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- Leonard J Smith
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- Leonard J SMITH
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- 26 November 2003
I am the youngest male in a family of 16 siblings - 12 boys and four girls. I was just 15 and starting a new phase in my life at work when war was declared in 1939. World War Two - what was the impact and implications going to be on a teenager like me? I had no idea how much it would change my life.
The first twelve months were reasonably quiet - they were was mainly spent preparing for what was to come later, like issuing gas masks, conscription, civil defence (ARP) and black-out precautions. Corrugated-steel Anderson air raid shelters were delivered to all homes. I remember quite well helping my Dad dig a hole in the back garden to put the Anderson shelter in. The Air Raid Precaution Warden would come round every night to check that you had no lights showing; you were in trouble if there were.
Working for the MOD
My youngest sister was still at school, and my three older sisters were all doing essential jobs. As for me, I was working at the Co-op cycle factory in Kings Road, Tyseley, assembling cycles for the MOD. The Government was to bring in very strict regulations about where you could and could not work. Conscripts who did not want to serve in the forces were sent down the coalmines, and they became known as Bevan Boys.
The first air raids on Birmingham took place in November 1940 and became a regular occurrence with some being much worse than others. Because of them I was soon to become accustomed to death and a lot of destruction. Every morning when I went to work I saw houses destroyed, and rescue squads, police and firemen were digging at the rubble, sometimes with their bare hands to rescue people. This was something I was to experience on more than one occasion over the next couple of years. You have to remember that we didn’t have bulldozers or mechanical diggers then - it was all pick and shovel work.
Watching for firebombs
You could be up all night with the air raids but still had to go to work in the morning. We didn’t use our Anderson shelter because it was always full of water. Instead, my Mum, sisters and 85-year-old grandmother sat in the hallway, while my Dad and I went go outside to watch for any possible fire bombs that might be dropped.
One fateful night in September1941, a bomb dropped in the garden of the house opposite ours, but fortunately Dad and I had gone inside for a cup of tea when the bomb fell. It landed right up against the Anderson Shelter. Sadly the family inside didn’t stand a chance - the blast from this bomb blew most of the front of our house in. Every window went, doors were blown off and all the ceilings came down on top of us. The furniture was badly damaged by shrapnel. Dad and I heard it coming so we threw ourselves on top of Mum, the girls and Gran. Incredibly, none of us were injured.
Underground shelter, Albert Road School
My Dad told me to take my Gran and sisters to the underground air raid shelters in the grounds of Albert Road School. We turned into Francis Road and to our amazement saw an unexploded bomb sticking up out of the pavement with its fins showing not 18 inches from a gas street lamp, but we got to the shelter OK. Mum and dad stopped behind to collect important documents and to turn off the gas and water.
Next morning we were taken to the YWCA, on the corner of Bordesley Green East and Richmond Road, and we stayed there for a week, sleeping on the floor. We were very well looked after by the WVS. We were then temporarily allocated to a house in Manor Road right by the railway station and sidings. Each time the sirens went I had to take my Mum and sisters to the underground shelters beneath the shops on Station Road, Stechford. We had to go down steps that went from Astons, the Butchers, and then under all the other shops. One of the shops had been turned into ARP premises, so I enrolled as a messenger.
Love at first sight
By this time I was working, learning the trade, at Payne’s Boot and Shoe Repairers at their shop in Albert Road, and every day I watched a gorgeous young girl go past on her way to and from school. I was only 16 and good looking!
I found out that she and her family also went to the same shelter as us. One morning after spending the night in the shelter, I went down to check it was clear and found she had left her gas mask. Fortunately her name and address was on it, so on a night when I thought she would be in I took it to her house and chatted her up. Her name was Irene, we became good friends and started to see each other.
One night during a raid they tried to target the railway sidings, but instead they hit Parkinson’s Stove factory the other side of the station bridge, doing a lot of damage. I looked across from the warden’s post to see a man crouching against the side of the bridge, but he didn’t seem to move at all, so I went over to see if he was OK, but he was obviously dead. Yet there was not a mark on him - he had been killed by the blast from one of the bombs that hit the roof. I think it was one of the last air raids I remember.
By this time our house in Morden Road was now repaired so we moved back there.
Irene who was now my girlfriend had left school and was working for the National Savings Committee.
We were now into 1942, and when I became 18 in October of that year I volunteered for the army. With eight brothers already serving, I don’t think I could have done anything else. I didn’t have to report for training until February 1943.
In December of 1942 my last Christmas at home before going away, the family that lived next door somehow managed to get hold of two pigs and they put them in their Anderson Shelter. Knowing my dad used to be a slaughter man at the Birmingham slaughter house, they asked if he would kill them. He could keep one for us. So I helped him to do the job, but have you ever tried to stop a pig from squealing? It’s impossible! Police Sergeant Hodges lived just a couple of doors away - if he had heard the pigs we would have ended up in prison as meat was very strictly rationed. However, we got away with and a lot of people enjoyed Pork for their Christmas dinner, so I think we can be forgiven.
Having volunteered for the army you had the privilege to choose which branch you would like to serve in. Those that were conscripted had to go wherever they where sent. I elected to join the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC).
My brother Les, who was next to me in age, was also in the RASC but he was a regular serving soldier and was in France at the time of the fall of Dunkirk in 1940. He was one of the less fortunate ones that was taken prisoner by the Germans when he was just 19 years old. I had three other brothers who were also regular serving soldiers: Arthur, Warwickshire Yeomanry (Royal Armoured Corps) and Fred (REME), who had finished their full-time service when war broke out in 1939 so they were unable to leave and ended up doing another six years on active service in various areas. Sid was also a regular serving soldier. He had been with the RASC, Tank Corp, and finally with the Parachute Regiment serving with the 8th Airborne Division. My other four serving brothers were George, Royal Artillery, Jack, Royal Artillery, Joe, Army Fire Service and stepbrother Albert (R.A.S.C). We all saw active service in various regions. Brother Jack won a bravery citation at Monte Casino, but he was injured.
Norton Barracks, Worcester
On the 28 February 1943 I reported to Norton Barracks, Worcester, the headquarters of the Worcestershire Regiment, to do my 12 weeks of basic training with the General Service Corps. All the instructors and training staff were regular soldiers of the Worcestershire Regiment and what a tough lot they turned out to be - loudmouthed, offensive and very abusive, especially the drill sergeants. The training was very tough indeed - just as you would expect.
There was a very good assault course, which I really enjoyed tackling at least twice a week, and we had P/T every morning, sometimes before breakfast. One of the P/T instructors was sergeant Roly Jenkins, who I believe played cricket for Worcester County. Very often we had to do a cross country run just before tea, and of course there were the dreaded route marches. You started off doing 5 miles, sometimes running a mile and walking a mile. The longest one we did I think was about 25 miles. As I said at the beginning it was really tough but I enjoyed every minute of it, and it made a man of me and a proud man at that. I finished my basic training on 14 April and was sent home on 14 days leave.
On return from leave, because my transfer had not come through, I was posted to the Worcestershire Regiment at Norton Barracks to continue my training, which was basically an extension of what I had been doing, except that I now had to do guard duty on the main gates. Each time I was picked for guard duty I won the very honoured title of ‘Stick Man’ - this was awarded to the best turned-out soldier on guard parade by the orderly officer of the day, and it meant that you did not have to do the two on four off duty, and you just wore your belt and bayonet.
My transfer to the RASC came through, and although I tried to get it cancelled so that I could stay in the Worcesters my request was refused. I had really enjoyed my time at Norton Barracks.
Hadrian’s Camp and 524 Coy
I was given a 48-hour pass home, and sadly while on this short leave Irene and I had a falling out and parted company. On return from this weekend pass I was posted to the RASC driving school at Hadrian’s Camp, Carlisle. Here I was taught to drive a wide range of vehicles but mainly lorries. After six weeks of intensive training I passed my driving test with flying colours on 9 August ‘43.
On completion of my training at the RASC training school I was posted to 524 Coy (at least I think that was the number but I cannot be 100% sure), stationed at Codford in Wiltshire. We moved about the country for a while until just after December 1944 when we took over special Amphibious Vehicles and I think the company became 199GT Coy.
Terrapin, Buffalo and something like a Pontoon
We moved to the west coast of Wales and started to train and test out three different types of vehicles - the first of which was the Terrapin, a tank-like vehicle but with an open top and instead of tracks it had eight rubber tyre wheels and got its power from two Ford V8 engines. It was slow and very cumbersome both on the road and in the water, with leaver steering, which made it very difficult to handle. If one engine broke down while in the water you went around in circles with no way of getting back to shore other than by towing.
The second vehicle was the Buffalo, again with a body like a tank, but it did have tracks on it with very deep cleats. It had a powerful seven-cylinder Wasp Radial engine. Because of the deep cleats on the tracks it did a lot of damage when driven on the roadway, on rough ground it was brilliant and it could climb very, very steep inclines. In the water, however, it was dreadful - it was very slow, it didn’t ride the waves but just drove through them, and if the sea was even just a bit rough it took on a lot of water. You could not see where you were going most of the time - you just had to rely on your co-driver. When driving off a landing craft the Buffalo was known to dive straight down in the water. More than one soldier lost his life training on this vehicle in just that way. They were, to say the very least, dangerous in the water.
The third vehicle, was the American-built GMC-DUKW - the best way I can describe It would be to say it looked like a Pontoon with three rubber-tyre road wheels each side. It weighed 7-5 tons, unloaded, and was 31 feet long, with 270 cubic inch engine, six-cylinder petrol tank, and had a land speed 55 miles per hour, 6 miles per hour on water, with a payload of 2-5 tons or 25 soldiers and their equipment. It had 10 forward gears and two reverse. It had its own compressor by which you could inflate or deflate any tyre on the vehicle without stopping, and you could check its pressure just by moving a small leaver on the dashboard. It also had its own bilge pump for pumping out any water taken on board, which proved to be, very important.
On the road the DUKW drove just the same as any road vehicle and when you wanted to drive off the beach into the water, you disengaged the road wheels and engaged its own propeller and reversed the operation coming out of the water. It rode the waves very well indeed and because of its very efficient bilge pumps you were able to get rid of any surplus water that you had taken on board. The real advantage of these vehicles was of course that you could pick up your load from a ship well out to sea and deliver it straight to a supply dump several miles inland with out having to stop, To me they were a fantastic pieces of engineering.
It was now very apparent to us that an invasion was not too far away and we had been officially attached to the third Canadian Infantry Division. In May 1944, we moved to our port of departure, which was Southampton. To get there, I remember driving through the streets of London during the night with a very heavy Police and Military escort. The roads were blocked off and all traffic movement stopped until we had passed. We parked up in streets, which had been sealed off around the dock areas of Southampton for over three weeks, and slept on our vehicles. We did actually load up onto the ships and started out to sea once (I think it was ten days before the actual invasion date), but we got called back after a couple of hours out to sea and had to unload again.
The night of 3 June 1944 the activity was unbelievable, but for me personally it didn’t turn out the way that I expected it to - instead of being loaded onto a landing craft as before, I was loaded onto the top deck of a large supply ship and off we went.
About a mile or so from the French coast I (in a DUKW) was unceremoniously slung over the side of the supply ship and into the sea and had to drive that distance onto the beach to rendezvous with the rest of my platoon and to discharge the load of stretchers that I was carrying. This beach was to be known as Juno beach, and the name of the place where I landed was Benneries Sur Mer [sic].
I must point out at this time that all hell had broken out. The noise came from all types of gunfire, shells and bombs exploding everywhere. What I was about to witness in the next few hours, and months no training or teaching in the world could prepare you for. Death and destruction was all around me -there were unbelievable scenes and ones that I will never EVER forget, but for all that I had a job to do and had to get on with it if I wanted to survive.
We made our HQ in a small Chateau about a mile from the beach, and by midday the Canadian infantry had got about three to four miles inland and were able to set up a supply dump. This meant that we could start our work of getting supplies ashore from the supply ships as quickly as possible.
We worked from dusk until dawn every day, seven days a week. Do you know what? I was sat in my DUKW at 4.30 in the morning, waiting to go down to the beach to start work when our Provo’ corporal climbed up the side of my vehicle and said, ‘Caught you Smithy!’ – I was smoking on a WD vehicle, and he put me on a charge. I went before the CO the next morning and they stopped two weeks’ pay. This was in the first week of the invasion – how’s that for discipline. It didn’t end there - two weeks later the very same Corporal Cleckner did me for being improperly dressed, not wearing my hat - that cost me another two weeks’ pay, so in five weeks I lost four weeks pay, but what the hell, there was nowhere to spend it anyway.
Because the Germans had us bogged down we worked the beaches with our DUKWs for about five weeks until the fall of Caen, which I think was about the middle of July. We then changed the DUKWs for three-ton lorries, namely Ford Wat sixes. They turned out to be really good reliable workhorses.
Route through France and crossing the Rhine
As we moved forward we took the more northern route through France, Belgium, and Holland, and finally into Germany. However, before reaching Germany, there were a few very hard battles to be fought and won. It was our job to make sure that the lads up front were kept well supplied and I think we did just that. In so doing I was in a way involved in all those heavy battles, like Falaise, Brugges, Nymagen, Antwerp, Brussels and Arnhem.
Having reached Arnhem I had no idea that my brother Sid was one of those that had dropped with the 8th Airborne Division. Unfortunately he was shot before he hit the ground and lay in a ditch for two days before being rescued. When we reached the River Rhine at a place I think was called Velo, we changed back to DUKWs for the crossing. I remember very well indeed that when I entered the water the current was so strong that I thought I was not going to make it. I did of course, but nowhere near the place I was supposed to get out of the water. I was a mile or so further downriver than I should have been. The units that crossed in Buffaloes did so much more easily than I did. The terrain was just perfect for them to show their capabilities.
Once across the Rhine, everything was so much easier - we just knew that it was the beginning of the end, although we did have a little skirmish at Munchen Glad Bach. We made our last HQ in Hamburg.
News of the surrender
I was on my way back to Calais in a small convoy when the news came through that Germany had surrendered. I celebrated VE day in Calais before driving back to Hamburg, which took us a couple of days longer than it should have done but nobody questioned it.
I was then sent on detachment to a company of the Royal Engineers that were building an airstrip just outside Kiel. It was our job to ferry German prisoners of war from their prison camp to the airstrip to work. They really didn’t like that - they would sometimes refuse to get out of the lorries but a couple of shots fired into the air soon changed their minds. The very tiny village that we camped in was on the edge of a very large wood, and I went shooting deer in there mainly on my own. I never shot more than two, so I gave one to the man in the village that dressed them for us and he shared it with the villagers. When my CO found out we had to send some of the meat back to our HQ in Hamburg, that way he let me have some more ammo.
Back to England then off to Egypt
In May 1945 the company was recalled to England. On arrival we had orders that the company was to be sent out to Egypt. As I had only about twelve months to do before my demob number came up, I was told that I would have to go to a holding camp for that duration. I didn’t want to spend that time with a lot of strangers. I appealed to my CO to let me go to Egypt with them - after all we had seen a lot of action together. After some deliberation he agreed.
We were given 14 days of disembarkation leave. While on this leave brother Joe, now demobbed, had arranged a night out at the Birmingham Hippodrome to see a show and we agreed to meet outside. Imagine my surprise when I arrived there to find Irene, my ex-girlfriend, with my sister-in-law Hilda and Joe of course waiting for me. It turned out that Irene had stayed good friends with Hilda, Sid’s wife. Irene had been visiting Sid in Hospital at Burntwood while he was recovering from his injuries received when he dropped at Arnhem. I think it was the best show that I ever went to - why? - because, thanks to Joe, it brought Irene and I back together again.
I think I saw her every day of that leave. I wonder if I would have still volunteered to go to Egypt if I had met her earlier. Irene and I decided to get engaged - we would get married when I got demobbed. On return from leave we set sail for Egypt in June 1946 and went to Cambria Camp, Abbasia Garrison, Cairo. I was sent home from there for demob on 19 May 1947 in a depot at York. And there endeth my military story.
Band of Brothers
The Birmingham Sunday Mercury, a local newspaper, published an article with the heading ‘Band Of Brothers’ on Sunday, 11 November 2001, relating to my eight brothers and I who all served in the army on active service at the same time between 1939-45. What I think is really incredible is the fact that we all returned home. Only brothers Sid and Jack sustained war injuries, from which they recovered quite well. I think this was a great achievement for just one family. Sadly there is only my brother Joe and myself still surviving.
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