- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Brian (Bob) May
- Location of story:
- UK, Italy, Austria and Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2003
My dad, Bob May, was conscripted into the army in late 1943. He had wanted to volunteer for the RAF as aircrew but his dad said it was too dangerous and forbade him to volunteer. He next considered the Royal Navy, but all the recruitment officer would offer him was submarine service or stoker. As my Dad was not tempted by the offer of a few extra shillings danger money, and wasn't able to swim, he waited for the call from the Army.
He did his infantry training with the Leicestershire regiment at Fort George in Scotland. He never really told me much about this time apart from the freezing weather and the mirror on the floor outside the guard house so that the duty sergeant could check that kilt-wearing Scots soldiers were properly 'dressed'.
On completion of training the unit was issued with tropical KD kit and put on board a ship along with a unit of Black Watch who were similarly kitted out. The issue of the KD meant one thing - the Far East and the prospect of fighting the Japanese, which my dad said filled the whole unit with dread. Many horror stories had already come back from the conflict out there.
It's Italy instead
However, after several weeks of sea sickness and fear of U-boats, my dad and his comrades were re-issued with conventional khaki kit and told that Italy was their destination. Not so for the Black Watch though - they remained on the ship and assumedly continued their journey to meet the Japanese.
The Leicesters landed at Salerno a short time after the initial invasion and were soon moved forward to the front line. Here my dad met his first Germans and from that moment had a life-long respect for them. Brave men who, just like my dad and his unit, didn't want to be there but did their duty to the letter.
The Leicesters fought their way up through Italy facing fierce resistance all the way and losing many men. My dad recalled how, at Cassino, the war became bogged down, troops dug into trenches unable to move without being picked off by waiting German snipers, machine guns, artillery or the ever hovering Luftwaffe. My dad saw one of his best friends killed here and only ever recounted the horrific details to me once. I will spare you that, but this brought home to me in big style just what these brave men had to endure.
A slightly lighter tale from this period is of my dad's mate, private Potts, who was regarded as the platoon 'idiot'. Following a night time patrol to try and capture a German prisoner, the squad returned minus their prisoner and also minus Potts. It was assumed that he had been captured, killed or had simply got lost, and he was reported missing.
The following night, however, a sentry spotted a lone figure wearing just boots, socks and long johns stumbling towards their position. It was Potts, who had indeed been captured by the Germans. They too had quickly realised that Potts was not the brightest button in the British army, took his uniform off him, gave him two huge bars of German chocolate and pointed him back towards his own lines. My dad said he was more of a danger to his own side than the enemy, and the Germans must have thought the same.
Guarding the royal palace
Italy was eventually overcome and the Leicesters moved into Austria, fighting on until the war's end. Duties then included guarding the royal palace in Vienna where the armoured car that Montgomery had used in the desert campaign was stood by the main gates. This was used by my dad and his mates for having a sneaky fag break while on guard duty. I wonder what Monty would have thought? Russian troops shared the guarding of the palace, each sporting five or six looted German watches on each arm which they would trade for tins of British boot polish (most of the Russians had never seen boot polish before). Incidentally, the Russians also had no idea how to tell the time and all the watches showed different times.
Whilst in Austria, hunts were often carried out for former SS troops and Nazi party officials. Dad said it always seemed that someone had tipped them off before the raid as they never caught even one. It was during one of these raids that a small motor boat was 'liberated' from a lakeside house. Many trips up and down the lake followed in the following weeks, visiting small villages and the local young ladies. After a while though, an officer began to enquire where the fuel was coming from (it was being stolen from the motor pool) and it was decided to take the boat to the middle of the lake where it was scuttled.
On another occasion a game of football resulted in the ball rolling down a slope towards a sector held by Yugoslav troops. The man who went to retrieve it immediately came under fire from the none too friendly Slavs and scurried back. The ball was abandoned along with the game.
Following this period the unit was sent to France to escort prisoners on rail journeys back to their home towns in Germany. On the long train rides through Germany my dad saw the total devastation caused by the Allied bombing campaign in places such as Hamburg and Nuremburg. What had once been thriving towns were now completely levelled.
On reaching Munich with one train, the Germans were getting off and assembling on the platform when one sentry dropped his Sten gun which then fired four or five rounds into the roof of the station and made everyone, German and British alike, dive to the ground for cover. During the 80s my mum and dad returned to Munich on holiday and out of curiosity went to the station to see the bullet holes still in the stonework supporting the roof some 40-odd years later!
In 1946 Dad was sent back to England along with his mates to be demobbed, having reached the rank of sergeant and being busted back to lance corporal for a beer-fuelled incident involving some American MPs. On the boat home, troops were advised that all non-issued weapons were not allowed into the UK and were to be dumped. Dad reluctantly threw overboard a German Luger pistol but was amazed to see all sorts of weaponry being dumped by his shipmates, including an MG42 machine gun complete with ammunition belts! He returned to Huddersfield to take up a career in engineering, married, and fathered four children, myself being the youngest. Dad died in 1996 but it makes me very proud that he was one of the 'D-Day dodgers' and I would like to thank the BBC for providing this opportunity for me to recall some of the many tales he told me of his wartime experiences.
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