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Unlikely horseman

by Peter Nickholds

Contributed by 
Peter Nickholds
People in story: 
Geoff Nickholds
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18 January 2005

The following was written in manuscript by my father, Benjamin Geoffrey Nickholds, to record his experiences during the early part of the 1939 to 1945 war. My father died in May 2004. In the months before he died, he was ill and knew that he would die. He would always talk freely about his war experiences and did not stop during these last months. I said that I could transfer his Dunkirk account to my computer to be passed on the The People’s War. I am pleased to be able to do this for him.

Peter G Nickholds
18 January 2005

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Bradbury and Thompson, where Ray Jones and I worked, no longer had sufficient work to employ us, so we lost our jobs. Ray and I were friends. He joined the RAF as a rear gunner and I never saw him again. I was very sorry when I heard he had been killed.

I joined the army. I went for my medical to the Drill Hall in Stafford Street, Wolverhampton on 10 November 1939. I found myself in the RASC. They did not ask me what I could drive ( I had driven Austin 7 ). Not many could drive in those days. Also, I could not march far because of my feet were not strong. That is what they said. I did not argue. I then became Private B G Nickholds T100981. What is private about it? I will never know. There is absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing one can do without an audience in the army.

There were three of us from Wolverhampton. We had to report to Aldershot barracks. When we arrived we were told to go and get our biscuits from the Quartermaster. I thought is that all they intend to feed us on? However they turned out to be three square cushions for our beds. We did get a meal later on.

After a few days square-bashing we were sent to Llanelli, South Wales to join the Second Troop Carrying company. We did not get any biscuits there. We had to sleep on the wooden floor of the old Gas Offices with three blankets and a ground sheet. The ablutions were outside in the yard where we washed and shaved in cold water in the dark. The locals made us very welcome. Some of us were even asked to dinner on Sunday. It was not long before we were taken by lorry to Cardiff. From there, we marched to the docks behind a band and on to a ship bound for St Nazaire in France.

It was November and not the best of times to cross the Bay of Biscay. It was very rough. I spent the nights in a cabin on deck. The floor was covered with life jackets some of which served as my bed. The ship rolled so much that I was sliding all over the deck. Some of the others were being sick down below. If I had stayed below, I would also have been sick. Most of the time I spent on deck. Eventually, we docked at St Nazaire and were marched to our temporary billet in a dockside warehouse. It had a very dusty earth floor. The door had a gap of about 12 inches above the floor. We could not keep out the draughts or the rats. For all that, we slept.

A warning was given to us, not to go to town and especially not to the red-light district. Some idiots ignored this advice. One was found in the dock with a knife in his back.

Next morning, we found only one tap on the dockside to use for our washing and shaving. Imagine the confusion. Our transport arrived and we began our journey across France which I found interesting if uncomfortable as I was sitting on the back of a lorry. We spent one night in the open stands of Le Mans race track and another on the tiled floor of an art gallery.

We were stationed in villages around Arras and waiting for Jerry to make a move. Our billets varied from desirable homes to actual pig sties. Though the sties had been thoroughly cleaned they did not keep out the rain. Mine had a sponge-like roof which dripped.

Next we moved to the Belgian frontier. Often we slept in the back of a lorry and in sub-zero temperatures. One chap, he was from HQ, worked his ticket home or he had gone round the bend. He was found walking down the main street of a village. He was naked and shouting that he had found the way to save the world. He must have been nuts to do that in that weather.

The Belgians would not allow us into their country until the Germans had invaded. When this happened in we went following little lights by the roadside provided by the Belgians. We had to drive without lights day and night and on the right side of the road. We could not always be sure who we were following. Our officer ordered that the banjos on the back axle of our Bedford 3 tonners, be painted white and the company number 594 be added. Our workshops fitted a light which illuminated the banjo only. It was known that I was an artist and so I was asked to paint on the numbers. I asked, when was I going to sleep if I had to drive lorries and paint numbers? I suggested that I cut some stencils so that others could help by stencilling the numbers. This was allowed.

Our job was to move troops and this often happened at night. When we first entered Belgium, I was the one who manned the rear-mounted machine gun on the lorry. Once, we stopped on a straight road and I was seated on my machine gun and ready to do my stuff . A German aircraft came over the hill. Before I fired a shot, I was ordered by the infantry commander to get in the ditch with everyone else. The gun was abandoned after that and I no longer had to be a sitting duck.

Various incidents stick in my mind. Once, I was in Brussels looking for my company when a redcap stopped me and asked where I thought I was going. When I explained, he did not think much of my idea since the Germans were just down the road. I went the other way. On another occasion in the dark, I came across a company of engineers on the road. I said that I had to go down the road and was it OK? They said that I could provided that I follow their instructions. If not I would be blown up by one of the mines they had laid. With my heart in my mouth, I followed their instructions to the letter.

Refugees were a problem. They clogged the roads and begged us to take them to France. In Brussels, a little old lady begged me on her knees to take her to France. I knew I could not do it because my job was to move troops.

Something else I remember was when we stopped in a village behind the front to pick up troops. To stretch my legs, I walked over to a house. The doors were open and I entered to see if the people who lived there were OK but no one was there. They had fled leaving all they owned and treasured. They appeared just to have walked out. How awful to have to do that. This happened to thousands all over Belgium and France. They would make up the refugees with their pathetic little bundles who were clogging the roads.
We drove night and day and had to do guard duty. The food was not brilliant, just the best the cooks could do. They cooked on the roadside, often not knowing when we would arrive. Often we kept going on a tin of bully beef , hard biscuits and water.

Keeping awake was a bit of a problem. Harry Stretch, who drove the lorry in front of mine, did fall asleep and knocked some refugees into the ditch. As we were going to France, we hid them in our lorries. What else could we do? The officer turned a blind eye.

We transported infantry who were, if anything, more tired than we were. Once in the lorry, they would fall asleep. At night, it was difficult to judge the distance to the vehicle ahead. There was only the dim light on the rear axle to follow. Sometimes, I braked hard and my passengers on the benches would slide to the front in a heap. The names I was called were not very nice.

As the Germans advanced we were forced to retreat toward Dunkirk. Our journeys grew shorter. Harry and I had been on, what turned out to be, our last job. We reported to our unit in a village. They had just been bombed and four of our lads were killed and were lying on the green. There was nothing we could do to help. We had orders to hide our vehicles in a field. I took the first right turning, as directed, but the road collapsed and I became stuck in the ditch. The directions should have been first left. We decided to hide Harry’s lorry and get help to remove mine from the ditch. We found the field, where the other lorries were, and hid Harry’s lorry. I was told to leave my lorry until next day.

The Germans found us. I suppose their reconnaissance aircraft had seen us. We fired at one and it flew over very low. I think he went down after that. Perhaps we hit him. A shell came over killing a cow. I looked forward to beef for dinner but it was not to be. I spent the night under a bridge close to our vehicles. There were shrapnel holes in some vehicles just were we could have been sleeping. Next day, we went to get my lorry but it had already been moved perhaps by HQ. We were told to forget about it. Harry and I would share the same vehicle. What would happen, little did we guess.

We were ordered to go to a place to pick up troops but we never arrived there. Redcaps directed us on a road to Dunkirk but gave no reasons. Some miles outside Dunkirk, we began to realise what was happening. Lorries and other types of vehicle were being immobilised and abandoned. We were told to do the same to ours. We fired a round into each tyre and one into the sump. We left the engine running. The Royal Engineers were to destroy them later. We now had to walk and how far, I do not know. We were very tired and so we may not have walked as far as it seemed. Before starting walking, I searched the other lorries to find anything we might need. I found emergency rations to add to the ones I had already. These were like blocks of chocolate sealed in a tin measuring about four by three by one inches. One or two squares kept one going as it was very filling. I don’t know what Harry found.

The road we took to Dunkirk, went through land flooded to hinder the advance of Jerry. It was also being shelled. We decided that it might be safer to cross the fields even though they were waterlogged. Our feet became clogged with mud, making movement difficult. We came to a drainage channel full of water. The only way across was to jump. Because neither of us made it, we both got wet.

Across the channel were several horses with harness on. I think they would have been abandoned by the French army as they made their way to Dunkirk. Harry and I decided to attempt to mount them and ride. I tried to mount my horse with the help of Harry. I failed. Harry tried and he failed. The trouble was that our feet were stuck in the mud. Next we tried stacking some empty petrol cans. Harry stood on the cans and, as he attempted to mount, the horse moved and Harry dropped into the mud. We were in fits of laughter. We eventually managed to get mounted. Harry went ahead of me. After this I do not recall seeing him again. I wish I knew what happened to him. I hope he made it back to England. Many of the company I never saw again. There was difficulty in gaining information even once we had returned to England.

I was unhappy on that horse. Shells were going over. I passed the corpse of a chap who had been blown in two halves. On each side of the ditch was one half and both were joined by his intestines. I will never forget the look on his face. Just before he died, he must have realised what had happened to him. I decided that riding a horse on a road was not healthy. I shouted to Harry to tell him that I was returning the horse to a field and would continue my journey across the fields. Harry may not have heard me. We were both exhausted and confused. We had no intention of parting but somehow we did.

I felt sorry for an old couple living in an isolated cottage. They stood by the roadside in bewilderment. They asked me what was happening and what they should do. I could offer no help and was unsure what I should do. Eventually I arrived in Dunkirk and then the beach. Here I was to spend one or two days and nights. I joined the queue which seemed to go on for ever. In it were servicemen from many different units. Most had abandoned almost their entire kit. I still had my rifle, ammo, a full water-bottle and some emergency rations. There was no water in town and very little on the beach. I had to survive with what I had.

It was an orderly queue of very tired men who waited patiently to be rescued. They hoped to get a ship from the dock to take them to England. Dunkirk was in flames and a cloud of smoke hung over the dock. Periodically, a Stuka dive bomber would appear from behind this cloud. It was a terrifying experience as we saw them dive with screaming engines straight for us. They released a bomb which also screamed louder and louder until impact. We scattered as soon as we saw the approach of a bomber but took the same places in the queue when the raid was over. The discipline was remarkable with no queue jumping. No one said much. We all wondered if we would make it back home or would the next bomb have our name on it. Where is the RAF was a question often asked. We could not know that they were operating inland.

The bombs tended to penetrate a little into the sand and some of the blast was deflected upward by the sand. Some shrapnel did take a little flesh from my hand and dent my helmet. I may owe my life to my helmet. That was the only time during the war that I was hit though there were a few near misses later on. When the bombs landed on the beach or in the sea, the shockwave knocked the breath right out of us. Now and again one of the lads could stand it no more so he would dash into the town but it was no safer there. Some of them did not come back.

Eventually we moved closer to the jetty. We hoped that a ship would get in. I came back on a paddle-steamer. When my turn came I found that I had to run down the jetty and across a plank. This plank was for crossing a large bomb hole in the jetty. Then across another plank and onto the steamer. If you fell into the sea, that was too bad. When we reached the end of the plank, sailors would grab us and almost throw us down below. When the steamer was some way out, some of us fell asleep because we were so exhausted. Very little food, water or sleep had taken its toll.

I have been told the paddle steamer which brought me back was probably The Daffodil out of Maidstone.

When we landed in Dover and filed down the gangway and onto the dock, the feeling of relief was indescribable. Our weapons, rifles etc had to be handed over; most wanted overhauling anyway. The next thing I remember is a train journey to the Isle of Portland. The train stopped at a station when local people offered us cups of tea also stamped envelopes so that we could write home. It was very kind. I wrote to my parents as soon as I could which, by the postmark, was 2:15pm 30 May 1940. It must have been early morning when we left Dunkirk.

Dear Mom and Dad,
I hardly know how to begin but thank God I am out of France. We had a hell of a time getting here. It was like hell let loose. I don’t know what they are going to do with us now but I expect to be seeing you soon.
I’ve no idea what my address is now but I don’t expect it matters much. I expect we will be moved or sent home soon. I am still intact by some strange chance; there are many who are not. The next thing in store for us is a refit and a sort-out to get back in our respective units. ( I have run out of ink so the rest will have to be in pencil.) After that, I think we will be coming home. So I can tell you all there is to say, which incidentally, is a hell of a lot. There have been more things happening in the last month than any other month in my life.
Love Geoff.

When we reached Portland, we had a meal and were allowed to go to bed. Most of us slept round the clock and more. I must have been 16 hours before I surfaced.

We had a travel warrant and a pass for going home. I went to my parents’ house in Bristol. Jessie ( fiancé ) came down from Wolverhampton to see me there. When I arrived on the doorstep, I gave my mother a fright because she was not expecting me, it was dark and with several days growth of beard, I was not very smart.

After about 48 hours leave, I had to return to Portland, army discipline and bull. The company was reformed in Darlington, County Durham. There were quite a few lads that I never saw again. They could have been transferred to other units or failed to make it back to England. There was no way of knowing. I saw new faces. After Darlington there was North Africa and then Italy. But that is another story.

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