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ENSA in Normandy

by cliffbud

Contributed by 
cliffbud
People in story: 
Cliff Bilney
Location of story: 
Normandy
Article ID: 
A3524096
Contributed on: 
14 January 2005

Husband follows Wife to Front
By Cliff Bilney

There is a story behind this headline I should like to place on record that concerns my wife and myself during the campaign in NW Europe in 1944.

In January 1942 I married my teenage sweetheart,Phyllis Butler at Scarborough Registry Office on a cold snowy day and only two witnesses were present. We had a few days honeymoon in London before I had to return to my unit and Phyll to her job. There were so many like us in our early twenties in the forces who do not know what the future had in store. Spending short leaves and only having a few hours with your girl friend was always frustrating as in those days it was almost impossible to sleep together so the solution was marriage. In reality we were all too young and immature and the attraction for all young people was more physical than true love and to marry had every advantage. We could be together at all times when on leave, and the Government paid a marriage allowance. In our case, it was perfect. Before the war Phyll had been trained as dancer at a leading ballet school and performed in various London theatres, but at the outbreak of war when so many theatres closed she joined ENSA and toured the UK in a show called “Rhyme and Rhythm”. Whenever I had leave I travelled to wherever she was and we generally stayed in an hotel.

In 1944 my unit was preparing for Operation Overlord and Phyll had by this time joined a concert party called “The Let’s Pretend Company”, which was to go to Europe to entertain the troops. There were six members in this concert party and they had three vehicles including a sleeping coach and another to carry a portable stage. I was anxious about Phyll going to a war zone but she was a strong minded person and always had a keen sense of adventure, and more than that she was a true professional with the sole thought that the show must go on.

My unit landed in Normandy during June/July and during a battle in early August we had a message from SSAFA to say that the home of a soldier in my platoon had been badly damaged by a V1 flying bomb. The CO gave him immediate leave. Being the battalion MTO I drove Pte. Drury back to 2nd. Army Rear HQ somewhere near Bayeux. We eventually found a hut marked “Welfare” and Pat Drury was soon on his way home. As I left the area I saw the sign “Entertainments” on the door of another hut. I was soon inside asking if “The Let’s Pretend Company” had arrived in France. The answer was yes, and the were on a football ground near Bayeux. It did not take me long to find the ground, but all I could see was a number of old civilian vans with the ENSA badge on their sides. I wandered about, and as I went past one van I saw Phyll! We looked at each other speechless, but after recovering we had only a short time together as I had to return to my unit.

Thanks to the Army Post Office we were able to communicate whenever we could write. Phyll’s company gave many shows in Normandy during August by using their portable stage, but unfortunately I never saw one of these shows. As we moved through Belgium and Holland Phyll and her friends were with the Canadian Divisions, but we were able to meet on one or two occasions, and had a 48 hour leave together in November 1944 at the ENSA Hotel in Brussels.

Shortly after Operation Market Garden our division was protecting the flanks of the corridor created by the famous Club Route to Nijmegen. Two American Airborne Divisions were dropped prior to the ill-fated drop at Arnhem by the British. One American division was in the area of the bridge at Grave spanning the River Maas. This part of Holland is very close to the German border, and the Americans crossed the border to take up defensive positions occupying a large house as their HQ. It was then that I received a letter from Phyll telling me that she was in a small village near the Grave Bridge. This area was in the middle of a war zone and was by no means a secure place to be. I was very concerned about her safety, and decided I had to go and find her. As we were more or less static and using the time to refit and overhaul some vehicles I decided one evening to drive up Club Route to try and find Phyll and her friends. I found her late in the evening in a small café, which was their HQ and billet. I could stay only a very short time, but heard from her the story of their visit to do a show for an American unit in Germany. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but it was all so true. The Press were there, and the BBC broadcast the show. The London Illustrated News published some pictures, and I am aware that the Imperial War Museum has more pictures in its Archives. Of course the Press got to hear about me. Phyll told them where I was, and a Sunday newspaper had the headline”Husband Follows Wife To Front”. I still have this press cutting.

Phyll remained in Europe with the concert party until February 1945 when she returned home via Antwerp. She had been in Europe for 6 months and with her companions was entitled to receive the France/Germany Star. Unfortunately she did not not apply for and receive this medal until a few years before her death in 1986, but she was very proud of it. Phyll always thought it amusing that her Concert Party, comprising three men and three women, entered Germany before the British Army. Not a lot of people know that!

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