Trooper Bill Hepworth
Unit : Despatch Rider Troop, Headquarters Squadron, 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.
The following was recorded as part of the "1995 Australia Remembers Project" Recording of Memories. A copy of the collection is held in the John Oxley Library and the National War Memorial of Australia.
I am Bill Hepworth, born in Yorkshire in 1923. I was 16 when war was declared in 1939, still living at home with my parents and 5 sisters in Yorkshire, and apprenticed in the building trade to become a solid plasterer. I enjoyed the work, my trade has enabled me to travel and meet different people and see a lot of places I would otherwise not have done.
I can't recall anyone taking the war news seriously, the general opinion being that it would all be over in a few months. However, as it continued a group of special friends and I decided we'd all join the navy - thinking that if we joined together we'd all stay together and a good time would be had by all. As I was under age my parent's permission was required and they flatly refused. Six of the boys did go, but things did not go as they had hoped - each on a different ship and all in different parts of the world.
As the war went on, the bombing started and all normal building stopped. Sheffield was the nearest city to be heavily bombed, so we were sent there to work on damaged factories. From Sheffield we went to Huddersfield. Being in the building trade I was exempt from military service, but I felt I had to go.
I reported at a Preliminary Training Centre at a town called Beverley. I was there for 6 weeks and then sent to a place called Bovington in Dorset to join the Royal Armoured Corps, where I found myself being trained as a Dispatch Rider. I enjoyed the course and saw a lot of the South of England. Nearing the end of our training we were told of a new Regiment that was being formed- an Airborne Division - I put my name down. I was then sent to Lark Hill on Salisbury Plain. I exchanged my black beret for a red one. We were to be known as the Sixth Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. Equipment included light tanks, bren gun carriers and motor bikes. We were then told a big glider had been built to carry all of this and us across the English Channel - we were to be towed and released to glide to earth somewhere in Europe. It all seemed good fun at the time. Our section consisted of 5 motor bikes and a Bren Carrier, 4 troopers, 1 car, Second Lieut. "Dick" Turpin, in charge, and his driver. They were all good mates to be with. We were issued with 355cc motor bikes, going on various manoeuvres. We were eventually introduced to the big glider- known as a Hamel Car. As I lined up to get into this Hamel Car I realized I hadn't asked about parachutes - not to worry- there weren't going to be any.
Late in May 1944 we felt something was going on. We were told to pack and be ready to move off. We drove for hours, eventually arriving at an airfield I was told was Tarrant Rushton. A large field was adjacent containing rows and rows of tents all enclosed by 10 feet high barbed wire- our digs- we were certainly not meant to get out! We were told we could write letters which would not be posted for a few days. There was a Naffi Canteen where about 10 girls worked. Their quarters were completely surrounded with barbed wire. There would probably have been about 1000 men in this area. I was never able to find out if the wire was to keep the boys out or the girls in!
Two days later we were ordered on parade. An officer arrived a large map was produced, and for the first time we were told where we were going and what we were supposed to do. It was to be a big push with Allied back-up, our part was to capture two bridges, one over the River Arne and one over the canal a little further inland in France. One of the 6th Airborne Regiments known as the Ox and Bucks was to have their glider pilots land the glider on the bridge; troops to jump out of the glider- kill the guards and hold the bridge. Paratroopers were to drop to help and also try to clear paths for the gliders to land. It all seemed so simple, back to the tent to check guns, hand grenades etc. A few days later we were told this was it. The term "D Day" we didn't know until much later. The Hamel Car door swings open at the front and one embarks backwards to get out very quickly upon landing. We got aboard and sat waiting for I don't know how long- I can't remember-but then the order came- everybody out! We unloaded -back to the tent. The next day exactly the same procedure, but this time the tow plane revved up and we were off. Through small port holes we saw Mother England slip away.
We soon heard the bang that told us the Pilot in the tow plane had released our glider. There was now only one way to go, we were lucky and landed safely and quickly got out of the glider. It was then that I realized how lucky we had been as there seemed to be men, machines and gliders smashed up everywhere. We moved off found a ditch and stayed there until the German shelling stopped. When some sort of order had been established, we seemed to move forward and backward depending on where the counter attacks were expected. Two of our group were hit, one a good friend of mine - Frank Latham he'd joined with me the other was Corporal Moncaster. Latham was to live, but I never knew about Moncaster. Now, after 50 years the things that stick in my mind, when lying in a slit trench overlooking the fields of Normandy are the cows- in the battles going on all around them they'd all been killed and were lying with all four legs in the air with gas filled stomachs. As dawn was breaking that was the most eerie sight. The other vivid memory was at Ranville near what is now called Pegasus Bridge (Pegasus was the Airborne's official emblem - the flying horse). The dead were now being brought in and placed in a circle with their heads at the centre. When the circle was complete they were covered with a parachute, only their boots were left showing. How many men were lying under those "chutes" I'll never know, but as I stood there one big field had already been taken up by parachutes spread in circles edged with hundreds of boots. Ranville was to become the official cemetery of the 6th Airborne. That sight has stayed with me all my life. When I hear the Last Post, those boots under the parachutes are what I see.
Now the day we had been waiting for - to be joined by the sea-borne forces. They must have had a rough old time storming the beaches, but as they marched towards us they looked as if they had come from a church parade. As they were about to march across Pegasus Bridge the C.O. gave an order and the bagpipes started up with an almighty wail. The Germans must have been as surprised as we were - not one shell came down as they crossed the Bridge. I was later to learn that the C.O. was Lord Lovatt - this year his death at 84 was noted in the papers telling how he marched up the beach of Normandy with his bagpipes playing - I didn't know about that, but I will always remember their wail on Pegasus Bridge.
As I was lying in my slit trench on June 18th 1944 the usual shells came over and I thought "What a hell of a way to spend my 21st birthday" - but thanks to Old Hitler there was a great fireworks display!
Other memories are there of the bombing of the city of Caehn. The Germans had made their stand in and around the city, and they could not be moved by the land forces available. So the Airforce was called in. We were very close to this city when they made their attack, it was broad daylight, the planes came in very low and we could see the bombs dropping. A large part of the city was destroyed, so too were German positions which enabled the British Army to continue their advance. At this time, our lot was brought home for 28 days leave. I managed to wrap up a parachute in my gear to take home. Material like it had not been seen for years. You would have thought I'd bought home the crown jewels when my sisters saw it - when they had taken what they wanted I gave the rest to different girls. I can't remember ever being so popular! We were now encamped on Lark Hill with 14 days Christmas leave coming up. However Hitler had other plans. The Germans broke through the American lines starting what was to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. All leave was cancelled - we were told to pack and be ready to move. Move we did to Tilbury Docks - leaving England on Christmas Eve 1944. We seemed to be moving all over the place, but we were never engaged in any one major offensive. The Ardennes brings back memories of bitterly cold weather on motor bikes trying to pass huge tanks on narrow icy roads. If your back wheels started moving around you could break out in a cold sweat on the coldest of days. The Germans were stopped and pushed back, and so for us - back to England.
The English had two Airborne Divisions - the 1st and 6th. The 6th had been used on D Day to capture and hold the bridges. Now the Powers that Be decided the 1st could have their turn and do the same at Arnhem. They were not so lucky. The seaborne forces wee not able to link up with them and they had to get back as best they could suffering heavy casualties. Some of the survivors of the 1st now joined with the 6th for what was to become the last airborne operation of World War 2. This was the crossing of the Rhine. This took place on March 24th 1945- again lucky in the glider - landed safely, very little German opposition and most casualties sustained in the landings. Seaborne forces - not too long - joined us and we pressed on to Germany. "Dick "Turpin our popular 2nd lieut. in a scout car ahead, with us on bikes behind. Many Germans were surrendering all around us. Then there would be heavy fire and opposition. It was as if CO's in different sectors were doing their own thing - some wanting to fight to the death- then others eager to surrender. It was at a pocket of resistance that "Dick" Turpin's luck ran out. The scout car took a direct hit and burst into flames Jackson the driver, got out but "Dick" never made it. We could only hope that he went quickly. It was bad luck, as the war in Europe was only days away from finishing.
The Powers that Be had drawn the lines as to where we stopped our advance. The Russians had done the same; we were shortly to meet at or near a town called Lubeck. What I remember most of this time is the thousands of German women fleeing towards the British sector. When the Germans invaded Russia they showed no mercy and now the Russians were out for revenge and all the women knew this. We couldn't speak German but two words we heard over and over we understood - "Ruskies coming, Ruskies coming!"
The war was over - back to England and 28 days leave then back to Lark Hill. The war with Japan was still going on and sure enough, that's where we were to go! We were issued with jungle webbing and rifles about two-thirds the size of a normal 303. Our first stop was to be Karachi in India. The advance party was selected and they left to prepare camp for the rest of us. Then the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and in a few days they surrendered. Some say the atomic bomb was wrong. I think, "Thank God it happened" - I was next cab off the rank and my luck had to give somewhere along the line.
We thought that was the finish, but at that time there was a lot of trouble in Palestine - so Palestine it was. We landed at Haiffa, on to Gaza - encamped there in tents and later huts. Guns were going off everywhere but we didn't know who was firing at whom. I remember Palestine for the places I saw - Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, and the Dead Sea. Leave in Beirut, most educational.
At last 1946, I am to be demobbed. The trip home was most enjoyable via Cairo, across the Mediterranean to Toulon, then across France by train. Finally back to England to York to get my demob. suit and bits and pieces.
Returning to my old place of work for 18 months or so, I found it hard to settle, so I applied and was accepted as an immigrant by Australia - so a new chapter in my life began.
The thought behind these notes is to pass on some memories to you - the later generations. Perhaps when you hear the "Last Post" you will give thought to the hundreds of boots sticking out from under those parachutes. Above all, remember that freedom is precious and does not come cheaply.
Bill Hepworth passed away on the 8th August 2013, aged 90.
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