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At War With The Royal Engineers - 1945

by searcherjohnedwards

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
searcherjohnedwards
People in story: 
Bob Thurman, Bill Kerr, Lance Corporal Allen, Sgt Kitching, Sapper Willicombe
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A9002026
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

January 1945 opened with a move to new billets, in Viterbo, and the arrival of four Churchill tanks, two Arks, two AVRE’s (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) which were Churchill tanks built to carry a fascine. This was a roll of chestnut pale fencing, mounted on a ramp at the top of the tank that could be rolled into a gap to be crossed. They also received a Petard, which was a large-diameter gun that a projectile from the tank against concrete pill boxes, and finally a “Tabby”, an instrument which made it possible to drive tanks at night.
Being billeted near some hot springs brought advantages. Hot water was piped downhill from the springs to some home-made showers, and if the showers were placed a certain distance, found by experiment, from the springs, the water would be an ideal temperature.
On 21st March he went up in a spotter plane to look at the enemy-occupied Senio River. The pilot, never having flown that type of aeroplane before, wanted to find the speed at which it would stall. The experiment had the predictable result of making his passenger airsick! The flight had a purpose because he learned later that he was to be responsible for building the crossing of this river.
The operation began on 9th April Squadron, and his tanks carrying names which were variations of. "HAPPY", e.g. "SO HAPPY", "JUST HAPPY", etc. moved down towards the Senio River. The intended crossing site was abandoned because of a large crater in the approach road so they moved off across country through rows and rows of vineyards to reach the river. The river banks were 30 feet high with a step half way up the bank. Having selected the best place to cross, where the ground was firm enough for the tanks he positioned an Ark up to the first step, drilled holes in the bank , filled them with explosive and blew away part of the upper part of the bank. A fascine was then dropped into the water and used to support an Ark which in turn supported another Ark. Finally he called up an armoured 'dozer, which was a Sherman tank with a bulldozer blade in front, and they 'dozed away what remained of the bank. By first light the task was finished and the first tanks passed over.
On 11th April they moved on to the River Santerno, the next obstacle. The attack was to be at 5pm, but it was preceded by an all-denomination church service held at the side of a tank taken by the Padre. When they reached the river they found that a bomb from the earlier aerial bombardment had blown half the bank away so they put in Wade charges to remove the rest. They then used an Ark as a platform to reach the upper half of the bank which they also blew away. The method of crossing was almost exactly the same as used on the River Senio. i.e two Arks one on top of the other on fascines in the river. Wade charges were then fired on the far bank to reduce the slope but the resulting explosion didn't clear enough space so they returned to lay fresh charges. At that moment a Gurkha came up to warn of an approaching German Tank. The fresh charges failed to explode so with Bill Kerr he placed a made up charge against one the original charges and set off the fuse using matches. This time there was no failure. For the part he played in both crossings he received an Immediate M.C. The final paragraph of the citation should be noted:
Throughout both operations by his example and personal courage and leadership, often laying charges in exposed positions, he inspired confidence in his troop and thus ensured success

As the only crossing to be completed in their Sector it was vital if the infantry were to be given tank support.
Though the war was now entering its final phase there were casualties; his Wireless Operator, Lance Corporal Allen was hit by a sniper as he climbed out of the tank on April 15th. On the 7th May came news of Hitler’s suicide. On May 8th they heard Churchill speak on the radio at 3pm followed by the King at 9pm. The War in Europe was over.
Now with the end of hostilities they even found time to pick strawberries and cherries from around the area. The Squadron also took part in a march past with the army Commander taking the salute. As they reached the dais he gave the order "Eyes Right". The trouble was, he was, on the left!
Leave in Milan was to follow and the news of the award of a Military Cross with Sgt. Kitching and Sapper Willicombe, each receiving Military Medals. Even better news was soon to follow on June 27th when the ballot for one Officer to go on leave to England was held. The names of the seven eligible officers were put into a hat with the last name being declared the winner. After the suspense accompanying the first few names to be drawn his name was drawn last . He could not believe his luck
With others he left by lorry for England on 30th June. Many of the hill roads were covered in ice and the lorries had to be towed up the hills. He finally reached England on the 7th July.
The time In England was spent partly at Joy's home, and in Birmingham visiting his parents. By August 6th he was back again at the transit camp in Calais, and by August 11th with his Unit. The next few weeks were mainly spent on administrative tasks. Meanwhile rumours about the date for demobilisation continued to circulate. There was a Government statement saying that they hoped to have three million men by June 1946. His group (No 26) would be released in March, but later came a statement that Officers in Italy would not be released with their groups.
On the 12th October he left for a course on architecture in Florence which began on the 14th. He designed a public house, others were working on a concert hall for an imaginary village which was named Bishops' Thorpe after two of the instructors. They found out later that there was such a place! The course finished on 10th of November.
His final posting was to 12 Workshop Unit at Bari. Attached to the Unit were two prisoner of war camps which, as he was informed by the Colonel were to be his responsibility, but he also received the wonderful news that he was to go on Class B release. Class B was release on grounds of national importance, and took precedence over the normal Class A.
The next few weeks passed swiftly before he left on Sunday 9th December for 197 Transit Camp at Bari. From Bari the journey North by train continued passing through Switzerland and France before eventually reaching Calais on December 14th. By the following evening he was in Birmingham and officially on leave until 7th January 1946.

But before then, he had to go to Hereford to collect a grey pin-stripe suit, two shirts, socks, shoes and a trilby hat. By then he had been in the Army for six years, four months and six days.
When asked to reflect on these years he observed:
When I was in the army I thought what a complete waste of time ……But in hindsight a lot was gained from the experience. I learned that there is good and bad in all strata of society and that the good outweighs the bad. ….
The comradeship that was bred through always being together, and knowing that we could rely on each other in a tight corner, was deep ingrained.
The apparently useless discipline which at first was very .irksome was eventually seen as a way of binding men together. The common enemy in training was the Sergeant or Sergeant Major; he was replaced in ..action by the real enemy. We became proud of our discipline; if told to do something, we did it. We were drilled to stand perfectly still when the .National Anthem was being played with our thumbs straight down the seams of our trousers. I am sure that most ex-soldiers will still automatically do this.

Author’s Note
Bob, now living in Silsoe, near Bedford would be pleased to hear from any of his Army pals.
Finally I must record my thanks to Bob for the loan of material from which these accounts have been taken and my admiration for a man who made the History that I have taught for many years.

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