- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 February 2004
A story of an ordinary conscript soldier.
1st Bn. Ox. and Bucks. Light Infantry.
It was Sunday 3rd September 1939. The Prime Minister came on the radio and announced that we were at war with Germany.
I was thirteen and still at school in Bristol. Not much happened in the first year. A few aircraft came over in the daytime and we had to go to the shelters in the school grounds. These were trenches dug in the ground, then covered over.
I left school in 1940 and started work at the Bristol Aeroplane Company. On my first Wednesday the sirens went off at about eleven o’clock. As we went to the shelters along Golf Lane we could see the bombers in formation coming towards the airfield. We had only been in the shelters a short time when the bombs came down.
The shelter shook and dust and smoke filled it. The call went out for First Aiders. We were ordered out of our shelter as the one next to us had been hit but the bomb was a delayed action. Rodney Works was ablaze. One shelter was hit so bad they later sealed it with the bodies inside and as far as I know the bodies are still there. Many people were killed, including soldiers who were marching along the A38 at the end of the runway. There were no fighters about and not much ack-ack fire.
The next day a squadron of Hurricanes were flown on to the airfield and were ready for the second attempt on the Friday. The Germans did not bomb Filton again except for a couple of single aircraft attacks. One was early evening but the aircraft was fired on by the Bofors at the end of Charfield Road in the BAC sports field. He came over low and dropped a stick of bombs down Eastleigh Road, one of which landed at the bottom of our garden in the River Tryme. We were in the Anderson shelter in the garden. Our house was minus a few tiles and window panes but still habitable.
It was Sunday 24 November 1940 when Bristol had its first big raid. It was early evening when the sirens went and the All Clear did not go until the next morning. Castle Street and a lot of the shopping area were wiped out. The last big raid was Good Friday 1941. A lone raider did come over one day (very high) and dropped a bomb which hit a double decker bus full of people in Old Market.
We spent many a long night in the shelter, as the bombers would follow the River Severn to the Midlands but the sirens went off as it was not known if they might turn off for Bristol.
When I was sixteen I joined the Home Guard, the 11th Bn. Glos. It meant training ever Sunday morning and guard duty was about ever ten days at the BAC Works at Chittering outside of Avonmouth. We were armed with .303 Lee Enfields from the First World War. Also we had Browning heavy machine guns. We would get back from Avonmouth at about seven o’clock in the morning, then it was straight to work.
At eighteen I was called up for the Army. I had to report to Hydrabad Barracks, Colchester on 3rd August 1944; six weeks of basic training and square bashing. It was there that I met a couple of old school mates. At the end of six weeks half of the intake was posted to The Glosters and the rest of us went to the 1st Bn. Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry at Googerat Barracks, still in Colchester.
There it was more training, route marches getting longer, night exercises etc. It was at this time that the Doodle Bugs were coming over. One landed at the back of our block on Abbey Fields. It blew up the old oak tree into little pieces. We were doing 25 mile route marches followed by an assault course, then fifteen minutes square bashing and only then were we allowed to fall out. It was a hard day. Every morning beds were laid out, blankets folded exactly to the blanket stick, spare boots, mess tins, razor, shaving brush — all the usual bull.
One day we had to go in the gas van. They filled it with gas, which we had to breathe, and then put on our masks, which wasn’t very nice. You just wanted to pull them off but we had to double back to the barracks before we could take them off.
After ten weeks we were posted to the 4th Bn. Ox. and Bucks. This was the training battalion at North Walsham in Norfolk. We were billeted over the local Co-op shop. Every morning it was down the side stairs, down the street, round the corner into the ablutions in the back yard (no hot water). Every time that we went out on training we had to double march in and out of the town. Good job it was a small place!
At this time of year it was heavy snow. On one exercise I had to take cover on what I thought was a grass mound, instead it was a silage heap. Did it smell.
Our last exercise was a four-day one over the Norfolk Broads, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, forced marching, river crossing and street fighting. It was not much fun digging slit trenches in the snow.
At the end of five weeks we were sent on Embarkation Leave, reporting back to Mundsley-on-Sea. It was an ex-holiday camp on the cliff top, the huts were like garden sheds, the latrines in the old Oast House (buckets with a wooden seat- very dark and smelly).
It was now February 1945 and we were told that we were going abroad. On 10th February we were put on trains to Oxford and then by truck to Abingdon, home of The Red Berets, airbourne troops. By now we knew that we were going by air. We had been told that we were going a new way, but not how. Next morning we were taken to the airfield where we saw masses of gliders and Dakotas (DC3s).
We were put aboard the DC3s and flew over Swindon, then the Channel. It was very bumpy, the plane kept dropping in the air pockets. We could see the rocket ramps in France from which the Germans were firing the V1s, but by now they had been captured. By mistake our pilot landed in the wrong place, Tilsburg in Holland when we should have been in Belgium. We took off again and went to the right place. This time from there we went by train to Corbie in France.
As we were now on active service we got six pence a day rise. We were now on three shillings and sixpence a day. After a few days we were moved in cattle trucks to Burg Leopold in Belgium, then on to join the 9th Bn. Ox. and Bucks. who were on the edge of the Reichwold Forest overlooking Goch. Here we were posted to companies. Four of us were posted to D Company. Unfortunately one of the companies was mortared that night and two of the new chaps were killed.
The first time under fire came the next day. D Company was advancing up the road, the companies on the left and right hand side of the road were under shell and mortar fire as they dug in. We carried on and reached our objective with no trouble.
We moved down the West side of the Rhine during the next few weeks. During this time Lt. Francis was killed. He was my platoon officer. We had got to our objective without contact with the Germans but came under shell fire. We were out of radio contact with HQ and he went out with two chaps to make contact, but was hit. From my trench I saw the medics pick him up next morning but the middle of his body was missing. They picked his legs up separately. The next day we were moved into some houses and we were told that we could go to his burial. Some of us went in a truck but we were too late as he had already been buried.
On getting back to the farm houses we came under shell fire. A shell through the roof hit the house that I had been in, the chaps that we left behind were sheltering in the cellar. The room where I had left my kit was a shambles. If I had been in there I don’t think that I would have been writing this.
Another time, my mate was in one trench and I was in the next; every time we put our heads up tracer bullets would be coming straight between us. I often wonder why they didn’t alter their aim.
We went on down until we met up we the Yanks at Venlo. From there we were taken out of the line on rest. We went to a small village outside Brussels.
After the rest period we went up to cross the Rhine, about two days after the main body. We were delayed because the first pontoon bridge was blown away and they had to build another. As the trucks went over the water was lapping over the bridge. We were ordered to undo our webbing in case we went into the water ( not much use to me as I couldn’t swim). We crossed at Xortan to Bocholt.
The trucks were left behind and we went back to riding on the Kangaroos. I think it was Good Friday 1st April when Jerry caught our transport on the road, hit the first one and stopped us. By the time we had dismounted and attacked the wood Jerry had withdrawn. I was platoon runner at the time. I had to take messages from the company HQ to the platoon. In this instance I was sent back as escort to the R.A. officer to bring his carrier forward. He was a big six footer and I was small up against him.
We went back to our Kangaroos and went “swanning” after the Germans. It was some time after this that my legs came out in sores and the M.O. sent me back to the Casualty Clearing Station. My big toe also came up in a big blister. The M.O. stuck a big needle in it and drew out the fluid. Then it was by ambulance to the RAF airfield where the RAF padre fed us dainty sandwiches and cake. After being put aboard the Dakotas we were flown to Lovaine in Belgium and to hospital. Here the first thing I got was a hot bath. Wonderful. Treatment was rough. The nuns who helped just caught hold of the scabs with tweezers and just yanked them off, then sprayed penicillin on them. Our ward was all skin infection cases. I had to wear Hospital Blues when I was finally allowed to go out to the town; white shirt, red tie, blue trousers and blue jacket. After about two weeks I was discharged and began a series of moves to holding camps in order to get back to my battalion. First to East Dunkirk near La Panne, then to Oster Beek outside of Nymegen in Holland. I was here when the war finished on 8th May.
I finally caught up with the Battalion in Hamburg. The city was in ruins. After a while the Battalion was moved to Burochide, a small village near Dusseldorf. We took over from the Yanks. Our main duties were to guard the Displaced Persons camp.
In August I came home on leave and because of storms in the Channel I got three extra days as the ships weren’t sailing. I went back on VJ Day. On arriving back I found that all of my mates had been posted to 3rd Division and replaced by men from 2nd Battalion who had been with the 6th Airbourne troops. Somehow I never got the telegram recalling me from leave, so I stayed with the Battalion.
Next we were moved to Berlin. Here we came under the famous Desert Rat Division. We were in Spandau Barracks. In Berlin we manned a delousing centre for the German prisoners who had made their way back from Russian camps. Tattered clothes and their feet wrapped in sacking. They’d had to walk all the way. Also we had to take turns with the Russians, Yanks and French guarding Herman Hess in Spansau Prison. I didn’t get picked for that duty, I always got the one at the Power Station guarding the coal trucks from the German civvies. Mostly it was young children finding a few lumps of coal. It was in Berlin that I started to work in the Regiment canteen, the Corporal running it was an old school mate.
Then we moved to Leesen in the Hary Mountains. There I ran the company canteen. About every eight months the Battalion was moved to a new place.
Trieste was the next move. This cost the lives of several members of S Company; another train ran into the rear of their train and they were killed.
It was winter and there was no running water in the barracks, water was brought in by truck., one jerry can per room per day for about twenty of us. No toilets. Only a plank over a trench in the grounds. As there was no need for a canteen I was asked to work in the company office and was sent on a typing course for a couple of weeks.
Trieste was nice in the summer. Then came the move to Pula in Yugoslavia. It was Italian but was due to be handed to the Slavs. One morning the Brigadier was shot and killed by a women as he went to his office.
Next move was back to Luneburg in Germany with 5th Division. Sgt. Smith finally got permission to marry Erica ( a German girl he met in Leesen). Several of us went to his wedding in Goslar. By this time I was working in the HQ orderly room.
From Luneberg I came home on demob leave and finished with the Army in 1948, having served just over three and a half years. I got three shillings a day to start, then another six pence when we went abroad on active service. Finally I got seven shillings a day when they increased the pay rates after the war. I also got £30 demob grant.
Private Norman Preston, 1st Bn. Oxford and Bucks. Light Infantry 1944 — 1948.
Written shortly before his death on 26 October 1999.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.