Part 4 : Into France

One august evening when the weather was thankfully fair I was transported with about 150 others to Southampton docks to board a small steam packet called Ben McDwui that in peacetime had plied between Liverpool and The Isle of Man.

None of us belonged to a unit yet and as members of a reinforcement holding company were from all branches of the army. We were all kitted out but we didn’t know where we would finish up.

We could see lots of other boats who made the ferrying trip to and fro to France every day but there was none of the drama or danger of the earlier landings and I settled down on the deck to see the Isle of Wight sliding away on the starboard side on my first ever ocean trip, which in those days was a big adventure in itself.

It was remarkable that we were even fed on this trip when the vessel was no larger than the Medway Queen paddle steamer that called in at Herne Bay on its journey between London and Margate in the 30s.

As I climbed down onto the floating Mulberry dock at Arromanches the next morning I felt like a tourist and in my elation I am ashamed to say I did not think at that time about all the thousands of young husbands and sons who had died to make this possible for me.

It all seemed so organised and calm in contrast to what it must have been like in June and much of July.

There was a small air battle going on which even made it feel more like home. Home was under canvass of course but the weather was great and it was only a couple of days before I started to get mail from all my family and friends. What fantastic organisation.

I was kept busy keeping an eye on the thousands of German prisoners in their barbed wire compounds and that too was an amazing side to the organisation that has never been seen since. What a liability and expense to feed and look after all that lot.

We looked well fed, fresh and neat and they looked baggy eyed, half starved and beaten but you couldn’t take any chances. Some were younger than I and some well into middle age and you had to guard against feeling too sorry for them as they stretched out their hands through the fence with watches etc. to exchange for a few cigarettes.

On my temporary station I was given a DUKV or “duck” floating vehicle to drive people and supplies around in which was great fun because it can go straight onto calm water and off the field or road if necessary.

We even had evening passes to visit Bayeaux about 8 miles inland, the first French city held safely by our side.

It was a slow trip due to the great congestion and on the way I saw something for the first time that told me I was very definitely not in the UK.

Two girls of mature age had felt too hot in the sun by their farmhouse and were stripped to the waist tipping buckets of water over each other.

I did not have any special friend with me as we had not been static enough to get to know anyone over the past weeks but everyone mixed very easily when with similar rank and I had a great time doing a cafe crawl and seeing the Cathedral and the sights.

I sat out on the pavement with a load of postcards and wrote them for home just like a peacetime tourist. Sapper Brown was enjoying his war whilst hundreds were still dying much further on toward Belgium.

I can still remember the kick that “Calvados” gave me and the shock I got when I suddenly heard a shot ring out. The military police came by and told us to take cover as several French women in the area were actually sniping at us. These collaborators had been too comfortable with their German boyfriends and were still firing at us and being rounded up in the built up areas.

I became a soldier again in a few seconds, hadn’t we supposed to have been liberating the French !! I quickly thumbed a lift back to the beaches and as I climbed up the back of one of our trucks I found myself very much closer to the German army than I had bargained for. I hoped they all had been properly disarmed as I stood with my one rifle in amongst at least 20 more prisoners as they could have easily dealt with me if they hadn’t been really keen to get out of the war.

In a couple of days I was on a draft to join a unit which was already in Belgium when I suddenly got some terrible stomach pains which I had never had before. Again the efficient army acted quickly and I found myself in a field hospital diagnosed as having yellow jaundice whatever that was.

I was there for a week feeling very secure in the care of female army nurses who must have thought I was skiving and all the rest of the guys I was supposed to be with left without me. So far I had been of no use to his majesty’s forces in France but it had been an interesting fortnight.

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