- Contributed by
- Major Henry Giffard Wells
- People in story:
- Major Henry Giffard Wells
- Location of story:
- England and the Western Front
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 July 2003
SOME DISTANT MEMORIES
I think it was some time in 1938 when our Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, having visited Hitler at Berchtesgarten (the Eagle’s Lair), on alighting from his aircraft at Croydon, brandished a piece of paper signed by Hitler which stated “I have no more territorial claims on Europe.” Our government had been belatedly preparing this Country for war and among other things, doubling the size of the Territorial Army. I think it was about March 1939 that my Father, who never did things by halves, (he had been seen on the night of the relief of Mafeking about 1900 carrying a soldier around Newbury on his shoulders much to the annoyance of my Mother!) said to my brother Roderic and myself, “I expect you boys will be wanting to do something about joining the Territorial Army.” I had been thinking about it for some time but this was just the spur I needed. Within about a fortnight we had both enlisted. I had been living in London for two years or so and made enquiries among my friends about the possibilities available. First I called on the Royal Naval Recruiting Ship H.M.S. President moored in the Thames off the Embankment only to be told that they could not take any more. Then on 14th April 1939 I called at the Regimental Headquarters of The Queen’s Westminster Rifles (K.R.R.C.) in Buckingham Gate where, after a medical examination and taking the Oath, I was sworn in to the 2nd Battalion by Lieutenant H.P. Croom-Johnson who subsequently became, I believe, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. This Battalion had a nucleus of 1st Battalion Officers and Warrant Officers and Stage and Screen were strongly represented e.g. Frank Lawton.
Generally we were young, enthusiastic and above all, cheerful. There was a weekly parade at about 8pm, weekends at the K.R.R.C. Depot at Winchester (where we learned to lay an Aim) and were marched to meals at 140 paces to the minute. I think my sister Marian sometimes watched us training. There was also 14 days’ camp to attend in the New Forest. I was posted to ‘B’ Company under Major Oldcorn and my platoon Commander was Lord Killanin. We had no uniform, only denims, but we had our personal Lee Enfield Rifle before long. It was soon drilled into us what it meant to be a Rifleman - 140 paces to the minute compared to Ordinary Infantry at 120. “Once a Rifleman always a Rifleman” - Aids to good shooting - Alert at all times - Weekly parades - When wet in Royal Mews - Sometimes in Wellington Barracks under a Scots Guards sergeant who told me when I was doing my best to Slow March, “You’re like a bloody duck.” Eventually August came and we marched from Buckingham Gate to Waterloo to entrain for Burley in the New Forest. Camp was a new experience for me, ten men to a Bell Tent with the accent on tidiness. We seemed to spend a lot of time picking up fag-ends and matches ready for inspection daily. We were running about in the heather most of the morning with a haversack ration for lunch, then tea about six and after that your time was your own until lights out unless you were on fatigues or Guard Duty. There was always the NAAFI to visit or a pub in Burley if you could get anywhere near the bar. We went home from camp near the end of August and I went to see my parents who were staying at Lee-on-Solent.
An ultimatum was given that we should regard an attack on Poland as an act of War. The attack followed. The Territorial Army was embodied and we were all told over the wireless to report to our Regimental Headquarters. So it was to my H.Q. at Buckingham Gate I went with a heavy heart. The Company Sergeant Major swore me in - gave me £1 and a blanket and said, “That is to be buried in if you get killed.” I went to lie down with two hundred or three hundred others in the drill Hall. We soon had steel helmets and gas masks. Next day I think it was September 3rd, I was strolling in St. James’ park with two friends at about noon when the dreaded siren sounded - a wailing noise up and down and warning of an imminent Air Raid. Nobody seemed to know what to do - all felt ashamed to run and a few minutes later the All Clear sounded. I believe our meals were served at the Army and Navy close by. Soon we were sent to King George V Docks on Guard duty two hours on and four off over the twenty-four hour period. There nothing of note happened and we were sent to Pinner where we were billeted in empty private houses in a new building estate some thirty men to a house. Here I met Brian Harrison, a solicitor my age and we played a lot of darts together in the evenings. The game was to challenge whoever won the game in progress to a match and if you won you stayed playing until you were beaten, the losers buying the beer. Here Brian asked me to lunch with his cousins the Pollocks who lived in Pinner. It was a very nice house, we had an excellent lunch with a maid waiting and then a walk. There was a daughter Lorna who was very pleasant. We were then posted to guard Bomber Command H.Q. near Slough. By this time I had been promoted to Corporal (28/- a day) and it was while I was in charge of the Guard one night that I had a narrow squeak. I think the Guard was mounted at 9pm, one of the Guard Private B. (high up in the Actors’ profession) I had seen drinking heavily in the pub about 8pm. However he duly appeared at Guard Mounting and when I gave the command “Fix Bayonets” he fumbled and struggled but could not attach the bayonet to the Rifle. I quickly thought, “I’ll give him another thirty seconds and if he cannot do it by then he will be under arrest for being drunk on Parade.” As luck would have it he succeeded and was duly posted as a Sentry. Later that evening someone called at the guardroom where I was in charge and said, “Your sentry has been found asleep in the Bus Shelter.” “Oh dear!” I thought, “Will he or I or both of us be shot?” However nothing happened to me but we did not see Private B. again.
About this time one of our officers Lieutenant Fletcher asked me if I’d ever thought of applying for a commission, to which I replied that I was not too keen bearing in mind that the life of a Subaltern in the First World War was only some six weeks. However shortly afterwards I was posted, on December 8th 1939 to 168 Officer Cadet Training Unit at Blenheim Barracks, Aldershot. Our C.O. was Colonel Bingham, a regular officer of the Old School who was subsequently sacked for saying words to the effect that Officers who rose from the ranks were inferior to those who did not. My Company Commander Captain Godrich of the Artists’ Rifles had been at Christ Church Choir School with Rod, I believe and my Platoon Commander was Lieutenant Jock Grant of the Gordon Highlanders - wild, with a ginger moustache, attractive to women and subsequently killed in North Africa. This was an OCTU for training Infantry Officers and I was subsequently transferred in April 1940 to 170 OCTU which specialised in training Machine Gun Officers. Our weapon was the 303 Vickers Medium Machine Gun which could fire 150 rounds a minute, had a beaten zone shaped like a cigar and was suitable for enfilade fire in defence. It also had ten or so kinds of stoppages all of which we had to master even in the dark. The course proceeded satisfactorily, we had plenty of physical training rugger etc., lots of drill, lectures on man management, Field Cooking, gas and I was eventually commissioned to the Middlesex Regiment on May 18th 1940. There were four machine gun regiments to choose from: The Devonshire Regiment, The Cheshire Regiment, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I ordered my uniform from Humphreys and Crook - Service Dress, Overcoat, Sam Browne belt, Cap etc. and opened a Bank Account at Cox and King’s, to receive my pay. I reported to the Depot The Middlesex Regiment at Mill Hill on July 1st 1940 just after the Dunkirk evacuation when the regiment had two Battalions to be evacuated. I was in billets close by and reported to the Depot daily for more instruction on Regimental History etc. The Regimental Colonel was Colonel Maurice Browne, very senior and I never spoke to him. While there there was a good deal of night bombing but nothing very near me. The Regimental tradition continued unchanged, we all put on Service dress for dinner at about 8pm, Regimental silver was shown, waiters in abundance and we could order drinks in the Ante room all of which went on one’s mess bill. There were splendid billiards tables and ping-pong tables galore. This was all too good to last and on July 15th 1940 I was posted to the 1st/8th Battalion at Liverpool. My platoon No. 7 in ‘B’ Company was given the task of defending Speke Aerodrome - our four guns were near Rose Cottage and permanently manned. We had little transport but I was given a small delivery van. One day I was walking near the perimeter when a Heinkel bomber glided almost silently just over my head - so close I thought of firing my revolver at it and then crash, crash, crash, crash - it dropped four bombs right on the Aircraft factory adjoining. I think they were making Hudson aircraft - nothing fired at it. Another time the warning CROMWELL was given - this meant ‘Invasion Imminent’ and we were to open fire on any aircraft landing on the Aerodrome. I was terrified lest one of our planes were to land, however nothing landed and we learned afterwards that it was a rehearsal.
I messed with the Infantry Battalion to which my Platoon was attached viz. 5th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. Incidentally then second-in-command was Major Musson to whom Rod subsequently sold Barn Cottage, Hurstbourne Tarrant, he was then a General. We were under canvas in the grounds of Woolton Hall, the home of Lord Woolton, Minster for Food. Life was not all unpleasant and I had some good golf with Major Worton our second-in-command at some of the lovely courses near the coast e.g. Hoylake. I met up with Rod occasionally who was with ‘D’ Company and had a haircut at the famous Adelphi Hotel! After a month we were posted to, of all places, Hartley Wintney. Rod had only recently married Ena Sutton whose home was at Coopers, Eversley, close by, and when we drove past Coopers Mrs. Sutton, of course, had the Union Jack flying” The men were mostly in Nissen Huts under the oak trees on the Green and the officers in a nice house overlooking the Golf Course where I had more golf with Major Worton. We were I think at this time attached to 38 Welsh Division with whom we did some exercises. We also exercised with Hartley Wintney Home Guard. One Sunday I was launching an “enemy” attack on the village with my platoon when the Home Guard Commander ran out saying, “Do you mind going back? - we are not ready yet!” I also remember a battalion cross-country run in army boots and battle dress - about 450 men going for the first fence - what a sight” The Padré promised a pint to the first twelve home and I think I got the twelfth!
On July 25th 1942 I was informed that I was to be appointed Captain and Adjutant of the 1st/8th Middlesex to succeed Captain Dick Mudie who had been sent to the Staff College. Dick Mudie was a good friend and after the war was over invited me to join his Solicitors’ firm in London - Pengelly & Co. As Adjutant I had the duty of representing the C.O. in his absence, sitting in his Office, writing Battalion Orders, supervising staff and promotions, answering correspondence etc. It was a job for which my training as a Solicitor helped but I lacked the experience which a regular Officer would have had. The worst blob I ever committed was at a full dress parade, I think at Margate, ordering the whole Battalion to Present Arms from Attention - consternation prevailed to be cured by R.S.M. Smith who shouted “Steady” and allowed me to correct my mistake. Everybody was nice about it but I never felt things were quite the same afterwards.
Whilst at Margate where the men were allowed to bathe in the sea a message came to me in the Orderly Room that a soldier had drowned. I raced down, got a boat rowed out to where he was last seen but there was no sign of the body which was washed up next day. I informed the parents and attended the Inquest. The beach is very flat and the tide comes in very quickly and this poor man could not swim. We were then sent to Broadstairs on coastal defence then to Otterden near Tenderden a very marshy place where I had some pheasant shooting with Major Newton and Captain ffloliott Powell (an Olympic runner), finally to positions on the South Downs near Alfriston ready to repel an invasion. At various times I had been sent on Courses. First an Infantry Officers Course where, among other things, we learned how to stop advancing Tanks e.g. find a narrow road with high banks - pickaxe a line across the road immediately round a corner - a hun tank is nearly blind and would immediately expect mines to have been laid especially if one could half bury a treacle tin disguised as a mine. I also went on Medium Machine Gun Course at Netheravon, a gas Course at Winterbourne Gunner, a Messing Course, Vehicle Maintenance at Tunbridge Wells and others.
My Father had died in October 1941 and I was allowed Leave for the funeral at Shaw Church. Rod got there too. Also we had 48-hour leave from time to time when I usually went home to Newbury and hired a car to run about in.
I think it was about 1943 when our Battalion was posted to the new Barracks at Crowborough. I was Adjutant and was soon visited by the local Army Welfare Officer Captain Kerr. His wife’s brother Major ‘Tiger’ Lyon had been a regular Officer in the Middlesex Regiment and another brother Admiral Lyon had been full-back for England. The C.O. and I were invited to tea at Garth their home when we met Mrs. Kerr and daughters Jean and Alison. Jean was at that time Champion of Surrey and a Scottish International golfer so rounds of golf at Crowborough soon followed - I am more than grateful for the depth of true religion added to my life through knowing the Kerr family.
Exercise followed exercise, some for three days and nights. Drivers had to learn to drive without any lights except to follow the axle light of the vehicle in front. There were no road signs or direction posts (for fear of German parachutists) and we had to practise moving large numbers of vehicles by night. Three days and nights without sleep were too much for some of our more elderly Officers and one who had been in the 14-18 War was seen by the General fast asleep in his vehicle and was never seen by us again. Bridging exercises followed. Eventually we finished up under canvas on the Sussex Coast in May 1944.
I should mention here that our weapon the Medium Machine Gun is primarily a defensive weapon - its cone of fire is some 150 yards long and cigar-shaped so it is useful for firing on fixed lines at night. It can be used to give overhead fire support to attacking infantry. One of our Companies’ D’ Company had 4.2” mortars. These were very effective in attack and defence.
My recollections of the Invasion of France on June 6th 1944, fifty years ago, are as follows: I was, at the time, second in command of ‘A’ Company 8th Battalion The Middlesex Regiment (D.C.C.). My Company Commander was Major A.N.W. Kidston of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders temporarily posted to The Middlesex Regiment. He was a regular Officer, very forceful in character and appearance with a large black moustache, an expert in the .303 Vickers Medium Machine Gun, our weapon. He was an excellent commander, a good disciplinarian but always fair. He was fond, but not overfond, of a ‘wee dram’. I can see him now at early morning (7 am) Officers’ Physical Training playing the medicine ball game on a tennis court where the object was to roll the ball behind the opposition’s service line. No one was stronger or more vigorous than Major K. After a few months in France he was sent to be an Instructor at the Small Arms School at Netheravon, a post which must have suited him admirably. In France he used to like to have his slit trench connected to mine and, to keep up his spirits and drown the noise of the shelling at night, he used to sing Highland songs none familiar to me.
I remember our Battalion being sent with our Division, 43rd Wessex, to a tented camp on the coast in Sussex near Hastings. It must have been at the end of May or very early in June 1944. On arrival we were told that the camp was sealed - no one was allowed in or out. We were each given cards to send to our next-of-kin informing them that we would shortly be going overseas. I sent mine to my Mother. I also well remember receiving an order that every vehicle was to be painted on the top of the bonnet with a large white star. Stencils and paint were provided and the job was done in a day. This was to ensure that our vehicles could be recognised from the air by the Royal Air Force.
Much time was spent in getting ready, checking records of the men, verifying next-of-kin, seeing that all who needed it received medical attention, waterproofing vehicles so that they could travel through three to four feet of water, checking stores and ammunition; each man carried about fifty rounds each Machine Gun about 48 belts (150 pounds per belt), this gun fired about 150 rounds a minute, had a range of one to one-and-a-half miles and could be fired directly or indirectly. Each man had his own mess tin and mug plus knife, fork and spoon, two changes of underclothing, two blankets, ground sheet, gascape, respirator as well as his personal weapon i.e. short Lee Enfield Rifle or Sten gun for the men, Smith & Wesson Revolver for Officers. We also carried Anti Tank P.I.A.T. and several kinds of grenade. We had our own Company Water Truck and two Three Ton Lorries to carry the stores, cooking stoves, Rations and spare parts. Ration packs were wooden boxes and contained tinned bacon, sausages, McConochie’s stew and tins of stewed fruit, tea, sugar and milk powder. Each man was issued with fifty cigarettes a week.
Early in the morning of June 6th I was woken by the sound of large numbers of aircraft flying towards France and news soon leaked out that the Invasion, for which we had prepared for so long, was on. We had no post or papers but there may have been odd wireless receiving sets around. Anyway what was going to happen to us? Where were we going? And when?
As second in command of ‘A’ Company I was ordered to be prepared to leave at an hour’s notice, with my driver Private Davies in our 15 cwt. Bedford Truck as Advance Party for ‘A’ Company. We packed the Truck with our personal kit, clothes etc. and were issued with a fourteen man ration pack which contained enough food for fourteen men to have one meal; I suppose it was thought that it would therefore suffice two men for seven meals. Anyway we were very tired of stew, biscuits and tinned pears after a few days in France.
Then as far as I remember nothing happened for a few days except waiting, waiting and more waiting as so often happens in the Army. No letters, no papers, no entertainment of any sort day after day.
I should mention that the Brigades in the 43rd Division were made up of the following Infantry Battalions:
129 Brigade - 4 Somerset Light Infantry, 4 Wiltshires, 5 Wiltshires
130 Brigade - 7 Hampshires, 4 Dorsets, 5 Dorsets
214 Brigade - 7 Somerset Light Infantry, 1 Worcestershires and
5 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
In addition there were Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Field Ambulance and Royal Signals. With representatives from all these units the Division Advance party would have consisted of several hundred men plus vehicles.
After a further week or so of waiting I received an order to report to Brigade Headquarters. We said our Goodbyes and left. On arrival at 129 Headquarters we were told to proceed in convoy to London Docks, the route would be marked, we would be met on arrival and embarked on our vessel. Why London Docks? Where could we be going? I was puzzled. Most of the journey was in daylight but it got dark soon after we embarked. It was a smallish vessel but sufficient to carry all our party with their vehicles. I attempted to sleep but it was cold. I was up before light to try and see where we were going. I saw that we were still in the Thames Estuary. Then we proceeded along the Kent and Sussex coats to a point nearly opposite Portsmouth where we changed course for the marked route towards France. There were other ships about, a destroyer or two and the sea was roughish and the weather dull. On arrival three miles or so off the coast of France we dropped anchor. I noticed a large cruiser or battleship near us firing inland and there were a number of other naval ships within a mile or so but no sign of any guns firing at us from the coast. There were a number of our planes overhead and I saw one German fighter overhead and in a hurry! As far as I remember we were several days off the coast. The 43rd was a “follow-up” Division so it was no use landing until there was room and also the weather was still bad.
Eventually what was called a “rhino” came alongside. This was a large flat craft about the size of a tennis court consisting of a large number of hollow metal caissons fixed together thus enabling it to float and carry very heavy weights. At each of two corners there was a Royal Engineer Sergeant with an outboard motor. A “scrambler” net was let down over the side of our ship and I thought we would soon be off. But no! Another night of waiting for the tide to be right. Eventually when the tide was suitable our truck was hoisted with a net under each wheel from the ship to the rhino and my driver and I climbed down the net over the side of the ship onto the rhino. Several others followed with their vehicles and we set off for the beach about one mile away. The sea was still quite rough and one of the outboard motors would not start while the other was going merrily taking us in a wide circle out to sea! I inquired of the R.E. Sergeant concerned what he proposed to do and he assured me that all would be well. By this time we were very close to fouling the anchor chain of a Royal Navy destroyer from which there sounded over a megaphone the most alarming signal, “Take that b….. thing away from my ship. What the h… do you think you are doing?” I could think of no suitable reply but fortunately about this time the faulty engine sprang into life and we were able to make for the shore. We did seem a very long way out and for a long time I was uncertain whether we were making any progress in the right direction and I had visions of being washed up on the coast of England; however we were eventually able to discern a few figures on the beach and after one hour or two we grounded on a sandy beach at Arromanches. Then we waited for the tide to go out when we were able to drive off the rhino onto the sand Where to? I had no idea. On the left I saw a Notice “Achtung Meinen!” I knew what that meant! Straight ahead was a cutting in the cliff with a made up surface for vehicles laid down. Round the corner at the top was a turning to the left with, joys of joys, a Military Policeman wearing on his sleeve a Wyvern, our divisional emblem; he directed us off to the left to the area allotted to our Division. After a mile or two of uneventful driving, I do not remember seeing anybody, I decided to bivouac for the night and we pulled into a turnip field, camouflaged our truck, dug foxholes, brewed up tea and stayed there for the night which passed uneventfully. There were hardly any people about though we could hear gunfire in the distance.
We spent several days in this turnip field waiting for the rest of our Battalion to arrive. We made enquiries twice a day only to be told that they had been delayed by the weather. Actually I ascertained later that our Reconnaissance Regiment had lost nearly all their vehicles when the ship carrying them was sunk. I do not know how. Eventually there was news of their arrival and we hastily drove down to guide them to the area we had selected for them only to be told plans had been changed, we were now under 8 Corps command instead of 12 Corps and were going into action immediately near Caen in support of 129 Brigade. Major Kidston told me to establish Company Headquarters in a certain area but to avoid siting them near a certain prominent crossroads. I followed with my vehicles behind others having the same task eventually coming quite near the crossroads I had been told to avoid. We passed a lot of jeeps coming back carrying wounded. I turned off the road into a small field and we spread out, camouflaged the vehicles and the men dug slit trenches. After two or three hours of quite nasty nebelwerfer fire (or ‘moaning minnies’) I was horrified to see one of our Despatch Riders enter the field followed by one of our Three Ton Trucks and the Water Truck. Apparently the C.Q.M.S. in charge of the stores in this Truck enquired of the Despatch Rider what it was like up at the front to which the Despatch Rider replied, “Come and see.” They had barely come to rest in the field when CRASH, CRASH, CRASH, and both vehicles exploded in a sheet of flame. I rushed across to find the C.Q.M.S. in agony on the ground near his truck; we placed his arm with him on a stretcher and he was soon evacuated. I then went to the blazing water truck and got as near as I could only to see the driver, Private Cullen, a blackened mass lying underneath. There was nothing I could do. Major Kidston returned some hours later and I told him what had happened. He took the news extremely well. We were soon sent another Three Ton Truck and stores. The Water Truck took longer. These last events occurred on June 30th 1944.
We stayed “put” in the field where we lost Pte. Cullen and C.Q.M.S. Gray because the enemy took a great deal of dislodging from the area around Caen and Carpriquet Aerodrome. However we did move eventually and I remember we did not use roads anymore we went straight across fields etc. for obvious reasons: the weather was good. One day I remember seeing a soldier, a Captain, lying in the prone position. I told the driver to stop, got out wondering if he was in trouble but he was dead. I noticed his wrist watch was already missing! Pinched I suppose, such are the minor horrors of war. We were in difficulties in the area of the Rivers Orne and Odon and on Hill 112 close by. Our machine gun Platoons were in defensive positions dug in but word came to me that our tanks were over-running them in the dark - a nasty situation. Major Kidston and I were dug in as usual with our trenches joined at the foot. He was singing Highland songs to keep his spirits up and then we heard the noise of a Tank coming directly towards us. Pitch dark - revving engine of tank - then silence - revving engine again this time closer - silence - revving again and closer still - staring into the darkness we could not see a thing - was it friend or foe? Our luck was in - a voice shouted, “Where the hell are we?” to which we were able to reply.
Another night we were being heavily mortared when I noticed that the tank crews just got inside their tanks where they were quite safe from mortar bombs. We were not - if above ground. Another night about 2 am I heard tramp-tramp-tramp and troops singing coming along the nearby road - we were all carefully dug in in slit trenches - who could these ignorant soldiers be marching along the road in column of threes and threatening to give our position away? I ran across to find out. Then in strong Scottish accent, “Oh - we’re the Glasgow Highlanders. Can you tell us where we are?” Actually they are recruited in Liverpool and they did not seem to have a care in the world I have to say!
Another day I was visiting a forward Platoon on Hill 112 when we met a lot of our Division it seemed to me hurrying back. Among them was our 43rd Divisional Commander in our Armoured Car wearing a steel helmet which he never did. My Sergeant shouted to him, “Is everything O.K. Sir?” to which General ‘Butch’ Thomas replied, “I’ve never felt stronger on the ground in my life.” We believed him! All was well eventually.
Here we lost Lieut. Ronnie Waiting. His Company Commander Major Kenyon had put him in a forward position in a hedge, where with his wireless he could call down fire from his 4.2 mortars in rear on targets as they appeared. After a while there was silence from him and his Company Commander Dick Kenyon crept forward on foot to find that a tank had spotted him, blown him to bits and taken his map with all our positions marked on it. Major Kenyon returning with the bad news came round the corner in the road in his jeep to find a German Tiger Tank proceeding slowly ahead in the same direction. It was too late to turn round so Major Kenyon kept on unnoticed to the next crossroads where the Tiger turned left and he right! About this time one of our machine gun Platoons commanded by Lieut. Dearburgh met a Tiger tank in a narrow lane. His Platoon were, of course, in their carriers which gave no protection against tank fire - so they all jumped over the hedges or into a ditch whereupon the tank slowly proceeded to demolish all the carriers, Lieut. Dearburgh said, “The tank stopped opposite me in the ditch where I was lying. I watched as it slowly depressed its gun in my direction - eventually the gun would depress no further and it fired. Blood gushed out of my mouth but it moved on no doubt thinking I was dead.” Incidentally Dearburgh became a Master in Chancery and I used to meet him in Lincoln’s Inn after the war but we never spoke. I wish I had now.
Shortly we were moved back to what was called a Rest Area but it was not at all restful owing to enemy shelling. This was an opportunity to check stores, vehicles, guns and ammunition, to have a night’s sleep and do what soldiers call ‘Make and Mend’.
Then we were on the move again to Mount Pinçon - a very prominent Hill. We were moving at night in pitch darkness and one of our Despatch riders came to me saying if he met a tank he would be squashed bike and all - tanks are very blind especially at night, so I took his bike and he took my seat. We followed a Wilts Company into what proved to be in daylight an orchard at a little place called Danvou overlooked by Mount Pinçon. We concealed and spread out our vehicles as best we could in the dark and dug slit trenches but the ground was like rock. As daylight came down fell the enemy shells hitting the apple trees, bursting and showering the troops underneath with splinters of shell. There was no let up and nothing we could do though I believe the cook did make an attempt at breakfast - certainly there was tea - before long our stretcher-bearer Cpl. Harewell was wounded but not badly. We had several killed and more wounded. We had no idea where the shells were coming from. I did what I could to patch up the wounded with their Field Dressings and got them sent back but then came another salvo and Cpl. Harewell was killed while attending to wounded and I found I had been slightly hit in the shoulder. I still have the shirt with the hole in it beautifully repaired by a French lady whom I do not remember. Eventually I expect about noon our Three Ton Truck drove into the Orchard to my horror, brining back a message that I was to return to Company HQ immediately in the Three Ton Truck. We waited for a lull in the shelling and then I climbed aboard and told the driver to “go for it”. He lost his head at the crossroads nearby and turned left straight at enemy guns instead of right! I shouted, “Stop and turn round!” So we had to reverse back and forwards in the narrow lane, I expecting to be blown to bits any moment. However all was silent. Later on as we ascended the road up Mount Pinçon which had then been taken by our Tanks, I saw a German Self-Propelled Gun at the side of the road with the gunners still at their positions both dead.
It was a month or so after this that we were suddenly ordered to parade the Company for inspection; we had no idea why. Suddenly our Colonel Crawford stopped opposite me and said to General Horrocks, “This is Captain Wells.” Horrocks said to me, “Well done; you’ve been awarded the Military Cross.” I replied immediately (knowing that Dick Kenyon had received the medal), “No, not me, Sir, it was Major Kenyon.” (thinking all the time what a dreadful mistake he had made!) Colonel Crawford said, “He is being too modest.” And that was that. I had only done what appeared to me I ought to do as a Christian. Certainly there were many times when I expected to die and I remember praying, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.’
I do remember another occasion near Maltôt where Major Kidston came back and said the huns were hiding in the cornfields waiting until our troops had passed and then shooting them in the back; that was not his idea of fair fighting! Also he said five of our tanks were blazing and he could hear men screaming inside. Also it transpired that our Machine Gun Platoon had no Officer so I volunteered to go up and take over but was not allowed.
Suddenly my turn came for forty-eight hours leave in Brussels - sadly I do not remember anything about it. We were in a Hotel with a lot of Officers with whom I do not seem to have had much in common. I did buy some Brussels Lace Gloves and some scent for my Mother and then it was back to the Battalion. The battle of the Falaise Gap was then in progress and when we went along the road through Falaise I never saw such destruction. The stench was unbearable - men, horses, cattle and destruction everywhere for twenty miles or more - houses in ruins, no-one about: the whole place reeked of death. I do not remember seeing any dead civilians.
We had experienced quite a rough time in Normandy and news of our Division’s hurried advance to Vernon on the River Seine with orders to cross the River there and form a bridgehead for the following Armoured Divisions must have been good news for us though not, I expect, without some apprehension which always accompanies uncertainty, especially in war. Major King had gone on ahead to reconnoitre in the Town of Vernon and I was leading Company HQ, our three Machine Gun Platoons being, I believe, under the command of their respective Infantry Battalions.
After many miles we drove down the steep hill into the Town of Vernon nearly as far as the River, when Major King met us to guide us to our new Company HQ. We turned right parallel to, but not quite in sight of, the River about half a mile upstream form the Town to a neat little house with the garden trim and tidy, occupied by ‘Monsieur l’Adjutant’ with large white moustaches, and his wife. He was a retired French Army Officer very keen to help us with advice and in every possible way. He said ‘Les Bosches’ had only just left, pointed out the direction they had taken and seemed to me to be surprised that we did not run after them there and then. We did not see a lot of him but he was most helpful and no doubt he was often out down at the Bridge over the River which was down in the water at our side of the River. Every morning he seemed to greet me anxiously with the words: “Partez-vous?”
There was an atmosphere of gaiety and great hilarity in the Town when we first arrived which seemed unreal to me; though we had achieved some success the war was by no means over as we were later to discover but the local inhabitants had been through a dreadful time under German occupation and I could well understand their exuberance at the prospect of it coming to an end.
During the assembling of equipment for the two new bridges and until we had established a bridgehead on the far side of the River there was quite a lot of shell fire and small arms fire coming across the River into the Town and those inhabitants in the Streets greeting the soldiers had to disappear quickly. Our machine gun Platoons engaged targets on the other side of the River and it was while Captain Spencer, commanding No. 5 Platoon, was peering over a six-foot stone wall near the River bank with his head between his two hands that a bullet hit him between the knuckles of the first and second fingers of one hand, a narrow shave indeed! After a day or two the Wiltshire Infantry crossed the River in open canvas assault boats; although they were supported by a heavy barrage of shell, smoke and mortars they suffered dreadful casualties, many being killed, wounded or drowned.
However a bridgehead was eventually gained on the other side and a new bridge across the River constructed by the Royal Engineers and our three Platoons crossed with their respective Battalions. My job was to maintain contact with them making sure that they had adequate ammunition, petrol and food. They had a hot meal every day.
I remember the house where Sergeant Allen was killed. He was an important person in the Battalion’s Medical HQ under Captain Falk R.A.M.C. He was very well liked and respected. A shell hit the house on the left of the road coming down the hill into Vernon demolishing it and he would have been killed instantly, I expect.
In our Company we also lost, among others, a very valuable Sergeant, Sergeant Charles of No. 3 Platoon. He had been with the Battalion for many years, first, I believe, as a Territorial and I expect he came through Dunkirk. It was a tonic just to see him. His square figure, ruddy complexion and smiling f ace were always reassuring and as Platoon Sergeant he was superb.
When the second new bridge had been completed in four or five days I watched with pride, I must say, as the Guards Armoured Division passed over to continue the pursuit. Our Division remained in the Vernon area for a week or so.
It was during our stay at Vernon that I was given forty-eight hours leave in Paris which had just been liberated; again I was given a room in a requisitioned Hotel and was able to have a bath again - I do not think I had had one since leaving England (apart from the Brussels leave). What struck me about Paris was that it looked so lovely, no bomb damage, beautiful buildings, the shops full and the pavements full of beautifully turned out ladies. So different from London. Here I went to a barber for a haircut and one of the customers insisted on giving me a lovely meerschaum pipe with case which I smoked for several months but eventually lost it. It was something to be a liberator! Here too I had a wretched experience. Whilst walking alone in the streets just observing things I had a wish which became more and more urgent to visit what we call the Gentleman’s. I eventually summoned up enough pluck to enquire of a passing man for “The Gentlemen’s? - Les Gentilhommes?” No - he was sorry, he could not understand. Eventually I tried again for “Les Messieurs” - “Je ne comprends pas! Les Messieurs? Oh ha! ha! Le Mission! Le Mission Anglais?” And so it went on until - there it was opposite me on the pavement - Herren. I cannot say I enjoyed my leave all that much but it was something to be treated as a hero even if only for a short while.
Then I think there came plans for Operation Market Garden, airborne drops at Grave, Nijmegen and eventually Arnhem thus opening the way into industrial Germany, the Ruhr. This involved a lot of waiting. Because Holland is so low, the roads are often built up to keep them out of the water, but attacking along such roads one becomes a sitting target - you cannot deploy off them. Once I saw five of our tanks knocked out one after the other coming round a corner in the road.
Holland in September was looking lovely and I well remember the lovely Cox’s Orange apples in some orchards. The people were very friendly indeed and could not do enough to help us. They were very generous too sharing their meagre rations with us. I finished up first in Nijmegen outside a small house occupied by Ynso and Nelleke Scholten. Of course they wanted to know what was going on and we could not tell them. I heard that the Airborne troops had captured the bridge across the Rhine there and I was to cross it soon after. The Commander of the leading tank troop was Major Carrington - later Foreign Secretary - now Lord Carrington. When crossing the damaged bridge I saw three frogmen in rubber suits on the bank - apparently they were German soldiers who had swum down the river complete with mines and explosives to complete the blowing up of the bridge; they did not succeed. On the other side of the river only about twelve miles from Arnhem there was a small place called Elst where we were in very close contact with Germans (fifty yards or so). All this time we did not have any news of what was happening at the Arnhem bridge although we had seen hundreds of Airborne troops and gliders going over us. Eventually one of our Infantry Battalions was sent across the river at Arnhem to assist in the withdrawal of the Airborne Forces or what was left of them and one of our Platoons carried out diversionary attack lower down the river. I saw the Airborne troops who were evacuated and they looked completely exhausted; their faces were ashen; some had swum the river.
Then there was the attempted German breakthrough in the Ardennes and we were moved right back to cover that. I think it was three days and nights without any sleep for me. Christmas dinner was in a garage with the Officers waiting on the men as is customary. The Germans had managed to assemble quite a large number of Tanks and armoured vehicles for what was to prove their last major attempt to win the war. They dropped large numbers of airborne forces with orders to create havoc and confusion among our men - warning them of enormous forces approaching them, misdirecting troops, some of them were dressed as elderly women. Some large American forces were completely cut off and surrounded and then a German Officer approached under a white flag saying, “You are completely surrounded - surrender or be destroyed.” The American General wrote on the message ‘Nuts’ and sent it back! Eventually all was retrieved.
I remember the attack on the Reichswald Forest. Our Infantry had to cross an open space of some six hundred yards against heavily-defended and dug-in enemy positions. This attack was preceded by what was called a ‘Pepperpot’. Every gun that could fire machine guns, mortars, brens, tanks, a thousand 25-pounders and 3.7”, 20 mmA/A, Bofors anti-tank guns all fired for about five minutes on the edge of the Forest opposite and then our tanks proceeded across the open ground with Infantry riding on them or running behind them. In spite of the Pepperpot many enemy guns had survived in their dug-in positions but we took the wood eventually. Here I had an escape - a shell exploded by my side and blew my glasses off (for the third time!) as I jumped into, what appeared to me to be a rubbish pit.
Next, I remember crossing the Rhine but first we were some time in Holland on the border between that country and Germany. The Holland people (They could not bear to be called Dutch, it sounded too much like Deutsch) were so kind and helpful. In some parts of their country, everywhere we went the tracks were axle-deep in mud - I cannot think how we managed but there was always room for our men to sleep in a Dutch Barn or outhouse. I once told a coal-mine owner near a place called, I believe, Brunssum, that we had difficulty lighting our office at night and he insisted on giving me a Miner’s lamp - I kept it for a long time but lost it eventually.
One evening I was ordered to lead the Division ‘B’ Echelon vehicles miles and miles by night into Germany over the bridge over the River Maas at Maastricht. I had a few Despatch Riders to assist and a map, gave the orders, destination, route, fifteen vehicles to a mile and fifteen miles per hour or something like that but there were no signposts and we were soon in trouble - I led the convoy of some two hundred or three hundred Three Ton Trucks down dead ends and you can imagine the cursing and swearing that went on as these large vehicles all had to turn round in the road to get going again. I rather think this must have happened several times. Eventually we arrived at Maastricht where, horror of horrors, the Dutch Home Guard (or its equivalent) told me that they had strict orders not to let any vehicles cross the bridge. I expect I was not in the best of tempers after all that had taken place that night - it was now about 4am and I began to finger my pistol. However all was solved in the end and we were allowed over to arrive at our destination, Geilenkirchen, at about 6am. Here we had a platoon in an isolated village with a lane leading to it across turnip fields covered by enemy fire. To make it harder for the enemy to hit your vehicle you had to vary your speed - fast, slow, very fast, very slow etc. I visited the platoon a number of times; they were all as comfortable as they could be in cellars with their guns mounted and manned. The occupants of the village had fled so the troops helped themselves to all they needed for comfort - bedding etc. They called it ‘liberating’ it. Before long I noticed that when this platoon was on the move it was followed by a number of ‘liberated’ private cars. This was soon stopped. One day we noticed that the 15cwt. truck sent the previous evening across the fields to this isolated platoon could be seen stationary half-way across the fields and off the road. It had never arrived and the driver and mate had been taken prisoner by an enemy patrol. How to recover the vehicle? I took the Corporal in charge of transport and a couple of other men out to the vehicle at dusk; we checked for booby traps, soon had a tow-rope attached and then phew, phew, phew came enemy machine gun bullets just over our heads. Shows how important it is to get the range correct!
My memory of crossing the Rhine is of a very wide river covered in smoke every hour of the day and of waiting a considerable time on our side of the river suddenly to see coming from behind us a large Tank with, sitting on top, Winston Churchill! It did give us a thrill and I think we gave him a cheer. Eventually I had orders to cross in a Buffalo - an amphibious vehicle carrying ten men or so. It was an uneventful crossing although there were a few German planes about dropping mines in the river upstream of us. On arrival I was told to go to Brigade HQ where I found the Brigadier asleep in the cellar. He was woken, told I was there and said, “We are attacking Village X at dawn. There are a lot of Germans retreating down the road through it. Put a few belts from your machine guns down the crossroads to hurry them up!” We soon arranged this. About this time, February 1945, I was given command of ‘C’ Company and promoted to Major.
The Germans were still contesting every village and, contrary to what some believed, had by no means given up. They were expert at rear-guard actions and very brave. I remember being near Brigade HQ one day when I saw a German SS Officer wielding a pickaxe in the garden. I ascertained that he had refused to give information, was told he would therefore be shot and had been sent outside to dig his own grave under supervision of Military Police. After an hour or so’s digging, one could say with some enthusiasm, he was told words to the effect that his courage and loyalty were greatly admired and invited into the Officers’ Mess for a glass of Schnapps. After one or two more glasses he disclosed without any difficulty the information he had refused when sober!
On entering another village I had a horrible experience. I can see the scene exactly even now: a tree-lined road and a hill leading down into the village about two hundred yards away. As we topped the hill down came shell after shell hitting the trees above us and we were soon out of our vehicles and into the banks and ditches at the side. At once I saw Company Sergeant Major T. with a large piece taken out of his forehead. But he kept on breathing. To evacuate him seemed impossible; only more shells would fall and more casualties be suffered. He seemed very peaceful lying there but still breathing. I got a senior soldier, Pte. Chrimes to agree with me that he could not live and that we must leave him. We moved on into the village past a German soldier left to defend the Village lying dead beside his gun. I could not rest and when darkness fell I crept out alone back to the spot where we had left the Company Sergeant Major and found him breathing no more. I was grateful and said a prayer. I think this village was Cleeves (where Anne of Cleeves, one of Henry VIII’s wives, came from). Every Officer in the British Forces had been given a New Testament and Psalms by King George VI with a recommendation to read it. We had a Service most Sundays.
Shortly after this, an Officer of whom I was very fond, Lieutenant Eric Taylor, who had been back at Battalion HQ in charge of Transport asked to be posted to a Machine Gun Company as he desired to be more actively engaged. He arrived at my Company about 3pm and I sent him out with the Platoon Sergeant in a truck to this Platoon which had no Officer. Not more than an hour later I saw the truck coming back with a blanket covering a body in the back with only boots showing. The Sergeant told me that he was showing Mr. Taylor the gun positions when an enemy mortar exploded close by him and he was dead. There was not a mark on his body, very sad.
Then I lost another Officer, Lieutenant G. He was posted to our Company when we were in a fairly static position. I introduced him to the other Platoon Commanders, tried to make him feel at home and told him to familiarise himself with the area surrounding his Platoon’s position. I suppose he was in the area for five or six days when orders came to me for his Platoon to support an attack on a village later that day. I passed the order to him and asked if he had any questions. Later I heard his Platoon had been returning in the wrong direction. Apparently he had gone right through our forward infantry lines and his carrier had been blown up on a mine and he and his driver killed. I felt responsible as I could have done the task. He was Jewish and I did not take to him at once but I have to live with this for life. He had only recently been married.
Another memory I have is of an attack to take a small road bridge in France. The far side was covered by German machine guns and this Company, probably of 4 or 5 Dorsets had been ordered to take the bridge so that the advance could continue. Attempt after attempt failed with many casualties to our men. Eventually the Second-in-Command of the Battalion, I think a Major Pearson, a regular Officer, volunteered to lead a party across; calling for volunteers, he collected about twenty men, covering fire was arranged and smoke from mortars. Just before the attack Major P. crossed the road, picked a red rose from a cottage garden, pinned it to his battle-dress blouse and then gave the order, “Charge” only to fall dead at the head of his men in a hail of bullets. What makes a man do this? It was not just that he was seconded from a Lancashire Regiment. Surely it is something to be admired. Of course the attack failed again only to succeed later in the day when rocket firing Typhoons were called in to give air support.
Month followed month with the Germans retreating and our men advancing - we read in such papers as we saw that German troops were surrendering in droves but this was not the case where we were. They seemed to have a surplus of unused bombs which they kept burying in the roads over which we were to advance costing us many lives and much delay. Eventually we arrived at the River Elbe only to see across the River the horse-drawn transport and Mongolian faces of the Russians. We were eventually, with our division, allotted a large area of Germany to control. I visited the camp at Belsen within days of its liberation and shall never forget the piles of corpses and pitiful skeleton figures dressed in pyjamas. They seemed all head - their bodies had shrunk so much. Later I was sent as an observer to the War Crimes Tribunal and saw General Goering, Admiral Doenitz, Irma Grese and others on trial. They were all given Defence Counsel and it was as fair as possible. General Goering did not seem to be particularly interested - not surprising really because on the day before he was to be executed he took poison he had concealed in his body and killed himself.
As a Solicitor I was sent to preside at some semi Military Courts where the charge usually related to killing a pig without permission or some such and the punishments were usually fines. We held our Sunday Church Parade in a Church at Celle where J.S. Bach had been organist and the present holder of that post, Herr Küster, was very helpful to me as I had to play the Organ. He did not mention the war - nor did I. Of course for a few months there was an absolute ban against ‘Fraternisation’ but it was very difficult to enforce. Our Officers were encouraged to learn German and some thirty of us attended classes taken by the local School Mistress - very tall, very slim, very severe and very serious with iron-grey hair. Shortly after we arrived at Luchow, the town where we were to spend some time, our Colonel sent for the Burgomeister and said, “I want you to make a cricket pitch for my soldiers to play cricket on.” “All right, Sir, when can we start?” was the reply; surprising to me. The time passed slowly, rounding up Polish and other conscripts but the day of release eventually arrived just as Lt.-Col. E.J. Unwin (a former England wing-three-quarter) arrived to take over the Battalion. It was a long journey from Luchow to Taunton where I was given a civvy suit, mack, hat and shoes, three weeks’ leave and a letter from General Montgomery thanking me for my services. This was in November 1945. HGW, July 1994
‘During the night 5/6th August, a company of the Middlesex Regiment, of which Captain Wells was second-in-command, was moved together with a battalion of the Wilts, into a concentration area on the south slope of Danvou. He arrived in an orchard in this area and, at about 0400 hours, 6th August, slit trenches were dug but, as the ground was difficult, were shallow.
At about 0800 hours, 6th August, a salvo of shells burst in the orchard killing and wounding a number of Wilts and Middlesex men, some of whom were caught away from their trenches. This was followed at short intervals by three other salvoes all in or near the orchard. Considerable confusion was caused and many of the wounded were in great pain and in exposed positions. Immediately after the first salvo, despite the fact that he was slightly hit in the shoulder, Captain Wells proceeded to help a number of wounded. In this work and in the dressing of the wounded he was completely undeterred by subsequent salvoes.
He then proceeded to collect stretcher-bearers, carriers and drivers, and organised the evacuation of wounded first to a nearby field, where the doctor could attend to them and then to the casualty clearing post. He subsequently returned to the orchard, which was still under intermittent fire, and finding that half the Company HQ vehicles were so damaged that they could not be moved, organised the sorting and loading of essential stores on to the remaining vehicles and the evacuation of Company HQ and a platoon to a safe area.
Throughout a period of perhaps two hours, during which the orchard was under fire of more or less intensity, Captain Wells behaved with the utmost coolness and gallantry. It was not until evening that he revealed that he himself had been hit. His conduct had a great influence in rallying the men of both units.’
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