- Contributed by
- Stockton Libraries
- People in story:
- Ron Newton Johnny Quail
- Location of story:
- Escape from France part 1
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 June 2005
I knew that the army was crying out for drivers to go in the army and drive vehicles in the war, so I decided that I would volunteer to go in the army as a driver, because I could drive lorries or anything at that time. So I went to the recruiting office in Middlesbrough, Lipton Street they called it were it was, and I volunteered as a driver in the army. I was accepted as a driver straight away and the following day I had orders to report to Strensal Barracks just outside York, and I would be attached to the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry as a driver.
So I went there and I was kitted out with all my kit with a kit bag and a uniform and everything that was required for a soldier to have in the war in those days. And then I had to go to the transport officer and I had to be allocated a lorry, then I had to go out and have a driving test with this lorry with the transport sergeant, it was only a formality he just drove me round the barracks a bit and I reversed between two lorries, just to see what I was like, and he passed me out straight away.
This was on the Tuesday; I’d only been in the army two days. On the Wednesday I had to report to the transport officer again and he said “Are you driver Newton?”, “Yes Sir” I said. “Very Good” he said, “We’re sending you home on three of four days embarkation leave because next week you will be going abroad”. So I got three of four days, so I was at home then until the following Friday night, when I had to report back to York barracks again, and I had to be in before midnight. On the Saturday morning we formed all our vehicles up in convoy and we had to drive down from York to Southampton. We got to Southampton on the Saturday night, we were all loaded on board ship but we stayed on board ship and it never moved until Sunday night, and during the night we sailed across the channel over to a place called Cherbourg in mid France. We embarked at Cherbourg and we stayed just outside Cherbourg for three of four days to get us used to driving on the right hand side of the road.
So we did all that and we set off two or three days to go to northern France to a village called Berinnes, which was very near to the Belgium border. Our job from then on was to take personnel and material and all sorts of things to build the Ragino line, and we worked on the Ragino line all through that winter. Now my billet was a pig sty, and I slept in straw above the pigsty and it was freezing cold and I didn’t take my clothes off for a week because it was that cold. On a Friday we used to go to a place called Duay and I had to take a load of men and go myself with the lorry and have a bath and get a new set of uniform to put on. We got cleaned and washed and shaved and hair cut and allsorts of things if you needed it. Then you came back to the billet and you stayed in your clothes again because it was too cold to take them off, and we had no hot water to wash in or any thing like that.
Each morning a man used to come down with a bucket of tea, we used to have tin cups/trays, and we used to dip these trays into the big bucket and get a tray of tea out. We would drink as much of the tea as we wanted and then we would have to shave in the tea that was left as it was the only warm liquid we had, and I did that for nearly six weeks.
In those days of course there was no antifreeze in the vehicles radiators. Every two hours is was my responsibility during the night to get up out of the pigsty and go into the transport yard and start the Lorries up and let them run for five or ten minutes until they got warmed up again and then switched them off and go back to bed again, back into my straw. As I said before I did that every night for six weeks, at the end of six weeks I went to the transport officer and asked him instead of having to sleep in the pigsty and having to get up three or four times a night to start the engines up, could I have permission to sleep in my own vehicle. And when the transport officer asked me why I wanted to do this, when he realised what I had to do he gave me permission to start the engines up every night and sleep in my own vehicle. Which was much better than sleeping in a pigsty?
Our vehicles were parked in a farm yard just outside the village of berrines, the owner of the farm the man had gone and joined the army and left his wife looking after this farm and they had cows and hens and allsorts of things on the farm. In my spare time I used to help this lady on the farm and she had a little girl, about 4 years old, and this little girl used to come round with me when I used to clean the cow byres out for her. Working on a farm in my earlier life I knew exactly what to do I was very experienced. In return for doing all this work for this lady I arranged with her to do my washing, so it was arranged that I helped her on the farm and she would do my washing. She also gave me hot water to shave in, in a morning and I could have a wash in hot water in the farmhouse.
She was an oldish person, she was getting on a bit, and there was a lot of the farm work she couldn’t do. Part of the farm was broken down and dilapidated in a lot of ways and there were certain jobs that I could do and which I did do and this little girl had a gramophone which she warmed up and she had one particular record that she played over and over again. It came to the time when the gramophone wouldn’t wind up and she was so disappointed because she couldn’t play this record. So her mother said to me “Do you have any idea about gramophones, could you mend it for her?” And I said “I’ll have a look at it for her, I don’t know.” So I stripped it down and I was able to do something with it and I got it to work again and she was able to wind it up and she was so delighted that she could wind it up and play her music again that she liked so much and that special record that she had, I think it had something to do with her father or something.
We stayed at Berinnes right the way through the winter of1939 and the start of 1940 and I remember it was bitterly cold and it snowed something terrible and the snow was really deep. Sometimes we had trouble getting the men up to the Ragino line to get them to work and in those days the road were very narrow and they were cobblestone roads and there was no footpaths or edges the roads just went off the roads into a field there was no fences or hedges or anything like that. And it was so very difficult keeping the wagon on the road in those icy and snowy conditions and running along the side of the road was the sewage gutters were all the sewage used to run to the sewage works.
It wasn’t covered up or anything it was just a long trough channel that used to run along both sides of the road. In northern France in those days, I thought things were very primitive in England, but in there they were much worse than in England. And toilets were just, well there wasn’t any toilets, it was just a hole in the road, where you used to just use it as it was, it was very primitive the sanitation, but we managed. There was a lot of soldiers who died with the cold, and it is amazing that any of us lived through it really, it was a bitter winter.
But we managed those conditions right the way through until the beginning of May 1940, when the German army broke through Belgium into France and they cut us off at the Ragino line. I got an order from the officer to take my vehicle and go back to the barracks and pick up food and petrol and anything else that was useful and get down to Bologne in France. And then I had to set fire to what was left of the barracks to burn everything up so that the Germans couldn’t get hold of it. This is what I did. We left the Magino line and I loaded the vehicle up and I had another lad with me who was used to using a rifle
And in those days they used to be German snipers in trees and they were trying to cut off all the British soldiers who were trying to get back or down to the coast, especially drivers who they though were transporting wagons full of soldiers, in my case it was full of petrol, food and clothing, that sort of thing.
Of course by the time we got away to Bologne it was getting dark so we travelled so far into the night until we got to just outside Armantees, and we pulled up alongside a farm at the side of the road and we thought we’d stay there the night. So we went into the farm and there was nobody there, the farmer and his wife and all his family had gone and left it just as it was, in fact there was the remains of a fire in the fireplace that was still hot. There was food and all sorts left inside the house.
So I backed the lorry between two haystacks and covered it with a hay and went inside the farmhouse and helped ourselves, well we hadn’t had anything since early morning, we made ourselves coffee and there was French bread and allsorts of things there and we had a bit of a meal and then we had a couple of hours sleep on the floor in front of the fire.
Before it got light we got the lorry out and set off again down through France to Bologne, but we hadn’t got very far when I came across a bridge that went over the railway lines that had been blown up by the Germans. The bridge was no longer there The road ended at my side of the railway, the question was how was I going to get over, there was no bridge no road nothing. The only way was to drive down the embankment go over the railway lines and then drive up the embankment on the other side.
Well I had a good vehicle and it was powerful, and it was a four wheel drive, so I put it into four wheel drive and set off down the embankment and across the railway lines but I never thought I would get up the other side as it was steep.
You can imagine I was in a bit of a state when I got up the other side and in normal circumstances you wouldn’t have attempted it, but in wartime and when your life depended upon it you had to do all sorts of things. Anyway I had to think of my mate Johnny Quail and I had to get him home as well as my self, there was lots of times when all we thought about was getting home, there was several times when I thought I wouldn’t see Greys Gran again.
We got about a mile past the bridge and we came across hundreds of refugees all on the road and they were pushing barrows and wheeling bicycles with bags and things with all there belongings and there were old gentlemen and women who could hardly walk and they were fleeing away from the Germans just the same as us, all they were interested in was getting as far into south France as possible.
We couldn’t get passed them because of the narrow roads and they were taking all the road and they didn’t have anywhere to go, because they would have to go into the gutter. We decided to join them, so I stopped the vehicle and I could speak a little bit of French or I could make myself known. So I told some of these old people if they moved around the back of the vehicle they could have a ride down as far as Amantees, so we had about fifteen old people and children in the back of the wagon, all our stuff was piled high at the front.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.