- Contributed by
- Rod Balkham
- People in story:
- Rod Balkham
- Location of story:
- South Beveland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 April 2004
By Rod Balkham (14628077 Signalman Balkham R.G.)
It was October 1944 and we had been living rough since our disembarkation at Ostend. England home and beauty was far behind as 156 Infantry Brigade trundled along through the Belgian countryside. We drew up in the cobbled main street of Kruishoutem, a small village not far from Ghent. "Come along me lucky lads" shouted our platoon sergeant, "you're soon going to be nice clean soldiers".
Our advance party had been busy arranging for us to be billeted with the people of the village. We all badly needed a bath, and so to make us more presentable and to soften the blow to the householders, the village dairy had been prepared as a communal bath house for us. We never knew from one day to the next what was in store for us; we did not know then that this would be the last bath we would enjoy for many a week - the last bath ever, for some of us. This was a real treat, an occasion to relish, and we made the most of it.
Trooping into what seemed a surprisingly large area for the dairy of such a small village we found ourselves on a sunken tiled floor on which stood a dozen or so large milk churns, all steaming with lovely hot, clean water. We stripped naked in no time and stood splashing and washing ourselves down, one leg at a time, like a pale and hairy forest of Ali Baba thieves.
"Come on, Ernie, don't be shy" we called. "How about this, Johnny - bet you've never seen it so clean". Bars of soap went skidding along the wet tiles, missing their bare-backside targets. "Oh, if your mother could see you now!". We were really enjoying ourselves, letting our hair down and behaving like a bunch of schoolkids. Suddenly we realised we were not alone. In the steamy atmosphere above, hands on knees, the off-duty dairymaids were quietly observing our ablutions. There was a momentary hush. Then, with hopes raised, the gallant representatives of the liberating British Army offered their services. "Come and get it, it's all yours darlin'" someone called - adding, with rare inspiration "Voila, mademoiselle".
Unfortunately the Kruishoutem dairymaids were not to be enticed by this coarse display and they disappeared amid shrieks and giggles.
We soon found ourselves lined up in the street and fallen out in pairs to be directed to our various billets. It was with Signalman Bill Seager that I was introduced to Jozef and Julia Moerman at number 44 Hoogstraat where we were welcomed with great warmth into the family. We spent a week with these friendly country folk who did their best to communicate with us in unaccustomed French, their main language being Flemish. I quickly learned that my schoolboy French was insufficient to cope with the local patois. Not really needing the public lavatory, but just to show off, I boldly asked a passer-by "Ou est la toilette?" – and was directed to the local barber's shop.
There were few duties for us during our brief sojourn in Kruishoutem, so we had time to enjoy our newly made friendships, such as sharing rides in Jozef's pony-and-trap with Grandpa Moerman and the baby of the family 'la petite Jeannine'. It was the calm before the storm, however, for all too soon we were moving on, and "au revoir"s were said with promises to return one day.
As I have already intimated, we were never told where we were going or, indeed, why we were there at all. Intelligence was somehow absorbed by a kind of osmosis whereby dreadful rumours sooner or later became stark reality. Several months earlier we had been kicking our heels somewhere in the south of England, totally unaware that we had at that time been earmarked for what was eventually to become known as "The Arnhem Drop". [It is only in recent years that I have managed to establish this fact. A good deal of research was needed, for so little has been written about the part taken by the 52nd (Lowland) Division].
We did not know, when we set sail across the English Channel on Friday October 13th that we had, instead, been held in reserve for a very different sort of attack. We were to join the Canadians as they forged through South Beveland and across the causeway to liberate Walcheren Island.
The rumours that we were to have another little sea trip were confirmed when we reached Axel, where we were crowded into LCT's (Landing Craft Tank) and set off up a canal to Terneuzen, on the Dutch coast facing across the Scheldt estuary. We were packed like sardines and as our tin box full of crouching soldiers took to the sea, we were unable to see anything but the clouds scudding across the dark night sky, the thudding of our engines drowned by the constant barrage of our guns firing over our heads at the German defences on the far shore. They, in turn, were firing at us but we in our particular LCT were unaware that others were being blown up around us.
I was in the second wave of troops to land on "Green" beach, just south of the little seaside village of Hoedekenskerke, on the South Beveland coast that night of October 25/26, following the first assault by the 4th/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers. Here it was that the lads of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, who had been trained for mountain warfare, excelled themselves and climbed a dyke. Whilst in action it was the highest land we ever climbed.
In following the advance of our infantry we soon learned that it was necessary to dig trenches for ourselves to avoid the Jerry snipers' bullets. Almost instantaneously we had become hardened warriors, especially when the mortars started to explode around us.
That first night we readily got our heads down in our shallow dugouts and without a second thought placed our tin hats over our genitals. In no time at all we had instinctively assumed the old soldier's philosophy that if we were to get a "Blighty" then we wanted to retain our virility. Better to get it in the head and be done with it than to go back home with your balls blown off.
It was a desolate scene on South Beveland, just miles and miles of unending flat fields and it rained and kept on raining.
Eventually I was installed in one of our wireless trucks to carry out the work I had been trained to do - that of operating a wireless set. The driver of the truck was a Corporal to whom I very soon took a great aversion, as opposed to the genuine friendship and camaraderie I shared with most of the other NCOs in our Brigade. Although he was a wireless operator like myself and was supposed to relieve me at the set, this corporal had made up his mind that his sole job was to drive the truck.
I did not know at the time that two of my buddies, Signalman Wally Beer and Signalman Bill Dumper should have been with me as relief operators. They had inadvertantly been left behind when we set sail from England.
I stayed at that wireless set for three days and nights nonstop, isolated in the corner of a field with no-one else in sight, relaying messages from our infantry back to Brigade. On the third night we were less than a mile from the most forward positions. I had continually to shake my head, pinch myself - shout, sing - anything to keep awake. Hunched over that humming, pip-pip-pipping contraption with the rain trickling down my neck and my eyes burning from lack of sleep I began to feel that it would be a merciful release if one of those mortars came our way. The corporal slept on in the driving seat, steadfastly refusing to take over.
In the grey, rainwashed light of early morning my relief suddenly materialised in the cheery shapes of Beer and Dumper. They were noticeably clean and tidy, and well they might be for they had missed all the rigours of the landing and the slow, muddy advance through the rain of the previous week. They had, incredibly, been sent straight out from England. For me it was a great feeling to know that every trudging, slipping, muddy step took me further back from the front line. I'd done my bit for a while and was heading back to the safety and comparative comfort of Brigade HQ. As I picked my way past abandoned trenches I suddenly found myself looking into the eyes of a German soldier. He was sitting bolt upright in a trench, with his rifle pointing straight at me. "Oh no – not now" I thought "not now, just when I am almost home and dry". It appeared that he could have shot me dead, but nothing happened. Then I saw why - the give-away sign was a neat round hole, right in the middle of his forehead.
It had stopped raining and my spirits rose as I thought of the prospect of a mug of hot char and the chance of some sleep at last. Turning away from my dead German I at once encountered another soldier. Approaching me was one of our own Royal Scots Fusiliers, his head bandaged under the Tam o' Shanter. "Lucky bastard" said he, with a lopsided grin - but his eyes held a look of shocked resignation. He didn't get his Blighty, I thought. "Good luck. Jock" I said. "Aye, ye need it up there" he replied as he turned to make his way back to the forward trenches.
On reaching Brigade HQ I was greeted with "Bloody hell – look who's here - it's Balkham; we thought you were dead!". It was then that I learned that the truck and the wireless set I had so thankfully left behind, plus my two friends who had so cheerfully come to relieve me, had been blown to bits whilst I was on my way back to safety.
There appeared to be little doubt at the time that this was indeed what had occurred - they told me there'd been a direct hit, from one of those mortars I had almost wished upon myself. I never saw Wally Beer or Bill Dumper again, and as I write now I cannot unearth any reference to either of them. Goodness knows, I've tried. I can only believe that in the course of a series of chance events two friends of mine gave their lives for their country and in so doing enabled me to go on living. I would dearly like to establish the exact date upon which Destiny took a hand on my behalf - but even the Ministry of Defence cannot (or will not) help.
I wrote a carefully worded letter to MoD's Records Department at Hayes in Middlesex, asking if they could pinpoint the date when my two companions were killed in action. Two months later I received a detailed account of my own army service – and they got a good deal of this wrong into the bargain. A lot of MoD'S time had been wasted by their not telling me at the outset that it is their policy to provide details of servicemen only to their next of kin.
Further research on my part, with the War Graves Commission, drew a blank and I am still denied confirmation of what happened to those two soldiers whose fate somehow contributed to my personal destiny.
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