- Contributed by
- Doug Dawes
- People in story:
- Doug Dawes, Captain Bayley, Ted Scales, George Siley, Bruce Laxton, Captain Cutforth
- Location of story:
- Belgium: River Escaut, Meersche, Courtrai
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 October 2005
We turned east for a few miles towards the River Escaut which was really a canalised part of the Scheldt coming down from Antwerp towards the industrial area around Lille. Here we were going to hold the river line. Again we settled (that is my troop of four guns) in a farm with barns. There were of course 20 others in the regiment, obviously peeling off in troops over several miles, enough to support at least two battalions holding the river line. The troop commander took me with a driver of course to recce the area and to establish contact with the infantry. We were Lewisham boys and they turned out to be Bermondsey boys. I think, Territorials, 4th battalion R.W. Kents. Captain Bayley said they were a bit vague about the situation on their left and also the right flank where they weren’t in touch with anyone. The river area was wooded and observation was difficult for gunners. There were no obvious landmarks. We left the PB digging slit trenches. On the way back we saw a few Belgian soldiers some with impressive looking sub-machine guns. The thought crossed my mind that they were going home, which I thought was certainly better than being taken prisoner.
We made good use of the outbuildings, the guns and limbers were under cover, mostly in open sheds or barns. Where they weren’t open fronted we set to work, especially with the wooden constructions. The adjacent house was deserted. We forced or opened a side door but as far as I know no one interfered with the contents in chests of drawers, wardrobes etc — those were the orders. Things started to happen. There was a large house, I suppose the French would have called it a chateau, farther up the road on the opposite side. There was no immediate Stuka activity but there was some desultory artillery activity in the area and the building caught fire. The infantry must have used it as a store for spare small arms ammunition and mortar bombs, presumably, 3” and 2”. There were explosions, occasionally and perpetual small arms ammunition exploding for hours. What a give away!
There was a big scare during the night. A sentry some fifty yards in front of the guns heard a noise, took cover, challenged and as there was no reply and the noise came closer opened fire. Neighbouring sentries joined in. What a panic! The noise or noises receded. When it was light enough to see a dead cow was discovered shot between the eyes. A patrol discovered a herd of cows up against barbed wire some distance away. One of our farm labourer reservists said they were suffering because they had not been milked.
At dawn we took two vehicles up to the ridge. One 15cwt in which I travelled and a Bren carrier. There was considerable small arms fire and comparatively small explosions which we identified as mortar bombs. The small German mortar, similar to our two inch mortars not the big 81 mms which were the equivalent of our 3”. Our guns fired from the map over the river at the village opposite. I believe it was Meersche or some very similar name, but they didn’t seem to be any artillery in reply. Typically our position became a liaison post as the area along the river was very wooded. Unlike the theory that the artillery had observation posts with a view of the battlefield the only view of what was going on would be down on the river amongst the infantry. Of course in Wellington’s time, the guns were often in the front so that the target could be seen. In World War 1 on the Western Front, after the church towers had been demolished balloons were used for observation by both sides — suicidal, so once a front had been established and there was no observation artillery had to use maps and mathematics. Here we had little idea of where the infantry was so the far side of the river was shelled by using a map and hoping for the best. Friendly fire as it is called, hitting your own side is often in the news these days — it’s probably a worse problem with aircraft support.
I left the 15cwt some distance and proceeded to the Bren carrier, frightened out of my life, where the Troop Commander and signallers with wireless were. The Bren carrier was cramped with four on board so I settled down with range tables and logarithms and clip board. The machine guns, (harassing fire?) probably hundreds of yards away were whistling through bushes and I remember the fresh green leaves falling from trees. The mortars were quite intense. I wasn’t doing any good where I was and wasn’t sure the troop commander and driver signallers with their wireless were either. The mortars seemed to fire in spasms — sweep and search the technical term. Suddenly it became very frightening. I lay flat on my stomach, as close to the carrier as possible and heard a mortar bomb splinter hit the carrier on my side and then I had a sudden stinging in my back behind my left shoulder. I moved slightly and found I was all right. Captain shouted “Are you all right?” I was but was feeling scared out of my wits and distinctly surplus to requirements. He told me to collect the 15cwt and go back to the gun position.
There was a local lull in the mortars and I collected my goods and ran as fast as I could back to the 15cwt, collected the driver, I think it was Ted Scales and proceeded down the track. We lost our way!! What a dead loss!! The driver said that he had been following the Bren carrier but we decided to get as far away from the unpleasantness as possible but after some time we saw a sign, actually a piece of wood, 362 B.H.Q. We found it off the road and entered the large house, worse for wear, the house I mean. There was a room with a large table, maps and papers and a field telephone. Everybody looked at us in surprise — “Who the bloody hell are you?” a voice asked. It was Major — I’ve forgotten his name, the Commanding Officer of our other battery. He was very upset. There was a loud explosion close handy. “You bloody fools he went on, you’ve driven up to my B.H.Q. in full view of the enemy”. A slight exaggeration I thought, but there was one of those infuriating spotter planes flying around. After looking at the map we realized that we should have turned left at the road, so retraced our steps (that’s a strange expression to use) and after a mile or so came across the big house, with ammunition still exploding and recognised where we were.
I reported to George Siley, who was his usual cheerful self. The guns had fired all the shells in the limbers and were using the spares. One of the gun crews had a little chap called Adams as loader and he was sobbing all the time as he pushed the shell into the gun and closed the breech block. The rest were telling him to “Shut Up for God’s sake.” I felt so sorry for him but he was doing the job. I suggested to the Sergeant in charge of the gun that I’d take over for a bit and give him a break. There was a lull in the firing quite soon and Bruce who had been very busy said “You’ve got blood on your back, let’s have a look.” My battledress was stuck to my back and my shirt and string vest were bloody. There were three small holes was the verdict and something stuck in them. Someone who had a small penknife carried out the operation and gently lifted them out. There were three little shallow pits they said. They showed me what had been removed. Three pieces of khaki paint but silver coloured metal on the back. All together about the size of a fingernail and about as thick as a big toe nail too. It was dabbed with a field dressing and I kept my shirt off until they dried a bit. Several laughed “The first one wounded” they said “ by a paint ricochet”.
We had some bully beef and biscuits and tea and a box of sultanas and of course no official cooks. This was the before the days of the Army Catering Corps and we were a detached group anyway so had to fend for ourselves. There was plenty of milk available and the countryman had killed a piglet after entertaining everyone by catching a rat and throwing it into the pigsty to demonstrate how omnivorous pigs were. I didn’t witness this horror but I suppose the pigs were hungry too. Apparently the corpse of the piglet was hung as is the usual practice but not long enough and dismembered and “roasted” on a wood fire — no gas or electricity in the building although there was a stove of some kind. Every unit needs a countryman! I had a small piece — undercooked I thought. Beggars can’t be choosers and as evening was approaching took it into one of the bedrooms to eat before trying to sleep on the bed. There was more enemy activity, several bombs near the road behind our position. I had had some bully beef but hadn’t tried the pork. There was a very loud explosion nearby and the window shattered and I was showered in plaster and dust from the ceiling and the meal was inedible.
It was a noisy night. The small arms ammunition was still amazingly exploding at times as the building close handy was gutted but still smouldering. I remember this so clearly. Some of us had been sick in Bailleul with the bloody mess there, French soldiers and horses. I found my legs just wouldn’t work properly. Fear affected people differently. We heard that Captain Cutforth the E Troop Commander had been killed and also the regimental doctor and others. Apparently although assured that Cutforth was dead the doctor insisted on going to see him and his vehicle was hit.
The cows were still being a nuisance but the guns fired and they scampered off as fast as their udders permitted. We were off to see the infantry again and it was frightening. The Germans were over the river in one place were also approaching from Ghent where the Belgians, we thought, were still resisting. I was sent back to the gun position to tell Lieutenant Siley of the situation and that we would probably have to move. On the way we picked up two walking wounded, one with a bandaged hand and the other with a leg wound. We took them to a field dressing station, a shallow pit about 30’ x 20’ under canvass with a red cross. This was a sight I will never forget, I can see it so plainly after all these years. I often think about it during the night in my warm and comfortable bed. Post trauma stress syndrome they call it now. I wonder how the survivors of the Western Front in World War 1 managed. This was hell. They were packed like sardines in a tin, some quite still, others moaning and groaning, shouting and even screaming. There was smell from stomach wounds. The poor doctor, mid twenties I suppose, fresh from medical school, a crash course in wounds treatment, blood on his hands and forearms, 1 or 2 R.A.M.C. orderlies and a padre. This was my first close experience and probably the worst of the real horror of war. I explained the situation to the padre and said we had a vehicle and did he want to come with us. He declined and said that he would stay with the doctor. Probably within the day they would be P.O.W. and carry on with their business as Prisoners of War. Little did we realize then — for five years.
We returned to the gun position. They were just running out of shells. The order came to pack up and get out. The Germans were over the river in strength and the position was not supported on the left or right. We packed up, guns were limbered up and ready to go. Then there was a remarkable order — originated I bet from someone in an office far away. No shell cases — brass of course - were to be left behind, the Germans were short of non-ferrous metal. The place was littered in shell cases. Panic; threw them into the Scammels which towed the guns and carried the gun crews and into any other vehicle including my 15cwt. We checked that no one was left behind and there was much amusement when some appeared from the slit trench which we had fitted up with a plank as a bog. We were off! My front seat in the 15cwt had been appropriated by a senior N.C.O. and I flung myself in the back onto the jumble of shell cases. It was absolute agony. We had to stop after a mile or two and I had a chance to clear a space behind the cab and settle more comfortably. I don’t remember what happened to the shell cases. Well, like many others, I was 19 and growing up fast. The poor bloody infantry were in close contact and having few vehicles had to use their legs. There was little air activity apart from a Stork and we eventually reached Courtrai again before sunset. No more interested locals with their chairs outside their houses watching our progress. I well remember it was raining, or the roads were wet anyway. It was a ghost town. This is where my memory of the actual sequence of events fails me. The following days with little to eat, continuing air activity, colossal traffic jams, French going in one direction and us in another, not knowing where the rest of the battery was, absolute chaos.
We got used to taking cover when necessary and watching the bombs leave the aircraft — these were the Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111 mostly, bombing from quite low level. They exited the aircraft and seemed to wobble about for a few seconds and then seemed to straighten out. The Stukas were more frightening because they circled the target and then one by one peeled off and dived, not actually perpendicularly but at a steep angle with a screaming noise before discharging the bomb, often just one, before pulling out of the dive. Where were the R.A.F.? Feelings ran high about this. We saw no British or French planes except one Lysander flying quite low, losing height with black smoke billowing out of it. Lower and lower but flying straight it went out of sight. I won’t say this lack of air support was demoralising because we had suffered no casualties in our little group but the army and the navy suffered most of the war because operations were undertaken without air support. The sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya is an obvious example.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.