508 Field Park Company was not one of those army units that could just pile into a column of tanks or trucks at a moments notice and be off.
We kept and maintained much equipment used by all kinds of other royal engineer units, specially those dealing with bridging and road clearance and were always a few miles behind the action. I was very grateful that so far I had never been in as much danger as those sappers for instance who had to clear the minefields right up front or build bridges over canals and rivers to allow the main battle groups to advance.
Although the enemy had been only about 20 miles away all through the winter he was now almost completely thrown back behind the river Maas which formed the boundary of the 3rd Reich and there was only one time I felt in real danger, although no more so than many incidents I saw as a young boy in Kent which became known as “Hell fire corner”. This was when I was out in an open field near Deaurne and I got noticed by a single unusual enemy aircraft. One of the few jets that had just come out, it swooped down to pepper us all with its guns and I was just lucky to rush behind a small brick fodder building to relative safety.
Then it turned and came back the other way and so I tore round the other side and I laid low for quite sometime. Fortunately for us the luftwaffe had very little fuel, and although the allies had not made any jets it didn’t matter as the enemy had too few to make an impact.
Because we had to carry so much equipment in the form of road making and clearing vehicles the main stay of a field park company was its large 5 ton Canadian Mack trucks towing large trailers. Onto these every thing had to be driven, using ramps up the back and before doing this the trailers had to be jacked down to a lower level. This was a very physical task and required two strong lads on each side and in the course of loading and unloading many times my stomach muscles grew a lot. When my tractor was loaded I would actually sit up on top of it and no one seemed to care that it was high enough up there to bring down a few telephone wires.
Our drivers were very skilled to my mind that they could take such wide heavily laden vehicles over the bailey bridges with only inches to spare on either side. One of them had won the military medal earlier in the campaign in France by pushing a mine off a bridge with his front blade without setting it off. His name was Arthur Brown the exact name of my father and he was a good mate. Another good mate at least 15 years older than myself was Freddie Slack a tractor guy from the potteries.
Now was the moment we had waited 5 years for as we drew away towards the border 20 miles away. About 25 miles further north in swampy forest land around Goch the entry into Germany was very bloody right into March but the defence could not hold due to the lack of strength of the weakened opposition at many other points.
Let us not forget that but for the nazi struggle against even larger soviet forces entering Germany on the eastern side, we would have been lucky to have advanced out of Normandy at this time let alone be finishing the war.
So began another long journey full of apprehension and excitement at what we would find over the border. For the next 2 months we were never static just living out of the trucks and averaging about 5 or 6 mile daily and sometimes, maybe 20 miles if we had stayed put somewhere on Sunday.
The way had been made easy for us at first and we soon slipped through Venlo over the Maas river into Germany. Geldern was the first halt and then we soon went on to Wesel and onto a massive bailey bridge over the Rhine river built by one of our bridging units a few days before under fire with the amphibious assault going in all around them. It had not only been dangerous but those guys would have puffed their hearts out carrying those panels which require 6 sappers, 3 on each side to move, not to mention the skill of holding the pontoons in place against the current. The Rhine in flood at that point is a formidable sight but just for a moment thanks to the sweat and blood of others I could sit up on my tractor and ride across and admire the view.
Wesel was deserted and we stayed for the night with my first confrontation with the remains of a local house.
We had not yet caught up with a field kitchen and had to make do with pack rations and our portable petrol stove to brew up. In some ways it was superior because of all the tins of fruit and bacon and plum pudding and also spam and bully beef. Devastation lay around us as far as the eye could see and one wondered if anyone locally had survived and this house was one of the few that was shattered but not down. There was no clear space on the floor covered with plaster and rubbish so I managed to bag the top of the grand piano for a little rest. It was marginally better than sleeping in the truck on top of the jerry cans full of diesel fuel. Everyone laughed when I turned over as I struck a big base note.
For every fighting soldier there were at least two more handling all the backup and support. We didn’t know at that time but we had 350 miles to go to the Baltic coast and many many jobs to do in support of the British 2nd army over the next two months. We still had regular baths and meals and medical checks and post and change of clothing and I was even told to go to the dentist one day to be told I had very good teeth.
I would like to have my 19 year old teeth today as only 3 have survived!!
One day my army glasses fell out of my pocket onto the road behind and the next truck ran over them. As a result I had my eyes tested and was highly pleased to be told I didn’t need any more. They had been to correct a squint but you only need one eye to fire a rifle anyway!
After we left Wesel there were no more houses safe to go in and we decided to stay in the trucks and stay in the country as much as possible.
My section were just having breakfast on the verge of the road watching streams of others go by, and as I noticed a staff car or two approaching I bit off a large piece of sausage before I would have to stand up and salute. We had all seen so many pictures of General Montgomery in the past that I froze when I realised who it was at once. There was Winston Churchill with him in the open car determined to be in at the kill of Germany and Monty was showing him around where the main advance had been. Monty was renowned for his care about the moral and welfare of his troops and specially for keeping casualties down to a minimum.
General Mongomery stopped the car and waving a newspaper asked me if I would like one and told me in a friendly manner we were all doing a great job. I couldn’t believe what had happened but this man although hated by other generals for his cocksure behaviour was a hero to us lads. He could have been knocked out by a shell just as easily as myself at that time.
Despite the stop start progress that now added up to about 50 miles into Germany there were pockets of resistance that the main army and paratroops had simply bypassed on our flanks. These were still firing powerful 88mm shells at us at random not knowing they were beaten.
We had stopped for a tea break in the small town of Coesfeld and I was just walking back with a mugful when one acted automatically. It had that certain whine about it that sounded ominous and I threw myself down against the side of my tractor and lost my tea and the shell hit a building on the other side about 50 yards away. I was lucky that even the shrapnel missed both my vehicle and me by a few yards.
There were quite a few who died within weeks of the wars end after having survived much more than I and I always thought was as unlucky as you can get
We carried on day after day wondering where the civilians were and if any were left and hadn’t fully realised that there were some down in the cellars . Although most of the houses were badly damaged the cellars had survived much of the time so unlike what it would have been at home.
The most interesting thing for me was when buildings were still standing in a very dangerous condition, two of us with our armoured bulldozers would get one each side with a thick wire rope in between. We would both rev up and bring the whole lot down between us like a couple of kids .
The hard bit was if you felt you had to go inside and see if anyone was still alive first of all. Suddenly I was up front and saw this bundle on a bed under the covers. Was it dead or was it alive and going to jump out at us. Ready to fire I gave it a kick and happily he was dead.
It was nice to park out in the countryside again for a spell and in the early peaceful Spring morning with a mist lying around it was hard to realise that here in the sleepy farmhouses were members of the so called super race that had declared they were to be masters of most of the world. Some one said it would be nice to get some real eggs for breakfast and I volunteered to find some as I didn’t reckon the hens would consider themselves any different to British hens.
The inmates were clearly peering at us through the curtains and were already finding out that the British did not plunder and rape like the soviets or indeed as they had done themselves invading other countries.
We had a mighty fine breakfast that morning and others too and although we were not allowed to fraternize with civilians until a year after the war there was an understanding between us that we all had to try and move ahead in most cases.
We did have some rough elements in our unit as anywhere and the worst I got to know about was when a sapper wanted to relieve a lady of a ring and threatened to cut her finger off if she didn’t give it to him.
However others interrupted and he was dealt with. Of all the occupying forces the British did set a good example most of the time, and at that time I was very proud to be who I was however small my contribution.
One more misty morning we found ourselves on the banks of the river Weser near Minden and we could not see the opposite bank but we could hear German voices. Even though the war only had a month to run we didn’t know that and whether or not they would be hostile so not wishing for trouble we withdrew and didn’t wait to find out.
Lives did not need to be wasted.
And so we went on sweeping up the debris of war with our circus of equipment and wondering what the next day would unfold.
508 company trod through areas so familiar to generations of future Rhine army such as Munster, Osnabruck. Minden, Hannover, Celle, Luneburg and Lubeck. Had any of the current youth of our country been able to join us they would have been stunned at what was achieved without the need for computers although later on as a clerk in the army myself I have to admit some of those army forms were baffling.
Lubeck still had a charm despite bombing, and as I sat with my old pal Billy Ward on a seat over looking the long sandy beach not far away I could not believe what I had lived through.
It was early May and the peace had just started and there were civilians strolling over the sands as if there had never been a war.
I was to be suddenly reminded what it was all about when I was detailed to go to a field and keep an eye on over 1000 prisoners soon to be processed into peacetime.
You never knew if one or two officers could still be behaving badly and at 19 almost on my own I don’t think one rifle would have helped much if they had.
Now the big check up was on for the main culprits and I never heard a single German apologise for the war. In the years ahead the nearest anyone would get was “Your royal family was related to ours and we are all very much alike and we should have never been at war”. It all sounded like” we can make war with others but Britain was a pity.”
IN ACTUAL FACT IN 1938 BRITAIN NEEDED A GEORGE BUSH BY ITS SIDE AND WE WOULD HAVE SNUFFED OUT NAZI GERMANY IN TIME TO SAVE MILLIONS but we did our best and I’m proud of that.