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A Narrow Escape

by Dundee Central Library

Contributed by 
Dundee Central Library
People in story: 
John Cowan
Location of story: 
France
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3366344
Contributed on: 
04 December 2004

The bullet-damaged helmet

‘Give me half a minute’s start. We’ll go through that wood. About 500 yards on there’s a
T- junction. Turn right there and we’ve got about a mile of straight road. The Germans are reckoned to be a couple of miles over on our left - so go like the clappers! Then take the first turning on the right and, about 200 yards down that little road, there are some buildings and a white lime-washed church with a tower. We’ll meet up with our Gun Troop there’.

Through that wood! The Germans are a couple miles away! Lieutenant Muir had come into the hamlet, a few minutes back, from the opposite direction and didn’t know ‘that wood’ had, only fifteen minutes earlier, spewed out a maimed Bren Carrier with an obscene cargo on board. Before I could utter a word of protest, he scrambled into his 8-cwt Morris and the truck lurched off, wheels spinning on the loose road surface, spraying me with dirt and gravel.

I kicked the engine of my bike into life, pulled in the clutch, put the machine into first gear — and started counting. At thirty — or was it twenty? - I let out the clutch and twisted the throttle savagely. The BSA careered off, the sudden acceleration causing the rear wheel to slither and slide.

! got through the wood and swung right at the junction. Ahead, a cloud of dust marked the progress of the Morris. With my chest flat on the petrol tank, I roared off in pursuit. When I was in sight of the next turning, the bike, for no apparent reason, swerved sharply and I was catapulted face-down into a ditch bordering the right side of the road. Spitting out dead grass and earth, I eased myself up and cursed my stupidity for losing control of the machine. I’d always prided myself on being the best m/c rider in our Battery.

The bike was lying on its side on the road a few yards away, its rear wheel spinning uselessly. I scrambled out of my ditch to pick it up and there was a burst of small arms fire. I was back in my ditch fast — and voluntarily this time! There are few sounds so unfriendly as the rattling and ricocheting of bullets on a road a few yards away, especially when they are enemy bullets.

I lay still and considered my position. The instinct for survival concentrates the mind wonderfully — even in times of tension, some kind of animal cunning takes over. Somewhere out there, eyes — and guns — were focused on my bike and any sign of movement could trigger off another burst of hostile bullets. If I lay long enough, they out there might not go away, but their attention might be transferred elsewhere. My tin helmet slipped down the back of my head and the web chinstrap was pressing uncomfortably on my windpipe. The rim of the wartime British Army steel helmet was smooth and bevelled but, when I gripped the brim of mine, a V-shaped tear twisted and ragged on the brim, no more than an inch from where my forehead must have been. Oddly, my first emotion was not one of relief that I had escaped decapitation by the proverbial hairsbreadth, but rather one of satisfaction that my ignominious descent into the ditch had not been the result of incompetent driving on my part. Relief came later — much later.

I reconsidered my position. My prime objective - apart from staying alive — was to reach our gun crews with their transport, now only two or three hundred yards down to my right. The shortest route lay diagonally across a field, but a closer inspection of my mutilated helmet indicated that the bullet that had caused my downfall had come from that direction of the field! Also the field was in pasture with no cover.

On the other hand, the ditch that sheltered me ran parallel to the road I had just travelled along, and should lead to the road junction that would take me down to my troop. Although the ditch was quite a shallow one, there were a lot of tall, wild grasses and weeds on either side of it So I decided to go along it - there seemed no alternative. Half crawling, half scrambling, I reached the junction. The road down to the right for the first fifty yards or so ran straight and narrow — little more than a lane — with a field on each side of it. But there was no ditch, and I had recently formed a close affinity, even affection, for shallow French roadside depressions bounded by lovely long French grasses and weeds.

There was, however, one enticing prospect. About fifty yards down on the right was a lone building — a solid, heavy, whitewashed, windowless building — and protruding from it, like a beckoning finger, was a pole from which drooped a red, white and blue French flag.

I scampered down towards it, weaving and bobbing in the prescribed Army Field Training Manual fashion, but did so instinctively and not because of any advice given in any Army publication. I reached it and stumbled through its open door beneath the welcoming Tricolour, gasping ‘Écosse — British’. But there was no welcome. No friendly Gallic greeting — not even a fierce French challenge. The place was empty.

As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom of the barn, I could see signs of recent occupation — items of clothing and upturned boxes forming seats round a large cask, on which lay the remains of a meal. Half-eaten sandwiches and partly filled canteens of brown, coffee-coloured liquid warned that whoever had last used that building had left in a hurry, if not in panic.

This was no place for me ! I went to the doorway and peered out. Further down the lane I saw a large farm trailer lying on its side, forming a makeshift road block, and crouching behind it a number of khaki-clad figures. I shouted to them and they replied in thick Glasgow accents, “We’ve been watching you. C’mon doon here quick — we’ll cover you”.

I scuttled down to them and the strong hands of a Highland Light Infantryman caught hold of me and hauled me unceremoniously through the makeshift roadblock. I breathed a sigh of relief — safety at last. But for how long, I wondered.

John Cowan via Dundee Central Library

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