- Contributed by
- George Letchford
- People in story:
- George Letchford
- Location of story:
- Kent and France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 May 2005
The occupation of Holland was quickly followed by the invasion of France. The Germans forced their passage through Belgium, bypassing the impregnable Maginot Line and flooded west into northern France.
The KFRE had by this time returned to Gravesend barracks. For several weeks they underwent training in Bailey and pontoon bridge building on the Medway at Upnor. Appropriately, since the RE Corps song begins:
"Good Morning Mr Stevens and windy Notchy Knight,
Hurrah for the CRE
We're working very hard down at Upnor Hard.
Hurrah for the CRE
You make fast I make fast make fast the dinghy
Make fast the dinghy make fast the dinghy.
You make fast I make fast make fast the dinghy.
Make fast the dinghy pontoon…"
Over in France, the BEF and the French army were failing to hold against the fast-moving German armoured brigades, and the eventual evacuation from Dunkirk was imminent. At the same time, heavy daylight bombing raids by the Luftwaffe were being mounted on Southeast England.
In London, the government ordered sandbag protection for certain key buildings. Consequentially, a KFRE detachment travelled up to the Wellington Barracks to instruct guardsmen the rudiments of sandbagging — headers, stretchers and so on. The RE party, all shapes and sizes, in fatigue order, marched out into the City led by a smart squad of Grenadiers. This was somewhat irksome to the famous RSM Britton, who vented his feelings with much bellowing!
But this episode ended suddenly, when the RE detachment was sent back to the unit at Gravesend. Immediately we were whisked down to Dover with all equipment, where we were embarked on a Royal Navy destroyer, which soon departed for Le Havre and the oil refineries around the mouth of the Seine. Cries of ‘good luck’ were heard from inbound Dunkirk evacuees as we left.
At Le Havre the RE units spent some time in dockside sheds waiting for transport to the various refinery locations, Le Havre, Port Jérôme and further up river to Rouen. Eventually three 3-ton army trucks arrived and were loaded with our equipment, including our demolition gear and several Boys anti-tank rifles, which fired 0.55” armour-piercing shells.
Our party was driven to Port Jérôme on the north bank of the Seine. The squad was under the command of Capt. Peter Keeble, and consisted of one WO, Sgt. Merrifield and ten other ranks. The billet that all ranks were to occupy at the refinery during the critical waiting period consisted of a long narrow lean-to. Hourly guard duties were maintained during the night while we slept on the palliase bedding provided. The French staff were still operating the refinery at this time, and in fact we used their canteen for our meals. This provided my first experience of horsemeat, washed down by claret.
During the next two weeks explosive charges were set up to detonate in sequence, allowing our men to retreat back to the riverside. A launch had been commandeered, which was carefully guarded by our own sentries. Inevitably the day came when the German westerly advance had progressed to the point where our preparations were put into action. Unfortunately for me, at very short notice, I was instructed to take over the assignment of a corporal who had experienced a motorcycle accident.
There was a road tanker fuel loading facility, consisting of four tanks, each about three metres diameter and five metres in height, mounted high up on a steel gantry. There were 25cm downward delivery pipes terminating in manifolds of four valves. My task was to lay a charge directly above the valves and leave everything ready for the CO to set off prior to our final withdrawal across the river. When the charges were laid, I was to take up a position guarding the eastern approach road, with the Boys anti-tank rifle. So, setting out with a box containing fourteen slabs of guncotton, primers, detonators and safety fuse, I laid the charges using wide adhesive tape to strap the whole lot in position with long safety fuses.
By now, Major Keeble and the men were blowing up the gasometer-type oil tanks in sequence. It was a fantastic spectacle to see and hear these tanks pressurising and exploding, with sections of handrail and other debris whirling about, but with some thoughts to self-preservation, I withdrew and took cover beneath an old railway steam crane.
Eventually the signal was given by rifle shot for everyone to assemble at the jetty to prepare for the scrambled withdrawal across the river. Major Keeble hurried to detonate the charges I had laid and got back to us just as they exploded. It was with some relief that we crossed over to the south side of the Seine, where our truck was waiting. The tension at that time was demonstrated by this incident while we were boarding the truck. Major Keeble saw a sentry, Spr Colin Woodruffe talking to a French woman about fifty metres from the truck. Without hesitation, Keeble drew his revolver and ordered the man to ‘jump to it!’
The back of the truck was very cramped with a dozen soldiers complete with valises, rifles and the anti-tank rifle, which I carried. Another soldier and I sat at the back with the tailboard down and our legs dangling. After a few kilometres the truck stopped, Keeble got out of the cab and we all jumped out. It was typical of this man that he then climbed into the back of the truck, propped his mirror on the cab roof and had a shave. Looking back, the black smoke from the burning refineries was turning day into night.
Back in the truck, we made good progress westward, passing many refugees trudging in the same direction. As we passed through villages, ‘La Marseillaise’ was heard playing through loudspeakers. To our surprise, we learned from Keeble that we were heading for Mont-Saint-Michel on the north Brittany coast, where we spent the night resting in a cowshed. On the following day we travelled down to the small town of Savenay, to rendezvous with other groups from our Company. We found a tented rest camp complete with field kitchens, which supplied us with some ‘good old army rations’.
During our stay here, while we were relaxing by kicking a ball about, Colonel Brazier came up to me and said that we would all be resting here for a week before our return to England, and to ask if there was anything we needed? I replied ‘what about a liberty truck to take some of us into nearby Nantes?’ which he promised to arrange. However that very afternoon our section was called out to proceed to the forest of Blain, where extensive stores of fuel were to be destroyed.
We found the petrol to be in 10 gallon buff-coloured cans stacked in blocks the size of a pair of semi-detached bungalows, each separated by about 100 metres. The area was serviced by a light railway track with a diesel loco and a flat wagon. The improvised method was to pierce a few containers with bayonets. Then working from the railway truck, torch flares were deployed, made from wooden staves wrapped with petrol-soaked strips of blanket. The plan was that two men would then approach within throwing distance, then throw a lighted flare and turn and run like the wind. At the stack nearest to the road, the officer in charge (Lt Whitehead), placed four men, Sappers A. Matthews, C. Rayfield and G. Haines led by Corporal Greenfield. This stack would be the last to be blown up as we withdrew.
The plan to ignite the farther stacks in sequence as we withdrew was going well, when suddenly the first stack behind us blew up. Lt Whitehead cursed that his instructions had been pre-empted. As we continued, getting nearer to the road, Corporal Greenfield staggered up to us to say that their stack had exploded without warning, and that two of the men had suffered burns but Sapper Haines could not be found. As we regrouped at the roadside with the job completed, a despatch rider arrived with news of France’s capitulation and instructions to return immediately. Darkness fell as we searched fruitlessly for the missing man. The situation was now desperate, so eventually the search was abandoned and we returned to camp.
On returning, we found that vehicles were being hastily loaded and all ranks were preparing to leave for St Nazaire, and eventual evacuation. Once we gained the main road and headed westward, we found we were overtaking many British troops walking in file in the same direction. It is sad to reflect that many of these unfortunate men were to lose their lives in the Lancastria tragedy. Thanks to Colonel Brazier, we were to be more fortunate. He confronted every martial and MP we met, demanding priority for his special XD party to get to the dockside.
After a delay at St Nazaire while a small volunteer party returned for another demolition job, we eventually boarded a tender, which took us out to the waiting passenger liner ‘Duchess of York’. I have to mention that I was still carrying the Boys rifle, a dixie for brewing tea, plus a rugby ball which I had jammed into my webbing for buoyancy. But I had lost my own Lee Enfield rifle, for which I was later reprimanded.
Once embarked on the troopship, our little group descended about three decks and we set ourselves up in the angle of a staircase, with the feeling of relief that we were on the way home. We knew our situation was precarious, with spasmodic bombing going on, but how much more apprehensive we would have been if we had been able to foresee the fate of the ‘Lancastria’. Eventually the liner got under way, and we started the long journey home via Liverpool.
Colonel Brazier was appointed CO of all seven thousand personnel being evacuated on the vessel. We were provided with some basic rations for which we had to join the longest queue around the ship. I found my way around and even managed to have a salt-water bath. Meanwhile the ship was taking a wide course and it was almost two days before we docked at Liverpool.
Once again, Colonel Brazier ensured that his XD troops were first to disembark. He managed to commandeer buses for us, and soon we were on our way to London and Charing Cross Station, where we grouped in a siding. We were then able to go over in small groups to St Martin in the Fields for a welcome snack in the crypt, while Colonel Brazier reported to the War Office.
Once home in Gravesend all ranks involved were granted seven days leave.
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