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My Trip to France in 1944

by bingley

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Ernest Cecil Bennett
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Contributed on: 
07 November 2003

Ernest Cecil Bennett was born in Littlehampton on Wednesday 9th August 1905.

Ernest married Beatrice May Chitty (known as May) on in 1930 and had two children, Brenda and David in 1932 and 1939. Brenda Bennett is my mother and she has kept a short diary written by her father in the last few months of the Second World War.

This is that diary:-

After trying hard to get home for a few hours, I got orders to be ready to move off to some unknown destination at 09.00 am. Of course we had an idea where we were off to but little did we know what we were in for. I wasn’t feeling any too pleased because I hadn’t got home to wish my family cheerio for a time. Any rate, we got on Maidstone station and had just an hour to wait - this of course is nothing for the army. At last the train pulled out. “Nobody must leave the train” shouts an officer just as if we would run away give us a chance now and see what happens.

I have my head glued to the window while the lads are busy playing with the last of English money they are likely to have for a month or two. I am wondering which way we are going and at last I find we are at Redhill and passing it making our way to Pompey. Later we are coming close to Ford and believe me we stopped where I could see Littlehampton “and how I could get home easily” the thoughts make a great big lump come in my throat. After another long ride we get the order to detrain at Fareham and get on lorries to find ourselves heading for West Walk, another first class dump. We spent a week here living under canvas.

We managed to get a good few laughs even here. One night, I shall never forget, there was some of the lads in the next tent to me who were always trying to have a joke at somebody else’s expense, but this particular night they had all got nice and comfortable as they thought when one of them shouted “Strike a ruddy light”. He thought he was being carried away and sure enough he was for the floor was alive with rats. What a stampede. There they were running about in the pitch dark in just their short pants trying to find spare room in other tents. We managed two of them in ours, but we didn’t get much sleep that night for laughing.

Well we prayed for the day which our number would be shouted over the megaphone. At last it came on the Saturday, 3.00 am the 9th. Out of bed we get in the dark of course and get everything ready to move. 8 o’clock we moved just fancy five hours to wait. I think the transport had been told to go to the wrong place.

Eventually we arrive at Gosport. Here again we waited all day before we could get on the boat. At last it came, we were really on the move. Off we trots around the corner on to a TLC and after all our lorries had been put on board we move down the river out into Solent to wait until midnight to get in our convoy and off over the blue seas.

It was a wonderful trip, as smooth as glass and I must say I went to sleep and never woke up once.

At 10 o’clock the next morning, that’s the 10th, we sighted land and after twisting in and out of merchant ships we docked along side of that wonderful piece of engineering which the navy towed across the Channel. This was the pier at Arromanches. Off we gets and marches along the pier, which was a mile long and it was on here that I saw the first Jerry prisoners and I have never seen a more untidy, dirty looking lot of so called men in all my life. We carried on up the shores to a transit camp to wait for our destination in our new land.

This is where we start our sight seeing for not very far away we could see a prison camp and it was full with men standing in great big cages, knee deep in mud and a right place for them. We stayed here for just a quarter of an hour and off we go on our lorries on a trip across the war torn grounds of France.

The first large town we pass through is Bayeux and it’s a sight to see people waving to you as you pass and throwing apples at you. One good lady ran up and gave me a huge tomato which I eat like a dog with a bone.

Our next eye opener was Caen. This place is far beyond repair. I have seen some bomb damage at Plymouth but this place is much worse for there isn’t a single thing left whole. What a job our Air Forces done here. It was impossible for any living thing to hold on.

Well along these great long roads we journey miles and miles without a corner. Thank heavens we haven’t to march them like the lads of the last war did. We came to our spot and what a spot it was - an old stable and cartsheds. We were in the stable bedding down on a foot of straw like a pack of mules, you should have heard the language it was good but it’s surprising how one can sleep when he is really tired out.

We spent a couple of days cleaning up this farmyard with the hopes of making it a bit comfortable but we still went on scratching and had nothing to stop it.

We were sent to Colombelles. This is a decent size town with a very large railway works and steel works but the RAF had been there and my you should have seen the mess. Railway engines and wagons were upside down and the tracks were sticking up in the air like flag poles, only not so straight of course. There was not one building standing that could be used again.

We had another job this day repairing potholes in the road at Troarn and this was my first view of mines and booby traps, there is a large cemetery here which is absolutely alive with them – they can’t let the dead rest you see.

This day we called our own so we were off duty in order to get cleaned up and that’s when I realized what the benefits of being married are. For we had to do our own washing and what a job trying to boil it on a wood fire and in a dirty big tin which we afterwards had a go at washing ourselves down in. What a sight for a young girls’ eyes – standing there in our birthday suits with a cup full of water to do the job with but we managed and was quite satisfied with our mornings work. After dinner we all went to Caen in the liberty truck to the Ensa show but was not allowed to have a look around the ruins.

16 – 18/9/1944
These days were spent cleaning up the mess of warfare at St Sylvian. Not a very big place but witnessed the essence of war alright.

We were on the move again and what a move! Travelling all day long by road in convoy is very tiring. The sights we saw were heartbreaking. We passed over the river Seine at Vernon, another large town once upon a time. It was here that I saw women standing by the roadside crying pitifully. No doubt they had just come back after the battle to find all that they once possessed in ruins. Later in our journey we noticed the women riding bikes with their pet Ganders and Ducks in a basket on the front.

We landed at our destination in the dark. It was an old German camp and once again not very clean but being all in we soon got to sleep as usual.

20 – 23/9/1944
We were only staying a few days so just a few odd jobs were found us. We couldn’t rest – that would never do.

Off we go again, up the coast to a place called Samer (by the way, our last home was Piousc). This new home of ours was soon reached. We finished up in an old concert hall with just enough roof on to keep our beds dry. We had barely arrived when the old boy said “hop in the lorry lads, we are off to see a job.” Some blasted water mains for repair.

But this day was ours again so we were not interested in water, only that it rained hard all day long and we watched the tide making its way towards our beds across the hall floor.

A few of us go in Boulogne to clear up the ammo which the Jerrys had just left in the Citadelle and what a job. All in tunnels under the building in the dark. We had thought we had some rough billets but ours was a palace to these. But it was a terrible job and we were pleased when 5:30 pm. came.

This was a day for our benefit for we moved again into Boulogne into private houses, they are grand. It’s a great difference to our army life when you live in civvy billets. The surroundings seem to brighten things up a great deal.

This was a day that nobody was looking forward to for we were detailed to go mine lifting. We had never been before so you can imagine we were all rather jittery but it went alright. We had sent a few lads at this the day previous and unfortunately we lost one of the lads.

I think it is best for me to say that all the time we are staying here we will be repairing sewers and roads and my, what a job – mud and more mud. I must say that this place has caught a nasty packet. Of course the docks are one huge pile of ruins and the boats that are sunk in the harbour is certainly a sight worth seeing. But it will soon be in working order again for another company is working hard on them.

Another day off. Doing grand these days aren’t we! But by the time we do our washing and wash ourselves down the morning is gone. In the afternoon we went for a good look around but all we could see was ruins.

This was another day for us and in the afternoon we had the liberty truck to take us to the town called St Omer, about 48 miles from here. It’s not a bad little town and untouched by the ills of warfare. You see plenty of café’s and you can see the lads making a dash for some of them.

This was one of our days spoilt by the rain. We finished it by having a beer or two. I don’t think I have a lot more to say about this place for we are on the same old job day after day.

20/10 – 23/11/1944
Just another day for us to have a look around the shops which are gradually improving but none of them are any larger than Eavies of Duke St. and just about as much in them.

This sort of life goes on until 23rd November when we get our moving orders again. We were all disappointed because we had good billets and had got settled down. There was also a Naffe opened in the town, two cinemas and a theatre but there it was, we had to get mobile and where do you think we landed? No other place but on the outskirts of Calais – “that’s close to England if you like.” We are just 7 miles outside and using a Jerry camp, very nice huts but in the middle of the woods so you can guess what a lot of mud there is about. By the way, the place is called the Château of Adiran. The only drawback is we are too far from Calais to walk in but we get a lorry each night. The country around here is very flat and at the moment is rather flooded. I understand Jerry blew some bridges over the canal, which of course caused the floods.

This was our first day off in the town and we had a good look around. There is hardly any damage to the town but the docks have caught it so we have been told of course that part is under M.P. control. In the evening we went to the pictures. These are very peculiar for you are not allowed to smoke and it is a long, narrow hall with a balcony running level floored along each side, so that when one person near the screen stands up nearly everybody is up on their feet straining their necks like a lot of ganders to see past one another. We couldn’t understand the talking in this film but we passed the time away alright, after which we had a few beers to finish up with.

We have been to an Ensa Cinema since and enjoyed it very much. It was called “Double Indemnity”. We are very busy at work in this district making a transit camp for men to go home on leave “so we are told”. I’m only hoping I will be one of them one of these days. We managed to finish this camp in time of schedule so we managed a good two days rest. This was on the 13th and 14th December.

13 – 14/12/1944
The first day we went to St Omer where I bought handkerchiefs for home. I also had a good look around to find other presents but could find nothing good enough. In the evening we took a trip into Calais where we visited a café of two.

Next day we took another trip to St Omer, this time we visited of one the lads who is in the Canadian Hospital and what a place! It really made me open my eyes to see such an up-to-date place.

We get busy again on the second camp, this being a much larger one.

What luck! Another day off. This was a day of good rest. In the evening we had a few beers in the Calais café’s.

17 – 23/12/1944
We are back at he job and getting as much done as we can before Christmas but I’m afraid our holiday is going to be rather short.

Well, here we are again facing another of those times when one likes to be home with their loves but I expect we have just got to make the best of it. We are lucky enough to get this afternoon off but we have our shopping to do so we just laze about and dream of what we could be doing if only we were home.

The first we know about this day is the Q.M.S. standing in our room with a nice cup of tea, or it would be if the cooks could only make tea but they just can’t. After this I have a smoke then rolls out of my blankets and away to breakfast. This consisted of bacon and porridge but was cold before we could look around. The next comes dinner. This is he time when officers and sergeants have the pleasure of waiting on the under dogs. We started off with 4 pints of beer, 7 cigars, 100 cigs, 1 orange, 1 apple and two bars of chocolate, then made our way to the table. Here we met turkey, pork, potatoes, brussels and pudding and custard. This wasn’t at all bad. After dinner the O.C. gave us a speech wishing us all a happy time and our families the best of luck.

Back we go for a peaceful afternoon. My mate and I took a nice stroll into a village called Andres. This must have been busy with Jerry for he had a nice little cemetery made here and it was full up with crosses.

Tea was about the same as usual but the real enjoyments started after 7 o’clock when some of the lads put on a concert party which they had worked hard for several weeks to get ready for us and it was a great success. One real laugh until 10 o’clock. After this we had plenty of cakes, cheese sandwiches and a lovely iced cake. That was the end of a good day.

That was our Christmas, just the one day off. We are too busy getting this leave camp ready for all the lads to start using on the 4th January and so we keep working until Friday January 12th when we start a good rest of three and a half days and did I give that bed a thrashing. I think I’m too lazy to get up for my breakfast. The second day I had a good time at St. Omer. I have already mentioned this place so I needn’t say anything about it. On the third day I had a time at Calais and visited the Ensa show in the evening.

Apart from going to the pictures and a few nights to visit the canteen in Calais nothing has happened to cause any excitement. We have just had a very nice film called “The Song of Bernadette”.

One very nasty thing happened on Sunday 14th January. Jerry came over machine gunning everything he could see in the moonlight and one of our trucks was shot up by him and one of the best lads in the company was killed. This caused much sorrow in the midst of the lads for he was liked by everyone. Seeing that he was one of my mates I was chosen to go to his funeral.

The start of another month brings us still making this transit camp larger and troops are passing through each day by the thousands. One day I hope to be one of these lucky ones.

This has been a busy month. It may seem funny always writing about work but that’s really our war effort, but during this month we have had several film shows in the camp. Here are some of them – “Lady Lets Dance”, “Greenwich Village”, “Two Girls and a Sailor” and “It Happened Tomorrow”. That’s all I can remember at the moment. I have also seen several Ensa shows.

While leaving the job today we heard a terrible explosion and have just heard it was a stick of bombs from one of our own planes which crashed in the sea.

We had a day off today and paid a visit to St. Omer. I must say I’m not much of a shopper, especially when buying powder. On this instance two of us go into a posh ladies hairdressing shop and after telling the madame we wanted powder for our wives, I say blonde and my mate says brunette and we make our purchases and off out we go and the next call is a café for a beer and out comes our powder for examination and believe me it says on the boxes just the opposite. Mine was for a brunette so off we go and tell the madame it is not correct only to be laughed at. She told us we knew nothing about powder so why make out she was wrong.

Back we go to work on the same old job. All this month has gone by without anything happening.

Easter holidays are here and we are having to work all the time, with the promise of two days off in the week.

My mate and I have been enjoying ourselves today, it’s our rest day. First thing this morning we went for a nice walk along the canal bank to Ardres. In the afternoon we enjoy the pictures and in the evening off to the Ensa show.

Our second day of rest and we have taken it easy. In the afternoon we have a good walk around Calais but have seen nothing special.

This has been a very good day for we formed a party to visit the big guns which fired across the Channel. The officer came and brought his camera with him. I have some photos but they aren’t too good worst luck. What a tremendous job the Jerry must have had to have built this under our very noses. There are three guns in this place and they are all buried in the ground as much as possible. They are in huge great block houses of concrete. Huge rooms and workshops are built underground. The shells which are 6’6” long and 16” in diameter are stored in the magazine, which is also underground with a small railway going to the gun. Everything is planned perfectly. The barrel of the gun is 60 feet long and is all you can see from the outside. One of these barrels is split right the way down. Some say our Air Force did it. Well, all that I can say is it was a fine bit of bombing, almost impossible, but if you could see the craters all around these guns they must have had hundreds of them for it’s impossible to walk straight. There is no doubt they knew what was there. They also had a big red cross, or rather a dressing station all built with concrete. He must have been well in trouble, he also left a cemetery right on the foreshore. This was full of graves so he must have had plenty of casualties. All this in clear view of the cliffs of Dover. It’s also right be the side of the tunnel which was started under the Channel but of course is closed now.

A Frenchman reports that he has seen two Jerrys in a house near our camp so out we go in the dark to search for them, but it was a false alarm.

Nothing has happened of any importance up to now but we can all see that it won’t be many more days before the big day comes.

Are we excited, all waiting to hear the P.M. announce the final words. Several lads are drunk already.

It’s here and we are not allowed to visit Calais because we are on the move any moment.

Off we go on our long trip to Germany. This is the road route we are taking:- Calais – St. Omer – Hazebrouck– Armentières – Lille – Tournai– Leuze– Ath– Enghien – Brussels – Leuven – Diest – Beringen – Heusden – Helchteren – Hechtel – Meenwen – Bree – Ofritten – Maaseik – Ittervoort – Haelen – Venlo –Straelen – Gelderen – Kevelaer – Sonsbeck – Xanten – Hamminkein – Borken – Coesfeld – Altenberge – Donabruck – Lingen - Loccum – Winsen – Uelzen – Lűneburg. If you can follow that you’re a marvel!

Well, our first stop is just outside of Brussels, in a forest of fir trees but its lovely weather so we only just make our bed under the trees and off to sleep we go.

We are up at 3:30 for breakfast and off again at full speed at 5:30. Today we have come over the Belgian border into Holland. This is where we start to see some results of warfare. The roads are very rough, which slows us up very much. The worst parts are under the trees. I think it’s where our Air Force bombed the convoys out from their cover. It’s not long before we pass over the Dutch border and into Germany.

Before I go any further let me point out the vast difference in the countryside. In Belgium it’s the houses that strike your eye for they are built with all different coloured tiles and look very smart and clean. Whereas Holland is nothing but wasteland and swamps. Germany is a very nice country. Everywhere is ploughed up and lovely crops growing. Each house in the country is built with a cowshed under it and a small farmyard by the side. This shows they have to work for a living. I don’t suppose they mind if it’s their own little farm.

We pass on towards the Rhine, seeing all the large buildings in the towns nothing but a heap of rubble. At last we arrive to a large Bailey Bridge and what a sight. The poor old Royal Engineers must have had a hell of a job building it. It can be classed as one of the wonders of the war.

After getting over the other side of the Rhine another big sight stared us in the face, that of the results of an airborne landing. There were gliders everywhere you wish to look. After seeing all these we pass through Hesel. This is where I saw Len’s company board. Just afterwards we had a puncture but it was too far to go back and find him.

We travel on all day seeing nothing but farms, woods and villages all bombed out. We also travel miles in circles to avoid bridges that he had blown up in his desperate attempt to hold us. Night holds us up and we bed down in a part of the Black Forest.

Off we go again much the same routine and our destination is Lűneburg. First we see Osnerbrűck, that is completely finished. We arrive just outside of Lűneburg and stay there awaiting orders for our next move. Well, we are here for a day before we find out we have to journey on to Kiel. My word, we thought we were never going to stay put.

Off we go one to Kiel much to our disgust but we stick it and arrive in the middle of a field late in the afternoon. Here we camp for a week before finding a billet to get settled down in.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - German Guns at Calais

Posted on: 24 March 2004 by doverrog

I was most interested to read the diary entry for 7/4/45.
About the long range guns that fired at Dover. My family were in Dover during the war (I have posted an entry about a diary kept by my Great Grandmother).
Do you have any more info about the guns? In particular I would love to see the photos which are mentioned. Is there any chance of scanning them I wonder or would you be able to send copies, I would be pleased to pay of course,
Roger Hurst

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