés, or all three, were saying their last goodbyes. Three of us decided to chance going for a drink, so we crept out of the rear of the Hall and walked down into Morcott and had a couple of pints in a small pub. I am glad we were not caught out, we would probably have been shot!
On Sunday 17th September, we heard of the 1st Parachute Brigade drop and so knew we would definitely going on the Monday. We already had our kit and foreign currency, it was just a case of roll on Monday.
Monday, 18th September 1944.
Reveille on Monday 18th was at 0600h and we were up quicker than usual, probably the excitement of finally going. Breakfast was Machonochies stew and I managed a good plateful. Later I would often dream of the platefuls I could have stuffed in myself.
Mid-morning we left for the aerodrome, passing some people living in a row of houses on the right (now demolished), turning right down the hill and to Spanhoe Airfield. Yes! We went straight to our Dakota to hang about, as there was a delay of two hours on our departure time because of bad weather. We had our last pee on the side of the plane for good luck, in my case three! I was now feeling slightly tense, similar to the first parachute drop, or going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. We set off at noon, a normal departure except for a group of WAAF’s* sitting on a fence, waving us goodbye. The journey across England was similar to any training exercise, except for a greater number of planes. Later on, across the Channel, you could see a number of fighter planes escorting us. As we closed on the Belgian coast near Ostend, our American dispatcher put on a flak jacket, which made us think a bit. He appeared to be a bit more nervous than us, probably thinking of the return trip. We crossed the coast with wide, sandy beaches stretching for miles (the tide must have been out), and sandhills behind. Our height was about 3000 feet, which gave us a good view of things. Further towards Holland we came on flooded land with the odd farm sticking up. It seemed worse than over the sea. Beyond the flooding we passed over what must have been the battle zone, with spasmodic firing going on. We had been dropping lower as we neared the Drop Zone and the flak increased. We were then ordered, “Stand ready to jump”, having already hooked up and tested our own and each others strop half half a dozen times. (nervous twitch) I have still got it!
* Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
By now the noise deafening and there was rattling on the roof of the plane, someone mentioned it was shrapnel from the shelling. We had now slowed to our jumping speed and the dispatcher was busy at the door of the Dakota, which had been open during our flight. There were some large baskets and bundles, which he commenced to push through the open door.
Now it was our turn: we huddled closer to each other waiting for the ‘green’ to go. I was about fifth or sixth from the door so I went out quite quickly: a normal exit. The firing was still intense, with more of what sounded like small arms fire. Looking around the drop zone there were more paratroops dropping than I had ever seen (obviously), there seemed to be an awful lot of smoke about, as though the heather was on fire. I don't know how anybody could see the smoke signals we were to make for. As I lowered my bag with my equipment in it, the extra weight made it fall very fast, so I made a grab at it with my hand, causing a scorch mark across the palm. (The kit bags are made to fit onto your leg with the bottom of the bag over the toe of your boot, you then have a line of about 20ft which can be let down. On the line is a tube and handle with which to grip the line. If you don't the speed of it will snap the line, bang goes your kit-bag: maybe forever!) I was now floating down nicely and able to have a good look around and listen to the snap and crackle of small arms fire. My landing was normal and I quickly had my equipment out of the kit bag and on my back. I linked up with others of my Troop. We were sent in the direction we had dropped and came to a sandy track on the left, towards the edge of the heathland. We were met by Lieutenant Ken Evans, who had dropped on the Sunday with the 1st Parachute Brigade, as a guide to help us on our way. I also saw a dead German lying on a bank by the track, I couldn’t see any injury: maybe he was just having a kip! How he came to be so far inside our drop zone, I don't know. There was still a lot of small arms fire going on in the pine woods surrounding the heath, though it had quietened a lot since the planes had left, and things were fairly peaceful.
The Squadron had now gathered towards the left-hand corner of the drop zone going south. We had various discussions and gossip on our actions to date. (We had only dropped ten minutes and already we were ‘line shooting’.) Somebody mentioned that John Bull had a bullet across his chin, which had not been too serious, and that the OC, Major Perkins, had dislocated his shoulder. Corporal Dai Morris put a small bandage on my scorched hand and, as the firing had died away, so everything seemed OK.
I was Number 2 on the Bren with Sapper MacIntosh, a Londoner, as No.1. We slowly walked onto the track and into the pine woods, making for the railway line leading to Wolfheze on the way to Arnhem. We appeared to be near the end of a long snake stretching into the distance. In our briefing in England, the Squadron’s task was to go to high ground to the north of Arnhem to stop any counter attacks by the Germans: we seemed to be tail-end Charlies! Anyway, on this track appeared a German, an officer I think, a massive character who looked over six feet six inches tall, wearing a tin hat and striding up the middle of the track, obviously a prisoner. I don’t know where he came from, but just looking at him scared me! He would have done well in the Brigade of Guards. Further along was another group of prisoners, sitting a little a little dejectedly in a small hollow, not looking too bothered at being prisoners.
We now came to the railway track, left for Arnhem and right towards Amsterdam and the coast. It was stop, go, and at not any great speed or urgency. Somewhere along this part of the track, some Dutch people from across the railway lines were giving out water. A young girl was getting most of the attention, and getting most of our boiled sweets in exchange (these sweets had been issued just as we left and were stuffed in our smock pockets). Up to now my battle had been just a stroll in the sun, very pleasant and not too strenuous or frightening. If we had been back in England we would have been thinking of returning to barracks for tea.
We halted at about dusk and were informed by Lt. Toby Thomas we would be digging in for the night on the railway line on top of the embankment, and across the line of march. Macintosh and myself were ordered to dig in with the Bren facing away from Arnhem. We scraped the stone ballast from two set of rails to make a slit-trench. The rest of the Troop was spread about the track and in the woods below the embankment. By now it was dark and we must have been the last people away from the drop zone, and we hoped that ‘Jerry’ wouldn’t be following us. There were electric pylons along the railway track, these had been broken and cables were trailing down. We hoped this meant that no trains would hurtle along to disturb our sleep! It was from the top of the embankment that we could see and hear the battle going on in the distance towards Arnhem. It was a fight with plenty of all sorts of gunfire and lighting up the sky making it bright enough to read by. The 10th and 156 Battalions were trying to crash through towards Arnhem at a place called Johannehoeve, a mile or so beyond Wolfheze and on the left of the railway track. This fight went on for about an hour or two until some time around midnight (as we had no watches, my times are guesswork). As the row ahead quietened and the fires died down, we settled down to get some rest, taking it in turns to be on guard and peer up along the rails and to hope we could hear any intruders, (as an aside I had acquired a parachute to keep us warm at night, but it had been filched by someone of senior rank). As the weather was good to us and not too cold, we could snuggle down in our little slit-trench and doze off.
Tuesday, 19th September 1944.
We were roused before daylight to ‘stand to’ for about an hour until full daylight. Again we set off along our track and through the trees on our left, we saw gliders on Landing Zone ‘S’. Wolfheze was a little further along the track. On the left was an open space with a row of about ten cottages, some of which had been bombed. There was a small station with a station office, on the right and down the road were various styles of houses, detached and nice looking. Also on the right was a tall, school-looking building which, I believe, was a mental home. This was bombed on Saturday or Sunday and the patients had wandered about on the 1st Parachute Brigades dropping zones. As we arrived, some firing broke out across the railway track: it was some snipers in the hospital, and for a short while a private little battle seemed to be going on. As we did not seem to be very busy I mooched across to have ‘a nose’ poked my head around a corner into a sort of quadrangle, the ‘war’ seemed to be over, probably sorted out by the infantry. So I sauntered back before I was missed. I wasn’t. It had only lasted half an hour.
Our Troop was still hanging about the bombed cottages, and lying on a door was the body of a small girl about 8 years old. She did not appear to have any injuries and was probably killed by bomb blast. It seemed sad and useless. I knew most of the main points en-route into Arnhem had been bombed. Here either side of the railway had received the bombs and not the railway. It was here, at about 1100h, that we were strafed by Jerry fighters, probably ME109s’ They came along the railway track at about 50 feet, so we smartly dived into bomb-holes or behind some large tree. trunks. The raid only lasted about twenty minutes and didn’t appear to hit anyone: maybe we were too quick for them. One of our bosses was a little slow diving into a bomb hole, and landed on a crowd of quicker sappers, which led to some mutterings. We were now ordered to form up to resume our march, along the same track and in the same direction. Just at the junction of the path and crossing, a Corporal, who shall be nameless, accidentally fired his Sten gun, the bullets striking the ground a couple of inches from the foot of a German prisoner. The poor bloke went white, he must have thought he was being seen off. I felt I should apologise for our Corporal.
We were still going along the railway, passing a wooden building on the left. It looked like a weekend chalet, and had been well looked into, the inside being very smashed up. About a quarter of a mile along, the track gradually sloped down into a basin shaped, open heathland, surrounded by the usual pine trees. The railway line was now on the top of an embankment about 40ft high, with a tunnel approximately six or seven feet high and wide, with an oval roof, passing under it. Ever since early morning we had been mixed up with various units and, with plenty of people about, we seemed to have come to a halt. MacIntosh and I were told to take our Bren into the open, about 50 yards from the track, and dig-in. We started our trench slowly as usually no sooner had you got a slit-trench dug you had to move off. We were digging by a small tree six feet tall, our trench was 18 inches down: entrenching tools are not very good diggers in hard-packed soil. We heard the sound of planes, fighters, which appeared beyond the railway embankment and, sneakily, slowly cruising around in circles. Some people were saying they were ME 109’s, others saying they were Spitfires: they were until they peeled off and started firing along the line of the track and the woods on the other side of the embankment. Somebody shouted not to waste ammunition firing at the planes. There was a quietness, the track was deserted with most people huddled in trenches or hiding amongst the trees, ‘Mac’ and me felt very exposed. Now the planes circled out and came firing up the valley at right angles to the track; right over our heads at approximately 50 feet; it seemed a lot lower! The two of us dived into our trench and wished we had been more energetic. It is a bit scary when you have a fighter plane giving you it’s individual attention. I think it only made two or three passes at us. I picked up one of the cannon shells being fired at us it was still hot. I think the fighters were aiming at the tunnel under the railway, which was full of people, some wounded. We were called in from our lonely spot, a bit late I thought. Eventually the fighters went home and gave us a bit of peace. We were not yet on the move, there seemed to be a hold-up ahead, somewhere near ‘Johannehove’.
I think the time was around early afternoon and the weather was very pleasant with a nice smell from the pine trees. One person was dressed in what looked like a RAF uniform, complete with peaked cap. He was crouched in a slit-trench and looked completely lost: maybe he was some sort of liaison officer?
Anti-aircraft guns now started firing again and the sound of planes and small-arms fire came from ahead. The planes were Dakotas bringing the Polish Parachute Brigade reinforcements. They first appeared coming from the direction (Wolfheze?) a mile or so to our left. Again, all sorts of gunfire was going on, and similar to the day before, only on a smaller scale. Viewed from the ground, the sky in the distance seemed full of planes, and we had a grandstand view. As we looked, one Dakota gave a puff of smoke from one of its engines; it carried on for a bit further, then peeled away. Everyone thought it would carry on towards home; instead it turned again and started back towards the drop zone, where the dispatchers started pushing out its bundle of supplies. People were shouting for it to leave “Fuck off”, as by now its engines was well alight. It was in a bad way and getting more than it’s share of ack-ack fire. It was now on its return flight over towards Wolfheze and was dropping all the time, until it disappeared behind the pine trees with flames stretching back into the body of the plane. I think this was the last plane, and if it had not gone around again to drop its load of supplies, could probably have crash-landed with a certain degree of safety. We on the ground were willing it to leave as soon as its fire started (Flight Lieutenant David Lord, the pilot, received the VC for this action and only one person got out alive from the crash).
The Poles taking part in their drop, certainly seemed to be getting it ‘hot’ and, as the planes left, the battle on the ground appeared to grow worse, with a continuous rattle of small-arms fire. It was near this time that I saw a jeep with attachments for carrying stretchers: lying on it was a Pole, with what looked like a wound at the top of his leg. The jeep was just able to squeeze through the tunnel. I think the time was 1700h, and things did not appear too good ahead. Odd blokes seemed to be drifting back and an officer standing on the brickwork of the underpass tunnel was directing people across the railway line. I scrambled up the embankment and, from the railway line, tried to see what was
happening ahead, but was unable to see anything because of the pine trees. On the other side of the embankment several of the Squadron were gathered and seemed to be waiting for orders to move off. (Years later George Harris told me that the Squadron had gone along the track where all the fighting was. Mac and me seem to be having it cushy).
The next thing I recall is being on the road from Wolfheze leading down to the main road into Arnhem, which is called the Utrechtseweg (it actually lies parallel to the river). I saw a vehicle of the Recce Corps with the troopers wearing the light tan berets, (I believe they could have been SAS Phantom or some such funny mob.) and which I naively thought were the Second Army (silly; they said only 24 hours!) As we marched down this road, the Wolfhezeweg, a lady was at the gate of one of the large, detached houses on the left. I think she was dishing out apples, but I was not lucky enough to get any. By now I was feeling peckish as all I’d had was one cup of tea the night before and some of my boiled sweets which were nearly all gone. Further down the road we halted near a track through the woods coming from the right. ‘Mac’ and me a few yards up this track and lay on the ground with the Bren. We heard some shouting coming from along the track, when six paras came running up, making a lot of noise to make sure we did not fire at them. I don’t know if they were a patrol or if they had just been out on the scrounge, I think a scrounge, but they were very relieved to be in amongst us. It was now getting dark and things seemed a little confused and unsettled. We moved down along the road and onto the Utrechtseweg, the main road between Arnhem and a distant Utrecht. During a short halt I found myself falling asleep against a gate to a garden of a large house. The area towards Oosterbeek on the road to Arnhem, has lots of fairly large, detached houses set in their own grounds, all surrounded by the usual pine trees. Eventually we arrived at a very large mansion-type of building known a ‘Sonnenberg’. We were led to a grassy area looking down a field and told to rest up until morning when we would dig-in as we would be stopping for a couple of days.
As it was a dark night we couldn’t see much, only the Squadron out to our left and right. We lay on the grass dozing and seeing all sorts of imagined shapes in the darkness, not knowing that the next six days would make up for the quiet time we had so far.
Wednesday, 20th September 1944.
We stood-to before daylight, as it grew lighter it showed an open field with a few cows grazing at the bottom. On the right were the usual trees, hiding a lane. On the left, a small triangular copse of close-growing smaller trees about 20 feet wide at the top and 30 feet in length, leading again to a narrow path alongside. This field was some 50 yards in width at the top increasing to 100 yards at the lower end. It was about 150 yards long with a gradual slope down. Along the bottom was a minor road leading on the left to the Utrechtseweg [Valkenburglaan]. To our left was another open field where crops had been harvested, and 200 yards distant was a house with a balcony along the upper floor, we could just see the roof and some of the upstairs windows. Our positions were under trees of various kinds: massive oaks, elms, hawthorns and sycamores. We were actually in the grounds of an estate called ‘Sonnenberg’.
The building was similar to a country mansion, and some Germans had been billeted there, some females, I believe. We were at the rear of the house and close to its outbuildings and stables. Our HQ and Major Perkins were installed in the house, after stand-down an officer came to allocate our defensive positions. On our left we stretched along to meet the Glider Pilot Regiment. In the front, in the triangular copse, was Captain Cormie with some of his Troop: by now all the Squadron had become mixed up. On the right we spread down the lane a short distance, all of us under trees. MacIntosh and me were facing down the field with a good field of fire. Major Perkins came inspecting our positions during the morning: I was in our slit-trench trying to look busy. His shoulder was strapped up, he had dislocated it during our drop; he looked reasonably happy. Anyway he stood over me and said to dig well in, as we would be stopping in this place for a couple of days. As Squadron Commanders don’t often converse with lowly sappers, I felt privileged, and even dug out a few more entrenching tools worth of soil from our slit-trench. With so many trees roots it was hard work getting a good depth.
Around this time some of us, about ten or fifteen, were told to go into the house to get some sleep and rest. As we went into the back of the house, there was a cobbled courtyard with steps leading into a large hall. Wide, very steep stairs led upstairs with very high, wide stained-glass windows. On the right was a round-shape room, which was Major Perkins’ office. We went into a large room overlooking a large, grassy field, in which patio doors, led outside to a paved area with a stone balustrade. In the room were two high wooden bunks, but we just lay on the floor, I managed to share a parachute which someone had brought along. This was when I first met Sapper Hanlon, with whom I was to meet and share and ‘muck in’ with when we were POW’s. He had a sleeping bag laid along the doors leading to the patio, overlooking the field with his kit laid, he had made himself nicely at home. As I did not recognise him I asked him in the usual friendly manner who “the effing hell” he was. He said he had only arrived in the Squadron a few days before and was in HQ  Troop. I thought it hadn’t taken him long to settle in. After our rest I went for a look around, the outbuilding were shaped around the courtyard, one being a large affair, probably for storing farm waggons. There was a sign to the effect that it was booby-trapped, but I saw a sapper casually going in. He said was just to keep the infantry out (sneaky, but useful.)
Back in our area a certain amount of firing had ... oops sorry! broken out in the woods at the bottom of the field, and a lot of shouting was going on. Some were shouting that the Poles were coming, others that it was Germans dressed as Poles, wearing our yellow triangles. The firing was growing stronger, with the continuous sound of something like a Vickers machine gun drumming out. It started something of a panic, with everyone dashing about and nobody in charge, eventually things quietened down. ‘Mac’ and I had dug another trench, it was overlooking the open field on our right, looking towards the ‘Bilderberg’. ‘Mac’ decided to brighten things up a bit by firing a Bren magazine at the house. All it seemed to do was break a few more tiles on the roof. An officer came and asked what we were firing at, we hurriedly said we thought we had seen some movement at the windows. It gradually became dark, so we stood-to and prepared for the night. There was a certain amount of small-arms fire going on, with flares going up in the field, making everything as bright as day for a minute or two. I think it was more nervousness than anything else. A barrage of shells started falling on the left at the far end of the field. It would be on or about the Utrechtseweg which was some 500 yards away. Somebody said it was the guns of the Second Army artillery. It kept up for about half an hour or so and created a cloud of white smoke, then mixed with a mist that had come down, we had the daft idea it was gas! Things quietened down and we snuggled down to another night in our trench.
Thursday, 21st September 1944
Morning stand-to passed off peacefully, so I had another scrounge around. On the side of the house I came across Sapper ‘Blondie’ Nealon, in a long window set at ground level in the cellar of the house. He was sitting on a chair set on a table, which made the right height for firing. (Blondie’s friend had been killed, I believe he was an only son and it badly affected Blondie.)
(After the battle I found out that it had been Brigade HQ, who where surrounded in the woods across the road at the bottom of the field being led out in a bayonet charge by the OC Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett. I don’t know who was the most frightening: the Germans, the Poles or Shan Hackett!)
I squeezed down into the cellar, it had been some sort of store-room or canteen, which was well and truly wrecked with nothing of value left, especially food, though I managed to find a very small tin of Bouillon, something like a soft Oxo cube. There was also some wafer-like biscuit, similar to Ryvita. Somebody said it was German dry rations, but it was too mouldy to try and eat. We had been supplied with two packs of one-day dry rations, these were made up of oatmeal biscuits, which could be mixed with water to make porridge. There was also a dried tea, milk and sugar mix, which made a ‘not very good’ cup of tea. We had some sweets and a couple of pieces of toilet paper, which would be handy, if and when we got some more food. When we dropped we were told we should link up with the Second Army in 24 hours, 48 at most, so all being well they should arrive shortly. Tomorrow? There were various mutterings along the lines of “where the f...k is Dempsey and his Second Army?”
It was now the shelling started, which stopped all movement, all you could do was cower down in your trench and hope for the best. Up to now all I have written sounds like a holiday brochure, even the fighter planes were just an annoyance. It is difficult to give incidents a specific time sequence or chronological order. I saw Sapper ‘Lofty’ Weldon being carried away on a door by four soldiers shouting jokes about ‘Blighty’ wounds. I think he had been shot in the leg by a sniper, but I am not sure if he had been shot during Brigadier Hackett’s charge the day before. One day we received a supply, passing close overhead so that we could see the planes just above, panniers being pushed out of the doors, some dropping to our left. It came with the usual barrage of every type of weapon being blasted off. The enemy seemed annoyed we were receiving so much supplies. I can’t think why, as by all accounts they appeared to receive most of it! I have an idea it was this day Driver Seabrook was so badly wounded he was left to die. He had a fairly shallow trench in the open area inside our lines, he lay there all during the battle. Presumably he was killed by the shelling. I spoke to the Medical Corporal of the RAMC, he said he could not do anything for him. Incidentally, this Orderly did a marvellous job, and seemed to be doing it all on his own. It was all done in cellar of the house, the only reasonably safe place around.
We had moved into our original trench, which was further back under a large tree. I think we must have just had some tea, when Sapper Jack Standen came sliding up to us, with half a can of Machonochies steak pudding from the cellar where the cook, Corporal Tennant, was in charge of what little food the Squadron had. Standen brought another half tin another time and this was the only food I had all the time I was in the battle, except for our two-day ration packs and my boiled sweets, which were only a memory. Sapper ‘Vic’ Capper said I was a ‘blue eyed boy’ as he didn’t get any!
Again more fighting was going on down towards the Utrechtseweg, probably the Germans trying to break through the main road. The wood in that direction had been set on fire and was burning fiercely. Suddenly a horrible howling started from some poor soul, it echoed all around the woods and seemed to quieten the fighting. It went on for a few minutes until it subsided into sobbing moans. Somebody from the left said that he had been hit by a flame thrower though I don’t know if he was German or British. Whoever he was, he had our sympathy. [This was Captain Peter Chard of the 1st Air Landing Light Regiment, R.A. When he tried to put a German flamethrower-tank out of action, he was hit by the flamethrower. He was severely burned and died three weeks later in a hospital in Apeldoorn]
At one shelling, MacIntosh, Corporal Philip Hyatt and I hurriedly dived into a trench. As it stopped and we came up for air I got a blast of air which blew up my eyelids and, for a moment, I thought I was blinded. After shelling us the Germans had sent over some mortar bombs, which had no sound when coming down. One had hit the base of a tree, as we rose out of the ground MacIntosh, who was in the middle, said he had been hit and had got a piece of shrapnel above his left eye. I had only got the blast. Blood was pouring down Mac’s face over his eye. We put a shell dressing over the wound and he dashed toward the house for attention.
I met MacIntosh in Aldershot in 1945 after we had both been POW’s. Although he was blind in that eye, the eye had not been taken out. I suppose he was lucky it was not a larger mortar shell or a larger piece of shrapnel, which would have probably killed him.
Somebody now came and detailed me to go out after dark to bring in a pannier, which had landed in the trees on our left. There were some half a dozen under an NCO. After stand-to at dusk we waited until it was pitch black. Then we went creeping out as quietly as we could to this pannier, which we hoped would be filled with rations, but was unfortunately filled with artillery shells, which are not very light. Anyway, with much puffing and panting we managed to stagger with it to the house, where we put it on the veranda in the front of the building. It was a bit silly really, as a shell or motor bomb would have made a mess of the house if it had struck it. Fortunately, I think it was taken away the next day as shells were in short supply and probably more important than food.
Friday, 22nd September 1944.
I was back in my own trench, which I now had to myself. During the night it rained, not too bad, it didn’t soak me, but was just enough to be miserable. There was more shelling, some close. I think the Germans did it just to annoy us and keep us awake. They didn’t seem to like attacking at night, so we got a certain amount of sleep. Maybe they had a good Union!
In the morning, after ‘stand to’ I wandered off to see if I could scrounge anything, especially food. I wandered into the house, just off the main hall was a round-shaped room used by the OC as an office. It was empty now, as it was too dangerous to be in. In fact it had a shell-hole through the roof and through the walls. As the walls were some 18 inches thick, it must have been a hefty shell. This was the morning the Germans attacked on the right. It started with the clanging of a tank as it approached up the lane [Sonneburglaan]. As this was further over to the right I couldn’t see what was going on, but I fired into the trees lining the lane. The tank was stopped about 100 yards on the right and it seemed to be well in our lines. It was well and truly stopped as it caught fire and blew up, its ammunition making a fine fireworks display. It was during this incident that Sapper ‘Jock’ McKenna was wounded. He went galloping out to do battle, but unfortunately was wounded in his right hand (he told us later in the room of the house). As he bent down to nurse his hand, he got a bullet in his arse - that stopped Jock’s gallop! These attacks were going on all around the perimeter most of the time, and at different points. Again things quietened down, I noticed a Glider Pilot strolling across our position from right to left, carrying a hare. I don’t know how he acquired it but he appeared to be very happy and so would his mates with the forthcoming meal.
I had made a meal out of the dried oatmeal, and added the Bouillon I had got from the cellar. Unfortunately I added it all to the mix and, as it was very salty, I now had a raging thirst and all my water had gone. Luckily it started to rain, so I was able to hold my mess tins under the downpipes of the house and get enough water to quench my thirst. It was a bit gritty, probably as a result of disturbance caused by the shelling but good enough for tea.
After the unsuccessful attack with the tank, the Germans now attacked up the left of the field to our front, up the path leading to the triangular copse. Sapper ‘Jock’ Patterson had taken over the Bren, with me as his Number 2. We were at the top which was the wide end, and about 20 feet away. There was a lot of intense firing going on, with the Germans doing a lot of shouting, (as usual). As there were some sappers in trenches inside the copse, we hesitated to start firing. I noticed a German on the ground, just at the trees last of the trees in the copse. He threw a stick grenade which, because he was so cramped, only came half of the way towards us. I tried to pull ‘Jock’ down into the trench from the grenade, but he was so busy firing I don’t think he noticed it. I was firing as fast as I could, but ‘Jock’ told me to stop as I was deafening him we had a bit of a row over it. Glancing to our left, I noticed Corporal ‘Phil’ Hyatt out of his trench and with a grenade in each hand. His Sten slung round his neck. He was at the top of the path, up which the Germans were advancing. This was only a quick glance, I was a bit busy to take much notice, however he did eventually get a Military Medal for his actions. (I think a little mention in dispatches for ‘Jock’ would not have gone amiss, but as I was the only one to notice, nobody asked me.) His citation said he stopped the Germans before they reached our positions, but they did in fact over-run some of our trenches. As the Germans retreated down the copse, the sappers who were in the trenches came out looking shocked and slightly pale, it wasn’t a very nice experience. Things quietened down, which gave us time to clean our weapons. In England this was a bore, but now it was done at every opportunity, and in turns, in case of surprises. Fear is a great slave driver!
Saturday 23 September 1944
The next morning, after another stand-down, I met a lone Pole who had appeared from somewhere and attached himself to our unit. I met him in the house and we went up the stairs which were now open to the elements, all windows in the house having long been broken. The Pole was very casual in his actions, not like me, nipping past open windows in case of snipers a couple of miles away - well you never know!? We had a quick look around and there was definitely no food and all rooms were empty. It was a bit eerie and quiet, and the trees surrounding the house were so tall that there was hardly any view from the top windows. We had heard that some Poles were being ferried across the river to strengthen our perimeter, so this bloke could have been one of them.
It may have been that very day that Sapper Jack Standen came to my trench and invited me to tea. I went to the cellar of the house where all the wounded were and there were also various other odd bods hanging about. It was so crowded that it was difficult to get down the stairs. Corporal Tennant had a small pantry or store room on the right with a small, oblong window which from the outside was at ground level. I sat on a chair facing the window, but he suggested I move because shrapnel had been coming in through the window, which I did, sharpish! I was expecting a meal, but instead, as there was no food left, I got a lovely cup of tea and a rest for ten minutes or so. Back at my trench I had a visit from an officer, an oldish chap, who sort of stopped for a chat. We discussed the merits of the tea in our ration packs. We both decided it was horrible. He said he used it for shaving because it made him feel so much better. I thought that a bit of a waste; bad tea was better than no tea at all. I did not mention the secret cup I had just had in the cellar, which was more for the connoisseurs among the lower orders. I think he had come from Divisional HQ, about 1,000 yards away across the fields in front of the house, just to see how things were in the trenches. I hope I impressed him.
Shelling was still going on at various times and I now found that my large valise (back pack), which I had left on the ground behind my trench, was riddled with shrapnel. It made me realise that some of the shells were coming closer than I thought. By now I had begun to differentiate between some of the incoming shells. There were three different sounds. The first one meant that the shelling was a fair distance away, about a 100 yards, and therefore could be ignored. The second was slightly different and was some 50 yards away, which made me take notice. The third sound made me dive into my trench and crouch down as low as I could. It was this type of shelling that caused all our casualties.
There were roots sticking out of the ground into the trench, and in my nervousness I plucked at them, so there were all these bits of root made white by my twitching fingers. When the shelling stopped it became unnaturally quiet and still, except for the cracking of tree branches breaking off. The ground was gradually becoming covered with these small branches falling down, cut by the shelling. During one shelling Sappers Rawlings and Higgins, who were sharing a trench with Captain Cormie in the little copse, were both killed. Captain Cormie had one side of his face pitted with black bits of shrapnel; otherwise he was unhurt except for shock. The luck and bad luck of battle! There followed another night in my trench, waking and dozing off and on. I think it rained that night, but again it wasn’t enough to soak through my clothes, so it was not too bad. Being under the trees kept most of the rain off.
Sunday, 24th September 1944.
At daylight the next morning, a nasty sight was revealed in a trench a few yards away, two bodies with their heads blown off. A shell must have landed on the edge of their trench. They were crouched down with their bodies level with the ground. The chap at the rear had his hand on the shoulder of the man in front. The hand was scratched away and I think the shell had fallen behind them. The chap in front only had his chin left, otherwise they were both decapitated. There were bits of their flesh strewn about the trench. Some six of us gathered around them, I remember Corporal Hyatt and Sapper Richards. Somebody suggested taking their name tags, but there were no volunteers for such a gruesome job. It was said that one of the bodies was Sapper ‘Joe’ Williams, and the other a Glider Pilot. I don’t know how I got this information, or who said it. (there is a Sapper R.J. Williams in the records as being killed on the 21st September with no known grave, which doesn’t coincide with these two bodies. Bill Coleman has given more information on this later in this tale).
There were more bodies in one of the out-houses, about nine or ten piled on the floor. I listened to a debate by three paratroops on whether it was ethical to look for food in their packs. However, I doubt if anybody had any food by this time. I don’t know how the bodies came to be here, or who brought them, or to which unit they belonged. By now we had almost given up hope of ever seeing the Second Army; General Dempsey and various other top brass had been well and truly cursed. However, one good thing was that things seemed a little quieter and we were able to move about a bit easier, our battle had slowed down. ln fact a group of us stood talking by the fence at the top of the field, when a German ran across the field near the bottom from left to right. He carried a rifle and had one of the fur covered packs on his back. He was so quick with a good turn of speed, that he disappeared before we could do anything, we didn’t seem too bothered. We were beginning to get a bit puddled, maybe the lack of food and not very much sleep was beginning to tell. I hadn’t washed, let alone shaved or taken my boots off since we had been in Holland, so I suppose I was a little bit smelly.
Monday, 25th September 1944.
This morning had the feeling about it of things being finished, a sense of anti-climax. Sometime during the day someone came around to the trenches to tell us that we would be retiring across the river during the next night. We were told not to gossip about it and also that we would be having a meeting to brief us about it later in the day. I remember feeling a little disappointed. As things had become a little quieter, I didn't see the point in leaving.
The briefing was held in the house, in the same room overlooking the front where I had had my sleep six days ago. It was taken by Captain Cormie, who informed us that the perimeter would be gradually evacuated from top to bottom and, as we were mid-way down, we would leave about 2100h. He said white tapes had been laid by the Military Police to guide us, that we were to wear socks over our boots to muffle any noise, and all our equipment to be secured to prevent any clattering. We were to hold the smock tail of the man in front. ln addition, the Royal Artillery would be firing tracer shells (flaming onions), from across the river over the crossing point, all during the evacuation as a guide. He picked half a dozen men to be the last to leave, so they could fire the odd bullet from the trenches to try and fool the Germans that we had not left. Someone asked about the Pole, but we were told not to tell him, which shows how neurotic we had become. The wounded would be left in the cellar, in the capable hands of the Medical Orderly, and would presumably be made prisoners.
It was now a case of waiting and preparing ourselves, to and getting socks over our boots. The half dozen of us detailed to give the parting shots filed out to our trenches, where we seemed to be a long time spending a few minutes firing the odd rifle bullet at nothing in particular (altogether it must have sounded like D-Day again, or the ‘Krauts’ were heavy sleepers!), we then hurried after the Squadron which had left through the front of the house and along an avenue of tall trees’ alongside the big field. Incidentally, this field had a jeep parked in the middle of it a during the battle, which had become more battered by shellfire as time went by. About 100 yards along in the woods some shelling came down ahead and on the right. It only went on a short time and soon petered out. We came to the back of some houses and passed through their gardens and onto a road. We walked over the broken glass of a greenhouse, trying to walk quietly in our socked-over boots. It was very dark. We seemed to be walking in a country lane, when a machine gun opened up directly ahead wounding some people in front of us. There seemed to be a stalemate, so I yelled in some foul language to stop “effing firing”. The thinking being that our blokes would understand it, as they did. Before we left we were told the password would be ‘John’ and the reply ‘Bull’. As neither party had used it there had been a sad mix up. The machine- gunners were very sorry and apologetic and the wounded were helped along by their friends. on one of the frequent halts somebody said that a lot of the German shelling came from the brickworks across the river. I peered into a black space trying to see these brickworks. (Many years later realised how daft I must have been. We were in pitch dark, on top of a hill in a wood over a mile from the river and almost unable to see across the road!)
We had come to the Utrechtseweg, the main road through Oosterbeek into Arnhem. As we were making towards the river, a left turn would have us into the town. I stood in the middle of the road for a few minutes, looking around and seeing more because of the openness, being out of the trees. There were cables lying along the road from the trolley cars’ and the road itself was paved with the small bricks peculiar to Holland. Again there were the large detached houses with the mesh fencing around, and I now know this was near Division Headquarters at the HARTENSTETN HOTEL. The capital letters are for importance not a mistake by me!
Across the road, directed by the Military Police, we were once again under trees. I have an idea this is where our group went wrong. At a junction the road went left in a very sharp bend, but we went right.* This seemed to take us away from the direction of the tracer shells from over the river. We now were in another built-up area of detached houses, all dark and empty-looking, all of which could have been filled with Germans. Our party had now dwindled to five paratroops and I am afraid we seemed to be lost. The road we were on, again lined with trees, (there are some trees in Holland!) seemed to be blocked ahead. There was some shouting and talking going on at what I believe was a German road block, Probably one of many surrounding our perimeter. They started shouting “kamerad” at us, so we shouted “kamerad” at them, which really didn’t get us very far. Neither of us was going to venture too close to the other in a pitch-black night. So, our group had a discussion on what to do. A Scots Sergeant, whose name I cannot remember decided to throw a couple of greandes at them and, as I had acquired a Bren gun and had a full magazine left, we would give them a parting gift. We slung our grenades, fired our Bren and left rapidly, they didn’t take the trouble to reply.
* This was most probably the upper end of Hoofdlaan. They did not turn left into Kneppelhoutweg or go straight on via Hoofdlaan, but turned right in Van Lennepweg.
I now realised I was with Sapper ‘Jock’ McKenna whose hand was bandaged, dirty and looked badly swollen, he stumbled and nearly fell into a round shaped German slit-trench. He gave a miserable groan, as though life was becoming tedious. We wandered back up the road and came to an open field which we started to cross [the large open field South-west of Van Leppenweg]. In the middle was a shed, corrugated, probably a cowshed which we opened too noisily, because a machine-gun opened up from the top of the field. Fortunately the fire was too high and only shattered the woodwork above our heads. We don’t know who did the shooting, friend or foe, and we didn’t bother to find out. So, crawling backwards the rest of the way across the filed, we forced our way through a pine hedge onto a footpath.
From the Utrechtseweg we had been walking downhill and to our right. we were now in pine woods, all very tall trees with no undergrowth. We had come to a fairly steep area with a stream [the Oosprong] at the bottom. By now we were a bit fed-up, so we decided to call it a day. I propped myself behind a tree on the up slope to save rolling down and tried to get some sleep. During the rest of the night it rained fairly heavily, though, as before, think the trees kept a lot off us as we weren’t soaked. I was wakened once by some sort of large shell roaring through the trees like an express train, followed g by a massive explosion echoing through the woods.
Tuesday, 26th September 1944.
The woods were peaceful, but we were stiff, chilly and very, very hungry, but I think fear keeps most hunger away. Below us we could see some buildings, down the slope and across the stream, there was a fence made of cane, it hid a swimming pool [the private swimming pool of the Oorsprong Estate]. We squeezed through the fence and onto the pool surround, the water was green and not very clean looking. There was a parachute half in the water with an empty pannier (no food) on the edge. A small shed had cleaning equipment and gardening tools in it. Beyond the pool, through a garden or allotment, we could see a long white house or barn with a thatched roof, and a big double door in the middle. The gardens had a number of slit-trenches, and it looked as though a lot of fighting had been going on, in one trench a soldier was lying with large hole through his airborne helmet. (I thought he was lying on his face with a hole in the back of his helmet, but ‘Jock’ McKenna remembers him lying on his back with hole in the front of his helmet.)
This building called ‘Oorsprong’, was typically Dutch, with a house part at each end and a large barn in the middle [the long farm halfway along Van Borselenweg]. As we crept toward it, the barn door opened and a soldier* asked where we were going. He was highly indignant when he learnt the evacuation had taken place during the previous night. His unit was the headquarters of a company of the 1st Border Regiment, which had been fighting on its own, isolated from the main perimeter. Their personal little battle had petered out sometime earlier, through lack of everything. They were in the process of negotiating a cease-fire with the Germans. Some soldiers in the barn were hiding weapons and knives in the thatch and under the eaves of the roof.
*This was Private Joe Maguire, who I knew while a POW and during the years after, until he died in 1989. Joe always said he saved our lives by opening the barn door. If we had gone around the corner; we would have been face-to-face with the enemy.
So came the end of my little battle with a German, carrying a Schmeisser, ordering us across the road and into their positions.
We entered the barn, typically Dutch with stalls, which seemed to be filled with straw and soldiers taking their ease. They didn’t appear very interested in us, who looked a little battle-stained and scruffy. We were then taken into the kitchen, in the house part of the building, where a wounded officer was lying on a table. I think he was shot in the leg. I don’t think he was impressed with what little information we could give him. They had been negotiating a cease-fire with the Germans since sometime on Friday or Saturday when, I believe, all their supplies had run out, so there was no chance of scrounging any food from them.
Within a short time we were ordered out by a Schmeisser-carrying ‘Kraut’, looking a bit worried. He ushered us to the front of the barn-house, which was along a fairly narrow road, across which a six-foot high bank led into a large wood. Along this bank was a row of German trenches overlooking the road and the barn-house Oorsprong.
We moved further into a clearing in the woods to be counted. I kept a beady eye on a Spandau guarding us: if anything I was ready to take off down the hill which I later knew led down to the river, but I think the enemy were in some way relieved to have our little battle over with. A few came over to have a chat, all with American accents, probably having returned to the Fatherland to help with the war-effort. I also noticed a Corporal carrying a Sten with the new wooden butt and stock, it looked good. As it used the same 9mm ammo as their Schmeisser, maybe our Sten was not bad as it was made out to be!
This lonely fight the Borders had been having was quite easy, only the width of the road separating them. Up the road towards the main Arnhem-Utrecht highway, across which was Sonnenberg and our RE position, was a knocked-out tank [this was a French Renault tank, used by the Germans, and knocked out by the British!]. German trenches lined the road and a couple of Germans let off a couple of ‘joy’ shots, which would have been frowned on by our officers. (On this spot, Joe Maguire’s family placed his ashes and a little wooden marker. I go every year to polish his name-plate and generally tidy up. It was Joe who opened the barn door, he reckoned he saved our lives by stopping us stumbling onto the German position. He was probably right, so the least I can do is look after his little plot while I am still alive.)
When we were all out of Oorsprong we started trudging through the woods in a direction away from the perimeter. The woods stretched a considerable distance and, after a mile or so, we came on a tank park. There seemed to be about a dozen huge tanks being repaired. A ‘Sergeant Major’ type was scurrying around importantly: shades of ‘A Bridge Too Far’. We were probably led past deliberately to impress us, I doubt we were greatly, we were too cheesed off!
Eventually we came to a road and open farmland. Prisoners and guards slowly shambled along, stopping a couple of times for a rest and a wee. There didn’t seem to be many people about, until we came to a small town. It turned out to be Ede. We were marched straight through the main street (now a pedestrian shopping area).
In a small cafe through an open door, were some ‘old boys’ playing cards, which seemed funny, but the world was going on while I was messing about in Oosterbeek. The Germans were probably showing the Dutch how they had beaten us, were they giving ‘V’ signs surreptitiously? I thought the girls very pretty. We came through the town to the local barracks, a new building surrounded by a high wire fence. We were taken upstairs into some barrack rooms, all very clean, with washrooms attached. I was now able to look in a mirror, I looked like a chimney sweep, a result of sweating, combined with dust from grovelling in slit trenches. No wonder we didn’t impress the Borders, maybe we should have had a wash in the pool. I also took off my boots for the first time since leaving Bisbrooke on the 18th. I now hoped for a nice meal, and a long kip, but all we got was a slice of brown German bread (not Hovis) with what I thought was lard. I wasn’t impressed with German catering. Later I was to find the catering a lot worse and less. Food now takes over my life. Women have no attraction when you start getting really starved. Since the tin of Machonochies stew for breakfast when we left home, I had managed on two 24 hour packs, a handful of sweets, two half tins of stew Jack Standen had brought out to our slit-trench, plus my cup of tea taken with the mess caterer Corporal Tennant: that would be about last Thursday. I was lucky, Bill Coleman and Charlie Nealon had lost their big packs when they were blown up on a cart they were using to carry equipment, poor souls! Mind you they found the river, which I never did. (Billy swam half way across, was given a lift back from where he had just left, and managed to get on another boat (he says he went back to look after Charlie and get a lift in Nijmegen. He said later he was having a pint in a local pub on the Tuesday evening!)
In the meantime I was getting to bed with one blanket. Next morning we were given a cup of German coffee, but nothing to eat. We then parade to be counted and set off marching again. It was more of a stroll, they were in no hurry and we were certainly not. The weather was nice, the last rain we had, was on the 25th Monday night, in the woods near Oorsprong. All we needed was food maybe the Jerrys lived on fresh air!
Again we walked all day and finally arrived in a small village, Stroe, approximately the same distance as yesterday. We were counted into a large new barn. The floor was covered in straw, into which I burrowed and got to sleep. It was here I met up with ‘Vic’ Capper from the Squadron. He was in another Troop from me, but I was glad to see a fairly friendly face. We were together for a couple of weeks, until he went into hospital to have some shrapnel removed from his legs in Limburg, our new camp.
The most important event, that happened daily, was the arrival of a horse and cart driven by a Dutchman, carrying a huge vat of stew, which was dished into large washing-type bowls. It was mainly potato (Lob scouse - no meat) with a small tin of corned beef mixed in. This is the only food I can remember from our stay here, also sleeping all the time to catch up. This meal came every afternoon – it’s a long time, 24 hours between meals. There was a high wire fence surrounding the camp, and I noticed a couple of sergeants walking purposely around, and looking as though they were up to no good (I will mention them a little later on our train journey.) I think we stayed in this place for about four days until we were given orders to move at dusk one night.
We marched out to the railway crossing immediately outside this small camp. There were the usual cattle wagons in a siding onto which the guards counted us. I think we were about forty or fifty and had enough room to lie down without too much bickering, I think we were still a bit apathetic. There was a fair amount of straw, so things were not too bad. I had now been given a hunk of bread for the journey on being loaded on train. I think the bread was a half a kilo. I tried to make it last a couple of days, and nearly made it. I found the straw gradually broke down, and so I, who was never very fat, started getting scabs on my hip-bones.
The wagon had the usual barbed wire covered, ventilation window hatch. Some of the blokes were trying to get it open. Eventually they managed to take off the barbed wire. They asked if anyone was interested in getting out. There didn’t seem many takers. I did not fancy getting through what looked like a rather small aperture, so we took the easy option! (The two sergeants I had seen earlier taking a constitutional around the camp, were Banwell and Kettley. They had linked up with a Lt. Leo Heaps a dynamic Canadian, and after their escape from our truck, had various adventures, as written about by Heaps in his book. On the 50th anniversary, Tex Banwell told me the location of Stroe railway crossing. Should I have gone or, knowing me, would I have fallen under the wheels?)
After they had gone, the barbed wire was replaced, and slowly we trundled on. They were never missed by the Germans, I presume as long as the numbers were nearly correct, it was okay. Once we were strafed by our own planes, but not fired upon. I think most of the trucks had red berets had waving from the air-vents.
By now our bread was gone and, as we had locked in, we had no way of relieving ourselves, we had to stand by the doors and hope most of our wee would go outside. As most of us had so little food, crapping was not too bad. We finally stopped in what seemed a large railway siding, our door slid back and we were allowed to go to the toilet. As we passed by the truck the guards used as their guardroom, someone asked for some water. The Corporal in charge offered us some soup instead. I was able to get a cupful thankfully. Then it was on the train and off again. I think we were on this train some four days, arriving late evening, and being left in the trucks until early next morning.
This was a staging camp called Limburg. Well known by most airborne prisoners as not very good. They let us out and we were marched into the camp and a wooden barrack hut, still no grub. Also no beds, we tried to sleep on the bare floor, but the cold kept me awake most of the time. This was the most miserable time I experienced. It is deliberate to starve you a little to keep you docile, but nobody had told them how little food we had had since leaving England, it didn’t seem fair to me.
In the morning we went further into the camp to have a shower and a de-louse. We went into one room where we undressed, and as we passed through a door into the showers, a bloke, with what looked like a fire brush, slapped some ‘tarry-looking’ stuff under our arms and around our ‘John Thomas’. Then into the showers, which were nice and hot, and where I expected there would be soap. My soap had been left with my clothes, silly! However we were able to trade it for bread a few days later. Through the showers and into next door where our clothes had been brought and probably searched. We dressed and passed into the camp proper.
As a camp Limburg was not rated very highly, we were non-workers, so the standard of food was not very good, even by POW standards. The camp had what appeared to be a very muddy main street leading to an upper field the size of a football pitch. It was almost filled by two huge marquees. The one on the left was to be home for the next couple of weeks or so, and was supplied with a good supply of straw. With a walkway through the middle, and wooden edging, it wasn’t too bad. We were issued with a blanket each, rather smelly. As I was still mucking-in with ‘Vic’ Capper, we huddled together for warmth, during the night, that is.
Passing the time was difficult as books were scarce. A number of American issue books were passed from hand to hand, they were a handy size, three inches, by two inches, the right size for our shell-dressing pocket. Mein Kampf was also available, though not many seemed to bother with it. Another was a supposedly anti-war book. ‘This above all’ it was in two volumes, so I got the second part to read first.
There were a variety nationalities in the camp, I saw an American on the main street about to throw some food away, so I rapidly asked him for it, he told me to beware as it would give me the shits. I was too hungry to worry until later. It was a dark green mess, of a stringy, cabbagy nature. Somebody said it was the top of mangel wurzels, but I have recently read that somebody said it was the tops of beetroots, take your pick. Another feed was the mangels themselves, the hard woody bits. This leads on to the most unsavoury part of the camp, the ‘forty-holer’. It was a large wooden hut with five concrete steps, each step had eight toilets, the old cottage type, no water cistern. Because of our food there was always a queue. Paper was scarce and many books had bits torn out including the Bible. It was cleared out by a barrel-shaped, horse drawn vehicle driven by a foreign labourer, they seemed to get all the worst jobs! It was taken from the camp and spread on the local fields, which was pretty ‘pongy’. I have not been very keen on organic food since.
I had a bit of good fortune. In one of the camp offices I met a Corporal from one of the Battalions, a very casual acquaintance. We had been on a scheme with NCO’s and Officers, in which our Troop booby-trapped a large mansion house, and they attempted to clear it. It lasted approximately three days. I remember they found and killed a duck - very tough: it would go down well now! Anyway, my slight degree of casual acquaintance got me a mugful of boiled peas. These small extras of food are highlights in a very hungry existence.
I had developed a large, nasty boil on my wrist, probably caused by bad food, irregular toiletry and diet. ‘Vic’ Capper and I went sick, me with my boil and ‘Vic’ with a more honourable shrapnel in his legs. My boil got a dollop, bleach (soft-soap-like substance), and a paper bandage. The doctor reckoned this goo was one of the few good medicines the Germans had, anyway it quickly healed up. ‘Vic’ had to go into hospital for his legs. He disappeared until we met thirty or forty years later, when he didn’t look any older.
I had now met up with three sappers from the Squadron, Hanlon was a Scot from Paisley, Scarfe and ‘Jock’, making a handy quartet for sharing. Hanlon, I had last seen making himself comfortable in Sonnenberg. Scarfe was from Leeds, and I don’t think had been long in the Squadron. ‘Jock’, another Scot (yes?) whose surname I cannot remember. He came from Clackmannanshire, that I can remember. The four of us stayed together till we were released by the Americans in April ‘45. A good blend of youth and experience. ln fact we became ‘muckers’, and shared all our rations and food. As a non-smoker I was able to throw my cigarettes into the pool.
Limburg was a staging camp from where prisoners were moved on to other main camps, and from there to other working parties, or ‘arbiets kommandos’. Our compound was separated from an adjacent compound by the usual barbed wire fence, with the trip-wire about ten feet away, where the sentries would happily shoot you if you stepped inside, but that didn’t stop the trading: soap for bread, Hanlon was our expert. He would take the soap and hang about near the fence. As this was shopping from a distance of about 30 or 40 feet, and as he always seemed to be successful, he could be a millionaire by now.
I cannot remember the length of our stay in Limburg, I think it was about ten days. We were ordered to move and given strict instructions not to take our blanket by accident! As they were stinky and smelly and stiff with dirt. I was not too bothered. We got our bread ration of about the same size as from Stroe. I was a lot happier with our quartet of sappers, though missing ‘Vic’ Capper.
Our train accommodation was not so good, same wagons, but less straw, so my hip bones got scabbier again. There was a toilet bucket but as we had been having a little more food the bucket was soon overflowing. This journey was, in some ways, more miserable as we had caught up on our lost sleep. Food was our main topic of conversation, and would be for the next six months.
We arrived at Muhlberg, Stalag 4B, and were quickly passed into the main camp. Muhlberg was a huge place, filled with all sorts of prisoners. From the high class NCO and RAF, down to the lowliest toilet cleaning Russian Ost-Arbieters. That was East worker, with the Ost armband, who seemed to get by eating the potato skins from rich people’s bins. (you can now buy these same skins in restaurants. It appears we threw away the most nutritious part of the spud). We were herded into a barrack room where there were some skilly containers left over from lunch with some bits left inside.
We dived at them with spoons at the alert, but only dregs remained. Me and another bloke went after the same spoonful, which then fell on the floor, we both tried to scoop it up. All that happened was our spoons clashed, causing the skilly to mash in sandy dirt, we nearly came to blows. I realised that I was sinking backwards, and it had only taken about four or five weeks of very little food.
We had a stroll around the camp to get our bearings and on a sports field there was a rugby ball being thrown about. I tried to run up and down the field a couple of times which left me shattered my heart pounding and legs shaking. The chap in charge asked if any of us were interested in staying in the camp as rugby players, and with probably better food, but we decided to take a chance on a works commando.
We were allocated a place in one of the barrack rooms. We then had a set routine of morning roll calls, in the dark, usually in a chilly breeze. Then a dash back to our room to hang about until daylight. It was a choice of whether to have a stroll around the perimeter or go to the market for a little trading. There was a raised bank around the perimeter, which gave a view over the wire towards the pine woods 100 to 200 yards away. I don’t know if there were any local villages, I cannot remember seeing any civilians passing. Of course the railway must have been close by. The pine woods made it a little claustrophobic.
Our trip to the market passed some time, with all sorts being traded, the main currency being cigarettes. Some of the old boys, long time prisoners who received regular parcels, were wealthy by comparison to us newcomers. Russian prisoners were handy in making souvenirs from both German and British aluminium mess tins. Photo frames seemed to be popular. I wasn’t very interested in souvenirs at the moment, maybe later!
On my rambles I met a couple of people I knew. One was a school friend, Ronnie Ryland*, I had not seen since before the war. He was in the Paras, wearing a couple of stripes. when I congratulated him, he said he had put them up to dodge going out on a works commando, crafty! Another was my Troop Sergeant from the 591 Squadron: he had been taken some time after D-Day. There was also a sapper from the same Troop who had been awakened by a German as he slept in is slit-trench. So maybe moving to the 4th Squadron had saved me an extra three months as a POW. (I think they were part of the Merville Battery assault, to which none of the sappers ever arrived). Another was a Johnny Davis,
one of three brothers serving in the Irish Guards. He was dishing out some tea so he made sure my cup was filled. He invited me to have a meal one night in his barrack. He had met his cousin who was a sapper in an airborne company at Arnhem. The meal was memorable: fried potatoes, fried Spam, followed by sweet tea. He was on the camp staff and had been taken [POW] in Italy so was fairly settled in. I met him in a local pub when on leave, so was able to buy him a couple of pints as thanks. Another thing I saw was an RAF bloke weight lifting while wearing a thick white woollen jersey which I thought seemed strange.
* This was 14242724. Pte. Ronald Rylands. 3rd Parachute Battalion.
We started mustering-to on a working party, had our photos taken, issued with American greatcoats, which went over all our clothes, battle and smock, also a pair of wooden soled clogs, and foot rags instead of socks. you spread the fifteen inch square of flannelette material on the floor, placed your foot in the middle, turned the sides over your foot, lifted the back up, still holding the sides and slid your foot into the clog. It worked quite well although they gave you blisters and sometimes ended in a bundle by your toes. In winter snow built up on the wooden soles, which made you into a ‘Madam Butterfly’ when you kicked the snow off, it made you flat footed and walking on air. I used the rags and clogs to save my ammo. boots. I did hear that, rags foot, were German Army issue.
We moved to another barrack ready for an early start, where we again got our bread ration along with some sort of cheese. Somebody said it was Limburg, as it had a powerful smell, was runny and soggy, maybe it reminded me of the ‘forty holer’ some of the party immediately got stuck into the grub, and had ‘big licks’ others tried to save some for the journey. We four saved ours, which lasted about a day.
It was the same cattle trucks, the straw a lot skimpier, fortunately the journey only lasted three days. Unfortunately the cheese gave some of us the runs, this made the trip a lot grottier than any trip so far, and with more new scabs on my hips. We ended this journey in the middle of the night in a large railway siding. It was pitch black, and very, very cold, we didn’t want to move, as cold and smelly as it was, it felt like home, and was a lot colder outside. We de-trained to the usual shouting and staggered off, scurrying to try and get warm.
The sidings were on the outskirts of a small town called Zwichau in the triangle of Leipzig, Chemnitz, and Dresden. These were taken over by the Russians sometime after the Americans had released us in April 1945. In half an hour we arrived at a four storey, warehouse-looking building. We entered a small wired-in compound, and were counted through an iron door, and up a stone spiral staircase to the second floor, to a large room filled with two tier-bunks. It was all clean and whitewashed. At the near end was a cast iron stove, for which we got a small supply of briquettes, not coal more like peat. As it was still the middle of the night we quickly got our heads down.
On the floor below was a previous ‘kommando’, which had arrived a day or so earlier. They were out at work when we got up, and most unusually we had been given the day off. Just across from our room was the mess room, a small kitchen, and a four-bog toilet There were about ten eight-man tables, handy for sharing out a two-kilo loaf at 250 grams per person.
We had been luckier in our ‘kommando’, getting American greatcoats The people below had been issued with old green French overcoats as thin as tissue paper and probably dating from the Franco-German war, 1870? Their good luck was on their first day at work on the railway: they had been allowed to have a meal in the workers canteen with its marvellous thick skilly. The mistake was discovered and they never saw the inside of the place again but, I think, talking and dreaming about it kept them going for the rest of their time in Zwichau. The first evening was taken up in splitting us into work parties. We four ended up in a party of some twenty-five going to a place called Werdau. We were lucky to be near the middle of Germany, some airborne ended up somewhere in far distant Poland working down mines, and as the Russians came closer, in January they started marching back towards Germany. It must have been rough, we were lucky.
Next morning we were up early, a quick cup of coffee, hot and tasteless, a march through the town to the railway station to catch our train to Werdau. It took about an hour, travelling civilian style but with hard wooden seats, our guide shepherding us like a broody hen and not mixing with the civvies.
We were met by our railway overseer, probably retired, with railway uniform, complete with a small revolver, 7.65mm which he threatened us with when we annoyed him. As we usually laughed at him, I don’t think it was too serious. Our guard, who was a First World War veteran, left us for the day, with our ‘boss’ in charge. He took us to storeroom, where we collected an assortment of tools and a couple of jacks. The object of our tools was to lift the railway lines.
We would scrape out the ballast under the rail, place the jack under to lift the rail. Our ‘boss’ would slowly sink to his knees and sight along the line. It showed shiny where it needing lifting. Another jack would be inserted under the shiny spot until it was level and the shininess disappeared. We would scrape the ballast from under the sleeper, which had been raised. Some of us would be ‘scraper-outers’ and some ‘stubbers’ or ‘schtubbers’, to stub fresh stones under the sleeper, with a pickaxe with a butt end. The ‘scraper-outer’ had a long pole, six feet long, which was handy to place under your armpit, dig the other end in the ground, and torture yourself talking about food. After a few months, a hole wore through my greatcoat, smock, and battledress. (I now have a hoe for gardening, the same length, and the same degree of comfort). Our working day was fairly civilised, from 0800h until 1700h, plus an hour and a half for travelling. We had an hour for lunch if you had anything left of your ration, otherwise a cup of warm water. Around 1600h, we would start to get restless, our guard would turn up to escort us home. We would be escorted into our courtyard, it would be a dash up the spiral stairs, outer clothes off, grab your skilly bowl, and into the queue for your evening meal. These barracks were always welcoming, as they felt warmer after standing about a cold, windy railway line for eight hours.
After the meal our bread ration was issued, a two kilo loaf between eight men. I don’t think it ever dropped below 250 grams. Sometimes it was rather mouldy and always very hard, not bad really, as it was more chewable. Various ways were used to share it evenly. One was to cut it into eight and deal eight playing cards, lowest had first choice of the piece you thought was the largest. What you did with it was up to yourself, have a bit tonight, and keep a bit for lunch tomorrow.
Most of us would shortly be in bed. If the fire was going, we would have a ‘jangle’ around the stove. Hearing various anecdotes of happenings before becoming a kriegie [POW].
Our week was five and a half days, very civilised, finishing noon on Saturday. Not a great deal went on at the weekend, probably have a shave: once a week was sufficient for me. My English soap had gone in trading, and I had to use the Jerry issue. The usual size tablet of a grey mess of something like a mild pumice which, when rubbed on your hands, made a sort of paste; when rubbed on your face made you clean by friction. The soap in our parcels was always used for trading. The same with the chocolate, it took a lot of will power to trade a beautiful bar of chocolate for the filling bulk of a two kilo civilian loaf, round, fresh and a lot sweeter tasting than our usual mouldy lump.
Our discipline was managed by a full Corporal: camp leader; man of confidence, whose job it was to liaise between us and the Germans. All in the barracks crammed into the mess room after dinner for orders and instructions. Also rumours of parcels seen on railway sidings somewhere. As railway workers we never seemed to see any. Another nasty order was the puncturing of all tins in the parcels. Each parcel was shared between six or eight men, sometimes it was tricky - I used dream of one between four, impossible. (I have recently read that there were thirteen million Red Cross parcels still in Switzerland after the war! big licks!) We would sometimes get little extras, one was a small tin of Italian meat, two or three ounces, very good too. Jerry jam was not too bad, I believe it was made from turnips or swedes, anyway it was sweet.
Sometimes individuals were given separate jobs. One bloke was made ‘laager barber’, but as there was not much haircutting to be done, he was soon back on a works detail. One night they asked for anyone with joinery, or woodwork experience. Our ‘Jock’ volunteered, and so we lost him during the daytime. As I mentioned he was an ‘old sweat’ and it paid off. (his local knowledge paid off after the Americans released us, much more later).
The days became an endless round of cold, early, black mornings, of leaving our billet, and to try and get the time to pass as quickly as possible. Some days on the open line, with an icy wind blowing from Siberia, I got a little relief by visiting our mobile toilet, to sit and meditate for a few minutes. It was made like a mandarin’s chair, transported by four blokes at each end of two long poles and, with our small amount of food, was not overworked.
Our gaffer was a snuff addict, his upper lip badly discoloured, he tried to hide it from us by turning away as he had a little sniff. As a non-smoker I realised there were worse habits than ciggies, though not many. Some blokes would sometimes swap their bread for them, so they must have derived some pleasure from the habit.
The main pastime, or torture, was talking about food. Not fancy or luxurious, but the stale crusts that were thrown away. One RASC driver told of 14-man packs, falling into the sea from the Mulberry harbour in Normandy. Somebody said they wished they could be transported there to fish for them, maybe later the tins would drift in on the tide for the French people to find. Dreams are wonderful things!
Moving about the railway, we passed various cabins and huts. Some had small plots with various plants growing. One night, on the way home I noticed a tomato plant with a few small green tomatoes still surviving, so I made a note for the next day. Of course, some filthy swine had beaten me to it. The same thing happened later just before we were released. It was a small allotment, similar to one my Dad had in England. A German was planting potatoes. Again I made note. Again the next day I sneaked back and dug around with my hands, hoping he had not put in too much manure. Again some swine had pinched them. My life seemed to be a failure.
The only success I had, was a plant with a small twisted root, which somebody said was edible. Anyway, I stuck it in my pocket. That weekend we were taken for a de-louse to a local baths. Our clothes were passed through the de-louser which left them lovely clean and warm, an added bonus was the plant in my pocket had cooked, warm and soft, but tasting of de-lousing chemicals.
Another touch of the unusual was during the daylight bombing raids by the American bombers. We would wander away from the railway track. One time we were along a path, leaning on a five bar gate watching the action, when someone said that a plant, similar to a daisy was good to eat. I don’t know how he knew that. Anyway I picked half a dozen, dusted them off, and nibbled them. They seemed okay, slightly bitter, but they went down alright, no after effects.(I have recently read that fresh grass, and even fresh sawdust, if not too much, is safe to eat.) Handy to know for the future. & we were doing more travelling; having small jobs in different parts of the area around Zwichau and Werdau. We got talking to some German ladies in the backyard of their house, which backed onto the railway. They had a large boiler bubbling away, filled with cut up sugar beet, making their own sugar. They took some out to let us taste, it was sweet, naturally, slightly bitter, but I don’t know how long it had to boil to make sugar. Civilians were now becoming friendlier, realising the war was coming to an end. These ladies seemed fairly friendly. Not too friendly as we were still too starved to bother - a spoonful of half cooked sugar beet was more appealing!
Another incident that happened was a young Scots lad decided to get off working. He bashed his hand inside his glove and when a passenger train went past, someone threw one of our tools under the wheels, as though the lad hung on to it. This took place on the top of an embankment. The lad rolled down the slope and acted as though he had been knocked down by the tool. Our ‘gaffer’ was on the other side of the train, so did not see anything. We all acted concerned, the ‘gaffer’ was a bit panicky, and the lad was carted away. I did hear the police investigated the incident, also that lad had become crippled. Most of us were of the opinion that there were easier ways of dodging the column,. The weather was getting worse, heavier snow than in England, and it seemed a lot more frosty, though that was probably lack of food. The days crawled by and very little shelter from the weather, or taking it easy. No cushy jobs inside - not a true railway worker! I had a permanent drip on the end of my nose, which I used to flick away with the thumb of my glove. At one period I started to get stomach cramps caused by the hunger I looked like the Red Cross picture of a POW staring through the barbed wire asking for donations for parcels. The only complete parcel I ever received was from the LMS railway, a couple of weeks after I arrived home, it helped my mother to fatten me up. Also I reckon the Deutches Reichbahn (German Railway) should give us free passes to travel on their trains, the same as the LMS (reparations), but with the small amount we did they would still only allow us to travel on their cattle trucks.
Christmas was approaching, and we four had been putting a little bread away to make a bread pudding Christmas cake with a few raisins and jam. We finished work on Friday evening - did Christmas fall on a weekend that year? on the way home on the train our old Jerry guard must have been feeling sentimental as he gave us a, very good rendition of Heilige Nacht, in the original German, of course. we were choked, with the odd little tear trickling down our cheeks - roll on a long time!
After skilly and getting a little warm it was off to bed. I don’t know how it started, but suddenly everyone was awake and, at about 0300h, we three tucked into our Christmas cake. It didn’t take long, then it was a case of ‘roll on next year’. Though we still had our normal rations for the rest of the day. on the night there was supposed to be a party in the downstairs barrack room with beer, two barrels, one mild, one bitter, not very alcoholic, not free. We paid with our ‘laager geld’ we got for working. (Someone said it worthless outside the camps, so I never bothered with it. When I arrived in England I was able to exchange the little I had for a couple of quid). The beer was cold and dank, like the dregs after a party back home. Some of us tried to create the party spirit with a sing-song, it soon fizzled out, and so to bed. After Christmas, New year passed with even less jollity!
A little later in the year we had a film show! After dinner the dining room was made into a cinema, we put our benches across the room and that was it. It was in German, and all I recall is that the actors wore white tie and tails, and the ladies long evening dresses. It could not have been very exciting, after half an hour I trotted off to bed. I suppose it was just the thing to cheer-up a hard working kriegie, a drawing room farce, maybe it was the German sense of humour. In Muhlberg, just before coming to Zwichau, a little entertainment was provided by a play put on in our barrack room. A blanket was hung across a corner near the stove, and three or four of the cast would huddle behind and say their lines. Again, it never held my attention for long and I was off to bed.
As I have said, American bombers were flying over on an almost regular basis, causing an interruption to our work – sad! They flew at such a height that they were difficult to see: only the con-trails gave them away. They would be in their self protecting formations with an occasional plane being shot down We would then see the parachutes opening and drifting down. One dropped a few miles from us. Daylight bombing seemed to be very dicey, not much chance of evasion, especially from Germany. My brother was in the RAF on night bombing. His worst time was in 1943, and he at
least scraped through his tours. Before I came into the Army, he tried to get me to volunteer as an air-gunner As I was not brainy enough to make Wop/Ag. As a failed air crew, I would have ended up guarding in the RAF Reg. So I opted for the easy touch. I decided to let the Army call me up, and try and get a pair of wings in the Para’s. When I did not return from Arnhem he said I at least had two pair of wings. That was until I turned up in April with my little bag of loot. Enough of brotherly love - at least he got his second pair of wings before me!
DONE TO HERE
Our work at Werdau was becoming more irregular, and we seemed to be able to move around more freely. We met some long-time prisoners, ‘old boys’, cleaner and well dressed. They lived in a small camp of twenty blokes, opposite the railway station. So a couple of us popped in for a visit and saw another side to prison life. They lived in small rooms, very cosy, with what looked like plenty of possessions, we even had afternoon tea - tea, not eats. A couple even had girlfriends they could see. I reckon they must have had a lot more grub than us, with more opportunity for trading. I think it was two or three months until I felt frisky again.
One Sunday most of the camp was called out on an emergency, local big town had been badly bombed. I can’t remember hearing the name at the time, later I presumed it to be Dresden. We were hurriedly marched to the station, packed into the guards van, complete with fire, around which we huddled. It had snowed, and was bitterly cold. We detrained at a station nowhere near a large town. We then just hung about the station platform, trying to keep warm. I was ‘sniffing’ at a food storeroom, but was unable to get near anything: a female member of the staff kept her beady eyes on me. Then it was a trudge through the snow to our train and home again I don’t think Dresden would have got much sympathy from us.
Another days work was to a railway siding deep in a pine forest, with about 18 inches of snow. There were stacks of logs. While we were there, with a lot of shouting there came what looked like a party of Hitler Youth, playing soldiers. Any of our ribald remarks, loudly spoken, were quietened by our guards in case an argument started.
Our camp was near, about fifty yards away from a bridge over a river - the Elbe? From our attic windows we could look down on it. I had dreams of getting through the barbed-wire, stealing a boat and idly floating down the river... back to reality! The road after a mile or so led to a coal mine. We were taken there to use their baths. After our ablutions we were lined up to be counted. What I think was a work shift was being lined up about 50 yards away. There was the usual yelling and shouting, led by an NCO who almost became hysterical and frothing at the mouth - the Krauts do seem to get very excited if they don’t get their own way. These poor workers, I guess would be Russians, were in a bad way. Their skin was a dirty, greeny-white, and all dressed in various rags. We looked toffs in comparison. I think it was only our presence that stopped the NCO from thumping them; I was glad not to end up down the mines, even lor a bit of free coal.
On another job of ‘schtubbing’, I was accidentally struck on the third finger of my left hand, maybe a hint against marriage? It was a nasty cut to the bone. I was going to ignore it, it did not breed much: maybe my blood was a bit thin. But our gaffer’s ‘gaffer’- he wore a bigger hat and had bandy legs, with leather gaiters, and was called ‘Tojo’ - insisted have it attended to. He took me to a block of storerooms, mess rooms, typical railway. On a wall were the usual notice boards. One notice was about the Jews. ‘Tojo’ started on about them being the cause of the war, and if not for them, there would be no war. I thought that’s bloody silly, everyone knows that Hitler started the war. Anyway I kept my mouth shut, and looked as though my hand hurt me, he wasn’t friendly enough to offer me some hot sweet tea, as any poor sickly patient should receive!
The next job we went to was repairing and renewing line at a junction. There were dozens of genuine railway workers. They had large iron pincers for lifting lengths of rail. The rails were 30 feet long, and not the lightest of items to lug around. The Germans worked with manic determination, and were rather sneery of our feeble efforts. I thought it was an amount of stupidity on their part, to think we should work with the same fervour and zeal. Besides which, we were not out to aid and abet the enemy, our main aim in working was to raise a degree of warmth, and help in the passing of time. The ‘schtubbing’ we did, they will sneer at in a short time, or maybe the Russians will be sneering at the poor workmanship of the Germans, serve them right!
Another time we were doing something on the line, out in the country, helping some foreign workers, when a mobile kitchen drew up on the lane below the embankment. All of us were allowed to join the queue, it was a marvellous thick skilly (the Krauts are great skilly-makers!). As there didn’t seem to be any check I sidled up, as though I had just arrived, and managed another bowl. I was too afraid to chance another go - people had been shot for less - mind you two thick skilly’s in one day is like two Christmas’s in one.
By now, the feeling of ‘the end of the war’ was coming, also the weather was warming up and the days lengthening. We were working on the line just outside Zwichau station and had just finished work at 1700h when the air-raid sirens sounded. The ack-ack started up then came the sound of planes. They were a squadron of fighter bombers in groups of three, altogether some 20 or 30. They lined up in a long queue above the railway line, where we had just been working, and on a signal all their bombs were dropped at once. There did not appear to be much opposition, and the line from Zwichau station for over a mile was totally destroyed. Our works party watched this from the peace of a small public garden near town. It seemed unnatural to have a ringside view of a bombing raid in the company of our guard, as though it was an everyday occurrence, then continue home for our skilly.
We returned to the same place on the line the next day. The place was a shambles, with trucks thrown all over the place, but already the Germans had a single line through all of the damage. By the end of the day a train was slowly being driven on the new line (bombing tracks is not a long-term way of closing lines). It was good of the RAF or Yanks not to bomb until we had finished work. The fields along the track, which we would have run to, had got their fair share of bombs. It would have been dicey. My brother would have chuckled if I had been killed by our own bombs! Anyway, cannot remember doing any serious work. Everyone seemed a little bemused, our gaffer, just wanted to keep out of the way. We went mooching among the lines of waggons, which were strewn all over the place; one on its side, had its door open, deliberate, or otherwise? It was filled with cases of what turned out to be tins of pork in jelly, obviously we decided to take a few to try. We offered a couple to our ‘gaffer’, who was by now a mate! At first he was a bit nervous but, after a little persuasion, he put a few in his poacher pocket inside his overcoat. It was the last we saw of him.
A couple of weeks previously, we had a funny incident in regard to German and English. British soldiers are always ‘effing and blinding’, the ‘gaffer’ asked us “wat is das figgy figgy?”. We explained in pidgin German and lewd gestures, that after nine months you had a little Herman or Fraulein. As comprehension bloomed on his face, with a mouthful of German, “Gott verdammt Englander scheisser mensch”, he stomped up the line to take a large pinch of snuff. I think we soured German/British relations. I hope our few tins of meat helped. The tins were the same size as the syrup duff tins in the ‘14-man packs’. I had acquired a tin and took it on leave. Every leave thereafter, the old man used to ask for more pudding. I realised that I was getting better food than them. I should have taken some tins of the pork instead of my silly souvenirs: Jerry pack, mess tin, ‘Got mit Uns’ belt. As about half a dozen of us had brought a couple tins of the meat it was dumped in the skilly - it helped - though the richness gave us the runs!
Our final evening was full of expectation. We could hear artillery fire in the distance, our guards left us to ourselves, one Welsh bloke managed to get drunk with them and was brought upstairs and dumped on his bed. The gates of the laager were left open, so a couple of us took a walk around the block. As everything was to quiet, it was better to stop in our billet.
Next morning, the sound of small-arms seemed to be coming closer along the street to our left. A turning led into the town square. I was down by the main gate, which was open, when an American soldier poked his head around the corner. He was rather small, which I thought was unusual, as most Americans all appeared six feet tall. Suddenly all our blokes poured out. One red-haired Para, who always had a red stubble on his face, rushed forward and planted a big kiss on the surprised Yanks cheeks. The red-head was the bloke who, when we had just arrived at our ‘kommando’, was bemoaning his fate on not having any cigarettes. It was in the dining room with an interested audience. He scraped out his shell dressing pocket, which contained a piece of four by two, bits of fluff, and one or two strands of tobacco. He had a cigarette paper-sized piece of local ‘Echo’, and managed to roll the lot into a semblance of a ciggie. He scrounged a match and lit up, took a long drag and, with some satisfaction, slowly exhaled, saying it burnt a bit but was better than nothing. The dog-end he put back in his knicker/shell-dressing pocket for later desperation. I watched all this with a certain amount of incredulity, at the mind-boggling antics of cigarette smokers. So giving the Yank a kiss was not unusual, at least he may get some smokes!
I will say I was amazed at the speed and efficiency of the American spearhead. Our guard had a huge haversack, tightly packed with which looked like every piece of kit he ever possessed. He was quickly made to dump it, and he and the rest were soon marched away, helped along by an occasional kick. A couple of Americans dashed into the compound and lobbed a couple of grenades into the office and guardroom. Then they were off down the road to the bridge over the river. The speed of the American assault on Zwichau had impressed us. They had gone through the town like a dose of salts. Somewhere in the rear, I believe, General Patton was in charge; he wasn’t the sort of bloke to hang about. There had been a little fighting, and some wounded Germans were being attended to by some Red Cross women. That was when I was given a piece of American bread, absolutely white. I seemed unnatural after German bread, but it was soon eaten; it was almost cake-like.
The Americans now started to take control of the town. They called for a meeting on the square in front of the Town Hall, calling on anyone with weapons to hand them in. Most of them were more than ancient, and could have made a few bob on the Antiques Roadshow. Most of the Germans seemed eager to please. We were offered some apples by housewives, wrinkled through storage - the apples not the ladies! We went into a jewellers shop that had been ransacked. The only things I got were about 20 black watch fobs, three inches long, with a clip for a pocket watch, so that the watch was put in your waistcoat pocket, and the fob dangled, Edwardian? I found a pocket watch with a nice face, but it didn’t keep good time, so I gave it to my ‘old man’. I think he would have preferred a tin of pork!
A lot of business premises had been broken into, mostly by foreign workers. There was a school which had been bombed. Again there was a young girl lying dead on the pavement, she seemed identical to the girl in Wolfheze I had seen on 18th September, very sad.
I went into the school looking around, all I found was a pair of decorative pipes made in porcelain, hidden among the linen in a cupboard. I managed to hang on to them lor a number of years, until I was coaxed to part with one by Alan McGuffoch playing for Sefton RUF. He tried to smoke it and ruined the bowl and stem. He was a non-smoker and became a tobacco planter in Kenya which figures. His claim to fame was that he knew Idi Amin when Idi was a corporal. The next thing I came across was a pair of shoes, black size ten, perfect. The only drawback was that the sole and uppers were made in one piece, and of some kind of composition similar to a lot of modern ones. I used them for six months, especially for dancing, until eventually wore through. Mainly caused by dancing on asphalt around the band stand in Horsham Park. I wish I could have found two pairs!
Our ‘kommando’ had been functioning, after a fashion. Our tins of meat had thickened the skilly, unfortunately it was too rich and gave a lot of us the runs, causing the toilets to block. I had an attack, and ‘Jock’ came to my rescue. From somewhere he got a couple of pints of milk and some macaroni; he made a wash bowl sized pudding, which I scoffed all to myself, it worked. Various hangers-on had appeared in our mess-room, setting up home. There was a certain amount of boozing with ladies, tut-tut!
One of our blokes was immersed in wrapping half a dozen ladies muffs in tissue paper; those fur covered hand warmers the gentry used. The fur looked rather expensive, though I don’t believe they would be in great demand back home, but would make an unusual present for someone. I asked him if he thought he would get them home, he replied he would give it a go. I knew later with the rubbish I took back, he probably didn’t have any trouble.
The four of us had our photo taken at the main gate, ‘Jock’ Hanlon had acquired a camera. I had got one also, but it never took very good photo’s, it either cut off the heads or the feet! I don’t think I was a very good looter. I saw the photo later, but can’t remember where, or who had it. ‘Clack’ Jock came up with the idea to take off back to ‘Blighty’. As there didn’t seem to be any sign of us moving out, it was a good idea.
In a short time the two Jock’s appeared at the gate with a newish saloon car, ideal for four weary sappers, fortunately ‘Clack’ Jock said he could drive, and Scarfe said he could do a bit, so we were okay.
But first we needed some petrol, and maybe some grub. After some enquiries, we arrived at an American camp. We casually drove in, and as casually asked for some petrol, and got an immediate ‘fill-up’. And could you spare some grub. A casual hand waved in the direction of a dump. We just as casually drove over, and with casual haste, we filled the boot of the car with ‘K’ rations. Again with our casual haste, we casually scurried to the nearest lay-by for a I feed of US rations. We found them lighter as food than army rations, but beggars can’t be choosers.
We drove off in a rough direction, we hoped, of England; till we came to an original German Auto-Bahn, miles wide, and stretching forever. Our side was almost traffic free, the other carriage-way was filled with huge US trucks; all travelling at the same speed and distance apart driven very casually by large black Americans with flashing grins. Seeing all this mighty power would have given Hitler a baby, no wonder they could have white fresh bread in their front line. It made me glad the Americans were on our side.
Our line of travel was from Zwichau, to Gera, Gotha, and Geissen. Now we went wrong, somehow we ended up in a forest, I don’t know how, but we made a bit of a balls-up. It was getting dark and could see figures flitting about, and shouting to each other. We decided discretion was the better part of valour, and as the war had a couple of weeks to run so would we. We slowly turned rapidly and scooted back the way we had come. The couple of pistols we had picked up, would not settle much of an argument.
Our next port of call, as it were, was to find somewhere safe for the night. We could see the lights of a US Army camp. We very slowly drove up a slight incline, and rather gingerly approached their main gate. We explained our plight, and was it possible to have somewhere safe to kip for the night, again assistance was given. Their caution was explained, by the threat of ‘werewolves’, a German underground, of sorts, carrying on the war. This camp had had a few shots fired into it, though nothing of consequence. I suppose they could have been the lads we had seen in the forest, playing at soldiers.
We were offered beds, and a couple of blankets apiece, and given a feed. Already there; was an ‘Old Boy’ Kriegie, with a young comely, French girl, whom he was kindly escorting to her home in France, he was making sure she travelled safely, as an English gentleman would do. She was given separate accommodation, and as such he stayed with her to make sure the ‘werewolves’ didn’t trouble her. I hope they made it through the British Zone, where there really are wolves!
Come the morning and a good breakfast we were sitting in the mess tent chatting to our hosts. Americans are souvenir mad, ‘Jock’ Hanlon displayed his pistol, which we had picked up in a farm on the outskirts of Zwichau. It was fairly small, I think 7,65mm with a broken handle. A small tubby American, the same height as ‘Jock’ not in width, was interested, so they had a bargaining, with the American offering one of his shirts and ‘Jock’ accepting, now, knowing Americans it probably has a pearl handle. Anyway the deal was done.
Our party, glad to be friendly to the Americans hosts, Hanlon immediately put on his new shirt, not exactly bespoke, him, being more than slightly scrawny, and his American friend, more than slightly chubby. ‘Jock’ looked similar to a tortoise, he could easily draw his head in to keep warm. In passing, my pistol ended up on display in the Hartenstein Museum. Maybe I should have traded it in for a shirt!
Again we set off on our travels, we passed through a couple of towns. The first appeared untouched, though filled with various classes of society, from ‘ladder’ climbing Krauts, to all sorts of displaced persons. The second town was hardly that. I don’t think there were two bricks standing. We drove up an incline of rubble, onto a road of rubble, bulldozed through rubble, we were glad to leave it behind.
I had made a list of places we passed through, in a little notebook I found. (unfortunately my wife has a clear-out every so often: and things get scattered. Even my big army pack, with its shrapnel holes, a good ‘line shoot’. She said it smelt. I said that was dust of Sonnenberg, and the mud off my rugby kit. Women haven’t any souls!)
We were having a pleasant time driving through the quiet German countryside. There was a farm to our left down a track, where we hoped to get some hot water for a coffee break. We could see a lone worker in the fields beyond the farm. Anyway we drew into the farmyard, and stretched our legs, The buildings was large with equipment barn below, and stone steps leading up to the living quarters. The door was opened by a youngish lady with fair hair and long brown legs.
We had our ‘Open Sesame’ American coffee, and tinned food. So we spent a pleasant hour having afternoon tea. The lady did not seem too surprised at entertaining four very untidy soldiers. I hope we did not scare her too much, we paid for our visit with a little coffee and some tins.
After our break we pressed on up the road, onto the motorway. We eventually came upon a huge island, with thousands of displaced persons milling about. It was near the Rhine with a Bailey Bridge across. The army and MP’s were not allowing any vehicles to cross over. We parted regretfully with our car, in a compound with thousands of others. If only there was a way to get it back to England, that was worth having! We made our way towards the MP’s; I joined the queue to be de-loused, along with a lot of DP women The de-lousers said it was not necessary, but I insisted and felt a lot happier about it. I had been infected a couple of months earlier and the joy of boiling all my clothes and shaving all my body in cold water was something I did not fancy again.
We managed to scrounge a lift on an American truck, with some trainee officers who had been on some sort of scheme. They dropped us of on the road to Liege. We caught a trolly-bus into town, near a railway station. We decided to stop the night in a waiting room. I wasn’t very warm or comfy, but we were happier than Zwichau.
Morning came, rather cold and cramped. I think most of our food had gone. Outside we met an MP on duty who advised us to catch a trolly-bus to Brussels. I did not notice at the time, but most people we asked directions from, MP’s or others, never appeared surprised at the scruffy appearance of four scruffy, sappers even with red berets. And most people seemed quite kindly, they had probably seen much worse. So we came to Brussels. The only things I seem to remember was passing the Royal Palace, then pavement stalls selling highly coloured sweets of all shapes and sizes - as we had no cash we could only look and smell - probably made with WD sugar? of course not! We managed to get directed to the RTO who said we would be stopping in a leave hotel for a day or so, then we would be flown home. The hotel was lovely and clean, with its own shower. I was glad I had taken the trouble to be de-loused, and not brought any unwelcome friends. On arrival we had been given a little ditty-bag with soap, face cloth, toothbrush, paste, razor and brush. The last toothpaste I had, I found on the railway line at Werdau it must have fallen through the toilet bowl on a train.
In the morning we had a leisurely walk around the town. It was similar to London, full of service personnel. Being skint is the same in any big town, a case of walking around rather aimlessly. I did meet a chap from my pre-para Field Company, the 557th, part of 55th Division, which I believe came under General Patton’s mythical army, while at Seaford, Sussex. I suppose if I had stayed in the 557th, I may have got to Brussels an easier way. I also met a bloke from the 591 Para Squadron. He was wearing an SAS beret. He told me they had asked for volunteers to join the ‘Jedburgh’ Companies [Teams] being dropped in France before and after D-Day - that was another way to get to Brussels! The two Jocks wandered off to do a bit of business and we met later to have a drink at a pavement cafe, which I think they paid for.
Next morning we were told we would be catching a plane later in the day from a local airport. We were soon packed and impatiently waiting. We were given another ditty-bag with the usual goodies when we said we had one, they pressed them on us, and it seemed churlish to refuse, by the time I got home I had collected four, the razors lasted for years.
At the airfield we were quickly loaded onto Lancaster bombers, and soon took off. I stood most of the time, in the passage by the wireless operator, I don’t think there were many seats available, not that it mattered. Within a short time it seemed we were peering down at the white cliffs of Dover. It had only been seven months since I had gone the other way, so I was very lucky. Maybe a little more scrawny, but then I had never been very plump.
We landed and were met by a group WAAF’s insisting on carrying our luggage, I thought it would be ungentlemanly to refuse them, and maybe they were the same girls who waved us off, and this gave us a warm welcome.
We were in RAF billets, which always seemed cosier than Army barracks. After breakfast, next morning we had an interview on any nastiness we may have seen, I can’t say I had noticed anything of any real nastiness to report. It was that, life as a POW worker, was totally joyless, mainly caused by lack of food. It made me clean my plate, and pick up any crumbs. It was at this interview I was asked about any German money, as noted before I thought it was worthless. The few I had, got me a couple of bob. I felt a proper idiot. All that work for the Deutches Reichesbahn and nothing to show for it. I was ashamed to tell my ‘Old Man’.
After that we went to lunch, similar to an army Christmas dinner only bigger, it was too much and too rich. I just made it to the toilet. We should have been weaned on soups and soft food, until we became acclimatised; again the intention was good.
In the afternoon we were rigged out in new kit. I managed to get a Canadian battle-dress, more of an olive drab, and very desirable I now had two kit-bags full. (Some prisoners released by the Americans got a full G.I. issue complete with duffle-bag maybe they had more pistols than Jock Hanlon)
We were issued with our leave warrants and pay, mine was for a fortnight, which was a couple of days over. I said a quick goodbye to my mates. I have never met them since, despite going back to Arnhem after 25 years, and yearly since, and going to RE and Para reunions. I have found that many soldiers cut out war service out of their minds completely. So off to London, Euston, to catch the midnight train to Liverpool. As it approached home it made a brief stop at Edge Hill, the stop before the terminus at Lime Street. I hopped off smartly, with my two kit-bags, then thought about getting to our house. I tied the top together, slung them around my neck, and staggered up the cobbles to Tunnel Road. This was the middle of the night, pitch-black and not a soul in Edge Hill. Across Tunnel Road, up Harke Street, a street of no houses, only open tunnels for the trains to Lime Street. I nearly choked on my kit-bags, so I threw them down and tried dragging them, that was harder, so I tried one on each shoulder. That carried me to Chatsworth Street across to Harbord Street; by now I was ‘effing and blinding’, sweating cobs. At the top of Harbord Street, I rested and looked across Overton Street where St Anne’s school had stood, till a land-mine had took it away. Along Overton Street to No. 19 up the three steps to give a loud thump on the old iron knocker, and waited for the ‘Old Man’ to get out of bed. THANK CHRIST THAT LOT IS OVER!
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