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15 October 2014
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Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineers in Holland

by George Letchford

Contributed by 
George Letchford
People in story: 
George Letchford
Location of story: 
Kent and Holland
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 May 2005

The Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineers TA unit was formed in 1932 by Colonel C. C. H Brazier, the Works Manager of Bevans Cement Works at Northfleet. There was considerable incentive to enlist: in those days workers were occasionally laid off, and one’s job might be a little more secure. Also two weeks annual camp at places like Gosport, Weymouth and Sandown on the Isle of Wight, plus payment of a £5 bounty — not a trivial sum with average wages of £2 8s 0d. Within three days one hundred and fifty men were recruited.

In 1938 came the Munich crisis and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s "Peace in Our Time" appeasement of German aggression in Europe. The introduction of Militia training for 18/19 year olds was imminent. In 1939 the KFRE was below full complement, and the prospect of joining up into a company trained in coastal defence appealed to some clerks and apprentices, of which I was one. So in May 1939 I became a Sapper in K(F)RE. By August the company was mobilised and mustered to war stations around Thames Estuary. My first post was at the end of Southend Pier tending searchlight generators.

In early December 1939 Royal Artillery personnel took over our coastal defence duties. All one hundred and fifty RE’s were withdrawn and remustered at Sheerness where they were split into ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ half sections for field service training. Then in January 1940 the whole company moved to Gravesend Barracks where further training took place. This involved the use and handling of explosives, such as putting together a dry gun cotton primer, detonator and 12 inch safety fuse, and exploding it behind a tree in Cobham Woods.

Several 3-ton lorries were permanently parked on the parade ground, laden with equipment, materials and tools useful for demolition purposes. Parties of Sappers were allocated to certain lorries. Exercises were practised sometimes in the early hours, when men would run out fully equipped, with full pack and rifles to a bugle call, get to the lorries and be off en route, which we guessed would be Dover, then return after a few miles - another false alarm.

However eventually on 10th May 1940 (incidentally the day Churchill replaced Chamberlain, and the night air raids first began), it all happened for real. We set off in convoy straight to Dover harbour, off-loaded equipment and embarked on the RN destroyer HMS “Wild Swan”. Soon the ship was sweeping out of the harbour, heading for the North Sea. Once at sea the party of twenty men, including Sgt H. Hearnden, was called together by the Commanding Officer, Captain Tommy Goodwin. He informed us our destination was to be Holland, specifically Rotterdam, to blow up the large oil refineries of Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, in order to deny the huge oil stores to Hitler's Wehrmacht. All ranks were issued with Dutch currencies to be used if a soldier became separated and needed to make his own way round to Belgium.

At about 5pm on the same day we docked and disembarked at the Hook of Holland with all equipment. It was at that moment I saw bombs being dropped from German bombers as Rotterdam was being flattened. Also at that time I sadly recall three British Blenheim Bombers flew in, and I saw them pounced upon by German fighter planes and shot down in as many minutes. This was the beginning of the German occupation of Holland.

Our party stayed in the dock area during the days, resting in sheds which Dutch troops had vacated. The whole area was deserted, people had fled leaving shops open and unattended. At nightfall we travelled inland to Rotterdam via the Maas Waterway canal (some 10-km or so) by canal barge where we were below decks out of sight. Nevertheless, the sound of German planes patrolling overhead was rather nerve racking.

The first night in Rotterdam we sheltered in the Town Hall and dozed underneath a very stout looking conference table. We were very well received by the Dutch authorities, although it must be said that the latter were very reluctant to have their oil refinery blown up. So whilst negotiations were going on, our party spent the second night in a semi-bomb proof building which was half below ground level and stacked with cheeses, trying to snatch a little sleep.

In the early hours we were called out for the purpose of loading a large quantity of gold from Dutch Treasury. The bullion was enclosed in neat white wood containers, roughly 11 x 6 x 6 inches. These were very heavy and awkward to load; walking up two planks that sagged at each step. Wild Swan's records show that the Dutch gold was successfully delivered to England.

The following day we travelled by commandeered trucks to the oil refinery and, under orders, set about the sabotage of the installation which soon became well engulfed and on the way to destruction. As our team withdrew there was much commotion and sound of machine gun fire as German paratroops descended on the city. We needed to get back to the Hook for evacuation by the Royal Navy. Thankfully the Dutch authorities had produced two commercial vans which were enclosed with metal canopies and rear doors. Our party quickly boarded the vans together with rifles and backpacks. Once clear of the city, we transferred to commandeered open lorries. From high ground we could see the Hook being bombed and Navy pom-poms retaliating.

Eventually we arrived back at the Hook. There we saw three large limousine cars which had been damaged by bomb shrapnel. The naval vessels had put to sea, it was guessed that possibly members of the Dutch Royal family were on board. We had to spend the night here until the destroyer returned to the quayside. There was a rail terminal close by where some of us wedged ourselves in the rail turntable below ground level should there be more enemy bombing. The following morning our party was positioned lying prone with rifles cocked, between railway lines expecting the arrival of enemy troops. We could not understand why the naval vessel did not put to sea with all personnel on board. However after some time the order came for us to withdraw, and we scrambled on board and were yanked down with robust help from anxious seamen, then the ship put to sea. All the time enemy planes were trying to bomb but the Navy threw up all the armament they had.

The destroyer headed out into the North Sea. But it had sustained bomb damage and was making slow progress. It was then that we spotted the most cheering sight since leaving Dover - a flotilla of waiting British destroyers, which had come down from Norway after Lord Mountbatten’s action at Narvik. From then on it was a safe trip back to Dover, but the crippled ship was steaming at slow speed, and a U-boat scare resulted in depth charges being launched. It was some experience for us poor squaddies on the open stern deck as the ship bucked!

We eventually docked late at night in Dover harbour; transported up to Dover Castle where we enjoyed our first decent meal and a really good night’s sleep for a week.

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