Leo was conscripted for military service in May 1941. He joined the Royal Artillery and after basic training, was selected to become a signaller. His signals training took place at Whalley, Lancashire, 9 miles from his home town! A sound grounding in wireless communications followed including the use of the No 11 set, telephony, speech and wireless telephony (Morse Code).He was posted to 169th Field Regiment Royal Artillery and sent to Sunderland. Leo was promoted to Bombardier as the Regiment moved to Stokesley. Leo married his girlfriend in November 1942.
In spring 1943, Leo was transferred to 3 Battery, 1st Air Landing Light Regiment, the Airborne Artillery. Shortly after the Regiment was formed, it was shipped out with the 1st Airborne Division (1 Ab Div) to North Africa. Landing in Algeria then moving to Tunisia, Leo served with the regiment throughout the campaign. Leo commanded E Troop's Signals detachment. The task of 3 Battery, comprising E Troop (4 guns) and F Troop (4 guns) was to support with artillery fire the 1st Para Brigade. Moving onto the No 21 set and getting his group of signallers up to speed, Leo learnt to provide signals from the OP to gun line. He became proficient with the equipment including learning its limitations which would come to the fore later in Arnhem.
Moving to Taranto in Italy, Leo saw service with 1st Ab Div throughout the Italian campaign. Describing the campaign in Italy, Leo recalled that “Despite 3 Battery loosing four killed in action, the conditions under which we fought were more hazardous to ones ease than the combat itself, heavy rain, snow, freezing fog, rocky terrain and lateral streams , all endured in turn whether on the move, in action or during a few hours of snatched sleep”
After returning to the UK with 1st Ab Div, Leo along with others continued training for the next operation, being based at Dock camp Boston. News of the formation of the 6th Airborne Division caused some shock as Leo and his mates in the 1st Ab Div thought they as the senior Ab Div should be leading the second front in Europe! Newly equipped with the jeep mounted 22 set and the man pack 68 set, Leo and his signaller’s worked hard to get battle fit. The detachment worked on loading and unloading a Horsa glider in as proficient manner as possible in order to get the jeeps, motorbikes and radio’s in support of the Para Battalions. Whilst preparing for future Ops, the decision was taken to train a signals detachment as parachutists. The rationale? That they would be required to land close to the sea and direct Naval gunfire, thus requiring arriving by parachute not glider. Arriving at Ringway with three others, Leo learnt with many others the ‘art’ of military parachuting. He returned to the 1st Ab Div in time for briefings for Operation Comet (capturing three bridges in Holland). These plans were to be superseded by briefings for an enlarged Operation called Market Garden.
The plan for Leo’s Para Sigs detachment was the same, support 1st Para Bde with signals from Bde HQ to the gun line at Arnhem bridge. E troop Observation Party ("eyes of the guns") Leo along with Captain Harrison, and Gunner Morrison would advance along the southerly Lion Route to the Bridge 6 miles away with 2nd Battalion (Lt Col John Frost) and some Brigade HQ and attached Paras.
Having received his orders, Leo had concerns regarding the communications between the bridge and the location of the gun line. His concerns ranged from the reliability of the man pack 68 set to the distance obtainable using the jeep borne 22 set. One of Leo’s biggest worries was interference from other transmitters which were unsuppressed. A burst of flack close to the Dakota door just prior to jumping added some excitement to the occasion, but otherwise it was a relatively easy landing apart from landing in a tree and been suspended six feet from the ground!
Leo ensured Morrison had the No 68 set turned off to conserve the battery. Holding his .303 in hand, Leo and the detachment set off with many others from the Bde HQ along Lion route towards Arnhem. One memory of the march into town that Leo never forgot, was a middle aged Dutchman crying as he sang ‘God save the King’ as he waved the men on.
En route they met up with the glider borne jeep with the 22 set and signallers from 3 Battery, however, Leo and Morrison were ordered to proceed on foot with the 68 set to the bridge. Apart from a close encounter with a German bicycle patrol and a few other minor skirmishes, the route to the bridge was relatively easy.
Having set up in a building next to the bridge embankment, Leo had the communications tested on the 22 set. Nothing! His detachment commander ordered them all into the jeep and they set off back towards Oosterbeek the same route they had advanced on earlier. After a couple of miles, the officer ordered an about turn and return to the bridge. Leo and the others were left wandering what was going on? Re-establishing their position at the bridge, they were ordered to join the Battery Commander (BC) in the 1st Bde building, occupying the attic. The first night of 17th September passed relatively peacefully.
The BC’s signal detachment was struggling to establish comms. Leo positioned his 22 set under a skylight window and put a 4 ft aerial out the window. Despite warnings that the aerial would be observed by the Germans, Leo reasoned that regardless of the threat, they had to have comms with the gun line. Having no direct comms using either 22 set, Leo went through the operational difficulties procedure and decided to set up the man pack 68 as well as the 22. He sent a “Report my signals request” on the 22 set and received a reply from the gun line on the 68 set “OK OVER”. They had established comms between the bridge and gun line! The time was 0100hrs D+1.
Day two dawned with the Germans attempting to rush the bridge with armoured infantry; this was witnessed in plain sight by Leo and his colleagues who joined in the attempt to drive off the attack. Later in the day, comms with both the 22 and 68 sets were established. No one else seemed to be able to establish any form of radio communications with Oosterbeek other than E Troop signals detachment.
Brigade Officers as well as the RA used Leo’s link for the four days they held the bridge. The Germans brought forward a large artillery piece and proceeded to pound the British positions at the bridge, just when the comms link was desperately needed, Leo could not get through to the gun line for support. Mortar support managed to neutralise the gun instead. Ordered to send a signaller with 2 Para to attack the bridge, Leo sent the tough Glaswegian Gunner Morrison. Leo never saw Morrison again.
Seeing the ever increasing blazing buildings, Leo began to realise that time might be running out unless XXX CORPS arrived soon. Morale was never a problem and the cry’s of “Waho Mohammed” around the bridgehead showed that the fight was still very much been taken to the enemy! Despite security concerns, comms with XXX CORPS was made and an urgent request for an attack in support of 1st Para Bde went unanswered. A telephone call on a land line stated that no help from the rest of the 1st Ab Div could be expected as they were cut off and fighting their own battle at Oosterbeek. By now explosions and automatic fire were incessant all around.
On Wednesday D+3, Leo and his men started to struggle with the signals between them and the gun line at Oosterbeek. Attacks on his building were now numerous and the lower two floors more vulnerable. Two signallers received minor flesh wounds but clearly the situation was getting worse. An attempt to use Morse Code failed when the code books were found to have been left in England. An hour before dusk, the BC told Leo it was time to evacuate the building. Being ordered to leave the 22 set in the attic, Leo could not help turning the set off, radio discipline had to be followed in Leo’s book.
Seeing a roaming Tiger tank outside the building, Leo was hit above the thigh when a massive explosion in the building sent him flying. Taken to a nearby cellar for medical attention, Leo saw the true horrors of what had been inflicted on the gallant Para’s at the bridge. Germans carried Leo outside where he saw a number of recent dead Germans. Despite this, a German offered Leo ersatz coffee from his canteen. This was followed by a lighted cigarette, the German then disappeared into the night.
The Germans took Leo and other wounded to the St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he was tended to by a German doctor and British orderly. From there he was evacuated to another hospital in Enschede. Again, respect from a German soldier came when he was given cigarettes at his bedside. Leo pointed out he was a British POW, but the German replied he was a ‘soldier’!
Once Leo was able to walk, he was transferred to a Dulag Luft interrogation centre. He was interrogated but could not and would not offer any information. Moved on from different places ever closer to Germany, Leo ended up at Sagan on the German-Polish border at Stalag V111C. Leo soon found himself amongst old friends and settled down to the monotony of camp life.
As winter 1945 went on, the camp was evacuated and Leo and the prisoners were forced to march on foot in the freezing winter snow to the south west, away the German Officer stated from the advancing Russians. Stopping in a village, a German lady gave Leo a piece of cake and a hot toddy when she was shocked to see his condition. ‘The best meal of my life’. After two to three weeks on the march, they eventually came to a new prison camp in Bad Orb, Czechoslovakia. Abandoned by the guards, they were eventually found and treated by advancing American troops.
After receiving medical treatment, Leo was taken to a nearby airfield and flown back to the UK in a Dakota. By now, he was so weak; he collapsed whilst trying to climb the steps into the plane. Returning to the UK, five months after leaving on Market Garden, Leo was sent to a medical assessment centre, called Piper’s wood. He was soon sent home on leave. He arrived at Leyland train station, where a friendly sailor helped carry his kit back home as he was too weak to carry it himself. Home at last.
Leo was demobbed in the rank of Sergeant in 1946. He qualified as a teacher and devoted his working life to teaching music and English literature at Wellfield School in his beloved Leyland. He had two children and played the organ at St. Mary’s church. Leo was the President of the Central Lancashire Branch of the PRA for many years. He did not often talk about his war, not unless he was moved to correct an inaccurate fact made by another. He was a much loved husband, father, grandfather and friend to many people and made the most of his 95 years.
After a short spell in Preston hospital, Leo sadly died in December 2016. He leaves behind two sons and three grandchildren, as well as many friends in the Central Lancashire Branch of the PRA. Leo was well respected in his home town of Leyland, Lancashire. His funeral was very well attended by local members of the public as well as serving members of 7 Para RHA, a bugler from 103 Regiment RA and a number of branch standards from the North West Region of the PRA and RBL.
With information supplied by David MacaulayRead More