France, Belgium & France again
Hugh and I were getting a bit browned off as we didn’t seem to be doing much except endless fatigues, route marches etc. On the 5th of May we heard that they wanted volunteers for 2nd battalion at the front, so we volunteered. Collecting our kit, we were taken to the station in an army truck. We left Rouen at 10:00 pm and arrived at Arras at 6:15 am. We had a short stop for breakfast before carrying on to Lillers, where we were picked up by lorries, finally arriving at a farm at Sainghin at 6:30 pm. We were billeted in a barn and were just settling down for the night when an N.C.O. shouted “Where are the new arrivals?” I was just going to answer when a regular soldier was with told me to keep quiet. Hugh spoke up and the N.C.O. said “Right, outside on guard duty”. I was glad I kept quiet.
The next morning I put on my uniform which had been hanging on a nail. As I was walking down to the cookhouse for breakfast I felt something slip down the leg of my trousers. I removed my gaiters and to my surprise a mouse ran out. Thankfully it hadn’t started biting! There was a roar of laughter from everyone but me, although I saw the funny side of it later. The farm we were on was a very small one. There was an old boy there who had hundreds of miniature bottles of wine and spirits and he did a roaring trade with us.
On the 10th of May the day started off with an air raid. One plane was shot down by the Artillery who were with us. We were in slit trenches and no one was hit. The Sergeant with us told us not to fire at the planes with our rifles as it wouldn’t do any good. However as one plane came in close he, of all people, started firing at it.
Soon after we moved to St Floris where there was another air raid and one plane was shot down in a dogfight but the RAF then disappeared. Two German prisoners were brought to us. They were Air Force men and very arrogant, trying to throw their weight around, but they were soon taken down a peg or two. They were very quiet when we last saw them being taken back to H.Q. (wherever that was).
We marched to Nieppe, under fire from the Luftwaffe on the 12th. They came screaming low over the roads, strafing with machine guns. We dived head first into the ditches on each side of the road and fired volleys at them but never hit anything. We carried on marching into Belgium where the population welcomed us with bread, beer, sweets and flowers. As we moved out of Menin the Luftwaffe came over strafing the roads. We were picked up by a lorry convoy from Anzeghem and were again attacked by planes. The lorry in front of us was hit and bullets ploughed up the road beside ours. We were continually being attacked from the air now, with our Artillery hitting back as hard as they could.
We eventually arrived in Brussels to guard the British Embassy, where I went straight on guard duty. Guard duty was a bit of a farce there as the courtyard, where we were, was packed with civilians going in all directions. There were Belgian soldiers on guard as well. We didn’t like it much as we had to march up and down sloping arms and standing to attention, as if we were on a parade ground, while the Belgians were strolling about with their rifles over their shoulders, smoking. Talk about British Army bull! The Belgians thought it was funny but we didn’t by a long way.
I didn’t get to see much of Brussels as we were too busy on guard duty for most of the time and there were a lot of air raids. There was a hell of a lot of civvies packing up and moving out. In the latter part we were burning a lot of stuff from the embassy; it looked like they were getting ready to leave as well.
At daybreak on the 17th of May, the shelling and bombing started with heightened intensity. We were being hampered with hundreds of civilians not knowing where to go. All the Belgian Army had gone now. Then we received orders to withdraw. We were being attacked by the Luftwaffe that was screaming in low over the city and there was no opposition at all from our aircraft. Tanks were coming up fast behind a barrage of artillery. All the time we were retreating through Brussels the civilians we passed cheered us. I don’t know if they thought we were going against the Germans or if they cheered just because we were British. We were hampered by hundreds of civilians who didn’t know where to go. The Belgian army had gone and we had to withdraw. We were being attacked by the Luftwaffe, all the way, with the tanks close behind.
I don’t know what we were expected to do as there were only two platoons of us and the Artillery; we saw no other military at all and seemed to be on our own. We knew the Germans were coming up fast behind us and we didn’t waste any time in marching all that day and night. On some of the roads there were hundreds of refugees on the move, all carrying their belongings with them, some on carts and some just walking. They all looked scared and bewildered. Every now and again the planes came swooping low and firing along the roads. We gave help as much as we could but there were so many of them, I’m afraid there wasn’t a lot we could do. It seemed so pointless shooting up helpless civilians.
We met up with a small convoy and got a lift to Edde (Possibly Lede), where we managed to get on a coal train and arrived back in Lille in France. We went to the R.A.S.C. camp for a meal and a good sleep. We had no idea where our battalion was.
The next day, the 19th of May, about twelve bombers came over and knocked the hell out of us. Later we were on the march again and carried on all night, being machine gunned by fighter planes for a lot of the way. We seemed to be forever diving in and out of ditches at the side of the roads. We shot down one German plane as it came over low but that was more luck than judgement I think. We stopped at a small deserted farm and surprised two spies with a radio. We soon overpowered them. They were both French and we left them with a group of French soldiers. I doubt if they lasted long as they weren’t being treated very well when we left.
We arrived at Armentieres at 6:15 pm. on the 21st of May. There were a lot of women and children killed here, and there was no food for the refugees. Although we tried to find some we had little in the way of success. Five of us were just going in one house on the outskirts when we were fired on from inside the house. No one was hit and we scattered for cover very sharpish. Three of us opened fire at the windows and door while the other two managed to get close. They threw in grenades and then there was silence. After cautiously getting in we found two men in there, both dead, with some radio equipment. There seemed to be a lot of spies about, called fifth columnists. We felt very pleased with ourselves when the others came and found it was all over. I don’t know whether they were French or German as they were both in civvies.
On the 23rd of May we moved off at 7:00 am and rejoined our battalion at last. We were told that they had reported us as missing. The bombing was almost continual now and we saw nothing of our Air Force. The refugees were blocking all the roads. There were thousands of them. Where they were going, I don’t know, but it was a very pathetic sight. They were just trying to get away from the advancing Germans.
We were marched off again arriving just outside Hazebrouck where some of us were guarding a crossroads. I went straight on guard duty with the Ack Ack guns. The Germans were, by now, bombing and shelling non stop. Also Stuka dive bombers came over, the first we had seen of them. They made a terrible, demoralising sound, as they came almost straight down, emitting a piercing scream all the way. They were very accurate in their bombing.
The bombing became so fierce that we had to withdraw. We made our way to a wood, using ditches and cover as much as we could. The wood wasn’t very dense and had a road running through it. We were told to stop anything coming through. We were split up again, leaving only three Platoons and some Artillery. I did manage to get a little sleep that night, the first for about three days. My feet were all swollen and blistered.
Early on the 27th I had finished my breakfast and moved away from the main camp and settled down by a tree. I took my boots off and was resting when we heard planes overhead. Suddenly there was that awful screaming of the Stukas and the air was shattered with explosions all around. I dived head first into a trench, the camp was hit and there were shouts and screams from the wounded. I don’t know how long it lasted but it seemed to go on for ages and the din was terrific. I was crouched down in the trench scared stiff, waiting for the bombs that were landing all around, to go off. Eventually there was silence except for the moans of the wounded men. It didn’t last for many minutes; almost immediately the big guns, which had got our position spot on, opened up and we could hear the shells coming as they whistled towards us. In between I dashed out and retrieved my boots and we tried to get organised in the trenches behind the road. I was in one trench with two other chaps; it was just big enough for the three of us, about four feet deep with a small bank of earth along the front. The big guns suddenly stopped and there was silence. We knew what was coming next; the Infantry, but where?
Suddenly we saw them coming towards us. The Officer called “Hold your fire” but they were coming ever nearer through the trees. I kept thinking “For Gods sake hurry up and give the order to fire!” as they seemed to be getting very close. At last the order came, we opened up and they all scattered back like rabbits. It was a nice sight to see them scattering and disappear – some didn’t though, they stayed where they were, very still. All my fear had gone now; I don’t think I thought of anything really; now that we had started doing something it took our minds off other things. The fact that we were firing on other living people didn’t enter our heads; all we thought of was to keep them away from us.
They kept attacking and getting closer throughout the morning and then my blasted rifle jammed. I had had trouble with it before and got down in the trench to fix it and as I did there was an almighty explosion right on the edge of the trench. A hand grenade had landed there and as both my mates slid back into the trench, dead, my fears had come back. There was blood everywhere and I couldn’t hear a thing for a few minutes as the blast had deafened me. I thought Jerry would follow it up and be on to us, so I scrambled up and started firing as fast as I could at anything I could see. All around me our boys were doing the same and we beat them back for a while. Then came the order to withdraw, which we did in stages, with heavy covering fire. When we had reformed further back I found that Hugh was still alright – we were glad to see each other and said we would stay together from now on.
By now we had retreated towards the edge of the woods and decided to try to get out and hole up somewhere outside, but we were beaten to it. As we approached the edge there were bursts of machine gun fire and Hugh, who was about two to three feet in front and to the left of me fell screaming “You bloody !*****!” I dropped flat with bullets flying all around, I had never moved backwards so fast and so close to the ground. I looked around for Hugh but he was beyond help. He was laying so still and in an unnatural position. How I survived without a scratch I will never know, as we lost a lot of men there.
We scrambled back, what was left of us, and made our way to another part of the woods. We could hear the Germans behind us, shouting. We came to another dip in the ground and tried to make another stand to beat them back, but there were too many of them for us. We managed to get to the edge at another spot and the Officer, who was still with us, said “It’s hopeless, look.” As we peered out into the open we saw a line of Tanks and Infantry. One chap said “God, it’s the whole bloody German army!” We could do no more with those out there in the open, just waiting for us, and we could hear the others coming up behind us, so we took the bolts out of our rifles and threw them away. The Officer went out waving a white handkerchief, with us following.
The Germans ran forwards shouting “Hans Hoch” and marched us back to their troops, jabbing with their rifles to keep us moving. They lined us up, (there was only about fifteen of us left out of three platoons) and ordered us to turn out our pockets. I had three hand grenades in my pouches and, without thinking, threw them on to the ground with the other things. I thought my last moment had come as they all jumped back, started shouting and levelled their rifles. They pushed me to one side, I’ve no idea what they said but we got over all that and they returned all our private possessions. One of them said “For you Tommy the war is over, we will be in England in two weeks.” Apparently they said that to every P.O.W. when he was caught.
By now we were all feeling very low and dispirited and very tired. I couldn’t forget Hugh; we had been together for so long. I was with the others but I felt so very alone somehow. It’s a feeling I can’t explain really; it was just as if everything had collapsed round me and I felt utterly numb.