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From Kent to Silesia , private to P.o.W. Part 1

by Bridport Museum

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Archive List > World > France

Contributed by 
Bridport Museum
People in story: 
Alfred Brown
Location of story: 
Kent, Yorkshire, Poland, Nurenberg
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8004683
Contributed on: 
23 December 2005

ALFRED BROWN

We went to Weymouth on the first of September 1939, on the fifth of September we moved to Portland. We were in Portland up to January 1940, and then we moved back from Portland back to Weymouth. From Weymouth we moved to Cocklington in Somerset. It's only a small village but it was a mushroom farm.

What were you doing when you were at Weymouth and Portland? What was the battalion engaged in doing?

Just training. Because we were a territorial battalion. We had only been in the Army two or three months and only doing two drills a week. We weren't trained or anything. So all our training was done at Portland and Weymouth, and then we had to move down to Cocklington. That was a mushroom farm, and they'd cleared all the shelves and everything out, where the mushrooms grew, and that was our beds! (laughs) I shall never forget that! And while we were there, we were all given our TB inoculations. Of course that knocked the biggest part of the battalion out for twenty four hours. Some of us were pretty groggy, I know I was. And then after we'd been at Cocklington and done more training down there - it was getting pretty bad in France, the Germans had put in their big attack, they were beating the French and British armies back towards Dunkirk - and they moved us from Cocklington. We were on our way to Tilbury Docks, on trains, and on our way to France. Then I suppose the powers that be, the War Office, knew that France was a dead loss, it wasn't very long after we'd left Cocklington that Dunkirk happened. So they stopped us at a place called Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, and there we just carried on with our training. But I'd like to say here that of all the places that we were billeted in this country Berkhampstead was the one that stood out. You know, the people up there were marvellous: we really had a wonderful time there with the people of Berkhampstead. And then, after Berkhampstead, we were moved into Hatfield Forest. This was when the Battle of Britain was on, and we could see the fires and everything (in London) from Hertfordshire. Nothing but a big red glow in the sky every night.

We moved from Hatfield Forest to Bishops Stortford, Hertford, we went all around the area - for what reason I don't know, but we moved all around these places in Hertfordshire. Then in November 1940 we were moved to Dover because that was when we were in danger of being invaded.

But if the Germans had invaded us, we wouldn't have stood a chance, because we didn't have ammunition or anything, everything that the British Army had was in France. So we couldn't possibly have withstood what the Germans had thrown at us. And that was where I always say: that was the beginning of the end for Germany. Although we suffered so many defeats, going all through '41, '42, '43, if Germany had in invaded us, we wouldn't have stood a chance and the country would have fallen to Germany.

Yes, fortunately for us, the Germans didn't have the ability to get their troops across the Channel; partly because they didn't have the landing craft and ships they needed, and partly because they knew that the Royal Navy was still able to stop them.

Yes, quite right. They could have invaded us with Paratroops.

Yes, I'm sure they could have done something. Whether it would have been a success is an interesting question. It's a very interesting question; it's one we'll never know the answer to. But I don't think they would have been able to invade in sufficient force.
They'd have been better armed because they had better weapons, they'd have been faster on the ground because they had a better chain of command, with more independence given to the Unit Leaders, right down to Sergeant or even Corporal. The Corporal could make a battle decision without having to ask somebody up there.
But they wouldn't have had the overwhelming force needed because we would have been desperate. We would have fought with everything we had, we would have done. And also, if they had done a seaborne invasion, they would have been met with a wall of fire; because from Dover to St Margaret's Bay and all along that coast, they laid pipelines and I can remember all these tanks, and what was known as Fougasse and there had been an invasion they could have pumped this Fougasse out to sea, set it alight, and the Germans would have been incinerated. I know that's true because I saw it in action.

Then what happened? By that time you were fairly well trained.

We were stationed in Kent; all over the place. We moved from Dover Castle, Canterbury Barracks, Canterbury, Herne Bay, Sandwich, Broadstairs, Margate. We were always moving around. But the whole point of us being there was the number of exercises. Kent was an exercise area, and we were being trained up for, eventually, going back to France again.

Did you have any particular job to do, or were you just an ordinary front line Infantryman? Were you a specialist?

Well I was a specialist in the battalion, because I was in the Signal Platoon. I always say that if ever there was a waste of time, time and money, we all had to learn Morse Code. Morse Code was getting obsolete in those days really, unless it was for long distance. In the battlefield it was too slow: miles too slow. Then we even had training in heliographs. If you can imagine that in this weather! We used signals for heliographs, and signal lamps, flags, although we didn't do so much with flags. If you were stood up on a hill, waving some flags, you wouldn't stay there very long! The 4th Dorsets were all part of the 43rd Wessex Division.

That was commanded by Montgomery?

Well, no, Montgomery he commanded the whole of the Southern Command. The General that was in charge of the 43rd Wessex Division was a chap called Thomas, “Butcher” Thomas. I think he took over the 43rd Wessex when we went to camp, and he was a hard man. He drove the Division to breaking point, practically, for training. We were on exercises month after month, in all types of weather. He really did put us through it, and hard training as well. You know, endurance training. They said at one time that the 43rd Wessex Division was the fittest Division in the British Army. That's what we did anyway: our primary reason for going to Kent was in case of invasion, because the 43rd Wessex Division was the only operational Division in the British Army at that time. Everything else had been in France and had been smashed up, and everything that had come back from Dunkirk, all these people, they had to be re-equipped, re-trained. During that time we were critically short of ammunition. When we were at Dover, I remember Winston Churchill coming down with General Smuts, the South African chap, and another high ranking chap. They said at that time that all we had down there was one box of ammunition, 303 ammunition. It really was the front line at Dover at that time, because we were continually being shelled from France. They were continually shelling. We were stationed in Dover Castle (and we) used to get up on the battlements, on the turrets, and you could see the flash of the gun in Cap Gris Nez in France, count 60 and the shell would land in Dover!
We used to have powerful telescopes in the Signal Platoon and we used to able to get up on the battlements, on the tower, and read the time of the clock in Calais.

And we didn't have guns big enough to hit Calais?

No, they had some big guns up there, but I don't think they were powerful enough. They were all right if there were some convoys going up the French coast: they could reach convoys, but they couldn't reach the land.

We couldn’t reach the 22 miles - but the Germans did. See that little spot: I was in a tattoo parlour, having that tattoo done, in Stargate Street in Dover, and the tattooist had his pen up and ready, and all of a sudden a shell went off. And he went like that (gestures)

What did you do, then, after Dover? That brings us up to 1940.

Yes, well, 1940, November 1940. Then February 1941 we moved back to Canterbury, into the Cavalry Barracks. We were there until May 1941, and then we moved to Herne Bay, on the north coast of Kent.

So how long were you in Kent altogether?

Oh, right from November 1940 until we moved to Bexhill, on the 15th of June 1944.

Did you keep a diary?

No.

How can you be so precise?

Because this is a diary that somebody else kept. In fact, the man that kept this diary was a Corporal in the Signal Platoon that I was in. A chap at Portland, he got this diary from a chap that I knew, Harold Whitely. When I knew you were coming down here I said to Ron, could you make me a copy. All the dates and everything are there. Yes, so we moved from the Cavalry Barracks in May 1941, and from then on - August 1941 we were on Exercise Binge, Exercise Mortmain, Exercise Bumper, Exercise Jason. That was from 3 August to 27 January 1942. In February 1942 we moved from Herne Bay to A Camp in Sandwich, still on the east coast. We were in Kent all the time.

May 1942: more exercises - Exercise Tiger, Exercise Hammer, Hammer 2, Spartan. That was until March 1943. May 1943, we moved to a place called Watershire Park, still in Kent. Then from there we went on Exercise Green Linnet, which was a forced march, non-stop endurance test., June 1943, we moved to Margate, on 4 June we had more exercises: Exercise Thunderbolt, Harlequin. 29th September, we moved to Yorkshire for an exercise: Exercise Blackcock, that was out on the Yorkshire Moors. That was pretty bleak and it was wet. These exercises, they did really toughen us up, because if I hadn't been so fit, I wouldn't have got through what I went through in 1945. But we'll come to that later...

We moved back down from Yorkshire down to Sussex, Topham Wood, that was near Bexhill. There we went on more exercises, Exercise Illumination, Falcon. Then we had to go down to Hastings - I always remember it down at Hastings - football ground. There the whole division was lined up. We had an address then by Monty, telling us what we were going to be doing. Then we went on sea-sickness trials. You can understand why that was. They put, I think it was our 130 Brigade, the Fourth and Fifth Dorsets, and the South Hants, and we had to go down to Newhaven. They put us on these Tank Landing Crafts, gave us a sea-sick pill - minor hand grenade, you know what I mean! We had to swallow this pill - I always remember a pal of mine, chap named Harry Poole - he couldn't swallow this pill for love nor money! We'd hold his head back, hit him on the back, rub him on the throat, so he'd swallow this pill! Anyway, we went out on these sea-sick trials. But when we went out to sea, it was too calm. There wasn't anything to make us sea-sick. I don't think anybody was sea-sick! Anyway, they took us back to port again, and after some time they took us out again. Well, this time it was a bit rough, and they put us down below and battened the hatches, and gave us these pills again, and then some of the chaps really were rough.

Afterwards, I thought about it time and time again, thinking about the training that the Americans did, down at Slapton - where they were doing invasion landings and were hit by torpedo boats, and I often wonder, what would have happened if they sent E-boats out from Calais. We'd have been the same, I think. Anyway, that was the sea-sickness trials. Then on the 15th June we moved from Bexhill down to Southampton, down to a holding area. We just had to wait to board the boats to Normandy. On 17th June we sailed to Normandy on the MV Pampas. We were stuck in Southampton Water for three days because of the weather. We couldn't land in Normandy and the weather was so bad we didn't sail.

Is that the storm that destroyed one of the Mulberry Harbours?

I think it was. I remember that we got out on the boat, and just got out into Southampton Water and the boat dropped anchor, and we were out there for about three days before we sailed for Normandy

You were taken prisoner, in Normandy...

In Normandy, yes.

You were then taken away by the Germans as a prisoner-of-war. Where did they take you.

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