- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ernest H Foard MM
- Location of story:
- France, Eqypt, Italy, France, Belguim, Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 November 2005
Although these memories are in no way embellished, I may have dates and times a little muddled!
This is a record of the years of the war as I remember them. It begins in 1939. I was working in Aldershot amongst the recruits in the camp and several lads got at me a bit but I told them that if war came, I would go and join up. They had some reason to be a little bit bolshy because they were only getting 2 shillings a day and I was earning quite a good wage which didn't make for very good relations!
The day came when Mr Chamberlain announced in the House of Commons we were at war with Germany. It was a Sunday and so the following day I went down to the recruiting office and offered my services. I was told that I would be sent for in October, and when October came I was notified that I was to report at such and such a time, which I did. I found that on reporting I was being sent to Cardiff. I was surprised to find that I was a little older than many of the recruits, being in my early twenties, as some were only 18. I was immediately put in charge of five or six lads who I had the responsibility of getting from Aldershot to Cardiff. I was given so much money (about 2 or 3 shillings each) for assistance for the journey. Once we arrived at Waterloo I distributed the money and the men bought what they wanted for sustenance for the journey. It was late at night when we arrived in Cardiff station where we met our RTO (Regimental Training Officer). We were then put in various billets. I was sent to St Margaret's School, just outside Cardiff. I remember quite clearly Cardiff because the tram drivers were all so kind to us as they didn't take any money for the buses. They simply let you go for free.
I realised quite soon on arriving in Cardiff that this was a working battalion that was formed to unload from Barrie docks and that this was not what I had applied for. I had applied to go the Royal Engineers and I fully expected to be sent to Chatham where the trained battalion was based. However after a few weeks I applied to see the orderly officer. During my appointment I explained the error and I was sent back to Chatham. On arrival at Chatham I was posted to a training section on the square at Kitchener Barracks, Chatham.
During training on the square, and to my dismay, I found after a few days stamping about on the ground that I had a hernia. I had to go and see the doctor and he said he would have to operate. I was duly sent to the Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital in Bristol for the Operation. At that time, we're going back to 1939, operations for hernias were very lengthy process. It took 8 weeks but eventually I was made well and I returned to Kitchener Barracks to continue my training. This went on over into 1940 and in March 1940 I was sent to join a bridging company.
The bridging company is an RASC (Royal Army Service Corp) Company but because of the bridging equipment that was used in this company, it had to have engineers who maintained and looked after the bridging equipment. However the lorries were the responsibility of the RASC. I joined this bridging company and we were sent to form up at a place called Westgate-on-Sea near Margate. I was made a storeman at this point and given the responsibility of checking that all equipment was on the lorry. The Company's overall job was to get together the various components of several kinds of bridges and to check all the equipment; the oars, the chesses (planks of wood), the girders, everything pertaining to bridging equipment.
In April of 1940 we were told we would be going overseas and were stood by for travelling abroad. I think it was early April that we first made an attempt to go down to the sea. We were told en route that fog had come down in the channel and that we could not go so we went back to a place nearby called Birchington-on-Sea. Then after a few days we were sent from Birchington-on-Sea down to Folkstone and there we boarded the Shepperton ferry which then took us over to Dunkirk in France. Our first night in Dunkirk there was a raid. This was about the middle of April and we were in a building which had a glass roof. Fortunately the night passed alright and the next day we proceeded up close to the Belgium border. There we made camp in some woods and settled down to getting all the equipment ready for active service. We stayed for a time in a very old castle and billeted in the dungeon of the castle. We did have to go out because there were rumours of paratroopers dropping in various disguises. There were all kinds of rumours going around but nothing actually happened for about a week to 10 days. A few of our lads went off to a nearby town to have an evening out and unfortunately on the night they went there was a heavy raid on that town and we heard no more of them.
Within a few days we had the information that the King of Belgium had surrendered and therefore we were virtually surrounded, hostilities all around us, and we thought then that we were trapped and would eventually be taken prisoner by the Belgians or the Germans. The next thing we heard was that we were going to make an attempt, as a unit, to make our way to Dunkirk. We were able to use the lorries for a certain amount of the journey and Sergeant Chant was the sergeant in charge. On one occasion we got out of the lorries and a huge German plane came over that was bombing a local village and this sergeant and I just managed to get off the lorry. I shot at the plane with a 303 rifle which did no harm to the plane at all, but as I fired I slipped and went into a nearby ditch! However I was none the worse for it.
One notable thing about the journey was that all along the road, there was equipment, masses and masses of French equipment. This was obviously left in order to get back as fast as they could. I remember there was a dog right near where we had stopped and it stayed with its Master's things. It wouldn't let anyone close to it or his master's things but we had to leave it there and we continued our way down to Dunkirk, which in actual fact we didn't reach. We ended up in La Panne, some kilometres from Dunkirk. We were able to get a view over Dunkirk at this stage and it was all terrible black clouds, thick, oily black clouds like a huge thunderstorm. It's hard to describe, just one huge black cloud that was Dunkirk.
In La Panne there were thousands of troops and equipment everywhere, masses of equipment. We still had some of the lorries with us and they contained bridging equipment. We were on the dunes for some days and didn't have any regular meals, just tried to sleep in the dunes as best we could. We did manage to have tea, where it came from I can't remember. I do remember a gun on this beach which was continually firing to keep the enemy planes high in the sky because they were trying to attack the various naval ships which were offshore and the troops on the beach. Of course this would have been mass slaughter if the planes had managed to bomb the troops. Some men did try and swim out to the naval ships but of course it was much harder than they imagined and I'm sure many lost their lives trying to do it.
Our little unit, consisting of about 50 all told, managed to keep together pretty well. Eventually a bomb dropped on this gun and completely knocked it out. Incidentally, since the war I have never really read anything about this gun but it was a marvellous defence. I was up at the top end, near a road at the time that the gun was knocked out, and I remember slipping between the cab and the chassis of a lorry as the bomb came down and I escaped any damage.
The next thing I remember was that we would assemble and make our way to Dunkirk itself. We did and we actually marched in reasonably good order. Some had all their equipment, some had dumped it and I think the majority of our boys of the 50 odd in our unit, under Lieutenant Munro as our only Officer and Sergeant Chant of whom I have spoken earlier, marched to Dunkirk. As we approached the Mole (an improvised promotory out to sea, like a pier) we bypassed Dunkirk in the main and went round, approaching the sea near the Mole at the far end of Dunkirk. The Germans were shelling and there was a long queue to this Mole. There was a ship at the other end which I believe was a NAAFI ship which carried stores across for the NAAFI and other units.
Gradually we made our way along this Mole and queued and despite the shelling the queue remained. One shell hit the queue and there were cries for ambulance and stretcher carriers. There was quite a rush and confusion then and a dash to go straight onto the ship which was obviously an advantage. However it was quite late in the evening before it was my turn. I still had my pack and my rifle. Not all men kept their rifles which I think was bad. I went up a rope ladder and got onto this ship but I don't remember the name of it. Eventually we cast off and I found a place at the stern of the ship near to a great big bollard which I thought was as good a place as any to be. I settled myself down the best I could.
We eventually found that there were some tins of fruit and some condensed milk on board and they were distributed amongst the troops. This was the only real food apart from Artak biscuits we'd had for some days. However the ship made its way across to Dover and we arrived there in the early hours. Planes had tried to attack but it was dark and therefore not a lot of air activity except when we left Dunkirk. When we arrived in Dover everyone was welcoming us and we were put on a train which made its way up to Manorbier in Wales. All the way, every time we stopped, there were crowds of people offering us food, drink and everything you could wish for. The people were absolutely marvellous to these soldiers. We arrived at Manorbier in the very early hours of the next day. I understand that the ATS, as the Women's Army was called then, had stayed up into the early hours, even though they were off duty, to offer a meal to all these soldiers who had just arrived from Dunkirk. The train was loaded with many soldiers, not just our troop, from Dunkirk. After the meal we were given a few days embarkation leave.
On our return from leave we were then sent to Ripon in Yorkshire. There we were given intensive training for several weeks and then sent back to Stone near Aylesbury to a park with a huge house called Hartwell Park. We were tented in the grounds in Hartwell Park for the first part of the Autumn of 1940. This was, of course, when there was a real risk of the Germans invading our country. I can well remember the terrible night when I was on guard duty (2 hours on, 4 hours off) on the drive of Hartwell Park. Everyone was on an active service footing because there was this risk of invasion. I well remember the planes going over us to bomb Coventry. As you know they saturated it.
It was generally believed that if the invasion was to happen, it would come when the tides and moon were right. I believe there were tremendous defences against an invasion, however Germany decided that it wasn't a practical thing and decided not to invade. So 1941 passed. In the spring of 1942 our bridge company unit was sent to Egypt. We did not travel with the equipment as this went separately. We travelled by train to Gourrock in Scotland from Swansea where the troops were sent on a troop ship to Egypt, sailing right around to South Africa, stopping for a week in Cape Town and a week in Durban. This was a tremendous sea journey taking about 9 to 10 weeks. The ship was named the Llanstephan Castle, which in peace time I believe used to regularly go between England and South Africa.
We then changed ships (I can't remember if it was in Cape Town or Durban) to a ship called the Sythia. A little bit about the stay in South Africa; it was really marvellous as we were treated with every kindness in South Africa. There were rooms set aside with paper, envelopes, cups of tea and pieces of cake which were all made available when you were off duty. The only thing you had to buy were the stamps to send the letters. People would frequently stop and offer to take you on a ride, a trip out, and they were generally very kind to the British troops, at least I found it so. I haven't heard anyone say differently.
When we arrived in Egypt the temperature was over 100 degrees and it was very, very hot. Our job was to get together all the bridging equipment and the object was to have it in preparation should Rommel succeed in pushing the British army out of Egypt. They would have had to cross the Suez Canal and that was why the bridging equipment was sent there.
We were in Egypt for almost 3 years and during this time we attended various courses. I did an All Arms Military Engineer course at Isma'illya, a bridging course and general training, all lasting several weeks. There were no significant events during this period, just routine with the army ready in case they had to bridge the Suez Canal. I had by this time received the rank of Lance Corporal shortly followed by Corporal some six months after.
As the risk of needing the bridging equipment diminished I was then sent to a place called Genipa, a large transit camp, where they were shipping troops into the desert. I was sent to a place called Tripoli via Alexandra where there was a huge transit camp as the British Army were preparing for the invasion of Sicily. We arrived by ship from Alexandra to Tripoli and then in this camp various sections were formed up to provide the army's force in Sicily to filter further troops into the desert, to North Africa. I was eventually sent to a unit of a field squadron with the 7th Armoured Division and then sailed on landing craft to Salerno. We must have been extremely lucky on this landing craft as it travelled through the Mediterranean from Tripoli to Salerno because there was a great deal of activity. The most notable memory of this journey on the landing craft was that I had a ticket on a sweep stake for the Lincolnshire Handicap and I remember that I had a horse called Herringbone and it won!
On landing at Salerno there was considerable activity, mainly with the German Air Force. Our unit quickly went in land providing things engineers do, bridging and signs etc. One of the first things I remember doing was to help the No 1 Section clear some mines near to the Volturno River. I remember quite clearly, being a Hampshire man, seeing the tin hats and rifles sticking up which meant that many, many Hampshire's had lost their lives, taking a terrible toll in the battle of Salerno.
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