Harry Wood taken during a ‘Quiet Time’ in Arnhem 1944
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Harry Wood, Sergeant Robson, Forsythe, Leaman, Farrell, Jenny Lind, Donnelly, Sergeant Davero, Sammy Cohen
- Location of story:
- Normandy, Villers Rocage, Bayeux, Caen
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 May 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Harry Wood and has been added to the site with the author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
MEMOIRS OF A GUNNER
Caen on our left held the key to the whole advance in Normandy, and Jerry was throwing a lot of his armour in there. We were constantly in action now and I found myself in charge of the gun most of the time as Sergeant Robson spent more time in his slit trench than on the gun. Bombers were going over constantly, many being shot down before our eyes by the ack-ack, and one day, as parachutes floated down an airman shouted when he was about 100 feet up in the air “Are you bastards English?” It was an American pilot. He landed a few yards away on a wall, and after helping him down, giving him a cup of tea, he was soon on his way back, no doubt to pick up another plane.
We advanced towards Villers Rocage, heavily wooded and hedges that made it difficult to see very far in front of us. We were now in a small valley, our wagons or gun-tower in an orchard about half a mile back. Most of the drivers had stretchers to sleep on which they placed in their trucks, very foolishly as it turned out, and slept in comparative comfort. Just as it went dark one night, they got shelled. Most of the H.E exploding as it hit the trees causing heavy casualties. They didn’t need telling after that to dig-in at all times.
My slit trench was damp, but safe although I got a bit of backache. Sleep was still our main problem; we had to take snatches whenever we could. There was little evidence of the German Air Force although a Messerschmit came straffing one day - everyone opened up but our ack-ack crew of the Northumberland Hussars fetched it down to a great cheer. After a fortnight the Sergeant Major pulled me out to go to a rest-camp set up on the coast. It was a collection of tents and for four days we could just rest and recuperate with no restrictions. The only rule was that only men from the front line could go, tank men, infantry and gunners. Most slept all the time, but there were some captured German horses to ride if we wished. I tried this but only once. I went to the beach, which had been cleared of mines, to have a bathe, but oil on the water from the sunken landing craft meant that we spent quite a time afterwards using paraffin to remove the oil from our bodies. The first concert party from England arrived here. Two acts I remember were Forsythe, Leaman and Farrell and Jenny Lind the singing nightingale.
All too soon it was back to action, this time on a different gun team, and
Sergeant Rogers. In front of our gun position was a potato field from which we made our supper and supplemented this by milking the cows, which were wandering about. Many of the cows lay dead, stinking in the field, but the ones alive badly needed milking and dropping our chocolate ration in the milk made a fine drink in the evening. Lieutenant Kitchen next ordered us not to take the spuds, as we didn’t want to antagonise the French. What a berk! Anyhow we waited until it was dark, dug up the spuds and replaced the tops.
He never noticed the difference. Bayeux had fallen and we moved further up. Tom Donnelly received a shell splinter in his side from one or our own shells that prematurely exploded, just after leaving the muzzle, but it was a steady bombardment now and we were coping all right.
A bath unit had arrived in Bayeux, about seven miles in the rear, and half the gun teams (three men per gun) could go for a shower and see a stars in battle-dress show at a tumble-down theatre that had been commandeered.
Sergeant Rodgers insisted that I took two men with me and he would go the following day with two men.
The show was very good, but in the town the only shop open was selling the famous Normandie cheese. I had a little money, it was printed B.L.A in francs, quite different to what the local money as issued by the Germans was circulated. Anyhow I bought some of the famous cheese and wondered what all the fuss was about. I didn’t like it.
Back to the unit to be met by a sad sight, the gun split in two, and gun layer and loader both dead. Sergeant Rodgers, by a miracle, was unhurt. No one spoke as we sorted the lads' belongings, but I noticed many gun layers no longer sat on the seat when they pulled the trigger of the gun, but stood a little to one side. It was back to Sergeant Robson’s gun team for me.
Sergeant Davero was still with us, and in his sub-section he had a recruit who was a fervent salvationist. We called him Holy Joe, and on a Sunday wherever we were, Joe would spend ten minutes preaching and praying to anyone who would care to join him. Everyone liked him, and secretly envied him his faith. He never showed any fear.
Sammy Cohen, a little Jewish lad was in our section. His father had made him a Director of his tailoring firm to get him exempt, but the authorities had caught up with him. We spun him lurid tales of what the Germans would do to him if he were taken prisoner; that meant two nervous wrecks in the team now.
Jerry had a nebellwerfer trained on our battery at night. This was a six barrelled mortar pulled by a horse and in the quietness of the night we could hear the horse in the distance, so we took to our slit trenches. The mortars were very large, about 6 inch shells, and though we plastered his position, he always found somewhere else the next night and we never did silence him. It was slow, grinding work now the Germans were fighting magnificently. We sent leaflets at one stage, packed in a smoke shell that was a passport, through the allied lines. The leaflet was a real propaganda job. On the front was a picture of a naked German woman, heavily pregnant, and the underlying caption was that the foreign workers in the fatherland were enjoying the
favours of the wives and sweethearts of the soldiers at the front.
At last, orders came to advance. Our troop was to head for a new position about three miles away. We always leap-frogged like this as a regiment — as four guns moved forward, twenty were still in action and when the first four settled in another moved out, so we always had plenty of firepower for our infantry.
Lieutenant Kitchen led us out in a 15-hundredweight truck, the sergeant Major marshalling the four guns on his motorbike. As we approached the village we came under small arms fire. The officer stopped his truck and dived into a ditch. We all had to stop but no one saw any immediate danger. Sergeant Major Tommy Daro was furious, he rode up on his motor bike, pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Kitchen. “Get these F*****g wagons moving,” he shouted, “or I’ll blow you F*****g head off.” And with orders to get your head and foot down we sped through the village to a field beyond.
One man per gun was posted as a lookout, and one of then happened to be me. I lay on a bank peering through a wood. The guns were firing at just over 2,000 yards and were preparing anti tank shells, as we could hear a lot of armour moving about up front. The position was covered in high hedges and trees, so we couldn’t see much at all but it was obvious that we were much too exposed. A movement in the woods caught my eye, they were British troops and one of them crawled over. He was a lad from the York and Lancs, and wore the Hallamshire flash; they had just arrived in Normandy from Iceland. He seemed to think that seeing 25-pounders here meant that the position was relatively safe; I took a delight in shattering his illusions. A few more rounds per gun, then we were ordered back to our original position and I think we all heaved a sigh of relief.
At last Caen fell and we moved in to encircle a huge German army at Falaise.
Montgomery had artillery pouring shells into the trapped Germans, and heavy bombers pouring bombs down on them, they should have been allowed to surrender. When we moved through on our way eastwards, I was shocked at the carnage. Apart from the bodies and the material, German field hospitals were blown up and the horses, hundreds of them, stiff in the shafts, their eyes looking up to heaven whilst the maggots got to work on their bodies.
We stopped amongst the rabble for a break to eat our ration of bread and cheese and drink a pot of tea. Two bulldozers were digging pits in a field about 50 yards away. Just then several American army wagons came down the road pulling trailers like one would use to transport horses and cattle. The drivers were coloured men and they all wore some kind of protective clothing, the reason soon became obvious. Each trailer was piled high with bodies and pieces of human beings to a height of about 10 feet. They drove up to the pits, pulled a lever and the whole lot slid down to be covered over by the bulldozer with soil.
I still sat there, eating my sandwich, drinking my tea and for the first time, questioned my sanity. Would I ever become a proper human being again, when scenes like this had no emotional affect on me whatsoever? What had I become, some kind of robot in khaki? We were moving into open country now, but a hill position nearby had to be taken. The attack went smoothly, but the dead patrols of British soldiers lying by the roadside meant that the Spandau machine gunners were still doing their deadly work. Many prisoners were coming in, and surprisingly, a lot of Russians were amongst them. People may seem surprised but all German occupied territories had many men and women who supported Hitler and were prepared to serve the Third Reich.
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