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15 years in uniform chapter 2

by cheeryraysalaff

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Raymond D Swindell
Location of story: 
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Contributed on: 
03 January 2006

To get from Belfast to Shoeburyness was another very long journey and involved going through London. This was my first visit to the Capital city, and had a bewildering trip on the underground. When I arrived at Shoeburyness, it was at the height of the Doodlebug Raids. I was billeted in a married quarter on a tree lined street. The first night I heard a strange noise so I went outside just in time to see one of the doodlebugs flying above the trees, after a short time the engine cut out and the bomb plunged to the ground with a mighty explosion only a 100 yards away. I suppose it could be said that I received my baptism of fire.
I had come to the Royal Artillery Depot to be trained to man handle and fire the 6 pounder Anti-tank Gun, also I had to learn how to drive the tracked vehicle that usually towed the weapon. Because the war was now going on in France we had to be trained as quickly as possible so that we could become reinforcements for the British Second Army. It is impossible for me to remember the actual gun training, but learning to drive I can remember, because of a near accident that happened to me. The vehicle I was taught to drive was the Carden-Lloyd Carrier, a machine that had been invented just after the end of the First World War. It was steered by two levers, pulling on the right lever caused the right track to brake slewing the carrier to the right. Pulling on the left lever caused it to go to the left. To stop one had to pull on both levers. On the day of the first driving lesson, 4 trainees and a corporal instructor got into the vehicle, and I was told that I would be the first to occupy the driving seat. I was very nervous as we left the barracks and proceeded along the promenade towards Southend. There were a cobbled tram track along the prom and it seemed very easy to control the vehicle. However the corporal suddenly told me to turn right into a side road. We were travelling at what seemed a terrific speed, and I yanked on the right lever, at which the vehicle started to spin on the cobbled surface. I immediately released the lever, and as we stopped turning and I still had my foot on the accelerator, we were now heading for a garden wall. The corporal grabbed one lever and I grabbed the other and we both pulled hard. The vehicle came to an abrupt halt and the rear end came up with me thinking it was going to go right over. After a lot of rocking it came to rest, by which time I was shaking like a leaf. The instructor insisted that I carry on driving, and he made me drive for about ten miles before he let someone else take over. I was now trained on the 5 duties of the gun crew.
Another journey, back through London, and on into Mid Wales to a semi-permanent camp at Sennybridge, (That camp is still there at this present moment) to complete the field training on the 6 pounder. This included live firing when 25 pounder guns, 3” Mortars, and Heavy machine guns were fired over our heads to get us used to the noise of battle. One of the 25 pounder shells dropped short into a slit trench containing 2 men. By a miracle they were uninjured but extremely shell shocked. When we had completed our field training we were taken to Harlech to do live firing with the gun. For me this turned out to be very enjoyable, as I was to hit the target with each of the 6 rounds that I had to fire.
All my training was now over, and I went to the 8th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at Crickhowell near Abergavenny to await posting to a fighting unit. France was my next destination and I arrived at the village of Villiers-Brettoneux. I had been told by my dad that some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War took place in that area. However there was not much evidence of those battles until you went further into the countryside and saw the enormous cemeteries for the dead soldiers. It was a very sobering thought as we waited to go to join a front line unit. There was not a long wait, and so began a journey that was to take me through three countries. From France, through Belgium and on to Holland, where I was to join the 5th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment, who at the time were in reserve positions in a small town called Hengelo. The platoon I was to join, were billeted in a Furniture shop, using some of the furniture to make ourselves comfortable. I was issued with Regimental Shoulder flashes, and Divisional signs to sew on my battledress jacket. The daughter-in-law of the owners of the shop said she would sew them on for me. I was to get to know her quite well because several weeks later I was to spend a few days at the divisional rest camp in the nearby town of Almelo. I took the opportunity to go and visit those kind people, who made me very welcome. Her name was Cecelia Troelska-Sloots, and was married to a Dutch policeman. I kept in touch with her right up till I got married, learning about the birth of her children.
We were at Hengalo for three days and then we had to go relieve another division at the front. The first battle for me was for the town of Kleves which was a German town on the Dutch side of the River Rhine, and was at the northern end of the Seigfried Line (The defence line of the Germans from Holland, past Belgium and down to the south of France). It was expected that there would be a stubborn defence of the town, and so a 1000 bomber raid was delivered along with a 48 hour shoot of all the artillery that was available. The town was destroyed leaving only a few buildings standing.
My Battalion’s approach to Kleve was extremely uncomfortable, as we were transported on tanks, as many as twelve men had to cling on to a tank, and as it was raining at the time it made the journey hazardous. On reaching the outskirts of the town we got off and then made the attack on foot supported by the tanks we had ridden on. A bulldozer tank led the way, making a road through the rubble. After a prolonged fire-fight with the Germans we managed to drive them out. Afterwards we were told to find accommodation for ourselves as we were to be the reserve division for the next few days. This proved to be very difficult due to the heavy damage to the town. My platoon was able to find a reasonable place in a brewery. The offices were fairly intact, and like all good infantrymen soon made ourselves comfortable. The main office was of the open plan type and at one end there were wooden doors which were locked, we soon opened them with the use of our anti-tank weapon. All we found inside was the Firms office records, but let into the floor were some brass rings which when pulled on revealed a chamber. Among the contents were 14 crates of John Haigs Whiskey. Also to our astonishment there were 14 men billeted there. What does an infantryman do with 12 bottles of whiskey. Not being used to the stuff, we used them as barter for items that were of more use.
After we had been in that billet for 4 days, it was our division’s turn to lead the advance through the Reichwald Forest. We were proceeding along a road through the village of Bedburg, when a German shell hit the road close to us. One of my section caught the full blast in his stomach severely wounding him. We couldn’t stop to look after him that was the job of our stretcher-bearers. The company now turned off the road into a large field in which there were 8 British tanks that had been knocked out by a German 88mm gun situated in a small wood at the top of a hill. This hill had been made into a very strong defensive position, containing 4 Spandau machine Guns, 2 heavy mortars and the 88 mm gun. Plus some Infantrymen. It was now the task of my Battalion to take the position. We were able to use the knocked-out tanks as cover to advance. The Germans resisted to the last, and we sustained quite a few casualties. Unfortunately they were able to withdraw the gun and mortars, which were to be used to good effect later. My Company occupied the wood and leading from it was a German communication trench that led down to a farm house at the foot of the hill. As soon as we started to make ourselves comfortable the Germans began using their Mortars on us making it very uncomfortable. We started to go down the trench to the farm, but the Germans soon switched their fire on to us. Every time we went up or down, they let fly at us. One of the mortar shells hit the side of the trench close to me. I was covered in dirt, and I thought I was lucky not to have been injured, however a couple of minutes later I saw blood coming down my sleeve. Telling the section corporal who cut up the sleeves of my clothes until he got to my elbow where the wound was. He put my first aid dressing on to the wound and told me to make my way back to Company Headquarters. The O.C. asked me where I was going and I told him I was looking for the stretcher-bearers. He told me that they were in the farm house and that I was to throw away the pick-axe I was carrying.
Reaching the Farm, I found the stretcher-bearers had made themselves at home in the cellar. One of them came up and cut off the first aid dressing to see the extent of the wound. He put another dressing on and said I would have to be taken back to the Regimental Aid Post where there was a medical officer. Outside the farm house there was a large enclosed yard with a gate in the wall farthest from the house. A jeep was just outside the house, and I was told to sit between the driver and the bearer. I was securely wedged in and the driver put his foot on the accelerator so that by the time we reached the gate we were almost at full speed. It was soon clear why we had gone so fast, as the Germans had a machine-gun trained on that bit of track, and used it on us. Fortunately we were going so fast they didn’t hit us. Reaching the road, the driver swung the vehicle on to it and because it was tree-lined we were soon in shelter.
We came to a house in Bedburg which had become the R A P. The M.O. cut off the dressing and probed in the wound, fetching out a small piece of shrapnel. He then said that there was more in there and I would have to go back to a hospital. I was now taken in a 15cwt ambulance to where a D.U.K.W. (Amphibious Truck) waited to take us through the flooded Dutch countryside to a Canadian Casualty Clearing Station in Nijmegen. As it was now late evening we were told to lie down on stretchers for the night, being given a meal, which was a bully-beef sandwich. Canadian Red Cross Nurses handed out chocolates, cigarettes, toothbrush and paste. No medical attention was given to most of the wounded, but those who were urgent were immediately further evacuated.
Next morning after breakfast and a wash, we went out to waiting T.C.V’s (Troop Carrying Vehicles), which took us to Eindhoven Railway Station where a hospital train was waiting to take us to No 3 Base Hospital in Brussels. At Brussels Railway Station, 3 ton ambulances took us to the University which now housed the base hospital. I was now operated on to remove the remainder of the shrapnel. The next day Doctors made their rounds of the wards, to choose men to clear them for fresh casualties. Those chosen were taken back to hospitals in England. Unfortunately for me I wasn’t picked and so I remained there for about 1 week, being then transferred to a Convalescent Home in Tournai, on the French / Belgium border. For a couple of centuries the town had been a Belgium Army Garrison town and as such, had attracted ladies of ill-repute. Every Café had its share of them, and so it was not quite the place for a convalescent home. After about 2 weeks, I was declared fit and able to rejoin my unit.
It was a long journey to rejoin them, as they had now crossed the River Rhine, and were pursuing the Germans through their own country. Infantrymen normally walked in to war, but now as the Germans were retreating so fast, we became more mobile. Occasionally we rode on tanks, other times on normal Lorries, but now a new type of armoured transport became available. This was a tank with the turret removed and at a pinch could accommodate up to 14 men. It had been given the name of “Kangaroo”. About 1 week before the end of the war the battalion was in kangaroo’s covering about 20 miles a day. This day was bad for us, as the leading Kangaroo suddenly disappeared with a loud explosion, being in the 2nd vehicle, I saw this happen, where the Kangaroo had been there was a huge crater, so big in fact that the Engineer’s had to put a bridge over it. There was not much left of the 17 men who were in it. It appears that the Germans had connected a 1,000 kilogramme aerial bomb to an anti-tank mine.
We carried on with the advance, but at the next village we came to we were fired on from some of the houses. Our C.O. was so incensed after what had happened earlier, that he ordered our flame-throwers to burn down the houses. Naturally this stopped any further resistance there so we carried on.
Before the war ended, we were patrolling through a heavily wooded area, when we encountered some people dressed in striped pyjama-like clothing. We discovered that they had been inmates of a German Concentration Camp, This turned out to be BELSEN. We were told not to enter the camp but to go round the sides of it. Along one side we encountered a Hungarian Armoured Car Regiment. These were allies of the Germans, and we were told to disarm them, much to our amusement we found that the Germans had done it for us as they did not trust them. A strict order was issued to us that under no circumstance were we to go in to the camp because of all the diseases that were prevalent. My platoon officer was talking to one of the medical officers who said that he could go in but he must have an escort. I was chosen, and soon wished that it had been someone else. The sights in there were horrific, and to this day I still shudder at the thought of them.
One of my most vivid memories of the war, was of “Digging-in”. The British Army must have dug up half of Europe. Whilst in action, all infantrymen dug in every night for protection. Usually it consisted of a hole 6 feet long, 2 feet wide, and up to 6 feet deep. Of course this depended on the nature of the ground, quite often due to hard ground it would only be a scrape. At a defensive position, they tended to be more elaborate by adding a slit at right angles to the main trench, this was for a person to sleep in and was covered with wood and earth. When the war ended for us, we moved to a deserted farm near a place called Uelzen. As we were not sure if all Germans had surrendered, we were ordered to dig defensive positions around the farm buildings. As we were not bothered by enemy fire, we really went to town with our trenches. The Germans must have left the farm in a hurry, as they had left the inside as if they had gone for a walk. We took advantage of this by using the doors off the farm-house and out-buildings to cover over the sleeping area, and as the ground was quite sandy we went the full 6 feet deep. Some men even took mattresses and other bedding in to their trenches.

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