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Bill's War

by bob_jenkins

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Bill Thomson
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08 June 2004

Bill Thomson c.1944

My father-in-law, Bill Thomson, was a territorial soldier with a Royal Artillery unit, based in Edinburgh, when the war started. They were immediately recalled from summer camp and mobilized, but it was weeks before they were assigned their first posting - the Orkneys. It was a pretty bleak and cheerless camp, so windy that the huts had to be tied down with steel cables. Bill remembered one particular night when he and two of his pals fancied a drink, but had no money. Fortunately, Bill had some savings stamps which he thought might do the trick. As they made their way through the camp however, he foolishly pulled them from the pocket of his battledress blouse, only to have them immediately snatched from his hand by the fierce wind - never to be seen again!
Later on, Bill was re-assigned to a searchlight battery at Dover. It wasn't a bad posting, but neither was it without incident because there were huge artillery pieces positioned nearby to provide counter battery fire and interdict German activity along the French coast. Similarly, the Germans on the opposite side of the channel had their guns ranged on Dover. A black cat which had adopted the barracks seemed to have an uncanny premonition of danger and whenever the cat got restless, the soldiers got ready to take cover. One afternoon, when Dover railway station was busy with male and female service personnel awaiting the train to London, an enemy shell arrived first and caused terrible carnage.
As the war progressed and the allied invasion of France led to the British and their allies fighting their way on through the low countries, casualties suffered by infantry units began to outstrip reserves and Bill was consequently transferred to the Black Watch regiment as an infantryman. After training on Exmoor through the winter of 1944, he was sent out to Germany amongst troops responsible for the clearing of the notorious Belsen concentration camp. In common with every other allied soldier who was there, he felt that he had witnessed something unimaginably evil.
Surprisingly, it didn't sour him against all Germans though, because after the war's end he was placed in charge of a working party of surrendered German soldiers. One of the prisoners pleaded desperately to be allowed a parole to be allowed to search for his wife and children who had lived nearby. He had not seen or heard from them for a very long time. Torn between his duty and his humanity, Bill reluctantly accepted the prisoner's word of honour that he would return, and then worried himself sick for the remainder of the day, cursing himself for being a sentimental fool. Happily however, the prisoner duly returned, elated and pitifully grateful, having found his family alive and well.
Bill was finally demobbed in 1947.

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