Private John Michael William Haley
Unit : HQ Company, 156th Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 14391649
Mike Haley passed away in Jersey on the 17th November 2015, aged 91. The following is his account of his wartime service; my thanks to his son, Tim Haley, for sharing it with the site.
In 1940 at the age of 16, whilst my father was serving in the Army in the Far East, the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV as it was then known) was created so I decided to join along with some of my friends from the village, Burley in Wharfedale, (they accepted boys of 16 and older) - Stuart Brierley, John Mounsey, Jim Wood, Arthur Spivey, Bill Hardwick. As we were all members of the local Sports Club, we were quite a team.
Eventually, when the name was changed to the "Home Guard", we received uniforms and arms (.300 Canadian rifles) which were, of course, retained in the Armoury in Burley in Wharfedale Drill Hall whilst not in use. It was really like Dad's Army as portrayed by the BBC. Our boss was a Lieutenant Bird (not unlike Captain Mainwaring) and in charge of us. There was a Corporal, I forget his name, the spitting image of Corporal Jones.
We took it in turns to do guard duty at the Drill Hall, at night two hours on four off, once a week. Having had initial training at school in the OTC, I had a fair idea what it was all about. We went field firing over the Yorkshire moors at weekends and general army training during evenings after work.
It was decided, by the powers that be, that we would make a good bayonet fighting team, and as there was to be a competition amongst the units in West Yorkshire, we were entered and actually won. Although under age, the Brigadier in charge invited us all for a drink in the pub after.
In due course, we all found ourselves in H.M.F. some in the Army, Navy and Air Force.
We then lost touch till after the war and after leaving Burley in Wharfedale, it is only in recent years that one or two of our paths have crossed again - Jim Wood, a retired Headmaster, who visits Jersey regularly, Arthur Spivey, who has his own building business.
Army Life - Early Days
Due to his loss of business in Bradford, my father decided to rejoin the Army in 1940 (he served in the cavalry during the 1914/1918 war). I made up my find following this that I would enlist myself when the opportunity arose. So in August 1942 or soon after when I was of age, I found myself at an Army Camp in Harrogate where I received six weeks basic training. Following this, I was posted to an R.A. signal training centre at Nostell Priory, near Wakefield. Unknown to me at that time, I was recommended for a commission and was sent to Selby to attend a War Office Selection Board. However, as it turned out, I failed the course for the reason that I was too young and inexperienced and should return at a later date.
However, I was not happy in the R.A. and asked to join a County Infantry Regiment. In due course, was posted to the Green Howards at Richmond Yorks. Whilst there, there was a recruitment drive for volunteers to join the newly created Parachute Regiment and along with two other volunteers I was transferred to Hardwick Hall, Chesterfield for assessment. After a couple of weeks, and undergoing various tests, I was accepted for further training and sent to the R.A.F. camp at Ringway, Manchester where we had the necessary parachute training. I think it was called Kilkenny's Circus after the senior instructor. This took about three weeks or so. We had to do eight jumps to get our wings, two from a balloon, five from a Whitley aircraft, and one night balloon.
I was then held back from further posting because of age, but after about a month, was posted on to a Battalion which had just returned from Italy, the 156 Battalion, stationed temporarily just outside Spalding. They were all regular soldiers who had volunteered for service in the Parachute Regiment whilst in the Middle East conflict. We then moved onto Melton Mowbray where we were billeted in various hunting lodges.
We then commenced a heavy training programme in preparation for what was to be known as the Second Front. The invasion of Europe arrived early in June 1944 but we were held back in reserve. The new 6th Division, along with the American 82nd and 101st, were sent in the initial attack. However in the early weeks of the invasion things did not go as well as expected and we were stood by a number of times and cancelled for one reason and another. "Tuxedo" and "Wastage" in Normandy followed by "Wild Oats" near Caen when we were actually in the planes before it was cancelled. There were others, "Beneficiary" "Sword Hilt" "Hands Up" "Transfigure", "Boxer", "Axehead", "Linnet", "Infatuate" which were cancelled because of the rapid advances our troops made through northern France. Eventually, in early September along came "Comet" in which the division was to capture a number of bridges in Holland. We, that is our brigade, were given the job of the bridge at Grave. Then again at the last minute it was cancelled.
The following weekend, however, a similar operation was set up with three times the strength bringing in the American 82nd and 101st divisions. As it turned out, we drew the short straw and got the northern most bridge at Arnhem, the Americans at Grave and Nijmegen.
Because of the shortage of planes and the services that went with them, it was decided to fly us in on 3 lifts. We, that is the 4th Brigade, were to drop on the second day some eight miles from our objective which turned out to be a big mistake.
So early morning, the 18th September, off we went. After a couple of delays due to bad weather, we did not leave Saltby Aerodrome till nearly midday, we met with a lot of "flak" on our run in and a plane near us got hit and disappeared beneath us to earth. We landed on Ginkel Heath mid-afternoon amongst a lot of small arms fire and much of the gorse was on fire. I had a bad landing due to getting my left leg caught up in the Rigging lines. The kit bag which contained my rifle and a PIAT gun was the cause of the problem, no harm done and we gathered together in our prearranged spots in the woods around the heath. It was some time before we moved off - about 5pm if I remember. I followed CQMS Badger my immediate "boss" who in turn kept close to the Colonel, Dickie Des Voeux, which formed a part of H.Q. Company (I was, to all intents, the Colonel's runner). We passed a Mental Hospital on our right where the inmates were having a rare old time recovering parachutes in a very jovial mood. After about 2/3 miles marching along the side of the railway line, we came under fire from the high ground on our left - Spandau machine guns on the whole. It was dusk and the tracers were flying everywhere. It was decided we should take cover and dig in. The 22 set radios seem to be down so there was no contact with HQ, it was getting dark and we were instructed to rest until dawn when presumably we would clear the hill and advance again towards the bridge. Badger told me to run back to HQ and collect the colonel's bag which he had left behind. I imagine this held his instructions. There was no other contact with Brigade HQ.
On returning, the Battalion had moved on up the hill into the woods. I followed and came under fire from a house to the right of the woods. I went to cover and shortly after a Sergeant whom I did not know spotted me and gave me cover fire to join the others. We then came under aircraft attack from ME 110s and FW 190s and all hell broke loose. "B" Company came under heavy attack and the Company Commander Major Waddy was shot in the groin and Ben Diederick managed to recover him. There were snipers everywhere. We then had instructions to fall back over the railway line just short of Wolfheze. It was difficult to cross the high banked railway line as the Germans had it covered with machine guns and motorised mortars. Eventually further down the side of the railway track, we found a tunnel under the embankment and then joined what was left of the Battalion. We congregated in a clearing in the woods and dug in as best we could. It was difficult as the roots of the trees prevented us from taking much cover. We were now getting short of ammo and had no water. The Germans had our measure and were firing mortars which were hitting the tree branches above us showering splinters everywhere. I got a piece in my right forearm and wrapped a shell dressing around it, found a puddle of water and satisfied my thirst. Badger said I should hold onto the Colonel's "bag" for the time being. The Colonel seemed very distressed about it all - we appeared to have less than 100 men left out of 650 of the Battalion and no wireless contact.
Many of the Officers had been killed. It was decided we should rest until dawn when we should make our way through the woods to Oosterbeek and try and link up with the Brigade, wireless sets still out.
Again at dawn, I stuck to Badger and the Colonel. After about an hour, we came under heavy fire again - tracked vehicles and tanks were in evidence. I lost Badger and the Colonel who walked on ahead - I never saw them again. I was told later that the Colonel had walked straight into the path of an anti tank gun. We decided to move to our left with what seemed to be what was left of Brigade HQ. There were three or four jeeps in an open area where a stand was being made. An officer, who I did not know, approached me with a Sergeant who told me to go with him to "recce" ahead. Almost immediately we were confronted through the trees by the 88mm gun of a tiger tank. I went to earth and three one of my two 36 grenades under the tank and retreated for cover. The Germans were all around us, one of the jeeps was set alight and all hell broke loose. We were totally surrounded. I managed to get to the burning jeep and placed the Colonels bag in the flames.
I then saw the Brigadier with a patch over his eye, his pistol in his hand shouting "Call yourself paratroops, get at 'em" but it was hopeless. I went to help a wounded Sergeant but a German soldier shouted at me showing me his wound in his backside indicating to leave the Sergeant alone - we were surrounded by SS Panzer troops.
I must say they were very fair with us and we were rounded up and after taken our morphia phials from us we were marched along the Utrecht road. Then to our left across from a house, we were fired on by an automatic weapon and a number of us were hit and we took cover in the ditch at the side of the road and the soldier in front of me, a Glider pilot, was badly hit, as did a number of other prisoners, we appealed to our captors under the Geneva Convention. Shortly after, an open car came along and out stepped a short, very officious German officer who after questioning our captors approached the house from where the attack had come and after a tirade of words with the two culprits shot one of them with his revolver. He then instructed our captors to give up their bicycles to help carry the wounded to a railway siding where we were herded into cattle trucks waiting to ship us out. Our truck was full with nowhere to lie down properly. A tank of water and a galvanised bucket was placed in the middle of the truck and off we went down the Rhine with occasional stops when our bombers were on a raid. After five days, we disembarked at a place called Limberg P.O.W. camp [Stalag XIIA]. By this time my right arm was really bothering me and I could hardly put one foot past ahead the other. Fortunately, I was sent to the medical centre where a medic with the help of another holding me still, placed a hot (what looked like tar) poultice on my arm. I nearly died with pain - it saved my arm and after a week I was much better.
We were shipped in railway carriages to what appeared to be a large P.O.W. camp run by the Luftwaffe (we were classified as air men not soldiers) and for a short time was looked after by a NZ bomber pilot who had been shot down a few years before. After, as a "Private", I was posted to what is known as an "Arbeits Kommando", a working camp at Merseberg, a town in Saxony near Leuna not far from Leipzig where the oil refineries were. We were there to fill in bomb craters, the area had been flattened mainly by day time bombing by US B57, we were on the "run in" to bombing the oil refineries at Leuna. One night the RAF Lancaster path finders came in low to bomb the railway junction which was alongside our small camp and we were burnt out by the incendiaries, unfortunately we had to patch the place up ourselves and stay where we were - (no going back to a proper P.O.W. Camp).
We were bombed night and day and with little food my Jewish friend, a medic named Sammy Klamf, (he used the name Smith whilst a prisoner) and I decided to go under the wire at night and pilfer what we could from the cellars of the bombed houses, mainly kartofels (potatoes). Fortunately, Sammy could speak the lingo having lived in Germany as a child. We had some hairy experiences, too numerous to write about, it would take too long. [See below].
The civilians of Merseberg were now getting worried about the Russians and were asking for protection. Sammy and I decided to do a bunk west towards what we imagined would be American lines. After a couple of days, dodging retreating German troops we arrived at a river where the bridge had been blown. We clambered across what was left and joined the Yanks on the other side. After a few weeks with them, we managed to get a lift back to England in the fuselage of a Lancaster. I managed to grab the mid upper turret which was vacant. I have forgotten where we landed but I think it was Lineham.
Back in England, we were sent to recuperate at a place called "Penn Wood", just outside High Wycombe. We were there about six weeks on a strict diet being fed about six times a day, then sent on twelve weeks leave.
On return, I was posted to a new parachute Battalion as what was left of the 156 was disbanded and those that managed to get back across the Rhine had been merged with the first and second battalions. The new battalion was posted to Bulford and I was promoted to Sergeant. After refresher courses at the Guards Depot, Catherham and the School of Infantry Warminster and further training the Battalion was posted to Palestine to sort out the Jewish problems. I was part of an advance party and we sailed on the "Orontes" to Port Said. Eventually we found ourselves in the coastal town of Nathanya and there moved about what was then known as Palestine endeavouring to control the infiltration of the Jewish immigrants and fight the "Stern Gang" the "Irgan" shipping them to camps in Cyprus.
After a while I was recommended again for a commission and following a meeting with General Dempsey, who was in charge of the troops in the Middle East, I was sent home for a W.O.S.B. somewhere I think in Sussex. After passing that I was sent on to Eaton Hall OCTU at Chester (the Duke of Westminster's home). On passing this course, with a B+1, I was advised that I would not be returning as a First Lieutenant to the Parachute Regiment but would have the option of a commission in the RASC or RAOC. I did not want either and was then offered a further course at the RA OCTU at Deepcut, Aldershot. I gave it a go but after a few weeks I decided, as my demob group was nearly up, to call it a day and asked to be returned to my unit. After a short stay at the Parachute HQ at Aldershot, I was posted to my parent regiment, The Green Howards in York where I was demobbed.
I returned to my previous employment with the National Provincial at their Piccadilly branch in London.
Life as a P.O.W. 1944/1945
It was late afternoon on the 4th day in Holland September 1944. We were surrounded by the enemy and I had thrown my last grenade under the 88mm gun of a Tiger tank and retreated to the centre of the hollow where the blazing jeep was. A Sergeant was nearby, lying wounded. I placed the Colonel's "bag" which was in my care into the flames and went to help the Sergeant. A German senior soldier came amongst us to indicate he was wounded too by turning back the back flap of his trousers. I believe I saw the Brigadier, Shann Hackett, patch over the eye shouting encouragement to what was left of us but it was too late, we were overrun by the enemy. SS troops from the Panzer division. They were now in charge and along with the wounded we were moved out of our cover in the woods to a building, where we were relieved of our arms and any morphine phials that we had. They treated us very fairly offering us food and water and cigarettes some of which was dropped by the RAF earlier, intended originally for us.
We were then marched along a main road where a sign indicated "to Utrecht" but the piece of shrapnel in my right forearm was becoming troublesome and after a mile or so we came under automatic fire. We dived for the ditch at the side of the road for cover but the guy in front of me, a glider pilot, was hit along with a number of others. We pleaded with our captors for protection under the Geneva Convention and shortly after, an open jeep like vehicle arrived and out jumped a leather clad, short very officious German officer who, after discussion with our captors, approached the house from where the firing had come from and two soldiers appeared, one carrying a light machine gun, I think a Spandau or a Smitzer. The officer, after some shouting, drew his revolver and shot one of the armed men. He then, in no uncertain terms, let off steam with us and ordered our captors to give up their bicycles which were then used to assist the wounded on our way down to a railway siding where we were herded into cattle trucks and sent us on our way with two buckets, one full of water and one to be used as a latrine.
After about four days with numerous stops due to Allied bombing interruptions, we arrived at a P.O.W. depot called, I think, Limberg. I could hardly walk with pain and dizziness and was sent to the medical centre where a doctor and an orderly examined my arm and what I thought was a hot, tar poultice was slapped on the wound. I nearly died with pain, but it did the trick and after about a week with changes of dressings, I was feeling much better.
Along with others we were then moved out of the camp and into railway carriages, this time, and transported down the Rhine to a large P.O.W. Camp, Muhlberg IV B, where we found ourselves among many RAF air crew - a NZ Sgt befriended me and gave me food (as parachute troops, we were classified as Air Force).
After about a week, those of us that were private soldiers were sent to a working camp (Arbeits Kommando) in SE Germany to a town called Merseberg, not far from the heavily industrialised, oil refineries at Leuna, near Leipzig. We were billeted in a shack, sort of single storey building adjacent to a railway depot, issued with a blanket and a paliasse bag for which we were provided with straw to lie on at night. There was a wash house and outside latrine. We were then sent to a delousing compound and stripped of our clothing. On the return of our battledress etc, my trousers were all tightened up as the cleaning process had hardened up all my pockets including my large map pocket. They were lined with wash leather to protect us when we used detonators and explosives, very uncomfortable at night for sleeping.
Air raids were frequent during the day by the Yanks and by night by the RAF, we got hit by path finders on evening, strafing the railway line with incendiaries. It burnt us out but we had no casualties as we were in an adjacent bombed house cellar sheltering. However, we were pleased because we thought we would be returned to the Stalag at Muhlberg. This was not to be, and we had to patch up what was left of our billet and carrying on filling bomb craters during the day. Apart from a cup of Ersatz coffee in the morning - a bowl of soup midday and a piece of bread at night, we had little to eat and needed to scrounge among the bomb debris or eat sugar beet which we found in the fields (gave you a sore throat).
A fellow prisoner, I forget his name, from another battalion and I decided on seeking out likely bombed buildings during the day when the sentry was not looking, and chance going under the wire at night when the opportunity arose and steal what we could in the way of food. A dangerous occupation as the railway police were always out in force at night shooting Russian prisoners who raided the white railway trucks which housed meat for the front line troops.
I took my blanket with me to carry stuff. We decided on the cellar of a bombed block of flats not far from our billet. My friend attempted to prize the lock on the door when a railway policeman spotted us, and we made a run for it and he fired at us but we managed to return ok except I tore my blanket on some bomb debris. Back at camp, we were shortly visited but our Feldwebel and the police but on count back, we were in the clear and got away with it.
As we got to know the area and there were not many buildings standing and therefore unoccupied I palled up with a medic out of my own Battalion, Sammy Klamf (called Smith as he was an East End Jew) who had spent some time in Germany before the war and spoke the lingo.
Unfortunately, he was naturally clumsy so we had to take care. One night we decided to go into town where we knew there was a cellar which was loaded with spuds. It was a moonlit night and half way there the "full alarm" went, and the civilian population were running for cover. With our berets inside out (the French trustee P.O.W. looked similar), we made our way over to a surface shelter along with the German civilians. The raid was soon over and on returning, a shot down R.A.F. air crew parachuted very close to us but we could do nothing to assist, we returned again under the wire without any food.
The next time we went out, we were lucky and managed to find a cellar of spuds and with some sacking we took as many as we could carry. We made our way back - our separate arranged ways. I arrived back at my spot and prepared my entry by pushing what was left of my booty under the wire (I had lost a lot as the sacking was rotten) and a voice rang out above me called out "Ah Kartofels". It was one of the sentries on night duty - a friendly old man, recruited into the Volksturm (German Home Guard) who had lost all four of his sons on the Russian front. I was lucky, if it had been any of the other sentries, I would probably have been shot. I gave him some spuds and he let me back into the billet.
On another occasion, we decided to pilfer a house fairly near, which had recently been hit, just across the road, not far from the Guard House. We made our exit together by the latrines. I went first - again a very clear night - and I managed to crawl across the bomb debris to the road which shone out in the night - Sammy behind me some ten yards caught his foot on a pile of bricks which came crashing down. The guard door opened and out came a sentry - a one armed sentry who had lost it on the Russian front, who only carried a revolver. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, he started to walk towards us whether he actually saw us we shall never know, but he then stopped and returned to the Guard House, so we ploughed on into the house cellar we had in mind which turned out to be a dead loss, it was full of jarred fruit or vegetables, no good to us and again we returned empty handed.
The bombing day and night became more intense and Sammy and I decided to give up night time exercises and confined our activities to stealing in daylight, whilst on the job. We got caught one day, a civilian saw us and reported us to the Gestapo. We were threatened by a large, fat, orange clad officer armed with a small Mauser hand gun, but we retaliated in what we knew was the only way, pleading Geneva Convention etc and he gave way as we had got rid of our booty in the bomb debris.
Information reached us that the Russians were progressing with their advance in the East and the bombing of Leipzig and Dresden was intense. Sammy and I decided to do a bunk westerly towards the Yanks which by that time we understood were only about 100 miles away. After a lot of dodging retreating German troops (we had some cover carrying shovels and our P.O.W. marking on the back of our battle dress) eventually reached a river where a large bridge had been blown up so we decided to crawl across the fractured steel struts (I was not keen as I could not swim at the time) and on reaching the other side, we found ourselves in US held territory and a Jeep spotted us, an N.C.O. in charge gave us food and water (K rations) and took us back to some recently occupied German barracks where we were housed and supplies with American battle dress. We were in a town, I cannot remember the name, quite large which had been flattened. We spent our time pilfering for the next few days. Eventually we were found a lift back to England in a returning Lancaster. I bagged the mid-upper turret. We landed I think, at Larkhill were checked out medically and sent to a camp in Pennwood just outside High Wycombe. For the next few weeks, we were on frequent light meals diet - porridge, eggs etc. I only weighed about 7 stone. I recall it was at a time when F.D.R. the American President died. After about six weeks, we were sent on ten weeks' recuperation leave.
I never saw Sammy again but after a year or so when I was demobbed and working in London the Evening Standard reported a shooting on the Edgeware Road, an M.P.S. Silverman, a Jew, some name like that, was attacked in a taxi, and three men were arrested, one of whom was my old mate Sammy. I believe they all got three years in the "nick".
Back to 156th Parachute Battalion
Back to Biographies Menu