Part 5 : Journey Into Belguim

At last at the end of august I was on a truck heading inland to the city of Caen or rather where it had once stood . As many will know it was almost totally destroyed by the violent battles and bombing as the allies strove to break out from the bridgeheads.

The roads were also impassable and it was easier to stand on the back of a truck than to get a sore backside by trying to sit.

We were put on a very long line of cattle trucks which could have come straight out of a film about Nazi victims being sent to the concentration camps. To attempt to send so many reinforcements by rail at that time was a massive success for the railway operations of the Royal Engineers gamely assisted by the Pioneer corps who were comprised of the most poorly educated grades of servicemen at that time.

The reason for this was that almost the entire French rail system in the area had been destroyed by the RAF to hold up the German army attempting to roll us back to the channel.

Looking back over the past 60 years I never experienced such a long and uncomfortable rail journey again in my life as we actually took 4 days to travel about 400 miles as the crow flies but due to so many repairs being done to the lines we were shunted around at least twice that distance.

However it was exciting as we never knew if we were going to be held up by hostile elements that had been surrounded and left behind by the rapid allied advance. Although the main enemy army had been torn apart and driven back to the Belgium/Dutch frontier, large garrisons were still occupying the channel ports to our left where the launch sites of the flying bombs were still attacking the SE of England.

Each wagon had a lookout post at the end and it was manned by one of us round the clock.

The first hundred miles were full of the smell of rotting animals in the fields and I was glad to get further north to see pleasant communities undamaged by war.

We went well wide of Paris but things got quite exciting as we came to Lille to the North after 3 days of stopping and starting and trying to snatch a few hours sleep here and there. Many hands were stretched out to us as we jerked along at about 15 miles per hour and we seemed to do a complete loop of this city before we left it behind.

You still had to shave etc. on a regular basis and once when we stopped I climbed out and put my mirror on the ledge at the side of the wagon to have a nice quiet shave. It always took a while to lather up in cold water and I nervously looked down the line towards the steaming engine hoping it would give me plenty of time. Suddenly there was the usual hoot to warn we were on the move again but instead of waiting a few seconds the whole train jerked into life and I was left running to get on with my face full of soap. Quite a few faces were splitting their sides with laughter as they pulled me aboard and I’m pretty sure the engine driver did it on purpose as we came to a halt again only half a mile further on.

After another day of listening to the click clack on the rails I discovered we had arrived at the Belgian garrison town of Bourg Leopold.
There was an enormous air of hustle and hassle as thousands had recently passed through here on the operation “market garden” which was the attempt to break through as far as Arnhem and shorten the war before winter set in.

I was fast learning to be surprised at nothing and the next thing I knew was that I was to sleep in the old cavalry barracks in the actual mangers where the horses used to eat. There we were lying on the new straw just as if we had been a bunch of stallions. We still had no constant unit and were still part of the reinforcement holding operation.

I was in this town for much of September wondering what would happen next and we ordinary chaps knew nothing of what was going on with the war outside the area. As it happened a great deal was going on and the war lords had too much on their hands to keep us informed.

This period was improved by two pleasant events.

I was in the middle of washing my smalls in a canvas bucket when a young Lieutenant in the Service Corps who were the transport people came up to me out of the blue.

Colleagues around me of a similar lowly form of army life gaped to see this officer shake me by the hand and address me in such a familiar manner. Somehow my young cousin Charles Brown on my fathers side who was only about 22 himself had been able to find me in all the chaos of war.

His father was the one I had often visited in Croydon and Charles himself had called on us in Herne Bay several times before I was in uniform.

He is now a retired vicar near Sevenoaks.

Feeling elated I clambered aboard his jeep as he offered to take me out and we landed up at a quiet cafe for a good natter.

It was always an amusing memory because when it came to paying he had come down from Holland and had only that currency and I finished up using my Belgian currency.

I made a good friend with another sapper called Ron Hedgecock during my stay here and the pair of us were befriended by a local couple called Cornelius- Broche.

I used to exercise my schoolboy French and we used to get boiled fresh eggs for tea which was something we hadn’t tasted for months.

I wished I had kept in touch with them and when I made enquiries not long ago on the internet I had news they had both passed on.

Suddenly in early October the pair of us were told we were off that night to a unit just behind the lines and I felt a little less of a tourist.

I wondered what would have happened to me if I had not been held up on the beaches with that spell in hospital.

I also remembered with some disgust the crowd of guys on our side I had seen locked up behind barbed wire in Hampshire just before I sailed.

They had refused to embark when their turn came and frankly it had not been too bad at all. Why hadn’t they gone for another kind of war job at home like the mines instead of making fools of themselves like that.

The comradeship and the good rations and the constant mail from home seemed to make things all worthwhile.

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