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WW2 - People's War

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Contributed by 
RAF Cosford Roadshow
People in story: 
Ash (Elsie and others)
Location of story: 
Bristol to Arnhem
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 June 2004

I begin my story with a question. How and why did I become a soldier?. As a Bristolian I joined the Territorial Army, so I was called up on the first day of the war and was stationed on a heavy anti-aircraft site protecting Portishead power station and Avonmouth docks.

I shall not dwell over long on the months and indeed years that I spent with the artillery, but one thing I would mention. From the early years I wrote poetry, and this short verse illustrates what I tried to do. The poem was written in a gun pit during the blitz on Bristol. And it went as follows;
We have air raids night and day,
and our guns have blazed away,
till the barrels felt like something out of hell,
and looking to the town,
we saw a glow all round,
and prayed that those at home were safe and well.

I shall now skip two to three years, to the time `I went forward for a commission, still in the artillery. Quite soon I heard that the infantry were short of officers, and two hundred of us volunteered for this service. We were sent to the Isle of Man for a four month course. And something happened here, which must be mentioned. At a local dance I caught sight of rather a "dishy" little WREN, and for some leaves after that I would travel to the Island, for obvious reasons. Came the leave when I arrived to find her posted away. To this day I thank the Royal Navy for doing so, because I had to start looking around for someone else, and WOW! there she was living in the same Wrenery as my first love, and this was the beginning of sixty five years of happy marriage.

Having had our training, we were posted to the regiment of our choice and my Scottish friend won. He was posted to The Kings Own Scottish Borderers and was told to report to Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire. We were met at the station by two men in red berets and that was the first we knew that we had become members of the Elite 1st Airborne Division.

We went to the camp at Woodhall Spa and after quite a lot of intense training we knew at long last that something important was happening as we were moved to Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain.
Almost at once tragedy struck.
On the very first nights exercise, my personal friend's Horsa crashed and he and his platoon died. So the first order I received was to go to the morgue, collect the coffins, deliver to the railway station, load onto a special train and spend the next few days "delivering" to relatives and or undertakers throughout the British Isles. Very nasty!.

We were briefed many times, but all were canceled, often in the middle of the night, until that fateful day. September 17, when we knew it was on and we commenced boarding our gliders at about 10 am, and flew from Down Ampney on that day. It was said that almost the whole population including people from the church services to watch this spectacle of a sky full of planes and gliders, an armada never seen before.

Our cross into Holland was quite uneventful and as one of the first gliders to land, I was lucky as there was plenty of room on the ground. Not so for those who followed and many colisions occurred. For example a Horsa carrying a six pounder anti tank gun landed in the top of a tree. We never did get it down. The enemy was taken by surprise, and my platoon landed with no casualties at all. Our job was to protect the landing zones on Ginkel beach against the arrival of the second and third lifts. This calm was soon dispelled as the Germans surrounded us with top quality Panzer troops, and our first fearce fighting ensued. People will often ask me if we were afraid but I can honestley say that at this stage we were not. We were a highly trained unit, wanting to get to grips with the enemy, with the adrenelin flowing.

We soon ran out of supplies because although the R.A.F. were dropping the containers in the right places, we could not get to them because of fierce fire from the enemy surronding the dropping zones. At one stage we were on a night advance and myself and my platoon were in the lead. Following the usual drill and after about twenty minutes it was my turn to move to the rear of the column and the next platoon moved up to take my place in the lead. The platoon leader of that unit was a great friend of mine. Lieutenant Murray, nineteen years old and the son of a Brigadier. Within minutes, and I mean minutes, we were fired upon by a German unit dug in, in the woods opposite. We dived into the woods and my Sergeant Shaw received injuries to the thighand one of my corporals helped to carry him back to a farmhouse where our medical Jeep was situated. That was the last I saw of Sergeant Shaw. After four days, and remembering that we were only supposed to be operating without new supplies, the Colonel of my Battalion had to decide whether we would carry out a bayonet charge across a very open space covered by topflight Panzar troops, or to surrender. I have to say that I was glad when he decided to give in. The alternative would have been slaughter for most of the company. We had been told that if we were taken prisoner with arms we might be shot. All I had was a knife tucked into the top of my stocking. I remember taking the knife out, sticking it into the ground and haling it in.

Whilst I can tell many stories of German atrocities, I would like to just mention one of the better things that I experienced. Having been taken prisoner we were lined up and the German officer came along shaking our hands and congratulating us on the fight we had made. We set off to march to the station and on this march, a not so good side of the enemy was seen. Now I know that every army has its good and bad but during that march the country people would come out with water and apples to help us on our way and every time they did , so th enemy would turn round and they would fly back into their homes. This happened many times until eventually the Germans turned round and fired into those villagers, women and children. I could never believe an English chap could do that. One other thing on the march. A staff car came along, stopped by our column and one of the officers leaned out and snatched my beret. I was not too upset, he was probably looking for a souvenir. We arrived at the selected station and were bundled into cattle trucks and began the long journey into Germany. This was when I was really frightened, when at one night we pulled into Cologne station the day after they had experienced one of our 1000 bomber raids and the station was full of women shouting and banging on the cattle truck doors. I was frightened and was glad to leave that place. We were taken to a prison camp Oflag. 79 at Brunswick and started six month as POWs. A very cold winter and a boring existence. We were hungry which was a pity because there were 100s of POW parcels at the port but the Germans could not spare the transport. So where we were supposed to have one parcel a week we would often have only one parcel between a room of four. It was a bit of a problem for the senior in the room to distribute it fairly. It was quite a common sight to see high ranking officers and lesser ones, including myself grubbing around outside of the German cookhouse picking up bits of potato peeling, swede, anything that was edible. We then put it in a tin can with water and that was something else to eat. I will not spend any more time on prison camp. It was just a boring time. We were kept right up to date with news as there was a room in the camp with a hidden wireless which was taken to pieces every night and parts hidden all over the camp. Then the happy day arrived when quite a small detachment of US troops came and liberated us. After a few weeks we were all air lifted out and brought home. I have quite a few pieces of memorabilia which are interesting and which are used when working at RAF Cosford as a member of the Air space volunteer staff.

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