- Contributed by
- Brian Wilkinson
- People in story:
- Frank Wilkinson
- Location of story:
- Normanton, Europe and Far East
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 March 2005
The following account was written by my father, Frank Wilkinson, recollecting his WW II experiences. It was written shortly before he died in 1992. Parts 2 & 3 follow as separate stories.
WW II itinerary of 14701281 (Wilkinson, Frank) — Part 1
In 1938 I was 27 years old and living in Normanton, West Riding of Yorkshire where I volunteered for work in assembling and fitting gas masks for civvies. Then did a bit of LDV preliminaries on the grammar school football pitch. Armour, one broomstick, marching etc.
This sort of feverish activity did not last long but gas masks continued. I qualified for 3 — an ordinary common one, then later a Civilian Service one and then a Services one.
As outbreak of war approached there was hectic preparation at Council Offices, packing and labelling of records and vacation of space to accommodate Civil Defence. I had to take charge of Financial Records, Files, etc.
I was due to marry on 6th September but War, declared on 3rd September, meant cancelled honeymoon but a special concession of 1 day off for wedding.
On 3rd we had to report to Council Offices for “sandbagging fatigue”. The sand was reclaimed ashes from council tips, the bags were fairly open hessian and it absolutely teemed down.
Hoist soggy bag, thick juice flowed up arms, down armpits and everywhere else. My joy was complete as I saw, pipe in mouth, smirking, a Councillor who seemed highly amused.
Wedding Day, carrying gas mask, turned out lovely, although I had been handling a ton of coal delivered that morning to our new home. Decorators had to do a rush job, which they did and celebrated by spreading dried peas etc., under the bed sheet.
Life settled happily and by 1940 I had transferred my voluntary activity to the Auxiliary Fire Service. 1 boiler suit, 1 tin hat, 1 pair wellies and 1 hatchet. Turn out at every air raid warning and home on the ‘All Clear’. Fatigue seemed worse a full 24 hours after call out. 36 hours training was necessary and involved ‘Climax’ pump operating, hose running and coupling, ladder drill, roof work, fireman’s lifts etc. 1 chap came to the ‘station’ and didn’t leave for 36 hours and was most upset not to have qualified as a Fireman. Equipment, 1 Morris Fire Engine (full time brigade), 1 Climax Pump (large) and 1 Climax Pump (small) and 1 GUY M/V lorry known as ‘Spitfire’ and 1 Ford V8 Pilot Support Car. Highlight call was with the ‘Spitfire’ and Climax to a chimney fire on Pontefract Road and we had to door knock to find where it was. It had been choked out.
Before turning out, of course, I had to see wife and daughter safe down the cellar.
Stand-by time at the station was spent either playing the piano (honky-tonk quality) snooker or snacks. This until the onset of the NFS, which brought a promotion to Control Room Officer with shiny metal epaulettes.
All this time I served because I was first in a “Deferred” occupation at the Office followed by a “Reserved” occupation. When this showed signs of terminating my wife took up paid work first in the Food Office and then as a clerk in the Electricity Office, with the Council.
Eventually towards the end of l943 my Call-up notice came telling me to report to “Brancepeth” Castle, County Durham on Jan. 6th which I duly did and woke up to my 33rd birthday to Reveille. What an awakening. Stuffy barrack room, top bed on a 3-tier bunk. We recruits
were received into the Main Hall of the Castle, big open fireplaces both ends fired with full size Pit props. Spam sandwich and mug of Cocoa. We never saw that Hall again.
Made a trio with a man of similar age and an 18 year old from Hull and when I sought to find the nearest Methodist Church they volunteered to walk 2 miles or so with me. We helped each other to settle.
My various items of kit, jabs and aptitude tests followed over the first two weeks, then followed square bashing, rifle drill, bayonet drill, trench digging and crawling with rifle.
This resulted in their conclusion that I was NOT a fighting man, my conclusion that you must be fully fit to be able to report ‘sick’ and wear “Full Battle Dress” and the reward ‘medicine and light duties’.
I was glad to get over the first 6 weeks and was then posted to ‘Signals’ at Catterick. Further tests of temperament and attitude made them put me to Cipher Training, my ability to concentrate being the key.
However, before I could be trusted to secrets of Cipher I must go on an NCO’s course for a number of weeks.
Catterick — we were housed much more comfortably in Hoare-Belisha “Spiders” designed by H-B, a politician, and all the prospective NCO’s were mature age some even older than me. It was now nearly March 1944 and mornings were not so dark and cold.
We had fun! We had to take square drill on our own, watched of course by Regular Instructors.
One chap with a weak voice let us get out of earshot and with Arms at the Trail (arms length and horizontal) left us heading straight for the corrugated cover at one end of the Square, and you can imagine the clatter as the muzzles hit the metal.
At firing practise I did very well and got 8 holes out of 5 shots on my target, and the grouping was good enough to pass me. The man on my left had aimed at my target and had to wait a week to retake his test. “Exercise ME” was interesting. We were each given an Ordnance map and a Compass, sent out in an enclosed lorry driven out into the countryside, dropped individually at wide intervals and then find our way to a rendezvous at say 3 p.m. Failure to get there meant find your own way back. I failed to rendezvous but eventually got to Reeth where I found there would be a bus to Richmond at 8 p.m. and then hopefully some transport to camp. Fish & Chips and a cup of tea in Reeth helped but it was a long wait to 8 p.m. Arrived in Richmond late but found another bus to camp but unfortunately the lad behind me had had too much drink, the bus shook a bit, he exploded and I got the benefit. It was horrible. Just to put the finishing touch, I was called into the Guard Room to explain my late return, they smelt my uniform and suggested I’d been drinking but after a lot of sarcasm and a few dark threats I was sent to my billet. My pals greeted me to say that I was detailed for Church Parade in the morning but they all lent a hand, cleaned my uniform, ‘blancoed’ my belt and gaiters. Got to bed at last, got ready for Church Parade at the Methodist Church, my responsibility to report to the Signals Corporal outside the Church. Couldn’t find him, went into Service which I enjoyed only to find ‘I had been put on a charge for failing to attend Church Parade”. I was marched into the Orderly Room and when questioned claimed that I had been there. “You’re sure of that, Wilkinson?”, “Yes Sir”. “Right, ask Lt.?? to come in. He was at the Service and will question you”. It turned out alright in the end.
Finished at Catterick, passed my exams, was made a Lance Corporal and posted to Cipher School at East Dulwich.
While there my father-in-law died on a weekend when all leave had been cancelled and my address changed to BWEF (British Western Expeditionary Forces). I tried to get compassionate leave, was sent from Dulwich to Signals HQ, from Signals to the War Office and eventually was given a 72 hour Pass and travel warrant and was warned that, in view of the cancellation order, all the CMP’s will stop me to see my documentation. No one stopped me and off I went to my in-laws’ home at Sandal, Wakefield.
Reported back to Dulwich, completed the Cipher course and was ceremoniously sworn to secrecy and posted to 43 WESSEX DIV. at Tenterden (Kent) although officially just BWEF. Spring 1944 was glorious and the streets and lanes in Tenterden a mass of flowers — primroses, fruit blossom, wild flowers — bliss. After Signal Office night duty, a wash, shave, breakfast and then out into the fields. Feeling a Philistine treading on primroses, found a nice sunny spot laid down and slept. It was idyllic. Tudor Rose Café for coffee and scones and back to base for mid-day meal.
Too good to last and were uprooted and in a convoy moved into a marshalling area, which turned out to be London, West Ham Greyhound Stadium. The convoy journey there was fantastic with people lining the route cheering us and offering sweets, drinks, just anything and everything they had. It struck me that we were probably already better fed than them. As we neared London we became impressed by the number of captive balloons.
The stadium accommodation was rank upon rank of 3-tier bunks, some of which protected by corrugated iron roofing. On our first night in West Ham we were deafened by the box-barrage and the peppering of shrapnel on the iron roof. Add searchlights to this lot, and the drone of planes it was impressive we thought as we lay on our bunks fully clothed wearing our tin hats, we soon realised that tin hats wouldn’t protect us much. However, we began to crow about the box-barrage bringing down our planes, until after a few days, we realised it was most likely V1’s with fuel spent, coming down and exploding, not reassuring!
After a few days we got the whisper of D+11, our intended move. We were taken by bus to Tilbury Docks and embarked on the ‘Fort Esperance’, one of the American Liberty ships, welded not riveted. As expected we were assured the welding wouldn’t stand up to depth charges and mines.
In our hold there were 364 of us, some 80 to 100 in shallow hung hammocks, and the rest of us bedrolls edge to edge on the lower hatch covers. There were one or two blue lights to help us grope our way. Sea-sickness or nature made visits necessary and you can imagine the crawlings, groans,
cursings etc., but we managed. One satisfaction, as we moved down the Thames Estuary, was a V1 passing fairly low over us, moving in the same direction as us. The clever ones of us, realised that the V1 had probably had its wings ‘tipped’ by one of our fighters and was now heading back to enemy occupied territory.
We moved out to sea and we were told that the captain would be firing our 4” gun (our main protection). A flash, an explosion, smell of cordite, a shell tearing the air apart and a poor seabird disappearing in a cloud of feathers. Next morning, on deck, we saw we were part of a huge convoy of ships of all kinds and sizes guarded by a cruiser, 2 destroyers and smaller but faster naval craft.
It seemed a very long trip but watching the convoy was interesting and an occasional one couldn’t keep up, so was told it could leave the convoy but it would have to make its own way.
Later in the voyage we could see what looked like a near wreck tethered to a line of fence posts. This didn’t make sense at all but eventually it transpired that it was part of the Mulberry Harbour, being towed into position by one of the ships already filled with concrete ready for scuttling when in position. As we neared land the sea got rougher and stayed so for 6 days during which time we had to ride at anchor; all the others doing the same. Behind us, further off shore, were two battleships, ‘Duke of York’ and another functioning as artillery against enemy shore emplacements. Add to this, spotter aircraft — small biplanes and Lysanders, exploding depth charges and German magnetic mines, life was never dull. Sea explosions brought up stunned fish, which were cleverly caught in empty dry-ration tins converted to colanders. Lucky anglers managed to get the ships galley to cook them. Our food in this period was ships biscuits, ration chocolate, self-heating soup, the latter quite welcome. The heating was achieved by a tube built-in, activated by removing the tip, having first pierced two air holes. Hot soup poured into enamel mug and enjoyed. Soup tin was holed at the bottom to ensure its sinking when pitched overboard.
Less enjoyable were the following facts:-
1. Our Reconnaissance Unit, housed amidships with transport on deck and transport below, was mined, set on fire and was a total loss of men and equipment. There were other losses too.
2. Spotter aircraft used bulldozed landing strips, which were very dusty and so disclosed their locations. Dust was kept down by spraying with heavy fuel oil, which also impregnated the air and fell at night filling our ships holds and our lungs. As the sun rose, so did the temperature and the fumes.
Six days of this (now D+17) it was safe to land so far as the waves were concerned. Our vehicles, together with operational staff were transferred to LST’s (Landing Ships Tanks) forced on to the beach, ramp doors were dropped, and vehicles driven off, but carefully because they were heavily plastered with water-proofing gunge which had to be stripped off as soon as possible. The area was fairly firm sand dunes, and we on foot had followed to help with the de-proofing. It was dusk and soon dark as we worked but I had time to notice in lulls between battle noises a bird singing beautifully (of course a Nightingale) and in the low dune grasses there were glow worms. That was the “Peace of God that passed all understanding”. It was beautiful.
Now we were functional.
We had landed at Courseulles, moved a short way inland unhindered and located around Caen. We could see Caen being bombed by our aircraft, the Halifaxes and Lancasters flying low
in line astern, through the flac, dropping their bombs and turning for home. Real bravery!
Our battalions were engaged in the battle for Mt. Pincon, the dominating high land. It proved very difficult for them but we were back a little way at H.Q.
Montgomery had boxed us in with 25 pounders to do a ‘stomp’. The blast from the guns shook everyone physically but it was a re-assuring noise. German aircraft came looking for the guns and sprayed the area and our signal office caught one or two rounds. Headway was soon made and we moved to Argentan. This was another heavy onslaught and we had a lovely fireworks display as arms dumps were set on fire. Whose? Tracer bullets are exciting in the dark. Every 5th bullet is a tracer.
We had an evening field concert in this area with George Formby in person. We all had our rifles and once or twice an enemy aircraft flew over. Everyone had a go without effect but I felt afterwards we were a bigger risk to ourselves.
Another memorable event was a field ‘Communion Service’ conducted by the duty Padre. Amid thistles, cowpats etc., we knelt and received the Bread and Wine. Another strengthening.
As we followed our advance we saw evidence of our ‘Typhoon’ raids. They attacked enemy convoys with their under-wing rockets, knocked out the first and last mobiles which stopped the rest to become sitting targets. Once saw a German midget submarine little damaged but totally out of its element.
Things were getting desperate for ‘Gerry’ as he tried to retreat back to Germany. We even came across a piece of horse-drawn artillery on its side with the animals dead.
It was a hot late summer, and our khaki shirts got hard and shiny with sweat and our battle dresses were smelly, but we had to manage. Our water, drinking and washing was from our water-cart and used carefully. To heat water for shaving etc., we had a ‘dehydrated potato’ tin filled with sand and soaked with petrol. Up to 10 or so used it in turn — it was thick at the end. Our mess tin mug etc., washing up was similar with the lazy ones just swilling there tins around without bothering to clear uneaten food, bacon rind etc., Foul!
One late evening we took some heated water behind the camouflage netting and stripped off for a much needed wash down. Three young girls arrived on bikes and we made haste to cover our modesty. The girls were quiet but reluctant to leave, we were filthy, so we hurriedly but thoroughly washed. We ourselves saw later what their interest was. One of our D.R.’s, an Australian, was a sun-bather and he too was having a wash-down. He was deeply tanned except for the ‘white’ critical part and in the fading light it must have seemed weird.
I can’t remember place sequences after this period as we cleared France, Belgium and much of Holland as we moved towards Germany. It was surprising to see mobile 88mm guns in emplacements on both sides of the main road being used as heavy artillery. Yet here they were obviously in good order but abandoned.
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