I was born in a Leicestershire Village September 1924, left school at 14 years of age, no qualifications, and started work on a poultry farm 10 shillings, i.e. 50p a week.
On the first Sunday in September 1939 coming home from church we heard war had been declared (most people went to church in those days to keep the Squire happy). Father as a Sergeant in the home guard said: ‘lad you better join us’. I was too young for a uniform so they gave me an arm band, and I was the messenger boy. An aerodrome was being built on the edge of the village, I went to work there driving a tractor (good wage), then the man from employment called: I had to go back to work on a farm. I could not take that, and volunteered for the RAF, I was told I was too young, went back at 17 plus, but after medical was found to be colour blind.
I was then called into the army, Leicestershire Regt at Budbrooke Barracks. During training a Sergeant of the Para’s came looking for volunteers, 3 mates and I volunteered when they told us it was 2 shillings a day extra when we had done 8 jumps, he did not say about the training before we saw an aircraft! Transported to Chesterfield station and met by a NCO: who said ‘put your kit on the transport’, we did, then ourselves, he yell 'get down, think yourself lucky your kit is riding, we are going to Hardwick Hall and you are marching’. After 4 weeks intensive training we were fit to let the RAF take over parachute training. We were met at Manchester station with RAF bus, room for kit and men taken to Ringway aerodrome (now Manchester airport), beds with sheets, food on plates, just like home. Two weeks training, how to exit plane (Whitleys - hole in floor), then how to land, just like 2 weeks at the fairground. Then the day came to get a parachute from the WRAF packers then on the bus to Tatton Park. The first two jumps were taken from a tethered balloon at 500 feet, on the way down a Sgt shouts orders, pick up chutes back to Ringway, day off, repeat next day, after bad weather time for drops from the Whitley. After 5 drops we need 1 night drop from the balloon; that goes OK, next day the CO presents us with our wings and Maroon beret, that was a proud day.
They gave us 2 weeks embarkation leave as we were ready to drop anywhere without notice. Home for Xmas 1943. Reported back to Hardwick, soon on the way as replacements to a unit just back from the invasion of Italy. Got off train at Oakham on a truck to Alexton Hall, just the job! Borrowed a bike home next day with the greeting ‘where have you dropped from?’ After a few weeks we were billeted in hunting lodges and stables in Melton Mowbray. Training with the Battalion was intensive: forced marches over Yorkshire moors; absailing down wool mills in Homefrith; then crossing the river Trent in Notts. One morning volunteers were asked for a special drop, first time from a Dakota - just the job! Walk out the door, just a minute we get to Cottesmore airfield there are RAF instructors from Ringway: ‘OK lads we have been trying this ourselves now your turn, strap this kit bag on your leg when about 100 ft to go play it out on a rope, by the way it has about 50 pounds of ammo or mortar bombs in it’. Take off after about one hour later, red light on, then green out we go, landed at Netheravon lined up, along came Churchill and Monty: ‘well done boys first time that has been done’, back in Melton given 7 days leave. First week in June things start to get busy: draw ammo; confined to billets - next thing on the 6th stand down. Invasion has started with the 6th Airborne, we remain at Melton.
After many stand-bys for ops where we are not used, along came September: after 48 hrs leave, we are drawing ammo and parachutes again this time to drop in Holland (they don’t tell us Holland but give us Dutch money). After briefing about the drop the Padre takes us to Melton Church then we know it’s going to be tough. Early next morning transport takes us to Saltby airfield, there we sit while they patch up the aircraft that have been used for the first lift.
This time they give us a good breakfast, (lost over the North Sea!) landed on Ginkel Heath September 18, 1944: the start of the Battle of Arnhem, for me. Enough has been written about this, I don’t wish to add more. I was wounded and captured on the fourth day. Picked up by Waffen SS troops taken to SS officer, sent to first aid post after he had relieved me of my cigs, wounded foot dressed then to railway shed locked in 2 cattle trucks and taken into Germany.
After 4 days stop start with the RAF bombing the lines we arrived at Frankfort Stalag 11A: interrogated by the Gestapo; they know more about the Regiment than I, confined under canvas for a month, rained every day, then moved on to Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel. There we came under RSM Lord. He demanded we came under Red Cross rules, rations very small, as my foot was still weeping I was not sent out to work, they said ‘nix Arbeit, nix essen’ - no work no food. Xmas 1944 came, tried to cheer up with a Red Cross parcel between 2 (usual 4). In March after a heavy bombing raid we were sent to sort out a railway station and siding - no tools just bare hands. I still had only one boot - lost the other when wounded so used a piece of wood bound on with a piece of blanket. The snow was deep, temperature –20’s. The guards had us in open cattle pens with straw to cover us at night, food was scarce. To be fair they didn’t have much for themselves. I turned round and said ‘nix essen nix arbeit’. Guard took me to the officer who pulled out his revolver, turned it round and pistol whipped me, then said ‘take him on a civvy train back to 11B’. The German women spat at me all the way back (he knew they would). We were liberated by the same unit (30 corps) as should have got to us 8 months before at Arnhem.
I arrived home after 9 months without a bath or change of clothes and only 1 shoe, crawling with lice. We were met at Wing aerodrome with sprays of lice powder. Granted 12 weeks leave and double rations as weight was down to 7 stone. Demobbed in 1947 after 6 months keeping Tito out of Italy.
After the war, married with 2 children, for 39 years I could not forget my pals left in Holland or the havoc and destruction we did to the Dutch people. One day I met an ex-Para I had served with. He asked if I ever returned to visit the area, he had been on the Nijmegen to Arnhem March. He said a party had been going every September and I would be welcome. I was apprehensive as I still felt guilty. The next September my wife and I went over and stayed with a Dutch couple, a very moving experience. The Dutch organisation is Lest we Forget Foundation, their Chairman asked why I had not been before I said I felt guilty of the death and destruction we caused in vain, he said ‘when your house is on fire you don’t blame the firemen for trampling on your garden’. I will not forget that. After a visit to the Airborne Cemetery many ghosts were put to rest. Now I go over as often as I can.
Every year in September a reserve battalion of the Para’s drop on the heath where we dropped, one year a group of us watching said we would like to do that again. About 50 of us got together under the guidance of JSPS; after much training we dropped many times, but I stopped 5 years ago. The Arnhem veteran parachute team have raised hundreds of thousand pounds for various charities. This year I am looking forward to the 60th and say goodbye to many friends.
By Lewis Kemp.
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