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John Shaw's Reminiscences: Dunkirk and D-Dayicon for Recommended story

by Alex Shaw

Contributed by 
Alex Shaw
People in story: 
John Shaw
Location of story: 
The UK, France, Belgium and Germany
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Contributed on: 
21 November 2003

The following are the reminiscences of my father, John Shaw MC QC, who served in the Royal Fusiliers from September 1939 until December 1945. They are taken from his ‘Memoire’, which he dictated during the course of 2001, the year he died aged 87.

‘I joined the Army in September 1939. Before the month was out I found myself at Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) at Sandhurst, where I remained for four months. We were taught all about square bashing and trench warfare, but not about modern instruments of war.

I duly passed out, mainly, I am told, because I played rugger for the 1st team, and not for my knowledge of anything military. I had a week’s leave in the course of which I got married. Soon after, I received a week’s embarkation leave.

Second in command of the Carrier Platoon

I did not actually leave the shores of England until the beginning of April 1940, when I was drafted with a large number of other newly commissioned subalterns. After further delay I managed to get to the second battalion of my own regiment, the Royal Fusiliers, as second in command of the Carrier Platoon.

In the middle of May the ‘balloon’ went up. The Colonel was told to send back all surplus personnel, but because he wanted the Carriers, I was kept on.


For some reason, I had command of the platoon most of the way back to Dunkirk. We did not have much serious fighting on the way there. It was not until we got near to the outskirts of the Dunkirk area that the story really begins as far as I am concerned. At a road fork I found my platoon commander and most of the platoon assembled with orders to stop all civilians going down the right hand fork, and to send all service personnel down the other one. Troops continued to dribble through every few minutes, all saying that they were the last troops on the road and the Germans were just behind them. Also, the platoon commander had no orders as to when he was to withdraw from that road fork. In the end he sent me to find battalion headquarters to get orders as to when and if to withdraw.

After that, when we tried to move towards the coast, we found utter chaos because another division was being moved across the line of our withdrawal. Our brigadier was standing at a crossroads giving orders to any troops wearing the insignia of the 4th Division as to which way to go. When we finally arrived at battalion headquarters, we found we were the only troops there - the rifle companies not having yet got there.

Holding the line of the canal

The colonel sent my section out to a point on the canal. The orders I received from him were extremely vague and I never did discover what he was expecting me to do.

My understanding was that I was to hold the line of the canal until the rifle companies arrived and took over from me. As it was, the first thing I did when I arrived at the spot was to try take a compass bearing to find out which way I was facing, east or west. Initially I tried to do this in the carrier, but the compass spun round and round. Finally, when I got out and moved away from the metal, it worked.

Having got that settled I turned to the large group of men who I had found sitting on the ground, some 30 or 40 of them, with a company sergeant major. Whether they were deserters or men who were lost I never discovered, although the company sergeant major disappeared as soon as the firing started.

I took the men sitting around on the ground under my command and told them to line the banks of the canal. I then went up and down the tow path in my carrier trying to find any troops on either flank. To the north I found a unit of the guards, going the other way. I could not make contact with anybody. It must have been about this point that the Belgian Army marched along the tow path on the other side of the canal with white flags. As they went past, the Germans came up under cover of their movement and we found to our horror that the German Army was on the other side of the canal.

Vehicles abandoned

I tried to withdraw with my carrier. These were wonderful vehicles, but with one failing - there were two petrol tanks; if you let one go too low before switching to the other you got an air lock, and that is what happened at that point. So with the Germans so close, we decided to abandon the vehicles and walk back to where the rest of our section and the strays were.

I never did receive any further orders from the battalion or anybody else. The first contact I had was when a Bren Gun from a different regiment drove up with the instructions from his colonel to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, shortly before this happened, I had been hit by a mortar shell in the ankle, which meant I could not walk, although the wound was not serious. I was taken back to the colonel to report. Even thought I had not requested it, he evacuated me, but I was really too tired to argue with anybody about anything.

From there, in due course, I was evacuated through an emergency hospital and on to a hospital ship. That was the end of my adventures in France in 1940. [NB: My father was awarded the Military Cross for his part in this action.]

Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham

After a short time in hospital in London the casualties were sent by train to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, which had been built by a rich, charitably minded local family just before the war, and was kept for air raid casualties. When we arrived, there was no staff in the hospital but they were being drafted in as fast as possible. The Matron appealed to the people of Birmingham over the radio to send in any spare pyjamas, shirts or other garments for us because no one had been able to bring back any clothes.

Second line territorial battalion

In late 1940 I was sent to the second line territorial battalion, the 11th, commanded by Lt. Colonel Mardell. The battalion moved to Tenby in South Wales, and then to Malvern. In 1941 I was one of several subalterns selected to set up a special training unit near Haywards Heath to teach battle drill.

In the spring of 1942 I was present at a demonstration of fire power given by the RAF at Imber on Salisbury Plain. Several thousand officers and NCOs were there. Unfortunately, one pilot misunderstood his instructions and went down the line of spectators, instead of the line of targets, with his guns blazing. I was sitting on the ground at the front of the crowd with three other officers from my battalion, all of whom were hit. I was unscathed.

The authorities had not laid on any medical cover for this demonstration, which would have been normal. The result was that there was not a single stretcher bearer or medical person of any sort to help us deal with the wounded. Despatch riders were sent to try to raise medical help. The first vehicles to arrive were civil defence vans like Lance Corporal Jones’ butcher’s van from Dad’s Army, which senior officers refused to put any casualties into. It was some time before an army ambulance unit could get to us to evacuate the 60 or so casualties, some of whom were fatal.

Operation Torch

Nothing more of note occurred until later in 1942 when I found myself as combined officer/instructor in Scotland for Operation Torch.

I was not told what I was going to do there or why I had been selected. In fact, it turned out that I was to join an Anglo-American force, which was going to sail to North Africa. The force from Britain was the small spearhead, the rest were coming direct from the USA.

The first American troops to come to Britain to form this spearhead was the National Guard division, which had been sent to Northern Ireland when America declared war. They were marvellously fit men, but the Anglo-American team had to report to London that they could not spearhead anything with these chaps as they were so untrained. They were replaced by a unit of the American regular division that called itself the ‘Pride of the American Army’.

They had been doing training with our boats in the Pacific, where they used ‘R’ boats –very fast speedboats on which the troops laid out on the decks. That was all very well for raids on the Pacific Islands, but we were training them to operate landing craft, which were entirely different.

Generally training took place on board the ships where the American troops were living, but sometimes the commanding officers directed that the landing craft go alongside to take them for a day’s training to Gurrock and Glasgow. Although a lot of these chaps missed their final exercises they returned in time for the division to sail to North Africa for the invasion of the coast.

Combined Operations Training

My next move was early in 1943 when I was again ordered to Scotland – this time to Inverary, on the West Coast. This was the centre of the Combined Operations Training (training of the combined forces of army, navy and air force) where I did a week’s course. I then went to Castle Towerd, which was our headquarters, and later moved to Rothsay on the Isle of Bute. On Towerd we taught many of the facets of combined operations, such as what all the craft were like, how they were loaded and how to get in and out of them. We also taught the men how to use scrambling nets and rope ladders on the side of the boats.

After a time I transferred as Chief Infantry instructor to Rothsay, where we did exercises by night and taught the principals of driving without lights.

There was an ongoing battle between the Services and Glasgow Corporation because Rothsay was the centre of the holiday trade from Glasgow, and the Services wanted to have it made into a closed area. There were real problems, and I had to send military police down to clear a beach before I could do a landing operation. Sometimes the jetty was full of spectators looking down on the secret landing craft, which were moored alongside.

We did several exercises at Strone Point during which I always had to have a guard boat off the Isle of Bute to stop the public steamer coming down because we were using live ammunition.

The 3rd Canadian Division

We had a brigade from the 3rd Canadian Division, who were very fine troops to train, and also brigades of British troops. I used to have a conference with the Brigadier and his battalion colonels every evening to discuss with them the next day’s training. When it was the turn of the British Brigade, the Brigadier would ask his colonels whether they liked the training I had laid on and the Canadian attitude was very definite. They either said yes or no straightaway. This was all very embarrassing for me, because I knew my infantry instructors were sitting at the back of the room playing noughts and crosses. It was a battle of wits between Captain Shaw and the Brigadier as to what training should be given.

While we were instructing in Scotland, the General in charge of the training promised all my infantry instructors a front seat at the ‘show’, as we had been separated from our own units and would miss out on it. We had not been consulted about this, but politely said, ‘Thank you.’

Preparation for the Normandy Landings

At the end of May 1944 I received orders to move to a camp on the south coast near Southampton. This was a sealed camp for persons who were going to take part in the invasion. This particular camp was for a body called the ‘101 Beach Group’. As I had no warning of why I was going there I had to get leave to go home to get rid of most of my kit. This also gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to my wife. Although I could not tell her where I was going, she knew perfectly well why I was leaving my kit at home.

On 5 June we drove half way to Newhaven before we were told that the operation was postponed for 24 hours and returned to our camp. The next morning we resumed our journey to Newhaven. As a senior officer on the very small landing craft on which we were going over, I was given the job of distributing maps and seasickness tablets. The maps were necessary because everyone had been briefed up until then on phoney maps with the names changed so that no one would know where we were going. General Eisenhower was taking a terrific risk in deciding to start the operation because the weather was still atrocious, but the weather experts advised him that the storm would die down during the night. Thus, as history has recorded we sailed despite the weather.

The landing craft, which I was on, was part of the flotilla of American LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) - very small craft with a ramp on either side of the bow, which came down when we were near enough. As we sailed out of Newhaven the storm struck us and there was no question of anyone being able to collect their maps or their seasickness tablets. I would probably have passed out myself if I had tried to read a map.


At dawn on 6 June I went on deck and then, as senior army officer on board, I went on to the bridge. To my delight the meteorologists had been right. The storm had died down. The view I saw from the bridge was one never to be forgotten. The whole of the Channel was full of head-to-tail lines of landing craft of various sorts. We were the most easterly line, and as far as I could see to the west there were landing ships and escort vehicles. It was a most incredible sight, such as a child might lay out with his toys.

We were due to land on Sword Beach, the most westerly of the British beaches, at H+2, which means two hours after the first troops went ashore. We could hear the guns firing from the beaches. We duly got into shallow water and the ramps went down on either side. All the troops on board were supposed to go down them into two feet of water to wade ashore, but I found some of the men were still in the toilets feeling too ill to get off the craft, and I had some difficulty getting them ashore.


We were very lucky that the first wave ashore had in fact cleared most of the opposition on our beach so that there was no heavy fighting as we went ashore.

The Beach Group, of which I found myself a part, was an ad hoc organisation designed to make everything as easy as possible for troops, stores, and ammunition to be landed and sent in the right direction to the fighting forces. When an LCT landed on the beach to unload its vehicles, they were unable to do so because the driver of the leading vehicle had been taken ill. I had to go on board and drive what was in fact a very large wireless truck ashore.

Pegasus Bridge

On the evening of D-Day, the storm abated, the sun came out and I saw the most marvellous sight of large numbers of RAF gliders passing overhead to reinforce earlier waves who had captured Pegasus Bridge. This was the famous bridge over the River Orne, which had been captured by the airborne and which they held to stop the German troops coming down to the beaches.

After about ten days, another storm broke and everything was held up. Both of the Mulberry Harbours were badly damaged, and afterwards they were amalgamated into one. By this time, the small town of Port-en-Basin had been captured. The Navy wanted to transfer all the landings from our beach to there, because our beach was still under shellfire from the other side of the river.

Return home

In due course the Beach Group dispersed as there was no further function for them and I came home on leave to receive new orders. In late 1944 I returned to France as reinforcement and was posted to a battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who were stationed between the Rhine and Mars Rivers. I stayed with them until the Armistice and the end of the fighting.

In the summer of 1945 I was posted to Military Government in Germany and started on a new career for the remaining months of my sojourn in the Army.

Military Government legal officer

There were two sides to my job as a Military Government legal officer. On entering Germany the Allies had automatically removed all existing judges from their posts and were re-appointing judges who were not hostile. My function was to interview German applicants for appointment as judges. I was to ensure that they were anti-Nazi and had a working knowledge of the law. As they had been recommended to me by a senior judge already appointed by the British I did not think I could interfere with their knowledge of German law.

Secondly, I was to make sure that they were politically suitable. As they had to go on to be interviewed by field security I did not take a very active part in that either.

After a while, German prisoners of war began to return, amongst them all the German judges and lawyers who had joined the Army rather than administer Nazi law, so that was a fairly easy part of my job.

The other part of the job, which was much more interesting, was to administer the Military Government laws, which the British Occupying Forces had passed, telling the Germans what they could and could not do.

Displaced Persons peeling potatoes

I also had a part in coping with the enormous number of Displaced Persons (DPs), who were swarming all over Europe entirely out of control. The strangest case of identifying DPs was of two men who were reunited in Normandy. Nobody could find any language that they understood until someone had an inspiration and they sent to the British Museum for a Tibetan interpreter.

The story was that one day they were working near the Tibetan frontier when there was a lot of banging and some soldiers appeared with guns who took them away and set them to peeling potatoes. After a while some more banging went on and a different set of soldiers appeared with guns and took them away and set them to peeling different potatoes. They had never been able to speak to anyone and thus peeled potatoes from Tibet to Normandy!

We had two levels of Military Government court. On the Higher Courts I sat as legal officer to advise the President of the Court. On the Lower Courts I sat as President of the Court. Difficulties arose because everything had to be done through interpreters, since all the evidence had to be in German, English and in any other language that the defendant could understand. Their crimes varied from murder and rape downwards. A full military government court had power to impose the death penalty. Fortunately I never had to try a murder case, but many death sentences were carried out. An appeal had gone out to the military police for volunteers to go on a course with Pierpoint, the last British professional hangman. There were a number of volunteers and four or five went on the course.

Linguistic difficulties

Trying cases in several languages is a slow and tedious business and we never knew for sure what the interpreters were saying. For instance, at one stage I had to go to the POW camp to borrow a Polish officer to act as an interpreter. When the evidence was in French or German I knew just enough to know whether the interpreter was doing his best to be fair. With the Poles I knew perfectly well that the Polish officer was telling us what he thought would be in the most interest of the Polish defendant, quite regardless of what was actually said.

I had two interpreters who were always available to me. One was a Sergeant Mitchell from the Pioneer Corps, and the other was a Polish ex-Cavalry officer called Klink. The President of the Higher German court, who had been appointed by us, said to me one day, after hearing Sergeant Mitchell interpret, that he did not know the British were such good linguists. Little did he know that the Sergeant was a German Jew who had escaped from Germany and joined the Pioneer Corps. He was a very good interpreter. Klink was a Polish Cavalry officer who had been taken prisoner when the Germans invaded Poland and for some reason which we never discovered he was found in Belsen Concentration Camp when it was liberated. He spoke five or six languages, but he so hated the Germans that we could not always rely on his interpreting.

Courts Martial

Despite being a Military Government legal officer I was free to act for the defence in Courts Martial, and was quite often invited to do so. To begin with, one of our great difficulties was that, on entering Germany Monty (Field Marshall, Lord Montgomery) had issued an order prohibiting any fraternisation between British troops and the German population. The area where I was working was near the Dutch frontier and a great deal of the population was in fact Dutch. The troops could never tell whether the girls were German or Dutch. The order prohibiting fraternisation was soon withdrawn as being unworkable.

There was also nearby a transit camp run by the Guards Division which included a wing for officers under arrest. It was they who frequently sent for me to act as defence counsel.

By the end of the year my discharge papers came through and I was demobilised in time to get home for Christmas 1946.’

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