Bert Jenkins interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter
A Sherman tank of 'A' Squadron, Nottinghamshire Yeomanry (Sherwood Rangers), 8th Armoured Brigade, comes ashore from a landing craft on Jig beach, Gold area, 6 June 1944.
I suppose I’d just like to go back to the beginning, if that’s alright? Do you mind if I ask you where you were born and brought up?
Yes. I was born in Brixton.
Oh, were you? I used to live there.
Yeah, at one point.
In Morat Street.
Oh, right, okay. I know.
Yeah, near Belgrave Hospital. The Oval, that’s where I was born.
Yeah. And me father was in the Scots Guards, (near there).
Was he? What, when you were born?
Yes. That was one of his regiments.
So you’re a military family then?
Well, as far as… I suppose we are in a way. We lived in, as I said, Brixton, and then we moved to Tooting. And then me father was in the BBC Military Band. They used to have a military band on the BBC. They haven’t got anything now, they don’t know… You know, it was cut out before the War. And they also had a BBC Television orchestra. They had their own orchestra for telly, and he was in both of them. And, you know, (I’d say) it was experimental, and it was a big orchestra. And he and a few of the others were called up to the office and says, “You’re not very good for photographing. Would you wear a wig?” It was all the ones that were short of hair, and they asked them to put wigs on. And if they all refused they were sacked. And at the time the Bournemouth Orchestra was being reformed. Dan Godfrey had left and it was being taken over and being reformed altogether. But at the same time, going back to the symphony orchestra, they kept that symphony orchestra going all through the War. It never played, but they paid everybody. And that year one of the horn players there, I knew him very well, and at the end of the War they disbanded the orchestra altogether. Although it never played all through the War, and they’d been paid all the way through. What a way to waste money. But then…
So he was a musician really, was he? As much as a soldier?
Yeah. I was a musician. I joined the Tank Corps. Not the Tank Regiment, I joined the Royal Tank Corps.
As a musician?
As a boy, (titchy). Yeah, I…
So what instruments did your father play?
French horn, and so did I.
But did you have brothers and sisters?
No, only got a sister. She lives down the road somewhere. And I joined the Army as a boy. I left – I hated school, and…
Why was that?
Well, for a start, when we was in London I was in a school up there, and it was a much higher grade than any of the schools in Bournemouth. And, course, when we moved down to Bournemouth in 1933, I had to go to a school down here that was a lower standard to the one that I’d been in. And I didn’t like it at all, and as soon as it was possible I left school at 16, and I joined the Army straight away.
Do you mind me asking when you were born? If that’s not an impertinent question.
When? 7 – 12 – ’22. I’m 89 now. I joined the Tank Corps – I always refer to the Tank Corps, not the Tank Regiment. You get used to…
What made you join the Tank Corps, go for the Tank Corps?
Because it had a big band!
Nothing to do with tanks then?
Oh, no, no. Actually, I applied to join the Marines.
Because they’ve always had a good band.
Oh, yes. They had any amount of bands.
But was your mum musical as well?
So it was just you. When did you start playing the French horn then?
When me father was out. Because he used to practice at home, and when he used to go out shopping or anything and I used to be indoors, he used to leave his instrument on the chair and I used to pick it up and try and play it. And, course, he always swore that I’d never be a musician. He didn’t want me to be a musician.
Why was that?
I don’t know. It was such a precarious job. Obviously he never really had permanent jobs. They used to have to go up to Archer Street every week, every Monday, and get work. And the fortunate ones worked with the BBC. But he always said I’d never be a musician. But I picked this instrument up and I learnt it on me own, and applied to the Royal Marines Band. They were advertising it in all the papers, ‘Boys wanted for the Royal Marines Band’. And I applied for it, and I didn’t get it because they only wanted six, and they were advertising all over the country. Hundreds applied, so I didn’t get it. And the next thing was, as I say, we lived down here and heard that Bovington, the band down at Bovington was after members. And that was a very, very big band, a marvellous band. And I applied for that and they didn’t have any vacancy on the horn, they only had a vacancy on the trombone. So me father bought me a trombone, and I learnt a few scales and things and then went down to Bovington, played it, and got in on the trombone. And…
You found you could pick up the trombone pretty easily after the French horn?
Oh, yes. Any of it was easy after the French horn! And joining up as a boy of 16, a boy’s service doesn’t count. I joined for 9 and 3. That’s 9 years with the colours, 3 years in reserve. But the service, when I joined as a boy, none of that counted until I was the age of 18. And then I went into the big band. The band was 90-strong. It was bigger than the Guards Band. And we used to broadcast every week, and do all sorts of things. And…
And you enjoyed it, did you?
Oh, loved it. And…
So you were based at Bovington?
Bovington, yes, just down the road. I still go down there. I’m a member of the Museum. And the band… When I came on the service from the – after the boys, I was on the French horn then.
Oh, so you switched back, did you?
Oh, yes. As soon as there was a vacancy on the horn I went back. The trombone was alright, but…
So you joined when you were 16. That must have been ’38 then.
’39. The beginning of ’39. And…
And were you conscious that war was looming, or was that not really your..?
No, I had no idea at all.
Right, it was just there was a band, and that was the main reason.
No, no. And after the War had started and, as I say, it was a very big band, 90 in it, and they started to cut that down in size. And when the (country got in for) soldiers they started on the Band, see. And they were leaving the Band six at a time, and eventually it got down – they was taking the youngest ones, And then 1932… No, ’42, innit. ’41 and ’42. Then it was my turn to go out. And six of us went out, and we went into training, and to learning all the tanks, driving tanks and all sorts of things, lorries.
So you stayed in Bovington for the first couple of years of the War, did you?
Oh, yes, yes. And learning…
And not least because you were still only 17, I suppose, 17, 18…
As soon as I was 18…
That’s when you got moved out.
Yeah, got moved up from boys. And then you came on your service, then you started towards your 9 years, you know.
So you’d have been 18 at the end of 1940?
Yeah. And did all the training and everything. You know, driving, wireless, gunnery, all sorts of things, everything that you knew. And…
So – sorry, Mr Jenkins – this was in 1941, was it?
’41, yes. Yes, ’41 until the end of ’42.
This was all the training period?
Yeah. And when it was time to go out, we were drafted out and we were put on a train and went up to Greenock, all that way.
Oh, yeah. Up near Glasgow.
Yeah. And we’re put on a boat – bloomin’ great boat, it was, The Empress of Scotland. No, it wasn’t. Later it was the Empress of Scotland. It was the Empress of Japan. And when we left there was five big liners with no escort, and they relied on their speed. Five liners. I’ll always remember the one I was on was the Empress of Japan. And then there was the Windsor Castle, was another one. And another one was the (Oronsay). I can’t remember what the other two were, but we were (all in the fight) together, you know, (sea jackets) everywhere. And we stopped in Freetown, we stayed there for about a week. And then we zig-zagged out, went to Capetown. Our boat stopped at Capetown, and another one went on to Durban, Johannesburg, up there. But we stayed in Capetown, and we were given leave when we got there. And as you went off, we all went down the gangplank, there was rows of cars coming round. And as we got to the bottom of the gangplank we were grabbed by somebody and put in their car and taken off somewhere, and stayed with some people. There was me and another chap from the band were together, and we stayed with some people at Newlands.
Oh, yeah. Amazing, the cricket ground.
Newlands, the cricket ground, yes. That’s where the… Halfway up the mountain. And they used to take us out and about every day.
That must have been great fun, wasn’t it?
Oh, had a wonderful time (to help) the War.
But you were still just Tank Corps?
Yes, the Tank Corps.
You know, you hadn’t joined the Sherman Rangers at this point or anything like that?
Oh, no, no, no. No, we’d got that to come. And when it was time to leave we went back to the boat, and then we went up the side of Africa, up the Red Sea, the Suez Canal. And that’s where we got off. And we went to Cairo.
Was this now the beginning of ’42, was it?
Yes. We were stationed in Cairo at Abbasiya Barracks, and we were there for a fortnight to get your knees brown. It was to get your knees brown. Every day, every morning we did drill, and then the rest of the day was your own. So we used to go all over Cairo, have a good time.
Pretty amazing place then, wasn’t it?
Yeah. And then came the day we had to go. We was taken by lorry to (Kitakba), out south of Cairo, and at Kitakba we couldn’t see anything but tanks and lorries, guns. There were thousands of them all lined up, and they were all, you know, come over from America. And there was Grant tanks and… Grant tanks… And another chap that was on the boat at the same time was… Oh, god… Graham Stevenson. And he was qualified as a driver, but he went by lorry straight to the Sherwoods. I was not a qualified driver – although I was a driver – I went to Kitakba and they said, “Right, Grant tank there. Get in it and put it on that Scammell.” I’d never seen a Grant tank before in my life, I didn’t know what it looked like, even. And there was rows of them. And a Scammell in those days was the tank transporter, and you went straight up on it. And you got in this tank and started it up, in line to go up the ramps, and all you could see was one of the crew standing on top of the driving cab. All you could see was his hands up like that. And you had to keep perfectly straight, crawl up there…
Was that quite difficult to do?
Yeah, it was!
Because you’re steering with levers, aren’t you?
Yeah, levers, see. And when he put his hand up (properly) you had to stop and hold it there on the brakes while they chained you up so you didn’t roll back. And then we got going in a convoy – there was quite a number of these tanks – to Wadi Natrun in the Qattara Depression. That was way down in the desert, about 30 miles down from Alamein. And we had a nice welcome there…
Can you remember what time of year this was?
Oh, it was early in the year. I say early, I suppose it was April or May, something like that.
So ’43 or ’42?
’42. Just before Alamein.
It was before Alamein, was it?
Yeah. When we got to this Wadi Natrun we had a lovely welcome. It rained like hell, and it was the first rain they’d had out there for donkeys’ years. And, course, the Qattara Depression is all salt. And anyhow, we deliver these tanks. And soon – everything soon dried up. Nothing could move when it was wet. And the Shermans had just come back from a battle… I think it was Alum Haifa or something, just before Alamein. And then we got to – in the line for El Alamein, and it was backwards and forwards and that, you know, when they started. Everybody talks about El Alamein, you know, and that, but it was a helluva do. And then the Jerrys got lost, you know, they retreated.
Sorry to stop you, but just to go back to your training just for a moment; When you were doing your training you were singled out as a driver, were you? Or did everyone train as drivers?
Oh, no. You trained as everything.
Did you have to do sort of mechanical stuff as well?
No, didn’t ever do anything – nothing mechanical…
But you had to learn to be a gun loader and all that kind of stuff?
Oh, the guns and that, had to do our own guns, cleaning them and make sure they’re all working and everything.
And were you taught sort of tactical stuff as well?
No. All we was taught, everything… No. All we was taught was…
How to drive it and how to fire it.
…How to drive the damn things, (start the engine). Tactical things didn’t occur ‘til you got there, see? That’s why I cannot understand when they say, obviously the regiments are on exercise. That’s alright having these exercises if you know what the enemy’s trying to do. But really you don’t know what they’re ever going to do…
[Tea served. Unrelated conversation. Third person talks]
[Third person] How did you end up with the Sherwoods though?
[Third person] How. I mean, at what point did they say you’re going to the Sherwoods?
When I delivered the tank, they told me then. They said, “You’ve got to take that tank to the Sherwood Rangers.” I’d never heard of the Sherwood Rangers. I didn’t even know what they were.
So, I mean, how did you find them? Because the Qattara Depression is a big old place, isn’t it?
[Inaudible. Background noise] …We were delivering them, but the higher-ups, they knew where they were. And…
[Unrelated conversation. Third person talks]
We did a little bit of training, you know, to get used to the tank. And more-or-less get used to being in the…
So which squadron did you go into?
I went into B Squadron.
[Third person] Who was commanding B at that time?
Wasn’t that your dad? Was he A?
Major Laycock. Yeah. The Black Mamba, that’s what we used to call him. He used to volunteer for everything. He didn’t volunteer for himself, he volunteered for the Squadron, B Squadron. I don’t know whether you know it in the records, most of the records B Squadron was always in the lead. And when Alamein broke, you know, the Rommel started, it was Rommel in his book, he said it was the Sherwood B Squadron, the Sherwood Rangers that (broke inside). He knew everything about us. But anyway, we got going and we stayed out into the desert nearly all the time. You know, miles away from the coast. And when we got near – about Mersa, Mersa Matruh I think it was – I went sick. I changed colour and I went to go sick, and I had yellow jaundice. And I was evacuated by plane to… I think it was Fuka, F – U – K – A. There was an airport there. And from there I went back to Cairo, in hospital. And after a few days in there, had the recuperation, got on a train out to El Arish, up to Palestine. And in those days El Arish was just a few mud huts sort of thing, and right on the shore of the Mediterranean. And it was on Christmas Day, went swimming in the Med.
Yeah. But anyhow, when we came… Got cured, went back to Cairo, back to – and they gave me a water tanker, and says, “Take that back to your regiment.” A big tanker full of water, and they says, “Find your way back to the regiment.”
That’s quite a long way from Palestine.
No, from Cairo.
Oh, right, from Cairo.
They brought me back to Cairo. And, “Find your way back to your regiment.” And they said, “For your feed and everything,” they said, “advise you to stop at RAF regiments, wherever the RAF regiments are.” Because they were static, and they were in a position for a long while. So I used to find RAF regiments, and a couple of buckets of water, got a damn good meal, and a (nights kip) sort of thing. And then you carried on to find the next RAF regiment. Course, they were the only people that were… They used to be stationary for quite long times, so they had a proper cookhouse. And anyway, we kept going, took about 7 or 8 days to (get all the way). And everywhere you went you couldn’t see the desert for signposts. Every regiment, every sort of thing, every… There was hundreds and hundreds of them, signposts, going points for different regiments, the LAD’s, all over the place.
Could you remember driving back through the Alamein battlefield? Because, I mean, there must have been (burnt-out) tanks everywhere, mustn’t there?
Oh, yeah. Oh, you couldn’t move for tanks and the guns. But…
But, sorry, just to get back to the Battle of Alamein, which obviously you were involved with…
Yes, that’s right. We were (out in the sand) for it.
I mean, from what I remember from reading your father’s diaries and from what I know about it, it was a pretty chaotic old business.
Oh, it was.
I mean, can you remember the opening barrage of all that? And the dust?
Only hearing it.
You were in the tank, presumably?
We were in the tanks, yeah. People don’t seem to realise… I’ll give you an instance; I was rung up by a firm, somebody last year, wanted to know my experiences for D-Day. And it was a girl on it asking silly bloomin’ questions. What she wanted… I told her, I said I was in a swimming tank and landed on the shore. And she’s, “Oh, we’re not interested in that.” She’s, “What was it like in the tank? What did you do for toilets? What could you see?” Well, all you could see in the tank was, there was a tiny little piece of mirror, about 9 inches by 3 – not mirror, glass – and that’s all you ever saw. We never saw anything of the countryside or anything.
But it must be incredibly disorientating, isn’t it? I mean, particularly at somewhere like Alamein where you’re fighting a large part of it at night, dust everywhere. I mean, you can’t see much anyway.
Yes. It was… Well, I suppose it was soul-destroying in a way. But…
So, I mean, you’re sitting there driving; it must get very hot, doesn’t it?
Oh, hot. It was hot wherever you were. The whole tank was hot even without the driving in it.
So you’ve got the tank commander kind of sticking out the top, because otherwise he can’t see anything, and he’s relaying back to you what he wants you to do…
Yeah. He tells us what to do.
And you just do it, just hope you’re not going to get hit.
(Carry it out) from what he says.
But did you find you were sort of too busy driving the tank to kind of get frightened? Or did you get a bit..?
I think, initially, you are frightened, but once you get going you lose your fright and say, “Christ, I’ve got a job to do. Let’s do it.” And you rely on the tank commander to give you the right directions and that.
I mean, did you ever get hit at Alamein at all?
No, we didn’t get hit there at Alamein at all. We lost a track.
Was that on a mine?
No. When we turn, you know, if the track is a bit on the loose side it can break off, like that. But anyway, the battle lasted about 8 or 9 days, I think, before it broke away.
But during that time, presumably, you never had too much of an idea what was going on, really?
No, no idea at all. Never knew anything about it.
But there must be a point in the day or in the night where suddenly you’re still kind of pulling out of the front line and leagering up for a bit?
Yes. But at the same time, when you’re leagered up, you were so far away from the next tank you never knew who was in it. You never knew who was in each tank. But I’ll say every tank, the crew, it was a family. You stuck together.
So who was in your crew then?
Oh, god. I don’t know. I know there was a Sergeant (Biddle) to start with.
He was the Commander, was he?
Yeah. But he wasn’t the Troop Leader though…
[Third person] Was that Laurence Biddle? What was his Christian name? Do you remember?
I don’t know what his Christian name was. But there was two Biddles, both spelt different. There was the one, ours, was Sergeant Biddle, and we used to call him ‘Granny’.
Because he was an old man.
All of 32 or something?
No, he was an old man. He shouldn’t have been out there to start with.
No. And the other Biddle was in charge of B Squadron rations, Quartermaster. He didn’t know what action was, or war. He was way behind. But when we got going…
Were there three of you in the Grant or four?
Five, yeah. Yes. And they were useless tanks.
What, the Grant? Too high and not powerful enough?
Well, they were powerful enough, but the gun was useless. A 75 millimetre, and you couldn’t (hull down), you know, get down. Course, the gun was way down and you’ve got one great turret up above. So they can see the turret long before you’d…
But the Sherman was built on the Grant chassis, wasn’t it?
Not really. The Grant was a much lower one. They had a big turret on it and the gun was up high, so when you’re hull down, you got down and only the gun was above the thing, and the commander could see ahead to give directions. But with the Grant, the 75 millimetre gun, it only had a 36 inch traverse, it could only go like that, so you had to turn the tank every time to get to a position to fire it, which was useless. See, I think the only thing that got us through was the number of them. They couldn’t hit all of them!
But you got on well with your crew, did you?
Oh, yes, we did all right. Because, as I say, we lived together, we cooked together, and kept going. Out in the desert it was completely different to what it was over here. Because when the sun fell down – and it did fall down – it went down like that and it was black. Everything stopped. The firing stopped on both sides and they all leagered up. We basically camped here and they camped over there. It was only the infantry that used to go out crawling around, looking for ‘em and digging up the mines.
Well, I’ve been out to Alamein and it’s amazing how quickly the sun sets, isn’t it? One minute it’s like – the dusk is over in a flash.
Oh, yes, yes. As I say, one minute it’s beautiful daylight, the next minute it’s black. And not only that, it’s cold. As soon as that sun goes down it’s really icy, really cold.
So would you sleep in a sort of tarpaulin by the side of the tank?
Oh, yeah, we had a big tarpaulin as a rail along the side of the tank. And one end of it was fixed to that, and it went down and then along, and you had your bedding on there.
What would you do to sort of keep out the scorpions and bugs and things? Did you wrap yourself up or did you just put..?
You either kept your boots on or give ‘em a damn good shake in the morning, because scorpions used to go in. But the easiest thing was to keep your boots on. And when you had to get up in the morning, the first thing you had to do was get the tank going. I don’t know whether you’ve seen a Grant tank or anything, you’ve got a damn great starting handle about 3 or 4 foot long, and it goes in a hole at the back of the tank. And you have to turn it 20 times, and it was a helluva job to turn it because they were those radial engines, you know, they were radial engines taken out of planes from the First World War. And they were 9 cylinder built (on a seven), see? And you had to turn 20 times – a minimum of 20 times – get the oil circulating before you could start the engine.
That’s incredible, isn’t it.
It is, really. And, course…
So you just had to warm it up then, ready for the days fighting?
Yes, you used to have to warm it up. It takes some warming, an’ all.
But presumably you’d do some very basic maintenance? Kind of oil checks, all that sort of stuff?
No, we didn’t do anything like that.
Did you not?
No, nothing at all.
So who would do that?
The LAD. The LAD used to come up at night and see if there was anything wrong.
Yeah. The only thing you had to do was when we stopped at night, all you had to do, the first thing you had to do was refuel, petrol.
Would that be cans or would a sort of bowser come around?
You’d just be given cans?
But where would you get the cans from?
Oh, they used to come on the lorries.
Did they? And they’d just hand out a whole load of them?
No. The 3 tonne lorries they used to have, and these cans, if you got…
Were these the 4 gallon flimsies?
Yeah, flimsies, they were. My god, they were flimsy, an’ all. You were lucky if you got half a gallon of petrol out of ‘em.
Because they leaked (all the way)?
They leaked everywhere. Terrible. And then you had to fill up the ammunition, and that was all before…
And would another truck come round with all the ammunition on it?
Oh, yes, that was all… You had to, you know, unload it and climb up and put it in the tank.
So would the trucks just go from one tank to another and, you know, unload? Or would you have to go up and get it? I mean, how would it work?
They used to come around the tanks.
So they come to where you’re leagered and do one tank, dish out the petrol, go on to the next one?
Yes, then go to the next one. Course, the next tank was nowhere near you. They were well apart.
Did they always know where you were?
Oh, yeah, they always found out. Just as well! And when it stopped, when… At night, if you want to go to the toilet, you used to take a shovel for a walk. That’s what they used to say. You used to go out but you used to keep in hailing distance of your tank, ‘cause if you couldn’t see your tank… Obviously you could go quite a few yards, and if you didn’t see the tank you was lost, you never knew where to go. And, as I say, you took the shovel for a walk. Funnily enough, when you used to go for a walk later on in the desert, you know, way up the blue, you take a walk and before you’d finished, you never had a chance to bury it, this bloody great shit beetle came along. They were huge black beetles, they were.
What, and just eat it?
No, they used to roll it up with their claws.
Oh, yeah, course.
Yeah, and they used their hind legs to push it away to where their hole was. They knew where their hole was, you know, their hole was. And every now and again they used to push this along and every now and again they used to stop and look around, see if they were going in the right direction, these bloomin’ things. It was quite funny to watch, really. And when we got up the desert, our MO, the one who sent me back, his name was Hylda, Major Hylda. He should never have been in the Army either. He was a very big chap with a paunch. Hylda. Major Hylda. Or Captain, he was at the time. H – Y – L – D – A. Hylda. And he used to experiment, these flimsy cans, he used to cut them up and he’d bury them all over the place, everywhere, so you could have a pee in them. You know, rather spread it all over the desert, they used to be contained it in these tins. Which were full – you know, had holes in so it drained away. And, strangely enough, he was a very good MO, but when the diesel engines, the diesel tanks came, the LAD hadn’t experienced with diesels or anything, so they had to learn as they went. If they had trouble with a diesel they used to send for the MO. He was a diesel engineer. Besides being an MO, he was an engineer in diesel.
Yeah. And he was a lovely chap, always going around putting these desert roses down, we used to call ‘em. And making things to catch the flies, because out there, when you eat, eat any meal, before that food got to your mouth the flies were on it. That was the whole terrible thing about the desert.
It must have been awful, wasn’t it?
Terrible. It was terrible with the flies. You couldn’t do a thing without being covered with flies. And when you stopped and had to wash your clothes and everything, all you did, you’d get hold of a can of petrol, dip your clothes in a couple of times, hold ‘em up ‘til they were dry, and put your clothes on.
That was it? That was washing?
That was how you did your washing.
So you always wore shorts, did you? You wouldn’t wear trousers?
Oh, yeah, wore shorts all the time.
But didn’t you worry about, in shorts, you know, I’m thinking about if you get cuts or scratches and stuff you don’t want to get infections or anything like that?
You didn’t think you’d be better of wearing trousers?
No. It was awkward wearing trousers, really. They were in the way when you were getting in and out of the tank.
Yeah, I suppose so. And you wore a black beret, did you?
Oh, always wear the beret. No tin hats. We used to throw our tin hats away, they’re no good.
Yes. And we used to get going…
Did you ever get to see the CO? Did you ever get to see Flash Kellett?
No. We never saw any officers, really. Because, at the end of the day, officers used to have to go to their meetings and have a talk about what they should have done instead of what they did do sort of thing, you know.
But presumably you’d see Major Laycock a bit, wouldn’t you?
Very, very seldom.
Yeah. But even the officers (had a saying), go forward. When I came back with this water carrier and I found the Regiment, they took the water carrier away from me and gave me a lorry. And after about 3 or 4 days they discovered that I’d been tank crew. Out with the lorry, back into the tank. And I was put in a crew there. I don’t know, I can’t remember where we were in the desert. It would be way out…
So you didn’t re-join your old tank crew?
No. They never knew which tank crews were – they changed so often.
But did you go back to B Squadron?
No, I was always in B Squadron.
You always were? So when you re-joined you – different tank, but B Squadron?
Was Biddle still there?
Yes, he was there for a long, long while. But I wasn’t on his tank. When I went back I was in another tank with another sergeant. I can never remember his name.
Were you still in Grants, or were you in Shermans by that stage?
We were getting on the Shermans then. And I don’t remember the tank, the crew, the sergeant, but I always remember one of the crew, Peter Foster. He wrote a book about the desert war.
Yeah. Peter Foster. It was written by Peter Foster. And I didn’t like him at all.
What? The Book?
No, him! He was a bible puncher.
Yeah. And the Sergeant with the crew, he was too strict. And that’s not the thing to be, too strict. This was a bible – as I say – a bible puncher. He was always on about, oh, “God, what are we going to do next? God, save us!” Funnily enough, after the War, he and the Sergeant of the tank emigrated to South Africa. The Sergeant stayed in Cape Town, Peter Foster joined a monastery as a monk.
Did he really?
Yeah, up in Johannesburg, he was in a monastery, yeah.
So, just too strict. I mean, why was he strict? Sort of standing on ceremony all the time?
Oh, you had to be dressed all the time, you know, and your shoes have got to be polished. But obviously that’s not the sort of thing you need to do while you’re out there. All you do is, all you’ve got to do is to get on with your job and get through it alive. But anyway, after a few days on this tank we was taken out, the whole Regiment was taken out to rest, ‘cause we were always in the front with the Sherwoods, and we was taken out to rest. And when we were resting we had a whole lot of recruits come in, reinforcements.
You hadn’t got into Tunisia yet?
Oh, no, no, no. Nowhere near it. No. And we had all these reinforcements, and there was two officers amongst them. There was a Lieutenant (Hawley) and a Lieutenant (Greenaway). Greenaway went to C Squadron, Hawley came to B Squadron, and they we reforming all the tanks and everything, and I was put on Hawley’s tank. And we were together for a long – all through the desert, all the way. And…
He was a good chap, was he?
Oh, he was a nice chap. Very nice. Well, I think all of them were, really, on the whole, except that tank that I was glad to get off of. I don’t think… They survived alright, despite being the Regimental… But Hawley, see, he was one of the boys. He mucked in with the cooking and loading and all that sort of thing. And that’s what you’ve got to be when you’re in a tank, ‘cause you’re family, see, and you don’t know anything about anybody else. And, yeah, we got going and eventually we was told, “You’re going to Homs.” Well, we were surprised at Homs, ‘cause Homs was on the coast. We’d always been way inland, all the way through. We got to Homs, we had a few days off there, and they says, “Right, all B Squadron and C Squadron have got to be able to swim.” And it was on the shores, and we had to go swimming, and we had to be able to swim a 100 yards before they were satisfied. What the hell they’d want to do swimming for out in the desert, we’d no idea. We never knew what we were in for.
It was probably a Montgomery passed down fitness thing, or something.
Oh, no. It wasn’t for fitness, I can assure you of that. They couldn’t care whether we were fit or not. All they wanted to know was could we swim.
Really? How peculiar.
Yeah. Anyway, we got going and everything, and got through Tripoli. Oh, and Homs was by Leptis Magna, and while we were there… Leptis Magna – I don’t know whether you’ve heard about it – is the biggest Roman coliseum in the world, in everywhere. It was absolutely huge ruin, Leptis Magna, and it was huge. And it had to be the biggest city once upon a time. And it went right down to the sea, and there was this huge coliseum place, very high up it was, and there were seats all round, right up to the sky. Not seats, you know, different platforms for… And it seated thousands of people, thousands, and down there was the arena where these, their gladiator fight things. We had a concert party come up there, and I always remember one of the concert parties; it was George Formby.
Yeah. And we were up on these tiers all around, thousands of troops, thousands. I don’t know where they got them all from. And this concert party was down there. You can hardly see them. They were like little ants.
Could you hear them alright, though?
No microphone, no microphones at all, and you could hear a whisper. It was wonderful.
How amazing. And was he good?
Oh, yeah. They were all good. Yeah. Very, very good. But this place was a magnificent place. A lot of it ruins and that. And it had been a big city once upon a time, in Roman times. But, as I say, at Homs. And then after that we went back into the, way in to the desert again.
And I suppose if you’re past Tripoli now you’re getting, you’re inching to…
No, we were coming up to Tripoli.
…Coming up to Tripoli. Because Tripoli was, what? 21st of January, wasn’t it.
Yeah, about 80 miles further along. And we got to Tripoli. They said there was a parade in Tripoli, but I don’t remember any parade there. But there was one, because I’ve seen the film of it. But anyway, we always kept going. And, as I say, we were always way out in the desert, nowhere near the coast. And then we got up to Mareth, the Mareth Line, and Montgomery tried to get through this Mareth Line. It was only 7 or 8 miles long. It went from the coast to the Matmata Mountains, and try and try and try, they couldn’t get through. The Germans were too strong for ‘em. So General Freiburg came along with Maoris, New Zealanders, Kiwis. And we were stationed at (Metameur), opposite the mountains, and the mountains went straight up in front of us, and we were at the bottom. And it was while we were there, we had the canteen come up. There was the NAAFI canteen, but the ones that were always up with the troops was the Church Army. The Church Army was very, very good. They were always up with the front, with, you know, chocolates and sweets and things. And we had the Church Army with us on (Federville), and we had the mobile baths.
Oh, really? So you all had a bath?
Yeah. We had a bath, a mobile bath. And we saw a film there. The travelling cinema came along, and I’ll always remember the film. It was ‘Hellzapoppin’.
‘Hellzapoppin’. And it was one of those crazy films, you could never make out what it was, what was happening. But it was ‘Hellzapoppin’. It was really funny. But, anyway, after that we were told we’d got to get round this Mareth Line somehow. So we were put on – a load of Scammells came up. And we had to go on Scammells, and we went way out into the desert, in the Sahara, way, way down, and come back further along where there’s a gap in the mountains…
The Tebaga Gap.
…The Tebaga Gap. There’s a book out about it. And then we came back into that. There was us, the Sherwoods, there was the Staffordshires and the 3rd Tanks made up the 8th Armoured Brigade. And we all lined up in one long line, about 60-odd tanks only a few yards apart. And we should have been – the attack should have been in the morning, but a canteen came up during the night, food, massive sandstorm. And nothing could be seen. You couldn’t see a thing. Everything locked down out the way, hide away from the damn sand, ‘cause when that sand hits you it bloomin’ well hurts. And, anyhow, it was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when it cleared. It stops as soon as it starts, like it starts, you know. And they said, “Right. Off we go.” And these line of tanks, we went through about 3 or 4 – about 3 miles an hour. We had Kiwis on the back of the tank, and there was a creeping barrage. We had these bloomin’ great guns behind us, they were firing just in front of us, and we had Typhoons and Spitfires going backwards and forwards along the front firing as well. And I think the most frightening part of the whole War, really. You had these things going backwards and – the guns… And I’ll say, if one gun fell short, obviously if it hit…
And I suppose it must be difficult not being able to see anything as well? You just hear all of this…
You can hear it all, yeah.
You can hear it all but you can’t see much, can you?
Couldn’t see anything. Anyhow, we got through, we broke the line, the Mareth Line, (which was useless) ‘cause we got behind it. And that’s what I cannot understand; they always go on about Alamein, how marvellous it was at Alamein, to get going, but they never mention the Tebaga Gap, which won the War. It was going through there, it finished the War out there, and it’s never, ever mentioned. Why?
I don’t know. I mean I did a book about it a few years ago and I deliberately not only included the build-up to Alamein, but also the 6 months to the end of the Tunisia campaign. Because you’ve got to see it all as one whole. You can’t just stop it half an hour after Alamein.
But it’s just the way it’s been told, isn’t it? You’re quite right.
You never hear it mentioned. Never. But it was the decisive battle of the War. It finished the War in Africa.
Well, pleased to know I wrote about it.
But it was amazing, really. And after it was all over we all went out up to Hammamet, which is huge hotels now. All it was when we were there was…
Not a lot, I shouldn’t think.
…It was all huts. Huts built out of camel shit and straw and sand. And we were in tents up there.
You must have felt like you’d been going a long time by then, didn’t you?
Were you exhausted by then?
Oh, we was – I suppose we were, ‘cause we had very little rest ‘cause the 8th Armoured Brigade was a floating brigade. And that meant that any regiment or anything happening and they were having trouble, can’t get through or anything, send for the 8th Armoured, 8th Armoured Brigade. We had to go all over the place helping other people out. It happened so often, so we never got so much rest as all the rest of the Army. And it was the same over the other side. And I think most of the chaps were really exhausted. But while we were there at this town, Hammamet, we had a few days leave and we went into Tunis.
Yeah. It was like… When we was in Capetown… My parents never knew where we were. They weren’t told we were going abroad or anything, and they knew nothing about us. In Capetown, when we left Capetown, these people we stayed with wrote to my father and mother and told them that I’d been there, and that was as far as they knew. But it wasn’t ‘til months afterwards that they got the letter.
No, I imagine. But did you not write home at the time?
You could write home, but you never knew whether you were going to be there.
Yeah. But did you write home a bit?
Oh, we wrote home, yes. And we received mail, but it was months or weeks after it was written. I said it was always history. And anyway, when these people from Capetown wrote to me parents, they still didn’t know whether we were going straight across the Indian Ocean or whether we were going up north to Egypt.
But back at home they would have read about the victories in North Africa, they would have been…
Oh, they knew all about them.
But they didn’t know you were in it.
They never knew what we was in it. And it was only when we went over the other side that they knew what we were doing. But anyhow, we had a few days leave in Tunis, and I got taken in by a family up there for a couple of days. They had a beautiful house built, you know, as a square with a big garden place in front. You know, Arab places, mansions and that. And when we left there they wrote to my parents. It was very nice of them. But even then it was months after it was all over. But they heard about it.
[Third person] So what year would it have been now?
’43. Yeah, surrendered…
Yeah. It’s on there. It’s the 23rd of March was the Tebago Gap. Yeah, on there, the Tebago Gap. Yeah, it’s all about it.
So the end in North Africa; can you remember seeing, you know, 250,000 Axis troops captured? Do you remember seeing any of them?
No? Again, you’re just passing by through your slit hole in your tank.
There’s the German lad who’s with us, (Karl Konig). He was captured up there.
Who was he?
Oh, he’s the associate member of the Regiment.
Yeah. He was captured by the Sherwoods, and…
He was captured in Tunisia, was he?
Yes, he was captured in Tunisia by our troops and he was sent to Canada, prisoner of war. And he was out there for a long while. Anyway, after the War he found out who had captured him, ‘cause he didn’t want to – he was one of these youngsters, Germans, who wasn’t a Nazi or anything, you know, called up at the last minute. And he discovered it was the Sherwood Rangers, and he… We have a southern branch down here, you know, of the Sherwood Rangers, a few of us, and he got in touch with us and he came over two or three times and we met him. And when we used to go up for dinners at Nottingham, he used to come over and come up to the dinners with us.
Did he really?
Yeah. And he was made an associate member of the Regiment.
Was he alright? Was he a nice chap?
Oh, we still keep in touch with him.
Yeah. Well, I do obviously, yeah, and (Mike Elliot). And he’s coming to the next dinner. He comes to all our dinners at Nottingham.
So was he an infantryman, or was he a German tank..?
How extraordinary. Karl Konig.
Yeah. Karl K – O – N – I – G.
Well I’ll be. So when’s the next dinner?
End of April. The 28th of April, this next one. He’s coming to the dinner. Mike Elliot told me. Course, I’ve been to all – any amount of dinners and doings with the Regiment.
Well, you’ve obviously enjoyed your association with them and keeping it all up, and everything.
Oh, yeah. The last couple of years I haven’t been able to get to the dinners. The Mrs won’t let me go.
Right. Are you going to go to this one?
Oh, yes. I have no choice this time, ‘cause I haven’t been able to as I can’t see much of anything, and it would be awkward for me as I can’t even see what’s on the plate. But Mike Elliot, he rang me up and asked me if I was going to the dinner, and I says, “No.” I says, “The Mrs won’t let me.” So he says, “We’ll have to see something about it.” He rang me up later on, he says, “Would you come to the dinner if your wife could come up with you and we make all the arrangements for you?”
Can’t really say no!
No. And he says, “We’d like you to come up a day early and we’ll take you to the museum as well.” And he says, “We’ll put you in a hotel for a couple of nights and see you back home afterwards.” But they look after me. Very nice. Anyhow, after Tunis, we finished at Tunis, and we went back to… I can’t remember the name, the port near Tunis. I think it’s Sfax.
Yes, Sfax. S – F – A – X.
Yes. S – F – A – X, or something. And I was chosen to take the tanks back to Alexandria. And they were all put on a bloomin’ great boat. It was a Canadian boat which carries tree trunks, you know, a forestry boat from Canada.
Yeah, a timber boat. But it was huge, and they put all these tanks on, and I was one of the few chaps that was chosen to go with them. Take them, went down to Alexandria on this boat. Took a long while, (she was quite an old lady), it was a slow boat. We didn’t mind. It was wonderful on there. We had proper meals. Proper meals, white bread and everything. Oh, it was wonderful. Anyhow, when we got to Alexandria, I don’t know what they did with the tanks then. But we were taken to (Mena), just outside Cairo.
Oh, yeah, it’s lovely there, isn’t it?
The big camp.
Yeah, we were camped there at the foot of the…
The Pyramids, yeah. And…
You know that Mena House is still there?
Is it? I know I’ve seen pictures of it, it’s got bloomin’ roads all round it. Terrible, innit.
Yeah. It’s now called Gaza City.
Yeah. There’s a whole city there now.
It’s so annoying because I’ve got a photograph in there of me father on a camel by the Pyramids. He was out there, you know, when he – before he went in the Scots Guards he was in another regiment as well, and there’s a photograph of him on a camel. And, anyway, we got back to Cairo in this camp. We were there for about a week, and we were given leave to go in and out of Cairo, this sort of thing. And everybody was on about the (Kazanell) Bridge. I’d never been to the Kazanell Bridge. There’s two bloody great lions, stone lions, and folks used to stand by these lions waiting for them to roar! It’s funny, every time those lions roared a (birdy) crossed the bridge! And it was quite funny out there. And we were at Heliopolis, we did a bit of guard duty out there, it was one of the headquarters of something. And we used to go on the Heliopolis Flyer, that was the tram. It went from one end of Cairo right to the other end with very few stops on it.
Well, Heliopolis is now the Cairo International Airport.
Is it? Anyhow, we used to get on this tram, and it was a dangerous thing to do in a way, because if you held your arm up like that, the strap hanging, it had a strap hanging everywhere because there was never any room for seats, it was so crowded. And then when the tram slowed down or stopped, looked out the window and you see some wog waving your watch! You never knew your watch had gone! And they used to nick any amount of watches like that. But amazing, really, the things that happened out there.
But you quite enjoyed it in Cairo, did you?
It was quite a good city, wasn’t it.
It was nice then. Although it’s built up a hell of a lot since we were there.
Yeah. So how long did you stay in Cairo? I mean, you must have been shipped back to the UK at some point, weren’t you?
Yeah. I think we were out there 4 or 5 days in all.
Oh, right, so not long.
No. And then we got on a boat at Alex and came back home.
All the way back to the UK?
Did you go up through the Mediterranean or all the way round again?
We’d been all through it.
No, no, but did you go..?
The whole length of the (route from sailing).
You did, you went through it (by this stage).
Yeah, so we’d done all the way round Africa.
Yeah. Anyhow, we came up…
There’s not many people that can say they’ve sailed all around Africa.
No! Anyway, we came back. We came back to Greenock again. That was where we left. And…
Did you get any leave?
Ahh, I’m coming to that. We got on a train at Greenock and they says, “Pull the curtains down and you’re not to look out.” So we got going, and it was stop/start, stop/start. Sometimes it stopped for ages and ages and ages, and we kept going through the day and next day as well, and eventually it stopped for a long, long while. We wondered what the hell we were stopped for. So we all – everybody says, “Right, to hell with the orders, lift up the curtains.” We let the curtains go and an amazing coincidence; our carriage, we were in Newmarket Station, Newmarket. I don’t know whether you know Newmarket but it’s got one of the longest platforms in the world. Anyhow, we lifted up this curtain and straight outside on the platform was my cousin.
Yeah! She was waiting for a train to get to Cambridge, shopping. And my cousin standing there…
[Phone rings. Unrelated conversation]
That was the… I belong to the Tank Association as well, the Tank Regiment. They have a meeting every – the first Tuesday of every month, and there’s one tomorrow night at (Poole). We always go to that. That’s me other regiment. And, as I say, me cousin was on the platform there, and we pulled out into the sidings and got on lorries, and we went to Chippenham Park.
So did you speak to her or you just never saw her?
You just saw her?
No, just saw her on that platform. And got on the lorries, we went to Chippenham Park. That’s a big estate 3 miles out of Newmarket, that was. Anyhow, me cousin, she never went shopping, she (ran back down to home). All my relations live in Newmarket, all relations on me mother’s side. They all live in Newmarket and they’re all to do with stables and everything. And she went back to them and says, “Nancy’s boy is back home.” Me mother’s name was Nance. So all of Newmarket knew I was home.
How extraordinary! So did you see her to wave to?
Oh, yeah. I’ll tell you, when we got to Chippenham, we was under canvas and that, and I dumped my stuff in one of the tents and I went to the entrance of the camp, the Chippenham Park, and I hitchhiked a lift into Newmarket. I went back to me…
“Hi, I’ve just come back from Africa.”
Yeah. And I was with me gran and me uncles and everything, had a marvellous time. Each day I borrowed me uncle’s bike, used to cycle back to the camp in time for, you know, kip, in the morning duties and everything. After duties, whatever, I used to cycle back into Newmarket.
Yeah. I’ll tell you, it was amazing, the coincidence. And…
And were you there right up until – I can’t remember how long you were there for…
We were there up to about 6 weeks before D-Day, 6 or 7 weeks before D-Day.
So you hooked up with the rest of the Rangers at that point, did you?
Oh, yeah, with the Rangers all the time. And we were there for I think about 3 or 4 weeks, and we were given leave while we were there, and I came back down to Bournemouth, because me parents’ lived in Bournemouth. And had a good time. Went back, and then we got on lorries to go to Fritton Lake, near Great Yarmouth. There’s this bloomin’ great lake. I can’t remember whether it’s Fritton or Fitton Lake [it’s Fritton]. And we got there and they told us what would be – we’d be able to swim. They introduced these Valentine DD Tanks. The Valentine with the big screen on it and it had one propeller at the back. And Fritton Lake is quite shallow, but it was big enough, deep enough to float a tank. And we had to go out on the tank, put the screen up, then swim around, round this lake. But any amount of the tanks sank. Course, there was no waves or anything on it. But it was just one of those things. The tanks sank. And after the first day, the next morning had to parade, and B Squad refused to get on the tanks. They all refused.
Yeah. They said it was murder. Well, it was. Anyway, I don’t – I think it was (Kristofferson) who was the Officer at the time, and he told Keith Douglas to go and talk to the men. And he didn’t do it. And he got Major (Laycock) to do the talk. And he gave us a sob story about how we were saving the country and God-knows what else. Anyhow, he convinced us it was all going to be alright, that we’d be on these bloomin’ tanks, see. We did the training on these Valentines, and we were stationed in Great Yarmouth at the time in houses on the seafront. And from there we came down to Bournemouth. Of all the places to come to it was Bournemouth, and I was stationed in the Durley Dean Hotel, on the front. I don’t know if you know it at all.
Yeah. Well, I know Bournemouth, but I don’t know that particular hotel.
Well, the Durley Dean Hotel is a huge hotel just off the front on the cliffs. And at one end of it is the staff entrance for the hotel, and there’s a greenhouse on that end. I used to put my bike in there every day. From when we used to go home after we’d done our duties and that, I used to go home and come back on the bike and leave my bike in the greenhouse at the hotel. And our duties during the day, we used to go to Poole Harbour… What’s that place outside of..? Hamworthy. Hamworthy. And that’s where we were introduced to the Sherman DD, and they had two propellers on the back. And we used to get in these damn Shermans and practise raising the screen up. Because the screen – I don’t know whether you’ve seen one – is held up by rubber pipes full of air, air pumps, these big rubber pipes all around. And they held the screen up, and there was scaffolding poles all around, you know, to keep it taut. And there was three or four metal braces with elbow joints on them to hold things taut, because the screen would flap otherwise. Anyhow, we got on these thing and we used to practise swimming – we called it swimming – swimming all around Poole Harbour in…
In these tanks.
Yeah, ‘til we got used to it. And we used to have fun doing those.
You quite enjoyed it, did you?
You weren’t worried about drowning then?
Not really, ‘cause we had to worry about that later on. Anyhow, we did all the training on these things on the – there, and then from Bournemouth we went to Fawley, near Fawley. Some place near Fawley. And Fawley, there was another big (ramp), and we used to – daily, we used to get on tiny little landing craft, the infantry landing craft. They only used to hold one tank, and they used to put a tank on there, put the screen up, and halfway across the Solent, let the ramp down and we used to have to swim ashore to the Isle Of Wight. Queen Victoria’s beach we used to go to. And we used to have a brew-up then, ‘cause we had a… You had your can with petrol and stuff. Have a brew, and then they used to pick us up in the landing craft, come back, drop us off, and we used to come and land at Fawley again. And we did that a few times.
So you were practised at it? You were pretty well-prepared for it?
Oh, yes. But not for the sea, though. That was all calm sea where that is.
Yeah, yeah. Slight difference, isn’t there?
Yeah, a lot of difference. Anyway, B Squadron was taken away to Portsmouth. I think C Squadron came afterwards. And we went to Portsmouth, and in the mornings, after we got there, we were put on the ferry, ‘cause the ferry goes from Portsmouth to Gosport. And we got over to Gosport, it was a submarine training place, where they train escaping from submarines if they were sinking. And we went in there, and there’s a bloody great water tank, about 60 or 80 foot tall, all white tiles all round it, and a ladder on the side going down to the bottom. And before we saw that we were told all about (famous escapes that await us), how to get on and how to use it, which was a terrible thing, really. And the second day, we went over there, and we had to use the thing ourselves. The first day they were showing us what to do, and the second day we had to put these things on and learn how to control the air intake, you know, ‘cause there was a little cylinder on ‘em with compressed air or something. And you had to be able to control the air so you could breathe. And on the third day, you went over there and they says, “Right, the tank is down there.” There’s only one crew at a time used to do it. We used to go down this ladder and get in this tank. There was no water in this thing, no water yet. And we used to get in our positions on the tank – it was only a carcass of a tank. It was alright for those in the turret, ‘cause they could put the – they could (escape out of the top), but the driver and myself at the front couldn’t get in there…
I thought you were the driver?
No. Sometimes the driver. Sometimes. I was trained as a driver. I did a lot of the driving and that. I had to be able to do all of the things. But I was a gunner at the front as well, see. We were both at the front, and you couldn’t wear that thing on and get in the tank, ‘cause, of course, the hole wasn’t big enough. So we used to have to sit on the side, sit on the side and hook your legs in and have the apparatus on you. And we sit there waiting, and all of a sudden that bloody water came in. Thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of water. And we had to sit there and wait until the thing, way up the top, was full up.
That must have been pretty terrifying, wasn’t it?
Terrifying, it was. And that whistle used to go and that’s when we were told we could come up. So you had your nose clip on and you had to control the air that could go in, and we had to – at the front we had to hold on with your feet into the thing, and you couldn’t move until the thing was full up. When it was full up, as I say, they told us we could come up, whistle went. And you had a – underneath the air cylinder was an apron folded up, and you had to unfold that apron and hold it out in front of you, which controlled the speed you went up. You had to go, crawl up slowly, ‘cause obviously it’s dangerous if you went up too quick. And we were helped, you know. They had blokes down there, proper Navy blokes, to make sure everything was alright, and when you got to the top there was blokes on the top with long poles and they used a hook, pull you up and hook you back to the side and out!
It does sound like it was reasonably thorough training though.
Oh, yeah. I think the B Squad had more training than anybody else.
So you knew what you had to do? You knew what you were doing?
At that time we didn’t know what was to come, though.
No, no. Of course not.
[3rd Person] You didn’t know what you were doing, where you were going then?
No. But we did this thing…
Sorry, chaps. I’m just going to have to go and get rid of some coffee, if that’s alright.
It won’t take you too long.
No, no, not at all. I’m just going to go and use your loo again, if that’s alright.
[3rd Person] In my father’s diaries you recall that incident, you know, when B Squadron refused to do the training and he was saying… I can’t quite remember, but he described it as everybody was being briefed about how safe it was and how (great) it was, and I think the first tank that went in went straight to the bottom…
Straight to the bottom, yeah.
[3rd Person]…And, you know, and quite rightly everybody was very reticent.
Yes. I’ll tell you; it wasn’t manslaughter, it was murder.
[3rd Person] Yeah, no, it was. It was really…
I’ll say; when it came to the day…
[3rd Person] Did they lose somebody in one of the tanks?
Oh, I don’t know to be quite truthful.
[3rd Person] I’ll have to have a look, but I do remember reading it, and he was saying that everybody didn’t… Yeah…
Yeah. It was sheer murder. I’d say he was sending us to death. They didn’t care whether you lived or not.
[3rd Person] I can remember him writing about it quite vividly.
[3rd Person] And particularly about… So B Squadron at this time – where was A and C Squadron? Were they being trained..?
C Squadron was always in reserve.
[3rd Person] Always in reserve? So it was A or B, really, that were always..?
Yeah. C Squadron always followed us.
[3rd Person] Always followed?
Yes. And A Squadron was – they were the Crusaders, and they were way back. (John Saint) was in A Squadron, and the CO was all A Squadron. And, naturally, they never knew what was happening at the Front. They might have thought – gave the orders as to what was at the Front, but they weren’t there to see that it was carried out. But, anyway, we did all this training, backwards and forwards to Portsmouth, and when it was over we got back to our tank and we were ready to go over. It was only about a week beforehand that we did all this training, and there was a big photograph of it at B Squadron. We’re not on it, because we were off at Gosport doing all this bloomin’ training. And as soon as we finished, kind of, we got on our tank and we were put on the landing craft. We were the last ones on, on this particular landing craft. They were those extended landing craft, they used to hold five tanks. But I don’t think there was five tanks on there with us. We were the last on. It was reversed on so you’d be – we were the first off.
Ah, I see. Yeah, yeah.
And were you apprehensive about what was to come?
You must have felt such an old hand by this stage.
We knew that the invasion was going to start, but although we were on these landing craft, we didn’t know when it was going. But… Hey?
[3rd Person. Inaudible]
When we got going we was taken out into the Solent and we anchored there…
[Tea served. Unrelated conversation]
Anyhow, we were anchored out in the Solent and I don’t know how long we were there. And then they said we were going on the way. And we got going, and then we stopped. The sea was so bloomin’ rough that that’s when they cancelled it. It was on the 5th of…
June, yeah. And the sea was so bloomin’ rough that they…
The water presumably was swishing over the tanks, wasn’t it?
Oh, it kept…
And were you on the tank, inside the tank? Or were you just on the landing craft?
On the landing craft in the tank.
You were in the tank, were you?
Yeah, with the screen up, see, so we couldn’t see anything anywhere.
Oh, my gosh. All that time?
Yeah, and we were stuck in there.
So did you not get out at all?
Not really. It was hard. I think we did drop the screen sometime, but it couldn’t be down for long, you know. ‘Cause the landing craft crew kept supplying us with tea, ‘cause we had nothing otherwise. And that was all we had all the time, was the tea, a cup of tea. And everybody was sick. Course, the landing craft was the worst thing to be on, even in a still sea, ‘cause they’re flat-bottomed and they rock so much. Anyhow, eventually, when we got going…
It must have been relief, wasn’t it, when you finally got going?
It really was. And, as I was saying, we had the screen up, and we should have been dropped off 3000 yards out form the shore, but the sea was so bloomin’ rough that the Commander of our landing craft took us into 700 yards, which was still a bloomin’ long way. And the ramp went down, and all you could see in front of you – well, we couldn’t, we had the screens up – was this damn sea, and it was really rough. And they said that was the quiet part of the time, the sea had eased up. And then we got to – had to go down that ramp to get into the sea, and the idea was you had to go down that ramp so slow so that you didn’t cause a bow wave.
Of course, yeah. Just slip into the water.
Yeah. If you caused a bow wave it reversed and came back over the top. So we had the driver, he was so careful we hardly knew we were moving. But quite a number of the tanks were lost because they went just a bit of a fraction too fast.
Yep. Bow wave came back over the top of ‘em, sank ‘em.
The noise must have been terrific, wasn’t it? All the guns going off and everything?
Oh, never heard ‘em. Never took any notice of ‘em. Oh, we was doing for ourselves, yeah. Anyway, we got to the – we get going and we got to the beach, and this is where I disagree with all what’s in that official thing. As soon as the track got on the sand, on the beach, you know, and took a firm hold, the tracks – because the tracks are going round all the time – and as soon as they got hold of the beach, we got going. It was high tide. We were due in at five-and-twenty past seven in the morning, and I don’t know what time we did get there, but it must have been about that time. And we landed on this beach, and we had to stop to disengage the propellers, see, otherwise you couldn’t go hardly – only about half a mile an hour with the propellers going on the beach. So with the propellers off you could go about 3 or 4 miles an hour. It was a lot of difference. Anyway, we got on this beach and disengaged the propellers, and then something hit us. And our screen – we must have been hit with phosphorous, phosphorous bullets or whatever it was – our screen just went up in flames all round us, and I think we all thought, ‘Christ, we’re going to be fried in here. We’re finished’. And in a way we were lucky, because whatever hit us made holes in the rubber pipes. It let all the air out of them. Consequently the screen fell down, and we had so much water taken in over the top of us while we were coming in, we had a bilge pump on the back which couldn’t cope at all. It was only a little pump with a hosepipe, and the hosepipe went over the top of the screen. That’s all it was, a bilge pump. Useless. But the idea was alright! But they hit us and our screen fell down in all the water what was between the screen and the tank. And we were lucky. We managed to get out. Three of us – the driver, myself, and (Monty Hawley), who’d been with us in Africa – the three of us got out. I’ve no idea what happened to the other two on the tank, but they weren’t with us at the time. I’ve no idea what happened to them at all. We were towards the back of the tank…
But they were in the tank on the crossing, were they?
They were in the top, in the top turret, but what happened to them I’ve no idea. Anyhow…
The water – when the screen was shattered – the water didn’t put out the flames then?
It did when it dropped down into the water, see. Between the screen and the tank there was water all round.
Yeah. So when the screen went up in flames presumably it just dropped down into the water and went out?
Yeah, it dropped down into the water.
Which put the flames out, presumably?
Which put the flames out, yeah, which was very lucky for us otherwise we wouldn’t be here now.
Yeah, yeah. No, got you.
Anyhow, the three of us got to the side of the tank by the back (sprocket). We were wondering what the hell to do. There was no bomb holes, bomb craters, there was no shell holes, which we was told was going to be there, there was nothing. There was about 100 yards of beach in front of us before the promenade, and we was standing there wondering what to do. And they started firing at us again… And Monty Hawley and the driver were killed. Shot. As I say, when they started firing at us we all dropped to the ground quick. I ducked to the ground and I scrambled round the back of the tank and hid amongst the propellers, the (iron in) the propellers. We were still in the water. And later on – I don’t know how long it was – later on, when things had calmed down, I looked around and the other two were lying down dead where we’d just been standing. Terrible.
Yeah. Must have been.
And I lay behind that tank, behind the propellers, and I don’t know how long I was there but I saw that tide go out. And when the tide goes out over there it goes out bloody miles. But when it comes back in, it comes back like a race. Oh, it don’t half come back quick! But, anyhow, I saw this tide go out. Anyhow, while we were on that beach there, there wasn’t a – not a thing around on our right at all. Nothing. We didn’t hear anything from the left. Anything. We don’t know where the firing came from or anything at all. It wasn’t ‘til later on when we used to go over and do the recces that we knew where the firing came from. It came from a helluva big gun emplacement which only had a small aperture in it for their machine guns – it must have been machine guns – and it only had a narrow hole, so that the traverse was only the width of the beach. And we were probably nearest to the thing, and they caught us with their guns. That’s what set us (alight). But, anyway, I saw that tide go out. And I didn’t hear anything, and I thought, ‘Good God. We’re here on our own’. Never knew anything about anybody else landing. It wasn’t ‘til later in the day that we heard the others come, but they were way down the beach. Everybody was way down. We were on our own up this end. I don’t know whether they’d lost their way or we’d lost the way, but whatever it was we were nearest to this gun emplacement. And I was there most of the day behind that thing, behind the propellers, with two dead men at the side of me. And they – evidently all the other things came along, and in the report it says that Major Laycock, who was in charge of B Squadron, and he says, “The tanks all landed dry, but three of them sank and the crews were saved.” Well, if the three tanks were sank, how the hell could they have landed dry? So that was wrong for a start. And I was picked up later on, and towards the top of the beach, quite a long way along – it was nearer where the others were all landed, quite a long way over…
When you say you were picked up, how were you picked up?
Oh, they came looking for me. They’d seen that our tank had been on fire and was stationary on the beach, and nothing was happening and they probably thought everybody was dead. Anyway, I was picked up and taken up to this, what used to be an ice cream parlour or something, a shed at the top of the beach. And I was given something to drink and a blanket, ‘cause I was all wet and covered in sand, and I was put in a sort of a make… A make… A make-believe encampment with a lot of other blokes who said they’d lost their way.
So you were the only survivor from your tank?
Yes. As I say, I don’t know what happened to the others, the other three. I was the only one they found. Anyway, they came and got me and I was put into this compound with these other chaps. They were mostly infantry and that. They’d lost their regiments, most of them said. How they can lose a regiment over that little distance, I don’t know! But, anyway, one thing that was marvellous, really saved Gold Beach, was the Sexton Tank, came ashore with A Squadron. And there was a sergeant – the Sexton Tank is a Sherman with no turret on it, and it had a 25 pounder on it – and there was a Sergeant (Phillips). I’ll never forget his name. Evidently he saw what was happening and he turned his tank over open sights, he fired with his 25 pounder and it went straight through the aperture of that gun emplacement.
(I have to) tell you a story…
That’s why it was the luckiest shot of the War. He got a DCM or something for it.
We went over there in 2004, David and I, and we met the chap who fired that shot.
He was in the Essex, wasn’t he?
Essex, yeah, in the Essex.
[3rd Person] The Essex Yeomanry, that’s right.
Essex Yeoman… I think his name was Phillips.
And you were just standing by that place and you kind of made the connection, didn’t you?
[3rd Person] What he said – it’s quite interesting – is that it was his first day, first day of action, and he broke all protocols by having – when he came in off his landing craft he had a shell up the spout, and it was the first shot that he fired in action, as he landed, that went through that aperture.
Over open sights.
[3rd Person] Over open sights.
Marvellous. Wonderful shot.
[3rd Person] And, actually, we’ve seen the gun emplacement, because it had done a terrible – wreaked a lot of damage, hadn’t it?
Yeah. And that saved B – not only B Squadron, but the whole of Gold Beach. ‘Cause we were supposed to land at five-and-twenty past seven. A little bit further along was the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. Their landing was five minutes later, high tide. And as it went on, five minutes later all the time for the high tide. You know, it was getting behind all the time, and C Squadron was due to land at 8 o’clock… Or five-and-twenty to eight… Uh, five to eight. A half hour after us. But they landed on the same beach, of course. It was cushy for them. And (Stewart Hills) – you know, has written a book – his tank sank, you know, water over the top. And his crew managed to get into a raft. Most of the tanks had a raft on ‘em. And they all got on the raft, and they were very good, the Navy was very kind to ‘em. They pushed them ashore so they had to carry on the fighting! But further down the beach was the Sergeant-Major of B Squadron. His tank sank and they got on a raft, but they weren’t so lucky. They weren’t pushed ashore. They were put on the landing craft and brought back to England!
So when were you given another tank then? When were you put onto another tank?
I mean, was that your D-Day over or was it..?
Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I was stuck on that beach – I don’t know how long it was. And they were looking for the Regiment, ‘cause everything was on the move. Nobody knew where anything was at all. And when they found out where the Regiment was I was put in a car, taken in a car up to (St Pierre). And that’s where I got back to the Regiment, at St Pierre. I don’t know whether it was 3 or 4 days after.
And you were immediately crewed up again, were you?
And then put in another crew. I don’t know who they were in there. After that I don’t know what happened at all. I was (probably in shock. I’ll tell you), it was a loss to me, you know, Monty Hawley.
Because he was a good mate, was he?
Because, obviously, he was in the desert with me. (That was it. It’s true) all the time. Yes, a great loss. But (Warboys), the driver, Warboys, he was a recruit. He’d only joined the Regiment just before we started training on the DD’s. There was a helluva lot of young Regiment recruits who joined before D-Day. There was very few of the Regiment left who were in the desert, you know.
Yeah, of course. So you must have known all the main senior Officers by that stage, didn’t you?
Not really, no.
Never, ever saw ‘em. Only ever saw our own crew. Terrible, really.
Yeah, I suppose so. So do you remember, you must have been involved in the attack on (Bayeux)? Going round Bayeux?
No. I wasn’t with the Regiment, I was still on the beach.
Of course. That was the same day, wasn’t it? The next day?
Yeah. Actually, the credit for Bayeux, the capture of Bayeux, is wrong. It says the Essex captured Bayeux. The Essex didn’t capture Bayeux. There was one tank of the Sherwood Rangers captured Bayeux, and the driver is still alive, and he lives at (Didcott).
Really? Who was that?
Yeah, (Stan Cox). He was in…
He’s still alive, is he?
Yes, he’s still alive. I’ve been in touch with him. Stan Cox. Lives in Didcott, he does. And he was in A Squadron, so he never landed on D – on these tanks, on our tanks. And he – they got through and they just kept going, and they got to Bayeux. And he tells you; they got into Bayeux and everybody was cheering all round ‘em, and the Germans were in the top of a house there and started firing at them. So Stan Cox – he was the driver of this tank – he turned his tank to face this house and put a shell in the gun, put a shell through that place where the firing came from. They set the top of the house alight!
I think I remember you… Didn’t your dad mention that?
The local Fire Brigade came out…
That’s right, yeah.
The Germans came out – they were taken away by the locals, don’t know what happened to them – and the local Fire Brigade came out with all their brass and everything, you know. It was as if nothing happened. And as there was no infantry there, Stan Cox and his tank reversed out of Bayeux and waited for the infantry to come along, and they came along the next day and they got the credit for capturing Bayeux.
[3rd Person] Would you have much recollection of St Pierre and what happened there?
Not really. I was on the hillside up behind it. I’ve been there quite a lot since then, but it was while we were there that that shell came over into that farmyard.
[3rd Person] That’s right.
Yeah. And it killed the… I can’t remember their names… Three of the Officers. But they were standing under an apple tree or something, having a conflab. But it was one of our plaques. They made and supplied lots of – made different plaques, monuments for the Regiment. I don’t know whether you’ve seen any of them, but one of them was on the end wall of the barn of this house, this farmhouse. And for years we used to go over there and see it, but it got so grown up with bushes and everything around it that David got together with the Town Council over there and had the plaque taken off, cleaned up and everything, and made a platform just outside the green, just outside the farm gate. I don’t know whether you’ve seen it at all.
[3rd Person] Yes. No, we went down there…
There’s a metal plaque all about the Sherwood Rangers and that being here, and they’ve got a memorial for the Officers killed. And there’s… We go there for a ceremony every year. Every year we’ve been there. And just behind us on – it was on a crossroads, this – and just round the corner there’s a big barn, and the owner of this barn was collecting slates, roofing slates, big ones, and there’s etched on it every regiments’ crest badge that went through St Pierre.
This wall is covered, oh, in about a hundred tiles, all fixed to the wall, with a badge, a cap badge, of every regiment that went through St Pierre. And it’s really worth seeing. It’s lovely done, done sketched. Anyway, I don’t remember much of what happened at all after that. I know later on we went back and had to go up to (Falaise), where the Falaise Gap was. That was a push… That was the end of the…
Normandy itself. And this Falaise Gap was about 7 or 8 miles long, a perfectly straight road, and at the side of it was nothing but dead horses, dead men, all Germans. And it was chaos. Everything was dead. In the fields the cattle were all dead, the horses were dead. And we’re going along here and every now and again – I don’t know how many days after it was – every now and again you’d hear an explosion, and it was either a horse or a cow blowing up.
You could hear it, could you?
Oh, yes. Of course, we’re going through this Falaise Gap, there was no enemy or anything, they were all…
It must have been so depressing, wasn’t it?
Yeah. We had our heads out the thing, you know, so we could see what’s happening. But it was a terrible scene. The slaughter that… I didn’t know about the Germans, but I’d see all the cattle and everything. As I said, it was all farms. It was all these famers, it was their living. I was seeing hundreds and hundreds of horses and cattle, all…
Well, of course, the Germans used a heck of a lot of them.
Oh, yeah. But it was really bad.
But did you not feel some sympathy at all for some of the dead Germans? I mean, they’re young men like yourself, aren’t they?
Well, I would say it was either us or them.
Yeah, I suppose so. I suppose so. So you didn’t get hit again during the Normandy Campaign?
Not in the Normandy itself. I was in Germany, Germany before I was hit.
Yeah. Yeah, we got all the way through…
You’d gone into – Can you remember going into Holland?
We got up to Holland, Nijmegen… Normally by the rivers there’s these huge banks, you know, hold the river back. Dikes. We were stationed by the bridge, Nijmegen Bridge, on a field just below it. And we were there waiting for the capture of the Arnhem Bridge, you know, with the parachuters. And we saw all that coming down, but we couldn’t do anything about it. And we were enjoying ourselves, I suppose, having a rest with the – on this lower, below this great big battle on the river bank. And there was a row of about 6 or 8 bungalows, all on this side, and they were all empty. And we went into these bungalows and there were some terrible things, but we took all their food. You know, people weren’t there so we raided their larders. Had some good food. ‘Cause we had very little food all the time.
Because you were on the go all the time.
On the go. No, all we had was (hard tack), these damn great hard biscuits, and tea. We always made tea. That was always the condensed milk. And we used to – even in the desert – we used to smash these hard biscuits up to powder, condensed milk on the top and boil it. And that was our breakfast. (Bergoo). That would last us through the day. We used to call it Bergoo, and that’s what we used to have out there. We had (McConagheys). That was the tins of soup. They were alright.
A bit of stew. Did McConagheys do stew as well?
McConagheys was a vegetable…
Meat and veg stew sort of thing.
Yeah. And you had to have a fire to heat them. Later on in the campaign, a way along, we had – they had these thermal, thermal tubes in the middle of a tin with wicks sticking out the top. And you put a match – not a match, your cigarette and that. And it goes ‘Sshhh’, and the tin was so bloomin’ hot you couldn’t hold it! And you couldn’t open the tin it was so hot. But you used to have penknives and that, stab and try and get the lid off. But most of the tin was taken up by the thermal unit, so there wasn’t much soup in it.
But the idea was alright. But…
Incidentally, what rank were you by this stage?
Me? Oh, I was just a plain trooper.
The lowest rank of the lot. That’s why I’ve still got me head still on.
[3rd Person] So who was commanding B Squadron? Who was in charge at that stage when you got to (Arnhem).
Laycock. Major Laycock. Laycock.
[3rd Person] All the way through to… He didn’t go all the way through, did he? Where was he..?
Oh, no. I think he got to St Pierre. I think they gave me in exchange for him. He was killed at St Pierre. That’s where I joined the Regiment.
[3rd Person] (Where did you go) after that? Can you remember?
No, not really.
[3rd Person] Not really. Do you have any recollections of sort of (Gilles) and (Beak) and all of that lot in Holland? [Inaudible]
Yeah. Gilles, I was fortunate, I wasn’t at Gilles. ‘Cause when we were going along I was there chasing them, racing, we went through Brussels. And through Brussels, I can’t remember whether we threw a – lost a track or whether the engine went, but whatever it was the tank wouldn’t go. And we left behind in Brussels. It was a helluva time. You know, there was crowds and crowds and crowds around us, and, of course, we had to get out the tank. And they were kissing us, shaking, you know, shaking me hand. It was a wonderful reception. In fact, it was too much of a reception. And they all wanted to take us, you know, all the crew, they all wanted to take us to their homes. And I got collared by a family. There was a father, a father and mother with a daughter, and they lived nearby where we was broken down. And they took me to their house and gave us marvellous meals, really looked after me. And this man – he was a tailor – and it was in a tall house, about 3 or 4 storeys tall with a basement. And he took me down in the basement, and it was full of hooks, the cloth for men’s suiting.
Yeah. All hidden from the Germans. Dozens and dozens of ‘em, these big (bulks). He wanted to make me a suit. Yeah. “No,” I said, “It’s no good.” I’ll say…
Quite happy with your battle dress, were you?
[3rd Person] Do you have any recollection of dad apart from that moment when the training took place? Because I think he took over command, didn’t he, just after St Pierre?
Yes. Was it (Anderson) something? No, I think Anderson took us on the beach, wasn’t he.
[3rd Person] Yes, you’re right. He and (Stephen Mitchell) were the two.
Stephen Mitchell and Stanley Kristofferson.
Yeah. Kristofferson came later, didn’t he?
[3rd Person] He came just after…
That’s David’s father.
[3rd Person] Do you have any recollection of him once he, after…
Not really. We never ever saw him. I don’t suppose he ever saw me. As I say, when you’re in a tank you stick together all the time. And…
So you were saying you were hit in Germany?
Yes. We got to – as I say – we got to Nijmegen and we were waiting for the thing, for the parachutes to come. But nothing happened. And, actually, they should have got over those bridges, but the Coldstream Guards – it was only a single road, narrow road, all for miles and miles and miles up to the bridge – and the Coldstream Guards were coming leading the Guards Division. And they got by the entrance to the Nijmegen Bridge, but they were fired on. So what did they do? They retreated. Said they were being fired on and couldn’t get through. The next day – ‘cause they were told that they had to keep going whatever happened. But they didn’t. They were fired on by machine guns and they retreated. Next day when they went back through it with re-enforcements, all it was was 12 men, 12 Germans and a machine gun. And that’s what stopped ‘em. Otherwise, if they’d have done as they were told, they could have got right over those bridges. And that’s… These things don’t come out in history, ‘cause it, you know, it don’t do any history with regards (how they do it). But after Nijmegen we went back to (Cleve), and that’s where we got our publicity from. We were the first British troops into Germany. And from then… It was in the papers, it was in the Telegraph, and me father cut it out the paper.
Yeah. He told me that the British were in Germany and that the Sherwood Rangers were the first regiment into Germany. And I’ll tell you what we used to do; don’t matter where we were, any village, the church tower, we used to knock the church spire off. Fire at it and knock that off, because that’s where the snipers used to be. And it was the same with the water towers. You know, they had those big water towers. They used to put – the snipers used to hide in them. And after Cleve we got up to… I don’t know where it was. Up there into the (Reisold) Forest, and we kept going until we got to the Siegfried Line, which held everything up for a bit. And while we were there it learned how to rain. And rain, rain, rain. The tanks could hardly move there was so much mud. And while we were there the American – I think it was the 8 – 3 – 3 American, the 8 – 3 – 3 Division, Infantry Division, came up. They’d come straight from England, landed at Rotterdam or Antwerp, (onward east) straight up to Geilenkirchen. They’d asked for us, they’d asked for the Sherwood Rangers to help them, and we did. They followed us in. And we got into the Geilenkirchen, which was one of those big towns in – it was in the Siegfried Line, and it was one of those iron towns, you know, steel town, all furnaces. And we were going along the track, thick with mud, and we were in the lead, and we were fired upon. And we had an officer tank commander, and he reversed us quick, he said, “Right. Get out quick.” Reversed us. He reversed us into a minefield.
Yeah. And we were stuck in this minefield. Don’t know what happened to the Americans, because they were following – they were all infantry. And C Squadron were further along in the, well, you know, on the Front. C Squadron and other (places), but it was mainly the Sherwoods. Anyhow, we were in this minefield and we lost a track, blew a track off. And we were still under fire, they were still firing at us. So there was only one thing to do; jump out quick and run for it. And we ran for it. And one of the chaps in front of us – I think I was either third or fourth chap in the line, you know, running carefully behind each other. But one of the chaps trod on a mine and he disappeared. And the bloke next, behind him, lost all his guts. A chap named… He was a Scotsman. Mac something. Anyhow, he lost his guts and I got it in the head.
What, you were hit?
Yeah. And that was the end of the War for me.
What, did you get hit by a bit of shrapnel or something?
Yeah, shrapnel. And it was lucky, because the Americans, their medics came into that minefield and picked us up.
How badly were you hit? How badly hit were you?
Oh, I lost me eyesight. (And me leg) and me arms, and they picked me up. I don’t know what happened then. The next I knew, when I woke up I’d had an operation and I was in bed in a British 1 – 1 – 1 hospital in Brussels. I’d got all the way back to Brussels. I don’t know how I got there.
You don’t remember anything about it?
No. Don’t know a thing about it. And I was in the bed there and the surgeon came round with the nurse – lovely nurses – and he told me that I’d lost an eye, and he hoped that he’d saved the other one. And they took the bandages off and I could see with the other one. It was wonderful.
Yeah, that must have been a relief.
But the nurse who looked after me, Sister, she was one of the Queen’s. Not… You know, they were the elite of the nursing service.
The Queen Alexandra’s.
The Queen’s Royal Army Nursing Service. They used to wear these beautiful headdresses and red cloaks. The Navy version of them used to wear a blue cloak. Anyhow, the nurse that used to look after me, her name was Sister (Toon). I’ll never forget it. We were talking, and I said I came from Bournemouth, and she said, “My parents live in Bournemouth.” So I said, “Where do they live?” She says – I don’t really know it, on top of Richmond Hill in Bournemouth. There’s a big square building, a brick building, about 5 or 6 storeys tall. It’s set back from the road. It’s still there. The bottom part of it was the income tax office, the local income tax, but they’re not there now. But above it was all flats, and she told me her parents lived in one of those flats, and she asked me to go and see them. So when I was all complete again I went and saw them, told them all about her. Had a nice time, they were nice people. But after I was discharged from there – I don’t know how it happened or anything – I got to Stanford up in Shropshire or somewhere, in a hospital, in a military hospital up there. Stanford in Shropshire or something.
[3rd Person] Stafford.
[3rd Person] Stanford or Stafford?
No, Stanford, not Stamford. Stamford’s where those big houses are we used to visit. No, it’s up north, north-west somewhere. In the military hospital up there for a bit.
What happened to your arm?
I had shrapnel in me arm.
Any sort of lasting effects of that one?
No. I don’t even know where – I can’t even find the scars now or anything. Amazing. (It all grows). And from there – I don’t know how it happened – I went to Sunningdale in a camp. Sunningdale’s Virginia Water near Staines, Egham, Staines, Virginia Water. And I was in a camp, in a tent there for, oh, quite some time. And then (when I say) I got cured, on my feet again, they sent me to Bournemouth. The (Hanneman) Homes, a big house on the cliffs. It’s still there. It’s a hotel now. It was a military hospital, a recuperation hospital. And from there – I was there for quite a long while. You used to have to go around in these blues, you know, all hospital patients in the Army used to have to wear these horrible blue coats, blue trousers, white blouse, and a red tie. Horrible, they were. And then from there they sent me up to Catterick, all the way up to Catterick, and I was up there – God knows how long I was up there. And then they suddenly woke up that I’d been in a band and they sent me all the way back down to Bovington, back to the band.
[3rd Person] Where you started.
Yeah. And I was in the band, and as I was a regular soldier I had to stay in the Army. I was a conscript for all… [inaudible] But a regular soldier, I still had 3 years to go of me service. More than 3 years. No, I’d signed up for 9 and 3. Anyhow, I went back into the band and after a time – the band was much smaller then. There was only about 30-odd in it. And after a time we did a tour, went on tour, went over to the continent to play to the troops. And we went to (Keller) on the (Luna Berquis), where Belsen was. And we went into Belsen, in Belsen camp, and played to the troops who were cleaning up.
Yeah. Saw all the ovens and everything. It was all there. Oh, it was terrible. And from there we went to Hamburg, and Hamburg, there wasn’t two bricks touching each other. Bombed so much.
That must have been quite an eye-opener, wasn’t it?
Oh, God. Terrible, it was. And I’ll say actually nearly all Germany was like it after the War. You were lucky if you saw two bricks together.
Were you amazed or were you surprised by the level of destruction?
I mean, you had no idea what was going on?
We had no idea what was going on at the time. But I’ll say people say we should never have done it. I’ll say they did it to us! I was only throwing back what they done to us. Anyhow, while we was in Hamburg, we used to pay round Hamburg to all the troops, and on one day we were given a trip on a barge up the Kiel canal. We went all up the Kiel canal to the far end, and then they brought us all the way back to Hamburg. It was a nice trip. Nice, it was. And from there, from Hamburg, we went to Berlin, and…
That really must have been extraordinary.
Oh, yeah. It was wonderful, really. I’ll say we went – it was all on lorries all the time, and everything – it was just destruction everywhere. Terrible. Terrible.
Amazing. That must have been quite something to see, wasn’t it?
It was, really. While we were there we were stationed in… Oh, God…
No, the… What’s the castle? Where Hess was.
Spandau Castle! We were stationed in there for a few days. So I did get to Berlin in the end.
Amazing story. So what did you do once you’d left the Army?
Well, I’ll tell you; when we came back to Bovington I asked for a transfer, I asked for a transfer to the Scots Guards band. I wanted to carry on where me father left off. And they says no, I’m not fit enough to go to the Scots Guards. Got to stay where I was. Well, that annoyed me father. He wrote to the local MP down here and says, ‘If he’s not fit enough to go to the Guards, he’s not fit enough to stay in your army’. I was out in a matter of ten days. Out of the Army all together. And fortunately the orchestra down in Bournemouth was being reformed, a new conductor, enlarged, everything, and I… While I was in the Army band before we went away, the orchestra used to be in the pavilion, and it was a small orchestra, it was, and me father was in there. And Saturdays and Sundays I used to go to the pavilion with the orchestra, sort of making up numbers, and we used to do a symphony concert, Saturdays and Sundays. Anyway, when I came out of the Army the orchestra had been reformed and going over to the Winter Gardens. The Winter Gardens had been rebuilt as a proper concert hall, and it happened at a time when they were putting me out the Army. And I went over and had an audition, go in, and was accepted to go in the orchestra. So I came…
You didn’t find with the loss of one eye – you could still read music okay and all that?
You got used to it pretty quickly, did you?
Yes. But it’s not just the one eye I’ve lost. I’ve lost the other one as well. I managed alright. I was with the orchestra down here for about seven years, and then I left it and – actually I got the sack. I didn’t get on very well with the conductor and he sacked me. And I finished a concert on a Sunday night and I went home, and me mother says, “Someone’s been ringing you up, wants to talk to you.” And she gave me the number to ring. I rang this number and the bloke says, “I hear you’re finishing in the orchestra down there.” He says, “Can you be in the pit at Covent Garden, 10 o’clock tomorrow morning?” And this was on the Sunday night, and 10 o’clock the next morning. I packed a case, bit of stuff and me instrument, and I was on the early train to London, up to Covent Garden, playing in the pit, in the orchestra at 10 o’clock in the morning. And fortunately a cousin of mine is in the costumier business, and he lived in Covent Garden itself, right in the middle of Covent Garden, three minutes walk from the stage door of the Royal Opera House. And he put me up. I used to stay with him for a bit. And then I was with the Covent Garden Orchestra. I used to do all the ballet and the opera, I was with the Bolshoi, the Bolshoi ballet company from Moscow. They did a tour over here and I was with them. I did three and a half years at the Opera House, and then I left there and I went freelance. That’s played all over the place with all the different orchestras and working in the theatres as well, doing shows. I did My Fair Lady, (a lot of that). There was The Sound Of Music, Oliver!. Nearly all the big shows had orchestras. I used to play with all of them, all around. And we used to do with the BBC. They used to do programmes, marching and horses every Friday night. There used to be an orchestra played the horses, and the used to have a Guards band play the marches, alternating, every Friday night. And they used to play in the different small orchestras as background music to a lot of these kitchen plays.
So you had a life in music then?
Oh, yes. Lovely. Lovely, it was. And then one day I had a phone call from a Charlie (Cutman). He says, “The horn player at the Sadler’s Wells is sick. Can you come and cover for him?” So I went to Sadler’s Wells, did the opera there, and next day never thought any more of it, that was just one days work. He rang me up and he said, “Can you come back again?” So I went back the next day, and then he said to me, he says, “The horn player is unfortunately – has died, see.” He says, “Would you take his place?” I says, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Do all the opera and that. I was there for 23 and a half years.
How about that.
I had to leave there because medical. I had a lot of trouble with balance and things and so Sadler’s Wells, they moved to the Coliseum Theatre, the English National Opera. And they sent me to see the company’s doctor, name… Oh… Oh, I can’t think of his name. He was a clown, a clown. He had the same name as the boss of… Not Monte Carlo, is it… What’s that enclave down there?
Oh, I don’t know. Rainier?
[3rd Person] Rainier is Monte Carlo. Or Monaco.
Yeah, Monaco, that’s it. It wasn’t Rainier at the time, it was… What was the name of the famous clown?
Yeah. But anyway, he gave the once-over and he says, “You’ve got to stop playing.” He says, “And you mustn’t do any more playing.” So I went to work that night at the Coliseum with me instrument, all ready to do the show – it was Rigoletto – and they met me at the door and says, “You’re finished. Doctor says you’re not to do any more playing.” And that was it. I went home with me instrument, and me wife was at work, and she got a surprise of her life when she came home and I opened the door for her. And that was the last of me playing. I had two instruments, I sold them both, and I got more for them than what I paid for them when they were brand new. And my wife was in the telecom. She was a telephone operator, BT, and she was retiring at the same time as I’d finished, and I said, “There’s only one thing to do.” We didn’t know anybody in London. You’d be surprised how… Obviously we lived in Harrow, and all we knew was the people either side of us and a couple of places over. She was working all the day, I was working every night. You know, (I don’t have to tell you), obviously you’ve got no life when you go home. I used to be out every night and that, Sundays. On Sundays the orchestra at Covent Garden used to be split up all over the place, and they used to go down to Hastings, Portsmouth, Brighton, Hove, Southend, Tunbridge Wells. On Sundays we used to record the local orchestra, you know, whatever they were.
Yeah, yeah. So you retired to Bournemouth, did you?
We came back to Bournemouth. And that was a coincidence as well, really, ‘cause the wife being telephone, they had a veterans branch down here, you know, all old folks for the BT who’d retired. And they used to meet every month at Pelhams down the road, had a cup of coffee and a speaker, and I used to go with her. And one morning they had a speaker, and it was one of the Queen’s bodyguards… What was his name? Dennis… Oh, I can’t remember his name. Dennis somebody. Anyhow, after he finished speaking I went up to speak to him because I wanted to know – I knew the Lady In Waiting to the Queen Mother. I knew her. And in fact we used to go to Clarence House quite a lot, I did, the wife and myself used to go to Clarence House. And he was telling me about this lady, Lady Rankin, and we got talking and I says, “You have to be in the Army to get to be a Beefeater.” And he’d done 32 years or something before he – in the Army – before he was chosen to be a Beefeater, the Queen’s bodyguard. And, as I say, I went to him and asked him about it, and he says he finished up in the Sherwood Rangers. I said, “Well, I was in the Sherwood Rangers.” He said, “Do you know anything about the Sherwood Rangers Association?” I says, “No, I’ve never heard of ‘em. Never even knew they had one.” Next morning there’s a knock on the door here, bloke’s standing there, he says, “Hello Bert.” He knew me, I hadn’t a clue who he was. He said, “I’m the Secretary and I run the southern branch of the Sherwood Rangers Association.” He says, “Would you join me? Join us?” So I was in the Sherwood Rangers Association. And it’s surprising, the things what we used to do. We used to go on all these outings. Every June we went over to Normandy, all around the cemeteries and that for about a week each time, and we had receptions in all the towns, all the villages what we got to liberate, and we were treated like lords all round. Marvellous time we’ve had. And he says, “What about the Tank Corps? Are you in the Tank Regiment Association?” I said, “No, I’ve never heard of ‘em.” So I was in the Tank Association then. Had no choice! And he says, “What about the Normandy Veterans? They meet at Ringwood.” So I was in with the Normandy Veterans. But Ken (Ewan), who was the Secretary, he picked me up here, he didn’t like the Normandy Veterans either, ‘cause there’s about 50 of them in it, and he went round to the Normandy Veterans one morning while it had a meeting, asked, finding out who was at Normandy. There was only six of them that had been at bloody Normandy! They were all hangers-on. Obviously we got a medal for being in Normandy. Those who got over there three months afterwards still got the same medal.
Yeah. Now, I was talking to John (Sebkin) a few weeks ago, and he says, “I was probably the first tank on Normandy.” He says, “Probably.” Later on, about six weeks ago, I was talking to – I rang up… Oh… Colonel Hunt. Course, Colonel Hunt had told me while we were in… Near the Normandy… The Nijmegen Bridge. We were over there to have one of our tanks refitted over there, a memorial. I was talking to him and he told me he was writing a history of the invasion, and I told him I was on the invasion and everything, and that was as far as it went. And then we got on one of these recces, got that thing from Mike Elliot saying about the invasion, that all the tanks landed dry, three tanks sank but the crews were saved. And then he says, “Monty Hawley was killed bringing his tank onto the shore.” I thought, ‘None of that’s right’. So I rang up Colonel Hunt and I told him all this, and he said he’s going to make note of it and put it in his book, you know, the truth. Well, honestly I told him the truth of what actually happened. ‘Cause even in the casualty book which the Padre did, you know, he put in it that Monty Hawley was killed trying to put the fire out. Now if he’d have used a bit of sense nobody could have put that fire out from inside the tank, because we were inside the tank while that fire was outside. It wasn’t ‘til we were outside that the three of us were fired on and two of us were killed. So that was wrong as well, see, what was said and what Laycock had said, that we landed dry. We didn’t.