- Contributed by
- Eric McQuarrie
- People in story:
- James McQuarrie
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 January 2004
(As told to me by my father, James McQuarrie.)
Real and dummy airfields
Arriving back in England, we took the train for Chatteris in Cambridgeshire, where we stayed for about six weeks. After that we moved to Norfolk, to Cockley Cley, just outside Swaffham. Airfields, some real, some dummy, surrounded the place. This was a ploy to mislead the Germans, who visited us regularly on bombing missions.
We lived in tents sunk some two-thirds of a metre (two feet) into the ground and sandbagged to the same height above to give us some protection. Most of our time was spent taking bus rides to airfields, real and dummy, so that the bombers wouldn’t know which was which. It was very boring.
Birth of my first daughter
In November, the battalion transferred from Norfolk to Kirkintilloch. The move was just to keep us quiet. I don’t think they knew what to do with us. In Dunbar, where we went next for a while, six of our men were killed on the beach by a mine that we were guarding.
We moved on to Longniddry on the Firth of Forth. Here I got a telegram to say Sandra, my first daughter, had been born, so I got 48 hours’ leave to go and see her. I borrowed 10/- from the padre and set out. I got a lift into Edinburgh, took a tram to the outskirts and started hitchhiking.
There were few cars on the roads, because of the petrol rationing. What lifts I got didn’t go far, but I managed to get to Dumfries before the last train to Kirkcudbright left. I spent the night at Borgue and the next morning set off back to my unit, this time by bus. I still owe that padre ten shillings.
A stay at Duff House
In the summer of 1942 it was decided that we, along with the 4th Battalion, would convert to a mountain role, and so our next move was to Banff in north-east Scotland. On the way we stopped for the night at Crieff Hydro.
At Banff, the HQ was in the drill hall, while the company was accommodated in the spacious and elegant confines of Duff House. The last occupants of Duff House had been German POWs. There was a huge barbed wire fence around it, with only one gate in and out. It was none the less quite comfortable.
The rest of the battalion was located in a distillery that had been closed for the duration. The whisky was still in bond, though I don’t think anyone tried to get into it.
Becoming a mountain division
It was while we were in Banff that we were to change into a mountain division. We had therefore to learn how to ski, and to fight and survive in the arctic mountain conditions. To this end, there was a snow school at Ben Alder, a mountain-warfare school at Glenfeshie, a battle school at Dunphail and a hardening camp at Aultmore.
We were all looking forward to the change, but when it happened the one part of it we didn’t enjoy was the physical training (PT) in the winter mornings. We had to run about three-quarters of a mile down to the sea shore, dive in and then run back again. It made us fit.
We were there for 14 months before the move to Banchory, just outside Aberdeen, where we were billeted in a rat-infested isolation hospital.
Ski training with Norwegian instructors
It was in Aberdeen proper that the mountain training really started. Each company was taken up to Braemar, a Deeside village, for a month at a time. Braemar had one big hotel and a shop that was baker, grocer and post office all in one.
On good days we were taken up into the mountains for ski training with experienced Norwegian instructors. It was really fun, and, what with the fine weather, we could get a suntan. Bad days were a route march for about six or seven miles and a night spent in a snow house before the march back again the next day.
After a month in Braemar, we returned to Aberdeen. There was a big exercise in the Cairngorms called Goliath, in which the whole division was involved. We were near Ben MacDui, where two sections had to find the easiest route to the top. The route I went up was already chosen, so I had to do it all again.
We spent the night up there. In the morning it was fine and clear, and we could see right down and over central Scotland. What a view that was. Although it was in mid-June, we were throwing snowballs at each other.
The first Allied airborne army
In Aberdeen another training project got under way that involved loading and unloading a mock-up of a glider. This went on for weeks. We must have been the best-trained division in the British Army. In July 1944 the 52nd Lowland Mountaineer Division became air transportable and part of the first Allied airborne army.
The day before Arnhem we were moved to Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, from where Guy Gibson’s 617th Squadron had taken off in the dambusters’ raid. It was here that I met Harold Johnstone, who used to be a bus driver with Campbell’s buses from Kirkcudbright. He was in the rear party of the 7th Battallion KOSB and flying out the next day to join up with the rest of his battalion at Arnhem. It didn’t take much figuring out where we were going.
The weather intervened, however, and our move (52nd Division) to Arnhem was cancelled, for which we were thankful. We were supposed to have flown to Delleen airstrip, seven miles north of Arnhem, which should have been captured and held by the paratroops, but it wasn’t.
Daily flying bombs
Our next base was Chalfont St Giles, just outside London. Flying bombs came over nearly every day. They were safe enough as long as you could hear them. It was time to take cover when the engine cut out. The sky was often black with bombers going to Germany almost daily.
About the end of October we went down to Dover and crossed the Channel to Ostend, where we were billeted in a transit camp run by Canadians. The first thing we got with our meals was pure white bread, something we hadn’t seen since before the war started.
Occupation of Flushing
On 1 November we moved to Breskens in Holland, from where we were to take the Isles of Walcheren. This was the area that lay beside the Scheldt, up which ships had to pass to get to Antwerp Docks. Our task was to occupy Flushing, the main town on the island. It was typical that a Mountaineer Air Transportable Division was to assault a place that lay below sea level.
About three miles lay between Breskens and Flushing, and we went in on landing craft with Canadian Artillery backing us up from Breskens. The 5th Battalion had two attempts at landing, the first called back by the naval commander because of the heavy German shelling.
We could see that a lot of the island was under water, because the RAF had blown up the sea dykes to hinder the Germans. We moved forward into the town with very little opposition until we reached the centre. There we met a huge pillbox barring our way. We took cover in a large department store, much like Woolworth’s, where the stuff in it was rubbish.
A missed opportunity
In the store there were heaps of guilders, just lying around. Somebody said that they were worthless and that we wouldn’t get them changed, so we left them. We found out later that they were worth something, and that we could have got them changed, no bother.
On that very subject, in January 1945, when General Horrocks visited the Gordon Highlanders he told them about a German field cashier who was captured and robbed at Walcheren by a Jock from the 52nd Division. The German had waved a piece of paper, which he thought was his receipt for the money he had surrendered, on which was written, however, ‘This bastard had 11,000 guilders. He hasn’t got them now.’
Quicklime pits in Vought
The next day was spent mopping up, before leaving for Middelburg to get the Germans out of there. It was no bother, because they were only too glad to surrender. Our next task was to hold the line between Bergen op Zoom and Hertogenbosch. In Vought, a small village near by, there had been a concentration camp. The quicklime pits, beside which the prisoners had been lined up and shot, were still there.
In the middle of December we moved along the River Maas to Neiderheide, near Maastricht, in the Gorzett and Geilenkirchen area. It was nicknamed Dorset Wood after the Dorset Regiment who had been there before us. They had made the trenches and dugouts, so it was just a case of moving in and taking over, no digging.
The benefits of penicillin
We were here for a three-day spell then we went out of line for a break and back in after the New Year. The Germans were about a mile in front of us. We were being continually plastered with mortar and artillery shells, which would hit the branches of the trees above us, explode and shower us with shrapnel. That caused quite a few casualties, mostly head wounds.
One chap from Leeds, Tommy Smith, got hit on the head. When I saw him I thought he wouldn’t be back for quite a while. But he was in Dorset Wood ten days later in January 1945. They’d started treating the wounded with penicillin, which meant you’d be back in action in no time.
Learning the hard way about booby traps
Another casualty was Jocky Scott from Preston Pans. We were coming back from an observation post (OP) through a minefield laid by the Germans. There was a fenced-off path running through it. Jocky had seen a German rifle lying just inside the fence and wanted it. The last thing to do was to touch anything like that, because it was usually booby-trapped. Sure enough it was the last thing Jocky did. He was killed instantly.
Another time, in this same minefield, we had to put down more mines to extend it. These were anti-personnel mines with antennae sticking up out of the ground that exploded about stomach height when triggered. The NCO was a Sergeant Craigie from Newcastle, who was a nice chap but brainless.
Because we had to submit a plan for future reference, the sergeant was making notes about where we were putting these mines. In the process he lost his pencil and started to wander round hunting for it. He didn’t half get a rollicking from us — he could have killed us all.
There were deaths. On 7 January 1945, 17 men of the 4th Battalion KOSB and 30 Royal Engineers (RE) sappers were killed while laying an anti-tank minefield. Another four KOSBs died the same night in another incident in the same minefield. In the two blasts, 2,400 mines exploded.
Read part 3 of this story.
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