- Contributed by
- Bob France
- People in story:
- WILLIAM GEORGE HENRY FRANCE
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 July 2005
MY WAR BY BOB FRANCE — May 2005
As years go by, you have more time to reflect on your life and the things you wish you had done and those you regret. One thing I wish I had done was to talk to my Pop, my Father, about his time in the First World War, instead of picking up snippets of happenings and experiences. So, if anyone is interested, here are some “snippets” from my war……
When the Second World War started on 3rd September 1939, I was 13 years-of-age, well nearly 14, and I thought the war was for grown-ups and not for me. When the sirens sounded on that Sunday, my mother, Pop and Sister, Frances, and I made our way to the Anderson Shelter that my Pop and I had helped to build, it was a false alarm.
A year or so after that, my Pop joined the Home Guard and as I was now 15, he suggested I also joined, so I did. My first duty was to be shown how to load and fire the LE-Enfield rifle. I was then told to guard the reservoir at Tufnell Park, in North London, Many years later when I was on guard in Germany, I remembered that night and wondered how as a 15-year-old I would have acted if a German Paratrooper had landed beside me. My pants would have been the same colour as my uniform!
We lived in North London and for some considerable time little happened, apart from the London Blitz of course. Most of us would go down to the underground to sleep, and in the morning from a bridge, you could see the docks on fire. One night I remember going to our garden shelter and it was on that night the bombs dropped around us, one came so close that I threw myself on top of my Mother; she held me tight, but said nothing. The bomb landed on a garage at the top of our garden. It must have been 10 years later that she talked about the whistling bomb and said that she thought I was a brave lad that night.
When I was 17 most of my friends were older than me and had been called up to the Navy and the Air Force. Knowing I was next to go, I volunteered for the Navy. It was 1943 and the war in North Africa was over. As I was 18, and before I had a chance to get into the Navy, I got called up to the Army. My Pop wrote to Churchill and explained that it was a great mistake. The reply came from the Ministry telling me I was in the Army.
I went to Brentwood in Essex for Square Bashing, as it was then known, then to Chester where I was trained to fire a Mortar bomb, how to drive a Bren Gun Carrier, how to drive a ten-ton truck, how to assemble and fire a machine gun, how to ride a motor cycle over the Welsh hills and learning how to run and walk ten miles in two hours with a 56 lb pack on your back!
We were then sent to the Isle of Anglesey on manoeuvres. This was all for D-Day although I didn’t know it at the time. I was then transferred to the Middlesex Regiment in the 51st Highlander Division, attached to the Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. These two Scottish infantry regiments would call upon us when they needed machine guns to support their attacks. We then went South somewhere between Southampton and Portsmouth ports, put on what I thought were big ships and across the water nearer the beach we were transferred to landing craft and put on shore, then named “Sword”. The Sword Beach was swarming with troops, although we were only concerned with our own company troops and the objective we were told to make for. We carried our machine guns and assembled them, alongside the Black Watch, and gave them covering fire. We moved along the beach inland and waited for the Bren Gun Carriers to arrive. These Carriers enabled us to secure some protection when manning the guns.
As we got into the hinterland I remember seeing my first French woman; she was all in black. I said hello and she spat on the ground. I said to our Lieutenant that was nice and he said we just shelled her farmhouse! The advance was slow and it took several weeks before we reached Caen. The town was completely devastated. One chap said God help France if it’s all going to be like that. It is said that some 20,000 French people got killed during that period. The Falaise Gap was the next battle when we joined up with the Americans.
This was probably the first turning point since the D-Day landing. The encirclement by the British and American armies captured more than 100,000 Germans, and they say that just as many escaped capture to fight another day.
One of the exciting times was when we liberated Bruxelles. We drove our Bren Gun Carrier through the town and their lovely main square. The town was untouched and the people were going crazy. Unfortunately we didn’t stay. So the excitement did not last.
The next move was The Battle of the Bulge and the 51st Division was sent to the Ardennes, near Liege. It was December and it was bitterly cold and heavy snow. Our overcoats were taken from us, the reason was that if we got too warm we would fall asleep. I would like to know the idiot who made that order!
We were promised tank suits but they never arrived. One night we took shelter in a chateau and proceeded to get shelled. The blast threw several of us off the ground. Fortunately we found plenty of good wine in the cellar to calm us down!
Our company got cut off from our Division and we made our way to some Americans who not only gave us blankets, but something I had never seen before. It was a whole chicken in a can. We then joined the Black Watch and took a little town called La Roche au Ardennes (I visited this town some 60 years later and the names of several men from the Middlesex and Black Watch were found in the museum. Mine has now been added).
In Holland we took a town called Shertogen Bosch and I went to a local barber for a hair cut. Two days later we were pushed out of the town. After a further two days we were back. The barber asked us if were there to stay! His reason for asking? When we first arrived, the partisans rounded up women who collaborated with the Germans and shaved their heads. When we returned, many women were wearing head scarves.
After entering and leaving these European countries, in your own mind you formed an opinion of the people and their respective countries; we seemed to form an affinity for the Dutch. Perhaps it was because they spoke English which helped with the communication problem!
Also, by consensus of opinion, the Dutch women appeared to be more passionate and good lovers, or so I was reliably informed by all those who had personal experience!
The down side of Holland was that every time you dug a trench, water seemed to rise up from the ground. We needed to take bales of straw from the farm yards to soak up the water. Most unpleasant when trying to snatch a few hours of sleep.
At this stage, our despatch rider got killed so I was told as I was the only one who could ride a motor cycle, I became the Company’s despatch rider. Around this time we were due to get seven days’ leave. One of my friends, whose name was Butch, got married during his leave and we came back together.
One day shortly after our return, Butch and I went to our cook to get our tiffin in our mess tins. Butch walked in one direction and I in another. A shell came over and killed Butch, he was 19. Every 11th November, he’s the one soldier I always remember.
We were now near the German Border and our machine guns were set up ready for an attack the following morning. During the night a German patrol entered our lines. The patrol took five of us prisoners. Returning to the German lines we fortunately encountered a Black Watch patrol. After a scuffle, the Germans fled into a forest. With our hands still on our heads, the Lieutenant from the Black Watch made us identify ourselves and took us back to our lines. That young Lieutenant is someone else I will never forget for different reasons.
Once into Germany we found many of the German prisoners very young and very old. We were dug in trenches just outside a small forest and were told that a number of Germans were in the forest. One of our Sergeants was in a trench, looked up open-mouthed to the two young Germans standing before him, one fired and the bullet went through his mouth and out through his cheek. Two of our chaps went after the Germans, and made sure they never shot anyone else. Our Sargeant went off to hospital and returned to us many weeks later.
The next move was to cross the Rhine and then we were between Arnhem and Nijmegen in the first amphibian vehicle I had ever been on. Once across the Rhine and established on the other side of the bank, Bailey Bridges were built and the tanks roared ahead. During this advance, riding my 500 BSA motor cycle, a shell burst not too far away and I had driven down a shell hole full of water. My old lovely BSA was done for. The REME replaced it with a 350 Matchless.
We advanced rapidly alongside sometimes The Black Watch and sometimes, The Scottish Highlanders. On many occasions, we would fire overhead of the infantry, in conjunction with artillery to soften their attack. We were taking prisoners so fast it was untrue. Soldiers were hiding in houses and on farms, dressed in civilian clothing, making out they were farm labourers. We advanced around towns such as Bremen and Bremerhaven, leaving other troops to occupy the towns. We eventually reached North Sea and settled in a little place called Coxhaven, a fishing village. It was there we were told that the war was finally over.
My thoughts were now to sit back and enjoy the benefits of victory. I was still only 19, going on 20 so I was not due for demob. The older soldiers stayed behind and I, with many more younger ones, was sent back to Belgium and were told we were going to Kentucky in America to train with the Americans, who would be the main force to invade Japan. As it was estimated that two million men would be lost, the terrible bombs were dropped and the war with Japan was over.
We were sent to Egypt to guard the Suez Canal. We camped in tents outside the Bitter Lakes; the nearest town was several miles away.
To be truthful, we found the Arabs a very devious lot. They would steal anything left around. It may seem strange but we had German POWs to guard us at night, armed with wooden poles. At daybreak, the POWs were returned to their camps.
The Arabs were good at washing our Khaki-Drill, and were gainfully employed. We did enjoy journeys to Cairo and Alexandria, markets, museums and many other places of interest in Egypt.
All was fine until trouble started in Palestine and the influx of Jews settling on land that the Arabs said belonged to them.
We were sent to Palestine to ease the situation; the British Army had an impossible job to keep the peace, as history has shown. The real trouble started when two paratroopers were hung up under a lamppost by the Jews in Jerusalem.
We travelled all over Palestine; Jerusalem, Jaffa, Mount Carmel, Haifa and Tel-Aviv. We boarded ships, turned the ships around with immigrants on board and sent them back out to sea. Most of them would turn around after dark and land a few miles along the coast.
One of the nice things I’ll always remember about Palestine is that you could always walk into an orange grove and pick Jaffa oranges. Fresh Jaffa oranges were something to remember.
Having a lot of spare time we played a great deal of sport, football, cricket, boxing and hockey. Being interested in most sports, I was sent on a physical training course in Gaza, which I quite enjoyed. Returning to my regiment, I was given the task of organising and training the football team, the boxing team and arranging sports days for different companies in the regiments. Most sporting events were held when we were back in Egypt. Here we would go to the prisoner of war camps and select Germans who were interested in sport.
We chose prisoners such as boxers, boxing referees, weightlifters, ski-ing instructors, or prisoners who were “all round” sportsmen. We found they took more interest in working on the sports ground. To shape out football pitches in the sand we used oil from the RAF stations, also for track events. They were all very happy to work outside their camps — they had been prisoners since 1941/42.
It was the best way for me to spend the rest of my time in the Army. After a year I secured 28 days’ leave. Returning for another year I had then spent nearly four years abroad and it was time for my demob.
I was sent to the Middlesex depot at Mill Hill in North London for my suit and trilby, and so arrived home safe and well. Some say you are sent out a boy and come back a man…..
So, this is a synopsis of my war. I have left out all the good things that I experienced, I could not possibly tell you about them. They remain in my memory. You must remember it was a long war.
We all had different wars; some never left the first English posting; some had terrible wars, some were taken prisoners and suffered that way. In comparison to some, I had a good war, when I think of the ones who never came back.
So, that’s my story, should it interest anyone and I must say, I have enjoyed reminiscing.
Bob France, “Hampstead”, 61 St Mary’s Mead, Witney, Oxon OX28 4EZ
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