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Being a DUKW driver through D Day and the Rhine Crossing

by rob_weller

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Archive List > World > France

Contributed by 
rob_weller
People in story: 
Harry Joseph Weller
Location of story: 
Ver-sur-Mer, Basse-Normandie
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3987679
Contributed on: 
02 May 2005

Dvr Harry Weller. Thought to have been taken just after Arnham at Vucht, Belgium on first day that shirts and ties authorised. Guards Armoured flash on jacket.

The Outbreak of War

When the war broke out Harry Joseph Weller was 15 years old and was evacuated from London to Kilndown in Kent. The first Home Defence Volunteers battledress to arrive became his as it was too small for anyone else. In October 1941 an underage Harry managed to join up at the second attempt.

Training

After six weeks basic training at Colchester T/14306132 Driver Weller moved to RASC Driving School, Stavely and then on to 921 Coy RASC (AA), a unit carrying supplies for anti aircraft guns and searchlights based at Winthorpe. Posted on near Bury St Edmunds area he ferryied vehicles from Ordnance Depots. After an abortive move to join Air/Sea Rescue in Plymouth his unit received a sudden increase on hearing that they were to become an amphibious unit. Early arrivals became No 1 drivers and the later arrivals No 2, with Harry in A platoon. Near Towyn in North Wales they met their Buffaloes, tracked, amphibious cargo vehicles. The driver entrance was through the cargo bay so that, when tracks fell off and the vehicle capsized, there was no escape. Possibly rough seas contributed to this tendency but Buffoloes were quickly retired because of the number of accidents.

Harry collected one of the first six British Army DUKWs from Southampton Docks. (Other sources mention RASC DUKWS in Sicily in 1943 so another training establishment existed) Although American servicemen had several months of training, a couple of hours around the depot introduced left hand drive on dry land. On this experience he then trained his unit NCOs so that they could then train other drivers.

Preparations for D Day

A month later 536 General Transport Company, RASC, relocated near Romsey. Training exercises included a mock invasion of Canvey Island, not something well received by the locals. The DUKWs were reversed onto LSTs (Landing Ships Tank) for extended periods at sea to be able to drive straight into the sea. Eventually Harry’s DUKW (A5) was guarded by armed Military Police in local woods with tarpaulins tied down and sealed with sealing wax; he could only approach the vehicle to service it.

Each Company of RASC DUKWs comprised of platoons of 30 DUKWs numbered A1 — A30, B1 — B30, etc. RASC vehicles doubled as accommodation and the first four platoon vehicles had special roles, eg. A1 — headquarter, A2 — workshop, A3 — cookhouse and A4 (unknown).

D Day arrives

At sea on another training exercise turned into the invasion. Harry’s DUKW A5 was lined up ahead of A6 and A7 to be first launched just 500 yards offshore at H+18, just 18 minutes behind the first troops. Reality soon departed from the briefing.

The American LST crew never reached their AA guns in time to fire a single shot and as soon as the first shell landed nearby the bow doors went down with the French coast just a line on the horizon. The long nose of A5 disappeared under the waves and just as Harry began to think he had stowed too many "luxuries" aboard the nose bobbed up and the distant coast approached at 6 knots. Only three DUKWs were involved this early but it set a precedent; special tasks went mainly to ‘A’ platoon in numerical order.

Approaching Ver-sur-Mer Harry circled once to follow a 'flail tank' through the defences. The mystery cargo was maps of the landing beaches, fortunately not on the sea bed with those extra home comforts. Harry’s co-driver was normally a perennially exuberant Dvr Bill Cromwell who miraculously avoided being shot during this landing when he appeared goose stepping in a German officer’s hat and greatcoat, earning the nicknames “The Baron”.

Beach Operations

Lt Day, 'A' Platoon commander, came ashore with the remainder of the company on the second wave and the routine began. Coming ashore by one route through the dunes one driver held out his mess tin to be filled before unloading and taking another route back. Occasionally a latrine trip meant jumping down when coming ashore and climbing aboard when heading back. However unloading was usually done by the crew.

Each trip was intended for a designated ship to bring stores ashore in sequence. However a potentially lethal cargo was fuel in four gallon rectangular metal cans known as flimsies. Lacking the strength of Jerry cans they leaked badly when lowered in cargo nets. In heavy swells could cause further damage. Leaking fuel in the DUKW bilges reached the hot engine manifold and then exploded. Self preservation found plenty of alternative ships keen to unload.

When the weather turned bad one of the 536 Coy DUKWs was still at sea in poor visibility. Lt Day and Harry set off with the cargo bay tarpaulins securely tied down and the cab canopy secured. Lt Day's machete was to slice through the canopy if they started to go down. Surprisingly Harry had never learned to swim. On returning ashore the missing DUKW had returned shortly after they had left.

The Mulberries reduced the reliance on the DUKWs until the storm damage occurred whilst PLUTO eventually removed much of the need to unload fuel.

One break in routine came when Harry brought Winston Churchill ashore aboard his DUKW. Although the RASC war diary suggests that DUKW B9 brought ashore “Mr Churchill, General Eisenhower and General Montgomery”, such a risk is unlikely. Supporting his account Harry recalls putting his hand out when Mr Churchill stumbled leaving the DUKW, only be told ‘Don’t you touch me’.

Breakout

Most DUKWs reverted to General Transport following the break out from the beaches but others were attached elsewhere to provide amphibious support. The original A5 was lost assisting Canadian forces over the Seine but a reserve was then renumbered A5.

On initially leaving the beach some DUKWs entered a small town by night. Some Germans walked out of a building and the DUKWs beat a hasty retreat with comments about officer map reading skills. However, one slipped down the side of an embankment and was abandoned. Attempts to retrieve it next day were prevented by some tank crews who the front line units. Following the tank advance they found the DUKW damaged by German hand grenades.

Liberation of Brussels

As the Liberation of Brussels approach the front line units were pulled over to allow the spotless Guards Armoured to enter the city first, although they paused to insert some DUKWs, including A5, into their column to show them to the population. The convoy did a victory parade round the town after which Harry was then attached to their unit on their way to Nijmegen where he rejoined others from A platoon.

Six DUKWs, with an NCO on a motorcycle, went to look for somewhere to launch into the Elbe without success so Harry was sent to accelerate from a hundred yards back, jumping straight off the bank. Managing to avoid sinking he began patrolling the river, using improvised depth charges to deter German frogmen from mining the bridges.

A Bridge Too Far

The DUKW was the fastest Allied truck available and was chosen to try to get through to the landings at Arnhem. This became an attempt to collect anyone who had managed to escape in a situation where the British held the road but the Germans held both verges. Returning with the cargo bay full of Paras some Germans appeared with their hands up. Ignoring the para NCO wanted ‘to have some fun’ Harry accelerated past the waiting ambush.

The second DUKW A5 filled with bullet holes but, instead of pulling out of the line for repairs, another DUKW became the third A5. To keep DUKWs watertight the workshops supplied sets of nuts and bolts with two metal and two rubber washers (recycled tyres/inner tubes) to seal the holes.

One incident near Eindhoven involved a broken down DUKW and a recovery vehicle whose crews were taken prisoner without any great enthusiasm by a group of Germans. Gesticulating the need to urinate the captors who agreed but kept walking. The British soldiers then made their way back to their vehicles!

Inspected by Gen Horrocks

Preparing for an inspection by General Horrocks the men had to work hard to achieve a good turnout, including boiling their webbing. Those lucky enough for the straps to survive the process paraded in wet webbing. The General spoke to two Scots on parade, the first mentioning standing for a long time wearing wet webbing in the cold to which the General gave an immediate command for webbing to be removed. The second mentioned their cold food when the officers had some converted caravans hidden out of sight preparing their food. The next day food and cooking facilities appeared. This detail fails to be mentioned in the official war diary!

Crossing the Rhine (excerpts from personal diary)

Harry and his co-driver had been detailed to work with a R.E. Coy. After a few days they were briefed in an old German hotel in Dr Goebbels St. The Royal Engineers were to build a road along the Rhine with ramps into the water for the DUKWs. Harry was to ferry working parties across and to test the special Dukw ramps.

At 2 o’clock the convoy moved out behind the Dukw with the route efficiently signed and patrolled by Military Police. Every type of vehicle from jeeps to Sherman tanks, from storm boats to tugs on great transporters was on the road. The DUKW and some others were parked in an old farmyard to await further orders. At exactly 17:00 began a barrage including even the Bofor ack ack guns whilst the Germans replied with 88s and “moaning Minnies”. After a couple of hours one driver calmly said “Hope they don’t hit my truck. It’s got enough gelignite on to wipe this farm and another dozen like it off the face of the earth”.

At ten o’clock the assault began. The 51st Highland Div infantry led the way and the small arms fire could be heard as the barrage diminished. Thourgh the night other trucks were called for but the DUKW sat waiting half a mile back from the river.

Harry’s co-driver was now a calm, quiet London boy very fond of his bed and slept through the barrage. Harry found some quiet space in the cellar. By 06:00 hrs the R.E.s had finished the road and were making good headway with the ramps on both sides of the river. The work of the R.E.s is rarely mentioned but they worked hard under constant shelling ahead of the tanks and infantry in most assaults, clearing obstacles ready for other troops. Looking round the farmyard for a tin to warm some water in, Harry found a new shell hole not 15ft from the gelignite truck.

A D.R. came for the DUKW at 08:00 but only led it to wait in another farmyard with many chickens. Beginning by collecting eggs the soldiers moved on to collecting the chickens themselves.

On Sunday morning the Dukw made its first trip over the Rhine with the O.C. of the R.E.s. Disappointed that famous river was not half as wide or as fast flowing as he had been led to believe, Harry found the roads to be first class and the ramps superb. Following thorough testing the Dukw companies started carrying vital stores across. Another R.E. Coy had built a light bridge that was quickly in use by tanks and other reinforcements.

The R.E. Coy maintained and rebuilt the roads as the continuous traffic wore them down. Fortunately casualties appeared to be light, possibly five or six at the most but an accompanying Pioneer Coy lost about fifty, about half killed outright.

Most DUKWs returned to their Coys when a second bridge was built as their amphibious role was complete. Harry and his co-driver remained with 505 Coy, R.E. awaiting further tasks.

The DUKWs end their war

With the war ending in Europe the DUKW drivers were ordered to park up their vehicles in a school playground in OSTEND/WESTEND. Some drivers would be going home but as one of the youngest Harry was to be semt to Palestine to drive petrol tankers. His CO agreed that Harry had already played his part but there was no room for exceptions. However, by the time he returned from a training course the unit had unfortunately left so he transferred to the Catering Corps until he was demobbed.

Commentary on the official war diary of 536 Coy, RASC

The Royal Logistics Corps Museum holds the official war diary for 536 Coy as written by Captain A.S. Parker but this does not fully accord with memory. The author, Capt Parker, might have been Lt Parker whose map reading put the DUKWs in the German held town during the initial break out. The diary account relates to the main Company with selective individual tasks reported. Although soldiers have a more limited view than the officers some statements are entirely erroneous.

The first night there was heavy shelling but little bombing at any time. The occasional German aircraft was usually hit by ground fire. The beach was very good without the clay reported as bogging down great numbers of DUKWs. No memories of, or reason for, unloading beached LCTs, come to mind. Certainly no memory of Pioneers being drafted in as drivers; the two man RASC DUKW crew took turns to sleep and eat on the move.

There were no motor launches on the landing beaches. On the odd occasion the officers went to sea they travelled on a working DUKW. Maybe motor launches were used near the Mulberry but would impractical on the beaches.

The reality of the plan for who was to collect what and from which coaster was rather different as the drivers were never told what they were collecting. There was no duty ‘rescue DUKW’ as everything was being used to unload as fast as possible. A DUKW in trouble relied on the nearest DUKW to it for aid. Distance and low speed would make a land based rescue DUKW impractical.

Drivers were never relieved in the afternoon as a DUKW was issued to a driver and only he and his co-driver drove it. Pioneers were only used as porters/unloaders.

Unlike Captain Parker, Harry found the work anything but monotonous as you needed your wits about you all the time. Tiring, exciting and repetitive but not monotonous.

The war diary statement that Mr Churchill, Gen Eisenhower and Gen Montgomery came ashore in a single DUKW is quoted verbatim elsewhere but is wrong. The possibility of losing all three in one DUKW would be unthinkable. In fact it is a certainty, as stated above, that Mr Churchill came ashore on A5 and not B9, unless he came ashore more than once. This would be possible if he was ashore over two days as he would be unlikely to left as a target for capture overnight.

The history from this point starts to diverge because Harry never moved along to operate inside the Mulberry harbour although engineers were taken out to them to assess needed repair work.

Possibly the reference to not having had a long road flog for four months refers back to the move from Towyn to Hampshire but neither occasion is remembered as being marked by punctures; in fact, Harry cannot remember ever having to change a tyre. Where tyres did puncture it tended to be the result of failing to adjust the tyre pressures when coming ashore On sand the pressure was about 10 lbs but on harder surfaces about 35 lbs.

Harry well remembers the tidal bore on the River Seine and the numerous crossing that were made in the strong current, however, he has no recollection of any reported problems with the rudder. He certainly never had the reported breakage. Expanding on the story of dead animals and people in the river, they were told to give any object floating towards them a quick burst of gunfire to dissuade any Germans who may be using them as cover to attack. He recalls that the ramps on the river bank had to be taken at speed to prevent the DUKW from getting beached as it went over the top.

Harry's was then one of the DUKWs attached to fighting units as amphibious support as well as being General Transport, so his history diverges until he rejoined them again after Brussels was liberated.

As well as the failed idea of using cables to help the DUKWs cross strong river currents was an alternative idea from the drivers to rope DUKWs together side by side so that the side area remained the same but there was the combined motive power of all the DUKWs.

Captain Parker also mentions the major overhaul programme that took place in Jan 1945 for which that had the temporary use of 99 3 tonners to keep up the GT work. Harry has no recollection of that at all but feels that, as his DUKW was numerically the first for such work it probably was completed before the shortage of transport arose.

Many of the details of the main history of the Company varies from Harry’s experience. He does not know anything about the use of other non DUKW, non RASC drivers around Nijmegen. Numerous accounts mention 297 Coy and 536 Coy, both of which he was aware of, but there are an apparently increasing number of Dukw companies mentioned once with little cross reference. He feels certain that they did not operate within the confines of the beach at Ver-sur-Mer and cannot conceive of the numbers of Dukws in 11 companies operating within that confined area.

Rob Weller
From numerous conversations over a period of time. Dec 2005

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