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No.1 Company, 1st Airborne Divisional Signals, September 1944

Lance-Corporal Harry Howlett

 

Unit : "C" Section, No.1 Company, 1st Airborne Divisional Signals

Army No. : 6850063

 

Harry Howlett joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps when he was 18, but later transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals, and, assigned to the 1st Airborne Division, served with "C" Section, Divisional Signals in North Africa and Italy. The following, written in 1989, is his account of his experiences in Italy and England, and, written in 1996, Arnhem.

 

Italy

 

Soon after joining the 1st Airborne Division Signals as a linesman we were shipped off to take part in the invasion of Italy. On [arriving] in Taranto, we went to work laying lines to all units involved. However, being airborne we had very little, if any equipment. It was decided that it would be a good idea to reel in any cable that we could find left behind by the Germans. So having got the loan of a Jeep, myself 'Tolly' Tolhurst and driver Alf Murray set out.

 

Before long, sure enough, we came across some quad cable. This was a heavy, insulated cable carrying four strands of wire inside - just what we wanted. Off we went, reeling length after length. After several miles we came to a sort of compound, being some sort of German stores. By now we had more than enough cable for our immediate use and had also come to a junction joined by some couplings. Tolly and myself climbed down from the Jeep to undo the joint. We noticed some wires connected to the join and going into the ground. Not knowing what it was and suspecting a booby-trap we decided to tie some rope to the joint and get the driver Alf Murray to let us get clear and drive off, but no sooner had we tied off then off went Alf, hell for leather, leaving us expecting to be blown to smitherines! However, nothing happened, so off we went to Alf, half a mile away, to give him a right going over and expecting an explanation. All he said was that he didn't want to die. You can imagine what we called him!

 

Later on, as the Germans pulled back and we moved up. We were driving along in a Jeep with an officer and two linesmen when we came to a small town which seemed to be deserted. On passing through our officer noticed a small telephone exchange which was undamaged. He instructed me to drop off and make sure it remained this way. Barely giving me time to grab my rifle, off he drove, calling out that he would relieve me as soon as possible. Into the exchange I went. Everything was intact, no-one about, so I settled down to repel all boarders. Suddenly I remember I have only a few rounds of ammo. Not having had time to grab any more. Still it's quiet and no-one's about. I would be relieved soon.

 

I heard some movement outside. Going to the door to investigate, I was amazed. Outside the door was a small square, like we have in some old villages in England. It was full of people. There must have been hundreds and to my amazement, quite a number were carrying rifles. Determined to die doing my duty (with the thought running through my mind that they could tear me to pieces and wash me down the drain and no-one would be any the wiser) I stepped through the doorway to be greeted with cheers and claps. Feeling like a film star I went back inside. Soon after, in came an Italian who could speak English, or at least, American English and offered to relay any orders I wanted to give. I went out again and told the people to go away. This was translated but all I got was more cheers, so I gave up on the idea hoping that in time they would get fed up and go.

 

Some hours went by and no-one came to take over. By now I was getting hungry. An Italian woman came to the door saying something to me in Italian. Not knowing what she wanted I asked my interpreter what she had said. He told me she wanted to know if I was hungry. I said 'yes' so off she went and was soon back again with a huge plate of pasta covered with sauce, plus a couple of bottles of red wine. Not being sure of what the food was like I hesitated, but they insisted that the food was very good. So I took a mouthful. It was so spicy it took my breath away. Gasping, I grabbed the wine bottle and drank half the bottle, finishing off the pasta and the rest of the bottle. I felt really good. Later I shared the other bottle with my new found Italian friend.

 

By now I was well and truly drunk. Not being one to drink very much and wondering what would happen when I was relieved, would I be put on a charge for being drunk? Fortunately it was some hours later that two [R.C.P's? - Corps of Military Police] turned up wanting to know what I was doing so far up. I explained my orders and they agreed to take over and I was returned to the safety of C Section, my officer having forgotten all about me!

 

In late November 1943 the Division was withdrawn. We were shipped back to England to a small village in Lincolnshire called Caythorpe, in an old mansion which had many stables. This was to be our billet - in the old stalls.

 

England

 

During the following months we were engaged on many exercises. On one, our C.C. Major Deane-Drummond decided that we would use live ammo. He took us to a training area near a small town called Glossop. Having arrived and set up camp, which didn't take long as we only had sleeping bags. He then gave permission to visit the town in the evening. I have never been to such a hospitable place. No-one was allowed to buy a drink. They were lined up on the piano and as fast as one went it was replaced so by the time the pubs closed, we were more than happy.

 

In the morning we woke to a sharp frost. Everything was frozen. A wash and shave in an icy stream, then breakfast, soon ready for the off. In full battle order we started up the hills. Before long all were pouring with sweat, as by this time the sun was up, and, as the [?] said, the beer was pouring out as well! After climbing several hills we came to where we could start to get rid of some ammo and had just started firing when there in front of us was a target. A ram had appeared from nowhere. Soon every rifle and Bren had been brought to bear and down went the ram to everybodies satisfaction, with the exception of the Dean. He decided that it should be taken back to our camp which was miles away, so finding a bough, the ram was tied to it and off we went up hill and down dale, sweating worse than before. Still, we thought, the cook could give us a good meal when we got it back. Instead, when we did arrive the farmer came over to claim his ram and compensation. So we lost our all round. Whilst at Caythorpe our Sergeant Major, Frank Clift, who had a good sense of humour, used to give out our 36 hour pass on a Saturday morning saying we could go as long as he did not see us go. He then stood at the only exit which was an opening in the surrounding wall.

 

He was most astonished when he received a call from the M.P.'s saying they had picked up three Para's in Nottingham at 11 o'clock. However, he cleared them and it wasn't until a year later that we found out how it was done. What happened was that C Section had been moved from the stables to the hay loft. This was on the outside wall and had a gantry. As this had a wheel and we had a rope it was not problem to slide down and away as all the [men?] knew. They came in one by one and off they went. Frank never twigged.

 

Arnhem

 

C Section or Line Section was made up as follows. The C.C. was Lt Polley D.A. Personnel of the Section was as follows L/Sgt Cole R., Cpl Langdale and I believe a L/Cpl Thompson, Signal men were Bert Aycars, W. Croft, F.C. Nippers, Maskie, W. Shaw K.I.A., Nichols P.O.W., H. Howlett, Tolhurst M.M., Driver A. Murray, Driver H. Hill.

 

The section was equipped in a very basic fashion the Lines men were all para trained, Drivers were Glider borne transport wise.

 

We had one jeep, two No 350 Matchless motor bikes, materials for line laying consisted of a drum barrow, drums of single cable D.8 and metal spikes as all lines were laid earth return and the hand sets that were in use at that time. We had a very efficient method of line laying, a jeep with driver, drum barrow and 3 no Signal men would start off followed by a N.C.O. on a Motor bike, line would be laid as the Jeep proceeded at any intersection a signal man would drop off, make line safe and in turn be ferried back to the Jeep, ensuring that at all times the Jeep was fully manned, as to other equipment, this consisted of a belt holding pliers and knife, so you see though basic very efficient.

 

On 17th Sept 44, Sgt Cole, L/Cpl Howlett, B. Aycars, W. Shaw, W. Croft, Nichols, Tolhurst, landed by parachute at Wolfheyin with 1st Brigade. The rest of the day was spent in moving from place to place until dark, when the signalmen moved back to the D.Z. [Drop Zone] where they spent the rest of the night, after forming all round protection, Stand to at Dawn, after which Major Deane-Drummond knowing that Gen Urquart was missing, decided to go and find out what was wrong with the wireless sets, he took with him the Batman L/Cpl Turner and Signalman W. Croft, the remainder of sigs moved over to wait for the second drop to take place at approx 10.00 hrs on Monday. This was delayed until the afternoon owing to poor weather in England. The delay was fortunate as around 10.00 hrs many Messerschmitt appeared, when second lift came in we marched off towards Arnhem, after a while we arrived at Ostirbeck and were directed to the Hotel Hartenstein on the way to the Hartenstein, I noticed to my surprise a Jeep and two dead Americans, who had been killed by mortar bombs, (I found out a long time later that these were our contact with the supply aircraft). On arriving at the Hotel we were told to dig in and await orders. The first order was that three of us were to find out where the telephone cables were and cut them. This did not take place as the cables were underground and no one could tell us what was what and we were lucky not to be electrocuted, as the cable we found turned out to be Electricity. From them on our duties were to lay line to the battalions within the perimeter, 4 Batt and air landing, this became a full time job, as the lines were continually being cut by mortar fire, which was almost non stop. On the third day, we carried out patrols through enemy lines, Bill Shaw was killed by Mortar, E. Tolhurst won the M.M. keeping open a line from Gen Urquart to the R.A. [Royal Artillery] dugout, who had contact with Nijmegen and could call down an artillery barrage as required to hold off German attacks.

 

On the night of the withdrawal, we set off through the German line and made our way down to the river, where we joined the queue for the boats, which we could hear moving back and forth owing to some machine gunning and mortar fire, some boats were hit, and so some were wounded in the queue, Sgt Cole and myself took a wounded man to the head of the queue and I put him on a boat, as the boat was about to leave a Canadian in charge told us to get aboard, thus we were among the lucky ones.

 

Sgt Middling   A Sec 1 Coy   K.I.A.

Sgt Stewart DCM   A Sec 1 Coy Wireless Operator   K.I.A.

 

J Sec Bastow 1st Brigade

D.Rs 1 Coy, Mitchel, Elliott

 

Holloway P.O.W.

Foxen P.O.W.

Nichols P.O.W.

 

England

 

In February 1945, we were taking part in a live ammo exercise in Lincolnshire. This turned out to be a bit of a shambles. We were supposed to be attacking pill boxes and strong points but somehow things got out of hand and bullets were flying everywhere. Tom Kenifect was grazed on the leg, another bod was splashed with phosphorus and had to be dunked in a pond to get it out. All in all everyone was thankful that it was [over?].

 

Next day another part of the Company would take part. On returning to billet at [?] Hall I was pleased to see on orders I had been promoted to full Corporal but dismayed to see that I had to be on the next day's exercise.

 

At first light we set off and arrived at the exercise area and were told what we had to do. This was to crawl up to a hedge, which was very thick and high, some of us crashed through, while some men ran round looking for an opening. The result of us was some of us were well in front of others.

 

While charging off toward the house I was aware of firing going on and suddenly I felt a red hot burning in my right leg, it collapsed under me. Down I went. Actually it was fortunate for me for new bullets were flying just above us, so no doubt if I had tried to get up I would have been killed. I could feel the blood gushing down my leg and was losing strength when the firing stopped. L/Cpl Cook came to me, ripped off trouser leg and managed to stop the bleeding. I was then hoisted on to the back of a Jeep and taken to Grimsby General Hospital where I expected to be patched up and returned to unit. This was not to be. After coming round from the operation I was dismayed to find my leg in plaster from hip to toe. It was some weeks before this was removed, during which time I had a great deal of pain. When I inquired what was wrong I was told that nerves had been damaged and would eventually heal. I was still hoping to return to unit but it was not to be. I went to convalescence hospital then to Halifax where I was on V.E. day. Then to holding camp at Thirsk and finally to Catterick Camp where I remained until de-mob in July 1946.

 

END.

 

After the War, Harry Howlett took work as a roofer, started his own business in 1962 and retired in 1975. He joined his local branch of the Parachute Regimental Association in 1986 and was their secretary for many years. In 1993 he joined the over 70's parachute team, making 1 tandem and 23 static line jumps, raising hundreds of pounds for charities in the process.

 

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