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- Ronald Ellis
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- Ronald Ellis
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- 19 February 2004
Christmas of 1939 was celebrated in the usual festive manner, but as with everybody, our minds were upon what would happen in the following months and where we would be for Christmas 1940.
During September 1939 the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had returned from Munich from a meeting with Hitler waving a piece of paper declaring that the German forces would not extend its boundaries any further. But by November Germany forces, with out warning, advanced in to Poland and in immediate action, Britain declared war on Germany.
In previous months young men of 18 years had been conscripted some into the services, but almost 10% were directed into the coalmines and thereafter always known as Bevin boys.
I was 23 years of age and like any other wondered what was to be our future, and after much discussion, it was accepted in our families that I should volunteer for the services. My first request that I should join the RAF was turned down, but I enrolled as sapper in the royal engineers, and reported to Clacton where we were billeted in Butlins holiday camp on Friday 4 January 1940.
Within a few days we were posted off to Margate for what was supposed to be training and the thousands of civilians from Clacton practiced marching up and down Margate dressed in khaki as much as possible. Due to shortages, some were still wearing their civilian shoes, which were not so successful in the heavy snow we experienced, and some were still wearing their bowler hats. Better billets though, we were in boarding houses used by holidaymakers.
It would be about the third week in January 1940 when under the title of 661 general construction company R.E. we embarked for France with 2 young office's under the command of lt knight, 1 regular soldier C.S.M. Lambert, 1 Q.M.S. Symons and 1 regular as ordinary room sergeant, a few non-commissioned sergeants, corporals etc which had been randomly selected from 300 ex-civilians. Our sympathy was with the C.S.M, for the selection of some was not good, some had been in the first world war and others promoted by favour, but eventually were lost somewhere.
We spent our first night on the concrete floor in an old warehouse in Calais, and the following morning we were transported to Templeuve by an old railway train. What a train, no corridors and we could never think what we had been doctored with at breakfast but it worked. What the villagers thought as we passed through with parts of our bodies stuck through the windows, and as we disembarked at Templeuve we knew not to touch the door handles, for the train had been christened Yellow Peril.
Templeuve was a small village, and we were billeted in a derelict mill building. Sleeping was somewhat better, taking your rest on wooden bunk beds. Catering consisted of three soyer boilers with wood fires. One with what was supposed to be stew, little meat because the cook regularly flogged some to the local pub where we often paid for it in supper. One had a white podgy mass, which was rice pudding, and the other contained a brownish liquid called tea. This was the daily menu, and how did we manage to serve ourselves with only two oblong tins to eat and drink from.
On occasions lights could be seen flashing from the church steeple but we were ordered to ignore it as any messages transmitted to the enemy could be taken up by the intelligence service. There was no danger with our rifles as none of us could have hit a thing, as we had received no instructions.
With a unit of trained architects, builders, joiners, plumbers etc the task of units of a similar constitution were employed in an effort to extend the Maginot defense line which the French had built, stopping at Belgian border. Although nominated as the platoon officer’s clerk I was expected to join the labour force with the skilled tradesmen in mixing concrete by hand. The extensions were similar to a concrete box with walls about 3ft thick, and a similar roof reinforced with wire mesh that had to be made on site. Facing east there was an opening for a placement of a machine gun, but no guns ever arrived.
The day when the mailbag was received was very special, as if it came weekly we were lucky, and the question discussed most was “when are we going to get leave to go home?” The anticipated leave list was finally published in March and my name appeared for a vacancy in November, most disappointing. However a man came to see me from the cookhouse with the offer that he would change my dates for my leave. His explanation was that he had no reason to come home to England, and only occasionally received a letter from a friend, and had heard a rumour that it was planned that I intended to be married on my first return home. Stan became a valued friend over the years and spent some of his periods of his leaves later with my family, and over the years both my children accepted him as uncle Stan, a remarkable man who finally reached the rank of lt. Colonel.
Our allocated tasks being completed we were posted up to a village on the Belgian border Baisieux, where the tasks were of a similar nature — mix concrete and build blockhouses. It was on one of the sites that as one platoon were digging the 3ft foundations as before, they disturbed ground that was contaminated with mustard gas that had been used during the First World War. Not very pleasant as gas masks had to be worn until the danger had been neutralized.
How relieved and glad I was to pack my backpack, my kit bag clean my rifle and be transported to the railhead on my journey back home.
Due to railway changes and a storm in the channel I was delayed a day or two but our happy day of marriage was on 8th May 1940 having been away from home for 4 months. For our honeymoon we visited Harrogate for two nights B&B, and came home on the Friday to enjoy Whitsuntide.
We had already heard a radio massage that the German forces had broken through Holland and Belgium and that all B.E.F personnel should report to Southampton immediately, and at Leeds station there were big posters up declaring the same command, which were ignored and I returned to Southampton on Friday 17th May in accordance with my leave pass.
On arrival in France, like cattle, we were hoarded on to a train that looked like the one we had left at Templeuve, and we were convinced that even the driver knew not where he was going. We did arrive at a point of information, but they knew nothing, and we a party of about 500 had become known as stragglers. Where is 661? , I found out later that I had been forwarded, proceeded in good order and March off a boat at Dover in full marching order. As stragglers we were attached to the Staffordshire light infantry, in a rumour that we were supposed to defend a road from Brussels. A few of us made our way across a field towards a road that we could see. As in previous months it was felt that nothing had changed in army activity since 1919. On reaching the road we found a Bedfordshire army truck to pile on. Nobody could drive. Having moved the wagon in the mill yard before the war I took hold of the wheel.
Fortunately somebody knew to go west, and when asked how fast the German motorized columns could move he said 40 mph.
For miles our truck never had a speed less than 45 mph.
Somewhere during this retreat I remember a time when we were forced to walk all day and by nightfall many of us tried to continue but for some of us our energy failed us and we just fell by the road. Fortunately we still had our truck, and one evening when we had stopped for a rest we experienced a sight I will never forget. We had pulled of the road into a field because the road was full of refugees fleeing from Belgium and Holland, when suddenly a German fighter plane came and concentrated firing at the men, women and children. This first fighter was followed by a second one. It must have been a lucky shot when we saw it falling to the ground on fire in the distance. How many women, children and men had been killed by these two planes. A sight never to be forgotten.
We eventually came to a crossroad. Question, which one to take?
As our situation was talked about, we experienced seeing a column of traffic coming from the left, the reply to our question. “Where are you going?” reply “Dunkirk and then to England”. We didn’t need any invite but joined them. About 2 miles from Dunkirk our transport had to be left in an area where all practical equipment had to be left for breaking up.
With the German planes dropping bombs it felt a long walk to Dunkirk. What a site to see, the sand dunes and beaches full of a forlorn crowd of soldiers, and columns queuing up out into the sea. Little pleasure boats from England were taking men out to naval boats to take them home. It was thought unwise to try to get out by the pier, which was on fire because it had been bombed and had been destroyed in two places. After two days running into the sea and returning to the beaches with clothing wet through it was time to think of some other way, especially that I had a very near miss by a lump of shrapnel falling within inches of my head, from a bomb. The Germans continued night and day with bombs and guns to make life uncomfortable.
On looking out to sea a number of us saw a pleasure steamer approaching the pier head, and as we decided to try on the pier many others followed us. Meeting the first damage it looked impossible to get across, but climbing down, swimming a bit up the other side we passed the first hole. At the second damage we were able to swing from one girder, down one, up another and finally reached the end of the pier. The crew of civilians crowded us on that one wondered as to its capabilities with so many aboard. It sailed away much to our relief.
At last we were on a boat proceeding back to England, and had the time to relax and think of the way we had been traveling north France and the borders of Belgium without any guide or instructions. Although we had made new acquaintances and comradeship, it had been every man for himself. Naturally there had been no food supplied and we had lived on vegetables stolen from discarded farms. On one occasion we had been lucky to have a butcher with us who had found an old pig on a farmyard, which was cut up small and quickly with pieces boiled in any container we could find, but there was no applesauce or stuffing with it. Wandering about a war torn country it was not very easy to think about food until you really needed something.
Others on board this pleasure boat could relate their time on beaches, when they had spent time on the beaches, when they had spent time on the sand dunes that were the safest place when bombs were dropping on the promenade when concrete was blasted with bombs. It was also related how some had got into trouble with soldiers who had raided the vacated hotels and found that excessive drinking was not helpful.
We who had been late arriving at Dunkirk were told they had heard Winston Churchill warn the country a few days ago that the last troops had been taken off the beaches, but this message made the navy work harder in getting as many off as possible. And as we sailed away we experienced the shelling of the enemy over our heads as the Germans approached Dunkirk.
Too many on board for us to be seated, but feeling relaxed at last we looked ahead for the white cliffs of Dover.
The troubles were not over because a few miles out a German bomber succeeded in sending the boat to the sea bottom, leaving us in the sea. As we took off our boots and unnecessary heavy clothing I shall never forget the cockney voice which rang out over the sea “which bloody way is England” like all of us he wasn’t going to swim the wrong way.
Although we were becoming exhausted it wasn’t long before we were picked up on an oil tanker. What a captain. After greeting us as if it were a party he sent cigarettes around, never have they been as welcome. However as we neared Dover he showed his command and discipline when he came over the speakers “nobody must smoke, or cause any sparks to be made, we have oil in storages and don’t want to blow Dover up as we enter the harbour”. What a man.
A train was waiting on the platform to carry bedraggled, unwashed but most happy men to Aldershot, where we arrived late on the evening of June 5th ready for a good nights sleep in a bed. After the best breakfast ever we were encouraged to visit a young sergeant sat at 6ft table who had a pile of telegram forms. We were allowed to send messages home, the limit being 12 words. We found out later that this sergeant’s father had sent a blank cheque to Aldershot post office to cover the cost of our messages. I’d like to have thanked that young sergeant’s farther, a retired army officer.
At Aldershot we were back in the army- fall in, in threes, march to the stores and get dressed- wait in ranks of three and march back to parade ground looking like soldiers. On being “Stood At Ease” we had to be interviewed and when we were asked where our units were I was directed to Tavistock. On arrival there it was found that they had moved on, and moving from one or two other places in Devon I finally joined them at Plimton near Plymouth, and from some of the friends I was informed that they had been withdrawn from their location and had traveled from Dunkirk by train and embarked with full dress and uniform about 20th May.
Like everybody else we wondered where we would be posted next. Daily training was introduced and general repair work around the docks carried out. It was considered that the Army was re-forming in the south of England, and where there are crowds of soldiers in one area rumours change from day to day, and in every public house visited there were different stories being talked about.
We were fortunate as a unit we boarded a train, under strict secrecy, and traveled north. As we journeyed into Yorkshire my hopes were that our destiny might be near home. Hopes were high as we passed through Leeds, but we were soon well away and over the borders into Scotland. At Ladybank we were billeted in public halls and the unit was employed in building roadblocks, which would be a deterrent, should there be an invasion on the east coast. Moving on to Auchtermuchty with the unit carrying out similar work, life in the Army in Scotland was good and we appreciated our good fortune when we heard of other units being posted abroad.
Major Knight who had led us in France was posted away from our unit, promoted to Lt. Colonel and put in control of building a military port at the village of Cairn Ryan on the banks of Loch Ryan. This port was being built along with one at Gareloch Head, to be used if any of our major ports were badly damaged by bombs. To assist in this work our unit was posted to Ballantrae in Strathclyde where we had the comfort of accommodation in private houses in the summer weather of 1941. The work of our unit was building Nissen and Romney huts around the village of Cairn Ryan for other units of engineers.
As winter approached we were moved down to Cairn Ryan and allocated an area to build our own Nissen huts, whilst we had to sleep in tents.
Work at Cairn Ryan was hard, heavy and long hours with special lights for night work. Lights had to be switched off when a warning was received that enemy planes were approaching the East Coast.
I suspect that I’m not alone, Nostalgia has its place, though we have to recognize that our memories are selective and we tend to edit out our minds less pleasant ones, therefore leaving a more idealized picture.
Activities at Cairn Ryan apart from military activities were nil, apart form meeting other soldiers from different units of organizations in the village there was only a small church and a few cottages with a little shop. However it was only a few miles into Stranraer, where people showed themselves to be very friendly and organized special social activities for us.
Our officer commanding, Major Powell engaged me to act as secretary at a meeting where the plans for the military port were to be discussed. Having had no experience of reading such drawings I asked a question when I noted the route where a railway line was to be constructed “there is a hill there sir?” the reply “we are going to dig it away”. Earth moving machinery was eventually used, and after a week or two all the specialist drivers were posted away. Thus others had to be used and anybody who could drive a car had to take a test and nobody failed, so the work carried on. The port in Cairn Ryan is now in civilian use for passengers sailing to N.Ireland.
It was an experience to be so fortunate to be on this site and see how many difficulties had to be faced by the architects and technicians, as when special steel pillars had to be made, and as previously mixed in France — still more concrete was needed.
The summer weather was very good, but winter was difficult. In 1942/43 the snow fell and roads to Stranrear were blocked and the rations for canteens had to be collected by using tugboats to sail to Stranraer.
Eventually we were posted south to Biscester where training was extended and it was obvious that something would soon be happening. As Major Powell and I returned to our Unit after a meeting in London, we found everybody on the move as the advance party was on the way to London. Yes it was June 6th. The rest of the company had to travel to Newhaven from where we had to sail to Normandy, landing there on D.6. and report to a point known as Keats where our advance party should have been there to meet us, but they had been delayed by a storm in the channel, but they arrived soon after.
Under the title of 661 Artisan Works Co. R.E. we served as a backup unit mine lifting, road repairs and general works needed to ensure progress of the army into Germany, stopping off at Amiens and finally settling at Hanover from where we were demobolised.
By Ronald Ellis
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