Trooper Kenneth E Washer

{ Ken }

27 Apr 1923 - 17 Jan 2021

Kenneth Edwin ‘Ken’ Washer was born on 27 April 1923 and came from Kent and had been working as a Rating Clerk in 1942.

He joined the Army on 3 December 1942 in Bradford. Four weeks later he was posted to the Recce Training Centre at Lochmaben in Scotland.

In March 1943 he was posted to Bulford where, after 8 weeks and volunteering for Airborne Forces, Ken was posted to the 1st Airborne Recce Squadron. He was immediately sent on 10 days embarkation leave. On return from leave he, along with the rest of the Squadron went to Liverpool by train where they were embarked on the troop-ship Staffordshire. They formed part of a large convoy which was bound for North Africa.

“I joined the Army in [1942] at the age of 18 and was eventually posted to the Reconnaissance Corps, a unit which operated entirely on the ground using armoured vehicles. When we were on parade one day we were asked if we wanted to volunteer to join the Airborne Unit of the Reconnaissance Corps, and if so to take one step forward and this I and a few others did.

The unit was at that time a purely glider-borne one. In other words we used gliders which were towed by aircraft and carried about 20 men.

Parachute training was generally not too arduous, but did occasionally cause problems for some when dropping through the ‘hole’ (in the base of the aircraft), if they didn’t position themselves correctly they would hit their face and end up with a bloody nose and headache! On one occasion when parachuting a chap exiting after me shouted ‘get out of the way’, needless to say I took no notice and left him to negotiate his own path down.

One amusing incident comes to mind. We had three hair-dressers in our Company and on one occasion all three were working on customers. A Private came into the room to talk to Lieutenant Christie who was occupying one of the chairs, but he mistakenly started talking to another Private whose head was bent over having his hair cut. Suddenly he realized his mistake in that he wasn’t talking to Christie and said – “Oh, Jack, I thought you were bloody Christie’, a voice came from another seat saying: ‘No, bloody Christie is over here’, thus causing a few laughs”. [1]

Arriving in Oran, after 4 weeks at sea, they were put on cattle-trucks and moved by rail to Sousse.

“The Squadron was not used in the invasion of Sicily, because at this stage of course it was completely ‘glider-borne’ and jeeps would occupy too much glider space, but that is only my theory!

Then came the invasion of Southern Italy. I didn’t take part in that, because I was a ‘new boy’ and remained in North Africa in the Reserve Troop. On returning to England in convoy the ship I was on was in a collision with another one, so we had to return to Gibraltar for repair whilst the rest of the convoy headed homewards. Following the repair we had a special escort home to Liverpool just in time for Christmas.” [2]

Upon the Squadron’s return to UK Ken was one of those who volunteered to become parachute trained. He was on parachute course 110 at RAF Ringway, 1 – 14 April 1944. His instructors comments were; “Average performance, cheerful & confident”.

Ken was assigned to ‘D’ Troop Headquarters and as a driver/operator in Sergeant James Pyper’s jeep crew.

He parachuted onto DZ ‘X’ on Sunday the 17 September 1944 as part of ‘Operation Market-Garden’. He remembered how crowded the sky was with other parachutists and upon landing heard a shout from another man above, “Get out of the way – I’m coming through!”

At some stage during the defensive battle in Oosterbeek, probably Wednesday 20 September, Ken was sent with a message to Divisional HQ. It was dark and Ken had to continually take cover from falling mortar bombs and artillery shells. As he got near to the Hartenstein he was challenged by a sentry, “Halt, password?” He had not been told the password for this day, so had to just shout and make the sentry understand he was a ‘friend’. On approaching him the sentries reaction was, “I could have shot you, you stupid bugger!”

Ken remembered very vividly the image of Capt Park, Lieutenant Pascal and Trooper Walker all still standing lifeless in their trenches after the ferocious mortar ‘stonk’ on Sunday 24 September. Apparently it was the wall that their trenches were next to that ‘bounced’ the blast in their direction and killed them.

“Many months were spent in England waiting for something to happen with operations postponed about ten times, so when we were finally sent on THE operation we were not properly prepared. When the battle was over I had a feeling of disappointment that what we had set out to achieve did not come to fruition.

We finally ran out of ammunition, so much of our time was spent in seeking concealment in houses and gardens in the streets of Oosterbeek. A few of us eventually managed to hide in a cellar containing potatoes, but were probably given away and subsequently captured. The Germans who captured us did compliment us on putting up a good fight.” [3]

Somehow he was left behind at the end of the battle in the Oosterbeek perimeter and he was taken prisoner, on Tuesday 26 September 1944, and sent to a series of camps. First it was Stalag XIIA at Limburg (where he was issued his POW number 075816), which he describes as “unspeakable”. Then onto Stalag IVB at Muhlberg, which he describes as “much better”. From here he was moved to Stalag IIB at Grasseth in Czechoslovakia working in a coalmine.

“So for a youth aged 21 it was the prison camp and hard work in a coal mine in Czechoslovakia with little food resulting in my losing about 4 ½ stone in weight in the next seven months. However, I had the company of ‘Jack’ Martin and Arthur Barlow which was a great help to morale. When we arrived at the small prisoner of war camp we found that it was already occupied by a number of Americans. To make room for us the Germans had placed our two tier bunks on top of the Americans three tier bunks. As I had slept on the top of the two tier bunks with Jack at the bottom I found myself five bunks high and it was impossible for me to sit up in bed because of the ceiling. A ladder was erected on the side of the bunks to enable us to get into bed. It was a good job that I wasn’t a sleep walker!

Towards the end of the war we set out on a march accompanied by the German guards, not knowing where we were going. We marched for about a month, living on scant food and sleeping in barns at night shared with rats. We eventually arrived at a point where the Russians were advancing from the east and the Americans were advancing from the west. At that point the German guards left the prisoners and disappeared towards the direction where the Americans were advancing, because they would rather be taken by the Americans than the Russians. As it turned out the Americans got to where we were first.

I remember well how we were invited to have a meal with them, we weren’t going to inform them that we had lice on our bodies, otherwise they would have cancelled the invitation! We were given what I thought was cake, but when I bit into it the cake turned out to be white bread, something that I hadn’t seen for years. Before we got back to England, however, we were de-loused and given new clothes and felt much better.” [4]

When the 1st Airborne Division was disbanded and after his two months leave to recover (on double rations) he went into the Royal Artillery, transferring on the 5th September 1945, and then the Royal Horse Artillery (“which had no horses!”) as a Technical Assistant and spent his time near Venice.

“Being back in England was a relief, we were given 12 weeks leave and put on double rations to help re-build our strength, because at the time the civilians were rationed. Like many units the 1st Airborne Recce Squadron was disbanded and during the last few months of my Army career before being de-mobbed I was posted to the Royal Artillery and we were sent to Italy.” [5]

He left the Army in April 1947, “I was pleased to be out!”

Ken joined the Civil Service and retired in 1984, settling in Kent with his wife, Elena.

Ken wrote the forward to the 2017 publication ‘Freddie Gough’s Specials at Arnhem’, the history of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron 1941 – 1945.

He died, peacefully in hospital, on Sunday, 17 January 2021, aged 97.


[1], [2], [3], [4] & [5] Letter to Bob Hilton from Ken Washer. 29 May 2014.

With grateful thanks to Bob Hilton for the text and Jon Piper for the image.

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OS Trooper Ken Washer colourised profile image 1944

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