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15 October 2014
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An “extra-ordinary” soldier - WWII Memoirs from Dunkirk to Stalag XVIII C — Part 2

by BBC LONDON CSV ACTION DESK

Contributed by 
BBC LONDON CSV ACTION DESK
People in story: 
Douglas Charles Chandler
Location of story: 
Catterick, England; Dunkirk, France; North African Desert; Italy; Spittal en Drau, Austria
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4518858
Contributed on: 
22 July 2005

'This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from CSV London on behalf of Douglas Charles Chandler and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.'

An “exta- ordinary” soldier - Dad’s story

® Introduction
® Call up
® France and Dunkirk
® Furlough and hard times at home
® Staging for destination “unknown”
® South Africa a pleasant interlude
® Sand misery and capture
® Under the Med
® Italian Temporary POW camps
® Stalag XVIII C
® Freedom and hope for the future
® Articles and snippets

Introduction

The story starts in 1939 with call up to join the Royal Corps of Signals, basic training in Catterick, through the campaign in France and to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Then after regrouping in England to a second campaign in the North African Desert which resulted in a submarine voyage across the Mediterranean to prison camps in Italy followed by nearly 4 years in Stalag XVIII C near Spittal en Drau Austria. Finally the return home, along the way many friends, comrades and family members died in the quest for freedom.

“They gave their today for our tomorrow”.

Call up 1939

1939, there was a government decree to call up every young man who would be age 20 by 30 march 1939. With his birthday on 12 March DCC was one of the youngest to join. The call up was for a six-month training period. DCC passed the medical as A1 and joined the Militia in April 1939. His best friend Val Houillon also applied but failed the medical,
“Someone” he said “took away my specs and I couldn’t see the board let alone the letters”. The two school pals who had been friends since starting elementary school had hopes of continuing together but their hopes were dashed. Val went off to the Pioneer Corps, but he soon transferred to a unit where he later became a Major. Meanwhile DCC was called to the Royal Corps of Signals Depot at Catterick in Yorkshire for 6 months training. Pay was 1’6d per day, the rate for Militia conscripts.

In September 39 war was declared so the 1’6d per day continued but the six months training was cut short while the Militia were thrust into the war effort, and continued till demob in April 1946, almost 7 years later. DCC and his group would have signed on to a regular unit, but there was no choice and pay inequity was just another unfortunate fact of life in those times. Without any change in status DCC and his group were posted from Catterick to Derbyshire where they joined up with a group of Territorials from Nottingham. This was sometime in October 1939, the day after DCC was selected to play soccer for the Royal Corps of Signals Depot. It’s strange how such details play on a persons mind after so many years, it wasn’t the fact they missed the opportunity to play soccer, after all they clearly knew that the war effort had to be the one and only priority for the freedom of the entire Country. The missing was a simple acknowledgment, “sorry Chaps, we know there is no choice in the matter but thanks for coming forward”, of course there was no such acknowledgement, and young men all across the country were simply “saddled up” and sent off to fight.
More training continued on a variety of signal related skills, Morse messages by wireless, line, flag, lamp, semaphore and of course plenty of Drill and square bashing.

The section was sent to Borden, near Aldershot and housed in a new Barracks without heating. It was already November and the porridge, made with copious quantities of salt by the Scottish Cook, did not go down well either.

However it was here they did receive their one highlight of recognition, an unexpected inspection by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Still in November they were transferred again, this time to Portsmouth where they eventually found they were to be posted to France and join the British Expeditionary Force. Throughout the seven years 1939 to 1945 the notion of personal planning was completely absent, something, which we the children of the WWII Veterans have never known. Plans were initiated often at a moments notice, frequently changed and of course without consultation with the men affected. Every transfer was of necessity a secret until the last minute, and sometimes not even declared until the troops were at their new destination.
Off to France and ….. Dunkirk

By the end of the month they sailed to Le Havre and were billeted in a barn near Bethune. Again it was very cold and breaking the ice on the water barrel to wash and shave was a regular occurrence. Throughout the entire period it is interesting for we Baby Boomers to note that discipline was extremely strong so that routines such as shaving took place regardless of the conditions. There were very few times when they allowed themselves to become scruffy, self respect was critical.
Initial work included setting up a signal office for wireless and telegraph, to communicate between the front lines and the rear guard and supply lines. Soon they moved forward to keep up with the front. Before doing so the unit rehearsed setting up a field signal office, the goal was 2 minutes, initial attempts took 20 minutes but soon they were down under the two minute target.

During this time there was spasmodic attack by German aircraft, their first experience of action.
Troops were scattered across Northern Europe with many in between the Magino Line
and the Siegfield Line. There were numerous incidents of Allied Forces in between the
lines being shot and killed by their own Forces. The young soldiers were getting a
very quick and sobering introduction to what was to become only worse.

Retreat
Once the field office was completed DCC and his group were moved off towards the Belgian border, to build a more forward office. En route they met floods of evacuees coming from the opposite direction. People who already had to give up their land and homes. This was now March 1940, Stukka attacks were frequent and the group often ran to cover in the fields as the bombers strafed the convoy. Fortunately DCC ‘s group had no casualties. The group continued up to the border where they were shocked to see two Towns (one of which was Armentiers) in the Valley below completely engulfed in flames. Here they discovered the Belgian Army was no longer fighting, and had withdrawn. Shocked to find the German Army was already moving round the north end of the Magino and Seigfield Lines, it was a mystery why the Lines had not been extended to the Coast. They surmised there were only two Allied Corps; neither was at full strength, and a third Corps with very few people hardly a quorum. Meanwhile “Gerry had some hundreds of Divisions”.
With increasing pressure it was inevitable that something had to change and a few days later instructions were received to go to Dunkirk with their group of some 20 or so RCS troops (Royal Corps of Signals).
The instructions also included leaving their vehicles, which were to be disabled and left as a hindrance for the approaching enemy. They used their vehicles to block the road, some they disabled by removing the distributor caps then some were burned.

They then set off walking the 90 or so miles to Dunkirk.
They passed empty houses and schools, progress was hampered with continued Stukka strafing and they were worried by the huge number of German Aircraft and no sign of the RAF.
As usual sleeping was where you could lay your head. One night in a barn they heard a plane hedgehopping at daybreak, luckily they all dived for the fields. Once again they were fortunate with no injuries just the breakfast was “shot up”. Later that day they stopped at a stream to wash and shave. Looking back they could see the small town of Casselles being systematically bombed to nothing.
It was warm spring weather and hard going with a full pack on your back. Food and a place to sleep was simply a matter of scrounging and resourcefulness, with little or no support from the retreating rear guard and supply lines. They each had a rifle and one anti tank weapon for the whole unit which fired a ½ inch shell, this would have done very little damage to a tank; in fact it had such severe recoil it would have broken your jaw,…”just as well we didn’t meet any tanks”.

Near Dunkirk, they crossed the railway then had to negotiate the Canal without a bridge. A slim plank was all they could find and had to “tight plank walk” across with their packs. After sleeping in some abandoned lorries they arrived in Dunkirk about 27 May 1940, where they made their way to the officer in charge at the beach. A number was given to the group for the sequence and exact location where they would board the evacuation boats. Located at De Panne Dunes halfway between Dunkirk and Bray Dunes they spent the next two days moving in and out of the water looking for their turn to board. Someone handed out a few mole pies (meat and vegetable pies with mainly vegetables an nondescript filling); apart from that there was nothing to eat and little to drink. There was a hospital at the centre of the beaches area, but fortunately none of the RCS needed any medical attention.
Change of plan, or just make-work? On the third morning the RCS group were instructed to walk down the beach to Bray Dunes 4 miles away where they would board a boat home. As soon as they arrived at Bray Dunes the Officer in Charge told them the area was reserved for rear guard infantrymen and sent them back, this time all the way to Dunkirk 8 miles away. After a short rest they set off. Not a pleasant walk, with an uncomfortable full army kit on your back, along a sandy beach at the best of times, add to that the spectacle of dogfights over the area. There were cheers when the RAF succeeded, and they felt sick when the RAF succumbed. It must have been horrific at the same time surreal to watch the real thing as opposed to the dramatised movies which most of us have seen in the years since. Films quickly fade, but how do you handle the memories of the real thing? The war vessels could only get onto the dock at the Moll so in most cases they sent out whalers towards the beach and the men waded out to meet them while the enemy aircraft tried to strafe them.

At the Moll in Dunkirk it was already dusk, the Beaufort Gunner crews continued to do a fine job holding the Stukkas at bay. Finally just before midnight DCC and his group were ushered onto a Destroyer (HMS Whitehall) where a soldier had take it upon himself to collect some refreshments and cigarettes from a NAFFI store which he handed out to the tired group.
Later there was some white bread and cocoa. A moment of panic occurred when the destroyers rear gunners fired off a volley. The ships crew assured the group “we always give ‘em a few shots when we leave”.
The beaches were almost deserted, and they were among the last to leave. On board they were given some cocoa and white bread then found a corner to lie down on the deck and promptly fell asleep.

In Dover the next morning there was a reception of WI ladies (Women’s Institute) with tea and biscuits, before they were moved to the train and bound for another “destination unknown”.
This was the time when “loose lips could cost lives”, and so everything was carried out with need to know information issued only at the very last minute.
The train went west and stopped at Reading
More welcome and food hand outs before the group was dispatched again, this time north. They eventually disembarked at Leominster to a grand reception by the local Brass band. Here they were billeted in a shop, which was set up as a communication station in the basement.

Just recently DCC made a trip to the area with a family holiday and visited the shop. Sadly the basement had only recently been renovated and until then some of the original wiring and odd artifacts had just collected dust. It means so much to people when they can go back and see signs of their earlier achievements, this is true for all of us not just ex servicemen. When the “ new broom sweeps clean” it can sometimes bring some pain in spite of the necessity to move on, again there is a fundamental need for all of us to simply get a little recognition for our efforts, just a thank you and acknowledgement.

The next day after being fed, they were paraded before an officer, and someone asked if they could go home. The answer was a curt “NO” and another unknown destination became the order of the day, this time it turned out to be Whitechurch in Cheshire, and then some time later to Adderly Hall while some of the group were sent somewhere in North Wales.

At Adderley everyone was put to work on the farm to get back into shape and build up their strength, cutting crops by hand, building wheat stukes weeding thistles and general farm work.

Go to: - A4518786
for the next section of this story, part 3.

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