Bob's Memoirs - 1940s - 3
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One night we had an air raid on Derby and 120 Battery opened fire with all 64 rockets. The flame and screech, followed by the bursting of 64 warheads was impressive. The returning to earth of the cases and splinters killed a lot of cattle in the fields. I sorted through some of these metal fragments and found a small piece of an aircraft, but it was not considered enough to claim a 'possible' hit. Raids were getting fewer and daylight raids were very rare, but one morning when rain clouds were at tree-top height a solitary low flying Dornier Do217 broke out of its cloud cover. It flew past our HQ and I heard the twin Lewis guns at 120 Battery open fire. This was, it seemed, the only opposition the aircraft met and it flew on to bomb the Rolls Royce works.

When I had free time I was able to take the Barton bus from Derby to Nottingham to meet Una. Sometimes we would meet and spend time with Eva, Una's sister, and her young sons Roger and Martin at Woolaton. Leonard, Eva's husband, was with an AA gun battery in the south of England and in June 1944 he came home on leave and told us that they had just seen the first V1s, or as they soon became known Doodlebugs.

On 6th June 1944 we saw some of the aircraft taking part in the D Day landings. All had been secretly painted with black and white stripes so as to identify friendly aircraft. We had never seen so many aircraft at one time. By early September Paris and Brussels were liberated and I felt sure that reinforcements would be needed to replace the heavy casualties of the three months fighting. That would mean that I would be involved. However, on the day of the airborne landings at Arnhem I was travelling to Leeds University to attend a course on economics!

In November I was sent for by the Adjutant who told me I would be transferred to an infantry establishment for training. He said there was still a vacancy on the establishment at RHQ for a batman, and if I accepted that job I could stay. I thanked him and said I had been lucky, but it had not been because I had avoided any duty, and no matter how much I would prefer to stay I would have to accept the transfer. Orders came and I said a sad goodbye to a lot of old friends. It seems strange looking back to realise that one of the last things I had to do was to attend my last evening class at Derby Art School, where I had been studying industrial design and packaging.

I was given nine days of leave on 21st November 1944 and then ordered to report for infantry training at Cuckfield, about three miles west of Haywards Heath in Sussex. It was like joining the army all over again with parades, drills and weapon instruction all the time! In eight weeks I was expected to pass courses on rifle, Bren gun, Sten gun, 2" mortar (two inch), PIAT missile (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) and grenades. There were field exercises and, as the winter turned wet, those were not a happy experience. We did long marches and I found I could get so tired that I could actually go to sleep on the march!

In December 1944 the German army counter attacked and smashed through the American front deep into the Ardennes. All my hopes of the war ending before I got involved vanished.

I was not as athletic as my comrades but I got a lot of assistance from them, even if it meant throwing me over obstacles. I couldn't climb but I had two assets, I never got sore feet and I had plenty of endurance, so that many of those who helped me were thankful that I could help them by carrying much more than my share of equipment, while they limped along beside me. I quite liked firing the 2" mortar but it was sometimes difficult to lay accurate smoke screens. One day, while an instructor was yelling abuse at me I made sure he got all the smoke he wanted by setting fire to one of the many farm buildings on the South Downs.

January 1945 brought snow. Our training ended with an exercise code named Aspirant, but which everyone called Aspirin. We made mock attacks under a lifting barrage of heavy mortar fire. At night we crawled through the snow probing with our bayonets, no longer sword shaped but more like black 7 inch nails, for mines. I even tried, but failed to sleep in the snow and I guess I must have often wondered why I hadn't opted to be a batman!

Me in my KOYLI uniform. 1945
Me in my KOYLI uniform. 1945.

We started as men with little or no experience in infantry warfare and after eight weeks we were not much better. To have machine gun bullets and mortar bombs fired over our heads was bad enough but it was nothing compared to what the future was likely to be. To survive we would have to learn fast. I volunteered to go into the Yorks and Lancs Regiment so that all of us who had trained together would stay together, so they posted me to the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the KOYLIs.

We were all given embarkation leave and I travelled to Watford. Una took the train to Luton and I met her there. We announced our engagement on 17th February 1945. We both went to Wilford and stayed until I had to return to Watford a day before my leave ended. Mum and Dad travelled with me to Waterloo Station where I caught the Haywards Heath train. I was very depressed and I did not think I would ever come back. It was the 25th February.

Next day we went to Dover and boarded a LCT (tank landing craft). It was raining heavily and the sea in the port was dark grey. Out of the harbour the waves were so high that the LCT ahead of us would disappear every few minutes behind mountains of water. It was exhilarating to stand on the deck wrapped in our waterproof groundsheets, but our joy was short lived. A huge wave hit us and it swept a number of men over the side, however all but one were entangled in the rails and could be pulled back aboard. The LCT was turned and we were ordered below while a search was made. Below decks it was awful where the smell of diesel oil and vomit was overpowering and I was seasick for the only time in my life. We had started out as 13 reinforcements for the KOYLIs but there were now 12 - sadly a case of unlucky 13.

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