- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Knight
- Location of story:
- UK, Madagascar, Arakan coast,Burma, Chittagong, Rangoon, Malaya
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 June 2005
I didn't take up my scholarship at Cambridge because, although Neville Chamberlain came back with a bit of paper in his hand and said, 'Peace in our time', I didn't believe it. Of course, September 3rd we were mobilised. I was in the Territorial Army, in the Gunners. The Yeomanry got ready to go to France and we were all looking forward to that in our innocence and then a blow fell, at least, it seemed like a blow at the time. Anyone who hadn't reached his 19th birthday by New Year's Day would not go to France. And my birthday was January 15 and to my shame all the others went off to France, and we went up to South Yorkshire, among the coalmines, round Sheffield to an Anti-Aircraft establishment and we were not at all pleased. When we got there the Anti-Aircraft people were just the Home Defence and I remember the major, his name was Lloyd and he was a member of the Stuart and Lloyd family - big steel folk and they owned coalmines as well. All the troops bowed down and worshipped, but I'm afraid we didn't. he said, 'if you were asked to go abroad would you volunteer?' I stood up and said, 'If I'd been a fortnight older there'd be no question of volunteering, I'd be there now and so would everyone else,' and they all said they would.
In the end I got I recommended for a Commission. I had to go and see the Colonel and one or two senior officers, and when he said he would like to recommend me for a Commission, I rather rashly said 'I would much prefer a posting to the Bedfordshire Yeomanry in France.' It took him back a bit. He said, 'It's not in my power to do that. If you take my advice you'll say yes'.
So I was commissioned and then Dunkirk happened and I was at Catterick O.C.T.U. so when I got Second Lieutenant pips we were posted to a regiment just come back from France. I felt very much out of it because I was with a unit that had seen shot and shell. I hadn't, all my old school pals had, I was the youngest in the form and I just missed it by a fortnight. All my contemporaries had had a go, one or two were killed, quite a lot wounded, some had got back intact, but they'd done something and I'd done nothing.
In 1940 we went down to the Kent coast and I had two 25-pounders and we waited for a German invasion. Our Corps Commander was a certain B.L. Montgomery, who got higher rank later on. He called a meeting and he wanted one officer from every single unit there to meet behind the line, somewhere in a cinema, I think it might have been Tenterden. Monty came onto the stage and he was a snappy, shrpt little man and he said,'There will be 30 seconds for coughing after which no-one will cough!' We'd been opn Romney Marsh which is a gloomy, misty place so we'd get cold and coughed. Anyway he put up his hand and there was silence! He said, 'When the Germans come there is no question of any retreat. You've got nowhere to retreat to, so you will fight to the last man and the last round in your defended localities and when the Hun is exhausted I shall come in with armour and kick him into the Channel. That was Monty and I think we all believed and I think at that time we probably would. But it's odd looking back on it.
When the invasion never materialised I thought well, I'd better do something now and they asked for volunteers to join Combined Operation. They wanted paratroops, commandos and artilery observers to work with naval guns on the landings vecause they couldn't get artillery ashore early on. But the navy had got some massive cannon in their ships and they thought if they could get a landing party ashore they could direct the shellfire onc they were out of sight of land and this would be beneficial. So I put my name down for that. We went to Wale Island, Portsmouth, Naval Gunnery School. Anyway I got a posting to Iveraray, Scotland to start this naval gunnery observing. About a dozen of us, a dozen captains. One was a full Lieutenant, that's two pips and two of us were juniors, with just one pip, that was me and a chap called Ementon and we've been friends ever since. W started practising, we had some naval telegraphists and naval signalmen. The naval men had these Aldis lamps for mors and they were good with semaphore flags. The telegraphists worked the wireless sets and again this was morse and a morse signal can go much better than spoken words. So we practised in Inverary with these sailors. They had got bell-bottomed trousers and shoes, so they had to change into Army kit with just Royal Navy flashes and little round hats.
It was an absolute guinea pigs unit-would it work, would it not? We practised with an old cruiser called the Cardiff in the Mull of Kintyre, a remote part of Scotland. We hammered away with this cruiser and we practised with field guns and got things going tolerably well. One day a pay directive came from the Army Pay Office because the pay you get depends on the job you do, in wartime anyway. These Captians had all been troop commanders in France in charge of a sevction of four guns, coming on this course they had left that behind and the Pay Office said they ought to be reduced to Lieutenants with a loss in rank and pay. There was a damn near mutiny and they insisted on seeing the Brigadier, Brigadier Weatherburn-Knatchwell, a ferocious chap with a string of medals on his chest but these civilians in uniform, they were determined. They said, @look, we've risked our lives in the battle for France, we are now taking on something that is even more hazardous and you want to knock us in rank and knock us in pay and the job's not on. We shall apply to go back to our own units and forget this.' Winston Churchill being Prime Minister and it being very much his idea, the Brigadier was a bit taken aback, he wasn't used to being spoken to like that, but he said he'd see what he could do. A month later a message came through to say all officers on this Combined Ops Bombardment thing would receive the rank of captain. Hector ementon and I never expected this at all and we jumped the ladder two more rungs. Then I had a real bit of luck. We did a shoting party - I don't mean with shorguns and grouse - it was field guns and targets. A lot of the captains had difficulty, there was mist over the moors, tagets were difficult to see and the shots went off into the clouds and it didn't go at all well. And right at the end the Brigadier looked at me, and I hadn't done anything so far and he said, 'Come on, you'd better have a go'. He gave me a target that was luckily marked on the map. It was one of those sheep pens made of stone and I was able to give a precise map reference and the first shot believe it or not landed smack in the middle of this damned thing. So I said, 'Will that do, sir?' 'Yes!'
Whereas I hadn't been considered as an observer until then, the operation was put in hand to go to Madagascar. The Japanese had enetered the war and Japanese submarines were refuelling at Diego Suarez, a French colony on the northern tip of Madagascar. The French were occupied by then and they couldn't do much about and negotiations had failed, so we had to go and take the place. To my amazement, being the lowest rank of Liaison Officer I became No.1 Forward Observer with No.5 Commando. We set off from Scotland in March 1942, transhipped at Durban (S. Africa). The plan was to land of the other side of the island abour 20 miles distant since the entrance to the harbour was very heavily fortified. But the bay was covered by a ring of atolls and little islands and the entrance was covered in mine fields and a battery of six-inch guns or the metric equivalent, 150 mm. set in concrete covering the entrance. The Commando had the job of having to get through the minefield, go and capture this coast battery so that the rest of them could come in in relative safety, although it looked a fairly suicidal thing but that was what I was booked for. Going through the minefield, there was a great thump, one of the minesweepers hit a mine and that made it sink. We thought, that's woken the gunners up so any minute now they'll blow us to pulp - nothing happened! We got within a good few hundred yards of the shore and these commandos, all fixed bayonets and thsese clips on the rifle, and I thought, 'Oh Lord I wish I hadn't come - now I'm going to see man's inhumanity to man at first hand, but we touched on the beach, walked up there with the guns, nobody there! We went in, no people about and we took the breech blocks out and put them away. When the sun started to come up we saw a building no far away, went down there and they were all in bed asleep. I found out later that they'd been told 'Tir de nuit n'est pas envisage:acces de la baie considere impossible de nuit.' Firing at night is not envisaged: access to the bay impossible by night. that's what the French authorities had told the gunners, so they were all in bed, and let us in. And even a mine blowing up a minesweeper hadn't woken them.
The operation was successful and they reached Diego Suarez after a twenty mile walk across the island. There was one casualty - one great Senegalese soldier leapt out of bed with no clothes on at all but he grabbed a bayonet and came running at us. One of the commando officers had this great big soldier running at him with a bayonet and he had an automatic .45 colt and there was no option but to pull the trigger and of course, that was it. The chap went down on the floor, a little hole in the front and splayed out of the backbone, it was as big as a dinner plate at the back. That was needless, a wretched sort of thing to do because the French had been our allies a year or two earlier.
An aged Lieutenant came out and he saw my youth and three pips on the shoulder, "Vous etes trop jeun pour capitaine". Well I knew that, I was well aware of the fact - I didn't need him to tell me. I said "I quite agree but you shouldn't re-fuel the Japanese". Then, of course, we'd got about 20 miles to go across country to get to Diego Suarez and the RSM of the Commander was a huge chap, very imperious and I thought I'll walk along by him, he was good chap to be with. I noticed little cracks in the countryside, either side of us, not great clouds of stuff going up but just little cracks and little blue flashes, I said, "What's all this lot going on?" "Don't you know when you are under shell fire, Sir!" The guards, they could put ordinary mortals absolutely in their place can't they without being insolent but they get damned near it. But the commandos, they were terrific. We could see this battery down at the bottom, we were coming down over top of the col, they were banging away, one went off like that and another one like that, left and right and one started shooting and they they started running. Bur anyway they managed to settle this battery and we eventually got through to Diego Suarez. But the main dock yard was on the other side of the harbour and we had no boats with us so we could do nothing much about it. The main lot of troops were held up by a big line of gun emplacements, barbed wire and tank traps and God knows what. It was about a three day battle over there that the others caught. They thought we were going to have the rough stuff, we had it comparatively easy and the others sustained quite a lot of casualties. But within three days we had got the whole place and then negotiations started with the south but they didn't come to anything and so in the end we had to do two more landings.
We took part in two more landings on Madagascar - the first one was at Majunga, on the west coast. We took that and then the commando plus me, my little group of signals, we got on a destroyer called the Arrow and we went right way round the top of the island round to Tamatave on the east side and we'd got considerable Navy with us. The plan was that the Arrow, they worked them alphabetically, that meant starting with an A that was just after the First World War, it was pretty ancient. In Mombasa they had strengthened up the bows with steel girders. They's seen by air reconnaissance that there was a chain boom across the harbour entrance and the plan was for the commando to be in this ancient destroyer. It rammed through the boom, alongside the harbour and they'd fitted some things called drawbridges for want of a better word, to flop down so the you could run straight out and secure the docks so that the French couldn't muck up the cranes and everything. It was speed. They sent in an unarmoured boat with a big white flag along the coast to tell them that we had overwhelming force. We did not wish to fire a shot and it was up to them to be sensible because it gives one no satisfaction or pleasure or anything to start shooting at your former allies. But you can't help it if it has to be and this unarmoured boat got to within about 50 yards of the shore and they machined gunned the thing to bits. Rattled it and killed everybody in it and sank it. Immediately up went the war spike and all the Navy started banging away. We were below decks and I thought, well I'm an observer I'm going to risk my arm and have a look because I didn't think Arrow was going to do any shooting, it was just a virtual landing craft. So I went on deck and saw the palm trees and sand flying in the air and all of a sudden there was a hell of a crack above my head and I was spattered with bits of cordite, the Captain of the Arrow couldn't resist having a bang himself. I was absolutely deafened, I was stone deaf for the rest of the day and it took about three weeks to get back and it's never got back to real normal, even now. I daren't say a word to the doctors because it was disobedience of orders and I suppose it could be a self inflicted wound which wouldn't have been met with favour. Anyway that was the end of Madagascar and thereafter the Commander went home.
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