Private Joseph Gray
Unit : "A" Company, 11th Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 6978435
Introduction, by Mary Gray
This presentation was written by my husband, Joseph Patrick Gray. His journal tells his story of a big part of his life, from him being born in Philadelphia in the USA, and his youthful years. But mainly, it’s about his long army career from 1937 to1946 (+ 3 years reserve). He then lived in Northern Ireland where he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers, aged 19.
After a period of training, he, along with the regiment, was posted to Malta, although it was still peace time. He was still there when war broke out. In total, he was in Malta for almost 6 years. The only time he got away was when Churchill announced that they wanted volunteers to start an army of airborne troops. My husband volunteered and he was sent to Egypt for rigorous training and to start parachute jumps. Then he and the rest were back to Malta — to starvation.
As no ships had got through the blockade, the soldiers and civilians alike had a bad time. There were air raids every day, over 3,000 of them in fact and they had no defence.
Well, at last, in June 1943, they were taken off Malta and boarded a ship, the first out of Malta for some time (they were still being bombed) and they landed at Port Said transit camp. He said that the first sight he saw that he’ll never forget was of piles of white bread; it wasn’t rationed either. The training was very hard but he enjoyed it. They were fully-fledged paras by now, doing 7 jumps a night. They were the first of a new battalion.
There is so much to tell in his story. I am and always will be very proud of him: what he went through, the theatres of war, Malta, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, the Isle of Kos and more, but lastly, Arnhem. He landed there on the second day of the fighting, the 18th of September (his birthday) and he was captured on the last day. After a long journey by train in cattle trucks, they arrived in Czechoslovakia, to a prisoner of war camp. They were there for 18 months where they suffered starvation again, and worked in coal mines with rags on their feet. They endured this until they were liberated by the Russians.
There is another sinister story to tell in addition to this one, that being of a red tape incident that really broke his heart. When he went with the intention of laying a wreath from the Sheffield ex Paras Reunion, he was turned away at the Belgian border, purely because he was American by birth. He had a valid visa, but they would not accept it and he was escorted back to the boat, then sent back to England. All he could say was that they didn’t ask to see his passport when he jumped and fought at Arnhem and all the other places. He served 27 years in all.
My dearest husband passed away 7 years ago (in 1998) and on the wall of my home is a velvet based frame containing 10 medals from different theatres of war he was in. It will be passed on to my sons. My husband was worth a thousand of others, he was a HERO!
The Philadelphian: An Autobiographical Account Of A WW2 POW
By Joseph P. Gray
I am Joseph P. Gray and was born in Philadelphia, Pa. in the USA, to Patrick Gray and Mary, both from Co. Derry in Northern Ireland. They met and were married in the USA.
We lived in a terrace house at 1510 Gunter Street; my father worked at the local gasworks and my mother was a housewife. What she did before her marriage, I don’t know. I had sisters, Helen and Mary who were also born in the USA. I know my mother had her hands full looking after the three of our father, and us, plus having to deal with the housework.
I can remember back to being two years of age, based upon incidences that I have been reminded of. The house had three bedrooms, bathroom, large front room and a kitchen, plus a large hallway leading to a stairway, with doorways leading off to the lounge and kitchen, and a cellar beneath. The front door was about four steps up from the pavement outside. There was a window-like entrance to the cellar from the pavement, where the coke for the boiler, that supplied hot water and central heating, was stored.
In addition to the central heating system, we had a fridge; it’s noteworthy that this was c. 1920 (it was 1953 before I was able to afford a fridge in Britain, and 1978 before we got central heating, which we can ill afford to run now in 1990).
We had plenty of relatives living close by, my father had four brothers and three sisters, all married with families. To my knowledge, my mother had three sisters; so really, we had an Irish community of our own. I remember we always had big birthdays, Christmases and Easters. Halloween was a jolly time over there, dressing up and playing tricks on each other.
We had a good playing area because as far as I can remember, our street was traffic free, so there were no worries for our mums. The main traffic and the trolley cars (or trams) were at the bottom of Gunter Street. We had a corner shop where we got our goodies. I used to fetch my dad’s Camel cigarettes, which I think cost 10 cents a pack then.
I started school before we left Philadelphia, but I don’t think I went for long because I can’t remember much about school, only that we were taught by nuns, whom I thought then were cruel, which I suppose they were at the time.
There are plenty of childhood memories that I have, but they are only ‘kid things’, which we all have. I never really found out why we left the USA at all, but I suffered a lot of illness at the time; I seem to have had everything that was going around, including having my tonsils out. Because of this, I always thought it was because of me. When I grew up, my father and I were never the closest of friends, a fact I may mention later.
We arrived in Ireland, which, as far as I know, was in 1925, so I would be about 7 years old. I seem to remember things better between 2 and 4 years, than I did after 5 years. I remember lots about the boat trip home, the cabin we had, the bunks we slept in. I remember standing at the rails and throwing a cent out into the ocean and I often wondered if anyone found it or fished it out. We sailed up the River Foyle into the city of Derry. The ship stopped well outside the city, so we entered Derry by a small tender. We arrived on the left bank, but we had to board another tender to cross over to the right, as the South Derry trams ran from that side.
Before I go any further with this, I must tell you that I have been talked (forced) into this by my wife and family, even supplying the material, but I am no Jeffrey Archer. I can’t write, I can’t spell and my memory is not so good, so if there are any wrong spellings, you will have to make the best of it, because I’m only saying this once, I’m not re-writing anything or tearing out pages, for the sake of wrong spelling, so there!
I can’t remember the journey from Derry to our destination, which was a small village in South Derry called Draperstown. The locals called it ‘The Cross’ because there were four roads going through it and they crossed in the centre of town. I can’t even remember arriving or what sort of welcome we had, I suppose I was that excited about our new surroundings. Can you imagine the difference between Philadelphia and Draperstown?
The first I remember was the next day when I went out into the street and a crowd of kids gathered around me. My Aunt Nellie, back in Philly gave me a good impression of Ireland (encouragement I suppose), about all the good things. One of them was that apples grew on trees. I’d only seen them in shops in Philly. Referring to the kids again, I was asking them where these apples were. Years later, I realised that the kids were only around me to hear me talk.
Anyway, we stayed with my father’s mum and dad; where we slept, I don’t know because it was such a small house. I don’t know how long my mum and dad stayed there, but it must have been a while because I started school in Draperstown, but I can’t remember much about school.
The reason I was left with my grandma and granddad was that my dad had bought a farm, which was about four miles up in the hills. He and my mother were trying to get it ship shape, which I often heard was a right tip, but they eventually got it into a liveable state so then I moved into my new home. Compared to Philly however, it was a wilderness.
This farm was bought from my mother’s brother Pat; it had been left to his wife by her family, the Cleary family. It is situated on a hill with two other farms, they were all called Cleary, so the locals called it ‘Cleary’s Hill’. This hill is between two rivers: The White Water and guess what, Cleary’s Burn. Often, after a rainstorm and floods, we could neither get in or out; we would have to stay at one of the nearby farms until the rivers went down. There were no bridges of course, only foot sticks as they were called.
I really enjoyed the wilderness when I was small and senseless; the wide-open spaces, as compared to Gunter Street, but even so, I had to go to school, but as I grew up, things became different.
I didn’t mention that my dad was robbed completely for this farm. It cost him over £600.00 at that time (1925). They say it was worth only £200.00, but my dad, not knowing anything about farming, fell for it, and to say it was from my uncle, my mother’s brother. They were never the best of friends afterwards.
Naturally, I had to go to school, which was about two miles away across fields and woods. There were two rivers to cross in all weathers. You can imagine the winters up there. The school was a small one in the town land of Bracke, therefore, naturally called Bracke School. We had two teachers, the head teacher Mrs Bradley and the juniors’, Miss Bradley (no relation). We stayed there until we were 14 years old, I never heard of anyone going to higher education, well, not while I was there anyway, but if anyone did, it had to be paid for.
While we were at school, my dad was working the farm with a hired hand whom he paid 2/- (2 shillings (10p) a day, getting the ground ready to plant. If it was potatoes, when we arrived home from school, we would have a scone, then put on a bag apron, fill it up with as many spuds as we could carry, and start dropping them into the drills that my mum and dad had been preparing all day until it got dark.
In the harvest time, we were never out of the fields after school. We were stucking corn, gathering up hay, up to the moss to foot, clamp or stack turf for our winter fire. When the spuds were ready, my dad and the helper would be digging all day. The spuds were laid on the ground and were waiting for us coming out of school to gather them up and store them in the pits before it got dark. Turnips had to be pulled up, de-rooted and leaves cut off and chucked into carts. This was mostly done in frosty weather and snow. After all that, we’d fetch the cows in and maybe milk them. After all this, we’d come in for a bowl of porridge.
I am now reaching school leaving age and believe me, I didn’t want to leave. I was really getting into learning and wanted to continue, but it was too late, so in September 1932, I was a man of 14 years of age, but really, still a kid, working at a man’s job on the farm. There was no machinery at all, just a spade, fork, a horse and a plough. Being only 14 years old, I would take the place of the hired man, but I didn’t get 2/- (2 shillings (10p) a day. Perhaps when a beast was sold at the fair, I’d get the two shillings, and honestly, you would think he was giving me a fortune.
The farm we lived on had belonged to Francis Cleary, the next farm belonged to Margaret Cleary and the one at the back belonged to Mick, so all Clearys. They eventually all died off, so my dad bought the lot, therefore, he ended up owning Cleary’s Hill, now Gray’s. Margaret’s farm was half as big again and the one we lived in, Francis’s was about 300 acres. Mick’s was about 100 acres and together, they cost about £400.00, but not forgetting, he paid over £600.00 for the first one. What a sucker eh? All this was about ten years after he bought from his brother in law.
My dad was no farmer to start with, that’s why he hired hands at first. They showed him everything, so he carried on in his rough and awkward way. Everyone was wrong except for him; he really was a cruel man, not only to the animal but to us, his kids. We were blamed for all the cattle going astray, breaking into crops, anything and everything that could go wrong on a farm. Our punishment wasn’t just a slap on the face, but a rod around the legs, which were always bare to the knees. This rod was like a cane; it used to wrap around the legs and leave black whip marks around both legs, visible to everyone. We always hid them the best we could from everyone, we were that ashamed, but he wasn’t.
We did have our good times playing in the summertime, wading in the river and bathing in the big holes in the rivers, playing hide and seek, gathering berries when they were ripe. This was mostly when dad was off somewhere and well out of sight. By now, I had another sister, Catherine, and a brother, Danny. I’d be about 12 when my mother died giving birth. I got to know later, but then, we were ignorant of such things, unlike today’s kids.
The day she died, a Sunday, she woke me up to go to mass at 9 o’clock, which was about 3 miles walk away, I was to go down to town, to my grandmother’s and tell her she was wanted. She gave me a bowl of tea (there were no cups then) and a scone. She just left me and told me to make my own way home when I’d finished. She knew what my mother meant when she said to fetch the doctor. There were no hospital births in those days; it was all done at the farm.
To me, my mother was that morning, as any other morning. I can even remember her dress; it was a big loose green satin one. I know why now, but I didn’t know then. It was one that came from the USA in a parcel with others. I hung around the town and spent my pennies, then I went round a few gardens that I knew had some gooseberries.
I filled my pockets to take some home for my mum and the younger kids and collected some apples from Clark’s farm, so I had a good feed on fruit on my way home, which was about an hour’s walk up Cahore Road and across the moss banks and fields, over two rivers, then a climb up a hill to our house.
When I got to the house, there seemed to be a lot of strange people about. The doctor was just leaving and a few of the neighbours were standing around. I went inside; the first person I saw was the priest, Father Welsh. He came to me, patted my head and explained that my mother had gone to a nicer place, or words to that effect. I was 12 years old then, but I could understand that my mother was dead; why, only a couple of hours earlier, she was well, walking about and rushing me off to church. I just burst out crying and I took a lot of calming down. Through it all, I can’t remember seeing my father. I suppose he broke down like me, in another corner. I can’t remember anything about the funeral, except that at the graveside, I was in a bad state. Someone was holding onto me, as if I was trying to jump in. I was just in a daze.
I can’t remember who looked after us then; I was the oldest so there was no older sister to do the job. I suppose it was my grandmother, my dad’s mother. I did have three sisters and a brother Danny, who was about 2 when my mother died, so we took some looking after.
I was still at school, but I still had plenty of chores to do despite my dad having someone to help him on the farm; mowing, digging and all by hand, no machinery in those days. They would be digging potatoes all day and we came home from school and had to pick them up. If they were mowing hay, we had to shake it out to dry it. If it was corn, we had to gather up all the sheaves to stand up in fours, or ‘stuck’ as it was called.
All this was just endless, according to the season, plus feeding the stock, mucking out the byres and stables, plus herding the cattle to keep them away from the crops. If they did get into the turnips or cabbage, the cane came down and believe me, we had a few black and blue rings around our legs. I used to be afraid to face strangers in case they noticed them, because they were noticeable for quite a while. Yes, he was a very cruel man, my father. I always seemed to take the blame for all that went wrong.
All this went on until I became strong enough to dig, use the horse and cart, more or less, a man sized job, yet I was still only 14 and had just finished school. I loved school; I was just beginning to learn and pick things up when I had to leave.
I don’t think I mentioned that Cleavis Hill was in a town called Corrick in Co. Derry. It consisted of 3 farms, ours, Margaret’s and Mick’s. Margaret’s was the largest, then ours, then Mick’s. They still lived in their farms up until I was 16; I used to visit Mick regularly, as he played the flute. He told some tall stories.
From what I gather, Margaret lived all of her life with two brothers; they would go to market in the town every Wednesday, and the fair, which was once a month; selling and buying, from what I heard, mostly getting drunk. Someone in town would put them in the cart, point the horse in the direction of home, and off it would go and get them home safe. We had a horse called, Old Johnnie, which often brought my dad home. There were some tricky corners to take, but he always made it.
When Margaret’s brothers arrived home and went to bed, she always went through their pockets and helped herself, and in those days, it was gold sovereigns. Years afterwards, we discovered that she would have collected a right hoard, had she kept them all together. But she had to hide them, so she stuck them in holes in the walls, in the thatch or anywhere that she could think of. This we found out ages after she had died. When we knocked the old house down, the thatch was dumped in the middle and was eventually scattered over the fields.
I was weeding the potatoes one day. I pulled up chickweed, and underneath was a gold coloured medal, as I thought at the time. Nobody could say what it was, as gold sovereigns had been out of circulation for years. Eventually, relations from Belfast arrived at our next-door farm and they let us know what it was, so I was now a rich man. This coin got there through the thatch, which was spread on the fields. I found two more, ages after that, in another field, one when sheafing corn and the other while chasing the cows. One of them dug it up with its hoofs, as I was chasing it and there it was sitting on the top of the freshly dug up soil. They say hungry eyes see far, these finds were spread over quite a few years. The first I found, I got £1.50, that is all I got for each of the others, and to think that today, they are worth £80.00. I bought a lamb and a second hand suit of clothes with the first one and I had some change.
As for the other two, I was much older, smoking, enjoying an odd Guinness, and going out to dances, so you can see how they got spent. I had lots of friends while it lasted. Back to my mother, she died in August I think, 1931.
So, back to the gold coins; I’m sure there are stacks of them still all round the fields. It would be worth getting a device to detect gold, of course, they may be down deeper now I suppose.
In 1932, my dad remarried because he had to have someone to care for us, as I had got another sister aged about 5 then; Catherine, and a brother Danny, my only brother, he would be about 2. So, it was for our sakes I suppose.
We all liked her, we always knew her as she lived in the next-door farm; Annie McFalls, believe me, she didn’t know what she was taking on. Not only us, but he was a demanding man. She had two brothers, Patrick and Johnny, both single and never married. My dad detested both of them and a lot of that hatred came back to Annie, now his wife. As I grew up, I began to understand things. I used to pity her; she just couldn’t do enough as far as he was concerned. In our eyes, she was great.
Now, he had a second family: Johnny, Winnie, Sally, Anna, Patrick and Peter. Where they all sleep is beyond me, four or five in a bed. There were only two bedrooms and a bed in the kitchen in a little offshoot. It was called ‘outshut’. My father’s mum, and dad now moved in with us and they slept in the ‘outshut’. My granddad died first. He was a great man to me anyhow. He bought me a young calf, so now, I had a couple of sheep and a calf. This would be about 1935 and I was about 16 ½. My dad allowed me to help out certain farmers with the hay and spud gathering. I’d get 2/- (10p) a day. Now, it would cost that to go to the toilet.
Seventeen now, so I’m off out at night making friends and taking sides, which was not easy. Only dad was Irish through and through. I wouldn’t say I.R.A., but nearly, so I tried to ‘friend up’ with his mates’ sons, but they ignored me simply because my dad’s second wife Annie and her brother were Hiberians. They were a recognised party in the north then, and the I.R.A. was banned.
The Hibs, as they were called, had a hall in every district and all had different types of bands. They were allowed to parade and march twice a year: the 17th of March and the 15th of August. So I think that is why they ignored me, thinking I’d been influenced by her, which of course, I was, so I palled up with them and joined the Downtown Hib. Band 317, and had some great days out. We paraded a different town or village every time. All the I.R.A. could do then was to hang their flag up trees on Easter weekend at dark of night, as they were barred in the six counties at that time, what a pity things altered. Just look at them now. As I mentioned earlier, my dad was that way inclined.
One day after Easter, he and I were on our way to a field which he had rented, near the town. It was a right round about journey and we never had anything to say to each other. I noticed on our way, there were no flags, someone had cut them down, but all of a sudden, my dad was smiling as we sat in the cart and I wondered, so I looked around and lo and behold, away up on the hill, about a mile away, was a flag flying from the top of a tree, so I thought to myself, “You won’t be smiling tomorrow morning.” And he wasn’t.
That night, I went to the top of that hill and to the top of the tree. The tree was stripped of all its branches and a strand of barbed wire from the bottom of the tree, which was really a pole now, wrapped around to the top and back down again, but I managed to get the flag down and only got a rip in my trousers and a few fingers bleeding. As I was climbing, I thought, if I got shot, I would have a soft landing and that is true, so I made my way to the Hib. Hall, and burnt the flag in front of a few of the lads who were playing cards and naturally, they all said bravo. The old fellow’s face had no smile next morning, but there was one on mine.
I’m going back now to when I was 13; I always had to go down to the town on foot. It took about an hour. I remember once that I was sent for a spade and two ounces of tobacco. The tobacco was in a bar about 4 inches by 1 inch. My dad told me to put the spade in my pocket and trail the tobacco after me. I think it was the same trip when I was told to bring back some sweets for the others. I got a quarter of toffees, chocolate covered; it was the first time we’d had them in town. I knew them at home wouldn’t know about the chocolate, so I sucked the chocolate off the toffees and wrapped them up in their papers again. No one was any wiser.
My stepmother once went to the grocery van and the old fellow asked her to get some Rodine, as the place was alive with rats. So when she got back, he said, “Have you got the Rodine?” She said that I had it on the tip of my tongue. “You should have swallowed it,” he said. I think he meant it too.
I’m back to being 17 again now, still working hard on the farm; there’s just no end to it and it’s not very profitable either. During the turf-cutting season, my dad used to let me go and help some of his best friends who cut turf on his land. They used to come from miles up to his mountain. There were at least 100 families who used to rent moss banks (as they were called) off him at about £1.25 a bank. To cut turf, it took 3 people, 1 to cut or dig, 1 to lift them onto a barrow and 1 to wheel them away.
All of these renters lived down in the lowlands and they all had to walk up past our house to get there. Those who had bikes used to leave them at our farm. Not many had bikes. It was on these bikes that I learnt to ride when the old fellow’s back was turned.
Back to when I was allowed to help one of these, it took 3 days to do the job, to cover a rood of ground, which cost about £1.25. Believe me, it was hard graft. I got 3/- a day, 9/- for 3 days; I was rich. By now, the old fellow had bought me a bike for £4.50; not for my benefit, but for his so that I could get here and there quicker, but I got my enjoyment out of it. Thank God he couldn’t ride, imagine not being able to ride a bike. Of course, he didn’t get the same chance as I did, as they would be few and far between in his young days.
A picture house opened up in a village called Gnaghera. It was 1935 and it was the first within about 8 miles at least from the farm. I used to go 3 times a week when I had the price of entry, which was 6d (2 ½ p). So you can see how handy my 9/- wage was. To get off work to go was the problem, as the picture started at 8 pm and we would be in the fields until dark, so I used to hop over the ditch as if I was going for a walk, then I’d dodge my way back to house to change into my best, which was not much better than my working clothes.
I did my changing in the bottom room, as we called it, and it had a small window which opened. I could just squeeze out and very often did, as I couldn’t let my stepmother see me go, or she would be in trouble. If the old fellow came enquiring, she would say, “He’s in the bottom room.” What a shock when he looked and there was no Joseph and the window was open. I always got a knocking about whenever he could catch me, but it was worth it. I enjoyed the film, a cowboy probably.
This went on for a few months until one day, he sent me with a goat, to be served, if you understand. I had to walk for about three miles with the goat on a rope to the place where the billy goat was. When I got there, nothing happened, so I had to walk all the way back. I pitied billy, all that working up for nothing.
The next morning, I was in the yard getting the horse and cart ready for some purpose, when the ‘old fellow’ came out and the first thing he said was, did I get the goat done? We had a few words and I told him to do it himself next time. He ran at me and I ran all around the garden with him chasing after me. Of course, I was quicker and he soon ran out of breath. Actually, I can’t remember what happened when we eventually did meet up.
By now, I had come to all I could take, so I decided that I must get out. A few weeks ago, I’d been to see an army camp outside the town and I liked what I’d seen, so I made up my mind. I had already sold off the couple of sheep I had, but I still had that calf my granddad bought for me. It was a two year old and was worth a few quid, but it was up on the mountain with eight or nine others of my dad’s, and the fair day was tomorrow.
As they were all half wild with having been on the mountain all summer, I couldn’t sort mine out from the others, so I had to drive all the lot about three miles to about a mile from the town where the fair was to be the next day. Anyway, I got to this empty barn and managed to get it separated into the barn, and tied up. Then I had to round up the others and drive them all the way back. It was now 1 o’clock in the morning; I eventually got back home at about 4 o’clock.
I managed about 2 hours’ sleep, got up, had a bowl of porridge, got my bike ready, bumped into the old fellow in the yard, so I said to him, “I’m off now, I shan’t be under your feet any longer.” I headed off, but he ran after me and grabbed the bike and said, “You’re not taking this, it’s mine.” So I grabbed the lamp off the front and said, “Well, this is mine.” Away I went. Now I had to walk to the barn and get Heifer into town before all the buyers left. I also expected the old fellow to turn up. Anyway, I hadn’t long to wait for a sale; I finally got £8.50; robbed I suppose.
I went straight across to the pub for a Guinness and I met one of our neighbours in there. I told him my story; he talked me into getting a job, which he arranged, so I finished up on a farm again, living in full board and 12/- a week. It was great, I enjoyed the job, they were a very nice family. I was really content until Christmas. I went on Christmas Eve to a house where there were three daughters. At Christmas time, the lads took a bottle of whisky, especially if they fancied one of the daughters. I did; Maryann was her name. She was lovely, I thought. We had a good night, dancing, singing, eating and drinking. Finally, the drink ran out. We had a collection and I got the job of going into town at about midnight, to catch a barman who was hanging around waiting for such a customer. I did find one and got my order. I got to about a couple of hundred yards from the house, when two blokes stepped out in front of me. I can’t think what was said or happened, only me and one of them got tore into each other and we finished up on the road rolling locked in each other, through a thorn hedge and into a meadow a few feet below. What happened after that, I don’t know, they just disappeared, but when I got up, I could hardly walk. I thought I’d broken my ankle, but it was only sprained, so I found out later.
I couldn’t go back to my job next morning, in that state, so they put me to bed and sent for a man who was supposed to have a cure for strain. I spent a week getting back to walking, when I did, I went to my gaffer, gave him my notice, got whatever wages was lying and said goodbye. This was the 5th of January, 1937.
With the cash that I had, I hired a taxi and took the three lasses to a dance hall in Lissan, then I saw them home, wished them the best, then set off to Cookstown to join the army. I had no trouble at all (not like Chris who caught a bus through Dungannon) went on to Omagh Barracks. 7th January 1937: I’m a fully trained Irish fusilier. Three months square bashing, should have been six months. We must have been quick learners. While I was in Omagh, I won the lightweight championship. I did a lot of boxing after that and I never lost, but I won nothing big in honours, due to our sudden move after the three months stint. We got sent to Borden, a right down to earth dump; wooden huts, First World War and a right military zone, a little Sandhurst, seemed to be saluting and standing to attention all the time, if you weren’t in the guardroom. The only time I was in there was for being drunk. Our training was tense and severe, but they really toughened us up and I enjoyed it. It seemed we were set impossible tasks and it was great to get through them, though quite a few didn’t (no guts, you see). They got us into top shape, fit for anything, that’s why we got sent to Aldershot among all the top regiments, guards and such like. Even among that lot, we held our own. There wasn’t much excitement in Aldershot, just plenty of bull and drill. I once got the honour of being the best cleaned and dressed on a guard duty, which meant I didn’t have to do the guard duty, but was a runner for the Ardley room for the day. I’d rather have done the guard duty, as I stood outside the Ardley room all day and ran messages for all the brass and officers. I still managed to get to the pictures or films while we were here, as there was a garrison picture hall just a mile away, one at each end of the barracks. It cost 6d (2 ½ p). Often I attended both on the same night, I ran from one to the other hoping the other hadn’t started. Just before Christmas 1937, we all got embarkation leave. Quite a few didn’t go. I was one of them; imagine that fortnight in barracks on our own, no officers or duties, but plenty of pictures and a pint when we wished.
On the 5th of January 1938, we set sail from Southampton for Malta, on a lovely liner. All the troopships at that time were busy. What a lovely sailing, a bit rough till we got to Gibraltar, then lovely sunny weather all the way. The grub on board (we were treated as ordinary passengers) as you can imagine, three and four course meal and food we had never even tasted before. Naturally we had seconds if they were going. We got to Malta about the 11th or 12th. It looked like a dried up rock from the boat, which was, by the way, the SS California.
We unloaded onto the dock, were told to fall in, thinking our barracks were close by as there was no transport waiting for us. After we marched a mile or so, one of the officers pointed to a hill 3 miles away and said that was our barracks, “..so swing your arms and show the locals what you’re made of.” I could have told them. After that week’s eating on the boat, we weren’t fit for any force march, but we made it even though we were on our knees.
We got settled down and liked it a lot, there were still lots of bull and training but of course, that’s the army. Our social life was good though, off down to Valetta, and on weekends when we could afford it, down to the ‘Gut’ which was a street full of music bars and cafes, lovely young lasses in them all. If you liked one and she sat with you, and danced, it would cost you a sherry every time, at 1/6 (7 ½ p) each, which was a lot in those days. The girls only got 6d (2 ½ p), the rest went to the bar owner for allowing them in. My favourite was the Lucky Wheel and Mary, my sherry drinker. That was all, I’m sorry to say, and yes, I nearly did marry her. She was lovely though, Mary, my wife, once went with me to try and find her, but no luck after 37 year. I think Mary was glad, though she might have to come home on her own. She had nowt to fear, I still love her, Mary I mean.
We did the usual army training, drill guards, exercises, PT, we had plenty of time for swimming. I almost drowned learning. A chap by the name of Semple saved me. I was really on my way down for the third time; all I did was walk beyond my depth. I stood him a pint. We arrived here in January; as I said, it was now October 1938 and the Germans were taking over Sadatland, so we were in standby in case of trouble. There wasn’t, he just took it over.
As we were all ready to move, they packed us off to Palestine to defend the Jews from the Arabs. I was a lance corporal at the time. Our company was stationed in a hotel just off the docks in Italia. It was empty, we just took it over. We didn’t have waiters or servants; it was just like being in barracks. I was put in charge of the rations and seeing it was shared out fairly at meal times. All Grays in the army were called ‘Dolly’, so one day, I was sharing out a meal and there were some left overs. Someone shouted out, “Can I have some Dolly?” Don’t forget, I’m a lance jack. Who was standing at the back, but the sergeant major? He says, “Who’s this Dolly? I’ll see you in my office.” So he did and I came out without my stripe for being too familiar with the other ranks. I didn’t shed any tears for 3/- a day. We patrolled the streets similar to the Northern Ireland racket; bombs were going off in different places, land mines, raiding villages looking for anything explosive.
This went on until March 1939 and guess what, they packed us off back to Malta. Little did we know what lay in front of us; no one did. We landed back at St Andrew’s barracks, back to the usual bull.
I eventually got picked out for the motor transport, so off on driving instructions. I liked that, I passed first time. I got transferred to the Bren Gun Carriers, a tracked armoured vehicle, smaller than a tank. Joy again, off to learn carrier driving, also passed first time, what a clever boy!
At this time, we had plenty of time on our hands, off to town every chance we got, but the money was short, especially with buying sherries or showing off. I found a caretaker on a building site at nights, who was buying anything in the clothing line, or food, so I started a market. I went round the lads who were also short of cash, 2/- a shirt, 3/- a blanket etc. and I sold to this guy for 3/- and 5/-. This went on for quite a while until one night, I met the shirt man with an armful of stuff. I did my deal, got my sherry money and was on my way back to the billet through the fields, when I heard a night patrol in the distance. I daren’t let them see me because I was out of bounds, so I ran and fell down a stony bank and broke my ankle. As it happened, there was a bit of a wind that night, so I said I was covering the carrier and the wind got under the cover and pulled me off the carrier, and I went over on my ankle. I got over it but spent a month in hospital.
Come September 3rd, 1939, we went out in the country when we got the word about the war starting so they rushed us to an empty school, and it was raining cats and dogs. We never knew it to rain so heavy in Malta, we just sleep on the floor as it had been a rushed job. Now there was a war on.
With us being out in the country for those few days, we were scruffy, so they laid on a 3-ton truck to take a load to the baths. I was lucky as the truck was full. They didn’t get their bath as they had a crash. One was killed and mostly, the rest were injured. That was our first casualty of the war.
Now that war was on us, the carrier platoon wasn’t needed on Malta anyway, so we got split up and sent to different companies. The engineers and builders were hard at building bunkers all round the island. Each one could see the other, so every inch on the coast was covered from invaders, if we weren’t asleep.
I got sent to one of these, it was seven blokes to each. I was on the anti-tank gun, to blow the boats up if they came near, Unfortunately, I had to man it on the roof, as it was a long barrel. The others with bren guns and rifles could use them through the port holes. We did guard duty every night, 2 hours on, 4 hours off. We manned our posts every night from dusk till dawn, never much sleep.
Every day, four of us went on a working party while the other three looked after the post. At the beginning, we were wiring the island all around the coast, with barbed wire. Our exposed parts were torn to ribbons with old rusty wire. Almost everyone suffered running sores; desert sores we called them. I still have sores to this day. It wasn’t long before the air raids started. It was great first day or so, just watching them come in through the ‘Ack Ack’ fire. One of the biggest barrages of the war while we had ammunition. At the start, we only had three planes which were Gladiators, Faith, Hope and Charity. They put up a good show, to say they were so ancient.
We had raids almost every day, sometimes lasting all day and night. We eventually got used to them and wondered what was up if they missed a session. We used to say, “Where’s old Johnny today, or tonight?” We eventually got a few Hurricanes and Spitfires. It was great to see them in action, planes were getting shot down for a change; not so nice if they were ours of course.
The Italians and Jerries had control of the Med. by now. There were no supplies getting through, convoys of 13 to 14 ships getting sunk; odd ships were limping in now and again, which meant that we were low on everything from grub to ammo and planes. 40 Spitfires took off from a carrier well out at sea. What didn’t get shot down on the way in, got shot up on landing. We really cried when we saw it; the poor pilots did their best.
Now and then, a ship would snake in and then it was a rushed job to get it unloaded, so all drivers were required. I got the job; it got me out of that bunker at least. We had to cart the cargo out into the country for safe storage. It was mostly petrol and ammo, which was all right.
I got on the rations, there were plenty of broken cases, so we could help ourselves to an odd tin of bully or spam, anything eatable in fact. While we were on convoy duty, we pushed up at night, out in the fields, away from the bombing area, in a tent not far from an Ack Ack site. They supplied us with whatever meals were available, which was very little.
It was Christmas 1942 and the cooks had tins of steak and kidney, only the small size though. It was suggested by the medical people that a full tin each was too much, so we got ¾ of a tin. They said our stomachs wouldn’t take a full tin. I felt as if I could have eaten a lot more, but the cooks were great, what they did with the army biscuits (iron tack is what we called them) was nobody’s business. They melted them down and made some lovely pastry and cream cones, puffs, jam rolls, all just a picture to see.
At night, three of us had to guard the line of trucks because of the stealing by the Maltese and our own blokes. I suppose they could just sell anything. This night, me and a couple of others had the job; we patrolled the line of trucks a few times, and when we thought all were in bed and asleep, we decided to sit in the tent and have a game of cards. We got away from it; no one in authority came round.
I was one of the first batch to go on convoy duty that morning. It was still dark when we set off to get the truck ready. Mine was a 3-ton Ford V8, which was easily started, shoved into gear, let the clutch out and it wouldn’t start to move. I got out to see if there was a stone under the wheels. There was no stone, it was worse than that; there were no wheels. The truck was jacked up and all five wheels were gone including the spare. Oh why did I have to be on guard last night? We were under suspicion; they couldn’t prove anything and they searched all our kit, expecting to find money for the sale I suppose. The wheels would fetch about £40.00 at the time, a lot of money in those days. As it happened, I had about £25.00 and I was only drawing 5/- a week, so I had to be sharp. We were in tents, so I scraped a hole in the ground beside my bed and stood in it as they inspected my kit. How I happened to have the £25.00: one morning, down from breakfast, I saw this wad. I thought it was someone’s love letters, but it was a wad of £1.00 notes. I ran all the way to the toilets before I checked it out. One of the lads saw me pick it up, so he followed me and was knocking on the door, so I peeled off a few and handed them to him. I counted it and I had £126.00. Afterwards, he told me I’d given him £26.00. I said that he was lucky because he had more than me.
The next day, I was in town and I went to the Post Office to send £50.00 home. I turned yellow with worry, in case there would be an enquiry, what with so much black marketing going on. I looked across the road and saw a pub with a beer bottle on the counter, which was also a rare sight. So that was that. I got four nights out and enjoyed it, and so did a lot of my friends; I had plenty of them. Anyway, we got away with losing the wheels, they were that busy trying to prove that we stole them; they forgot to charge us with neglect of duty.
After the ships were unloaded, they kept me on the trucks. A 15 cwt (hundredweight, approx 50 kg) truck this time, but it was filled with rocks and stones. We stood by ready to mend the runways after all the raids. I helped to fill a lot of holes and had some close shaves doing so. When the raids died down, we would refuel the planes.
After a spell on that job, they decided to form the carrier platoon again. Not long after this, they asked for volunteers for the Paras. I think everyone did; they had even asked for submarine crews, but it was serious this time, it was June 1943 now. We’d had over 3,000 raids.
Before I leave Malta, I have to tell you about when I was a bad boy: before I went on the convoy duty, I went absent off parade and got drunk and was locked up overnight. That led to eight days confined to barracks and having to answer roll call every few hours when not on duty. I refused this and got 168 hours detention, more or less locked up all the time with lots of tasks to do at night, such as cleaning mucky rusty pans, containers etc. I also refused this, so it was 3 days of bread and water. By God, they were three long days. After that, I was made a soldier, but believe me, I really did this just to experience it all. I wouldn’t like to do it again.
So, we boarded a ship, the first one out of Malta for ages, and off to be a Red devil, but we didn’t expect to get there as Jerry was still flying about of course. You know, we made it; we landed at Port Said transit camp. We soon got to the dining hall, don’t forget, we didn’t know what a dining hall was for. It was about 18 months since we had had a chance to use a knife and fork. When I walked into that hall, I saw a sight I shall never forget, a counter at the end, piled up with white bread and it wasn’t rationed.
When I joined up, I had one ambition: to sail down the Suez Canal on a troop ship. That didn’t happen, but I went down the side of it in a train for a few miles, before crossing over into Palestine. Our training camp was an aerodrome, just a few miles from Nazareth. We did our training under R.A.F. instructors, a great crowd of lads. I enjoyed every minute, I always liked new experiences and this certainly was one.
After about a fortnight, we were fully fledged Paras. We were the first of a new battalion, the 11th A company. It took quite a while to form as new batches kept coming in and had to be trained, but we had to be toughened up for what lay ahead. At least, I know that now, but not then. Again, I enjoyed it all; I liked doing the impossible, which it seemed at the time. We did one march, my toughest ever. We set off from Iraq at about 8 pm and marched across Jordan into Palestine, across the River Jordan, at 2 pm the next day. After marching all night with full kit and guns, my feet were like balloons.
We did a drop on the shores of Lake Galilee one night. The pilot said that we could brag about dropping from 100 feet as our limit was 350 feet and the lake was over 200 feet below sea level. We had a corporal killed that night; his chute didn’t open, mine always did. A few of us once did a demonstration jump at Gaza Strip for a crowd of stuffed shirt. We just dropped and gathered up our chutes and went back into the plane. They didn’t offer us a drink. I remember I was scared to death flying back, as we had no chute. I gathered mine around my feet. If it had been necessary, I could have jumped with it in my arms. We had great faith in our chutes and never liked flying without one.
Towards the end of 1943, we did a drop on one of the Greek Islands, Kos. We flew from Palestine to Cyprus, had a few hours rest, then dropped over Kos at about 2 am, it was a lovely clear night, almost daylight. I expected it to be a very rocky place. Coming down, I could see big grey mounds dotted all around the place. I tugged and towed at my lines to dodge them, and I did. I landed beside one and guess what, they were big piles of straw. I would love to go back and jump again, what a dream landing it would have been. We were there for 10 day and we met no enemy, only air raids again, and guess what; all our containers with all our rations in them, landed in the sea, so we were back to starvation again. It was Malta all over again. I caught a stray chicken one day, lit a fire and boiled it, but there were lots of mouths to feed, but it was tasty. I was noseying around the hedges watching the Italians who were supposed to be defending the place, but were taking the same air raids and bombings as we were from Jerry. My foot hit something hard; it was like a box full of rations that one of them must have hidden for the black-market. It was great: tins of meat, soups, biscuits, and chocolate, what a feast we had. Some of the tins of meat we couldn’t stomach, so we sold them to the locals for fags. When the 10 days were up, we were relieved by the Durham Light Infantry. One of them was killed the first day by a bomb. We saw them bury him. From where we were, it was right on the skyline and it was very touching. The bugler was playing ‘the last post’ at dusk. Luckily, we had no casualties.
My own battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, got off Malta a few weeks after we left, they also came to Palestine to get their stamina built up after the Malta siege. They got the job of defending one of the other islands. After a couple of weeks, they were all taken over by the ferries that were taking prisoners, so I made a good move by joining the paras, otherwise I’d have been with them. It worked out that they were captured about 12 months before I was, but during that 12 months, I got back to England and home on leave, which was the first time I had been home since I joined up.
After coming off the island of Kos, I went back to Palestine. It’s not difficult to imagine our grubby state after being on the island for 10 days, laid in trenches, no baths, no change of clothes, no shaves, hardly anything to eat. It was like getting off Malta all over again.
After a few days’ rest, we were on leave again for a week; plenty of wine (women but no song) and grub. I’d seen quite a bit of the Biblical side of Palestine, but I’d never been to Jerusalem, so I intended to go while on this leave. I queued up at the bus station, waited ages, but there was no bus, so I nipped across to the nearest pub. Anyway, I couldn’t have saved Him. He’d already arisen from the dead and was probably the cause of all this present trouble. After our little holiday, we were back at the wheel with more stiff training, until mid December 43. We got the wonderful news that we were on our way back to England, and down to Port Said again, only we were going the right way this time.
We boarded a troop ship, what a difference from the one we left England in during 1937. It was crammed full, we slept on the decks, hammocks or any space available. The allies had control of the Med. now, so there was no worry going back until we got near to Gibraltar. There was a big sea battle taking place on the route we were taking, so we had to be diverted around the Azores, which was a long way round, so instead of landing in Southampton, we docked in Liverpool on the 5th of January, 44. I’d sailed out of Southampton on the 5th of January 1938, six year to the day.
With all the docking at Liverpool, we were very lucky we didn’t capsize, as I think everyone on the boat was on the dockside. It really was frightening, but it all worked out OK. The battalions all went their own way, we the 11th Para battalion, left from Lime street Station and headed for Leicester, to a place called Charlton. From there, I went on that holiday, the first since I’d joined. I set off to go home to N.I., frightened, not knowing what to expect. They didn’t know I was coming, so it would be a shock to them also. I arrived at about 8 pm, in the middle of January, so you can imagine the pitch black night out in the hill of ‘Corick’, a couple of miles from Draperstown, Co Derry.
The paraffin lamp was lit, but there wasn’t much light; the half door was shut, so I knocked on it. I had to wait a bit because nobody knocks on doors over there, they just walk in. Eventually, a lass came to the door and stood a while. All she could see was my brass buttons shining. She shouted at the top of her voice, “IT’S JOSEPH!” Then there was a mad rush and I said, “Can I come in?” I don’t remember what the answer was.
The lass that met me at the door was my youngest sister, Catherine. She was about 10 when I left, but 17 now. You can probably imagine the crowd of strangers I’d walked into. I recognised my two eldest sisters, Helen and Mary, my father and step mother, but don’t forget, they had a second family, 3 boys and 3 girls. They were: Johnny, Patrick and Peter, and Winnie, Sally and Anna. I think that was all of them; oh, not quite, there was Jessie and Nellie, a couple they had adopted, as if they didn’t have enough kids of their own.
I just walked in, dumped what kit I had on the floor and got the best chair in the house offered to me. What happened after that, I can’t remember. I just explained my journey, how long leave I had and everybody just sat about looking at me. What went through their minds I don’t know; mine was just blank. I had no conversation in me at all. I just spoke when I was spoken to; it was a completely different world from the one I’d come from after 7 years.
They all hugged me, naturally, but I can’t remember my dad even getting off his chair. I think he was lost at what to do, so he did nothing, but it hurt. It was because of him that I left, and it was because of him that I’d never gone back until now. I shouldn’t have gone even now, but I knew there were big things ahead for me, so this was probably my last chance of seeing them all, and them of me.
I was at a loss, so the pubs came to my aid; I spent all my time in them. When I arrived home at night, they would all be in bed. I stayed in bed until opening time next day. Nothing was too much for them to do for me, but I wasn’t used to being cuddled. I suppose I should have settled down and tried to accept it all, but I just couldn’t. It’s all right saying so now, but the wildness has all left me now. I’ve Mary (the girl I later married) to thank for that really. She was a lovely innocent girl, and she treated me as I needed to be treated. Anyway, more about that later.
My leave was coming to an end. I was gradually getting used to my surroundings, there were plenty of parties for me. The old fellow and I had a few chats and I drained a bottle of whisky. I eventually had him in tears; he did have feelings of guilt, I could see that.
The town people got a dance organised in the Town Hall for me and another chap who was also home at the time. He was in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but he didn’t join the Paras. The dance was OK, everyone was a stranger to me, but they presented us with supper at the vicar’s house, plus a ten-pound note each. That was a decent sum in those days. It was a sad day when I left; everyone was in tears, myself included and the old fellow. He came with me to Magherfelt, to the train. We had a good talk on the bus, on the way to the train. He made me promise to come back home after the war was over. He offered me the Corick Farm. I often wondered if I had gone back, would he have kept his word? I didn’t go back and had no intentions of doing so, but at that time, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was just going to get shot I suppose. The battalion re-formed at Melton Mowbray and there we stayed until the final day. We had plenty of standby scares, one South of France, one Belgium and one North Holland. It seemed that our troops were advancing too fast for us to get there. That is why they dropped us so far in front at Arnhem on the 17th of September 1944. I dropped on the second day, the 18th of September, which was my 26th birthday.
What a welcome we got on that day compared to the one before. There were planeloads shot, out of the air, gliders piling up everywhere, on their noses, on top of the trees in the woods, but once again, luck was with me. I got down safely, but I lost all of my kit, which was hanging from a rope around my waist. Imagine that, the rope was shot and I was unscathed. I crawled around, trying to find it; all my 48-hour rations had gone and my rifle. I did find a rifle, but the butt was smashed; every time I fired it, I had to bang the butt back into place. I wasn’t lucky enough to find anything to eat.
We were scattered all around the dropping zone but no-one seemed to know what was happening or where to go. Someone shouted, “OVER HERE!” So we headed for the woods and got formed into groups, then headed for Arnhem and the bridge. It was about 7 miles away and all the way, we didn’t have a shot fired at us. There were plenty of shells and mortars and the unlucky ones copped for them. My group got right to St. Elizabeth Hospital, which was within sight of the bridge. There we ran into our first opposition, rifle fire from the railway banking behind the hospital. We all dove for cover and we only had one casualty, Tommy Armstrong, a pal. A bullet went right through his haversack, which was packed with all sorts of ammo, grenades, mines and bullets. The bullet came out of the bottom and through the drinking mug, which was hanging on the bottom, then it went through his heel, but only through the hard flesh. He was taken to hospital but was soon back in action again.
The firing eased off, so we moved across the hospital grounds to the railway banking and could see no enemy. Where they go to, God knows, there were a few Jerries dead. I don’t know if we got them, or who. We could see right across the railway; there was a road, about 400 yards away and coming down that road was a full company of Jerries. They had their 2 scouts out in front of them. That was my first shot at the enemy. I fired at the first scout and he fell. I couldn’t fire again because I had to bang my rifle butt back on, remember? But I managed to get the other scout as he ran forward to help his mate. I fired and he fell on top of him, so I did do a little bit towards winning, but there was the company of Jerries at the back. I shouted to our officer in charge, but he said, “Hold your fire.” We realised then that he was yellow and didn’t want to give our position away, actually - his position. He could have opened up because we got hunted out as tanks were coming up behind us. A broken rifle was no match against a tank, neither was a good one.
So we were on our way back; we did see the bridge though, plenty didn’t. We retreated about a mile to a farm and dug in, which was easy, as it was sandy. It seemed as if we were going to be OK for a bit. Now on this farm there were some chicks, yes, big Rhode Island Reds. By the way, the farm had been shelled and wrecked; the coal shed was on fire and there was a lovely big smouldering heap of coal. What a lovely fire on which to roast a chicken. I’d been to the house and found a saucepan, a lovely big one. I caught and plucked a chicken. All the vegetables you could want were in the gardens. I got the saucepan onto the fire when someone came and picked me to go on patrol. The Bren gunner, a sergeant and myself were sent out to find out where Jerry might be. We’d gone quite a bit before we made contact at the end of this village green. We were hidden in a hedgerow, when over the top came a tank with a whole company of Jerries. I was in good view, so I asked for the Bren gun. All I could do was get a good burst in, then run, hoping to get as many as possible. I got them in my sights, ready to press and spray. I pressed and nothing happened, and they were getting closer, so I asked the sergeant for his Sten gun (which was only a toy at the best of times). Guess what, that didn’t work either, so I grabbed my own rifle and let go right into the middle of them, so surely, I must have got one of them. They were closer now, so it was run for our lives time. I jumped a wire netting fence; I swear it was 12 feet high. I ran all the way back to, our positions. Jerry had sneaked up on them, so we were off into retreat again. The chicken was still on the fire and I wondered since, did somebody find it before it boiled away.
The reason the guns didn’t work when asked to do so: I mentioned the sand earlier; we were ordered out without having time to dust down our weapons. The Bren gun was covered with sand, the Sten had an earwig right across the firing pin, but my busted rifle worked once again, so that’s another notch on my butt. That’s 3 to my credit now and I’m afraid, that was it.
It was getting dark now, so we kept going back until we came to the area around the church and Kate Horst’s house. I had attached myself to the Bren Gunner as he had lost his mate and my rifle was useless. He was from Dublin too, and belonged to my old regiment. We dug in at the bottom of Kate Horst’s garden. There were some apple trees, so we helped ourselves. The thing is, everyone else around the area did likewise, so they didn’t last long. I had no rations, as I’d said, but my gunner shared what he had with me, so we were soon without. I lost all trace of time, just stuck in the trench. The both of us fired an odd shot in the Jerries’ direction to let them know we were still there. The trouble was that they answered it. There was plenty of mortar fire from them too, we had none of course.
We were once having a mashing (brew) and Dennis, my mate, lit the little gadget we had and I was reaching to the top of the trench for his knapsack, to get the tea mixture, and Dennis said, “OK, I can reach it.” He did, and a lump of shrapnel hit him on his right arm. If I’d reached up, it would have got me in the head or a bit below, so I would have been a head case. He had to go for First Aid which was in Kate’s house, which was packed with the wounded and dying. All around the outside of the house were bodies.
Dennis stayed in that night, so I was on my own. I had to stay with the gun; there was nowhere to go anyway. He got back the next morning with a very bad arm.
All this time, we hadn’t seen an officer anywhere. Where they operated from, I don’t know. A couple of days before the end, we were asked to gather in the church leaving someone to mind the guns, so Dennis got the job and I went to the church to get a low down on the state of things. We did get a bit of warm stew, about a ladle each.
It was Major Lonsdale who addressed us; all he could tell us was what we already knew, that we’d had it. But we did have a slight chance if the Yanks could get through, which they didn’t. We hung on for another couple of days. Finally, the word came through that we were getting out. We were ordered to head to the river as there were boats laid on to get us across. As we were nearest the river, we were the last to be told, so the line to the river reached almost back to our trench. This would be about 10 pm and the line moved about 10 paces every hour, which meant dawn was on us before we got near to the river. By then, there were no boats left; Jerry had seen to that when daylight broke out.
They say 2,000 got out, 2,000 were killed and as many were wounded, so at least 4,000 of us were taken prisoner. We were all spread along the river (The Rhine) not knowing what to do. Some tried to swim, some did, some drowned and some were swept away, as the current was very strong. I tried to swim, but it was too strong for me. Jerry was still firing at us, spraying the river. It was awful to see so many drop dead especially when it was supposed to be all over. They were falling so fast, I couldn’t see myself making it, so I kept picking out objects on the bank, such as a daisy, a stone, a match and saying to myself, “Shall I reach that daisy, that stone, that match?” and I did. Luck was with me again. Jerry rounded us up and marched us into Arnhem, to a yard where they’d got all the rest of the airborne stragglers.
On our way back there, we were marched through a wood and through an avenue of tanks. The crews all sat on them jeering at us whilst smoking our cigarettes and eating our chocolate, making sure we saw them as they flashed Capstan, Woodbines and Cadbury’s. All these and our rations were dropped in their area.
After an hour or so, they lined us up again, no food or anything. They marched us right across Holland (I think) to a railway siding where there was a line of cattle wagons, but they did give us a loaf to share between 8 of us, before they loaded us onto the wagons. There were 48 in ours, the others too. I suppose half of us could sit if the others stood, so we took it in turns. It was a long journey: Cologne, Frankfurt and other places. We eventually arrived at a POW transit camp where all POW’s are checked through and allotted a camp. All particulars are taken, all valuables, money and details of next of kin. The Red Cross reps were there, seeing fair play was in order. All money and valuables were supposed to be returned after the war, but I never heard from anyone who received anything back. We stayed the night there and I got the job, with half a dozen others, to go to the cookhouse and collect our rations, which comprised a container of their soup, which was really milky. There was coloured water with a few potatoes in the bottom and a bit of something green floating on top. As I stood outside the cookhouse waiting, I saw in a patch outside, some Brussels sprout stalks, if you can imagine a Brussels stalk. It is about 3 feet long, no sprouts, just the stalk. I whipped it up and stuck it under my jacket and got away with it. What a feed I got off that stalk. I had helpers of course, and they had no idea what it was, but they enjoyed it, and so did I. I still like my cabbage stalks.
Next morning, we set off again on another part of the journey, to a camp with POW’s, some from the beginning of the war. I ran into some of my Irish Fusiliers mates. They were captured on the Greek Islands, one of the islands we had left in September 43; what a small world.
While we were in this camp, we got a Red Cross parcel between two. My mate was a chap called Kent from London, also a para. He was one of the young ones who joined us when we arrived back in England. I was in charge of the parcel, we shared it out the best we could. The idea of the Red Cross was that we got one of these weekly and this was our first. It turned out to be our last too, but it was great while it lasted. It contained about 50 cigs, tinned meat, biscuits (which were the army hard tack again, so I softened them with milk), dried fruit, jam, sugar and a 7lb bully beef tin, empty of course. I cut it in half and put the mixed batter in one half and used the other half as a lid. There was a fire in the hut; stacks of red hot ashes, so I stuck it in the hot ashes and left it an hour or so, thinking I had wasted all that good stuff. I lifted it out of the ashes and left it to cool. As we still had plenty of the parcel left, we decided to leave the cake or whatever it would turn out to be, until later. As it happened, we were on the move the next day, to another camp. We went part of the way by truck and marched the rest. It was a long march by the way, through snow. It was well into October by now. While we were in the truck, we decided to open the bully tin, expecting the worst. It turned out to be the most gorgeous cake I’ve ever had. The smell was rich and fruity and the taste was out of this world. Everyone in the truck was amazed at the strong rich smell, but that was all they got. The both of us just scoffed it; sorry I didn’t save the recipe.
We eventually arrived at our camp, which turned out to be our last and final one. As far as camps go, it was the usual wooden huts, well wired in a guarded camp area. There were wooden bunks, one up and one down, two blankets each. I was on top, as all the longer prisoners had the bottom bunks. Some of them had been there for four years, but they had been living pretty good, as they had been getting regular Red Cross parcels and some from home, but the Red Cross was a thing of the past now. The excuse was that the trucks couldn’t get through because of the fighting and the bombing. These trucks were called the ‘White Ladies”. We kept hearing rumours that the White Ladies had been sighted, but we never saw them, somebody did, but not prisoners I’ll bet.
We got rigged out with our prison uniforms, comprising old trousers, shirt and heavy overcoat with a big coloured patch on the back to denote we were POW’s. Our camp was Kolumbus, near Bruix, Czechoslovakia. If we were workers, we got the eighth of a loaf, a brown round loaf that weighed about 2lbs (almost 1 Kg). I should say that it was of a very heavy substance; more like concrete that flour or wheat. I’d say that I couldn’t eat it without toasting it, which we did by sticking slices on the outside of the stove in the middle of the hut. We queued up to get a place on the stove. We had some cheese too, which I could never eat; it stank. It looked like a thick candle without a wick. Once a week or so, we would get a piece of German sausage, about an inch, I did like that. Once a day, we got a bowl of stew (shilly). It looked like milky water with bits of veg and potatoes, if you were lucky.
I worked down the coal pit. It was 900 feet down and it took ages to get to the coalface, but that time didn’t count. Our 8-hour shift started when we reached the coalface, so it took 12 hours to do an 8-hour shift.
On the morning shift, we were paraded at 4.30 am, inspected and counted, then marched about 2 miles and we had snow all the time right up to mid March. The cold at that hour of the morning was unexplainable. Our breath froze on our chests, after about half an hour, our coat fronts were white and even our eyelashes froze. We couldn’t blink because it would feel like electric shocks when the eyelashes touched our cheeks. I managed to keep working; we had to otherwise our rations would be cut by half. Often, when we were on our way to or from the pit, our planes would come over and we would have to scatter. During one of these raids, it seems that the men scattered all over the place and a lot of them got to the pit on their own. The Jerries were more frightened than the prisoners, so they rushed as many of us prisoners down the shaft as they could, not for the our benefit, but more for their own. They had no name check on us, only numbers, like twenty down and twenty up. So with all the excitement of the raids, four or five of our lads managed to get back un-noticed to the camp, so when that shift came back up after eight hours, there were four men missing. The shift that was waiting to take their place knew that, so instead of 20 coming up, only 16 did, so four of the 20 going down, joined the 16 who had just come up, to make the number up to 20, for the benefit of the Jerry guard. He was no wiser, 20 in, 20 out, so he was covered. So from that day up to the end, there were 4 men short on every shift as each shift had to be made up. We all got a turn at missing a shift; we called that shift, a Churchill. Believe me, I think it would have been more comfortable to work, because when on a Churchill, we had to hide all day in case the guards tumbled to the scheme. It was for Churchill, for England.
Like all pits, even in this country, we changed our clothes before we went down; we had a shower and changed back into our best (rags) when we got back up. I enjoyed it down the pit. The Russians had all the dangerous jobs, such as at the coalface; they didn’t have to crawl on their stomachs, as in our pits. The seams were so deep, so they blasted upwards until they came to the earth or rock, or whatever came first. That is where the Ruskies worked, sending all the loose coal out to us on the main passageway and into the wagons which we had to hook onto a cable that pulled them to the lift. This cable had to be pulled down to the catch on the wagons; no easy job as the cable was on the move at all times and couldn’t be stopped, except in emergencies. Once, I pulled it down too far (I was strong), and it missed the wagon’s catch, but caught me under the chin. It lifted me up and threw me across the passage, onto the other line which I just missed with my head. I came round after a while. I’d just a few bruises but I had to keep working or starve.
Once, I was tidying up the main passage, picking up the loose coal that had fallen off the wagons. I got caught short and needed a toilet. The first to come along were the shift change hand. They were all Jerries; one of them asked me what I was doing, so I actually asked where the ‘Shisen huizen’ was, but he thought I had called him one instead. What a job I had, miming what I really meant. He finally got my meaning. A similar thing happened one night. I happened to be on a ‘Churchill’, having a game of cards, when one of the other lads rushed in, all excited and shouting, “Get me a plate,” or something. “The Jerry guards have got some fish paste for us, hurry before they move on.” They patrolled round the wire fence, which was close to our hut. He got his plate and rushed out. We were all looking forward to a fish paste sandwich, if we had any bread left. He came rushing back in saying, “Bloody fools, they only asked the time, which in German is, ‘Ish pate’” It does sound like ‘fish paste’, but when you are hungry, everything sounds like something to eat.
Life as a POW never altered much; not for the better anyway. We kept getting our mail. All the older POWs still got parcels from home. We always got cigs, when a parcel arrived for our hut. If we were at the pit when the parcel arrived, the on coming shift used to say, “There’s a fag on your bed.” The receiver always placed a fag on all the beds in the hut.
I preferred working night shift; it was warmer down the pit. All we had in the hut was two blankets and we had to lay on one of them. When it snowed, I woke up and found little lines of snow about six inches apart, where it had blown between the boards on the roof. There was no felt covering at all, only bare boards, not even overlapping. The nearest toilet was 100 yards away and in that weather, it was no mean task. I was there every two hours, so down the pit at night was home from home for me.
So that was our life as a POW, day in, day out. We did see our planes fly over, all 1,000 of them. To our right was Dresden; to our left was Leipzig, about 40 miles away. We could see the sky glow for ages after the bombings. The problem was that some of the damaged planes dropped their loads short and if any of the bombs hit the railway lines, we had to repair them the next morning, and in that cold, the frost was so severe, it was three feet into the ground. We could see the proof of that from the bomb craters. The rail tracks were so cold, they burnt our hands, but we had to keep going. The trains must get through, unfortunately, to provide the German army with the supplies they needed to fight our lads with. This went on up to the end of the war.
The first we knew about that was when a convoy of Russians came past our camp: tanks, lorries, mostly American Dodge 3 tonners. Thank God for the USA; like us, the Russians were depending on these supplies.
The Russians went straight through, they didn’t even wave to us and we were cheering them. I saw three 3 tonners go through, loaded high with loaves of bread. That was the main reason we were cheering, hoping they might throw us a few loaves, but they didn’t. It took them three days to pass through. All the heavy stuff went the first day, tanks, and guns etc. The second day, all the foot soldiers, but on the third day, it was all the civilians. It seemed that if their family followed them, they trundled in civilian transport, right down to the donkey cart, all loaded up with the spoils of war. They left nothing driveable or eatable.
When we picked ourselves up after our disappointment, we realised that our German guards had done a bunk, so we were free with nowhere to go. We were like that for a week. We raided all the stores, but there wasn’t much left. We were surprised the Russians didn’t raid them also. We were able to roam about on our own now. I got down to the village; that was our first day of freedom. We found one empty house, and guess what, it used to be a German Officer’s and it was loaded. It even had his uniform. I got a good pair of shoes, my size, and plenty of grub of all kinds. A lot of it was strange to me, but eatable.
All I thought about was to get as much together as possible, so I could give the lads a treat, back at the camp. I found a big bag, like a mattress cover, and I gathered everything eatable, even cordial. I got it onto my shoulder and went outside. There, I saw a rabbit hutch with a lovely big white rabbit. I got it out and tapped it on the back of the ears, and stuck it in the bag. I forgot to mention that I also found some dry tea. I hadn’t seen any of that since I left England.
I went down the street for a bit, and I could see Russians all over the place. They were ransacking every house and shooting anyone who got in their way. What could I do? I couldn’t run with this sack of stuff (it was heavy), so I put what I could, in my pockets and around my body, then dumped the sack, much to my regret. But I dodged them and got back to camp and had a nice cup of tea.
We waited a week before the Yanks came and got us away. They arrived in 3-ton trucks; there were about 30 in each truck. They took us to tents in the woods, just outside Prague. They ran us all around the square in Prague. I was leaning on the cab of the truck, waving the Union Jack. It was a faded old thing, but it was a great feeling. We finally got a decent meal. It was that good, I can’t remember what it was, but it was something solid at least. We hung about for a few days, then they flew us out to Brussels where we got cleaned up and rigged out with new clothes.
The sight I shall never forget was when we walked into the dining hall for our first meal. There was a table at the end of the hall, stacked high with the whitest bread loaves I had ever seen. After the German black bread, it looked so good.
We got back to England, how and where to, I just can’t remember. I was so excited at getting back home, Attercliffe would have done me. We got settled into a transit camp for a few weeks. We were well fed and clothed, and enjoyed freedom. Eventually, we got sent on leave for 12 weeks. I think the army wanted our families to build us up, rather than them doing it. I didn’t enjoy my holiday. Eight years out of Civvy Street takes some getting used to. I just spent my time in pubs, getting drunk most of the time. I was eventually sent to a camp at Shoreham where I met up with a lot of my ex-prisoner colleagues again, plus some of my fellow Irish Fusiliers. I seemed to be more at home there, than at home.
I was there quite a while, it was September, harvest time, so they sent us out to help the farmers. I got sent to Lord Ennisdale’s estate with another couple of lads. We enjoyed gathering up the crops and corn, wheat and whatever. I had a good idea what to do and how to do it. The others just followed me; they were city clickers. The foreman noticed my usefulness and asked me to go back after demob. I might have been a lord by now. I only saw the man once; we got £1.00 a day, more beer money. It was too good to last, so they sent a batch of us to the Isle of Wight, Albany Barracks (which is now the prison). I got the job of helping to lay a football pitch and digging drains. It was like digging trenches again. I had enough of that in Malta and Arnhem. One Sunday morning, it was raining so I got back into bed. I was put on a charge for sleeping in (7 days confined to barracks). This meant that I had to answer to the guardroom every couple of hours up to 10 pm. I did it for a couple of days then they sent me back to the main camp again; I suppose they thought I was going to be a handful (I wasn’t really). I’d just had an extra hour in bed on a wet Sunday morning. Some thanks for Malta and Arnhem, so with me being on punishment and only two days of it done, I took a chance at not reporting. Instead, I dressed up and reported to the guardroom on my way out for the night, and every night afterwards. They didn’t, or they forgot to send my charge sheets. Forgot, I should say; it was no big deal really.
From the Albany Barracks, on the Isle of Wight, I got a week’s holiday for Christmas 45. I palled up with a lad from Doncaster, so he and I set off. My intention had been to go to Bath to meet a lass whose address I found in the pocket of a pair of trousers I got before Arnhem. We communicated while I was a prisoner; I got a few letters. I even asked my family to send her a turkey at Christmas, which they did. If I had gone there, I’d have got a turkey dinner, but my mate talked me into carrying on to Doncaster and to call at Bath on our way back, which we didn’t. We dropped off at Sheffield and I think he went on to Doncaster and I finished up on my own.
Coming out of the Barley Corn pub one night, two nice lasses stopped and asked me if I was going home for Christmas, which I wasn’t. So they asked me to get another couple of homeless soldiers and come to their party, which they held every Christmas for us homeless folks. I promised, but I had no intention really, I was shy you see. After promising, they got me to go to the pictures. We queued for a while, so we got to know each other. There was Doreen; she did all the talking, and shy Mary. Doreen’s boyfriend Cyril was in the navy and had been to Malta, so we had something in common. I had more in common with the shy one, Mary; it was love at first sight. I kept going to the toilet (the beer you know), but they held onto my beret, to make sure I came back, but it wasn’t the beret that fetched me back. After this, I had to go to the party, so I turned up to meet them the next evening, with the other two.
We arrived and had a nice meal and a good time, well, I did, the other two, I never saw again. When the party came to an end, Mary and her pal walked all the way back to town with us and we were lost. We exchanged addresses and that’s how it took root. I think there was a letter every day; Mary still has some of them. About eight weeks after Christmas, I was demobbed and I more or less headed for Sheffield, Carrfield Road to be precise. There I was welcomed with open arms. I got my feet under the table right away, and I got a job in the sheet mills, Firth Vickers at Tinsley within a few days. All this happened after the 25th of January 46. Mary and I got married on the 16th of March 1946, which was a lovely day. I’d wanted to marry on Paddy’s Day, but that was on a Sunday. The reception was held at Lucy’s, just across the road, and we went on our honeymoon to Carrfield Road, then back to work on Monday. Mary went back to Tyzaks. My first week’s wage after our marriage was £4 — 11s — 0d (£4.55p). I took out the one shilling (5p) for my bus fare home, and gave Mary the rest. She gave me £1 — 10s back and that lasted me till the following Friday. It paid my bus fares all week, cigarettes and a couple of nights at Upper Heeley Club. It wouldn’t pay one bus fare today.
On the 7th of February, 1947, our first child, Catherine was born in the front room. I had the day off. It was all over before 10 am. She was a lovely baby; her mother did a great job. It was just like shelling peas.
I went to work at 2 pm as it was payday. All February, we had severe frost and heavy snow. All the gas pipes froze, so we couldn’t work anywhere and I had to go and sign on the dole. I had to claim for a wife and a five-hour-old child. She was so nice and good, we decided that she needed a brother. Lo and behold, she got one on my birthday, 18th September, 1948. The intentions were that he should be born like his sister, in the front room, but complications set in, so Mary was rushed off to the City General (now Northern General) hospital, but Mary still said it was nothing, but I missed Manchester v United at Bramall Lane. Also, Leo and Francis Doyle were nearly as concerned as me. After this, we had our ups and downs; a lot of downs as you will read as you go along.
I had a full year on the sick at £2 — 9s —0d a week sick pay for a wife and two children. How Mary survived, I don’t know. The trouble started with the in-laws; not enough money coming in. Mary went back to work and I did my best at home, despite plenty of nagging from the in-laws, but I stuck it for Mary’s sake. . We managed to go on holiday to Ireland. The fare was only £6 — 2s- 9d. I once stayed with Catherine and Michael and spent a week in Belfast hospital. I’ve been in and out of hospitals here and at the Leeds Army Hospital.
Mary came all the way to Leeds to see me. She could ill afford it, but she did it. It must have been love. I loved her of course and I was glad to see her. The only good thing to come from Leeds was an iron board that I made while I was there.
I went back to Lee’s again, to the job in the warehouse. It was a wage packet, better than sick pay. During the in-law trouble, we moved to Retford. Mary’s brother got us in with a relation of his. It was a right dump, infested with rats and flies; next door to a farm, so as you can imagine, it was worse than Ireland in the old days.
I got a job at Retford, in a railway yard, breaking up wagons. I had to cycle about 6 miles every morning. On Sundays, we got a lift on a truck. The Sunday pay boosted our wages (which were very low) quite a bit.
Eventually, my in laws came to visit us, loaded with goodies. They talked us into going back to Sheffield, but I only did it for the sakes of Mary and the kids. I would have been all right, but I gave in.
We went back and stayed in Sheffield until 266 came up and that’s where we stayed by our two selves. Five years after moving in here (1957), Andrew was born. Where he came from, I don’t know. Mary had a real rough time, but she survived as she always did on such occasions, and effectively, she’s still got me to carry. I’m of no help, I can’t even help myself. I went through Malta, Arnhem and didn’t even get a scratch. I keep saying to myself, God looked after me and I don’t know why. I never was a pal of his, so I have been doing my suffering since 1949 when I started with arthritis, which led to me having long periods off work. How Mary managed with that, I don’t know. Most of this time I was working at Lee’s; other firms would have dumped me, but I was there until I took voluntary redundancy. That was because I had just started with my present complaint (always moaning aren’t I?), which was in 1980. I’d already had about 9 months off sick with pay (or a fraction of full pay). The first time, there was a new union rule. What a pity I didn’t get it for all the other time I had been off. I was able to get about right up to about 1984. I used to go for long walks, all the way into town and around the parks and woods. Now, I ride up to the toilet.
Mary and I managed to get away a few times, we went to Malta and Holland a couple of times, and to Jersey to a caravan site and I managed to get to Ireland too, with Andrew, Julia and Mary. It was a surprise when Catherine arrived too, but it was great to see her. I enjoyed things the best I could, but I was glad to get back home, it was some journey.
There’s not much more I can say, except to thank my family for being so concerned. I am nearly 74 and I have had a good life despite my ups and downs; it just annoys me now because I am not able to ‘muck in’. I have a lovely family: wife Mary, daughter Catherine, sons Michael and Andrew and their wives and children, and not forgetting our great grandchildren. I shall knock off now; I hope it all makes sense, excuse the spelling and whatever mistakes there are. Who said I’d never get this done? Mary, look after them all..........X X X X X.
© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
The following is a different account that Joseph Gray wrote about his experiences of Arnhem:
It was the second day's dropping for the operation. But even while we were waiting by the planes at the aerodrome, we were expecting it to be called off. We'd been through so many false alarms. It was not until we crossed the English coast and I looked down at the sea coming in that I realised this was it. We all seemed to tense ourselves but for what? We didn't know. They had told us there wouldn't be much resistance and we should have a reasonable landing, catching Jerry by surprise. We dropped to 350ft, aiming for a lovely flat patch of heather surrounded by woods. Then it happened. The Germans started shooting from all directions. We were an easy target. Planes, each carrying about 30 parachutists, flew in on fire. The gliders, packed with more men, jeeps, guns, ammunition and equipment thudded into the ground nose-first. Others landed upside down, on one wing or on top of the trees. It was a complete shambles. Someone is to blame for saying we were going to have an everyday landing.
I got down without a scratch, which is more than I can say for a lot of the others. But I'd lost all my tackle, strapped to my leg on the end of a rope. It must have been shot away but I never noticed. That means I started the battle without a gun, ammunition or rations. The first thing I did was to look round for a weapon. There were lots of rifles and sten guns smashed to pieces and the best I came up with was a rifle with a cracked butt. It could only fire once before the recoil sent the butt out of alignment and it had to banged back. That was all I had until I teamed up with Dennis "Picklo" Byrne, a bren gunner who'd lost his mate. It needed two men to look after and carrying the tackle for the gun. I'd been with Picklo in Malta.
We formed up as best we could and headed for Arnhem Bridge, some six or seven miles away. There were dead men all along the route from the day before, our own blokes and Germans. It wasn't until we got to the outskirts of the town that we ran into the enemy again. My Platoon, under Lt. Vickers, got as far as the St. Elisabeth Hospital then all hell seemed to break loose. We took cover behind a railway embankment with Jerry on the other side of the track. We had a few goes at the enemy but they'd got their aim and were firing a shell which exploded at tree height, showering down shrapnel. There were a lot killed and wounded by that but I've no idea how many. It was getting too hot and we could hear the rumble of tanks coming over the bridge. We retreated the way we had come, back in the direction of Oosterbeek.
By this time I was hungry. Remember, I'd lost all my rations. Well, we'd got to a deserted house with chickens running around the garden, where we managed to stay for a while. I collected a saucepan and a hen. (A Rhode Island Red) We were still under machine gun fire but I killed that chicken, plucked it and put it in the pot with all the vegetables you could imagine from the garden. But before we could eat it, the platoon commander was standing behind a haystack when a shell hit it. I never saw him again. Platoon Sgt. Jarvis, Picklo and myself got the job to find the machine gun. We sneaked out and must have gone about 300 yards when we came across a full company of Germans. They hadn't seen us and made a perfect target. As I was in the best position I called for the bren gun. I had the entire company in my sight, all I had to do was press the trigger. But nothing happened. It was broken. I asked for the sten gun. Again, nothing. It was clogged with sand. All I had left was my rifle and don't forget, it had only one shot. I aimed for one man fired and yelled to the others to run. Our position was no longer a secret. I don't know whether I got that Jerry but I can't see how I could have missed. With the Germans hard on our heels we ran back towards the house. When you are running for your life there is no obstacle going to stop you. To this day, I don't know how I got over some of the fences! All three of us made it but the Germans kept coming. My first thought was that the chicken must be done by now but suddenly a tank appeared and we were on the run again.
By the time we reached Oosterbeek it was getting dark. Things were chaotic. No one seemed to be in charge and it was everyone for himself. There were some terrible sights. I saw a glider pilot crossing a little dyke in front of Kate ter Horst's house (she was the gallant Dutch woman who turned her home into a first aid post and field hospital). He walked straight in front of a 17-pounder gun in the front garden as it fired. All I could find of him the next morning was a blackened bone. We took cover in trenches around Kate's house and the nearby church. That woman was marvellous to us.
I'd lost all track of time and now I can't be certain when things happened. But I know it was the second from last day of the battle that our commanding officer, Major Lonsdale called us all into the church to let us know we'd really had it. There was just no hope of the main forces getting through to us, he said. Then hell opened up. Jerry had used the spire as an aiming point and shrapnel came down like rain. At a time like that you want to be near someone you know, at least I did. I saw my old pal John Harkins so I got up and went back to him. That's how I missed death by seconds. As soon as I moved, a lump of shrapnel went right to the back of my seat and hit another pal on the seat in front, shattering his left knee. The spire collapsed on the church in the bombardment. I made for the trench but someone grabbed hold of me to carry a wounded major on a stretcher. He had an awful hole in his chest. We carried him up to Kate's house. In the porch the wounded and the dead were piled three or four high. The poor bloke died while we waiting so we just tipped him on top of the rest. There were so many helpless people in that house as the shrapnel flew around. They couldn't do anything to protect themselves. It wasn't half so bad out in the open so I made it back to the trench.
Picklo was getting ready to mash the tea, kept in a haversack on the top of the trench. I said I would get it but he reached up, screamed and fell back into the trench. I thought he was a goner, but all that had happened was the muscle in his arm had been shot out. So there I was, off back to Kate's again to get him patched up. Picklo wouldn't stay in the house and I can't say I blame him. The last time I saw him was in the POW Camp Hospital. That night word came through to retreat. It was raining cats and dogs as we were lined up along the banks of the Rhine, hoping to get across to safety. I think less than 2000 made it. I didn't. The boats were being blown up out of the water. The retreat had failed and we were stranded. We tried to swim across but the current was too strong and hundreds drowned. The Germans were still firing and it was either drown or be shot until an officer said we would have to surrender and asked for something white. Honestly, it was the first time I heard that word mentioned, but right then it seemed a damn good idea to all of us. Jerry got word to us to march towards the railway bridge where an escort was waiting to disarm us. We'd already done that ourselves. But the Germans kept on shooting and blokes were falling all around me. To think we'd gone through so much to cop it now after we'd packed it in. Again I thought I'd had it. Going along the bank I kept picking out objects saying to myself, shall I make that daisy? That matchsticks, that stone. I did and I didn't have a scratch. The rest and I were marched back to Arnhem and the bridge we'd tried to take. We were herded into cattle trucks and went by rail through Germany to a prison camp. I spent the rest of the war mining coal until the Russians liberated the camp in 1945.
The deaths of so many fine young men still troubles me, but there is one other thing in my mind. I often wonder who had my chicken; it must have made a great meal. Good luck to whoever it was.
Thanks to Ramon de Heer for this story.
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