- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Patrick Withnall
- Location of story:
- Normandy, Holland
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 September 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Doreen Bennett on behalf of Patrick Withnall, the author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
I was 22 when I was called up on 17 January 1940. I can still remember spending my first night on the wooden floor of Andover Barracks and the journey into the heart of Salisbury Plain.
This was a journey that was to lead to a short spell as a dispatch rider in war torn London, this was during the period when the withdrawal from Dunkirk was taking place.
Next I joined the Glider Pilot Regiment, soloed on a Tiger Moth at Derby Airfield which was followed by qualifying as a pilot of heavy motor less aircraft at Brize Norton. All this is recorded in my pilots flying logbook which fortunately I still have.
It wasn’t long before things started to happen, sometimes in rather strange ways. Together with many others in the Glider Pilot Squadron I was dispatched to North Africa as the capture of Sicily was about to begin. We glider pilots travelled by sea, landed at Algiers and this was followed by a long train journey along the edge of the desert to Biserta. I was taken ill on the journey, jaundice I believe and it seems I became unconscious whilst travelling in this train of cattle wagons. I came round briefly and found myself in what seemed to be a tented desert hospital somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I can still remember being carried out into the open, placed on a wooden log which was positioned over a large pit which served as a toilet. I haven’t forgotten the flies either walking on my face, in my eyes and sometimes in my mouth. I really didn’t come to my senses until the battle for Sicily was over. It proved to be particularly bloody and the casualty rate was terrible. Still I was lucky, I wasn’t involved and I survived.
Next I found myself aboard a ship amongst a mixed bag of parachutists and glider pilots. We set sail for the Italian mainland. There were two ships. I was in the second one which was several hours behind the first. When we arrived at our destination Taranto, there was no sign of the leading vessel and I noticed that the harbour walls were blackened. Then we were quickly told the harbour mouth had been mined — the first ship was a complete wreck and all the 460 men on board were lost.
We were put to work and my first job was to help see that the double identity disks worn by the dead were separated, one for the official records and one to remain on the unfortunate men the Italians were carefully burying: not a pleasant job.
I went on to survive on D Day when I flew 16 Commandos into Normandy though the landing was rather tricky.
At Arnhem my co-pilot Ken T Davidson and I piloted a Horsa glider with 2 jeeps and six Poles aboard. We were fired at but it was a comfortable landing. The Poles went off at once to find the Bridge. Unfortunately they were ambushed and we found them all dead within the hour.
In 1992 I scripted “Silently to War” a video history of the Glider Pilot Regiment. It has a host of interviews including GP’s who landed on D Day and the civilians who greeted them. Much the same for the Dutch people at the battle of Arnhem. There is a lot to see, much of it little known. “Silently To War” lasts just over an hour and has plenty of archive footage. Surprisingly it seems unique in that there is a great deal of detail.
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