- Contributed by
- Jack Baker
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 November 2003
This is an extract from my wartime diary entitled Biting the Bullet.
An early morning mission
On one occasion we were just sent out as an ordinary platoon. The idea was to get as close to the German front as possible and observe what was happening. Led by Lieutenant Marsden, who came to take over from Lieutenant Slack and Corporal Freeman from Nottingham, we tramped about six miles toward the German lines.
In the early morning light we dug in, and on our left side positioned the bren-gun. The other slit trenches were dug in a half-moon shape. Usually, Les and I shared a slit trench, but on this occasion he went ahead 400m (a quarter of a mile) on forward patrol, with another three men, to make an observation there and report back.
Eventually, they reported a large German fighting patrol heading directly for our position. I was instructed to assist Tojo, whose real name, incidentally, was Albert Wilkinson; his nickname a result of his thick steel-rimmed glasses. I was to help him with the bren-gun.
Les and the others were in their trenches only ten minutes when they saw this patrol coming toward us, getting closer and closer. When they were close enough they opened fire. Tojo aimed at the leader, but the gun didn't work. He fired again, re-cocked it and fired again. But still it didn't fire.
They were now only about 40m (44 yards) away from us. I aimed my rifle at the leader, who was by now only some 30m (33 yards) or so away. He fell to the ground and immediately the rest of the patrol did so, too, in the woods. There were 18 or 20 of them, and the next thing I knew they rattled out instructions and set up two quick-firing machine guns known as spandaus.
No chance in the crossfire
All hell let loose in our trenches. Even at close quarters, Tojo attempted to get the bren-gun going. But as he crouched behind it, the crossfire swept through the butt of the weapon, and four or five bullets hit his jaw and neck. He was paralysed immediately in that firing position. He was obviously dead – one couldn’t have wounds like that and survive.
Every time I tried to fire over the trench, the spandaus just opened up with crossfire. Our trench had been dug rather hurriedly, and the gun on the left side was not well camouflaged. The Germans had it pinpointed. I saw a German some 30m (33 yards) away at the base of a tree, and I fired at him. A few seconds later they threw a stick grenade that landed on top of our trench and blew the bren-gun right over the top of poor Tojo and me.
The minutes like hours
It was useless using my rifle now. At such close quarters it was simply identifying our position. I thought the best thing I could do was to use a German Luger, a pistol I had found at a farm. I also had a hand grenade and withdrew the pin.
I had the pistol in my left hand and the grenade in my right, and waited for the end to come. I crouched down in the bottom of the trench and thought, The first person to put his head over the trench will get the Luger, and I'll toss the grenade.
I was very frightened. I heard more shouting and crossfire. It became rather clear that the Germans were withdrawing. Those minutes in the trench seemed like hours.
I looked around for the pin to put in back in the grenade but couldn't find it anywhere. I knew it was somewhere in the sand, mud and blood, but I just couldn't see it. There I was just holding that grenade to stop it from firing.
I decided to try and take a piece from Tojo's glasses to use as a pin. This took a long time to achieve, as I was only one-handed. I didn't want to drop the grenade. Eventually, I managed it.
The longest walk
Much later, when the firing had stopped completely Sergeant Freeman and Lieutenant Marsden instructed me to return to company HQ, about six miles back. I was to exchange the bren-gun there for another. That was a lonely six-mile walk.
After I got back to HQ, I was given a meal and a replacement gun. I then had to lead a fighting patrol back out to our position, where they were very depleted.
An honourable death
During this period of just a few hours, the Germans had returned to their base and instructed their artillery to shell our location. They couldn't miss as they had our exact position.
It was dark before I found our platoon, and they were completely shattered. We returned to HQ. I can say that this is a day I shall never forget. I often think, too, of Albert Wilkinson (Tojo). He was only 18 years old when he died so honourably at his post.
The bottle of gin
In another action, we advanced five or six miles into enemy lines. We came upon a large village or small town. Now, years later, I can not remember its name. But I'll always remember well what happened there.
We were well ahead of the rest of the company and found ourselves in a small haberdashery shop. For some reason there were about ten trays of eggs among the haberdashery (these abstract scenes stay in your memory). Anyway, we went right through the shop to see if there was anything of value, and we found a bottle of gin. Les and I filled our water bottles from it for consumption when things got drastic.
'Can you hear me, mother?'
Harold, from Herne Bay in Kent, found a telephone. At that time there was a comedian called Sandy Powell, whose catch phrase was 'Can you hear me, mother?' Harold picked up the telephone and spoke into it, jokingly repeating the phrase, which was popular among the lads.
A German voice replied in broken English, 'Hello?' Of course, the telephone was connected to the German exchange, so this brief conversation identified our whereabouts.
Sergeant Freeman came over, yanked the phone out of the wall and shouted, 'Quick, everyone into the cellar!' The whole section moved hurriedly downstairs. Once we were all in the cellar, the sergeant said, 'Right, I want two of you to go upstairs to ground level and watch for the counter attack.'
In front of a firing squad
Sure enough the artillery were not long in firing on us. We were shelled and sustained several direct hits on the upstairs part of the building, some four or five storeys high. We took over two at a time relieving the watch. The shells were coming over fast and blowing the shop apart.
It was time for Les and I to go up. We were the last two to take our turn. We knew the Germans had us pinpointed. Les and I positioned ourselves, and, fortified by the gin, we waited for the shelling to continue.
It was like standing in front of a firing squad. But, once again, the gods were with us. Shortly afterwards the shells stopped, and another patrol was sent to bring us out of the by then demolished building. I shall never forget that village, although I'll never know its name.
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