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1942 - 1945

In an audio recording made on 28 December 1992, Charlie’s 70th birthday, he talked a bit more freely about some of his wartime reminiscences. He had had quite a bit to drink by then so it is not the easiest narrative to follow. But it seems that Charlie did at least some of his training at Stobs Camp about two miles or three kilometres from Hawick in Scotland. That was probably in late 1943 or early 1944 after he had been posted to 148 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps. He didn’t mention the training or, indeed, anything that they were supposed to be doing there but, in usual Charlie style, he talked of his ‘adventures’. ‘Rich blokes’ talked about fighting for king and country, he said, but that was not what he and his kind were about. It was probably not an uncommon reality. Ken Tout, who served in the same tank unit as Charlie but was a religious man and a teetotaller confessed to a similar attitude. He wrote:

To be honest, it was the spirit of boyish adventure, rather than an immediate concern about Poland or Czechoslovakia or the fate of the persecuted Jews, which made me a not-unwilling recruit. The pages of Hotspur and The Captain had more influence on my commitment than the writings of Moses or St Paul or the foreign correspondents of The Times.(*8)

One of the ‘adventures’ Charlie did tell us about, though, concerned one night while he was based at Stobs Camp when he and a mate from Keighley called Bob Shipley went out into town and walked into a pub. It was a Burns night and Charlie sang ‘a sort of a Scottish song’, which apparently went down so well he was well plied with beer as a reward. Several beers later, as they were walking back to camp, they came across another pub, which he said was about five miles away from ‘home’, and where some Scottish officers were drinking in a private bar. They had hung up their hats and it seems that he couldn’t resist ‘nicking’ one. On their way back to camp, Charlie and Bob came across a tractor in a field and drove it until it ran out of petrol, at which point they had to continue on foot. When they finally got back to the camp, they helped themselves to some cocoa that was in buckets in the guard room before coming across another room, going in, and turning on the light. Inside were some Italian prisoners being held in the camp. Having ‘a few bottles stuck in [their] greatcoats’, Charlie and Bob offered the bottles to the Italians saying ‘Come on now lads, O Solo Mio’ and got them all singing. They obviously thought it all a great joke and finished up hopping into their beds fully-clothed and still with their Scottish hats on. He said they got ‘seven days’ (presumably in the clink) for their night of fun but Charlie felt it was well and truly worth it. The ‘nicked’ officer’s hat probably explains the October 1943 entry in his service record concerning his being ‘placed under stoppage of pay until he [had] made good the sum of 6s 3d, being part cost of repairs to Govt property’ as well as the 14 days detention on 11 October that year for ‘misconduct’. Perhaps he enjoyed his stay in the detention room so much that he remembered it being on 7 rather than 14 days?

At some point, whether before or after his stint at Stobs Camp, Charlie probably did some training at Langholm, Dumfriesshire as a photograph of him in army uniform was taken there about 1942. Be that as it may, on 4 November 1942 Charlie was transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps, and posted to the 148th Regiment, seeing service in North West Europe. According to a contributor to an online chat-room, the 33rd Armoured Brigade, which was formed in 1942 and included the 148th Regiment, spent the years up until 1944 in training and home defence.(*9)

This concurs with what we know about Charlie’s activities, including the fact that from 16 June 1944 to 20 March 1946, he served with the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry in Sherman tanks. The regiment fielded three squadrons, referred to as A, B and C. A Squadron’s tanks were named after Soviet towns, B Squadrons’ after American states, and C Squadrons after Northamptonshire villages.

Charlie’s narrative does not include dates and the only place in Western Europe that he names is Caen. However, since the battle for Caen was in July 1944, we can date his memories to that period. Moreover, he told his son-in-law Tony Petrie that he was involved in the D Day landings and the Rhein crossing and we know from another source that he was in C Squadron of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry by December 1944. So, by great good fortune, we can get some additional clues from books called By Tank: D to VE Days, and Tanks, Advance! Normandy to the Netherlands, 1944, both written by Ken Tout who also served in C Squadron. As the title suggests, Tout’s first book begins with the Normandy landings and explains how it was that Charlie was involved in D Day but not until 16 June. As Tout wrote: ‘6 June 1844: “D-Day, or so the BBC said” because although allied troops were landing at Normandy that day, the tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry went across later ‘mainly in the towering 30-ton Sherman tanks’. They joined a queue waiting for their ships to come in. Prior to the crossing there were in Southampton. Ken Tout crossed on 13 June and his troop moved on towards Bayeau.(*10) We don’t know precisely when Charlie crossed but his service record says he was ‘embarked’ on 12 June and that he served in Europe from that date.

Among Charlie’s drawings kept by his sister Ann was this one captioned ‘sleep down hole’. Second World War histories confirm that it was a common practice for tank crew to sleep under their tanks nearly every night because the hole under the tank offered considerable protection from bombing and heavy artillery.(*11) Ken Tout said they always slept that way from the time they landed on the Normandy beaches.(*12)

One American soldier recalled:

‘At night when we were out on a mission, we would dig a hole about two feet down and then back the tank over top of it. That way it gave us cover.’13

The information is hazy as far as Charlie’s movements go but we do know that at a village near Caen, he managed to get hold of what he described as something like a duvet — so presumably a continental blanket. This surely kept him somewhat warmer than he would otherwise have been while sleeping in a hole under a tank. Perhaps it was given to him by a grateful local French family? But also in this part of his narrative, Charlie spoke of being very badly bitten by mosquitoes and said that this serious entomological problem was mentioned in ‘the regimental account’. The book 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry in Northwest Europe by Captain R. F. Neville, which was in Charlie’s library, refers to mosquitoes being a significant problem at Demouville, 3 miles to the east of Caen. Having talked about anti-personnel bombs being dropped by the Luftwaffe, Captain Neville added that:

More to be feared were the mosquitoes. The Demouville breed were prolific, fearless and insatiable. The nightly torment began with the nine o’clock news and continued until daybreak. The Medical Officer was urgently requested for Anti-Mosquito ointment and, wonderful man, he produced it. Everybody hopefully anointed themselves. The mosquitoes loved it! Then we tried Anti-Gas ointment but that was only partially effective. The only remedy was to tie pyjama trousers around the head and risk suffocation. By the end of the week many men were scarcely recognisable with swollen necks, thick lips, and puffed up faces, until at last we were withdrawn from this infested area and, on August 4th, found ourselves at Gazelle.

Charlie also used the word unrecognisable to describe his face and said that he was sent back to ‘the end of the lines’ where his face was painted with iodine. His fellow soldiers laughed and made whooping noises suggesting that he looked like a ‘red Indian’ because the iodine looked like war paint. Not surprisingly, all the men were very relieved when they were finally ‘withdrawn from this infested area’ to find themselves at a place called Gazelle on 4 August 1944. They had spent seven weeks living and fighting in the Normandy Bridgehead.14 However, according to Ken Tout, that time was spent teaching the men to march in columns of four ‘not on foot but in tanks’. ‘When they sent us advancing bunched up in fours, we thought of the marvellous target we would make for the German gunners’ he added. ‘As the practice continued into the night we began to worry about how we might defend ourselves in the dark. Our gun-sights are useless at night’, he wrote ‘But there were no answers to our questions. The entire regiment simply drilled up and down the gentle slopes near Gazelle’ with one of Tout’s friends humming ‘The Grand Old Duke’ (of York, presumably).15 From Gazelle (infested with flies apparently but thankfully not with mosquitoes), Ken Tout and his fellow soldiers watched the RAF raid on Caen.(*16)

According to Stephen Hart, the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and elements of the 51st (Highland) Division had reached St. Aignan de Cramesnil during the early morning of 8 August 1944.(*17) So Charlie must have been at Saint-Aignan by 9 August because Ken Tout refers to one of the photo’s that Charlie left behind.

Someone has discovered from somewhere a huge Nazi banner. We display it on the back of a tank. Somebody else produces a clandestine camera with which to take a quick snap. We all give the Nazi salute, the camera clicks and we laugh with the pent-up fury of psychiatric casualties from St-Aignan. Some German gunner, telepathically aware of our imbecilities and resenting the slur on the swastika, sends over a few random shells, random in timing but precisely aimed at our gully. We disperse and grovel before the gods of cordite and TNT. Or whatever gods inhabit those flailing clouds of shrapnel fury, for our schooling in the theoretical aspects of gunner is elementary in the extreme.(*18)

Charlie is not in the picture, which is of men from C Squadron, which suggests that he may have been the one with the ‘clandestine camera’. As we know, he always loved taking photo’s and he certainly had a camera with him during the war.

But despite the frivolity of the image, St Aignan would not have been a happy memory. Ken Tout remembered it as a place where they had to leave the bodies of their dead mates behind unburied. The emotions he described in his book must surely reflect those of our Dad, too. For Ken, leaving his good friends to decompose on the battle field was far worse than facing death himself or killing fellow human beings on the other side of the war. And the losses had been great. The regiment was now reduced to two squadrons so, on 9 August, A and C Squadrons combined to form one unit — which may be a clue to one of Charlie’s transfers.19 His service record says that he was posted from 254 Delivery Squadron RAC and TOS to ‘this unit’ (148 RAC) on 6 July and then to 48 RHU and TOS X (iv) List on 20 August, then to 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and SOS & (iv) on 6 September. An online chat room contributor says that SOS means ‘Struck of strength’ and TOS means ‘Taken on strength’, the ‘X’ and other Latin numerals apparently being a reference to the serviceman being away from his unit for medical reasons, so that they were no longer on the ‘effective strength’. He explained that they would be recorded as SOS from their unit and TOS X(ii) (or similar), until, when later returned to their unit , it would say ‘SOS X(ii) and TOS their unit’. This suggests Charlie may have suffered a wound around that time although he never mentioned having suffered anything serious while he was in action. Since we know that he was in 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry’s C Squadron by Christmas 1944, this might explain why he was in much the same, if not exactly the same, places as Ken Tout throughout the journey from Normandy to the Netherlands.

Among the events Charlie described in 1992 was an incident that saw a piece of shrapnel or anti-personnel material lodged in his finger. It was still there when he spoke. Although, once again, he mentions no names or places, the order of events suggests it was not long after leaving Normandy. He said that on a particular day, it was reported that a number of SS troops were in a copse or a wood in the area and they wanted every available officer to head there as soon as possible because they wanted the tanks to shell

the area. Consequently, the Intelligence Officer was taken to Charlie’s tank and, because he was the gunner, Charlie was put in charge of the officer’s scout car. The next morning, while he was in charge of the scout car, the driver, a Scotsman called Johnson, said that he would like to visit a friend who was in an artillery regiment somewhere nearby. Charlie said that was fine and that he would stay put and start getting lunch ready. He would use the ‘compo rations’ they were supplied with and, perhaps, some other items that he had managed to ‘nick’. He was good at getting stuff, he said. However, while he was doing this, he noticed explosions away in the distance but assumed it was ‘just a German counterattack’. However, he suddenly realised it was a bombing raid and before he knew it, a bomb landed very close to him. He was holding a tin mug at that moment which was pierced right through by the stone or metal that came out the other side and lodged in his finger. He was also nicked in the head so that he was ‘covered in blood’. The scout car didn’t fare very well either. Charlie said that it was as if it had been ‘made of butter’ and hit by a cricket bat. It had a great big chunk cut out of the front of the car. Charlie’s narrative continued that the regimental Sergeant Major was ‘blown in half’ and ‘we lost quite a few blokes killed’. He also went on to say that the Canadians lost a whole battery and the Polish Brigade had a lot of casualties, too. It was ‘the bloody Yanks’ who had caused this carnage according to Charlie. However, the regimental history, while mentioning ‘a new and frightening experience’ that occurred on 8 August when ‘An over-enthusiastic formation of Allied Bombers, on their way to attack the enemy Southern defence line, dropped their bombs in the Regimental Area’ adds that ‘Fortunately they did no damage.’20 Is this discrepancy a case of ‘over-enthusiastic’ diplomacy or were the losses Charlie described due to quite separate attacks by the enemy and not actually by the Americans? Ken Tout referred to big losses by the Canadians and Poles on 13 August shortly after leaving St. Aignan and the death of the Squadron Sergeant Major on the 17th. Ken said that the bomb ‘Exploded right over him’. His name, we now know, was Sidney Turton and he was much liked by his men.21

While B Squadron stayed around the village of St. Aignan de Cramesnil, A and C Squadrons moved further south into a wood called Delle de la Roque.22 C Squadron positioned themselves on the east side of the woods and the under strength A Squadron positioned themselves in the southern portion, with '3 Troop' on the western edge of the wood. That position provided them with an overview of a large open section of ground and they could watch as German tanks advanced up Route Nationale 158 from the town of Cintheaux. But they were under strict orders from the troop commander, to hold their fire until the German tanks were well within range. But it was not long before the main German counterattack was made in the direction of C Squadron.23 Was this the action that Charlie was referring to when he acquired the shrapnel in his finger?

For the uninitiated, his service record is messy and confusing. It mentions that he ceased to be attached to the Field Dressing Station on 1 August and was posted to a regimental holding unit on 20 August which again suggests an injury and a loss of personnel in his unit. Information from an online chat room refers to the fact that the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry was disbanded on 15 August 1944 and that then survivors were posted to the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry. Charlie mentioned that he was transferred to different units twice because he was one of only a few survivors from his previous one, so might that have been one of those occasions? The same source also mentions that there were very few survivors of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry at Caen so perhaps that was the second experience he was talking about. The regimental history he kept was issued to those members of the regiment who survived and evidently there were not a lot of them.24

His service record states that Charlie was transferred to the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry from his previous unit on 6 September that year. It also says that he went AWOL five days later and, as a consequence of that, was awarded 10 days field punishment in open arrest awaiting trial. He served that sentence with his unit, ‘not in custody’. Why did he go AWOL at this time? Was he being ‘naughty’ like he had during his time training in Scotland or was there another reason? Apparently now a member of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry’s C Squadron, Charlie would have been involved in the attack on Le Havre, where, together with the 7th Black Watch, the squadron was organized into a mobile exploitation force. This attack achieved its objective on 11 September. According to Ian C. Cameron’s book History of the 7th Argylls:

Le Havre itself was in many places completely devastated by the terrific bombing it had received, and during the time we were there, the civilians could be seen digging in the ruins and debris of their homes, and it is regretted that the civilian death-rate in the town was very high.25

RAF Bomber Command had sent 218 aircraft to attack the port city of Le Havre. So had his first three months in action, faced with a devastating toll on his first unit and the experience of leaving dead mates behind, followed by the inordinate slaughter of civilians by allied forces in Le Havre, taken a toll on him? He was just 21 years old and must have seen many good friends killed in combat. His old mate Bob Shipley from Keighley, who had shared in his drunken revelry in Scotland, was likely still alive for another two months though. He was probably the Robert Arthur Shipley, service number 4750233, who was killed in the Netherlands in November.26 I wonder if Charlie ever knew what happened to him?

In his regimental history, Captain Neville recounted the events of December 1944 when the Regiment received orders at 10 pm on Christmas Eve to move forward from La Hulpe, South-East of Brussels, through Belgian villages towards Florennes. Obviously very bad timing for the men! But, according to Neville, the local people ‘terrified by the threat of a second invasion, were reassured to see our strength going forward to meet the enemy and thronged the streets to cheer us on our way, offering bowls of hot soup and cups of tea which were eagerly accepted when opportunity offered.’ Various people invited the soldiers to spend the evening in their homes, he wrote, adding that:

‘The Squadron Cooks, however, had other ideas. Planning ahead, they had partly cooked the turkey and pork the night before and had prepared as far as possible the other delicacies essential to Christmas Dinner. Now they got down to work in earnest and by 2030 hours Squadrons were tackling as fine a Christmas Dinner as they had ever had, and the Colonel made his traditional rounds to drink the men’s health and for each to wish the other ‘A happy Christmas”.27

However, Charlie’s copy of this book has a note added immediately after this paragraph, in his handwriting saying ‘Bullshit. “C” Sqd. didn’t get owt’ — in other words, he and his mates missed out on this feasting.

A short while later, in January 1945, the regiment received the ‘sensational’ news that they were to lose their tanks. Charlie, of course, had been the gunner in a Sherman tank. Captain Neville recalled the Commanding Officer visiting the squadrons on or soon after 17 January to tell them that they would be changing over to Buffaloes or tracked landing vehicles.28 Again this accords with Charlie’s recollection that he crossed the Rhein, between Rees and Emmerich, in a Buffalo.29

PHOTO LEFT: Charlie took part in the crossing of the River Rhein in March 1945. This photograph of him (left) on top of a Buffalo tank was probably taken about that time.30

It was from 18 January that the 33rd Armoured Brigade, of which Charlie was a part, came under the command of the 79th Armoured Division. The weather in the Ardennes, where they now were, was very cold.31

By the end of February, however, the regiment was ready for a full scale exercise of a river assault, crossing by day and by night. As Neville wrote ‘So many Generals were present that it was clear that our forthcoming operation was of prime importance and, although the River Rhine was never mentioned, no one was in doubt of our destination.’ On 10 March, their ‘unwieldy craft’ were being transported to their new Buffalo Park and preparations were being made for the crossing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO: Charlie is pictured in the middle of this photo.

There were concerns that the Buffaloes might have difficulty waddling up the bank or get bogged in the silt which piled up between the groynes. On the western bank, the Bund or Winter Dyke was steep and gaps were going to have to be blown to allow the craft to enter the water.32 The crossing of the Rhein would take place on the night of 23 March. Charlie seems to have managed to get a brief respite beforehand though as he was issued with a three day pass from the morning of 13 March to midnight on the 15th. According to the pass, he would spend it at the Hotel Princess de Lyne (in Brussels?)

At some point after the Rhein crossing, Charlie took this photo of members of his unit training on the Zuider Zee Ricer near Zwolle in preparation for crossing to western Holland. However, that operation turned out to be unnecessary as Germany capitulated before it took place.

PHOTOS: Charlie’s water buffalo on the Zuider Zee. In light of the other photo marked ‘training on the Zuider Zee’, perhaps that is what they were doing in this picture?

It was on 30 April that orders were received to move to Zwolle in north-east Holland but, at 8.35 pm on 4 May, the BBC officially announced the cessation of hostilities. The local population flocked out of their houses to celebrate and young people marched and danced through the streets of Breda singing and shouting and wearing the national colours of the Netherlands: orange, red, white and blue. On 5 May, the regiment continued its drive up to Zwolle through villages crowded with excited people busy decorating streets and houses. ‘The celebrations of Breda were repeated with an even greater intensity, and men of the Regiment who dared venture into the streets in the evening, soon found themselves dancing to the town band in the Church Square.’

Captain Neville wrote that ‘Two very happy months were spent in Zwolle. Frequent dances were held and a peculiar form of Anglo-Dutch became the current dialect. It was not unusual to hear the Adjutant’s voice over the telephone … “Hello —hello — Op — Spik!”33

PHOTO LEFT:Charlie photographed his fellow soldiers playing cards in their barracks in Zwolle, Holland, in 1945.

With hostilities at an end, it was obviously a very happy time.

 

 

 

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