- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Bill Stafford
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 January 2004
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Bill Stafford and has been added to the site with his permission. Bill Stafford fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Bill Stafford’s Memoirs 2 – A R.A.F. barber in Normandy after the landings
Bill Stafford had spent some time at R.A.F. Hooton Park and then Wilmslow when he was given orders to report to Uxbridge.
“I left Wilmslow a rather bewildered person. Security being what it was I was told next to nothing about where I was posted to. I was given a tinier, a travel warrant, and told to report to R.A.F. Uxbridge. The only info I could find out was that this was a military police training centre. I thought “God, I' m in for some short back and sides work here”. When I got to Uxbridge I was escorted past dozens of Military Police drilling on the parade grounds, to a second much larger camp at the rear. There were rather fewer personnel in evidence, but the place was crammed with every type motor vehicle that I had ever seen, and many that I had never seen before in my life.
I was left in the S.W.O's office, where I was to learn that I was to join the 2nd Tactical Air Force advance party, which was gathering for the invasion of Europe. After intake procedures I was shown to a bed space in a Nissan hut and then taken to a room, where I was to work for the remainder of my stay. Another bare room with just a table and a wooden form for people to wait on.
I was left to my own devices and I had very little to do at first, I spent many back breaking hours stretched out on this wooden form. As more people were soon to arrive this did not last long and in order to give me more work the duty officers started to detail men to get a haircut whilst on morning inspection parade. This was the pattern of things for what seemed like months and I can remember doing 32 “so called” haircuts in an hour, because so many had been detailed and had to start duties by a certain time.
One morning we were ordered to Parade outside Hillingdon House which was a very large and grand house, and was the headquarters of all very senior staff engaged in the oversight of the R.A.F.'s involvement in Operation Overlord. We waited for what must have been hours. All at once we were called to attention: up rolled a big black Daimler. Out stepped King George 6th together with the Queen, Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret. The King made a short speech, wishing us all “God Speed”. Then they each proceeded to shake hands with us all (which took rather a long time). It was worth all the waiting and we felt very important, which I suppose was the point of the exercise.
Within a few days of the King’s visit we started to make preparations for our departure to the coast. We were all allocated to some sort of transport and drilled extensively in the various procedures. Several times we got the order to stand to, only to have to stand down again. Just when we were getting complacent, it happened and we were off. One of the longest convoys the R.A.F. had ever seen. I was travelling in a water bowser, just the driver and myself and we thought this was very comfortable, we were located in the middle of the convoy and the exhaust fumes were something else. Thank goodness we were not at the rear. We were going all day.
Our destination turned out to be Gosport with its Mulberry Harbours. We came to rest in a very long street on a council estate where we remained for many days, living in and about our transport. We were on field rations and we began to get “Mankey”, we could not use the water in our bowsers, this was for use on the other side. The local people in the street, although wary at first, turned up trumps, and provided us with buckets of hot water. There we stood having a bath/wash down with one foot in the bucket, repeated at intervals all down the street. What a sight it was and as a result of this, the lads were quick to make friends and ended up sneaking into their new friends’ houses after dark!!!!!
When we again got on the move, we went like “bats out of hell” down to the nearby Mulberry Docks where there were a large number of flat bottomed Tank Landing Craft awaiting us. We drove our wagons etc., right on to the craft, and to the far end which was the stern, we then had to turn to and chain them down. Fumes, condensation, stench, perspiration, none of us escaped it. But this was nothing!! The tanks followed us on, and we had to chain these down as well. The fumes and stench were multiplied tenfold and the condensation was dripping from the underside of the upper deck so much, that it resembled, being in a thunder storm. We were still completing these tasks when we set sail, and we did not see the leaving of our shores. What were our thoughts???
When we had finished the chaining down we were allowed to our quarters, a long passage, about 3ft 6in wide, running the length of the craft with bunks in tiers of 3 joined at the foot and head, from end to end, another stench, sweaty bodies. I had just taken off my boots, when the buckets of steaming hot tea came round, what a cheer went up! We all filled our pint mugs. No sips, damned big gulps, I took my first gulp, it was made with "connie onnie" (condensed milk). I made a hasty dash topside and spent the rest of the crossing hanging over the rail wishing that I had never been born.
As we neared the Normandy Coast we were ordered back on to our vehicles ready to disembark. A shudder went through the landing craft as we hit the beach, the ramps dropped down, the tanks thundered off and then it was our turn. Down the ramp and on to Juno beach head. The first of our forces had landed about 4 or 5 days prior to us and the evidence of the hellish time that they had experienced was enough to make you sick. The beach was still littered with wrecked and abandoned tanks, trucks, jeeps, guns, etc., even clothing and personal effects. Hundreds of army personnel were busy extricating gruesome remains out of some of the wreckage. Our sight of this was very brief, there was no stopping, across and up the beach into a very narrow country lane. Progress was rather slow, we had to be very cautious, our front line was still only about 6 or 7 miles ahead and we could hear the noise of gunfire up ahead.
We had been going for no more than a mile or so, when we were directed into a large field surrounded by trees. All the vehicles were driven under the trees for camouflage. Those with no tree used camouflage nets. We were warned to expect enemy aircraft raids at any time, especially at dusk and dawn, and we were told to sleep under our vehicles to obtain what shelter we could. Because we had no time to “dig in”, my driver and I thought- “great lucky us, riding on a water bowser: solid metal, safe as houses”. We had one blanket each, so we spread our ground sheets one on top of the other and rolled up together under our two blankets in the hope that it would be warmer. Sure enough just as dawn was breaking over comes Jerry and strafed us well and proper. There were no major casualties, only two very soaking wet airmen; Jerry's bullets, had pierced the bowser's walls and we got soaked. Laughing stocks the pair of us, that is what you get for trying to be clever!
Almost as soon as we had got dried out after Jerry's fly past, we were on the move again, and again only a distance of a few miles. It turned out that we were expected to maintain a position of about 5 miles to the rear of the front line and as the front advanced, so did we. Again we were located in a field not far from Amiens - this time we were to stay for in excess of 2 weeks. The fighting at the front was hard, resistance was fierce and our army's advance was about the most costly in terms of life and equipment, than any other that they had to face.
We had to “dig in” once again and we had to live in our “holes in the ground”, for half of the time that we were there. This was the first time since landing that I was able to practice any hairdressing. Because the tools etc. which by now I had with me, were too much to carry in my Kitbag, the joiners had made me a large wooden box which was marked “Barber’s Tools” and it was transported as part of the unit’s equipment. This box became my hairdressing salon, I would set it up under the nearest free apple tree. The box becoming my customers’ chair, with my tools on a towel, on the ground. The officers had a large tent as their “Mess” and I attended to them there, when the light got too bad for me to see to the other ranks outside. The very senior officers usually had mobile trailers as their offices, and I would attend to them in their trailers, when I was sent for. More often than not they were so much in demand, that I had to cut their hair as they were on the telephone communicating at top level. The secrets and plans which I overheard whilst doing this were unbelievable, and more than one of these officers threatened to “kill me personally” if I ever breathed a word of what I had heard.
Inside a week it became known to other units in the area (including the army), some much closer to the front line than we were. They would send a signal to my C.O. “could they borrow the barber for a day?” At that time I was the only military barber in France. Sometimes they would send their transport for me, but later I was given the use of a liberated jeep and travelled under my own steam. Again I would set up shop under a tree and do as many haircuts as I could before the light failed.
After a couple of weeks we were given tents. This was great news! Of course we had to erect them ourselves. When this was completed, before we could occupy them, we were ordered to parade outside our allocated tents “in the nuddie”!!! Along came our Sgt. from sick quarters, equipped with a pace-maker’s stick, (the use of which was obvious), he was accompanied by a Cpl. carrying a large old-fashioned insect spray. All our bodily hair was sprayed with white D.D.T. Powder, our shirts were inspected for lice, and those which were infected ,confiscated. What a life! But it was worth it to get away from our “holes in the ground” and into tents, where our main relaxation was playing Solo. There was nothing else to do with what money we had, but time certainly did not drag.
During the time spent in our second field the only news of the war’s progress was what we gleaned from listening to the radio. So it caused great excitement when we heard that our tanks and other front line soldiers had broken through the German lines, and were going hell-bent down through France and making a bee-line for Paris. We all knew from this that because of our brief to maintain our position of being 5 miles to the rear of front line, we would soon be on the move again, sure enough we were. The following day we were off. We all thought “Hurray, Paris here we come”. We started off in convoy as fast as our vehicles would take us. We passed first through Amiens where the whole population turned out to wave us off. We had been going for most of the day when our convoy was stopped by a dispatch rider and our destination was changed. Our troops were advancing so fast that they had overshot Paris, and were heading for the south of France. Our first reaction was disappointment, which soon gave way to excitement when we learned that our new destination was to be Brussels.”
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