After about a year in Aldershot, we moved out to different spots in the south of England. There were so many moves and camps and billets – I cannot recall their chronological order – but we got enough changes to give us a good grounding in life in war-time England. One of the more enjoyable parts of life was the various really old Pubs that were scattered around the countryside. When the war was finally over and we were back in Canada, Stella and I thought we should join the Canadian Legion, thinking it would be very similar to spending an evening in a pub in England, but that was a disappointment. We visited two Legions and rather than good, happy evenings with friends and comrades, they were drunken brawls. To this day, we never again paid a visit to the Canadian Legion.
I recall one very old Pub – I think it was in the vicinity of Burwash Common – where our troop spent many an enjoyable evening playing darts with the locals. It really made for a source of very friendly rivalry – usually ending up every Saturday night with a somewhat organized competition between two teams – one of the locals and the other of my troop – with lots of bets on the side – and the main prize being the two rounds of drinks that the losing team had to buy for the winners. I can’t recall any one getting drunk or any fights starting. It was a most enjoyable way to spend an evening.
One of our chaps had a problem in a pub near Haywards Heath. He was the regimental shoemaker. He did a very good job of his assigned work, but seemed to have a need for more money than his normal pay provided. Apparently, he would take a bag of leather soles and heels under his arm when he went out for the evening and would sell them to the local cobblers who had trouble getting a supply of these things. One night in the local pub, he approached a chap he believed to be a shoemaker and tried to sell his stolen goods. Unfortunately for him, the chap was not the local shoemaker, but the village constable out for the evening in civilian clothes!! The result was not a bit of extra cash for our shoemaker – but a sentence of two years in a military prison.
I recall another lovely pub – also near Haywards Heath – that brings back memories of a time when I wish I had kept my mouth shut. Three of us were out for a Pub Crawl – Fin Dempsey, the RSM – Sid Palmer the QMS of our LAD, and myself. The conversation got around to what was in the drink that the British Navy lads were partial to – a gin and bitters. None of us had any idea what it was, but when it became obvious that nobody had a clue about it, I opened my big mouth and proceeded to dream up a recipe. You ordered a pint of bitters (a beer) and a double gin – took a couple of swigs of the bitters and dumped the double gin into the glass of beer. We all tried it out – and, surprisingly, it tasted just like the very mild spruce beer we had found in Debert Camp – a local Maritimes brew, I believe. It reminded us of home or something – so we ordered a second round. When we finished that, Sid Palmer set out for the washroom. Half way there he swerved to the right, walked into the wall and fell on his seat. I got up to help him to his feet and ended up on the floor beside him. Eventually Fin Dempsey managed to arrange for the duty driver to come to the pub and take us back to camp – being very,very sick on the way I’m told.
The next morning – I felt like something the cat had dragged in, but it was a Sunday morning and there was a compulsory church parade. It took a great effort – but I made it on time. We had a march of a couple of miles to the local church which was located on the crest of a small hill. We were a bit early so the parade halted on the side of the hill. They “fell out the officers” and I had to march to the front of our Squadron, make a “left turn” to check that all was OK, and then make an “about turn” to face in the right direction. I guess I was still dizzy from my gin and bitters formula and when I made a very smart “about turn” in front of the whole squadron I lost my balance on the slope of the hill and fell flat on my backside. It was a while before I heard the end of that smart maneuver. Actually, it took three or four days before any of us felt very well again.
I don’t think anybody – except possibly the padre – was enthusiastic about compulsory Church Parades. Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest but there was nothing restful about one of these. Some of the lads started to work a wangle in this connection. They would declare that they had changed their religion and were now of a different sect – Mohammedans, Sikhs, Muslims, whatever – that allowed them to attend orthodox Church Services. They would still have to march to Church in the Church Parade, but could sit outside in the shade while the service was being held. Week by week, this group grew larger until the Colonel decided it was time to stop this nonsense. He halted the parade on arrival at the church and commanded everyone whose religion would not allow him to attend the service to Fall Out and form a separate squad. He then had a Sgt take command of this group and conduct a session of Close Order Drill in a field beside the church until the service was over. It was amazing – the next week all the other religions converted to a religion that allowed them to attend the army’s service.
The billets we had at Haywards Heath had to be experienced to be believed. When we first drove into the property, I thought that someone had goofed!! We drove through a pair of huge stone pillars and around a circular drive to the front of a building that looked like a hotel. I have no idea who owned it but the Army had the use of it during the war years. I couldn’t even guess at the number of rooms – suffice to say that, in the main building, we put the COs office, the Adjutant’s office, Orderly Room (with a staff of 5) – the Officers’ Mess and the Sergeants’ Mess (each with their own kitchens and dining rooms , four rooms used by the QM stores plus a small room for an office, and on the third floor we housed the 150 men of HQ Squadron. In the grounds behind the main building there were a number of outbuildings – mainly Nissan Huts – to provide enough space to house the rest of the unit – another 5-600 men. Fin Dempsey and I located a nice little room by the main staircase that we grabbed for ourselves – large enough for two beds, a desk, a couple of tables and some comfortable chairs.
At the end of our first day in our new quarters, with all the rooms sorted and arranged, I was so tired I could have slept standing up! As soon as we settled down and turned out the lights we began to hear the strangest noises. I remarked to Fin that we now had all the conveniences of English living – we had ghosts in the house! In the morning our room showed evidence of a lot of small four-footed visitors! The noises we had heard during the night were mice (or maybe rats) scurrying through the walls of the building. The whole huge structure was absolutely packed solid with the creatures. We checked around and found that everybody had the same problem. There must have been swarms of them. How one could ever get rid of them was beyond me… If the the whole huge structure was fumigated, it would still leave walls full of dead rodents. Darned if I know what could be done.
Fin and I derived a system to rid our room of the problem. We had a small table and there was plenty of evidence that the creatures were all over it at night. So we got an empty gasoline can, (the thin metal, square can that held four gallons). We cut the top off and washed the gasoline odor out of it. We then put a chunk of old cheese in the bottom of the can and put the can on the floor by the edge of the table. If a rat or a mouse smelled the cheese and jumped from the table into the can it was trapped. The idea worked like a charm!
About this time, our Auxiliary Services Officer who handled matters for the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Knights of Columbus had a sedan that had been driven into the ground. There was no way it could be made road-worthy again. He got a letter from his HQ telling him to return his vehicle to their depot in London and they would try to get another car for him. Since his car wouldn’t run, it was a job for Sid Palmer’s LAD with their breakdown lorry. We talked about it in the Mess – and decided it was far to big a responsibility to give to one of Sid’s Corporals with a spare man for another driver – the only fair thing to do was to take care of it ourselves. So Fin, Sid and I started off – the three of us in the breakdown lorry with the broken down sedan on suspended tow behind us. Three in the front seat of the lorry was not comfortable so Fin and I took turns alternating between the front seat of the lorry and the hoisted-up front seat of the car.
In due time, we got to London, found the depot for the return of the car and found a guarded vehicle park where we could leave the breakdown lorry for a few hours while we looked over the town. We found a black market restaurant for a decent meal – saw a show at the Victory theater and visited a few pubs. It was beginning to get dark when we decided we should start back to camp. We found the vehicle park and took off – allowing ourselves ample time to get back to camp and get ready for the COs inspection parade the next morning. A few miles on our way, on a lonely stretch of road in the countryside, the motor quit on us. Sid was a master mechanic, but it is difficult to fix a big motor in the dark – without a full set of tools – and without a flashlight. We pushed the lorry off the road and spent about an hour trying to get it going – but no luck. All we could do was crawl into the cab of the lorry, find some tarpaulins to use as blankets and try to get some sleep.
Very early next morning there was a tap on the lorry door and we discovered we were parked in someone’s driveway and a little gray-haired lady was knocking on the cab. She was carrying a tray holding three mugs of tea and some scones! She had heard us during the night, but was too frightened to come out to see what was going on. We thanked her and asked where we could find the nearest telephone. It happened there was one in her house. We also asked where we were and discovered we were about two miles away from L. of C. Signals where my old friend Bill Conway was working . With a bit of difficulty, we got the connection to Bill. He was still in bed, but we got him up and explained our problem, where we were, and that we needed help in a hurry as we had to be back at camp for COs Inspection.
Within a few minutes, a small convoy arrived – Bill in a jeep, followed by two Dispatch Riders on motorcycles , followed by the L. of C. Signals breakdown lorry. Fin and I borrowed the Dispatch Riders crash helmets and their motorcycles and were soon on our way back to camp. We would do our best to get to camp in time for the inspection, making up an excuse for Sid’s absence.
We made it to camp in time for Fin and I to make the parade and also to get Sid excused. I remember we had everyone feeling so sorry for Sid – stuck out in the boon docks with a broken down lorry. The parade was just nicely formed up and the inspection started when up roared Sid in his lorry. Apparently it was just some very small, silly thing that was wrong. In the daylight, it was fixed in five minutes and he was on his way back to camp. But why did he have to rush so much? Certainly ruined the good story we had circulated.
One time we were to be honoured (?) with an inspection by the Princess Royal which held up all regular training for three or four days. Everything was scrubbed and polished and we practiced to make sure we did everything right. (Actually, the Princess Royal struck me as one miserable specimen of humanity. Her face wore a supercilious expression as she looked down her nose at each man and though a Royal Inspection is supposed to be a purely ceremonial occasion, this lady seemed to think she had to have three or four men charged for shoes not highly polished or a hair cut that was a day or two overdue.) We practiced the parade and inspection part until we were all sick and tired of it. And then an unexpected problem arose. A Royal Standard had to be flown on a flag pole on the parade ground and also at the officer’s mess where the Princess was to have lunch. We managed to locate only one Royal Standard and one flag pole. The solution was interesting to watch: A half dozen men, one driver, one Corporal and one three-ton truck were excused from the Inspection. The moment the inspection was over, the inspecting party (including the Princess Royal) left the parade square in two staff cars to go to the Officers Mess for lunch. However, they took off in the wrong direction – a roundabout route that would involve a fairly long drive before reaching the Officers’ Mess. As soon as they were out of sight a three ton truck roared up. Men in fatigue suits jumped out and in a matter of seconds, the Royal Standard was lowered, the pegs were pulled out of the ground, the flag pole was knocked over and thrown into the truck – and the truck took off like the devil himself was chasing it. They took the short cut to the Officers’ Mess – grabbed the flag pole (with the Royal Standard attached) – pushed it into place – fastened the guy ropes, jumped in the truck and away they went – just as the staff cars with the inspection officers came on the scene from the other direction.
At another time, we were billeted in different buildings and houses scattered all over the countryside. For QM Stores, we used a separate farmhouse – complete with machinery shed, barn, etc. It was really a nice set up. Once again, we did not have an officer quartermaster so we had no one to bother us. The roads in the area were typical English country roads – gravel, almost wide enough for two trucks to pass – carefully – and with big hedges on both sides. QM was about a half-mile from Signals Orderly Room and the Workshops. The road was very narrow – so a Divisional Order came out making it a one-way street – and the appropriate signs were erected. One day, I had to go to the Orderly Room, so I jumped in my Jeep and took off – along the one-way street. Half-way along this street, there was a sharp right-hand turn – I slowed down somewhat, and spun around the turn – only to meet a little British Army Utility car coming the other way. We both swerved, but on the narrow road it was impossible to miss each other – and I hit the car broadside. It rolled up on its side – in the middle of a hawthorn hedge. No one was hurt – but out popped an English Major – with a torn uniform and scratches all over his hands and face – and making loud noises about these —— Colonials who didn’t know how to drive on the proper side of the road. I tried to reason with him – pointing out that he was going the wrong way on a one-way street – but he wasn’t interested. All he could do was make dire threats and demand to know my rank, serial number and my battalion and where we were located. I quit trying to reason with him – helped him push his car up on its four wheels – and left him sitting there. I drove off very slowly – the jeep didn’t steer too well. I made it along to the LAD and asked my old friend Sid Palmer to fix it up. He asked about the accident report – I told him not to be silly – just fix up the jeep – and, while doing that, lend me another jeep to drive to Headquarters – and could he have my jeep ready by the time I got back – about 45 minutes. He huffed and puffed – but, when I got back in less than an hour, my jeep was ready – with a new wheel, new tie rods, a new tire, a new bumper – and a coat of paint covering the scratch marks. The rules in the Army are such that, when you have a vehicle accident at fault, you must be placed under open arrest and confined to quarters until it is reported and investigated. I was tired, so tomorrow would do for making out a report. I had nothing planned for that evening, so I stood up and formally told myself that I was under arrest and confined to quarters for the night. Then I had something to eat – went to my room, poured myself a drink, turned on the radio and curled up with a good book. A couple of hours later, the duty storeman came to my room to tell me that there was a British Officer in my office and he wanted to talk to me. I told him to bring him up to my room – and in a few minutes he returned with the Major I had bumped into that afternoon – complete with another uniform and a few bits of tape on his cheeks and his hands. After a few minutes of chatting, he apologized for blowing his top that afternoon – he had missed seeing the one-way street signs and admitted it was his fault, not mine. Then he looked around my room (I guess to make sure no one else was listening) and asked me if I had filed an Accident Report Form as yet. I told him I had not – and he said he could probably get his vehicle repaired without any report being filed – was there any chance I could do the same. I pointed out the window and showed him my Jeep – all repaired and painted. He gave a big sigh of relief. I got out a bottle of rye and we had a nice visit for a half hour or so – and that ended the matter.
Shortly afterwards, I lost a good buddy. One of my trucks was having brake trouble. This truck was fitted out for specific jobs – and was essential for an upcoming scheme. My driver reported to me that it was impossible to get anybody to work on it before the scheme got under way. This created a serious problem so I looked up Sid Palmer, told him the problem and that it was top priority for me to have this vehicle set for the scheme. I had other things to look after, so I left it with him.
When I got back a couple of hours later, I got heartbreaking news. Apparently Sid hadn’t been able to find a mechanic who had the time to work on my truck so he proceeded to do the necessary repairs himself. He didn’t have to, but did it as a favor to me. He was laying flat on his back underneath the truck, with his knees bent. Somehow the blocks he had put under the front wheels were kicked loose and since the truck was on a slope, it slid forward. The rear axle caught Sid’s knees and doubled him over, breaking his spine. By the time I got back, he had been moved to hospital. We had to move – and I couldn’t find out what had happened to him. After the war was over, Sid’s LAD officer arranged to bring Sid from his home in Montreal to a Toronto hockey game, followed by an evening get-together for some of his army buddies. Stella and I were among the guests. It was so hard seeing Sid in the wheel chair to which he would be confined for the rest of his life.
Shortly after that, there was another draft of WOs and senior NCOs called out to go back to Canada to attend OCTU for Officer Training. This time, my name was on the list. I didn’t know what to do. It would be nice to be a Commissioned Officer, but I understood that, after the course, there was a tough medical examination before you were returned Overseas. Remembering the Overseas Medical Examination problem last time I hesitated to go through it all again. Then it was all solved for me with no trouble. Unofficial word came down from the Colonel: he would like it if I did not go back on the draft; as soon as we got out of England and into action, he would ensure that we had a new vacancy for Quartermaster in our unit and he would do his best to get a Field Commission for me. This suited me just fine – so I turned down the opportunity and stayed with 4 Div. It had been my home away from home ever since the battalion was formed and I preferred to stay put.
About that time, we became involved in a different type of training – a sham battle with another Armoured Division. The first one was a battle between our Division and the lst Polish Armoured Division. The second time, we provided neutral signals (providing communication facilities between the umpires judging a battle) between the English Brigade of Guards Armoured Div and another English outfit. Both exercises were held around Norwich which is several miles north of London. Each scheme took about three weeks and they were scheduled about a month apart.
Driving in convoy through Metropolitan London on our way to Norwich was very interesting. I believe a convoy of one Armoured Division covered about 20 to 25 miles of highway. Our Signals unit alone consisted of over 200 trucks. It took a tremendous amount of organizing to get such a convoy through a city the size of London, even with petrol rationing cutting the number of civilian cars to a minimum.
We had a fixed route to follow and were escorted by London police on motorcycles . The convoy went through in groups of six vehicles, with a motorcycle escort leading the way for each group. We were given orders to maintain a steady speed of 25 MPH. The only reason for anyone stopping was if their vehicle broke down and could not be moved. In that event, breakdown lorries were provided at regular intervals along the way to tow broken down vehicles out of the way immediately. Regardless of what else happened, we were under orders not to stop.
The group immediately in front of mine had a mishap. A young woman ran across the street in the middle of a group and was hit by one of the vehicles, breaking her leg. Nobody in the convoy could stop. As we passed, she was laying on the road with her leg at an impossible angle and a policeman (or maybe a St. John’s Ambulance man) was running towards her. It surely seemed strange driving on – leaving the lady – and the scene of an accident.
The only problem my boys had was with a three-ton truck filled with 4 gallon petrol cans. Some of the London roads were rough, with lots of repaired pot holes. Some of these proved too much for the cans of petrol and when we made our first stop after getting through London, there was petrol leaking out all over the place. Why the darned thing did not hit the hot exhaust pipe and blow up is beyond me. We did what we could to keep the danger to a minimum – made sure the truck was parked a hundred yards away from anything or anyone.
I recall one very funny incident that took place in connection with driving through London. Capt. H. R. Crossley, the Officer Commanding 3 Squadron was a very fine officer. He was a good friend of mine – an executive with the Bell Telephone Company before the war. His assigned mode of transport was a Humber Scout car – a small armored car with a very crowded interior. It was an excellent form of transportation if someone was shooting at you – though not the most comfortable for a long ride. Capt. Crossley’s health was fine – with just one problem. He had weak kidneys. On a trip, he had to make frequent stops, but going through London in the convoy, stopping was impossible. Chatting with him afterwards, it sure seemed that he had suffered the agony of the damned.
The sham battle we fought with the Poles was extremely interesting. I remember the countryside in Norfolk County. The roads were terrible and we had very little or no time off for a break. In one of the neighboring villages there was a lovely stone building right at the corner of the main intersection. It seems that one of our Sherman tanks tried to cut the corner a little too closely and knocked the entire corner right off the building.
The chaps in the Polish Armoured Division took the sham battle much more seriously than we did. They had plenty of reason to hate our enemy. The German army had overrun their country – killed, raped and tortured members of their families and ruined many of the houses and buildings. We were just doing a job but they were out for vengeance. At times I thought that somebody should take them aside and make sure they knew that this was just a training maneuver – and we weren’t really and truly the enemy.
For example, a battalion of our infantry was advancing across an open field. The Polish boys charged them – with their Bren Gun Carriers in line abreast, steel cable linking them together as a solid line. I have no idea how many of our men suffered badly broken legs as a result!
After the scheme with the Poles was over, we returned to our area and about a month later, we went through it all again. We knew much better now what we had to do – so we were better organized – and had more free time. There were a fair number of English troops up in that area and many of the camps and stations had work performed by members of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service.) Someone organized dances up there and sent along an invitation to we “colonials.” They were a lot of fun. I met a very nice English girl whose name was Gwen who came from the town of St. Leonards-on-Sea andwas down on the English Channel coast not many miles from where we were stationed. Gwen was due for some leave in a week or two and invited me down to spend a weekend at St. Leonards and stay at her parent’s home.
The weekend at St. Leonards was most enjoyable. When I arrived, I was introduced to Gwen’s parents. They had a son who was with the 8th Army in North Africa, and I was given the use of his bedroom – a very nice room with a most comfortable bed. There were some instructions that I had to learn about. I was quite familiar with the blackout requirements but the thing that they particularly wanted to caution me about was the new air raid warning that had just been installed. It was called the Cuckoo warning which made a horrible. frightening noise. There was one mounted on the lamp post right in front of their house. In case of an air raid, this warning would “awaken the dead” and the drill was that you threw on some warm clothing and ran downstairs and out to the back yard where they had dug an air raid shelter. It was mostly just a hole in the ground with some planks over top and some dirt piled on the planks – looked most uncomfortable. Anyway it was late and we went off to bed. Next morning Gwen’s mother and dad came into the room to make sure I was all right. Apparently there had been an air raid warning during the night. When I didn’t come to the shelter, Gwen’s dad came to get me and I was so sound asleep he couldn’t wake me – so he left me – and I had a thoroughly good night’s sleep. Comfortable beds like that were few and far between in those days.
On Sunday, before going to church, they served me a traditional English breakfast. On my plate, they placed a fish breakfast. Now fish is not one of my favorite foods (except for an order of fish and chips) – and what they served me was, apparently, something really special. Gwen’s mother had gone to a great deal of trouble. I believe the fish is called Plaice. It was split in half – top to bottom and fried. It still had the tail on intact – all the fins were in place – and a big yellowish eyeball was staring right back at me. I managed to get most of it down – but it was a chore – and, for sure, not my favorite breakfast.
Gwen’s mother found some coffee somewhere and as a special treat, made me a cup for breakfast . Unfortunately, she made the coffee the same way that my Aunt Effie back in Lewes made it – I guess that is the English way. She put a couple of spoonfuls of coffee in a teapot and added boiling water. While this was getting ready (?) she put some milk in a saucepan and heated it. After a couple of minutes, she poured some liquid from the teapot and some more from the saucepan – all at the same time and in approximately equal portions. And this was your cup of “waker-upper” coffee. Ugh!
The whole family went to the local Anglican church at 11:00 and I really enjoyed that. It was a very small stone church (might seat a hundred people if they were all friendly) and was located in a woodsy area on the edge of town overlooking the English Channel. Very lovely. Even yet, every time I hear ‘The Church In the Wildwood’ it takes me back to this little spot in St. Leonards-on-Sea. It was a most enjoyable visit but very shortly thereafter we were on the move again – to a rather desolate moor close to the town of East Grinstead – and I never saw Gwen or her parents again. In East Grinstead we started making final preparations for what we now call D-Day.
At first, the new camp – known as Cold Harbour – was not such a bad spot. We were about three or four miles out of the city of East Grinstead – which was a nice town. There were regular dances a couple of times a week. They were well organized and lots of fun. Many of the nurses from the local hospital came to the dances. I recall one lovely little student nurse that I met and took to several of the dances. She was from Wales – and I got a real kick out of her melodious Welsh accent. I recall taking her back to the hospital one evening after the dance and asking about her schedule for the coming week – should I pick her up for the dance? She said no, that she wouldn’t be able to go to the next dance – she was going home to Wales for a week’s holiday. However, the week after that would be fine – could I pick her up for that? That was OK with me. I asked about her holiday – did she have anything special planned? It seems that she did have something planned – she was getting married to her Welsh boyfriend as soon as she got home. Having met some short-tempered, heavily muscled coal-miner type of Welshmen before, I decided to forget the whole thing.
One of our new Lieutenants got to know a girl in East Grinstead. His girl friend happened to be married to a chap who was serving in the forces. He was stationed somewhere in England but only got leave about one weekend a month. One evening they were spending the evening in her bedroom on the second floor, when they heard a noise at the front door. It opened and her husband’s voice called out to say hello and let her know that he had a couple of days of unexpected leave. Our bright, young lieutenant found that a bit unexpected, too. He quickly put on his trousers and jacket – bundled up the rest of his clothes and fled through the bedroom window onto the roof of a shed in the back yard. When he didn’t appear for roll call the next morning, a search was made for him and he was found in the back yard with a broken neck – presumably from falling off the shed roof – but nobody knows for sure, exactly what happened. It is certainly not a laughing matter – but I had to smile to myself when I heard about the write-up in his local paper in Canada: he had died while serving overseas in the armed forces in defence of his country – and all that stuff.
While we were in Cold Harbour we regularly heard and saw the V-1s – or buzz bombs as they were called – sailing overhead on their way to bomb London. The buzz bombs were one of Hitler’s so-called secret weapons. Basically, they were a pilotless flying bomb – propelled by a rocket – which was set off from a launching pad on the French coast in the areas east and west of Calais. Their direction was set by the aiming of the launching pad – their distance was set by the amount of fuel they had on board. They made a loud racket when they were flying overhead – then, suddenly, the noise would stop – and everyone would look up to see where it was. When the sound stopped, the device stopped flying and dove into the ground with devastating results. There were two methods of attempting to stop them – (1) by shooting at them with anti-aircraft guns – and (2) by the Air Force, flying Hurricanes or Spitfires – coming along side of them – getting one of their wings underneath the stubby wing of the V.1 and tilting it. This caused the bomb to veer off in another direction and, hopefully, miss London.
I recall one Sunday morning, we were having a voluntary Church Parade and were sitting or standing in a vacant field, when some buzz bombs started to cross overhead. We were ignoring them, as long as the noise continued, when a lot of anti-aircraft guns in our vicinity opened fire on them. The service stopped – every one ducked under the nearest parked trucks – and the shrapnel from the AA fire landed all around us. None of our lads was hurt – but enough shrapnel landed around us that the canvas tarps on many of our trucks looked like sieves. But everyone was used to it by that time – when no more came over for a few minutes, the church service continued.
About this time, I attended an O Group meeting to learn about all the wonderful things that we were to receive before we went into action. This one was about the drill to be followed in the event that we were captured and became prisoners of war and were able to escape. I must say it was an extremely interesting lecture. For example, everybody was to get a handkerchief which, when heated, would show a relief map of all of northern France and Belgium and the Netherlands. We were all to be issued with a money belt containing a small amount of money in French and Belgian francs and Dutch guilders to help obtain civilian assistance in an escape attempt. Everyone was to be issued a new button to replace the top button on our great coats. When the button was given a twist, the face came off to reveal a compass. We were also to get a sort of heavy thread to fasten in the collar of our battle dress blouses. This was actually a surgical flexible saw blade that could saw through iron bars! I don’t recall any other items, but that doesn’t matter. The description and the sample of each item we were shown at this meeting was the first and last time we ever heard anything of these wonders.
Then began quite a busy time: We had to return to Ordnance all of the vehicles we had used for training and we were issued with all new vehicles – all classes of trucks, jeeps, motorcycles, etc. Since a lot of our vehicles were specialty trucks – trucks used for offices – workshops – stores – wireless stations – cable laying, etc. All this new equipment had to be installed on the new vehicles by our own people. When it was all installed, the vehicles had to be waterproofed for debarking from a Landing Craft into three or four feet of water. There was a lot of chasing around to get all the equipment – and a lot of work for everyone to get everything fixed up.
One example was a QM stores lorry. This vehicle carried all the bits and pieces necessary to repair all the wireless sets, field telephones, etc. in the whole Division. There were hundreds of them. The training vehicle we were using was fitted out with wooden shelves and bins – but this was not satisfactory. Things fell apart after a few miles of cross-country driving and had to be reorganized, taking more time than we could spare. We needed some angle iron so we could have the fitters weld shelves and bins permanently into place. We had the welding equipment and the personnel to do the job – but no angle iron. I suddenly thought of my Uncle Sid who ran the Ajax Iron Works in Lewes – surely we could arrange to get a few hundred pounds of the stuff from him.
I drove down to Lewes to see Uncle Sid about the possibility – but there was one problem. He was so bound by government bureaucracy, he had to account for every pound of iron. I would need a permit from some Government Official in London. He gave me a copy of the necessary application and the name and address of the man to see in London. I returned to camp, got the form filled out, got the Colonel’s signature and drove to London in my jeep – taking a driver along to look after the jeep while we were parked in London. We found the place and the man to see with no trouble. I went over the forms with the chap and got his promise of our permits by mid-afternoon. We found a place to eat and stayed there until the buzz bombs stopped falling around us. Then back to the Government Office. Darned if one of the buzz bombs hadn’t hit the building we were going to for our permits! There were ambulances and police and fire trucks all around – and, needless to say, we had to start all over again – there was no way in the world of finding the copies of the application, the chap I had been talking to, or anything else. We had to go through the whole routine a second time but eventually we got our steel and got the installations made.
With everything ready, all we needed was the word to get under way. Then, one night in the early part of June, we were awakened by a horrendous noise – and looking up in the sky, all we could see was airplanes – bombers, fighters and planes towing gliders. This was the start of the invasion – this was D-Day!!
I had been present at the O Group meeting when the tentative schedule had been set up. An Armoured Division is a big organization – and requires space to maneuver, so we weren’t scheduled to go in with the Assault troops. That is an infantry job. The original plan was that by D+3, the assault troops would have taken the city of Caen (about 9 or 10 miles inland) and the tanks of our Armoured Division would have room to operate. That meant that we should leave our camp on D+2 in order to land on the beachhead on D+3. But, again, the best laid plans…
At the last minute, the German High Command moved some Armoured Divisions to participate in a scheme – and moved them right into the area around Caen. As a result, there was no room for us in the Beach head. We sat around in our camp at Cold Harbour for a whole month! Practically all of our vehicles were the newly-issued operational ones – all waterproofed and ready to go. As I recall, we had one 3-ton truck, an 8.cwt truck and a couple of motorcycles that could be used. But it didn’t matter too much – we were all confined to the camp anyway – no passes to go anywhere for any reason. A really long, boring month for sure – and a particular let-down after we were all pepped up by the roar of the invasion aircraft and the news of the fighting.
Eventually, things started to move. On the continent, a special effort was being made to keep all the German troops busy around Caen. There were not many around the western edge of the invasion – so the idea was to keep the Germans involved around the eastern end – and give the Americans a chance to break out on the Western Flank. The story of General Patton roaring across the French countryside has been well publicized – the Canadian and British forces had the job of keeping the Germans occupied so they could not go against Patton and his American tank forces.
We finally got the order to move out and, once again, drove through London. By this time, we were quite familiar with the procedure and drove through to the Tilbury Docks – on the north side of the Thames to the east of London.
The place was a real hive of activity. The water front was full of all classes of ships and the docks were full of army vehicles and soldiers and sailors. Because we had so many different sizes and types of vehicles, our Signals unit was split up and put on two or three different types of ships. The one my troop ended up on was a big, old (and rusty) ocean-going freighter with huge winches on it. Our big trucks were picked up by a winch and lowered into the hold. By the time my vehicle was due to be loaded, the holds were full so I had my truck lashed down on the deck. But, at long last, we were ready to go to do our job. The ship pulled out into the middle of the Thames and dropped anchor! When darkness came, we bunked down wherever we could find a place. I tried to get some sleep in the co-drivers seat of a three-ton truck. Morning came – we got some sort of breakfast – and we waited. Dinner – supper – night – and we still sat there on this rusty hulk of a ship – just waiting. At long, long last – after three days and nights of sitting on this beat-up old freighter, the anchors were pulled up, the ship started to vibrate and we started to move off – along with a couple of dozen other ships that had been anchored beside us.
We went down the Thames River to the North Sea – south to the English Channel and then turned to the West. It was quite a sight – a beautiful, clear night with a full moon. Around midnight, on our right side – and very close to us – we could see the white cliffs of Dover. Being Signals, we had lots of radios on board and one of the boys tuned in to a German propaganda program that specialized in good modern dance music and also had Lord Haw Haw. I never did find out whether he was a German with an English accent – or an Englishman who changed sides -but he was a very effective propaganda tool for the German forces. We had heard him many times before – his favorite ploy was to tell people between pieces of music something like ” By the way, you citizens of (and give the name of an English village) – if any of you are relying on the clock on the town hall for the correct time, please note the clock is 14 minutes slow – so be sure to adjust your schedule accordingly.” The bad part was that this broadcast was coming from Germany – and, on checking, the information was correct – the clock was slow! Things like that were a little creepy! As we slid past the White Cliffs of Dover, we could look to the south and see the shoreline of Calais, France which was held by German Forces. Occasionally they would fire a few rounds of artillery shells on Dover, right over our heads. And then, to make it really interesting, Lord Haw Haw came on with, “At this time, we want to extend a very warm welcome to Canada’s secret weapon – the 4th Canadian Armoured Division who are on their way right at this very moment to join the party. Welcome, chaps, we’re really looking forward to having a few rounds on the dance floor with you.!”
Knowing that we could see Calais and that we were well within artillery range of German guns and could do nothing but sit and sweat it out made an interesting evening to say the least. As it turned out, for some reason nothing happened. We had a nice, quiet (if sleepless) night’s voyage across the Channel. Next morning – France!!