Private William F. Hewitt
Unit : No.1 Mortar (Hand Cart) Platoon, Support Company, 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment
Army No. : 14585465
At the outbreak of war 1939 I was working in an aircraft factory building the "Spitfire Fighter".
April 18th 1943 -
I joined the Armed Forces, after six weeks training in the 'Army Training Camp' I was posted to the Staffordshire Regiment and trained as a Driver and 3" Mortar Specialist'.
January 1944 -
I was then posted to "2nd Battalion South Staffs", who had just returned from Italy having taken part in the invasion of Sicily - they needed to introduce new recruits and reform to full strength. Stationed at Woodhall Spa, weeks of intensive training took place, e.g. disembarking from gliders quickly on landing.
End of August -
Operations were being planned for the 1st Airborne Div., which 2nd South Staffs were part of.
Sept 1st -
Intensive activity was taking place on the airfield i.e. gliders being loaded with jeeps, trailers loaded with various equipment, hand-carts with mortars and mortar shells.
Sept 3rd -
2nd South Staffs: filtered into their allotted gliders and at 12 noon all were airborne. We landed at "Manston" R.A.F. airfield near our South Coast at 1.30 pm. Here we were billeted until 16th Sept.
Eventually our advancing armies in France halted at the Holland border - to resupply - whilst this took place 'MARKET GARDEN' was planned to quickly bring an end to war!
Sept 16th -
Briefing took place: We were to land at Wolfheze - near Arnhem.
Sept 17th -
12 noon all gliders airborne, we could see people leaving their homes and churches to watch this great 'armada'. "Then", to me - looking down on the towns and fields of France and Belgium - was a great thrill.
At 2.00 pm our pilot called "Tow rope released" - height was about 1500 feet - our first glide down was to 500 ft. Pilot now drops wing flaps which all but brought us to a halt in mid-air - the pilot must now pick his landing 'spot. (no second chances) and no time to hang about. Quickly we disembark - 'first' out take up defensive positions around their glider to protect other Airborne troops, as I did. Unloading took place - hand-carts being pushed to the nearest 'cover' at the edge of the field ('cover' being a wall - a hedgerow - of trees). A little time to assess our position - and no enemy gunfire (good). We noted that some gliders were not so lucky, some crashed into trees or turned over - medical orderlies helping where necessary.
It appeared most of the 2nd South Staffs landed ok and it is our task to protect the landing area for the 'second drop' and supplies to take place at 10.00 am 18th Sept.
Sept 17th 16.00 hrs
We are deployed around one side of landing area. No enemy activity yet, I am hungry, knowing there are sandwiches in my glider given to me by R.A.F. girls at 'Manston'. Collected these and shared with colleagues who shared their brewed tea.
5.00 pm we learned that Colonel Frost and 600 Paratroopers have reached 'one' end of Arnhem Bridge and other Paratroops had not succeeded in joining him, and he needed reinforcements to cross the Bridge and hold both sides for 48 hours or maybe less. Mon 18th - The Guards Armoured Division would then arrive. It was decided that 2nd South Staffs will be set new task i.e. "approach march" to Oosterbeek. Jeeps and light armour leading, followed by Rifle Platoons - followed by my "C" Platoon pulling hand-carts and mortars.
Leaving Wolfheze I saw my first casualty - a dead paratrooper. At the crossroads - a disabled German vehicle with a dead German officer and his driver.
The march went smoothly arriving at Oosterbeek to cheering Dutch people offering us fruit and drinks and wanting to talk, but we had to press on to our beleaguered colleagues.
Now 7.00 pm our march is slowing down because of enemy 'sniper fire' - our riflemen remove the snipers and by 23.30 hours on the outskirts of Arnhem. For some reason we halt here for the night. (Battle is quiet on both sides). This stop, I feel, was a mistake by our Commander, for whilst we lay all night at the roadside, the enemy was moving in more troops and armour between us and the Bridge - which we discovered to our cost the next day.
Sept 18th Daybreak -
We began entry into Arnhem very slowly due to enemy action and passed a German Tiger Tank - happily destroyed by our forces (We were informed that there should not be any tanks in 'Arnhem Area'!)
We pressed on and St. Elizabeth Hospital in view on our left, on our right the railway bridge - it had been blown up. Shouts came 'down the line' - TAKE COVER! - but the only cover for "C" Platoon with the hand-carts was on the right of the road and in a 'dell'. A German Tiger Tank rolls down this road firing into the 'dell' - the tank running around this road always is firing into this 'dell' and in the distance towards the river we saw German troops advancing along the riverside. Setting our mortars up in very awkward positions in the 'dell', we fire at these troops, but cannot maintain the fire because of the continual attack by the "Tiger".
Some of us realized we had to leave our mortars and seek better cover for ourselves and hopefully collect the same when this "Tiger" had been disposed of (?).
(To avoid being shot ourselves we had to follow the tank directly underneath it - in the 'dell' - where its gun could not aim at us).
After scaling a 6ft (2m) fence, we took cover between walls and houses.
Eventually the tank disappeared and we returned to the 'dell' to retrieve our mortars to find the tank's gunfire had destroyed them - and wounded or killed many of our comrades. Medics were quickly on the scene.
"C" Platoon now re-formed as riflemen, continued to crawl past the hospital towards the Bridge - this was when we realized the folly of halting our approach the night before. The enemy now has greater strength than the remaining 2nd South Staffs. Many have been taken prisoner-of-war. 'Able-bodied' are ordered to retreat to Oosterbeek, as we do. I see our defence building up i.e. anti-tank guns, machine-guns, etc., setting a ring around what is now "Hartstein Museum" and Oosterbeek church. We are deployed opposite the church, our backs to the river - the artillery have guns set along church walls.
DIG IN IS THE ORDER
At last I can eat and drink from my 'compact food pack' and not being able to sleep in my fox-hole during that night.
Sept 19th am -
General quiet and still hungry - I saw a farmhouse quite near - "maybe something to eat there?" It is occupied by paratroopers - they had found stored food, so about 12 of us ate and drank. Still quiet around the church and informed "our advancing" 15 Corps were being held up by the enemy and were 24 hours behind schedule.
Col. Frost and his men were still holding one end of the Bridge.
R.A.F. making our re-supply drop, but having lost control of the "dropping zone" most of our badly needed supplies fell into enemy hands.
By now Polish troops were parachuting down and being shot to pieces - their landing zone had been lost (it was learnt later). Some Poles managed to cross the river with limited supplies. Colonel Hackett with 4th Para Battalion failed to join Col. Frost at the bridge.
Sept 20th Oosterbeek - Enemy mortar fire rained down 10.00 am -
I now joined the 2nd South Staffs Mortar Group (motorized group) behind the church wall, 3" mortars are set up in position to fire and were fired as ordered.
Sept 21st -
Now having lost control of the Bridge, the enemy is attacking Oosterbeek with great force. Heavy shell and mortar fire is attacking our position.
Sept 21st Midday -
I was wounded in the chin by mortar shrapnel. (It must have been my lucky day as the shrapnel that went through my chin continued into the left 'breast pocket' of my jumping smock - in the pocket was a small Bible where the shrapnel embedded itself in the pages and is now in the South Staffordshire Museum in Lichfield).
I was taken to a temporary first-aid post and on to a temporary hospital (a house set-up). Many wounded there and I was attended to. There I helped the badly wounded soldiers by distributing food cooked by other 'able-bodied'. Also medical orderlies there.
This situation continued through Sept 22nd, 23rd, and 24th. During these three days house-to-house fighting was taking place. One minute we were told "You are prisoners-of-war" and the next told "You are free". Impossible situation. No one complained, only requested to remove the 'dead'.
Sept 24th -
Efforts were made to withdraw the remaining fighting force across the river. I had no idea where the withdrawal was taking place. I stayed to help the wounded.
Sept 25th at Temp Hospital -
All now 'Prisoners-of-War'. We were loaded on trucks and taken to Apeldoorn Hospital and only then saw the destruction of houses etc. - and masses of civilians walking along the streets - to where?
In this hospital I remained for 2 days - given food - but conditions were dreadful. People suffering pain and smell of decaying flesh from wounds.
Sept 27th 10.00 am -
Walking wounded and stretcher cases loaded into railway cattle-wagons. At night the wagons set off for the journey to Fallingbostel, North Germany. It took 4 days, at night pulling into stations and some being bombed by the R.A.F.
All this time the wagon doors were closed except for 'occasional' convenience. I cannot remember having food or drinks. On passing through stations en route German civilians jeered, calling us "Churchill's Butchers".
October 1st -
Afternoon we arrived at Fallingbostel and having to lift out dead and stretcher cases - walking wounded pushed to the road - counted by guards and marched 1 mile (2km) uphill to STALAG 11B.
Here we were asked for "activity information" and any "valuables" were taken from us. Stretcher cases taken to hospital, others into huts - isolating us from 'long-term' prisoners-of-war' - into appalling conditions.
I was in Stalag 11B and given only meagre food and drink.
Mid October -
150 Airborne troops (various regiments) were elected to go and work down the "lead mine" under the Hertz Mountains. I was one of the '150'. We were once more put into railway wagons to make the 24 hour journey to the small mining village of Bad Grund. Conditions improved here - we 150 men were allocated 2 rooms - each containing 3-tier bunk beds (75 in each room) - facilities were down below.
Work 'shift routine' was decided by German 'mine' officers, i.e.:
Work parties to clean and cook for mine workers, working 11 floors down mine, 8 hours each shift, 6 days a week.
At each mine face were 2 forced Labour (Dutch, French etc)
1 German miner
Cooks and mine workers alternating each week, early and late shift. Meat sparse, cabbage soup was the worst meal but our cooks did a super job for us with whatever they had.
After 6 weeks all felt much fitter, but needed to improve our diet, which could only be achieved by the advent of Red Cross parcels. Complaints were made to German Commandant, stating production 'MAY BE' improved with the arrival of food parcels. Eventually were informed "Parcels had arrived at the 'railway siding 17km away." But no transport available.
At this point I would explain that we 150 POW's were paid 200 DM per person per month.
170 DM per person being deducted by the Germans for our "keep".
30 DM for ourselves.
During the following nights after shift and after payday, we would play card games using our DM as 'stakes'. The winner gave all the Deutschmarks to our appointed leader, who tried to buy razor-blades or a 'lager' to drink.
Then, how to obtain our Red Cross parcels: we were told a cart was available, knowing this and the DM that our leader had, a horse was purchased from a local farmer (and was later butchered and eaten).
The German Commandant stated the rules to enable us to collect these parcels:
1 German soldier would accompany
2 English POWs on condition - we gave 50% of our complete cigarette allocation to him.
Parcels arrived, we decided 2 persons would share 1 parcel per week. As weeks passed we were allowed 'pit head showers'. Each Sunday and feeling fitter we needed recreation - football and boxing were the answer.
1944 Xmas came and went. Where were our armies? - we asked ourselves.
March 1945 -
Now it is almost over and things are happening i.e. 100 POWs arrived at our camp, they had been marched around Germany for 5-6 weeks, were in a dreadful state and we were told to prepare to join them next day.
Next Day 8.00 am -
We began the walk towards Berlin, sleeping in fields huddled together for warmth at night. On our 5th morning, German guards disappeared. American forces had taken over.
April 14th 1945 -
We are freed in the town of 'Halberstat'. First aims: how to get home quickly to my wife and 16 month old son.
First obtain a car, this I and my buddies accomplished and set off for Calais, but 2 hours later the car broke down and Americans came to our aid - also with food and billeted us in a house for one night.
Next Day 6.00 am -
They had another car for us, telling us to get moving quickly - we did so arriving at Hildersheim midday.
There an American MP asked "Where are you making for?" ENGLAND! I said. He then suggested we drive to Hildersheim airfield from where we would be flown to England.
Here we registered our names and were placed on flight lists. There were hundreds of ex POWs and being the last to arrive - we would be the last out. But our car was now in great demand by airfield controllers and I was no way prepared to hand it over unless I was given an early flight. This I was given the next day. I and the car waited on the airfield until 6.00 pm (18.00 hrs). When I boarded the plane I handed over the car and the keys as agreed.
It is now 16th April 1945 -
Two days later I was home with my family and to be happy once more.
Bill Hewitt passed away on the 6th March 2009. I am indebted to him for the time he spent in making the above contribution to the site.
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