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Mines on the move: a Royal Engineers field company

by cambsaction

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Archive List > World > France

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Gandy
Location of story: 
Britain, France, Belgium, Germany
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 July 2005


When I volunteered, I registered at St John’s School in Greyfriars Road, Cardiff. I had to have a medical exam. I got passed out and had to join the 555 field company Royal Engineers in Narberth, Pembrokeshire. When I arrived there, all I had was an army soft hat, army boots, navy blue pinstripe suit and a pick halve [wooden handle, not the pick].

We were billeted at a shop called Mr Idle’s. He was German and the shop was full of violins. We used to sleep in one of the bedrooms. We moved from Narberth to a milk depot near Milford Haven — I still only had my pin-stripe suit, no uniform. We slept on straw paliasses. We were a field company so lived in different places. We used to go to a quarry in Havefordwest. We used CDFs — 6 wheel trucks —to collect rocks to fill in the bomb holes. We used to go to Sharp’s toffee factory to get ash to go over the top.

I'd got married just before I joined up. We used to go to St John’s Ambulance together. When I had a message to say my wife was very ill with appendicitis, the Sergeant wouldn’t let me go. Then I got another message to say she had passed away. She had got peritonitis. I had to go to Llandough Hospital, she was in the morgue there. We’d been married six weeks.

We travelled all over doing defence works. We worked our way along the coast from Brighton - Larsing, Hove, Russington, Littlehampton. At Litttlehampton, we slept in an old school. Then we went on manoeuvres — to Lewis and Redhill. We practiced mine clearing and building Bailey Bridges. If a bomb was still ticking, we’d put an electric compressor on it to stop it ticking, then you could unscrew it and take the explosives out and put them in a truck to take to the dump.

After that, we went over to Ireland - took a train to Dumfries, got on a naval boat and landed at Laugharne. We went to stay in a factory, sleeping on straw paliasses. Then we started to move about in Northern Ireland. We were putting up Bailey bridges where bridges had been destroyed. The Germans were in Southern Ireland then. There was only a stone building, the Customs office, between us and Southern Ireland. Two of our men, Corporal Took and Cliff Vaughan, married two sisters from the South of Ireland. The civilians could come over the border. There were infantry at the customs, asking for identification. From there we moved to Lurgan — a big park loaded with stored explosives. We had to disarm any unexploded shells or bombs. We used to have leave but not for long. We were there about two years, I think, then came back from Ireland and down to Lewis again.

I had a serious accident in Ashford Road in Kent. I was a motor-cyclist; I was taking the Army trucks through and another motor cyclist — I still remember his name - came through a side turning between the trucks. The bar of his bike went through my leg. I went flying through the air. Harry Gowan from Newport came up. An Officer said to me, “You’ll be on holidays, now”. Harry said “If you don’t get this man to a hospital soon, he’ll bleed to death.” I went to Barming Heath hospital in Maidstone. I was there a year. They had to burn all my clothes, they were soaked …. The nurse who looked after me was Rosemary; her father was a high ranking officer in the Army. There was a German surgeon there, interned. He tried something new and kept the wound open for nearly 9 months. He put in a metal knee cap. He saved my leg. I still have pain with it, especially in winter. When I came out of hospital, I had to wear a blue suit, white shirt, and pink tie to show I was disabled. If Military Police stopped and picked you up, you had to show them a card. When you went back again, they gave you a new army suit.


One day, the Sergeant Major said ‘we’re moving tomorrow.’ We went down to Tilbury docks, got onto Liberty ships and were in the Channel for 3 weeks. We couldn’t come up above deck, and we didn’t know where we were. It was terrible down there. Then the orders came from Montgomery to go down to Normandy.

I remember pulling in on the right hand side of the beach - at Arromanches; we had to climb down rope ladders into water, up to our waists, and wade ashore. Our trucks came on big cargo steamers. They were lifted out with cranes and onto landing craft. Drivers had to go out to get them. Trucks had been water-proofed so they could drive them ashore. I was in charge of drivers. One of them drove a Carrier; he had a truck with unloaded mines, and the explosives in a trailer behind. He had gone up the bank and stepped out of the truck. He trod on a landmine and the whole lot went up. I was about 80 or 90 yards away.

We were in American GMC trucks and slept inside them or underneath them. There were tank regiments with us and we used to sleep under the tanks when the shelling was going on. We headed towards Bayeux; on the left of us were the Canadians, on the right were Americans. We were in the centre - 53rd Welsh Division, 282 Field Company, with a Scottish Regiment of RE’s next to us. We were to push the Germans forward and then let them come back. We kept doing this and then they were trapped, and the gap was closed. They called it the Falaise Gap. Rocket-firing Typhoons were told to fly over and kill anything that moved.

The Germans didn’t have any army trucks there, only horses and wagons. There was nothing but trucks and dead horses all the way ‘til we got out of the Gap. They were in ditches or trenches at the side of the road. They’d either gone in there with the firing, or been blown by the explosions. There were dead cattle everywhere, swollen up, big fat lumps ‘til the Pioneer Corps dug holes and buried them. The smell was terrible. You never forget it.


We moved forward out of the Falaise Gap behind the infantry, past Bayeux. The Germans were retreating; they were firing tanks but our tank regiments had got in and were firing back. We were in the fields sleeping, doing mines and unexploded bombs, and building bridges. We went through Brussels in Belgium. Our Infantry officer said there was a mine on the bridge so could we clear it. I asked for volunteers. Cliff Vaughan and Corporal Took (Tookie) went in an armoured car. They got out to disarm it but a German in a tree detonated it. We heard the explosion. I always put crosses for them on the memorial in our village, on Remembrance Day.

We didn’t stop, we had to keep going. You see so many people dead, the tanks pressing people into the muck, you got used to seeing people dead. If the infantry wanted something doing, they would get in touch with us. I was in charge of a squad of men driving the trucks — there was an Officers’ truck, a Bren-gun carrier, 3 troop carriers, a water truck and a compressor — seven vehicles and the drivers.

I had a motorbike and I had to go in front and wait and see if all the transport got through not to leave anyone behind. When they had all gone through, that was alright. We were taught to read maps — we would have meeting in field and they would explain to us — we needed to know where we had to go.

I travelled everywhere by bike - a BSA 500cc side-valve. I only carried a pistol — you couldn’t have a rifle on a bike. One day, one of the Mosquito planes came down near me. His engine had packed up, or something. He said, “Can you take me back to my unit down the road?” It turned out to be 30 miles, and then I had to come all the way back again.

When I was made a corporal, it was just a notice on a make-shift notice-board, there was another RE at the same time, Corporal Edwards. We didn’t have stripes then.

You had a mess tin, food in one half, tea in the other. It was a hard life. Loftie was our cook. Food was in tins, meat and veg, corned beef, hard biscuits. There were Americans in the next field. They had bread baked fresh for them — the smell... They’d come up to the hedge and talk to you. You had hard biscuits, you could hardly eat them; they had real bread. They were proper show-offs, the Americans; they always wanted to go in front. Once, in the Ardennes mountains, they went ahead but the Germans surrounded them and took them prisoner. When the Germans moved out, we moved in. They were retreating then. George Formby came there and was playing his banjo in a barn on the straw bales; a shell came right through where he was standing but he was alright. He just kept going. He didn’t stop. He was the only one who came out there to see us.

Monty would say when we were going to advance somewhere. We’d be working on the trucks all day and he would want us to go 300 miles in the dark. Half the drivers were so tired they would fall asleep and end up in the ditch. It was a terrible war, it was. I met Monty a few times… he just came round, asking us how things were going. It was the real one, definitely him.

The Germans were still retreating. We moved from Belgium through to Holland. At, Arnhem, that’s where the paras came over and they were getting shot out of the sky. There were parachutes all over the field where they dropped, dead men as well.

At Nijmegan, they put a smoke screen for us to cross the river. We had to go across. The bridge was still there. We got down below and the cows in the field, they used to come and eat the potato peelings after cook had done with them. We were moving on fast, then, with the retreat, and ended up in Hamburg in Germany.


When the War came to an end, they just said all the trucks had to be cleaned, to get the muck off. I told the sergeant major I was supposed to be getting married so he went down to see the RAF and got me on a plane. I got on a train, up to Merthyr Vale. I was still in my army uniform. The church was all locked up because the Vicar had forgotten about it. The best man was my wife’s cousin’s young man. He said , “Go round and climb through the vestry window and open up.” He went to get the Vicar. There was a big crack in the wall, it was December and it was freezing in there, no heating. Betty was shivering with cold. I was worried she was nervous and was going to change her mind. Just after the wedding, I went back to the RAF station to be taken back to Germany.

I’d met my wife on Cardiff station, on leave. She had a big kit bag. I said, “Do you want a hand?” I put it up on the rack. We went up to Paddington together. We had American spam, chips and a cup of tea each at the Lyons Corner House. I said, “I’ve got to go down to Kent, to Herne Bay.” She was in the WAAF, in Yorkshire. She’d been training WAACS in High Wycombe, Pinetrees, before that. It was the US Bomber Command. She was with the Americans, training girls how to work the phones to talk to the pilots in the bomber planes. They were Sterlings and Lancasters. She saw some terrible things, too, when the planes came back, all shot up. She wrote to me all through the war, but I didn’t know where she was — it was secret. We only met a few times before we got married. But we’ll have been married 60 years soon [December 2005].

After the war, I was demobbed in Hereford cattle market. You handed your uniform in, and you were given a shirt, a tie, a raincoat, a trilby hat, a suit, shoes and socks. There were about 240 men in my company at the start; only about 15 of us came back. Most of them were lost doing mines. You were supposed to go slowly, but some of them rushed it, and the mine would go off. I used to do a lot of training but some of them wouldn’t bother, they just like to go off out. I don’t remember how many mines I did, hundreds of them, I suppose.

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