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Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Vincent
Location of story: 
Across Europe
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
26 February 2004

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Stoke-on-Trent Libraries on behalf of John Vincent and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

In February 1939 I was working for my uncle. He had two lorries and supplied potbanks with coal and clay. I wasn't driving. At the time I was convinced that there was going to be a war and joined the territorials. By the end of May I hadn't learnt anything except drill. We had no equipment issued so I decided to join the regular army to get in and get some training done.

Begining of June I went to the recruiting office and did all the examinations. I had to do an essay because the subject was what do you want to join and what did you want to do. I wanted to be in the signals as a radio operator. It was the thing in them days. When everything was finnished the Major in charge, an old chap, he made a joke. He said to me "You can join any regiment in the British army with your qualifications except the Brigade of Guards". It was a joke because of my height. I was only 5'4"! I said I wanted to join the Royal Corps of Signals.

I then went to Catterick in North Yorkshire for my initial training. I could not be a radio operator because everybody wanted to be a radio operator! I had two choices: I could be a linesman or a despatch rider. I decided to be a despatch rider.

The initial training ended in September as the war broke out. Then I had to do my trade training to learn about motorbikes and map reading. There was a delay and it wasn't until December 1939 that we'd finished our training. I had 10 days leave and in the first week in January 1940 we left to go to Portsmouth. From there we sailed to Cherbourg. We had revaille at 4 in the morning. We went to the boat in the harbour and we disembarked in the afternoon about 4 o'cock and immediately left to a town 30 miles south of Cherbourg to spend the night. I was told I had to go on guard over the vehicles at 10 o'clock for two hours, the normal. I didn't possess a watch in those days but the village church clock was striking the time so I knew it was 12 o'clock. But nobody turned up to relieve me. I couldn't desert my post so I stayed there on guard until 8 o'clock next morning. My introduction to being on active service. It sticks in my mind!

They were all ready to move out. No breakfast. Just a slice of slab cake. We left immediately to go to a town called Carvin half way between Lilles and Lens a coal mining town. I was perfectly at home with all the coal tips. Our duty was with 2nd Corps HQ and for a good three or four months during which time I learned my duties as a despatch rider, I got to know the area.

I made friends in Carvin. The lady was English. She was a nurse in the 14-18 war. She met her husband who was wounded in that war. He was a Belgian, an electrical engineer in the coal mines. They moved to Carvin from Belgium for his job.

The Salvation Army had got a cafe for soldiers. It was very nice there.

On 1st May 1940 I was moved to be a despatch rider for a radio troop. I had to leave the town. We were billeted on a farm 4 miles north of the town towards Lilles. Then on 10th May we were put on full alert. It was the day Germany attacked Belgium and Holland. We were moved over the border into Belgium. We formed a line on a river south of Brussels, about 30 miles away. We were very busy in the signals ofice.

About a week later, 16th/17th May, I was delivering a despatch to 2nd Division HQ. Just before the town was a canal. The bridge was being mined with explosives by our engineers. When I got to the town there was nobody there. It was deserted. So I turned around on my motorbike to go back over the canal and then something happened to the bike. I fell off. The down tube that holds the engine in the frame where it's welded into the frame was broken. the engine was lying nearly on the ground. It was impossible to use it. So I thought I'd better burn my despatches. Just then I heard a real big explosion and I told myself that they had blown the bridge up. Just at that moment I could hear tank tracks on the road coming into the village. I thought this is it, I've had it. Just then a motobike came round the cornier, one of ours, and my mate said "What are you doing here John?" I said, "The motobike's finished." He looked and said, "Set it on fire." So we opened the fuel tank, spilled the petrol out, set it on fire. I jumped on the back of his bike and we rode off. I said to him, "I think we're going to have to swim for it." He said, "Why?" I said, "The bridge has gone" and when we got to it, it was gone. The engineers had put a foot bridge - floats with a thin plank across for infantry to use. My mate said, "We'll have to try it John" and when we were in the middle of the canal we couldn't see the plank it was under water. He accelerated and we managed to get out on the other side. The bank was so steep the motorbike went up in the air. So we safely made it back.

Everything was very confused at that time and three days later I was coming back early in the morning to my HQ when I saw civilians carrying cigarettes and chocolate bars and I thought i must investigate. I turned around and followed the line to where they had come from and found a British NAFFI warehouse full of goods and it was abandonned. So, I went in, got some cigarettes, returned to my troop billet, told them what had happened. We took the 3 tons truck, went back to the warehouse and got as much as we could from what was left. The civilians had had most of it. Then we realised that all the roads were full of abandonned British vehicles. Then the infantry came past us retreating to Dunkirk docks and we gave them all our cigarettes and chocolate. Two days later our HQ finished up in a big house on the beach at La Panne 5 miles south of Dunkirk. My troop were in a dug out on the sand dunes overlooking a pier made by vehicles side by side with planks on top across the beach to the edge of the sea. For the next two days between our duties we watched the infantry going over this pier, collected at the end by fishing boats. Then our HQ closed down on 31st May and we were evacuated. The last day our HQ was operational we had a new General. The old Generals had been sent home from Dunkirk; the new General's name was Montgomery. He was before commanding the 3rd Division. We left at 8 o'clock in the evening led by Montgomery in a staff car. A mile up the coast where we abandonned our vehicles and stood in a line at another pier the army had made. As it got dark we could hear the fighting coming nearer. First it was shell fire then they were that near mortar fire. We finally got on a boat, a rowing boat, that took us out to a fishing boat. I was so tired they had to drag me into the fishing boat. I'd still got my 200 cigarettes in my haversack but none of us had any equipment, only what we stood up in. At dawn the next day the Luftwaffe came over and attacked us but we had a British destroyer about 2 miles behind us and their guns drove the planes away. At 7 o'clock that morning we landed at Ramsgate fishing harbour pier and we thanked the men that had brought us back. When I got off I realised I'd left my gloves behind, a lovely pair of leather gloves that kept my hands warm.

We went down the end of the fishing jetty and there were women there who gave us tea and sandwiches. Then we got on a train. We were on the train all day until 8 that evening. We finally finished up in a village near Nottingham. We stayed there 8 to 10 days and then we were moved to Newmarket where the races are where our unit re-assembled.

In September 1940 we moved to Northern Ireland to the town of Lisbon. A year later we were still there. I was moved again to a medium artillery signal section. I was there until the middle of 1941 then I was moved back to North Wales, Prestatyn which was our training depot. For a year I was instructor in army organisation and map reading and motorcycle maintenance. This was very nice because every three months I got a week's home leave.

From the signal depot I was moved to 16th Armoured Brigade Signal Unit. Our job was to defend London. Then we were going to North Africa and then all of a sudden we weren't going. The Brigade Signal Unit was broken up. I went to 11th Armoured Division Signal Regiment. They were stationed in Yorkshire just north of Hull. By now we were at the beginning of 1944. We were moved to Aldershot to prepare for D-Day.

Because we were an armoured division we were not there on 6th June the day it started. We had moved to London to embark from London docks on 7th June. The voyage down the Thames and round the south of England took two days to get to the beach in Normandy. When we arrived there were no Royal Engineers to disembark the vehicles into the landing craft. We tried to do it ourselves. Unfortunately we broke one of the wire ropes on the crane so we had to wait to the next day on the boat. The engineers arrived, replaced the cable and we disembarked. I landed in France on top of a three ton truck so i didn't get my feet wet late evening June 9th. One week later was our first attack and from then on it was work, work, work. We were not allowed to sleep on the surface of the ground so that when we came back from delivering our despatches we had to dig a slit trech to sleep in. This was very tiring because to have no sleep for two days was normal. We were so tired if we sat down anywhere we fell asleep instantly. We were all like that. An armoured divsion moves quite a lot. Very often when we returned our HQ had moved but we knew where they'd gone because you followed the division centre line marked up on the roads till you saw the division HQ sign and turned off into it.

Later on one of my duties if I was there not delivering despatches, was to go with the advance party when we moved and help to put all the vehicles in position and camoflauge. On one occasion we moved to the wrong place. The enemy saw us moving in, waited an hour till we were all moved in then opened fire with artillery. I dived into a little hollow in the field. I got my hands on a tree trunk and I felt it quiver and a piece of shrapnel about 9" long was embedded in the tree just above my hands. That was another near squeak!

The war went on and in September I was lucky to get leave. We drew lots. Only about 30 of us were allowed to go on leave. The first name out of the hat was our Regimental Sgt-Major's, but he said, "I'm not going." Of course we all booed! We were taken by lorry to Brussels where we had seven days leave. As we were approaching Brussels we could hear a lot of aircraft passing over and we realised it was the attack on Arnheim by the paras. The only thing we could do was carry on our leave. After three days we were called back. The only thing our division had to do with Arnheim we had to give our supplies to the Guards Armoured Division who supported the attack.

We spent the winter by the Riechwald Forest and carried on until spring 1945. We crossed the Rhine on the main attack and pushed right on through Germany. Towards the end we were east of the coast and heading towards the Danish border. Our last objective was Lubeck on the Baltic coast and then the bridge over the canal at Regensbourg over the Keel canal. We celebrated the end of the war with every soldier in our troop having a bottle of Dutch beer that tasted horrible, and all the soldiers fired their rifles in the air. Our AAC AAC guns were fired into the air too. Our last job was to observe the German army withdrawing south from Denmark to Hamburg. That was the end of the war.
John Vincent,Stoke-on-Trent

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - My War

Posted on: 17 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear John

This is a marvellous contribution, full of interesting detail. One detail which I found enlightning was your train journey from Ramsgate to Nottinghamshire, where you say "Then we got on a train. We were on the train all day until 8 that evening. We finally finished up in a village near Nottingham."

In normal times you would have to get across London by other means than by train, but of course these were not normal times. I queried this in another story. But on reflection I now see that the trains could have gone far west before heading north, to bypass London; the track was there in pre-Beeching days. Your 8 hour journey suggests this was the case. Can you remember the route, I know it is a tall order after 60 years.

To return to your story, it's a great contribution.

Best wishes,


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British Army Category
Dunkirk Evacuation 1940 Category
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