- Contributed by
- Geoffrey Ellis
- People in story:
- Tony Shaw O.B.E.
- Location of story:
- England & Europe
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 December 2005
Part 3 of 3 parts
Continued from www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A8118894
When we embarked from East Ham, because the other ports were crowded out getting tanks across and so on, we actually embarked on a Liberty Ship. I hadn’t got all my troops on board. I was feeling a bit lost because I’d lost all control and I hadn’t got a despatch rider and everything else to do as I told them, but I was still made responsible. I was made O/C Troops on an American Liberty Ship. We left East Ham and crawled down the river to Southend, then we stopped and started gathering up, and the Admiral in charge of the particular area called us to his headquarters, which he called a ship but it was in fact the end building on Southend Pier. I can’t remember what he said but it was nothing of importance at all.
We chugged back and then at night we crept round and we passed Dover in the night and we ended up off Normandy, but, the sea got very rough and the ship was
too rocking, there was no vehicles to be got out or anything else. So we had to wait but two interesting things happened there. One is that, and people won’t believe this but the flying bombs were flying from the nearest point they could get to the French coast that they could get for the journey over Kent and to land in London, and only by mistake did they go anywhere else. I was standing on the deck wondering when the hell we were going to get off in Normandy, then I suddenly heard a bloody flying bomb. Impossible. Sure enough it was a flying bomb, and it had been turned by a couple of Spitfires who were following it placidly, and they turned it and followed it to make sure it didn’t do funny things that might do damage to us. They escorted it over our lines anyway then they’d no doubt leave it once it had gone over German lines.
The other thing was that I suddenly heard a sort of craft coming alongside us. “Excuse me sir”. I said, “What’s the matter?” There was a First Lieutenant on a Torpedo Boat saying, “Can I tie up?” I said, “Well, throw it up. I’ll tie you up, then I’ll get permission from the Skipper”. So I went. “Sure he can tie up here”. They said, “Have you got any bread you can exchange for cigarettes or something or other?” So I got him some bread, and he said, “Come and have a drink”. So I went down there. We had a drink, he said, “You’re sitting where Churchill sat about three days ago, and the King sat two days before that”. Churchill had got his physician on one side and his ADC on the other. One was giving him notes and messages as they came in, and his medicine man, Lord Horder, was giving him pills and brandy. But, he said the King shook our engineer Snotty because he said, “Is this a Packard engine?” “Yes sir“ he said. “Down-draught carburation?” “Yes sir”.
Anyway, we got off eventually, and I must have been the last one of our Brigade to get off because we ‘drowned’, because of that wretched American chap in charge of the landing craft. He said, “I can’t get in any nearer” I said, “You’ll have to get in, we’re not ‘proofed’ any longer. We were told it wasn’t necessary. This car’s going to be ‘drowned’ in a couple of feet of water”. And he said, “Well I can’t come in any more” and finally he dropped the board and said, “You’ll have to get off sir”. I said, “All right, for God’s sake”. And then of course, we ‘drowned’.
The chap had got about forty vehicles ‘drowned’. The REME chap said, “I can’t come until the morning. I’ll be with you as soon as I can”. I said, “Please do”. He came and squirted some fire extinguisher liquid and dried it all out and things started. I’d fortunately got a system going whereby wherever our unit moved there were little metal signs with arrows pointing, painted with our colours and number, and driven into the ground. And the motorbikes came along and picked them up after the last one had gone. But fortunately they’d left them for me and they hadn’t pulled them out yet and so I was able to get to my unit.
Every field was full of troops and everything else, so I got there and went in, and my second in command said, “Thank God you’re here sir”. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Well you’ve just about got time. You’ve got to report to Monty”. Here it is — ‘Report Commander-in-Chief, personally at…’ I’ve called your man and he’s getting some breakfast, I’ve called your driver and he’s getting the car, and getting it ready.
So I changed, spruced up, had a breakfast. I said, “Well this is not sent to me, he’s sending it to all the commanders of the Brigade. He wants the Brigade to do some special job. So we reported to Monty’s headquarters having been given the number on the map, which I’m sure the Germans would have liked to have known about. It was the most amazing scene because we were ushered in, and there was Monty standing around, no hat on, with his hands in his pockets, with just a pullover on, mooching around, just thinking, and he looked up and said, “Oh hallo. Welcome. Come on in”, shook hands and “Come on over here”. He looked as if he hadn’t got a care in the world, which was a good start, having heard about Generals quivering away before something came of it.
He took us to a big map, showed us quickly around what had happened so far, and then he said “I’ve learned one thing about the Germans. Now how do you get out of a bridgehead? My favourite trick is just to go round - the oldest trick in the business but as long as you do it right you can get away with it. But you don’t do it out of a bridgehead. So what do I do? Well, I’ve got to persuade him that we’re going to attack at one point, and we’re going to attack at another. It’s not easy, but I have noticed that anything that we do on this salient where the British are”, he said. “Nervous as hell”. He said, “Two days ago” (and I remember hearing this on the news), he said, “British tanks are streaming out on the open plains towards Paris…”
“They hadn’t broken out at all but the object is that we’ve been bombing like hell around here ahead of us. I’ve told the British not to sacrifice too much. We’ve got to pretend we’re being aggressive but we don’t want to sacrifice too many men where we are not going to attack”. He said, “I’ll tell you this much. Virtually all the armoured formations of the German army are facing us. And round there, facing Patten’s armour, and the rest of Eisenhower’s army, there’s virtually no armour at all so that’s where the break-out’s going, and at eleven o’clock today it will all start. All the stuff is going to be switched in the air to that point, and they’re just going to be plastered like hell in front of the American lines. Plastered and plastered and plastered, and as soon as it stops the Americans will move forward en masse”.
Then he said, “You may wonder why I’ve been calling you here today. The main route for the Germans as soon as they realise that I’ve twicked them (he couldn’t pronounce his R’s properly): they will want to go down the main route eleven there, one of these great routes that Napoleon had carved out, straight line A to B. We’ve blown up every bridge there is on it. As soon as they start repairing it we blow it again. But there is nothing but mere small bridges and streams between here and there from this point on. Now, here’s Caumont. Just beyond the hill of Caumont there are three hills. One doesn’t matter so much but those two hills, I want your tanks on the top of that one Brigadier, which is within two hundred yards of the route eleven. I want them on top of there by two o’clock of the afternoon of the day after tomorrow. You can tell your men what to do but keep it quiet on the main thrust”.
The next day we all moved up a little bit nearer. There was a bit of shelling went on but my troops weren’t hit. The next day I went up to Brigade Headquarters, but the Brigadier saw me and said, ”Oh Tony, come in. It’s going well. Go up and have a chat with the S Squadron Commander, Chips Mac Lean”. He was in our Scots Guards Battalion. “Go up and see if he’s all right”. So I drove up to the top of the hill and there were Scots troops there. Chips Mac Lean said he was happy. I strolled to the edge and looked over and there wasn’t a sight of any vehicle of any sort on that road. They’d got complete cover on it and the thing went off successfully and that was the beginning of it. The Americans swept through and then with us they came with a pincer and we nearly caught a hell of a lot of the German army. Most of them did escape but those that didn’t; I’ve never seen such an appalling mess of dead men, dead horses, broken equipment, and everything else at the Falaise Gap as it was called, between Falaise where we were and had got forward to and the Americans were coming along to close it. It was an absolute mess but it worked. My sympathy wasn’t entirely with the German army!
We went galloping on but we in heavy tanks had been pinched out of the battle, the faster armour going on and on, chasing the Germans. The British were concentrating on Belgium and got through to Belgium and so on, but Monty was having serious trouble with his lines of communication because our Marines landed in the Scheldt trying to get that clear but the Germans were hanging on there and defending it (that’s on the Belgian/Dutch frontiers) and we were still completely reliant for food, petrol, diesel, ammunition, from the beaches in Normandy, which fortunately now had an artificial port at Arromanches. It hadn’t been built by the time I got there but it was built by then I suppose. I never saw it until after the war.
I was immediately told that I’d got all the trucks in the three Guards Battalions, and their NCOs and drivers were coming under me, so I’d got about sixteen hundred men by then under my command and I had to keep organising mail, food, supplies and everything else back from Normandy right up as far as Brussels, which was a nightmare really but it had to be done. In fact I got an MBE for that. It seemed to me I didn’t deserve it for I was sitting there the whole time.
But it worked and Monty of course was hoping that it would help, and that he could punch straight over. Nobody will ever know whether he was right or not because that airborne invasion was by a serious mischance and possibly because a plan had been given away by an American having it in his pocket when he was crash landed. That is certainly true. And so the landing at Arnhem was terrible. They were waiting. A whole Division in rest waiting to know what to do, and suddenly they arrived among them.
But we got through that lot and then were held up on the Rhine because nobody could do anything more across it. That held us up in the winter and then in the spring again. Monty sent our brigade to help the Americans when they were threatened by a sudden attack. So that held us up but eventually in February we went galloping over the Rhine, and by that I mean on pontoon bridges. I was amused to see they’d got a naval officer in charge just in case! The army’s not very good on water; they’ve got a naval officer there. The pontoon bridge worked all right but it was still being shelled but fortunately no shells hit it. We ended up in Kiel, went on and up with the Russians.
One notable thing I might add is that our Scots Guard cannon did what must be unique in warfare, and that is, they captured a German submarine! They arrived on the dockside at Kiel; this thing started getting up speed so they sent a 75-millimetre shell crashing into its Conning Tower and then all on board came up with their hands up and backed back in again!
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