- Contributed by
- SAM WINGROVE
- People in story:
- Samuel Albert
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 December 2003
I had my medical for war service a few weeks before the war actually started. I was 21 years of age and that was the age group that was first conscripted.
The war started in September 1939 and in October I was called up for National Service. I originally applied for service with the British Navy but my call up papers told me to report to the Royal artillery depot in Yeovil in Somerset to join the 1st Searchlight Regiment.
I spent a couple of months square bashing and searchlight training in the fields at night. The weather wasn't very nice and we spent days drilling in civilian clothes. I even had to send home for my wellington boots to march in. I remember I received an army overcoat with big civvy bone buttons, so I was excused button cleaning. I also remember lining up to receive a shaving brush - incidentally, I never did receive a full army service kit.
After three months' training I was transferred to Hereford to make up the 2nd Battery for service with the BEF (BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE) in France. So just about three months after leaving a job in a furniture factory, I was supposed to face the most formidable army the world had ever seen at that particular time - so much for the British Army! I received three days' overseas leave in the new year when I got engaged to my girlfriend, and in 1940 I was in France.
We landed at Boulogne after boarding ship at Dover, I remember the area in Dover harbour covered with hundreds of sea mines, waiting to be armed and placed somewhere in the English Channel.
On arrival in France we were based at a small village called Liques a few miles inland before moving up to the Armentierres where I was billeted in a church (Le Chateau D'Armentierre). After a short while we were ordered forward to Arras where a German breakthrough was imminent, before leaving the head of the church (MONSIEUR LE CURE) gave me a rosary. He blessed it to protect me and my future wife and children if ever we had them, I still have that rosary also a photo of Le Cure.
Arrived at the town of Arras and had our first taste of what a terrible thing war can be. The noise of the aerial bombardment and the artillery shelling was so intense and deafening that it seemed impossible to survive. I was on my own at one point and I went to my knees and for the first time in my life I prayed because at that time I thought it was impossible to live. I had never experienced anything so terrifying in my life.
I remember we were taken out and spread along a field to receive the German Panzers. I had my rifle and a pocket full of .303 ammunition, thankfully we were ordered to retreat to a small village called Ardes, a few miles inland from Calais, we were told to try and stop the German advance to the sea.
From Arras to Ardes I can tell you of many incidents of country roads jam-packed with refugees who had left their homes from Holland, Belgium and France. Men, women and little children who had walked all the way. The roads were crowded with abandoned cars, lorries, horses and carts, people pushing barrows, prams loaded with all their belongings. Lying by the roadside hundreds of Belgium soldiers (their country had capitulated) lay there not knowing what to do. I went into an abandoned NAAFI depot and helped myself to armfuls of small bars of Cadburys chocolate, which I handed to the refugees, it was heart-breaking and it was chaos.
Arrived in Ardes and parked under the trees hoping that the trees would give some protection from the enemy planes above. Refugees crowded around offering us handfuls of money to help them but all the money in the world could not have helped them - or us.
That night I lay and tried to sleep in the captain's car (of which I was the driver) the sky was full of heavy loaded planes bombing Calais, which was a red glow in the sky. A certain Lieutenant Oliver said to me, "I'm going to take the car." He said, "I can't sleep. I must go to see what's happening." I replied, "It's the captains car." He told me not to worry and that if I wanted I could go with him but I declined.
The next morning I received a severe telling off because the officer concerned had an accident by driving the car into a shell hole while driving into Calais. He was very badly injured and was lying on the floor in a shop doorway. I went to see him - his face was very grey. He asked me to do him a favour. I said, "Sure I will," and he said, "Will you come and pull some of my teeth out?" I sadly declined. I never saw Lieutenant Oliver again although I did hear that he survived the war. He was a lovely man and I wished I could have visited him when the war was over.
We walked from Ardes to Calais, I remember in the forest at Guines we were warned about enemy paratroopers. We were split up into pairs to patrol the forest at night, my companion was the battery cook who was armed with a big kitchen knife, his name was MAYTUM and he came from Leyton in London. As we were walking through the trees we came to a small clearing and in the moonlight our major (L. DEIGHTON) emerged with his mac over his shoulder, the cook threw the knife which hit the major, although no damage was done he wasn't too pleased. At first he was annoyed but realised what the situation was, luckily I recognised him the moment he stepped out.
Arrived on the outskirts of Calais at night, so tired through lack of sleep I could hardly keep awake let alone fight a battle. I sat on the sand of an inland canal hungry and thirsty and so, so tired, someone saw an abandoned postal van and aboard were letters for our battery, there were two letters for me, one was from my mother with a photograph, the other was from my sweetheart also with a photo wishing me luck. I never felt so lonely in my life.
The next day Saturday 25 May we had to lay down and fire over the street debris whether we thought it would help. I never saw any attacking German soldiers, not even one. It was just incessant bombing from the air and land artillery, never stopping. It was what the German army called BLITZKREIG, which means lightning war.
I saw underground shelters full of French troops but they never came out. I remember seeing the sparks flying off the slate roofs of the buildings behind us, through machine gun fire, as the bullets skidded off the roofs showers of sparks flew up.
The shells were exploding in sets of three and I knew when the third one screamed over it would be right amongst us. I received a terrible wound in my right thigh. I think our major was also injured from the same blast. For the moment I didn't know where I was; it felt like another world and my senses had gone. Everywhere was full of smoke and as it cleared and my vision returned the first person I saw was a friend, Sergeant Gordon Instone, with a red cross satchel round his neck. He was tending the wounded. (Incidentally, Gordon was taken prisoner, escaped, went south and finally reached England. I think he finished up as a Major in the Intelligence Corps. He wrote a book about his exploits; he was another brave man.) As for me, I realised that although I was badly wounded and helpless I was still in the thick of it.
An ambulance arrived and I was lifted aboard. I remember our Captain helping me in, even though he had his arm in a sling. He looked at me and had a very sad look in his eyes. We made our way to the regimental aid post, driving over the rubble from the damaged houses. The aid post was situated in the long tunnel running under Bastion 1 (Jon Cooksey, the author, in his book about Calais described the tunnel as dark and packed like sardines with the dead and dying). Arriving at the tunnel, which was packed, I was attended to. I remember an orderly cutting away my trouser leg and removing my boot. The orderly who was helping him, turned his eyes away and said, "Christ!", so I knew the injury was not very nice.
After treatment I was laid on the cobbles in the gutter of the tunnel. I had a splint on my leg running from my thigh to my toes. Being one of the last to enter the tunnel, I was near the entrance, the rest of the tunnel was packed. After a very short while an officer announced that the tunnel was to be evacuated because the enemy troops were expected very soon. The walking wounded were to try to reach the harbour area; the rest were taken in ambulances and small vans.
I watched them leave the exit, which was being heavily bombed and shelled quite a distance away. I watched some get hit and some get through, this went on until the tunnel was cleared and empty. I felt all alone.
I heard the sound behind me of army boots on the cobbles. I honestly thought it was German troops entering, but it was two British servicemen ready to get out. They had a small van, packed high with abandoned officers' gear. They approached me and told me there was no room in the van but if I wanted to take the chance they would lay me on the narrow tailboard - I could stay or take the chance. I took the tailboard. They lifted me on. There was a small tarpaulin curtain hanging down; I hid my face behind it and we took off.
As we left the darkness of the tunnel into the sunlight the noise was terrific - a shell exploded quite near and the small van reeled over onto two wheels and the engine cut out and had to be restarted - but as much as the driver tried to reach the harbour area he couldn't get through because of the intense bombardment. I just held on for dear life, and kept my head inside the tarpaulin. I didn't want to witness anything - if something was going to happen I didn't want to know about it.
We finally finished up and stopped on the clifftop in between the tunnel and the dock area. In front of us were coastal guns; behind us was the sea. The driver approached me and said he couldn't get through in the daytime and he would try again later at night. He said he would have to leave and try to help with the coastal guns. He promised he wouldn't forget me and would return. His last words were, "Remember you are British," something I have never forgotten.
I laid on that small tailboard all that afternoon and evening. I watched one of our warships in the channel firing inland. I could hear their shells screaming overhead. I watched German planes out at sea turn inland to bomb the coastal defences. As they swept over the cliff top I lay there with my tin hat over my face, my fingers in my ears and I sang all the songs that we used to sing around the piano when we had parties at home; anything to lessen the noise that was going on. I can remember the sweat running down my face as the dirt rained down on the roof of the van.
It was dark when the driver returned. He said he was sorry it was so long, his companion had received a stomach wound and he had placed him in an ambulance, which was near by. He said he was sorry he would have to carry me and he placed me on the floor of the ambulance. His companion was groaning and evidently in pain.
He smashed the windscreen of the ambulance (in case the planes above could see the reflection) and then we started into the night on the most terrifying journey I have ever experienced. It was a journey that I will never forget. We went through a sea of flames - everywhere seemed to be alight. The ambulance swerved around at one time and the back crashed into some railway rolling stock. I remember the door of the ambulance breaking off from the top hinge because of the crash and as we went along the door was trailing along the road hanging on its bottom hinge.
We made it to the dockside, the ground was ankle-deep in glass from the dock roofs. I was transferred to the small launch which was bobbing up and down in the harbour. I never did find out the name of the hero who saved me, but I blessed him for helping to get me back and saved me from a few years in a prisoner of war camp. I've wondered over the years who he was. He was a true blue brother and a hero.
The journey across the channel proved to be another nightmare. The launch left the harbour for the open sea and I was transferred onto a large ship. It was Sunday 26th May. As we left the harbour I remember the stone steps packed with French civilians screaming to be helped while ashore I could see people racing for cover.
Once aboard the ship - it seemed like a merchant type vessel - we made our way towards Dover. The crew handed out slices of bread and mugs of tea. I hadn't eaten for days. I drank the tea but couldn't manage the bread; my teeth couldn't tackle it. The glands on my neck were swollen, also my stomach because of the shell blast.
I lay on the deck packed with other wounded and then Stuka bombers attacked us. Three of them came over and released their bombs, one after the other. There was a gun aboard firing at them and the captain (a very brave man) was shouting encouragement to us all the time. The Stukas made a terrible noise as they dropped almost vertically and released their bombs, each one of which exploded alongside the vessel. As the bombs exploded, the sea water flooded over the side swamping us on board, I remember feeling weak, no doubt through loss of sleep, no food and loss of blood.
I was taken straight to hospital when we reached Dover and I was operated on. I remember the yellow lights as I was wheeled into the theatre as they were working on other patients. I was there about a week before moving inland to Farnborough in Kent.
The following weeks were wonderful in hospital; everybody made such a fuss of us and my mother, sweetheart and family came down. I was away from the war, although I had the blitz in London to follow.
What I have written is the exact truth, no exaggeration, just as it was. In the following months I was in 7 different hospitals, 4 of them in Wales.
While in hospital in Wales I received a letter forwarded by my mother. It was from my Captain (Capt. Thrythal) asking her if she could give him any information about me. He said the last time he saw me was when he put me in the ambulance. It seems he was in a POW camp near the Pyrenees. He said reply to his wife in Bognor Regis, which I did. I received a card from her saying he was killed in an air raid in Gibraltar on 25th September. He must have escaped camp, crossed Spain to Gibraltar and was killed (on my birthday). He was a lovely, brave man and a gentleman.
I was discharged from the army in April 1941. My discharge papers described me as "Ceasing to fulfil army physical requirements." I had served just one year - 196 days. My injuries have plagued me for 64 years and indeed they still do. After quite a while I received £150 pay off from the medical board.
I recently visited a small cemetery just outside Calais where some of my comrades lay. One of them was Sidney Pessole, his grave was there. I had my photo taken with him some weeks before he was killed and as I looked at his grave I remarked that I had had over 60 more years of my life than him so I mustn't grumble.
As I look around me now I sometimes wonder if the people today would answer the call for conscription like we did, but I am not bitter at all. I did my best for my country, it wasn't much but I am proud of what I did do. As memories come flooding back lots of little incidents call to mind but it's too long to record, all I can say is, this is exactly as it was and that's my story...
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.