Just A Walk In The Sun

Chapter 1

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D–day the 6th June 1944.

I stood high on the cliffs looking out to sea. The weather was very unsettled, the sea looked angry with a large swell. I’d never seen so many ships passing through the straits before. Through my binoculars you could just make out the coast of France, and also get a better view of the convoy – ships of all sizes. Down the centre were the large troop carriers and supply ships with the escorts on either side. The swell was so great that even the largest ship disappeared from view as it dropped into the trough between the waves. I found myself waiting anxiously for it to reappear; sometimes it seemed ages before it came into view again. I began to wonder why the German coastal batteries hadn’t opened fire on such prime targets? I didn’t have to wait long for the answer. Although I couldn’t hear anything I saw the familiar waterspouts rising around the largest ship in the convoy. I put the binoculars to my eyes and scanned the French coastline. There I saw the flashes from the guns, something I’d seen many times before. On seeing those flashes the sirens usually sounded to warn the people of Dover to take cover. But today, the target was much closer.

I was stationed in the Duke of York’s Royal Military School high up on he cliffs above Dover. I’d spent the last three months working on the front at Dover and on the water in the harbour building dummy tank landing craft. In fact I became a sailor for a short time, but that’s another story! I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of those one-tonne shells. I think my worst experience was out on the harbour in a rowing boat, half a mile from shore when they decided to shell. I just sat there terrified while shells exploded all around. Great columns of water, flames and smoke rising fifty feet in the air, the noise was deafening. I just put my hands over my ears and prayed. They were either answered or it was my lucky day, I eventually made it to the shore unharmed.

As the German gunners continued to pound the convoy it was inevitable that they would eventually hit something. One shell did finally hit one of the larger vessels, the only casualty I saw. Much to my surprise the vessel continued on its way trailing a little smoke. For a time I thought it was going to be all right, but about half an hour later it began to falter. It slowed right down and began to list. Although it drifted slowly down the channel for many hours and went out of view it finally sank. That evening I watched many of the survivors coming ashore from the stricken ship, for many of them their war was over. D-day was coming to a close and although I’d only been a spectator my thoughts were with all those men that had landed on the Normandy beaches that morning while I was in my bed fast asleep.

The next morning the atmosphere around camp had changed, the lads were smiling and talking excitingly in groups. They seemed relieved that D-day had finally come, but apprehensive about the outcome. In those days, no television, and very few personal wireless sets it was very difficult to get any news. The first BBC news bulletin I heard yesterday just said, ‘In the early hours of this morning allied troops landed on the coast of France.’

We had to wait some time before we heard any real details about the success of the landings. After a few weeks though, the bridgehead had been enlarged, the Americans were doing well and we hadn’t been pushed back into the sea. Also the weather had improved!

For us life went on, long hours working on Dover harbour continued; the fifty two dummy tank landing craft were now all moored to buoys in the harbour - much the same at Folkestone and other places around the coast. You may think that our job was now finished, but another part was about to begin. Each morning at first light we had to row out and drop two men on each boat. They were known as the, ‘Simulation of life’ parties. Their job was to keep a continuous flow of smoke up through the funnel at the rear of the craft. They did this by burning oily rags in an oil drum. They also put a line of washing out which was to give the impression that the crew were on board. The other party were known as the, ‘Rowing party.’ Their job was to row between the boats and shore bringing food, drink and any material required for repairs. Sometimes the canvas panels got damaged and had to be replaced. On good days it was great fun, but when the weather turned bad it was a different story. On one such day we got stranded on one of the dummy craft. As the sea got rougher no one could get to us, I’d never seen it so bad inside the harbour before. The tubular frame began to buckle and some of the canvas ripped and began flapping in the gale force wind. We started to get very worried now, we’d been on the boat for twelve hours and it was beginning to get dark. Imagine our relief when an RAF rescue launch appeared out of the gloom and took us off. We were cold, wet, physically exhausted and very relieved. After a change of clothing, a warm meal and a good nights sleep we were back on the job at first light the next morning. Looking from the shore the next day there wasn’t any visual damage. Everything looked very realistic, the washing back on the lines blowing in the wind, wisps of smoke rising from the funnels and little boats moving about amongst them. I’ve often wondered since, if all the time and energy we put in achieved what was intended.

It’s well documented that Hitler and many in the German high command didn’t think that the Normandy landings were where the main invasion would come from. For many weeks they still expected the main assault to be in the Calais area that’s why two German army groups were kept there to repel any such assault when their comrades to the south were in desperate need of their support. So perhaps our dummy landing craft did achieve something after all, it would be nice to think so.

By the first week in July it was becoming obvious that the battalion was being broken up and used for replacements for Normandy casualties. Many had already gone out of the rifle companies, it was only a matter of time before they started on ‘S’ company which consisted of the carrier, mortar, and anti-tank platoons. I was a gunner in the anti-tank platoon, and sure enough one day we heard they wanted seven men from each platoon. There were six guns in the platoon and a seven man crew including the driver to each gun. So someone came up with the brilliant idea that the six gun commanders should toss a coin and the losing crew go on the draft. No prizes for guessing who lost. The next day we said good-bye to the rest of the platoon and with about two hundred others out of the battalion travelled by train from Dover to Aldershot. I shall always have fond memories of Dover, it was where I came under fire for the first time, where I stood in the AA gun pits on the front and watched them shooting at the V1 flying bombs heading for London, where I used to have lovely Dover Sole suppers at a little cafe standing near the bombed out promenade. Good times, good mates, I never saw any of them again!

The camp at Aldershot was a few miles from the town in open countryside. Everyone was under canvas mainly bell tents. The administration tent was a small marquee, also the canteen and dining hall. All the tents were set around a square central parade ground where we fell in each morning for roll call. Although I was only there a few days it was quite eventful. The second morning we fell in I was picked for guard duty, it was a disaster! We were bundled into a truck and taken to a hill a few miles away. On the hill was a barbed wire stockade, comprising of a tall fence with coils of barbed wire on both sides. Inside were rows of bell tents and a marquee. By now everyone was wondering who the prisoners were and what we’d got to do. We didn’t have to wait long for the answer. Outside the gate to the stockade was a bell tent that was the guardroom. The sergeant lined us up, there were thirty-six of us and a corporal. He read our orders out and finally told us what we were dying to know.

‘Inside the stockade are over on hundred prisoners from the three services all awaiting trial for murder or armed robbery, so keep your eyes open, especially when it gets dark, is that clear?’

Twelve of us were then dropped off in turn equally around the outside of the stockade relieving the old guard to go back to camp in the truck that brought us. The rest of us just settled down in the heather till it was our turn on duty, which was two hours on and four hours off over a twenty-four hour period. We were lucky with the weather, a nice warm sunny day and at night we lay in the heather looking up at the stars. Just before we were about to be relieved by the new guard, inside the stockade they’d lined up the prisoners for the morning roll call something they did every morning and evening. We didn’t know anything was wrong until the new guard arrived, then panic stations. Thirteen prisoners had dug under the wire and escaped, and on my beat! We were all taken back to camp and the sergeant was arrested.

Back at camp we got cleaned up and had something to eat and told to stay put. By lunchtime an inquiry was set up in one of the marquees and we were called. By this time I was Beginning to get worried, not so much about my position in this mess but because I’d got a 24 hour pass which expired at midnight the next day. I hadn’t been home since the beginning of March and then only a weekend pass, so I knew this was my only chance of seeing my family before sailing for France. The inquiry dragged on for most of the afternoon but luckily I wasn’t called to give evidence at anytime. I was tired, hungry and getting very frustrated when suddenly they said we could go! What a relief, I grabbed my rifle and kit and headed for Aldershot railway station as fast as I could.

I can’t remember very much about the journey home except that it took a lot longer than I thought. There were a few other lads heading for Birmingham so we all travelled together. There weren’t many trains running and we had to change at least once, that meant long waits in between. We finally reached Birmingham at about 1 O’clock in the morning. There wasn’t any transport available for the last part of my journey. My only option was to walk the last twelve miles home. One of the lads was travelling my way so I had some very welcome company, we were both very tired. I’d had very little sleep on guard, and it looked like another night without any. I wished my companion good luck as we parted and did the last part of my journey on my own. It was a warm night and as I turned into our street the sun came up over the trees behind my home. I shall never forget how I felt at that moment, home at last!

The house was all quiet, everyone was fast asleep and I had to wake them up. They didn’t know I was coming so you can imagine the surprise and delight on my mother’s face when she opened the door. Just to see the look in her eyes was worth all the frustration of the last 24 hours. Next my Dad appeared at the foot of the stairs wondering what all the noise was about. My father wasn’t a very emotional person, but today he put his arms around my shoulders and gave me a hug with a tear in his eye. When we all settled down Mom cooked me a breakfast, I was starved! I jumped on my old bike and raced to my girlfriend’s house. Margaret caught the bus to Wolverhampton every morning about 7.30 a.m. so I’d got to catch her before she left home. She didn’t know I was coming either, so once again another very emotional embrace. Just for a second time stood still, I’d been waiting for that very moment for five months. Shortly afterwards we slowly walked arm in arm the three miles back home, completely oblivious to every thing around us. On normal leave you soon begin to count the days, today I found myself counting the minutes. There was such a lot I wanted to say but couldn’t, we were content just to be close. It was soon time for us to catch the bus and return over the same ground I’d walked over only twelve hours earlier.

We reached New Street station in good time; the platform was full with service men and their families. It’s impossible to describe how I felt at that moment; I was about to leave the three most important people in my life. My Mom and Dad and the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. It was very difficult, but it was important to hide my emotions for the sake of the others, even though inside I was being torn apart. I knew there was only a fifty-fifty chance of them ever seeing me again! The train finally arrived; I hurriedly jumped aboard and quickly found an open window so that we could still talk. It wasn’t very long before the train began to move along the platform. We said our last good-bye and within minutes their faces disappeared in the crowd. At that moment I felt very alone, even though the compartment was full with most of the lads I’d travelled up with yesterday. If anything helped me it was that everyone in that compartment was in the same boat. Some were coping with it better than others; everyone was in a much quieter mood than yesterday. I think the realisation that we would soon be in France and the consequences of that were sobering thoughts. After another long journey we finally arrived back in camp at Aldershot completely shattered. I didn’t need rocking to sleep that night! The next day we got completely kitted out and after our midday meal we were all loaded into lorries to start our journey to the embarkation port Newhaven.

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