Bob's Memoirs - 1940s - 4
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We landed at Calais, more dead than alive, and were loaded onto covered freight wagons on the quayside. The train travelled through the flat countryside and we opened the side of the wagon and sat with our legs over the entrance, and began to recover our senses. We arrived at the village of Corbie which is on the River Somme and about ten miles east of Amiens. There were bunk beds for us in the storehouse of the sugar beet producer's co-operative. The whole area stank with the smell of sugar beet which had been harvested but then left to rot in enormous heaps. We were now in the care of 126 Reinforcement Holding Unit (RHU) which was part of 51 Highland Division in 30 Corps.

On my first morning in France I broke the ice on the Somme to get water to wash and shave. The river is more like a canal at this point and it was full of little fishes, as I discovered when I washed my mess tins after breakfast. When I went on parade there was an order to take one step forward if we had ever worked in an orderly room. I hesitated because I thought it may be a trap, but decided that things couldn't get worse and took a chance. I was ordered to report to Sergeant Daley in his office. He asked what experience I had, and I told him I had been in the RHQ of an AA unit which impressed him because he was Royal Artillery trained and he said they were the best run units in the whole army. I was told to get my kit and move to the comfortable billet where the HQ staff lived, and would I like a weekend leave in Paris. I had landed on my feet again!

I spent only a short while in Corbie, but I visited Amiens, Villers-Bretonneux and Villers-Bocage. From Corbie the Canadian War memorial at Vimy Ridge was clearly visible. The French countryside was already spring like and walking in the fields and the woods made the war seem remote. However, on one occasion I was brought back to reality when, on leaving a wood, I passed a sign which read, for the benefit of people coming the other way, 'Achtung Minen'. I hated the way Corbie villagers treated girls who had been friendly with German soldiers, but we were told in no uncertain manner what would happen to us if we interfered.

I never got to Paris because all leave was stopped and the 126 RHU was ordered to move to Helchteren in Belgium. This was a village on a crossroads about 45 miles northeast of Brussels. War had swept over this village several times and left burnt out tanks and roadside graves. We set up in a damaged but very modern Belgium army barracks. The German army had left some equipment and rifle ammunition with wooden bullets. English newspapers said this use of wood was due to shortages, but it may be that they were used for street fighting where their shorter range would be an advantage.

The Germans had removed their AA gun but had left a wooden flak tower which caused us some concern when it burned down one night. It was within sight of the enemy and might have drawn some attention. That night I was on fire-piquet duty, but asleep because we were allowed to sleep until called. The NCO in charge woke me. He had just been issued with a steel helmet of a new design and which, lit by only the torch he was carrying, looked so much like a German helmet that I thought the war for me was over!

Because the NAAFI was not allowed into forward areas we had no canteen at first. Then the Salvation Army set up one, staffed by local girls. It was said that it gave day jobs for the Helchteren 'ladies of the night', but I can't confirm that.

It was here that I first came under shell fire. It was found to be what is now called 'friendly fire'. The first shell from the Royal Artillery took out our telephone, so I was given a written message to take to a nearby unit. I remembered being told in training that crouching while running won't save you, but speed reduces the time you are exposed to danger. I ran faster than I had ever done before! Luckily we all escaped injury. Perhaps the protection we got from the dense pine forest should take more credit than luck can.

The Streel family.  Brussels, 1945.
The Streel family. Brussels, 1945.

To compensate for being unable to go to Paris, I was given a few days of leave in Brussels. I was 'adopted' as a guest by the Streel family who lived in a house on Avenue Albert. Before the war M. Streel had been the representative in Belgium for Vickers Armstrong. He told me how, just before the Germans entered Brussels in May 1940, he had destroyed all reference to military equipment. This had included technical drawings of the 'Predictor', which was a calculator for AA battery fire control. I was in Brussels city when I saw the sad newspaper headlines "Roosevelt est Mort" on the 12th April 1945.

By now the Allies were in Germany and our unit's role and title was changed and we became 126 Transit Camp and we moved to Louvain. We were housed in a warehouse of a company which had, before the war, made dress and household fabrics. From my window I could see a tower with a Stella Artois sign. As Allied POWs were released they would come to us for 'processing' which meant supplying food, clothing, medical attention, accommodation, and transport back to the UK or their country of origin.

My time off now often meant a trip to Brussels. It was an easy journey of about ten miles on a number 18 tram which linked with the city tram network, although that was a different gauge track. It was on such a trip that a tram driver entertained me by dancing and singing 'The Lambeth Walk' while he was driving! I asked him where he had learned the words and he said that in 1939 he had a stall in Petticoat Lane Market.

I was in Brussels on 8th May 1945 and there were some rather wild celebrations there to greet VE day (Victory in Europe). The war with Germany was over! We had orders to move, but not before I was able to make a visit to the site of the Battle of Waterloo. I was impressed by Lion Hill which was built shortly after the battle by local women as a memorial to the dead from both sides. The exhibition, with its immense diorama, enabled the visitors to believe they were standing in the middle of the battle.

We loaded everything into trucks and headed east, through the southeast corner of Holland, and entered Germany at Aachen. I saw the autobahns for the first time and I was amazed because we had nothing like them in the UK. All the road signs had an additional inscription of "You are now entering ...... by courtesy of 51st HD". The HD was quite large and the two letters shared two uprights. Jokingly we said the sign did not stand for Highland Division, but for Highway Decorators. The road was amazingly good except where bridges had been blown. This meant that there were some interesting detours and we saw the effect of Allied bombing. I had seen the result of raids on British towns and cities, but here there were not just shattered buildings but heaps of smashed bricks where only the roads showed what had been there before. We had been told that the grass verges and embankments on the autobahns were probably mined, but German children who came up to talk to us said that it was safe to walk everywhere, and proved it, to our horror, by running and jumping where we had been scared to tread.

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