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Fred Caldwell's War Story Pt 2

by CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire

You are browsing in:

Archive List > World > France

Contributed by 
CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire
People in story: 
Fred Caldwell, Alec Borrey, Sandy Dadidson
Location of story: 
England, France,Holland, Germany
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5234104
Contributed on: 
21 August 2005

As we were already trained soldiers and qualified parachutists, we were taught to handle explosives and weapons which were not standard issues. Our first lesson in handling the Colt .45 pistol did not inspire confidence in our instructor who inadvertently fired the weapon and nearly shot his foot off.

Early in 1944 the regiment relocated to a tented area near Fairford in Gloucestershire, which was fairly adjacent to nearby airfields. We were issued palliases which we had to fill with straw to sue as mattresses and each night we ran a lighted candle along the ridgepole of the tent in an effort to reduce the plague of earwigs. The ablutions were primitive, consisting of wooden troughs in an open area with a corrugated iron roof.

The aim of our unit at this time was to drop into occupied France in groups of about 20 or 30, set up base camps in the forests and, in cooperation with the Maquis (the French resistance forces) arrange for supply drops of weapons and equipment. In this way the German supply lines to the fighting zone could be disrupted.

In June or July we were briefed for an operation, I think it was called Houndsworth. However a previous group had been betrayed to the Germans by someone in the French resistance, had been rounded up as they landed, then interrogated and shot and it was because of this incident that our group was delayed. We were relocated to the Morvan area so we didn’t go until August 1944. The drop was timed to happen about 2am, so the previous afternoon a lorry arrived and casually dumped a pile of parachutes on the grass outside our tents from which we selected whichever one we wanted. After dark we were transported to Fairford airfield and climbed aboard our aircraft, a Stirling. There were 20 of us sat on the floor, no windows, in the pitch dark and encumbered with a large parachute and a kitbag containing weapons and rations and other equipment strapped to our right leg. (Perhaps I should explain that the kitbag had an indentation which fitted your leg and was secured by means of quick release toggles and was also secured to your waist by a 20 foot line. The idea was that after leaving the plane and the ‘chute opened, the toggles were released and the kitbag lowered to the extent of the rope. To have landed with the kitbag still attached would have almost certainly resulted in a broken leg.)

After a considerable delay, the aircraft revved up and attempted to take off but obviously something was not right and it came to a halt. After another delay we were off loaded and taken to the NAAFI canteen. All this was not doing our nerves much good and we hadn’t even taken off.

Eventually the RAF got it fixed and off we went. Strictly speaking we were not allowed to smoke, but we did and put the ash and dog ends in our helmets on which we sat. We didn’t fancy getting splinters of flak in our tender parts. It was pitch dark, there was no moon. When we arrived at the DZ (dropping zone) and the correct recognition signal was given we jumped into the unknown. There was no sensation of falling; with the slipstream from four engines blasting away at you it was momentary chaos and then everything goes quiet as the ‘chute opens and you lower your kitbag. Being pitch dark and unable to see, it’s as though you are suspended in space, unmoving. The advice given in those circumstances is to stare straight ahead to try and distinguish the horizon line which may give some indication of how far off the ground you are. Believe me, I stared!

It goes without saying that the overriding emotion during the descent, at least in my case, was fear and it didn’t help when I realised that I was drifting well away from the lights laid out to mark the DZ. Until I landed I was helpless and totally at the mercy of whatever fate awaited me in the darkness below.

A considerable period of time seemed to have passed by and I thought I should have landed by then, but there I hung in my harness. The descent should only have taken a few minutes if the pilot had dropped us at the right height. Eventually, by straining my eyes, I realised I had indeed landed, but in the branches of a large tree. I had no idea how long I had been hanging there, I hadn’t heard a sound, which is not surprising when your heart is in your mouth and your guts are so far up your body they’re blocking your ears! I cut the line to my kitbag and started to swing in my harness till I was able to grab a large branch. I hit the harness quick release and climbed down the tree. On reaching the ground I started to panic when I couldn’t find my kitbag anywhere. This had my rations, clothing, maps and my personal weapon — a 15 round .30 M1 carbine. This was standard issue. It was light, had a folding stock and was semi automatic. It was of American manufacture and together with a Colt .45 pistol and a dagger, constituted our personal armament.

I came to the conclusion that if the kitbag wasn’t on the ground it was still up in the tree so, driven by desperation, back up I went and, much to my joy, found it hanging by its line from a large branch. By the time I got it to the ground and sorted out I was exhausted and just wanted to be back in my tent in England with the earwigs.

After getting sorted out both mentally and physically, I joined up with the rest of the group. We spent the night in a Maqui encampment. The next morning, just as dawn was breaking, I was required to go and retrieve my parachute which was blowing in the wind at the top of this enormous tree, advertising our presence to the whole of the German high command. Fortunately we were in a remote area and it hadn’t been spotted. I kept that ‘chute and eventually sold it to a tailor in Brussels.

We had some jeeps which had previously been dropped by parachute. It was early days of parachuting heavy equipment and was not always successful. The jeeps were fitted with Vickers ‘K’ light machine guns. The magazine fitted on top of the breech and held a hundred rounds. These particular weapons were ex RAF and had originally been fitted to bi-planes but had become obsolete. However, they suited us very well except that under sustained firing they tended to shake loose from the mounting. We made camp in a forest near a village which, I think was called Chalaux, not far from a small town called Dun-le-Place. This town was subsequently destroyed by the Germans and the inhabitants were shot and the survivors sent to Germany as forced labourers due too the SAS and French resistance activities in the area. We constructed the tents out of container parachutes. One of them was stretched tightly between the trees and an inner one, which was fairly loose, draped and made for a reasonably watertight abode. Our job was to disrupt supplies going by road or rail to the front and this we did by means of ambush on the main convoy routes to the front and the use of gun cotton charges and plastic explosive to blow railway lines. Eventually, as the army moved inland, we made our way out to the American sector at a town called Orleans.

We were subsequently used for liaison with the Intelligence Corps for a short period and then reconnaissance. This was a very hairy period patrolling the gap between the British and Canadians on the one hand and the retreating Germans on the other and we discovered what it was like to be ambushed. Of course it was always the point vehicle which got taken out.

At about 8 o’clock on a cold morning on the 14th April, 1945, our jeep was designated point. I was rear gunner, the driver was Alec Borrey and Sandy Dadidson was our sergeant. As we slowly made our way along a country lane in Germany the right front wheel activated an anti tank mine and the jeep blew up killing Sandy and hurling the driver out of the vehicle with the force of the explosion. The jeep folded in two burning furiously and I was momentarily trapped amongst the debris. I managed to free myself and jumped clear but of course my clothing was burning having been saturated with petrol from the extra tanks we carried. By this time some of the other men had arrived and put out the flames. I was flown home with other wounded men and taken to Park Prewett burns unit in Basingstoke.

When I was discharged from hospital, I arrived back at my unit in Colchester just in time to take part in the disbandment of the SAS regiments. I remained in the army a further three years just marking time until I was discharged in September 1947 having served 7 years

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