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My Bit in WW2 (Chapt. 5)

by Don Aiken

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Don Aiken
People in story: 
Alfred Donald Aiken
Location of story: 
Europe
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5792079
Contributed on: 
17 September 2005

Daimler 'Dingo' Armoured car. The type used by 52nd (Lowland) Reconnaissance Regt.

My Bit in WW2 — Chapter Five
From the Rhine to Civvy Street

March 1945
After a few happy days at home, I bade a tearful farewell and returned to my Unit.
The whole force was now intent on pressing on into Germany. After some heavy fighting on all fronts (because the Germans were desperate to prevent us doing so) we, the leading troops at that time, eventually succeeded in reaching the Rhine.
The Infantry were then brought through to hold the line and we were pulled back about a mile from the river. We settled in the cellar of a cottage and awaited our next mission, which we knew wouldn't be long because of the intense and heavy build up of men and equipment in preparation for a crossing. During a lull in the gunfire one of the lads in my troop spotted a horse in a paddock alongside the cottage, and decided to ride it. He mounted the horse and had a great time trotting around. Then came a single shot (probably from a German 88 mm. anti-tank gun) which blew his head off.
We had a request for Radio Operator volunteers to be detached to the Royal Engineers on the forthcoming crossing of the Rhine for the purpose of communications. Although soldiers didn't usually believe in volunteering, I was new in this unit and wouldn't miss the company much, so I volunteered.
I was taken (along with another Operator) in a small truck, back into Belgium; where we were attached to separate Companies of Engineers, placed in Heavy Armoured cars and moved back into Germany.
My car was moved up behind a huge earth banking, which ran all along both sides of the Rhine in this area, used to prevent flooding of this very low-lying and flat countryside.
The communications set-up was this: The Officer in Charge of the Royal Engineers Unit would radio his messages to an armoured car which was situated near to mine. This message would be relayed to me by means of a runner. I would then send this back to Divisional H.Q. Remember that these radios had a very limited range; especially the back-pack field radios used by the forward engineers.

March 23rd. 1945
Then the attack started. In it's own way it was almost as awe inspiring as the 'D' Day landings. It was preceded by a massive airborne assault; with hundreds of gliders flying low over our heads and landing behind the enemy lines. The biggest artillery bombardment ever to be carried out followed immediately behind. Hundreds upon hundreds of heavy artillery opened up all at once, with thousands of shells whistling overhead. The noise was deafening.
Then the ground troops started to move through us and down to the river bank. The Royal Engineers began to build the pontoon bridges which would allow the rest of the Division to cross over. This was done under very heavy German fire, as most of their first line defensive positions, dug into the huge earth banking on the German side of the river, had not been affected by the artillery or by the airborne attack behind them. I don't know what the cost was to the Engineers, but it must have been high.
I was kept fully occupied sending the coded messages back to H.Q. and occasionally receiving some back.
Then there was a sudden drop in radio activity and I found time to poke my head out of the turret, only to find that the lull in getting messages had been caused by a German shell which had landed close and killed the runner.
In a few hours we knew that the bridge had been constructed across the Rhine and that the infantry were already across and being followed by tanks. The sounds of warfare became a little more distant and we moved forward to get a good view of the proceedings. The pontoon bridge was thick with movement, as it had now become a two way highway. All the paraphernalia of an attacking army was crossing into Germany. The rattle of our infantry's small-arms fire coming from the enemy positions was now resulting in long lines of German soldiers being marched out of Germany to P.O.W. camps somewhere in England.

April 1945
This truly was the beginning of the end for the Germans. The Rhine had been crossed at many points and the British and US Armies were pouring across Germany. When I rejoined my unit (I remember catching them up as a passenger in a Bren-carrier) we were leading the advance Northwards to the North Sea port of Bremen (Bremerhaven).
We reached the outskirts of Bremen, and the last target line on our map; and moved into a small villa situated opposite a Displaced Persons Camp. After checking the surrounding ground, we posted a look-out and settled down for the night. In the early hours of the morning we awoke to the sound of heavy artillery shells crashing all around us. It soon became clear that the shells were originating from our own British guns, and it was a great relief when the fire finally moved on.
Apparently, due to some mix-up somewhere, our last target line on the map that night was the first target line for our artillery on the following morning.
We moved on from Bremen to a Prison Camp, called Stalag XB in a place named Sandbostel, which was further East on the road to Hamburg and was liberated on the 29th April. Here we found prisoners of all nationalities, all in a terrible state. The camp, which normally housed only prisoners of war, had now been filled to overflowing with prisoners from concentration camps. These had been hurriedly moved there ahead of the advancing allied troops. No provision had been made for feeding them or giving any medical attention. There was a great deal of anger amongst the British troops who witnessed the pitiful condition of the starving and dying inmates.

Whilst we were being prepared to enter the camp, (our underclothes and bodies being covered with anti-flea powder) the body of a German, dressed in civilian clothes, was laid out in the tiny village square. He had been shot when he had been discovered trying to blow up a bridge leading to the camp.
The local populace had been ordered to assemble in the square, to file past and view the bloody corpse. I watched them walking reluctantly towards me, as I stood under a tree, and I noticed that some of the women who were accompanied by little toddlers were very distressed. I beckoned to one of them to leave her child with me, and very soon I was surrounded by three or four such charges.
The Major of the Royal Engineers, who was in charge, angrily explained to the villagers the background and purpose of the proceedings, and made it very clear that any other such attempts at sabotage would receive the same treatment.
After they were dismissed I quickly returned the children to their mothers.

May 4th. 1945
It was at Sandbostel that we received news of the German surrender on our front, and it was an emotional experience to sit round a big bonfire and to listen to one of our Regimental pipers playing the beautiful lament 'The Battle's O'er' .

May 7th. 1945
The unconditional surrender of all German Forces was signed.
The war in Europe was at last over.

May 8th.1945
This was officially nominated as V.E. (Victory in Europe Day).
Because our Senior Officers considered it to be undesirable for us to be allowed to celebrate 'on the loose' amongst the German population, a decision that I could never appreciate, we were confined to our base and spent the day 'bulling-up' our vehicles with a mixture of paraffin and engine oil. A procedure which made them look great for a day or two until the dust had stuck all over the oil.
When I later saw pictures of the great celebrations, in such places as Trafalgar Square, I was a bit displeased.
We then moved East to occupy a town named Salzwedel, which was soon to be taken over by the Russians, becoming part of Eastern Germany and shut off behind the Iron Curtain.

The next few months were a series of moves around the Ruhr (the industrial centre of Germany) in the vicinity of Cologne, Dusseldorf and Munster. Much of our duties were of Police patrol type work.
Germany had used millions of foreign workers as slave-labour, in the North of Germany in particular. These had of course now been given their freedom and were becoming a huge problem. They had a deep hatred of their previous masters. Most of them were of Eastern European origin and were either not wanted by their own countries or did not want to return. Instead they wandered around the country-side raping and looting.
We would sometimes be posted at a German Police station and respond to emergency calls out in the country-side.
When things were settling down, our Regiment moved to a small village called Freckenhorst, near Warendorf, which is in turn situated between Munster and Bielefeld. This was a much more settled existence and everything was organised much more on Army camp lines. We had very little work to do, and time was spent in playing games of various sorts, or down in the Canteen which had been established in a big café.
A football Cup Competition was organised , and our Troop team won it. The goal-keeper on the other side was a Captain; and his face was a picture when I headed the ball out of his hands to score the winning goal.
The Colonel (Lt.Col.Stormont-Darling ) was a keen Rugby player and he organised a Regimental rugby team. As we were a small unit, and as Rugby had a restricted following, I became one of the team. We weren't a very formidable side and I remember travelling to play a team from the R.A.F. at a big aerodrome in North Germany. We were thrashed unmercifully, and I seemed to spend more time being thrown out of touch, along with the ball, than running with it down the field.
During the following months many of the older members of the Regiment were being demobilised and returned to civilian life in England, and this was an on-going exercise with men waiting their turn in a 'first-in first-out' basis. This of course meant that the army was being rapidly reduced in size and a continual re-organisation of Units was necessary.
I can't help but marvel at the tremendous organisation which managed to keep abreast of all the massive changes which took place.

14th April 1946
Units which had been created during the war were the first to be disbanded. The Reconnaissance Corps was typical of this origin and was disbanded. Our Regiment merged with the Lothian and Border Horse and we continued on almost as before except with a different cap-badge. A 'wheat sheaf', instead of the 'arrow supported by two lightning flashes' which had been our badge.
This wasn't to last more than a month or two, as it came the turn of the Territorial Army units to be disbanded.
The Lothian and Border Horse had to go ! In came the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and for a brief few weeks we sported the Clenched Fist badge in our berets. But they were living on borrowed time and soon we were marching out of Freckenhorst to be transported to various regular army units whose function was similar to Reconnaissance.

7th July 1946
I was to join the 14th./20th. King's Hussars - another cap-badge - The Austrian Eagle.
I arrived at the ex German Army Barracks in Wuppertal, which is in the Ruhr. The barracks was situated on the top of a hill overlooking the large town. Further along the top of the hill was another barracks occupied by the 2nd. Battalion of the Grenadier Guards.
The 14/20th had previously been in the Italian Campaign and had fought alongside the Gurkha Regt. with some distinction, and had been presented with the honour of wearing the badge of the Gurkhas on the sleeve of their tunics. This was the 'crossed Kukris' (Curved knives) and was another bit of brass to polish.
They had different equipment than I had been used to, and it made the life of 'waiting for Demob' much more interesting. I had been given the job of training and organising the Radio Operators in my Squadron. The details were left entirely to my own discretion, as many of the Officers too were 'waiting for Demob'. This meant that many happy days were spent swanning around the surrounding country-side in the exciting new tanks with which we were equipped, pretending to be on some sort of Exercise.
The town of Wuppertal was an interesting place. It was a long, narrow town, situated in a valley with a small river running along it's length. Elevated above the river was an over-head railway, the 'SchweberBahn' which had elevated stations positioned all along the way. This was a wonderful transport system which worked very well, even in a town which had been bombed to rubble; which was typical of all the Ruhr towns. Then, after about another year of waiting, it was, at long last, my turn to go home - for good.
My Discharge Papers included the following :-
Military Conduct :- Exemplary.
Testimonial :- A good wireless operator who has been responsible for looking after and accounting for a large amount of valuable equipment. This he has done most efficiently.
He is cheerful and willing and takes pains with his work.
A skilful and energetic performer at most kinds of sport.
Wuppertal. 20th June 1947. BB Woodd Major.

Then came the day, 30 June 1947, when I received my release from the Army and returned back to England.

Home at last — July 2nd 1947

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Civvy Street

At this time jobs were not easy to obtain, as many hundreds of thousands of servicemen had been demobilised earlier. However, there was some sort of an Act of Parliament which obligated employers to give some priority to the re-employment of previous employees who had gone into the forces. This meant that I was lucky enough to be accepted back into the National Fire Service, and subsequently Blackpool Fire Brigade, as a Fireman.
For the next thirty years I found myself still fighting; but now it was against the old enemy (sometimes friend) of all mankind — Fire !

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