Embarkation to France
On the 15th of April 1940 we started off in the morning with a kit inspection, packed everything in our kitbags and paraded outside our billet. We then marched to the station at Seaford where the train left at 11:30 am and arrived at Southampton at 3:15 pm. We boarded the Isle of Mann packet boat, The Louth, of Liverpool at 4:00 pm. The boat was packed but Hugh and I managed to find a reasonable space to kip down. We sailed and anchored off the Isle of Wight for about two hours before getting under way again. The sea wasn’t as rough as I would have liked it to be, just a gentle swell, but it was plenty rough enough for some. Hugh and I went up on deck but it was dark and we couldn’t see a thing but we had a wander around and I quite enjoyed it. There was a cold wind blowing, so we retired to our little space and endeavoured to get some sleep. It wasn’t comfortable though; there were quite a few being seasick whilst others were playing cards or singing. Others were just trying to sleep.
In the morning, as dawn was breaking, we went on deck, once more, to watch the French coast approaching. We arrived at Le Havre, in France, at 6:30 am. After mooring up we formed up in Companies and disembarked on to the quay. We were marched into a large building and were issued with a meal of bully beef, biscuits and a mug of tea. We then boarded a train for Rouen. The carriages were very basic and they rattled and shook all the way. We were very interested in watching the countryside slip by as, for most of us, it was our first time abroad. We waved wildly to the girls we saw on the way and they were just as enthusiastic in return. We arrived in Rouen at 5:45 pm. It was pouring with rain and we had a five mile march to camp, so we weren’t feeling very happy. To cap it all we were detailed to a bell tent that leaked like a sieve. (It must have been one from the Great War). It looked as if it had been raining for a long time as there was mud everywhere. It didn’t look a very promising camp. We settled down in the tent and I got out a bread pudding, that my mother had given me, and shared it out between us. It didn’t last long but was appreciated by all.
There was a lot of red tape, fatigues, guard duties, trench digging and route marches. On the 17th of April, Hugh and I went into Rouen for the first time (we had been issued with French money).. We made straight for the Salvation Army Hostel and had a good feed of eggs and chips. We then wandered around, sightseeing and having a glass of wine at several places. It was quite a large town, with a lovely cathedral, but it wasn’t very clean – not to our standards anyway. What amazed us were the toilets, which were just open places on the side of the streets. Considering we didn’t speak French we got on very well – they knew what we wanted anyway. We just pointed to the bottles and said “Vin rouge s’il vous plait?” It was a long walk back to camp; we weren’t drunk but nice and full.
The next day we moved to another tent because ours leaked so badly. The new one wasn’t much better, it still leaked. We were woken early by someone lifting the walls of our tent saying “You want paper Tommy?” It was a French girl selling English papers. We tried to get her to come inside, to see which papers she had, but she wouldn’t. (Wise girl).
There was every Regiment you could think of camped in tents and a lot of rivalry between us with each trying to outdo the other. The food wasn’t bad and there was plenty of it.
On the 23rd of April we had our first taste of an air raid, although as infantry we didn’t do anything apart from get into the trenches. The Artillery opened up and this continued, on and off, for three days.
On the 27th of April, my brother Syd’s birthday, Hugh and I went into Rouen and celebrated it with my first taste of champagne. We thought we would go and have a look at the “houses of pleasure” we had heard about. There was one street full of them and we bowled into one of them trying to look nonchalant, as if we had done this hundreds of times. We sat at a table and ordered a glass of wine. We hadn’t been sitting long when two girls came and sat on our laps. They kept jigging about and, looking at Hugh, I could see he was as uncomfortable as I was. With one accord we got up and left, girls, drinks and all. As we left, one chap we knew (he was a bit simple) came flying out of a door at the far end minus his hat, and battle dress blouse undone. He looked scared out of his wits and it appeared that some of his mates had kidded him to go upstairs – I don’t think he knew what for.
Coming to a large square we were amazed to see a train coming down the middle of the street. The buses were packed to overflowing with lots of people hanging on outside because of lack of room inside. We had a walk along the River Seine and I saw a barge that I had often seen in Newhaven harbour. We then found ourselves in a rough quarter of the town (it was in the side streets off the main thoroughfare) but decided to get out of there as soon as possible. We didn’t like the look of some of the men there and the looks they were giving us. It turned out later that that part of town was put out of bounds as several men had been waylaid and robbed.
We finished up in a very nice café where we met Bo Standing (who I knew from Eastbourne) and a couple of other chaps from our lot. It turned out to be a very nice evening but a rather wet one (inside). I don’t remember anything of the five mile walk back to camp – all I remember is waking up the next morning with what I thought was someone banging my head with hammers! I certainly celebrated Syd’s birthday that day.