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Fred Caldwell's War Story pt 1

by CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire

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CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire
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Fred Caldwell
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Contributed on: 
21 August 2005

This story has been submitted to the BBC People’s War by a volunteer from Lincoln CSV Action Desk on behalf of Fred Caldwell and added to the website with his permission. Mr Caldwell fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I have written this story primarily for my grandchildren. It is about my life during the second world war and it may be of some interest to others.

I was 15 years old when WW2 started in 1939. I lived, together with my mother and sister, in a grotty 2 up 2 down house in Walton, a poverty stricken area of Liverpool. The rent was 8 shillings (about 40p) a week. I earned 8/6d for a six day week working as a delivery boy for a grocer. A heavy shop bike was supplied which, when loaded, weighed more than I did. At the time I was about 6 and a half stone.

From a 15 year old point of view nothing altered for quite a few months until the bombing raids began and people started looking for shelter but there were no street shelters to be found at the time so we packed ourselves in cellars and even in school rooms — I suppose people felt safer in numbers. I remember one incident when I was making my way to what I hoped was a place of safety one very dark night when a flash of lightning streaked across the sky and seemed to stop dead. While I was staring up I saw a small flicker of flame which rapidly spread and I found myself gazing at a barrage balloon blazing away in the sky. The lighting was on the side of the German bombers that night.

Another occasion when I was out in the open at night. The dock area, which was a good 8 miles from Walton was being severely bombed and the whole city was lit up by a bright glow from the fires. In addition to all this there was the tremendous racket made by the anti aircraft guns and the whistle of the bombs and one had to be very careful of the shower of shrapnel falling to earth from the exploding ack ack shells.

Early in 1942 we were offered accommodation by a relative in Barrow in Furness, which up to that time had not been bombed, notwithstanding that it had a large shipyard building naval vessels and also an iron and steel works at which I worked. However, shortly after our arrival, the bombing started and the house we were living in suffered bomb damage. My mother and sister moved back to Liverpool but I remained in Barrow for my work.

In September 1942 I joined the army on a regular 7 year engagement which meant I could choose my regiment. I opted for the Royal Artillery because I wanted to be a driver and so it came about that I started my career in a camp just outside Harrogate.

I was trained as Quad driver; this vehicle was square in shape, hence the word quad, and was a fairly powerful gun-towing tractor. On completion of my training I was posted to the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment at Frinton on Sea, Essex.

This unit was equipped with 6 pounder anti tank guns, which didn’t have the range or penetrating power to deal with the German armour on equal terms. Another piece of obsolete equipment was the Boyes anti tank rifle which was quite hopeless against anything bigger than a lightly armoured car. None of this, of course, inspired confidence in our armament.

Sometime in 1943 and officer from the Parachute Regiment visited the camp, demonstrated a parachute and asked for volunteers to join the them. I believe he also offered us an extra 2/6 (12.5p) a week. Well, this was an offer not to be sneezed at and I and two pals volunteered. In due course, to the best of my recollections, I was posted to Ringway (I understand that Manchester Airport now stands on that spot) for parachute training and did eight parachute drops from a barrage balloon with a basket slung below it, at Tatton Park.

In those early years we jumped from converted bombers which had a hole cut into the floor of the plane. The hole was not much wider than a man wearing a bulky parachute. The drill was that you sat on the edge of the hole with your legs over the edge and pushed off with your hands and arms. However, if you jumped too far forward to make sure your parachute cleared the back edge you would strike the forward edge of the hole with your face and if you didn’t give enough clearance at the back, your ‘chute would strike the back edge, throw you forward and your face would bash the hole on your way out. In the Stirling aircraft used for operational work, the hole was elongated and, of course, when the Dakota was adapted for parachute drops with its door exit, this was a vast improvement.

Members of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) packed the parachutes, and the person issuing the ‘chute could not see who was receiving it, presumably to prevent any personal vendettas being carried out. As far as I can remember, we had one near fatality when a parachute failed to pen properly and the wearer suffered a back injury. The British Parachute Regiment, unlike the Americans, were not provided with an emergency parachute; not that it would have done much good because our operational drop height of about 800 feet didn’t leave any time for emergency procedures to be carried out.

On passing out and being awarded red berets, of which I was extremely proud, I was posted to a holding depot adjacent to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire where I awaited transfer to a battalion. (Many years later, I think it was about 2000, I visited Hardwick Hall as part of a group and, whilst talking to a lady guide, I happened to mention that I had been stationed in the grounds of the Hall during the war. She said that recently they had to drain one of the large lakes for maintenance purposes and in doing so had discovered a large number of rusty bicycles at the bottom of the lake. I informed her that when we were allowed out of camp we had to return by 2359 hours and when visiting the nearest town we often left things a bit late and were desperate for some form of transport and an unattended bike was fair game. However, to conceal our crimes, the evidence had to disappear, so it did!)

During the period at the holding depot, a request for volunteers was made for a special service unit, the first SAS. The Special Air Service. Once more I jumped in with both feet and in due course, accompanied by half a dozen hopefuls, we set off for Darvel in Scotland.

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