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D-Day to VE Day: A Driver's Tale (Part 2)

by Ralph Turner

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Ralph Turner
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Ralph Turner
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16 November 2003

The 27th July was when the enemy made a strong counter-attack south of Caen, so everyone was busy, including us taking convoys of everything up to the guns. This was the day I first witnessed the death of a mate, he was one of our despatch riders, we were passing through St. Aubin under intense shellfire and there was one wagon between him and me; he must have received a direct hit as he and his bike just vanished in a cloud of smoke, nothing left at all. This shook us all up for a time.

Soon after this I went up to the guns by a new route after the hundreds of mines had been cleared. This was by Lebisey and through Lebisey Wood, which had been smashed to matchwood, then we went past the Caen factory area and over the river by. the new "Tay Bridge".

August had now arrived, the sun had returned and the Mulberry Harbour had been put together on the beaches, we never did see the Mulberry as our dumps were now well away from the beach area for safety.

On the 6th we entered the city of Caen for the first time, Caen the Capital of Normandy, once a proud city, now a charred ruin. Never have I seen such utter destruction and the sickly smell of death pervades everything. The rubble was in thirty feet high heaps, 5,000 civilians were killed in this city we came to liberate? The only building standing was the beautiful Cathedral where the remaining population took refuge while the bloody battles for the city took place.

The very next night over a thousand heavy bombers attacked Thury Harcourt where the enemy is defending his positions strongly. Six hundred Royal Canadian Air Force bombers continued the attack the next day, we saw two or three crash in flames. During the battle for Thury Harcourt we took over 900 wagon loads of ammo up to the gun positions. At this time the 1st Canadian Army were attacking slowly towards Falaise and on the 13th the Americans reached Argentan, south of Falaise, the next day the Canadians resumed the offensive in conjunction with the Americans from Argentan.

My worst night of the war started at about eight o'clock in the evening of the 18th of August, we were moving the platoon location from Pierre-sur-la-Dan to quite near the little village of Conteville; through Caen, just off the Falaise road. It was at this time that the enemy was caught in the Falaise pocket and were trying to escape through the Falaise Gap. We were quite near our new location at about nine-thirty when it seemed as if all the lights in the world had been switched on.

The convoy stopped and overhead we heard enemy planes, the flares they had dropped formed a giant triangle. We, unluckily, were on the main road right in the centre of it, you could see everything just like daylight. We all turned out our little lights and dived for the cover of a wood. Next came the screaming Stukas raining bombs everywhere; incendiaries, high-explosive, anti-personnel and all kinds. We never reached the wood, so laid as close to the ground as we could, my mouth was filled with dust, the bombs were so close, I can not describe the fear we felt, just praying that we might live, the dirt and dust was settling all over us.

The raid lasted about twenty minutes, those twenty minutes seemed like twenty years to us. As the planes moved away, we staggered back to the road, now the darkness seemed more intense, we found our wagons still all runnable even if riddled with shrapnel. Ammunition dumps, tanks, wagons and haystacks were fiercely burning all round us, so we decided to move off down the road a bit, but we found our way barred by giant bomb craters big enough to hold two wagons. We stopped there right next to a lovely old house which was burning away for all it was worth.

Dazed by the attack we were not sure what to do so we spread the wagons round a field and laid down under the hedges for the rest of the night. The next morning at first light we had a roll-call, everyone of our platoon was safe, what a relief. By now it was getting light and we could see what damage had been caused, about two hundred yards away a tank was still burning and further over another R.A.S.C. platoon had been set on fire and suffered many casualties. In the wood we had tried to get to an ammunition convoy was still burning and ammo exploding, it was a good job we never made it because most of their drivers had been killed.

At nine o'clock we made a diversion round the craters and soon arrived at our new location which was only a mile from where we were attacked. The meadow which was to be our wagon park contained several bomb craters. Many dead bodies were still in the area, not having been moved for fear of them being booby trapped. Four days later we moved again, this time to St. Pierre sur la Dives, we hardly settled in as two days later we moved back to La sur du Rouvres where we are now attached to the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats. Fierce fighting was now taking place to close the Falaise Gap, and it was closed shortly after by the Canadian Armoured Division.

On the 25th August, a Friday, we drove through the little town of Livarot which had hardly been touched by the fighting. We moved forward again the next day, about a twenty mile advance just east of Liseux, we drove through the city and although badly damaged the Cathedral is a lovely old building. Evroux has now been freed and this same day we hear that Honfleur, on the coast has been captured. The last day of August found us in yet another place, this time in an apple orchard near the village of Cormeilles.

On the 2nd of September we moved once again to Bourge Archard, we have abandoned digging in now, we are moving so fast, we just put up a bivvy under the trees, much more comfortable, no dirt down your neck every night. The apple trees here are all covered with lovely bunches of mistletoe, I bet they are busy here at Christmas time. I only stayed here for one night, glad we didn't dig in a couple of us were sent to do a petrol detail, we helped to move a F.M.A. (Field Marshalling Area.)

On the 4th we passed through the little town of Pont Ademere, it was market day, crowds of people about all waving and cheering us. We had our first glimpse of the lovely River Seine today. It was crossed at four points between Paris and the sea about four days ago, and the Marne was crossed at Lagny the next day. The day before that, De Gaulle entered Paris and we hear that we are over the Somme at Amiens and the Canadians entered Dieppe with no opposition. Things are really moving now, Brussels has been freed and Antwerp, Louvain and Lille are all free again.

This fast move has created problems with the petrol supplies, we are now having a long haul to fetch the petrol, I have been doing nearly 300 miles a day there and back, very tiring.

By the 7th the 2nd Army were entering Ypres and crossing the Albert Canal, the Canadians entered Ostend the same day. It was on the 5th of September when we actually crossed the Seine at the lovely city of Rouen with its Cathedral standing above the ruins of the City. Our new location was facing Le Havre, the town our guns are attacking, as we lay in our bivvies we heard the terrific bombing of the City by the R.A.F. The drone of heavy bombers was in the air continually.

We moved again on the 8th to Benieres, we left there at five in the afternoon bound for Bayeaux,! quite a long trip, we picked up ammo, returned the next day arriving at our location at about nine in the evening after a round trip of well over 300 miles. We passed through Rouen, Troarn, and Caen and when we got back the R.A.F. were still at it. After Le Havre had fallen we went to a P.O.W. cage there and picked up a load of prisoners. We took these prisoners, guarded by French F.F.I. to the docks at Dieppe, as we passed through French towns and villages the people showed their feelings by sticking out their tongues, throwing stones, turning hoses on them , all sorts of humiliating scenes appeared. We had orders to keep up a fast speed, partly for fear of them jumping off, but mostly for fear of civvies lynching the poor wretches.

In the middle of the month we started a job which again took us as far as Bayeaux, which we reached by nightfall on the tenth, we kipped down in our wagons for the night, no Luftwaffe came back as far as this now. The next day we picked up supplies, ammo, and petrol then travelled by way of Troarn, Caen, Beuzville and on to Rouen. By now it was dark again so we kipped down for the night and the next day completed our trip travelling via Amiens and Bauphume to Arras where we unloaded our wagons.
By the 19th the platoon location had moved up to Londiniers, but I was still out on details day after day, carting petrol 200 miles a day, there and back. This was just the job for me, bags of driving, I thrive on this work well away from H.Q., you are more or less your own boss.

The detail on the 22nd took me into another new country for the first time, we helped to move a civilian interment camp from St. Omer up to Ghent in Belgium. My first impression of Belgium is that it is very much like home, more so than France. The people were all very friendly, the best country so far, only the second so we wait to see what comes next.

The location moved again on 27th September, this time to St. Nicholas, near Bethune. I only spent one night there as I was still out on petrol detail but only doing about a hundred miles a day now. On one of these trips we passed through Vimy on the Vimy ridge and we had a good view of the huge monument to the Canadians who were killed in the first war. It is a massive memorial to those gallant soldiers.

On the 1st of October we moved up a bit nearer the front, but after all the work my wagon had done it decided to pack up so I went into workshops with it, I moved with the Workshops Platoon, passing through Antwerp to the workshops location which was at a little place called Keerbergen, our first location in Belgium, the people are all very kind to us.

The platoon is now attached to the Polish Corps of the 1st Canadian Army. It was here in Keerbergen that I got a few souvenirs and the first ice-cream of the year, homemade in a little cafe, it was very tasty. October gave me my best break so far, I moved, still with workshops to Herenthals, I helped each day in "shops" until they decided my wagon was worn out, so had to be evacuated. I was not the only one, there were three of our wagons that had been on continuous details, it never bothered us, but we wore the wagons out.

A Liberty wagon went into Mechelen or Malines, depending on which language you are using, on the 15th. It is a lovely little town, the scene of much bitter fighting in the war; not this one, the first one. We all had a good look round, some of us went to a large dance hall, some to a bar, and we all met together at ten for the journey back. I had my photograph taken at a photographers in Herenthals, in fact we all did, on our way to the Palace Cinema where we had four francs worth of the "Lone Ranger" all Hey-Ho Silver, just like a Saturday matinee before the war. In fact come to think of it - it was a Saturday matinee, no wonder we were surrounded by kids.

The very next day, Sunday the 22nd was my last day in workshops, I was given, or rather, we had to sign for new wagons, still Bedfords they must have ordered thousands of these three toners, anyway we went back to the platoon who were at a little village called Beersee, did this mean there was a sea of beer somewhere? If so we never found it! It is quite near Turnhout and we are billeted in a cafe, very comfortable. Just over the road is a little general store where you can buy all sorts of things, I went over nearly every night if we were back in time, to buy some toffee - homemade and delicious.

A lot of V1 Flying Bombs passed over us while we were here, many fell on Antwerp, trying to stop us using the docks. In fact the first V2 rocket fell on Antwerp on 12th October and the first V1 on the 23rd of October. In all 1 ,214 rockets landed in the city, and 302 more in the dock area. All together over 15,000 civilians were killed or wounded, later on, on the 12th of December the "Rex Cinema" was hit, 242 soldiers on short leave were killed and over 250 civilians also lost their lives.

On the 29th of October we thought we had done a lot of driving, so for a change we walked into Turnhout, I walked with "Ginger" Turner from Liverpool, we had walked about a mile when a Don R. (despatch rider) pulled up saying "Bloody hell! You don't want to walk all that way, jump on", so we all three hung on to this Royal Enfield, what a ride, our hands ached for weeks after grimly hanging on. Ginger said "We shall walk back if it's ten bloody miles," but it was only just over four.

Anyway, while there we looked all round town and ended up at the Garrison Theatre where we saw a Russian Propaganda film, "Song of Russia". The last day of the month I was working out of the F.M.C. at the small town of Retie, We were still moving compo packs, which offered a wide range of tinned food including M&V (Meat & Veg) corned beef, spam, tinned bacon, peaches, fruit salad, currant duff, treacle pud, biscuits, butter, jam, chocolate, 98 cigarettes, four sheets of loo paper per man. There were seven varieties of compo packs, and we carted them all.

The 1st: of November 1944 was the day I entered Holland for the first time, the land of water and windmills, we went up to Breda with supplies for the 53rd who have just moved up here. We went up again a couple of days later, this time we went via Merksplaas and Hogstraat, crossing two bridges on the way, both Bailey bridges called, Lemon Bridge and Hogsnorton Bridge.

I spent my 21st birthday on the 6th November in the normal way, working until quite late in the evening and thinking, "I shall make up for this when this lots over."

Gales were blowing the next day and we had to make detours to get up to the guns at Breda, so many trees had blown down and blocked the roads. We moved our location again on the 11th November, this time we were billeted in a large Nut and Bolt factory in the town of Helmond in Holland. It is quite a nice little town but the billet is the worst one we have had so far, if you don't count the slit trenches in Normandy. The windows are all broken, no light or heating, of course this was soon altered with a few improvised fires in tins which the wind kept blowing out through the glassless windows.

Sunday the 15th was a lucky day for me, I was out on a petrol detail when a couple of enemy planes flew over Helmond and bombed our billet. When we got back we saw that what little glass there was had all been blown out, everything was covered with dust and debris. Luckily none of our mob had been in but just at the back of the factory two men from another mob had been killed, and several wounded as they were queuing up for their Sunday dinner.

We had a shock on the morning of the 28th of November, two of us were driving alongside the Canal towards Beek and Donk where the guns are and down came a jet plane, he dropped two or three bombs in the canal before crashing about 200 yards in front of us in a ball of fire, after he had been hit by a nearby ack-ack battery. The only damage we sustained was an involuntary wagon wash and a couple of bomb splinters through our tarpaulins, at least when we got back we had a bit of a tale to tell, especially as we learned later that this was the first jet to be downed over the battle area.
Our wagon park was now near the deer park, well away from the factory since the raid.

On the first day of December some fool put his lights on to see where to park and then a couple of enemy bombers flew down and shot up the wagon park with cannon fire, we were very lucky as none of our wagons were hit, just as well because we were all loaded up with ammo and petrol, two or three empty wagons were set on fire, and a poor squaddie who was on guard was killed. To be continued.

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