A DESERT RAT'S STORY
THE NORMANDY LANDINGS
On 1st June 1944 I was called to the Squadron Leader’s
office and was told that I had been selected with ten other officers and senior
sergeants to help a relatively untried Division when they landed on the other
side. We all looked on it as an honour to be chosen and longed to get in action
again knowing this was to be the final push. The following morning, we packed
up and all boarded the lorries which were headed for an isolated place twenty
miles away. There we were deposited in a meadow with several bell tents.
Nothing happened for the next three days and I was bored stiff. Taking a chance, I decided to slip away the next morning at four o’clock and take the mail train to Waterloo to spend a few hours at home. I took the underground to Trinity Road and walked to Streatham. As I entered the kitchen I heard the radio blaring out the news, The Invasion has started!
I stood there in horror. Not waiting for Mum to make me a cup of tea, I shouted goodbye and ran all the way back to the tube station and headed for Waterloo. The train journey took one hour but seemed like twenty. After a very anxious journey I ran toward the camp. I could see from half a mile away, much to my relief, that the tents were still up and the lorries were being loaded. We were on the move an hour later. As a very responsible keen sergeant, I regretted such a stupid act caused by sheer boredom.
We went to the docks in London and after a short while were on our way over the Channel, that would be on June 7th. It was a rough journey and even rougher at the other end as the fighting was extremely heavy. Our first wave of troops fought a very hard fight. We came down the ramps as fast as we could as this was the safest way in. Crashing ahead, the advance party waited at strategic points to help the Division following us. Many of them were nervous and needed re-assuring,
We had landed on Gold Beach and our Division was heavily engaged in making a breakthrough to Caen. One of the 2nd Lieutenants with us said he was looking forward to getting some good cheese soon. I thought at the time that it was a childish thing to say, he had never before been away from England and it showed.
The noise of gunfire kept me awake most of the time and I soon became weary of the whole war - the desert in North Africa, Syria, the Sicily invasion, the Italy invasion, and now France and the prospect of fighting for at least two more years. Foremost in my mind was keeping out of more trouble.
The American troops were attacking from another landing point. I heard they were very brave but suffering heavy losses. We were all in the same boat then and just had to fight our way out.
I linked up for a while with some of the th Paratroopers then attacking Caen. The casualties were huge and horrific. My brief was to assist untried soldiers, but it didn’t worked out like that. Yet again I was fighting my way out of danger. The paras took a bad beating and some terrible losses. Many were killed by German machine gunners before they hit the ground.
Suddenly the breakthrough came and our Army started to get out of the deadlock, and our particular Division no longer required any help. By then we had been there for two weeks and during this time men and stores were landing every few hours. We got back across the Channel on a returning tank ferry. The constant years of combat were now getting to me. I felt absolutely drained and so tired.
Reporting back to Royals H.Q. we got as a reward a three-day pass back home. Turning the corner leading to Ribblesdale Road I was shocked to see the front of our house missing. A Doodle Bug bomb had been dropped slap bang in the road, destroying several houses. All the furniture was exposed and none of my family was in sight. I secured what I could and after telephoning the Police Station I learned that all my family were safe and had been billeted elsewhere. The Doodle Bugs were sent over from the continent in pilotless planes.
The front door being off, I started to move furniture into a safer place. After two days of this I could see that it would be a long time before the place was habitable. I telephoned the office at Hothfield Camp and asked for an extension of leave. It could not be done, said Sergeant Midwinter, on duty at the time, as we were due to leave for France two days later. He advised me to get back to camp the following morning and prepare for the move. When I finally caught up with the regiment I was told Midwinter had been killed.
Ted Hartland in 1944
I managed to find Mum and Viv in Streatham Vale about a half mile away. The story I got was that as the bomb exploded Granny pushed Viv under the kitchen table to shield her from the debris. Mum and Dad were out working at the time. No doubt Gran saved Viv from some injury. Gran did not live long after that, the shock must have done her harm and shattered her nerves. She was buried in Streatham, and Syd and I traced her plot number, 26243 Square 21. No one knew she was buried there. It so happens that when searching through some of Dad’s papers I found a receipt for a burial plot purchased in 1942. Curiosity led Syd and I there to investigate in 1996, at which time we were told that a person was already buried there. After I made further enquiries, I was told that the person’s name was Kate Hollidge. We had a plaque made and I hope it is there to this day .
The following morning I went to an emergency depot in Croydon and told them that my parents had been bombed out. After they had investigated the matter, I got a seven-day extension. The Royals left without me the following day, and I spent the rest of the week getting us all settled. Once this was done I tried to get over to France but found it very difficult, as the regiment had left no personnel behind. I reported in at the nearest Armoured Corps Depot and was then sent up to Colchester ready to go over on the next replacement group. This in fact took several weeks. In the meantime I was asked to give talks to recruits on armoured car warfare. I told the blunt truth about the desert with its wide open spaces and the fact that the continent is so totally different the enemy could be lurking in places quite near to them and they would see nothing until fired on.
They were all itching to get away from barrack life and the free and easy ways of being on the move with a proper and experienced regiment. Finally the time came for me to leave and with a dozen other N.C.O.s went over to France. By the time I arrived the Army had moved ahead a great deal and had pushed through to the edge of Belgium. The only way for me to get to them was to hitch lifts in supply trucks, getting the odd meal in whichever place the lorry was delivering. It took me two weeks of searching as the regiment did not hang around. When I reached them they had moved over into Holland and were in the thick of a great deal of trouble. Out of the frying pan into the fire as far as I was concerned. The weather had changed a great deal from autumn into winter. Now came heavy frost and icy winds. Holland, being so flat, gave little shelter and we piled all our clothing on. When I arrived in the town of San Hertogenbosch, the Squadron Leader immediately gave me a troop and a brief outline of our position. I found that all my former troop were intact with the addition of Ron Triggs, recently promoted to sergeant. They were billeted in an empty cafe down the road, a hundred yards from H.Q. All the Squadron were scattered covering the entrances. Within a few hours we became surrounded by German troops and were cut off from the remainder of the regiment.
Hilvarenbeek was a horrifying place, bitterly cold, dark and dangerous. When it became dark we crept out to the road entrances to the town and placed trip flares. Once they were in place we moved fifty yards behind and lay down with guns cocked and ready to fire. The conditions were nothing like sentry duty with two hours on and four off - that would have given the game away. So there we stayed until daylight came and tried to get some sleep during the day. The performance was repeated the following day. On the third night, after being in position for three hours, we heard an enormous rushing sound coming towards us and in a blinding flash the ground around us erupted with mortar bombs. We had been attacked by a Nebelwerfer, a huge gun capable of firing twenty mortars simultaneously. Amongst those dead were Corporal Herbie Holltum, who had joined up the same day as me, Trooper Green, a Jewish lad married with children, and three others. In fact all in the group were wiped out in seconds, leaving me standing with only one other survivor, S.S.M. Morgan, without a single scratch, just standing shock and horror looking at the bodies of our dead comrades. A few seconds earlier they were so full of life and hopes like us.
It was obvious that the Germans knew where we were and pinpointed our position. Suspicion centered on a local man occupying an invalid wheelchair who always seemed to be around wherever we were during the day. We had no proof of this so nothing could be done about it. All we could do was warn him to remain out of sight of all of us, and we moved our positions.
Something had to be done about our lack of sleep, so patrol numbers were cut and on the third night after the attack several of us slept in a cellar. I recall it became extremely hot with the number of bodies and no air coming in, but as my head hit my rolled up overcoat I was asleep and did not awake for eight hours. I felt fresh and fit after that.
Those surrounding us were beaten off and soon we went forward to patrol the River Maas. I found an empty factory building and with a couple of squaddies got to the top floor and found I could clearly see the other side of the river. Noticing cars continually entering the building on the other side, I sent a man downstairs with a map reference. Back came the answer that our artillery had been advised and that we should observe and report on where our barrage landed. Five minutes later over came the shells, landing about a hundred yards away on the other side and blasting a couple of buildings to smithereens. A message went back giving this information and the next salvo was bang on. One car managed to get away from the ruined building but my troop below spotted it and I sent over a couple of shells pinpointing them and soon they were blown out of action by some heavy shells from our artillery.
The weather now was unbearable and there was nothing anyone could do to get warm. It was not possible to start a fire as this would draw attention to our position which was still in the open. It was late in December and Christmas was drawing near. We moved a couple of miles away and found a bombed out and deserted monastery and it was decided this would be our base for a few days if possible. We occupied the monks’ cells, which were completely bare. We stayed on the top floor with parts of the roof missing. Taking our chances, we all made small fires in the cells which helped a little but the heat warmed our faces and went straight up into the air.
Christmas day came and we all got some extra rations. Amongst them were a packet of sugar almonds for each person. Tapper Rapkin and I kept ours as we had decided to make a visit to Eindhoven if we could. At the time this was to the rear of the front line. We wanted to repay some kindnesses shown to us a few weeks earlier.
Shortly after the trouble at Hilvarensbaek, it was decided to pull our squadron back for a few days’ rest. The town we were allocated was Eindhoven. I pulled my troop of five cars into a small square off the centre and walked down Henrik Casimar Straas and stopped at number 2 . A young girl answered the door and I introduced myself and asked whether her parents had room for three soldiers. They readily agreed and in I went with two others and we took over just the one room. Others in the troop did likewise nearby and we all took our rations in with us as at that time the whole population in the path of the war had very little food. The family name was Genefaas, the girl was Yvonne, the eldest at sixteen years of age. She had eight brothers and sisters all packed in a tiny terrace house and yet sacrificed one room for us.
We stayed for a three days and found them a wonderful family who were having great difficulty feeding themselves. Mainly their diet consisted of apples and potatoes stored in the attic. We were not much better off but we had bully beef, which we shared with them. This was our first introduction to the life lived by those on the continent just after the Germans had been beaten out. Most of their produce was exported to Germany and then on to their troops. Despite the privations they all seemed a happy and contented family.
During a patrol a few days later we came across a huge pig and decided that we had to have it as food for the next few days. No one seemed to know how to kill it. One said a sharp blow to the centre of the head would do the trick. This was tried and the pig just squealed and ran away with us chasing him. He was damaged and fell into a ditch but was still very much alive. We all were saying that it was a mistake ever to have started it. After some shots with a revolver the unfortunate animal died and with the help of several others we managed to drag the carcass out of the ditch. We carved it up into pieces and shared it around among the whole troop.
Finding myself twenty miles from Eindhoven and having time to spare, I went back to the Familie Genefaas and presented my piece of pork to the mother, who cooked it beautifully. Then when we were all seated, eleven of them plus myself, Mrs. Genefaas offered me the plate containing all the meat. I was a little embarrassed as I didn’t quite know what I should do or say so I passed it on. The potatoes came around and I took some of those. Meanwhile the meat never came back and I was really wanting some. I had the impression that Mrs. Genefaas thought that I did not eat pork. I later realised that she was just showing good manners in offering the plate first to the guest. By then it was too late to explain that I had been eating out of mess tins for years and was lacking in table manners.
Around this time the Germans started the Ardennes Offensive. an attempt to get behind our lines. They succeeded for a while and caused a lot of havoc among the American Divisions, particularly when they used our captured vehicles and some wore British and American uniforms. Ultimately it was a failed attempt, but by no means were they beaten.
We found that every time we came up against their airborne troops we had an especially rough time. During the middle of March we patrolled around San Hertoganbosch, Boxmeer Asten and other surrounding towns. Later we prepared to cross the Rhine and the Royals had a big job to do in connection with this. A huge barrage of our artillery opened up on the 23rd March, oddly enough the same date as Alamein. The shells crashed on the far bank hour after hour. The Germans themselves had five hundred guns on their side.
We did get infantry over and some amphibious tanks, and overhead we heard a thundering noise as the th Airborne Division flew over. They dropped in the enemy’s rear but many of our paratroopers were dropped too soon and were slaughtered in the air. It was horrifying and there was nothing we could do to help .
However, another bridge was taken over the River Ijell and our engineers started to build Bailey bridges. On completion our tanks poured over and this time, despite strong resistance from the small town of Rees, we forced our way through. The Royals as a regiment gathered together at Appeldorn to prepare for our crossing and over we went on the 28th. We had a few men wounded but sadly our Medical Officer was killed at this time whilst helping out elsewhere.
By now the end was near for the Germans and many started to surrender. Many were older men and some young boys. They came in droves, happy to be alive and safe as prisoners of war of British troops. However, the battle-hardened veteran German troops retreated and fought back as hard as ever. We were near Uelzen, a town heavily defended, when Tapper Rapkin`s car got hit. The car was abandoned and Tapper was wounded in the leg and taken prisoner. We did not know how badly he had been hurt. This was reported to Squadron Leader Major Fisher, who, knowing that the Germans would soon be surrounded and would suffer casualties, sent a subaltern with white flag to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. This was done and Tapper and the officer came back in a German ambulance. The driver was given a breakfast and petrol and sent back to his own lines - chivalry on both sides. Tapper spent months recuperating, then rejoined the regiment.
CROSSING THE RHINE
We crossed the Rhine and were in continuous action. By now the enemy was in retreat but still dangerous. On one particular occasion I led the troop through the centre of a small town. I saw no civilians. It seemed very odd and was nerve racking. Half-way through the town I just glanced to my left and to my horror saw the muzzle of a Tiger tank pointing at us. Luckily I shouted down to the driver to reverse just in time as a split second later the 88mm shell was fired, missing my car by a few feet and exploding a brick wall alongside. It was almost a repetition of the Foggia incident. I then saw on the other side another tank and neither could fire on us for fear of hitting each other. We got away and radioed to the H.Q. car. It seemed only a few minutes later that our planes came over and bombed them out. We then entered the town and still saw no civilians, so I assume they had all evacuated.
Not so lucky was Sergeant Owen. Always ready for a fight, he
knocked out two armoured cars and then dismounted to look around. He didn’t
come back and he and his crew were never seen again. The car must have been
wiped out without trace, with every member of the crew presumed dead.
Although we all knew the war was ending in our part of the world, it was still a fight to the finish and by no means could we take any chances. The Germans fought back and shelled us at every opportunity, as we did them. Horrible events still took place within the close confines of small towns, with hidden guns and tanks lurking in side streets ready to fire their huge guns on a second’s notice.
The day after we lost Sergeant Owen, I walked into what looked like a deserted farm. After a few paces I saw a German officer. Pulling out my revolver, I yelled out “Hande hoch.” Out from the barn came about fifty men, including several other officers. Realising their war was lost, they were just waiting to surrender in safety to British troops. We took all their arms and sent them off to the rear. Many were young soldiers who had been called up in the last desperate attempt by the Germans to replace their losses. I motioned them to get in the corner of a yard. Thinking they were to be shot, as we all had machine guns and revolvers ready, many started to cry out their ages, “Sixteen! sixteen!” We turned away, to their obvious relief, in contrast to the treatment given to those captured by the Germans.