Eldon 'Bob' Roberts
Interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter
Great. So we’re all set. So do you mind if I just go right back to the very beginning and where you were born and brought up.
Well, it’s a long story, really. Well, you know, going back about 15 years ago there were three people desperately wanted to write my life story and make a book, you know, a book of my life story. And I said, “No, I can’t do that. I’ve still got a lot of living to do!” Which was true, because since then we’ve had the 60th and 70th anniversary of D-Day, I’ve had my 65th anniversary, and my wife has died, and I’ve got 12 great-grandchildren that I didn’t have then. You know what I mean, there’s... So I said, “Look, I’ll do it when I’ve finished...” I was still working and all that at that time, and... So I said no. But since then I’ve been telling everybody my life story and nobody wants to write a book or anything. Like when this big... This big German, you know. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.
Yeah, no, you showed me a picture of that. The seven-foot German.
When that came out, that’s all been since then. That came out about 5 or 6 years ago. And I gave the story to a freelance journalist, just asked his wife do you think this would make a story, and he said, “Cor, I could do with that!” And his – that bloke’s father-in-law told me after, he said, “He done very well out of that, you know.” But I never heard any more about it and all this stuff that’s been going on. Nobody sort of wants to write a book about the life story. Anyway, there’s a kiddie, a fella at the back – he’s 95 now – and he got a bit of history. His big deal is that he was taken prisoner at Dunkirk and taken to Germany and put in the mines to work, and he escaped and he walked from Germany to where we hit the beaches at France, Normandy.
Did he really?
Yeah. Walked. And he got the boots that he walked in. And that’s his big deal, and he’d been and written a book. Someone took him, he went up the line somewhere for a couple of days. Anyway...
Well, I’ve never written a book about an individual person, but I’ve done... I always follow people’s stories through the other books.
But, yeah, he’s... But then on the other hand, he walked from – it made big history. But I walked from Normandy to Germany and it didn’t make any difference. I walked every step from D-Day across France, Belgium, and Holland, and I got wounded right on the German border, from here to that road. I always said I’d never get into Germany. I had that premonition; I’ll never get into Germany.
Really? Where do you think that came from?
Well, I’ve... It’s funny, but you, along the way, you know, you get up in the morning and have your breakfast and go and make an assault, and fellas or someone would say, “D’you know, I’ve got that feeling today.” And sure as hell I’d say, “Don’t talk daft. It’s just in your head.” You know, you’re making it up in your head. And sure enough, you know, something would happen to them time after time.
Becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Just a premonition that you get, that feeling. And that morning when we made that attack –
So where was that?
Uh, Kapellen. That was the first attack we were going to make on Germany. That would have been the first town to take, you know, and it was a vast, big open field like this, only way... And the whole of our lot, the whole of the 8th Brigade, really, was stretched right across the field, way, big, long field, and quite wide. And we got up in the morning and had our breakfast, and we’d sit there waiting for the 8 o’clock to go. And I was, I had this premonition that it was going to be a long time before I have anything to eat again. And I had three large mess tins of porridge, and I said to my – because I was Sergeant at the time – I said to my Corporal, I said, “You know, I feel it’s going to be a long time before I’m going to get another meal. I’ve had three large mess tins of porridge and I’m still hungry.” He said, “I haven’t had anything.” I said, “What? Hurry, go and get yourself some breakfast, mate,” I said, “You never know, cooker truck might get blown up, anything could happen.” And you never know, I said, “This is the first attack in Germany and it could be nasty.” But it looked like we’re gonna be a walkover. There was nothing. Normally there’d be some mortar shells coming over or some tracer bullets coming over and that. Nothing that morning. It was as quiet, it looked like... Everyone thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a walkover’. And we got up there, the whole field was full coming up and we were out in the front – always in the front – and it was from here to that bloody road.
So what’s that? A hundred yards or something?
Not much more. About a hundred yards. Yeah, about from here to that road, the distance, whatever that is, yeah. And that was the town. We were hid in a town. My lot was always centre at what they call the spearhead, and was heading straight for the town and then it was all road like that, all the way along with hedges and farmhouses and things. And got right up to that... We were all moving forward and suddenly all hell broke loose. Machine gun fire, artillery, mortar shells, the whole – they were throwing everything they had at us. Oh, it was complete slaughter. And everybody hit the dirt, you know. Everybody went flat. And straight away, as soon as it started, I saw my Corporal stumble and go forward, and I thought, ‘Oh, he’s been him in the leg’. And anything that moved got shot at. You couldn’t bloody – you wouldn’t dare move, get up, stretcher bearers couldn’t come out, no one. Anything that moved got shot at. And I thought well, I’ll gently slither over to him and see what’s happened. And there was a shell hole out in front there, and I thought I’ll drag him into that shell hole, gently, and hope to make it and give him first aid. But I got over to him and he was gone. It was fatal. So I slithered into the shell hole myself and stayed there from about 8 o’clock in the morning to about half past two in the afternoon. About three inches of water in it, I was curled up there so the shrapnel was going over my head. Yeah... And I got out of this, eventually three tanks came through about half past two in the afternoon, and I thought that’s my queue to follow through with the artillery – with the infantry – so I jumped out of the shell hole, took about three steps and turned around and signalled my platoon to advance, and a shell landed smack in that, where I was sitting in that hole, and splattered me with mud and water. A big lump of it hit me in the legs, smashed me knee and leg, and that was the end of me war!
Amazing. I mean, did it hurt? Did you know how bad it was right from the word go?
No. No. They... I was amazed to see how few got up and moved.
I mean, did the blast knock you into the air or, I mean, were you just standing there?
No, it just smashed my leg and I went down and that was it. Well, I was more or less – it was in this hole. It probably would have if it had been on the level, but it was this hole, it sort of... Anyway, I just laid there and watched my lads go on through. I say, I was surprised how few got up and... Before that mortar a lot of them were hit with shells laying on the ground and stuff like that, you know. But being right up the very front, it was going to be a long time before the stretcher bearers got to me, because they started from the back then. They come out then, once the tanks went through and the infantry followed through, and they – the tanks – had flame throwers on, and they didn’t like that. So they went in there with these flame throwers and they started putting their hands up and the infantry took them prisoners. And...
So how long were you lying there then?
Well, that was about half past two, and I pulled off my shirt and tore it to pieces and used it for bandages on my leg to try and stop the bleeding, and I didn’t get picked up until about 6 o’clock at night, because they were picking them up and taking them back and gradually moving towards the front.
And what about the pain? Were you able to kind of cope with that?
Well, I didn’t... You didn’t think of pain, really. You had other things in your head.
I mean, did you consider it might be fatal or did you think you would be alright?
Well, yeah, I thought I’d be alright. I thought, well, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before they reach me, so I got it all wrapped up and hang on there for a while to hopefully stop the bleeding. And then there was a fella laying not far away that was killed there and his rifle was beside him, so I dragged, pulled myself over like this, you know, but I kept dragging my foot behind me. And I got over to him and took off his shoe and lashed it on the end of his rifle, use it as a crutch. I thought I’ll go that way. Before long my bloody foot was turned around and my heel was in the front, you know, my leg was smashed and I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t keep going. I was just getting to my bloody – you know, pulling me down, like. So I had to stop and wait. And I got back to our Headquarters and put in an ambulance, and it went on a 12 hour journey to France, to the hospital, and I was so glad, pleased, that I bloody had that three mess tins of porridge! It was amazing how, you know, I used to think – blokes would say, “I’ve got that feeling today.” And I’d say, “Don’t be stupid.” You know, “It’s all in your head.” And sure enough, you know... But I’d never had that feeling before, I just... But that day I just felt it was going to be a long...
I guess it’s a kind of 6th sense, isn’t it, that you just pick up from experience?
Yeah. Amazing, yeah.
So just to go back to the very beginning; where were you born and brought up, then? I know obviously in Canada.
In New Brunswick, the far east, about 30 miles from Saint John was the nearest city, the nearest hospital. Right out in the country, wild as...
And what was it your dad did?
What type of farmer? Kind of crops?
Yeah, 200 acre farm. Everything. Self-sufficient.
Right. So you had cows, pigs, the whole...
Yeah, we had cows, sheep, pigs, all horse power in those days. Man power and horse power.
Wow. And were there a lot of you? I mean, did you have brothers and sisters?
A family of fifteen.
Wow! So you had thirteen siblings? Twelve siblings?
Fifteen? My goodness me!
Yeah. It wasn’t uncommon in those days, really.
That’s amazing. So where did you come in the pecking order?
I come... There was one girl – she died as a child – there was four boys, five girls, and then me.
So you were the littlest?
Well, no, there was me and then there was another brother, a sister, and a brother, and a sister after me.
Good gracious. That’s amazing. But a good upbringing, was it?
Yeah. Well, it was, yeah. A good, healthy... Two miles from the school. There was no village or town anywhere.
So you were just right in the middle of nowhere.
The nearest town was eight miles away, the nearest shop. And it was all country and farming, and along the way there’d be a... Saint John was the nearest city, about 30 miles away, and there was a river, the Saint John River ran and emptied into that, and along the way there was a bay come in, 16 miles long and a mile wide, and there were hills up over each side. There was farmland like this at the bottom and then hills, and then more farmland at over the top, and I lived on top of this hill. And it was two miles from school. There was a church and a hall and a Post Office and a school, and that’s all, every 4 miles sort of thing. But no shops, no...
So did you walk to school?
Yep. Skied in the wintertime. Had to ski to school in the wintertime. All snow.
And you all had enough to eat from the farm, I guess?
Yeah, you were self-sufficient, apart from all you bought, really, was sugar and salt and that sort of thing.
So was there a kind of once-a-week trip to the nearest town or anything like that?
Well, you’d come and go as you needed to, you know. But you used to buy sugar by the hundredweight.
Right. And did the family ever have a car, or was it just horse and cart and stuff?
It was all horse powered. Nobody had cars those days. That was 1923.
So when were you born?
Yep. So, yeah, it was all horse power.
So you quite close to the sea then, as well, were you?
No, it wasn’t the sea. It was just a bay that came in. That was 2 miles. That was where along that road down there was where every 4 miles was a sort of a central area with a church and a school and a Post Office, you know. And then 4 miles had different names. Where I was was ‘Long Point’, called Long Point because along this bay there was a sandbar ran out like that, and there was a ferry crossed from there to the other side. And that was known as Long Point, that area, named after that.
So did you all kind of just troop off every morning to school? I mean, it must have been... What was the sort of age difference between the oldest and the youngest?
Well, you start school at seven and you finished at fourteen in those days.
But, I mean, between all your siblings there must have been...
Two years, roughly, yeah.
And did they all kind of disperse as they got older, or did some of them stay on the land?
Well, usually they would, as they grew up and left school they’d get a job. Some would stay for a while, but you’d always come back if they’re between jobs and help on the farm and that.
Yeah. So you grew up helping on the farm and doing jobs around the..?
Well, yeah. I was thrown in at the deep end, really, because the boys used to help outside, and the girls would work inside, washing clothes and washing nappies, and baking bread and all that. You did everything yourself. And they were helping mother and the boys were working outside, and there was five girls in front of me so my next oldest brother was something like 10 years older, and I was only about 7 and he was 17 and went off, and I was the next one to... You know, when I was 8 years old I was on the end of the old cross-cut saw, sawing down trees with my father.
And what were your parents like? I mean, were they strict or were they pretty easy-going?
Well, strict to a point, yeah, but loving, you know. Yeah, very Christian sort of people, went to church. We used to go to our church Sunday mornings, Sunday School in church and then walk 4 miles to the next place to go to church in the afternoon.
Yeah. And then there was church at our place in the evening again. Sundays you didn’t do anything...
But go to church.
But just the chores, you know, milk the cows and feed the pigs and chickens and stuff, that sort of thing, yeah.
But it must have been great being out in the outdoors and it must have also given you a sense of – you must have been all quite independent, I should think, I mean you have to sort of get on yourself, don’t you, a little bit?
Oh, yes. Everything, you didn’t rely on anybody for anything. You did everything... You know, we relied on each other and stuff. Yeah, you did everything yourself.
Would you say that any of that, kind of growing up in the country and learning about the seasons and all that kind of stuff, I mean, did that help in any way when you were in the War? Just that kind of understanding of the land and...
Well, it did to a point. I mean, like the weather was a bit, you know, when we got to, in Holland and that, the weather was a lot colder than here at that time of year, things like that, yeah. But you got accustomed to... I found the weather here, with the salt air and that in the wintertime, I’d be freezing. Yeah.
So you finished school at 14.
Yeah, finished school at 14 and I was at church one Sunday, and the Deacon of the church was a farmer about 4 miles away, and we always had a chat outside the church, everybody, and he said to me, “When do you leave school?” And I said, “The end of this term, June.” This would have been about April or May, and he said, “Well, when you leave school I want you to come and work for me.” So the next morning, Monday morning, I was going to school along with my younger brother – 2 years younger than me. My birthday was the 31st of March and his was the 26th. Just 2 years – and we went to school, and as we got to school I gave him my books and stuff I had, and I said, “When you go home, take this home,” and I said, “Tell mother I’m going to work for (Mace Jones).” And I walked straight on past the school, went to work there.
Just like that?
That’s how it started off, yeah.
How amazing. How did your parents’ take it? Presumably they were...
Oh, yeah, well, they didn’t mind, because they knew I was finishing school anyway.
How amazing. So you went and worked for him on the farm.
Yeah. Worked for him all that summer.
So that must have been, what? 1937 or something?
Well, I was 7 years old... No, I was 14. 14 years old, yeah. So I worked for him all that summer and then, when the crops were all in and everything, I was finished there and I went and got a job in the lumber woods for the winter. And that was a way of life, you know. You could – I could swing an axe and chop down a tree and all that at that age, because brought up to it, like, you know. And, yeah, I went on from there. The next year, the next spring I went to work for him again, and I worked that summer. And then at the end of that...
So that must have been 1938, I suppose.
Yep. And the end of that summer I – or getting towards the end of that summer – I got a job on hydro lines, you know, the big steel tower lines. I got a job running, putting a line through so many miles. And I used to climb up on the bloody thing like a cat, get up on top, signalling the sag, you know, all sorts like that. Yeah, I worked on that and I went driving a delivery truck for a company. You could drive when you were 16 then. And you didn’t have to have a licence, you could just drive at that age. And, yeah, I did that. What else?
And what about the coming of war? I mean, you must have been, what, sort of 16, I suppose, in 1939. You know, were your older brothers called up in it right from the word go?
One of my, my oldest brother – well, it was all voluntary.
You didn’t have to. Yeah, it was all voluntary, wasn’t it.
Yeah. Yeah, it was there, yeah. So my oldest brother joined the Navy.
Right, which was rapidly expanding at that time.
Yeah. My next... The next oldest brother, he was killed on a bicycle accident at 19, so he wasn’t there. And the next one, he had his own business, started up a second hand shop in a town. And then the other one, Edmund, he was just a bit of a stray. He was coming and going and went off living with another woman or something, with some old lady, I don’t know. So I joined up when I was 19, in May.
So that would have been 1942.
And was there much thought about that? I mean, did you..?
No, I actually... I tried to get in early before that, before I was old enough, before I was 18. I wanted to go with the crowd that went to Hong Kong, fight the Japs. I was always glad I didn’t. Another stroke of fate. But I was underage and they caught me out, so I couldn’t get in.
But what made you want to do it? Was it just because your mates were doing it or, you know, was it patriotic or the promise of adventure, or what?
Well, it was just the thing that lads were doing.
Right. It didn’t occur to you that it might be dangerous and you might get yourself killed or something?
Yeah, it was just the things that lads, people were joining up. You never thought about what was involved.
Right. Your parents’ didn’t try and dissuade you or anything?
Well, they didn’t actually know. I just went one day and joined up.
So where was the recruiting office?
I was working in a dairy at the time. The recruiting office, I was working in the city, in Saint John, that was like 30 miles from where I lived. I was working in there and working in a dairy, so I went and had a... Joined up. Went to – not thinking I would get in.
But what made you choose the day that you chose?
I don’t know, really. I was thinking about it because, I suppose, my mates and so on my age were going in, like, when they were 18, 19. Just the thing to do, so I joined, went and joined the clan.
And what was the gap between signing on the dotted line and going off for training?
Well, you did 6 months basic training.
I mean, was it a few days or a week or a month before, you know, between signing and being sent to..?
What? Before I actually went in?
Yeah. So you go to the recruitment office, you go, “I wanna join the Army.” They go, “Great.” You sign the form and then what happens? A letter arrives? Or are you literally..?
I can’t remember what happened there. It just seemed like I was in straight away after, pretty well straight away, yeah.
Yeah. So you were sent off to a training camp.
And then I went to a training camp.
And when was that?
That was in May.
And whereabouts was that?
That was in another city in New Brunswick, Fredericton. And...
Yeah. A big camp?
Oh, yeah. Big Army camp. That was basic training. Everyone went there from that local part, that local area, like.
And what did the basic training involve?
Well, just teaching the basic things about the Army, marching and drilling and... It was basically PT and stuff like that.
Sure. Any classroom stuff?
No, nothing like that. Well, there was, depending on what you were into, like. But it was basically just training rifle shooting and...
And how did you find it?
Yeah, no trouble. Yeah, you struggle on with it.
And what about the clothes? Obviously you were kitted out with battle dress.
Yeah, you’re kitted out.
I mean, what did you think of the battle dress incidentally?
Yeah, they were good.
You found it warm, comfortable?
I mean, the fact that it had this sort of short jacket, was it easy to move around in?
Yeah, they were comfortable. You could move in ‘em alright. I think they had three buttons down the front of the shirt and you’d pull them on, yeah.
But in terms of uniform and stuff and general webbing and all that, you had no complaints at all?
No. Everything fitted. They had things that fit everybody. You didn’t have to have them tailored! You’d try ‘em on and, you know, when you’d go to get your dry uniform and they could look at you and pretty well say this is for you. But, yeah. Yeah, they were good.
Not too itchy?
No. Well, of course, you always had your underclothes and that, yeah.
And was there any... In basic training it really is what it says? It is just exercises and basic weapons?
More-or-less getting accustomed to the Army, learning about weapons, learning to hit the bulls eye, and marching.
And presumably you were using Lee-Enfields, were you?
Lot of marching to toughen you up, you know. That was really what it was about.
Right. And Lee-Enfields you were using, presumably?
Yeah, they were, yeah. I never used ‘em much in – well, I never used ‘em at all in action. I did in training, but on D-Day I was on the Bren Gun.
Sure. Oh, of course you were, yeah.
And then eventually I was promoted to Lance Corporal, and I was given a Sten Gun, the one you carry over your shoulder. As long as you were an NCO – a Lance Corporal, Corporal, or Sergeant – you had that.
So when you went for your basic training there was no question of you applying for a commission or anything like that? It was just straight in?
Oh, no, no. I wasn’t up to that. Just had a country school education. But I was better than a lot that you get! You hear about these things now in school, kids not doing very well.
So you did your 6 months there.
Did the 6 months. Actually, I left there, I sailed... I left on a train from Saint John, New Brunswick, to go to New York on the 29th of December. I joined up on the 12th of May, so the 29th of December I got on the train, went to New York, got on the QE1, and sailed to England.
And did you come into Greenock or Liverpool?
I came into Greenock, in Scotland. And we anchored out there in the outside, had to be taken in by smaller boats. We see these boats coming out and we thought, ‘God, that’s a big boat. This one can’t be much bigger than that’. Course, when you get on that other boat and go ashore, look back at the QE1. There was more troops on that than the population of an ordinary town!
Yeah, I’m sure. So what were your feelings when you were going across? I mean, were you apprehensive or excited and all a bit of an adventure?
No, no, it was all an adventure, yeah.
And what was it like on the boat? Pretty cramped, I should think.
Well, they’d taken out all the beds and stuff, you know, as a liner ship, and they had three hammocks up the walls, all round the wall, three hammocks high everywhere, thousands.
What did it take? Kind of 4 days, something like that, to get across?
About 7 days.
No problems with U-boats? I mean, you were going so fast, I suppose.
Well, we did. There was one occasion we swerved very sharply and a load of fellas were chucked out of their hammocks and broke their arms on the floor and stuff like that, and just missed a U-boat. But we got through without any trouble other than that. And then we got on the train to go to Aldershot.
All the way from Scotland?
And what were your first impressions of Britain then?
Well, the first impression, what I really seen was something that I never forgot; coming through London, lovely moonlight night, as clear as a bell, and seeing all the chimneys. There seemed to be chimneys everywhere, you know. That was before they built all the big blocks of flats and stuff, it was all houses and all these chimneys, and the smoke coming out of these chimneys.
I never forgot that. It was like a silhouette of something you’d paint on a... It was beautiful, all the way along, and it was changing all the way as you come along, you see different heights and all that, yeah. It was a sight to see.
Yeah, I’ll bet.
And we got to Aldershot, and...
And I just wanted to ask you; was there a kind of – did you look upon Britain as the mother country or had you not really thought of it like that?
Well, you didn’t sort of get into the country, you were in camp.
No, I just meant sort of your attitude to Britain. Did you, as a Canadian before the War, did you feel kind of a part of, you know, your place within Britain’s bigger global position? Did you feel kind of British more than Canadian?
No. No, I didn’t. You just kind of took it as it comes, you know. I just (clambered) myself to it, yeah, whatever. We didn’t have much... It was all in camp, really. You didn’t have much to do with outside, except when you were on leave or something, travelling out. But while I was in Aldershot, we was there doing some training and we had to go to... Where did we go? Somewhere in Scotland, Inveraray. Had to go to Inveraray for training, and it was right up in the mountains, and I remember it took – there was an engine on the front and an engine on the back of the train to get up to there. And we were in this town, and there was a big lake up there and a massive, high hill. And we used to have to go up over that bloody hill with battle dress on, full battle dress, as part of our training on the beach, you know, going in off this lake, hit the shore like assault and full battle dress and up over this big bloody mountain! That was one of the hardest bits.
Incidentally, when were you allocated to your Regiment? Was that right from the word go or..?
So you were just a recruit in the Canadian Army?
You did basic training in Aldershot again, before you were posted.
Really? So you started all over again?
Well, not necessarily basic training, but you waited until you were – for a posting. They usually tried to fit you in with an organised... One of the armies from your area, like.
Sure. And how did you decide whether you were going to be infantry or armour or engineers or..?
Well, I didn’t decide at all, really. I was just posted to the... They’d post you to where you were needed and to a unit from your area.
But if you’d said, “I really want to be in the Engineers,” for example, or artillery.
Yeah, you could, yeah. You’d do that. But I, while I was in Aldershot, before I was posted, one morning the Sergeant says, “Anybody here ever worked on a farm?” And nobody bothered to step out because they thought straight away this is to go to the kitchens, spud bashing, because them days you used to peel all the spuds. Spud bashing, we called it, for the whole camp, you know. And so everyone was like... I stepped out and then another kiddie stepped out. I thought, ‘This might be different’. And he said, “Go to your hut and I come and see you after parade.” So he come in, he said, “We got to go to the CO’s office.” I thought, ‘Oh, Christ! What have we done?’ you know. Anyway, we went there and he said, “Now, there’s a nursery about 4 miles out and they can’t get enough help. They supply us with all our goods, vegetables and that sort of thing for the camp, and they just can’t get enough help. And so I want you to go there, my car will take you out in the morning and pick you up again 5 o’clock at night.” So I thought, ‘Great’! So we did that for a month. And someone reported, people started complaining that the car was using – that the staff car was being used for that purpose, and so they complained to the camp. So he called us in the office again and he said, “Now, I’ve got to stop taking you back and forth in the car,” because they were rationed, then, to one gallon of petrol a month, the private sector, you know, so they complained because they couldn’t use their car to get to work and we, you know... So he said, “If you can find yourself transport you can stop there, but otherwise you’ll have to give it up.” We were straight out that night and bought ourselves a bike each, you know, so we was there another 3 months! So it was a great break.
So you were just sort of exempt from all other training at that point?
Yeah. No training at all.
And what was the training like? Was it starting to get more advanced by that stage?
Well, it wasn’t too bad in Aldershot, it was just basic – sort of basic training where you were waiting for posting, and you used to have route marches and stuff like that to keep you...
So you weren’t taught any tactical doctrine or anything like that?
And were you ever encouraged to kind of use your initiative and think for yourself?
Well, any time you... Once you were sent to a unit, if there was any special thing you were taught that, you know, that you had to do. But in basic training it was just a general get-to-know-the-system and that, you know. But once you got – you was out and put to a unit, I was eventually posted to the North Shore New Brunswick Regiment, which was... Sort of fitted the bill.
Yeah. And was there anyone there you knew when you got there?
Uhh, no. I don’t think there was anyone I knew straight away.
So which Battalion were you in?
I was in North Shore Regiment, B Company. Yeah, B Company, North Shore Regiment.
So that was just one battalion effectively, was it?
Well, there was... There was the North Shore Regiment and the Queen’s Own Rifles and The Chaudieres was the 8th Brigade.
Right. And you were attached straight to 8th Brigade?
And we were always somewhere amongst each other, like on D-Day and that.
Right, okay. But there wasn’t any other Battalions of North Shore New Brunswick?
No, just your own regiment.
So kind of 800-plus men.
Yeah. So, yeah, we used to... Basically, along the south coast, once I joined those, once I joined the Regiment...
So that was around 1943, was it?
...from Brighton to Bournemouth. Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.
So where were you stationed to start off with down here?
First of all we were stationed at Haywards Heath, yeah, when I first joined them, and we moved – about every 3 weeks we’d move, everyone would move and someone else would go, like some artillery lot would go where we were because of spies, you know. No one stayed too long in one place, and there was a system.
And did you ever do any training or exercises with artillery and tanks, and stuff like that?
Well, to a point. We’d follow the tanks, you know, the tanks used to go in and we’d follow them.
Okay, but as a part of the training exercise.
Oh, no, not in the tanks and that.
No, but my point is you would train alongside tanks and artillery.
Oh, yeah, you did that.
You did all-arms training.
And would those be part of exercises or..?
Well, yeah. Going on, like, tanks would go... They had different thinks, like flamethrowers and stuff like that, training for...
So you’d train with them? You were familiar with them before you went to France?
You’d train with them, because when the tanks would go in, the infantry had to follow them and take prisoners and all that, so you had to deal with that.
I was reading a memoir of a guy who I used to know, who’d been in the 2nd Rifle Brigade right at the beginning of the War, and he was saying that one of the things they were taught was how you needed to use your own initiative and how you had to be aware of what other, you know, the tasks of NCOs above you and Troop Commanders so that if you had to step in you knew what to do. Was that something that you would be familiar with?
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
You were taught all that, were you?
Well, you – by experience you knew, you gradually learned it. You wasn’t actually taught, but you’d follow your NCOs, like, and know, got to know their job. And eventually it would be, like, the ones with the best experience and that would be put in the place if that NCO was promoted or something. If a Lance Corporal was promoted to Corporal, someone with the, you know, the know-how, they’d been there a long time and lived with it, would be put in charge in his place.
And were you issued with – I mean, I’ve got at home, I’ve got lots of sort of training manuals and, you know, the Infantry Training Handbook and all this kind of stuff. I mean, were you given all that stuff? Did you ever look at it? Or was all this sort of..?
What? Paperwork stuff?
No. You didn’t bother with all that.
No. It was all manpower stuff.
You just learned it on the job.
And so when were you assigned to be a Bren Gunner? Was that during that period, presumably?
Well, I did that in training in England, I was given that job.
And how did that come about?
Uhh, well, someone would be selected to do it, you know, in your training your officers and NCOs would know how you’re going on and they’d select who they thought was the best for the job, you know.
And was there anyone in your regiment who’d already seen any kind of action at all? Or were you all..?
No. No. What, D-Day, you mean?
Before D-Day. Had anyone been on the Dieppe Raid or seen any service overseas or..?
No. Nobody had no idea. And, to be honest, a great deal of the training – when it come to D-Day, you were on your own. All the training you did, it didn’t come into effect at all. You faced your things and you had to sort it out! It was a different tale...
Right. Yeah, sure. But, I suppose what all the training teaches you, that is resilience and (independence of thought)...
Yeah, give you... You knew how to deal with things, yeah.
Yeah. And what did you think of the Bren Gun?
Yeah, great gun.
Really? Just because it’s reliable, accurate.
Easy to handle.
I mean, did you ever pick up captured German machine guns or anything like that along the way, once you’d got to France?
What? Pick ‘em up?
Yeah, I mean did you ever have a look at them and kind of (test-fire)?
Oh, yeah. We (wanted to see the old Schmeisser and stuff), yeah.
And what did you think of all those?
Well, the old Schmeisser would spit out shells so fast you couldn’t count, you know, but it was a waste of bullets, really. You know what I mean, they’d just ‘Brrrrrr’!
Yeah, and it overheats, obviously.
They weren’t as accurate as our guns.
And do you think that’s the most important thing on a machine gun?
Yeah, accuracy is the thing.
And also they’re reliable, aren’t they? You know, they just keep going. The Bren just keeps going as well, doesn’t it. It’s very sort of reliable.
Oh, as far as I know they’re still going, yeah. Yeah, you couldn’t be without them. Yeah, they saved – I saved a lot of lives with it, I’ll tell you, with the Bren Gun.
Did you ever wonder if it would have been better if it was belt-fed, rather than those little curved magazines?
Well, I never wasted bullets with them. You know, I’d...
Okay, so as far as you’re concerned it’s for hitting a specific target rather than just spraying...
Yeah, yeah. Quite. Yeah. It’s alright if it’s a bunch of – if it’s a hedge or something, and you know there’s someone in there that you want to get out, it’s a good idea, but you’re best to pinpoint a target.
So as far as you’re concerned kind of rate of fire is not everything by any stretch of the imagination?
No. If you’re... Like the Germans, they’d spit bloody ‘Brrrrr-Brrrr!’ And they’d just fire one shot, you couldn’t pinpoint ‘em, you know what I mean, but if there was a big burst you’d get your eye on it and then you could shoot the bugger, you know. But just one shot.
So presumably you must have been aware that you were kind of building up to an invasion?
Oh, yeah. But we never thought it would come. You never – we were just training and you never thought it would come. There’s so much different things you did. When we were at Haywards Heath, I remember, we did a 40 mile route march one day and got back that night, about 10 o’clock at night we arrived back to camp where we were billeted, and we thought, ‘Oh, thank God we’re back’. And we marched straight past the bloody camp and 4 miles up on the bloody Downs and dug in in trenches for the night! Things like that used to discourage you. But it made a man of you, you know.
Sure. So lots of preparation, you know, training on digging foxholes and trenches and things like that as well?
Oh, yes. You needed that. Yeah.
Yeah. And presumably, I mean, were you taught about kind of lay of the land and being able to size-up, judge distance and all that kind of stuff?
No. It was all different wherever you went, it was different. You couldn’t really say this is how it’s going to be.
And you did do those landing exercises didn’t you, as well?
Yeah, we did. Yeah, all the way along. That was our – the Assault Division, we were, and that’s...
So you knew you were going to be in the front?
Yes, we knew if it had come to an invasion, that’s what we’d be doing. But when it happened it was all quite different than what we had trained for, you know.
Right. But in the kind of immediate run up I mean, you know, security must have been tighter and..?
You really didn’t know?
We got on that boat at Southampton that night thinking we were just going to anchor off the Isle of Wight and hit Bournemouth Beach or Boscombe somewhere, yeah.
And presumably that was the 4th of June.
Had no idea. Half past 4 in the morning, they woke us up and said, “Come on. Have your breakfast and get live ammunition. This is the real thing.” And that’s the first we knew. Yeah. You couldn’t do it today. The bloody spies would be out, you know, the papers would have it all over, the big scoop and all that.
But were you daunted by that or, you know..?
No. We sort of thought well, it’ll be just another thing, like, same as the training we had.
Right. So you weren’t particularly scared or anything?
No, not really, because you didn’t know what you were going to face, you know. You’d done so much of it, it had become a natural thing. And when we hit the beach...
You were second man off, weren’t you?
I was, yeah. At Juno Beach, yeah.
Can you remember kind of approaching the shore?
Yeah, I remember we were approaching, we got off, come down off the ships onto the landing craft, the infantry...
Right. So you went over on a bigger ship, a troop ship?
Oh, massive ship. So, yeah...
And then you’re on those kind of nets down the side?
And come down on the rope ladders into the things.
And what was the swell like? Was it hard to judge the, kind of the jump?
Yeah, it was rough. It was put off a day because it was so bloody rough. And they said you’ve got to do it, so, yeah, it was rough. But our, the ship – the gunboats were shelling the beach for about an hour before the actual landing, and we were very close to the beach and we’re thinking, you know, we’re going to run into our own bloody gunfire. And they stopped one minute before we hit the beach. And, course, by the time we hit the beach and a lot of others, and they’d gone back and, you know, reloading, and by the time the Germans realised that the shelling had actually stopped and they got back into position, we were all up in the town, a whole crowd of us.
So you were in Courseulles, were you?
Well, I was the – we were the first ones, the first lot were all in the town.
So the ramp goes down and, I mean, how big was the leap towards..? Yeah, ramp would go down and you just went straight off.
Were you far out or was it..?
No, we were right on the beach. We hit the beach and the ramp went down. But it got a bit congested because a lot of boats would be... After we were in the town for, you know, like 10 minutes or something, the Germans realised that the shelling had stopped and then they got back in their gun positions. And they were knocking things out, and some of the landing craft had to drop their load where some had come in and could get away, couldn’t get out, or maybe the people manning them got bloody shot or something, and they were stuck on the beach, and they were dropping blokes out there that had to swim ashore and all that.
But when you landed, you know, the depth of the water was up to your shin or something?
What? Tide, you mean?
You know, when you jumped into the...
Well, I didn’t jump. No, I didn’t. We landed – the load of the boat, the front of the boat would hit the shore and they would drop the ramp right onto the sand. Course, we all got off, the boat was floating, you see, so that was the attitude. Your boat would float and they’d just pull away.
And you were literally second man off?
So who was the first man off?
He was (Cleve Campbell), the Corporal of our platoon, yeah. Yeah, he was the first one off. Like a spearhead, you know, they had to do it, offloaded from the – there was five fronts. There was – we were Juno – there was... What was the name of that one? A British...
Gold and Sword.
Sword. There was Sword, Juno, Gold, and then the two Americans, and each front worked the same way. You offloaded from the front ships first and then worked away, and that ship would go back to Southampton or Portsmouth to load up with more manpower and materials and come in (the inner), like, and they keep going around like that.
Sure. So when you’re on, you’ve got your Bren and you’re just holding it at the hip, are you?
What, the Bren Gun? Well, wherever you had to use. Sometimes you’d be laid down, sometimes –
But as you jumped off the landing craft?
Yeah, I just had... I was carrying it by the handle, yeah, just carrying by the handle and then you’d use it as you had to.
So you got off the beach, there was no firing at all as you ran up.
No, there was nothing, nothing. It was absolutely empty because they all had their heads down.
And then up the seawall?
Yeah, there was a seawall and just the sluice that went up where they, where the fishing boats and stuff come down. Everyone went up that and then into the town.
And I remember you telling me the story about you mate you were with, the corporal who spoke French, and you went into a French house or something.
Oh, yeah, well, course, when we get into town we couldn’t find any Germans, and we wondered where do you go from here? And then they started to get back into position, we could hear the firing out to sea.
So it’s sort of now behind you?
Yeah. So the artillery couldn’t fire anymore because we were in the bloody town, so we had to clear them from behind. So we started house searching, thinking they’d got up in the houses, you know, and the first house I went in with a fella by the name of (LeCroix).
As in ‘The Cross’?
French, yeah, The Cross. The Cross in English. LeCroix, yeah. And he could speak French.
And he was your Corporal?
No. He was just another Rifleman. Cleve Campbell was the Corporal. And we went in – the first house we went in, there were two in a house, and the first house we went in –
Two men per house?
Yeah, two men to each house.
So what did you do, just kick the door down? Or do you just..?
No, no. We just went in, (crashed our) way in or... You didn’t ask, you just tried the door and walked in and said, “We’ve come to search your house.” Whether they like it or not, you know. “We’re here for Germans.” He said, “Ah. Come with me.” And LaCroix could understand all he was saying. He took us in the lounge and a big trap hatch there, and he said they go down here and they go out through a tunnel to the front, and they’ve got their machine guns out there, told ‘em. So LaCroix told me, so I said, “Come on, we’ll go and find our Cleve Campbell and ask him for permission to go out there.” So we went and seen, so I had a word with him. He said, “Hang on a minute.” And he went off and come back shortly with one of these canisters. Did I tell you that before?
Yeah, yeah, you mentioned it, the flamethrower, yeah.
Yeah, he come back with one of these canisters, a personnel flamethrower, and lashed it on LaCroix’s back and he said, “Okay.” I said, “Well, I just wanted to let you know, so if we don’t come back you’ll know where we are.” So we went back to the house and went off out there. And, of course...
What was it? A little sort of ladder down or steps down or what?
Yeah, just a ladder down into the, where they’d dug the...
Was it kind of an old cellar which had then been extended?
It would have been, sort of like a, yeah, like a cellar. There’s a bit of area there they’d dug out where you’d put, bring stuff down and put it and then out through the tunnel.
Right. And was it illuminated? I mean was it lit up?
No, it was bloody dark. Yeah, just a tunnel.
Went out, there’s two lots of houses, so quite a long way.
So you’re just fumbling in the dark, are you?
Yeah, we just feel your way, like, you know. And we made our way out through there and eventually saw daylight.
I mean, it must have been quite tense going down there, wasn’t it, not knowing what’s at the other end?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. Had no idea. We noticed along the way that there was tunnels coming into it from other areas, like.
I mean, you were obviously a very calm, phlegmatic character, but your heart must have been racing at that point, wasn’t it?
Well, you knew you had a job to do and you thought, ‘How do we go about it?’ You just had to work your way. As I say, we never had no training for that at all. You just had to use your own initiative. So eventually we got out there, we could see daylight. All I could see was two men standing there. It was like a semicircle thing, platform, with a 4 foot wall and a gun at the top of that.
And presumably the sound of their gun was masking your approach?
Oh, yeah, we could hear the guns.
But they couldn’t hear you.
Oh, no, they couldn’t hear us, because we hadn’t fired any guns or nothing. So we didn’t go out right out the front, although we could get far enough that we could see and wanted to muffle the sound of the gunshots, so I just – ‘Brrr!’ – took a cross about knee-high and brought them down, these two. They come down and at the same time LaCroix let go of this bloody flame, couple of licks of that, and they started screaming, and suddenly all – there was two lots from this side and one lot from that side all came, they was trying to beat out the flames, so I – ‘Brrrrrrrr!’ – and he lets go some more flames and had them all on fire. And we thought, ‘Well, that’s fixed them’. So I said, “Come on, we’ll get the hell out of here.”
Were you shocked by the violence of it, or..?
Well, they didn’t... They thought... There was so much activity, booming going on, that the others didn’t realise. They were all looking out to sea in like a semicircle, you know, and suddenly they heard these guys screaming and they looked around and, course, they hadn’t heard the... I’d stayed back in the tunnel so they wouldn’t hear the gunshots, like, and they thought it was something coming in from the sea, and so they come trying to beat the flame out and that was it. It brought them over.
But presumably that must have been the first people you’d ever seen kind of dead or something.
Was that quite a shock, or did you kind of take it on the chin?
It just... I just... You just knew what you had to do. And you put your own life first and, you know, and... You know, you tell people about it and they think, ‘Oh, God. That was a horrible death for them’, but they wouldn’t worry about me.
No, that’s certainly true.
See, so it’s who pulls the trigger first. And anyway, I said to LaCroix, “Come on, let’s get the hell out of here.” And I said, “If you hear or see anything on the way out it won’t be ours, it’ll be them in these tunnels so give them a lick of flame.” But we got back out safe, strangely enough. Yeah.
So presumably that was, what? 7, 7.30 in the morning or something like that?
It was about...
Still pretty early doors.
Yeah, it would have been... That would have been about... Yeah, coming up to 8 o’clock, yeah. But that was the big deal. They were coming up through these tunnels and, you know, so we knocked them out.
So you killed more as you went out did you?
Oh, it saved thousands of lives, because they were just mowing them down at will as they were coming in.
Right. But as you pulled out of the tunnel again did you get more people? Did you see anymore? No, no more?
No. Oh, yeah, after that as we carried on house searching. And they were crafty. We’d clear the houses and keep moving back from the Front, and next thing they’d attack us from behind where they’d come through the tunnels in the houses we’d already cleared. But we weren’t taught any of that. We had to use your own initiative and realise what was going on.
But I wonder whether your training helped teach you to use your initiative?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
I mean, what the training does is – okay, it can’t prepare you for live action and that kind of scenario, but it can prepare you to deal with that unexpected scenario.
Yeah, it helped. We didn’t, we weren’t trained anything about that sort of thing at all.
But did you think you were pretty disciplined by that? And also it’s – what I’m really, really interested in is this idea of initiative, because one of the things that the Allies have been really criticised for is that, you know, unlike the Germans who were taught initiative, you know, the British and Canadians and Americans weren’t, and I don’t think that’s true. You know, I think you all seemed to be perfectly capable of using your initiative, and that comes from all sorts of things, but training is a part of it, presumably.
Oh, perfectly. The Americans weren’t... Well, I wouldn’t say they weren’t trained, but they did it all bloody wrong. Straight away – my view – they would hit those bloody cliffs at the bottom, you know, and one particular occasion – I don’t know if they did it any other – but one place – I know because I’ve seen films of it – where they shot this rope, this anchor, and then they went up this rope ladder and they put their head over the top and they’d get bloody shot. And then another one would go up and they were bloody shooting them as fast as they were putting their head over the bloody top, you know. Stupid thing to do. What they should have done instead of facing up to those cliffs, come up where Gold Beach, British Gold Beach, come in there and push them out to sea. That’s what they should have done.
Yeah. Yeah, outflank it.
Yeah. They had no... They had no idea, really. They did everything... They’d just keep bulldozing along crazily.
Yeah. So when you were... So in Courseulles you’re doing your house clearing and that takes you through the morning, presumably.
Yeah. We went on all in that same village. We didn’t get out of there until evening time.
Did you not?
Because the Canadians made the biggest dent inland on D-Day.
Yeah. Yeah. The ones on our... We had the Queen’s Own Rifles on our right and the Chaudieres on our left. And, of course, they come in on the sides of us, like. This was the stronghold where we landed and, of course, they got through behind us, and there was nothing much between there and Caen. So they had a pretty clear run, and once they got the beach was defended and that was it.
I mean, were you aware that the city of Caen was the D-Day objective?
Not really. No, not really. We had no idea. We weren’t given any plan at all about D-Day. It was just: Invasion. Trained for the invasion.
And do you think that’s because you were kind of a Private and not an officer? I mean, presumably the Company Commanders were...
Well, you didn’t see the officers. You didn’t...
You didn’t have much to do with them? But you must have had a Platoon Commander.
You just did your own thing, really. And eventually we got to... Eventually they did come out with their hands up in the late afternoon.
And what did you do? Just sort of corral them up and..?
They just, we just lined them up by there. And then from nowhere – God knows where they all came from – but the whole of the town suddenly was there on our side, and they was offering us bloody whisky and calvados and, “Come and have a drink!” Oh, and, “Thank you for liberating us!” And all this stuff.
That must have been exciting.
Yeah. And there was one girl there, about 18-ish, and she... There was a fella there with a Sten Gun, and she said, “Show me how it works.” And he gave her this gun to look at and he was showing her, and her dad stepped up and grabbed the gun and shot her in the face.
Shot his daughter?
Shot her right between the eyes, yeah. And she went down and he said, “She was going to shoot you.” He said, “She’s a collaborator, she was going to shoot you.” That was something new. Taught us something! We didn’t know what collaborators were!
Wow, really? So he shot his own daughter?
Yeah. Yeah. He said, “She’s no good. She’s been with them.” He said, “She was going to shoot you. She was going to mow you down.”
Wow! God. Like a Jihadist.
Yeah. He said, “She’s no good.”
That’s amazing. He shot his own daughter.
And suddenly, suddenly we realised we’re at war.
Right. And that was on D-Day itself, was it?
That was on D-Day, yeah. And we learned a lot on D-Day that helped us a lot.
I bet you did. A steep learning curve.
And as we went on, every place, every town we took, they’d round up all the collaborators and shave off their hair, shave off their hair bald, and march them through the towns. And people were throwing eggs at them and hitting them with sticks and all that stuff, yeah, giving them a bashing. Would you like a cuppa?
Actually, that would be very nice. Yeah, thank you. Let’s pause this for a minute.
So D-Day was quite a day. I mean... And where were you by nightfall? I mean, were you beyond the village?
Just moved about 5 miles past the village.
So you were in open countryside by that point?
Only just outside the village, not far. Well, as I say, it was all underground tunnels and they kept coming up behind us. And we’d got to be doubling back and clearing out the houses, and we realised, you know, it was all these trenches.
So there’s gunfire going on all into the darkness, is there?
Yeah. Yeah. But...
And were you able to get any rest at all?
No, not at all. I don’t know where the cooker truck was, I don’t... We had emergency rations and that, and we used to deal with that, but we never see the cooker truck back there at all.
And just to go back to the officers; I mean, presumably you had a Platoon Commander who was a Lieutenant or something?
And what was he like? Was he alright?
Oh, yeah, they were okay. You didn’t see much of ‘em.
And did you ever see the Generals?
No. They were just behind the lines collecting medals.
And what about your section? I mean, did you all get on? All good mates?
And did you have kind of particular pals?
You always had one buddy. Yeah, always had one buddy that you always went out with.
And who was that for you?
...A boozing pal, someone to go out with.
And who was that in your case?
...(You never went out). Well, there was a fella by the name of (Percy Maskell). He was in D Company, I was in B Company, but we were very close mates all the time, right through.
So in training, during training time, you’d go to the movies together and pubs and things like that?
Yeah. You used to keep the same mate usually.
And how did he fair on D-Day? Was he in D-Day or was he a Reserve?
He was in D Company, so he didn’t see much real action. D Company was reserve. There was A, B, C forward and D in reserve. But he was always there.
And did he make it through?
Oh, yeah. He made it through and... But he died quite young.
Oh, that’s a shame.
Mmm, (after he got back). He came to my wedding.
Very good. So you got through D-Day and then it’s just pushing forward, presumably.
It was just a matter of pushing forward all the way, yeah.
Yeah. But you’re getting out of kind of urban operations, into the countryside and..?
Yeah, you run into all sorts of... Like Falaise. We got to Falaise and they were a bit stubborn there, they weren’t going to give up.
And do you remember any of the individual battles, like Epsom and Goodwood. I mean, I think – I can’t remember which – were you Charnwood, weren’t you, I think, the Canadians?
I wasn’t, I didn’t – I wasn’t in Caen myself, but I – not in the battle thing – but I did go through Caen and it was absolutely flattened.
Yeah. I mean, I’ve never quite understood the point of that.
Well, I never, quite, because our people were shelling it but it was private places they were, you know, the bloody town. They weren’t hitting the stronghold, the German stronghold and pillboxes and stuff, they were just knocking the bloody town to pieces. And yet when we’d go into these places and their homes would be bashed and all that, they’d welcome us with open arms, you know, and I’d think, ‘How strange!’ You’d think they’d be bloody out with their guns at us. But no, they didn’t.
But having all that air power overhead, I mean regardless of the rights and wrongs bombing Caen, I mean that must have been a comfort, wasn’t it, to see?
To see the bombers coming over and the fighters and all the rest of it.
I used to feel sorry for the French people, because they were getting it all. The Germans weren’t getting hurt. They never seemed to knock them out. When we’d go in to take a place the bloody pillboxes would still be there.
But when you sort of rounded up German prisoners and so on, I mean what was your impression of them? I mean, did they look kind of young and fit and..?
Well, there was a big variation, a big variation with them, really. In... Down there around Caen and that area there were basically a lot of the German Youth, these young lads, and they were taught to fight to the finish, don’t give up, so you never knew what you were going to be faced with., you know. The older ones were quite happy to throw their hands up and say enough’s enough, but these young ones, young lads, they’d just take you prisoner and line you up against the wall and shoot you.
And did you ever kind of witness any of that on our side? Because, you know...
Well, I didn’t witness it myself but I seen what they left behind, you know, a lot of blokes that had been just executed.
Right. And were you kind of – I mean, was 8th Brigade in the firing line pretty much all the time, or were you rotated out at all?
Well, we were the spear head. The way it worked, like, the 8th Brigade was Queen’s Own Rifles, Chaudieres, and North Shore Regiment, and the North Shore Regiment was A Company, C Company, B Company. And B Company was 1 Platoon, 3 Platoon, 2 Platoon, and I was 2 Platoon. There was 1 Section, 3 Section, 2 Section, and I was a Bren Gunner in 2 Section, so I was out front all the time.
But how did you find kind of advancing through the French countryside? I mean, where you were around Caen, it’s quite open, isn’t it? It’s not that kind of dense bocage that you get further west, but, I mean, even so, difficult to move through.
Well, you could never judge. You had to wait to see what you were faced with and take it from there, as a rule.
And what about kind of getting artillery support and aerial support and things like that if you needed it?
Well, like at Carpiquet, we had when we took that, that was to clear the airfield so they couldn’t use the airfield for Caen, you see.
And was that a tough fight?
Uhh, it wasn’t as tough fight as much as our artillery was given as support and they were firing in front of us, laying a barrage in front, but they didn’t raise their sights fast enough and we was walking into our bloody barrage of artillery. And we thought it was the German artillery, because with all the banging you couldn’t tell where it was coming from and exploding. So we thought we’re walking into the German things, so we rushed it a bit and what we were doing was rushing more into our own bloody thing instead of pulling back and waiting for ‘em to move. We lost a lot of men there. That was the second-worst lot we had after Kapellen. Kapellen was the worst thing we ever... The worst one. But we lost an awful lot of men, and no one ever... They kept it quiet, you know. You never heard...
So what was your route? You went up from Juno up towards, you know, west of Caen and to Carpiquet. You got Carpiquet and then where were you after that?
Uhh, Bretteville and Falaise.
Right. And what was the armoured unit, the armoured squad that was attached to your Brigade?
Well, I don’t really know, I...
But there were tanks and stuff around?
We never... Used to see them coming and going and support us at times, but never knew, really, much where they were. Yeah. Falaise, we got to there and they weren’t going to give up, so what we did, surrounded them like that and shut them in a trap. There was no way out, only the sea, and they couldn’t get out that way. That was mostly Hitler Youth lot. So we eventually – they still hung in there for several days, so eventually we pulled back and opened the road to Rouen, and when they realised that they took off, and they were going out on tanks, trucks, horse and wagons, everything, they were loaded with troops getting out of there. And they waiting ‘til they got within a few miles of Rouen, and the road was full of them, and then the Hurricanes and Spitfires started coming down, strafing them and bombing them and they left the road absolutely full of knocked out horses and carts and bodies everywhere. And then they come...
And you saw all that?
Yeah. They come with bulldozers and cleared the road like that and just left the... There were dead horses laying along the bloody road.
God, the stink must have been terrible.
The smell, oh God, and they had all these troops and they hadn’t cleared them up yet, you know. Yeah.
A lot of people I’ve spoken to said there was always a kind of culture of looting afterwards and pinching watches and Lugers and all this kind of stuff. I mean, did you ever get involved in all that?
No. I suppose there was, but you couldn’t really loot much. What could you do with it? We couldn’t. You’d have to carry it around, and why would you carry it?
Right. And did you ever want for ammo or food or anything like that?
No. We always seemed to be pretty well fixed that way.
You said you were kind of moving on by foot. Were you never lorried at all? Were you never kind of put into trucks and things?
Oh, sometimes we’d be put in trucks to go from here to there, like, but never transported, like, we were always on foot. Infantry, see. That’s what it was all about. We had to clear the way for the trucks. We had to clear the way for the trucks. So, yeah, we were always out in front. Yeah.
But you must have felt at the end of that, I mean, seeing that level of destruction you must have felt you were part of a pretty comprehensive defeat of the Germans after Normandy?
You just lived with it, yeah. Never think nothing about it.
Really? Just on to the next thing?
Yeah, just grew so accustomed to it.
And how did you cope with – I mean, you must have lost friends and colleagues in the Platoon.
Oh, all the time, yeah.
And how do you kind of deal with that?
When we got to... When we reached Nijmegen in Holland on the new year – New Year’s Day – our officer came in, he said, “We’re starting leaves to England, two weeks leave to England. Those with the longest service from D-Day that haven’t been struck off strength are straight first to go.” There was only four, he said, “Four at a time.” There was only four left in our Regiment that hadn’t been struck off strength.
Really? And you were one of them?
And I was one of them. So we went on two weeks leave to England, come back, two weeks leave to go to Paris, those with the longest service (from the out), so I was off, two weeks off to Paris. So I missed all of January on leave!
Well, I mean, that’s no bad thing. And then come back and took on again in February, and I was made Sergeant – Acting Sergeant – in the middle of February.
So you were a Platoon Sergeant by that point?
Yeah. And then (Al Daley) was made Acting Corporal in my place, and that’s the one on the 25th of February, only a week or two later, that we had Kapellen, reached Kapellen, and, as I say, he was the first one, I see him stumble, go forward. I thought he was hit in the leg but he was fatal. It would have – if I hadn’t been made up to Sergeant I’d have been in his place.
You obviously need your dose of luck to get through, don’t you.
But also, the more... Of course there’s a sort of big chance element to all of this, and luck and so on, of fate, but presumably the more experienced you are, the more you get that sixth sense you were talking about, the more you kind of start to be alert to the dangers, you know how to look after yourself. You can improve your chances, can’t you?
Yeah, you know how to deal with it. Yeah, you do. You work out the plan beforehand a bit, yeah.
So after Normandy, I mean, where were you next? You’re just on that pursuit?
Well, we just carried on. We went up through, up along the coast, basically, to...
To Le Havre.
Yeah. Yeah, went up along, cleared those – what they called ‘The Atlantic Wall’. The Germans had made all along Calais and that area, because they, they...
So you’re going back over the battlegrounds of the First World War?
Yeah, they were aware that, in their view, if there was an invasion it would come from Dover to Calais, the nearest point, so they built that Atlantic Wall that nothing would get beyond the beach.
But did you get much opposition there?
And that was... Well, yeah. We had a lot of bother getting, clearing the way along to Calais.
What? Little kind of fire fights and hold ups and..?
Yeah. We couldn’t go along the seafront because they had all these – we had to come in from behind, but they were... We tried to take them out from behind and they were... That’s where LaCroix got killed, near Calais. I can’t remember the exact name of the place, but I remember he was -
Well, the Germans were over there – about from here to that road – and they were sniping at us, you know, and there was three blokes, there was a log there – a felled tree or a log – and LaCroix and two others were behind that, and they were firing, trying to pick off these bloody Germans over there, and LaCroix just put his head up over the thing to take aim on his rifle, got a bullet right through the bloody helmet, through his head, and out the back. And I just took my helmet off and threw it away. I never wore a helmet ever again.
Did you not?
No. No. I said that’s extra baggage. I just put my beret on and that was it.
Yeah. I said that’s extra baggage. What’s the point of carrying that?
Well, it’s not going to do you an awful lot of good, is it really?
Well, when I seen that I thought no, that’s a waste of time. Yeah. And then we got to Calais and – eventually – and we had to do the same at Calais.
Just one thing about LaCroix; I mean, was he a good mate?
Oh, yeah, he was. Yeah.
So you were sorry to see him go.
Yeah, he was always behind, mated with me. He had the rifle and I had the machine gun. But we always got in the same trench and that sort of thing, you know, two to a trench. Yeah.
I mean, were you kind of affected by that or did you just put it out of your mind?
Well, not really, because I’d seen so much of it. It was just something you expected all the time.
I mean, you do get immune to it, do you think?
Yeah, you get immune to it. Just accept it.
So you got up to Calais?
Yeah, got to Calais. Not to... Everything was on the Front but we were up on the top, up on the top of the cliff and all that was down below. And they weren’t going to get... They were a bit like the others. We had to surround them. Surrounded them, and they weren’t going to give... They were shelling over, you could see these bloody 24 inch shells going through the air. You’d hear a ‘Boom!’ and you’d feel the earth tremoring when they’d fire them, and you could see them go ‘Pheeeeeeeewww’. It was just like a barrel going through the air.
Funnily enough, where I live you can – when they’re doing the guns on Salisbury Plain, the ground does tremble.
You can feel it. That must be kind if, you know, 25 miles away. And then did you get to Dunkirk?
No, I didn’t do – I don’t know who did that. Oh, Dunkirk. That was before.
Well, not in 1940, but I just meant, you know, when you there in 1944 you must have gone past it again.
Yeah, yeah. No, Dunkirk was – I don’t know who took that, actually. We didn’t do that. But Dunkirk was, of course, where they were – the British Army was pushed out to sea, and the French Army, when the Germans invaded France.
Yeah. And by-and-large you found most French and Belgian people kind of friendly and..?
Oh, yeah, they’d come out with open arms all the time.
And would you supplement your rations with chickens and eggs and bread and stuff like that?
Oh, they’d give you everything, yeah. “Have a cognac!” And, you know, they were always wanting to have drinks to show and, “Oh, thank you for liberating us,” you know. Oh, yeah, they’d come out and open arms, everywhere.
And everyone always says that, you know, in between the kind of moments of extreme action there’s always quite a lot of kind of boredom. I mean, how did you kind of pass the time when you weren’t in action? Was it just spent kind of cleaning weapons and playing cards? Or was there anything else?
Yeah, well, there wasn’t much spare time. You were always on guard. There was always six, an NCO and then six privates, and you’d have two on and then four off. Two on and four off, you know, and they’d go on, like, every four hours you’d be back on again. And you did that, always on guard, so you never really would...
But did you play cards, write letters, that sort of stuff?
Yeah, we used to play cards. But eventually – going back to Calais – we were up on that cliff for about five days, and everything that moved up there, they were firing up there, trying to, you know, to let you know they were there. And no way would they give up, and eventually they realised they were surrounded, couldn’t get any supplies in, they couldn’t get out, and so one morning a big white flag went up on the side of one of the pillboxes down there. So, as usual, I was sent down there with seven men. And gets down there and I said – I may have told you this before, did I?
No, I don’t think you did.
Anyway, went down, took seven men down there, they – it used to be a case they’d send a whole platoon, but they found that often they’d start coming out and they’d just open fire on you, mow you all down. You know, the white flag didn’t mean anything. So it got that they’d just send a section, and so if that happened you wouldn’t lose too many men. Anyway, we get down there and I – they were coming out of the pillboxes, we had no idea how many was there. There was five big pillboxes. Three was the big guns that were shelling Dover. One was for their living quarters and all that stuff, and one was stores and kitchen and all that, and so they were all, every one, you know, all just lived in that area. Anyway, I went down there and posted my seven men along under the cliff, facing them coming out. So I stood here, I said, I shouted, “Anybody here speak English?” And this officer come over, and I said, “Now, stop there.” So he stopped. I said, “Now, tell them in German, come over, put their weapons down there, come to me to be frisked, and then line up over there and we’ll take you to safety. Tell them that in German.” Well, he said something. I don’t know what he said. I said, “Now, you do that. Put your weapon down there, come to me.” So he went and put something down, come over to me with his hands up, and I started frisking him down. And suddenly he goes for his hand in his pocket, like that, and I had may Sten Gun over my shoulder – I always, another trick I learned, keep it cocked and ready because you don’t know. It’s all often a case of who pulled the trigger first, and he had this thing like that. Another blink of an eye and he’d have shot me in the heart. And I just touched the trigger, shot him in the eye and he went down. And I picked up...
So you had it on your shoulder, barrel pointing upwards so you can..?
Yeah, I had it just pointing forward, down, I just touched the trigger.
Oh, I see. So it’s sort of slung over your shoulder, like this.
Yeah, slung over my shoulder on a strap.
Yeah, but I had it cocked and ready, and I just touched the trigger and hit him straight in the eye.
Why would he do that? I mean, it’s all over. Why would you do that?
Well, he was one of these Hitler Youth, you see.
So he was a younger lad, was he?
Yeah, he was a young fella. And I was always cautious of that.
If they’re young don’t trust them.
Yeah, you know, you could rest assured they got to be watched. Anyhow, so I shouted in English then, I said, “Now don’t anybody else try that.” I said, “Come over one at a time, put down your weapons, come to me to be frisked, and line up over there.” You know, I told them again in English. So I thought, ‘Well, they’ll spill that around’. So I said, “Don’t anyone else try that, because there’s a thousand guns up there pointing at you and you all be dead. So just come to me and you’ll be taken to safety.” And so they started coming through, one at a time. I said, “Do that one at a time.” And they all kept coming through, and I got about half way through when this bloody great mountain came out, you know.
Oh, the seven foot guy.
And he was American, wasn’t he, or something?
No, he was German, but he’d been to America and they’d sent for him to come home, come back for the War. So he went back. And after –
So he spoke English?
Yeah, he could speak good English. After the War he went back to New York again. And he appeared as the tallest Santa Claus in the world in some, at one time, and then he finished up as the tallest man in the world with the shortest man in the world in a circus. The little fella was about to there with his little wand, you know. Yeah.
Just tell me, while we’re talking about the Sten Gun, I mean what did you make of the Sten?
The Sten Gun? Yeah.
So you didn’t have any problems with kind of – because it had this, I think, to start off with it could be a little bit wild and tended to be kind of – because you’ve got these two bullets feeding into the one chamber, you could have jamming and, you know...
Yeah, there was a bit of that, but I never had it.
But you had no problem. I mean, do you think the secret to keeping a weapon functioning well is just to make sure you clean it properly, look after it?
Well, often it’s the case, yeah. Yeah, it’s like anything else, like a bloody chimney; if you don’t clean it you get smoke comes out!
Right. But as far as you’re concerned the Sten (actually did...)
Yeah. I never had any bother at all. I never had any bother, yeah.
Cheap as chips.
But we... Eventually they all came through, that lot, they all came through. When the tall boy came out, all the Germans over here started giggling and everybody was having a haha, and I thought everything is ok now. So I signalled to my lads, I said – I knew what they wanted, to take some pictures – so I said, “Come on, it’s alright, everything’s okay now.” I knew there wasn’t going to be any more trouble, so they all rushed over with this pile that they were putting down; guns, cameras, watches, everything, wallets. And so my lads came rushing over and they grabbed the cameras and was taking pictures of themselves and me, you know, with this very big mountain. Yeah, and...
So what was he like? Was he..?
Oh, he was alright, yeah, he was no trouble at all. No trouble at all. He didn’t – I don’t think he ever wanted to fight in the German Army, but he was called back to do it, so he was happy to throw his hands up. And everyone was having their pictures taken with him to send home and stuff like that, yeah. So eventually he was taken, went over there, and we got them all through, and then we took them up the side of the cliff and a big field up there, and I said, “Now, wait here and transport will come to take you to safety. Don’t go that way or the French’ll kill you. And don’t go that way or we’ll shoot you. So just wait here.” So we left them, and then we went back and raided the bloody pile of stuff, and the money, they’d put wallets down, everything was there, watches, and we filled our bloody bag with watches and give it to the French people and stuff.
Fantastic. But did you ever kind of – I mean, did any of you – either you or any of your mates ever kind of pick up German weapons and keep them? Use them, like the MP40s and things?
When we was back, when we went back down there where the dead German that I’d shot in the eye, I picked up that P38 and I put it in my pack, and I carried that for the rest of the War. I carried it back to Canada when I was back, kept it there. When I come back here, I brought it back with me and I had the firing pin taken out and registered as a souvenir, and eventually a bloody burglar broke in and got it, took it.
Yep. And a picture I had with him, with him where I was standing with his arm outstretched like that, and I was up here propping his arm up. I had that and that went as well.
Oh, how annoying.
Bloody burglar took it. It was one of those, we had one of those pre-fabs, you know.
Yeah. Yeah. How annoying.
So after Calais you were – you pushed on into Belgium.
Yeah, pushed on up into Belgium.
Were you involved in the clearing of The Scheldt?
No, that was... I’m not sure who that was.
That was the Canadians, but obviously not your bunch.
It was, yeah. Yeah. Well, we just pushed on. You didn’t know where you were. I may have been there, I’m not sure, but names didn’t come into it, you just pushed on and on and on!
I mean, did you ever kind of get depressed at the kind of sort of relentlessness of it? I mean, you know, you’ve just cleared one thing and then there’s another one and yet more. You know, it must have felt like it was never going to come to an end.
No, it seemed every day was different.
Did it? So you didn’t get too demoralised?
You didn’t get demoralised?
Because there’s lots of talk about kind of, you know, morale taking a hit in Normandy and things. I mean, you never felt that?
Oh, yeah. Some blokes used to get shell-shocked. I remember I see one kiddie, one of our lads, one day we was at – there was shelling coming over and that, and he was a little, a Red Indian kiddie, you know, come from the original Indian tribes, you know, and he was laying there and suddenly he started, his feet and legs were going, he was going crazy.
Having a bit of a fit.
He was crying and going absolutely out of his head.
Really? So what did you have to do? Just get him out of there?
So what did you do? Get him to the..?
Well, we just took him to the sickbay, yeah. Took him out, finished. That was the end of him, yeah.
But so you never kind of witnessed any kind of bad morale or anything like that? I mean, people kind of – the odd cases of shell-shock and things, but apart from that I mean, spirits were okay, were they?
No, no. Yeah, fine. Oh, yeah.
You felt you were making progress all the time?
Everybody accepted it and took it as it come more-or-less, yeah.
Much grousing and grumbling from people?
No, no. I never heard. Everyone was pals and mates, you know, yeah, pretty well.
Yeah. You kept the spirits up?
And were there any ever opportunities to kind of, I don’t know, go into a French or Belgian bar and let your hair down a little bit, or was it all just..?
Oh, yeah. When we’d hold – take a place and hold it for a while, you’d often go in the bars, yeah. I remember we went in a bar in Belgium. You remember Dieppe, the 2nd Canadian Division went in there and was wiped out, and it wasn’t for a... All it was was an experience, an experiment, for D-Day about landing, what they could learn from it. They had no reinforcements, there was no cooker trucks followed to feed them, there was no way of bringing them back, nothing. They had no – they thought they’d just get wiped out, but they learned from the landing. And the point was they got in there and got a foothold and was making advance, making advancement, and there was no back-up. And eventually they were sort of pushed out to the sea, and by the time they got over there to salvage them there was very few left, you know, and it was a complete wipe-out. Just for an experience. And things like that, you know, you sort of think, ‘Well, it could have happened to me’, but...
Yeah, thank God it didn’t.
Yeah. I remember on the 25th of August, we – I’d gone in D-Day, and we never had a break at all in the frontlines until the 25th of August.
Really? God, so you were there fighting throughout the whole campaign?
Yeah. And then they said, the Officer came to us that day and he said, “Prepare to move,” he said, “at 6 o’clock. We going back for four days recreation and a shave and a shower and a bit of sport or whatever and a four day break.” He said, “Be ready at 6 o’clock and our 2nd Division is coming in at quarter to 6 to start taking over.” And they came in, they started coming in and to my amazement and surprise my brother walked up and took my place.
Amazing. This is your younger brother?
Yeah. Two years younger than me. I didn’t even know, my family never told me he had come overseas because they thought me being in the frontline, it might affect me, so they said we won’t say anything. And, of course, I had no idea he’d left Canada at all. I knew he had joined up.
And did he make it through okay?
No. He – they went and attacked the next morning and he was killed first day.
He’s buried in Bretteville.
Oh, I’m sorry.
Yeah. I’ve been there about three times and seen his grave.
Yeah. It was... But you never sort of knew where you were, the names of the places. You look back now, you think, ‘Was I there? What happened there?’ But it was something new every day and you couldn’t box it all up in your mind.
Yeah. Did you ever question why the Germans were still fighting? I mean, they were so obviously beaten at that point, you know, what was the point of keep going?
Or did you never think of it like that?
No, you didn’t stop to really consider what it was all about. All you’re interested in is beating the buggers, you know, and finding out the best way of saving your life!
But, I mean, did you have a kind of healthy respect for them as soldiers, or did you think they were all a bit – was it a bit hit-and-miss?
Yeah, some of them. A lot of them, the older ones, they’d give up. They didn’t really want to fight.
Right. But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between a kind of fanaticism and a determination to kind of keep fighting and tactical skill? I mean the two things aren’t, don’t necessarily follow at all. So you can be determined to keep fighting but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good soldier.
I mean, I’m not sure how good their training was at that point.
Well, that’s it, yes.
I mean, did you get much trouble with German tanks or, you know, anti-tank guns and things?
Well the German tanks, yeah, they were – you had to be a bit frightened of them. They’d just bulldoze in and spray bullets everywhere and there was no – you couldn’t shoot them down, you know, you had to hide and that was it!
Yeah. And presumably sometimes the best option is to just get out of sight as quickly as possible.
Yes, you’ve just got to get out of the way of it.
So then you went all the way across Belgium, Holland, and then swept round across the top and that was where you were wounded.
Yeah, right at the top of, end of Holland, and on the border.
Have you ever been back there?
Yeah, back in 2011. Two of my grandsons – one in the Marines and one in the Army, that’s in Australia now – they took me over there. I used my car and they did the driving, and they took me over there to Holland to see the Canadian war graves. There’s four cemeteries over there. There was no Canadians buried in Germany. They brought them all back to Holland to bury.
And did you find the spot where you’d been wounded?
And it’s still a field?
Somewhere I’ve got a picture of it. I took a picture of it that I’ve got someplace around.
You recognised it, did you?
Yeah. Oh, yeah, I knew where it was. Yeah, at Kapellen. I had my picture taken right under the sign, ‘Kapellen’.
Oh, right. How amazing. And what about things like artillery? I mean, did you think your artillery was pretty good.
It was hard but you had to bloody be careful that – like I said, at Carpiquet, where they didn’t raise their sights fast enough and we walked into our own. But you learn from your mistakes and we were cautious of that the next time, you know.
But by-and-large you felt – I mean, you were supported by a lot of artillery.
Yeah, you was always happy of their support, because they’d be shelling. And it was a sad thing, because they’d be shelling, the bloody houses would be on fire and stuff, you know, and we’d come in. But the Germans weren’t in those bloody houses, they were in their pillboxes and the trenches or what. It was sad, really, but the French didn’t seem to worry. Caen was flat.
Yeah, terrible, wasn’t it. I mean, it must have been such a beautiful city.
But they... I remember on one occasion – in 2-0-3 I was back there three times. There’s a fella live here in a flat at the back, he’s a Dunkirk veteran.
Oh, yeah, is this the guy who was walking?
Yeah. And he walked from, like I say, escaped in Germany and walked back to Normandy. And he knows Normandy and could speak fluent French and that and got to know, lived there with them until we arrived. So...
Oh, okay. So he got to Normandy and then never got to England? So after he’d walked from his...
After he’d walked he’d come to Normandy and had to stay there until we, until after the invasion.
Had to stay there. So then what happened to him? Did he then go home or did he..?
Oh, he was sent home once they found, once he come to life. They all thought he was dead and that. When they found him he was brought back.
Amazing. And he never went back out again?
No. That was the end of his war.
And the other thing was, you know, things like the PIAT. Did you ever use a PIAT?
And what did you think of that?
Yeah, it was alright. Yeah.
You know, it just gets a bad press. I just kind of...
I always preferred just, you know, the old Bren Gun. You couldn’t beat that. It would carry a long way and pretty accurate and all that, very, yeah.
But as far as you’re concerned you didn’t have any complaints about kit or anything like that?
It all seemed to...
And the system, as far as you’re concerned, worked? I mean, you know, you were never short of supplies or anything? You know, food, medical support, everything?
We were pretty well looked after, yeah. They always kept – the cooker truck got blown up a few times but they’d always make sure you got a replacement pretty quick. And medical supplies, they was always there. Yeah.
And were there any – I mean, you mentioned the helmet – were there any other kind of little tricks that you personally picked up, that you adopted, or..?
Uhh, not really, you just played it by ear. You... Any some things that you did that wasn’t right, but they thought it was right, you know what I mean.
But they don’t always get things right, do they, at the top?
No, of course not.
Because they’re back there and they don’t see what’s going on, so you basically take every... You just take every incident to your own best ideas.
Right. Learn to think on your feet and think for yourself.
Yeah, this (Les) at the back, in 2-0-3 he was going over there, he went over a couple of times with his car. He had a 2-door and the lady he was with at the time, they used to go over and take one or two people. And so he asked me to go one time, asked if I’d like to go over once, when I came here and he got to know me, like. And he said, “I see you...” got to know I had a brother buried over in Bretteville, so he suggested we go over there. So I put him on my insurance, I had a 4-door car, put him on my insurance and the four of us went. And we went three times. And one time we landed at Caen, and speaking of Caen, the way it was blitzed and that, you know, you’d think they’d never speak to you again. We had to show our passports as we went out, and as they, it had got congested and they opened another lane, so we were pushed down this other lane, first ones down, and stopped and the wife and I were in the back and he’d take the passports and pass it out the window to the guard, you know, to check that we’re okay. And Les said, “Three British, one Canadian.” “Who’s Canadian?” He said, “Him at the back.” “Oh my! Sure! Would you please come and spend two weeks at my house! My mother would be pleased to see you! Oh, please, Mister! Would you come and spend two weeks, two weeks at my house!” He went on, and I said, “Well, I’ll see!” You know, and they used to get that all the time.
Yeah. One time we was at Saint (Oban) where I landed and there was a map there and the wife and I were looking at this map, and Les said to a couple of French, a man and woman there, “He landed here in the Canadian Army.” They come over there, “Oh, please! You and your wife come to my house and have a glass of wine! Oh, please come!” I said, “Well, you know, we can’t, because we’re travelling and we’ve got to...” Oh, God.
Rather nice though.
You know, it’s nice to be appreciated.
Yeah. And another time we were there at Saint Oban – or Saint O-ban – and there was about twenty Canadian students there with a courier, an American courier, and he was standing there telling them about D-Day, you know. And there’s a monument – I don’t know if you’ve been there but there’s a big monument with all the names of the Canadians that was killed on the beach on D-Day, and they were there by that. And he was telling them all about D-Day and Les said to one of these students, “He was landed here D-Day. He’s Canadian.” And he went up and told this courier, and he said, “Oi! You come and tell them!”
So you did.
Yeah, so I found myself up there, standing up there lectured to them.
Yeah. There was always something cropped up, you know.
Well, I love Normandy. It a great place.
You know, it’s a lovely place to visit.
Oh, yeah. There was good times.
So you had some funny moments? Oh, yeah. You just had to learn to cope with everything. Yeah, there was always some strange things. One time in Ghent, in Belgium, we had a little break there and, course, the Americans were in there, up there as well in them days, and there was about twelve Canadians of our lot in this pub one night and there must have been about thirty Americans, it was full of ‘em. And there was one big yank who was standing against the bar like this, you know, with his back to the bar, and he was talking to other Americans. And this one of our fellas went up to get some drinks and he asked him to move so he could get to the bar. And he deliberately, you know, stood there like this against the bar, and he asked him, “Would you please let me get to the bar?” And what was it he said? Something about... Some remark, he said, “I’ll knock you out of here as fast as the Canadians got knocked out of Dieppe.” Something like that. And there was just a sudden click of web belts. And we used to take off the web belts if we got in big trouble and swing it, you know, the two ends, ‘Snap, snap’. And there was – the yanks took off outside, there were three or four blokes got hit over with the web belt and they got the message and they were gone. And this fella, you know, he made this – passed this remark, and he was (a Quarter Master), and he just swung and hit this bloke across the side of the head and he cracked them across the bloody floor, you know. Hit him right across the bloody floor. And he got up and someone grabbed him and said, “Go on, get the hell out of here.” And in no time the place was cleared. There was about five laying on the bloody floor there, got smashed.
So was there a little bit of kind of sort of friendly rivalry with the Americans?
There was. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. There is over there.
There still is?
They (don’t fit). Well, they do a bit more now, the people go down to Las Vegas and stuff a lot more, but there used to be a thing. The yanks, in case they started taking over businesses and stuff, and people didn’t like it.
Anyway, that’s another story.
So just very quickly; when you were in – you got sent to hospital and I think you said it was in Paris. Was it in Paris, the hospital? After you were wounded in your leg, your knee?
No, I went to somewhere down in northern France.
Oh, okay. And how long were you there for?
I was there...
And that was a military hospital, an Allied military hospital?
Yeah, a military hospital. Well, I went there, that was the 25th of April, and on... No, sorry, the 25th of February, the 25th of February, and on the 8th of May – D-Day – I was convalescing in Bruges in Belgium. And shortly after that I was sent back to my unit, who then were stationed in Utrecht in Holland, and I volunteered then, because I would have been well on the list to go back, so I volunteered to come to England and assist with the repatriation of the troops back, because I was making plans to get married to my English rose.
Okay. And you met her while you were training, did you?
Yeah, met her...
And where was she from? Down here?
Bournemouth, yeah. And that’s why we come back here.
But when you were first married and at the end of the War you went back to Canada, right?
Well, we got married, eventually, on the 14th of December and I sailed back.
1945. And I sailed back on the 29th of December.
No, she came back in August, because all the troops had to go first, and the time they got the troops all back the converted the troop ships to bring the war-brides. There were about 22,000-odd war-brides went over, so she came in about the middle of August 1946. And then we stayed in... We stayed on the farm.
Your parents’ farm?
At the parents’ farm until – from August ‘til about November, and then I went to the city, Saint John, to work on the – what they called the winter port. Because all the shipping from the west of Canada comes to Saint Lawrence River in Ontario or Quebec, and it’s sent from there. But that freezes in the wintertime, so it comes to Saint John, and they call it a winter port, and there’s a lot of work goes on there. And I went there to get work, and there was a schoolmate of mine that works on – had worked there every winter, he was a bit too young for the Army, to the War. I think he reached 18 about the time the War finished, but he and another fella used to rent an apartment in a hotel for the winter and they’d look after themselves and work on the winter port. And –
So they had... While we were away in the War they formed a union, which they didn’t have before, and the union ticket holders always had the first option about working, you see, and the only chance you’d get of getting a days work was to get down there and wait and hope someone wouldn’t turn up. But there were so many people waiting, you know, they were getting down there about 2 o’clock in the morning hoping to get a job at 8 o’clock. And it was hopeless, so... His – the plan was they agreed that we would take over the apartment, the wife and I, and we’d have them as lodgers. And she would do all the looking after the flat and the shopping and the cooking, and I would work on the bloody port. But I couldn’t get any job, any work there, so I had to find other things to do. And I went back to the job I’d left in a dairy, and thought I’d get that job back. But some zombie, as we called them – we called them zombies, you know, those that didn’t bother to join up – some zombie had my old job and I couldn’t have it. But I got a job, was taken on as a roundsman, a milk roundsman, assisting, helping this bloke going delivering. So I worked on that, and eventually the port finished and we had to leave this apartment. And we got a – went and hired, rented a flat – or a bedsit, it was, about the size of this room, no bigger – and we had a range stove there and a bed, all that, everything in that room! Then I was just picking up what work I could find. All the unions formed, and a lot of the industry that had been in that area had been swallowed up by the big boys up in Ontario and Quebec and that in the War, and there was a lot of, wasn’t much. And all these war-brides coming back and all the lads that were coming back after the War, that left as boys and come back and married their childhood sweethearts, there was no homes ready, you know.
So it was tough?
It was, yeah. It was a bloody disaster. And then our first boy, child was born in this little box, and then we got a flat, a two bedroom flat, eventually, and we stayed there. And eventually I said, “Well, this is not good. It’s gonna be a long time before there’s any houses or there’s gonna be any work. We’ll go back to England for five or six years.” And I said, “I feel I’d get some work there, and we’ll stay with your parents for the time being. And then, after five or six years when things get settled, we’ll come back.” And she wanted to go up to Ontario and that, you know. I said there’s no point, because at that time there was a scheme to Canada and Australia, £10 to emigrate, and they were going in their thousands. And they were all going to Ontario where the big – building the ships and tanks and stuff in the War effort and all that. That’s where all the work was, but I said there’s no bloody homes there either, so we’ll be worse off. So she agreed to come back to England, and we’d got family commitments. I come back, I went the next day down to the transport and got a job on the bloody trolley buses, as a conductor on the trolley buses, and worked on that, and eventually took up driving them. And then I got my PSV and was driving the motor buses and coaches, and I carried on doing that. And I went on long-distance haulage to – I thought I’ll learn my way around the country, and I went truck driving. And I did that about a year, and that was – I was starting out about 5 o’clock in the morning and getting back at 11 o’clock at night, offloading the bloody lorry to go the next day and that. And I was getting £6 a week, plus a pound for living-out allowance. So I did that for a year, and I got a weeks holiday and I went over to Hurn on the Monday, first day, and got a job in the aircraft, you know, doing the Viscounts, the Viscounts over there. And so I sent a message to my employer, I said, “I’m using this weeks holiday as a notice to quit and starting work in another job next Monday.” So then I had a letter from him saying, demanding the £6 back – pay, weeks pay, you know – from his solicitor. So I took it back to him, I give him back, put the bloody £6 on the desk and I said, “You’re welcome to it,” I said, “Because where I’m going to work,” I said, “I’ll have double that the first week.” And strangely enough, the first full weeks pay I had at Hurn, I opened it, I went and collected it, and going back to the hangar I opened it and I had three of these, the old £5 notes, the big white, you know. I’d never seen one before! I had three of those plus £3-odd. I had £18-odd, so I thought, ‘Up you!’ And, of course, I started from there, you know. I worked there for I think about eight years.
And you never got back to Canada?
Not to live?
I hadn’t got back to Canada then. I did later, but at that time I hadn’t. And I stayed at Hurn for about eight years. And then I used to go to a bookie’s place and fill in a Hill’s coupon on Saturdays, and one day he said, “Why not take some coupons to work and pass them around and we’ll give you some commission?” So he gave me 18 coupons, I took all 18 coupons back, strangely enough, and he said, “You’d best take a few more.” So he gave me 50, and I took all bloody 50 back! Then blokes started saying, “Can you get Littlewood’s? Can you get Vernon’s? Can you get (Sutter’s)? And (Coke’s)?” And all these, you know, “the Pools?” So I got in touch with them and I was running the whole football pools over there, collecting them, and about £500 a week I was sending off in shilling bets, you know. Anyway, eventually it started to run down, you know, the business started to run down over there, and I thought well, it’s not long before we’re going to have to be looking for another job. And amazingly, Ladbrokes sent me a message. I was sending them about £100 a week in fixed-odds football, and I had a message from them saying, ‘Meet Mr (Markinson) in a certain hotel in Bournemouth on Saturday afternoon’. So I met this bloke down there and he said, “We’d like to know where you’re getting your business, Hill’s coupons?” Well I said, “I work in a factory and I’ve got some other collectors around collecting, and...” Well he said, “We want you to work for us.” So I thought, well, if the price is right and that. And he said, “Well, we’ll give you the basic rate you’re getting now plus 2 and a half percent commission on all the new business you put on.” So of course that was that. I said fair enough. Company car. So I left there and then and went working for them at the end of that month. Handed all the other football business over to another fella that was doing the collecting. What I did when it snowballed like that, I went to the sweeper-uppers, you know, in each of the hangars, because they cover the whole area, and I’d give them coupons and they’d spread them around and they’d bring ‘em to me on Friday morning so I could put them through, you know, before the matches on Saturday, cloth bags and that. So one of these collectors... Oh, and in the meantime people started saying, “Can you get bets on? Can you get bets on the horses?” So I went and seen a bookie down in Lansdowne that had no limits and that. And so I agreed to take bets and phone them through to him. Well, that snowballed straight away. Again, once they found out I was taking bets, you know, they’d bring me this pile of bets. And the biggest backers were the staff, the top staff. Nobody was allowed in.
But you started doing quite well on all this?
Yeah. So then I... Yeah, that’s right. I got this football business, this... This happened before that, Ladbrokes came after, while I was doing all this. But I decided to give up the football – not give up the football, but to give up Hurn and keep the collectors bringing me the football and the bets, and open my own bookie’s office. So I went and seen a – went to a shop up here – (Manning’s) it was then, opposite (Bradford) Road Post Office – and I sent to him – there had been a hairdressers upstairs – so I said, asked him if I could rent that to open a bookie’s shop. And he said yeah, sure. So I applied to the Council. No. Turned down. I thought, oh, bugger that. So knocked that on the head. And just then, shortly after that, this Ladbrokes came on the scene, so I took that job and it worked out fine. And I handed the football business over to one of the collectors, and cut out the... Oh, a year later – that’s right, a year later. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of us – a year later, after this about the horse racing when I wanted to open the bookie’s shop, I went up there one Saturday morning and I saw two blokes putting telephone wires up. And I said, “What’s going up there?” They said, “Oh, a bookie’s office.” I said, “For Christ’s sake!” I gets onto the Council and I said, “I’ve been told there’s a bookie’s office going up over Manning’s shop.” They said, “Yeah, that’s right.” I said, “Well, a year ago I applied to open a bookie’s office there and I was refused.” “Well, did you appeal?” And I said, “No, of course I didn’t. I was bloody flatly refused.” “Well, if you’d appealed you’d have got it.” I said, “What a bloody way is that to run a business!”
How annoying is that?
Yeah. Anyway, as it worked out it was fine because I got this job on Ladbrokes, and I did that for a year. And after a year the government put in the budget, they brought on that 25% tax on football betting, which still stands, and of course fixed odds, Ladbrokes and Hill’s and that, fixed odds, they were working like two and a half percent profit and they had to pack it up. And I was covering Hants and Dorset, you know, covering, doing the – and doing a big business with them. And it all had to go, so I got a months notice. I bought the company car I had brand new and in the first years tax still, bought that for £350. And when that happened some company in Liverpool – cancer and polio research, who had a shilling-a-week ticket stuff – they were on my doorstep the next bloody morning, you know. “Oh, we want you to work for us.” So I sussed it out and I said, “Yeah, alright.” “We’ll give you two and a half percent profit on all your new business, a two and a half percent bonus on all your new business. We’ll give you the rate you’re getting now and give you a car allowance and all this.” So I said, “Yeah, alright.” Started with them, and straightaway I had that month to finish off, so I told all my collectors to transfer all their clients over onto this shilling-a-week new cancer and polio research thing. And they did. So when I took on their business I had a whole flood of brand new business. And they kept on going on about, “You’re doing the biggest business,” you know, “the top collector in the country,” and all this stuff, but they never come up with any two and half percent. I was shouting, begging for extra on my car allowance, I was having a 5000 mile service every month on my car covering Hants and Dorset and part of Wiltshire, and I was piling on business galore, you know. And after a year I had to go to London to a sales conference, four days, booked in at a posh hotel in Marble Arch and every day a big banquet, or a big meeting in a hotel ballroom, and they’d preach about the profits they’re making and all this stuff, you know, and every night a big banquet, all out of the money that was collected in this shilling-a-week stuff for cancer and polio research. And I thought what a bloody – people are paying in, “Oh, yeah, my mother died of cancer last year, I’ll...” And it was going on, in their pockets, you know. And I was bloody well struggling and asking, “I want more money for my bloody car allowance and petrol,” you know. And nothing was coming. And I come back and I was so disgusted with it I put in my – I put a notice in with my Saturdays returns, I sent in a notice saying, ‘Finishing next Saturday’. Oh, God, they were there, “We’ll give you, we’ll give you...” I said, “No. I don’t trust you. You had your chance.” “Oh, you’re putting on more business than anybody else. We can’t do without you.” I said, “You’ll have to. I’m finishing. I don’t trust you. You had your chance and I was happy working with you, but,” I said, “You’ve turned me against the whole business. I don’t want to know. And seeing the way the money people pay in to help cancer and the way you’re lining your pockets with it has really disgusted me.” And I said, “I’ll never put another penny in a bloody box. I’ll do things for people.” Which was true. I do a lot – I did a lot when I had my car, I was running them all round the place. But just one of those bloody things, you know. And yeah, so I packed up with them, left myself out of work, so I put an ad in the paper for window cleaning, in the Echo. First shout I got, a bloke down in Wellington Road had a big, old house like they used to have, and he’d converted it into ten bedsits. “How much to clean the windows?” And I said, “I think about 5 shillings, I don’t know.” And when I finished it I’d had some cards printed off, painting and decorating cards. I was handy at that, brought up with it, you know, did everything yourself. And I gave him one of these cards. He said, “How much to paint this?” And I give him a price, had a months work straight away.
And it went on, snowballed and it kept on going like that, and before I knew it I had 20 blokes on, painting and decorating, doing all the bloody big sites, Littledown and...
Yeah, doing all these big sites, 500 houses on a site, you know, and stuff. Yeah. And I did that until I retired. And I worked on until I was 79. Never stopped. Once, I retired at 68 – a lot of private work I was doing as well, and I tell these old dears, “Well, I’m going to pack it up.” “Ohhh, but I don’t know anybody else!” You know, and I carried on, I did, I carried on ‘til I was 79.
And I moved here then. Well, no – yeah, I moved here. I was too old to... And, of course, when I moved here I did finish. Yeah, the story of my life.
Amazing! Well, that’s quite a story. Thank you very much indeed. Do you have any pictures of you when you were in the War?
I’ll see what I can find.
Have you just got one I could take a photo of a photo, if you see what I mean?
I’ll have another whistle first.
Yeah, you do that.
'[Interview ends. 2:35.46]