Trooper William James Gladden
Unit : 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment
Service No. : 14337754
Bill Gladden was born on the 13th January 1924. His parents were both from Yarmouth in Norfolk, but they raised him in Woolwich; his mother having worked in the Arsenal during the First World War whilst his father was a soldier. The following is Trooper Gladden's account of his wartime experience.
I am very proud to have served with tanks in two specialised units. At eighteen years old, 1942, I did my training with the Royal West Kents at Maidstone, then was posted to my first unit, 154 RAC [Royal Armoured Corps] at Livermere Camp near Bury St Edmonds. We had Valentines. We wore the North Staffs cap badge in our black berets. I did my training - gunner, wireless operator, and driver - but passed out as a despatch rider.
I then went to the 79th Armoured Division Development Unit near Orfordness on the east coast. We wore an RAC badge in our berets. It was there we perfected many of Hobart's "Funnies", flail tanks, bangalore torpedoes, flame throwers on tanks and Bren carriers, and many other things used at the Normandy Landings... The 79th Armoured Division Development Unit was contained in an area near Orfordness, a number of villages and hamlets were cleared, barbed wire was put round it and CMPs [Corps of Military Police] on the gates. There were rabbits, pheasants and partridges galore, also plenty of fruit. We were under canvas and plagued with mosquitoes!
The first demonstration of the flail tanks we very disappointing. Sir John Dill and many other VIPs were there. Tracks were blown off, and various other breakdowns. I think two finished the course. Flame-throwers, Wasp on the Bren carrier and, I think, Crocodile on the Churchills, were very deadly to watch. Lots of wild life suffered. Most of the lads concerned with these stated "If Gerry captures us using these, they will turn them on us." Bangalore torpedoes were long pipes filled with explosives pushed into and through wire defences, one fitting into the other as they went. When blown, they would leave a clean way through for the attacking force. Then there were fantastic bundles of timber, like oversized bundles of firewood, carried on the front of a tank. When it reached an anti-tank ditch, the bundle was fired off into the ditch, and the tank drove over it and so cleared the ditch. There were aprons inflatable, for tanks and carriers, to enable them to come off the craft into deep water, then "swim" to the shallow water and up the beach. There were giant rolls of material unwound from the front of a tank onto the beach. The tank would run over it and leave it for others to have a firmer base to advance on. I was one of the two despatch riders there. We were kept very busy dashing here and there with messages for various groups in the unit.
Then I went to the 6th Airborne Armoured Recce Regt at Larkhill in Wilts - RAC badge in our maroon berets. We had the Tetrarch light tanks in the Hamilcar gliders. Also six motorcycles. Training with 6AARR [6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment] was very varied, including lots of schemes in the surrounding countryside, a visit to Crystal Palace to collect light-weight James two-stroke bikes (not for us). Being woken in the early hours, ride down to the Abbey grounds at Amesbury, where they had a Hamilcar glider, and practicing over and over again, loading tanks and motorcycles in the dark, into the gliders, shackling up, then unloading.
Capturing a wood. The first time we ever did this - remember, our officers were mostly ex-cavalry - "we shall take this wood as we used to - ride in, dismount and go in on foot". Well, when we eventually returned to our bikes, lying at all angles where we had "dismounted" and left them, there was oil and petrol just running away from them. Lots of topping up needed after that episode. We did improve later.
We also did a swimming course at Yeovil in Somerset, swimming etc in denims, boots and equipment, just in case we had to ditch over the channel. Thank goodness our ditching drill was never needed, as I don't think we would have stayed afloat too long with eight motor-cycles and a seven-ton tank on board!
We moved to Tarrant Rushton airfield about two weeks before D-Day, weren't allowed out but plenty of entertainment was laid on for us. I have a letter that my mother saved that I wrote her on 5 June 44 among my bits and pieces. I also have a piece of parachute that came down in the orchard that we used as a harbour for most of my time in Normandy, and whilst in hospital I embroidered on it our shoulder and sleeve flashes.
We flew out from Tarrant Rushton in Dorset on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Our LZ [Landing Zone] was east of the River Orne bridge at Ranville in Normandy. I lasted until the 18th of June when I received a gun-shot wound in my right ankle, and we brought home on 21st June. As regards time spent in Normandy, in my case only 12 days, we landed on D-Day. Our LZ [Landing Zone] was by the church with the separated tower at Ranville. After dark we moved out and dug in in an orchard in the same vicinity. This was our harbour the whole time up to the 18th [June] when I was wounded.
We would go out most days, after local snipers were dealt with, on recce work. On one occasion we had information that in a chateau at a place I think was Bavent, that a few Germans wished to surrender. We had so much thrown at us we had to withdraw. They even blasted us with their 6-barrel mortars, setting light to a number of our bedding rolls on top of our bike panniers. The next day a number of 51st HD [Highland Division] were also turned [away] once again, French information was proved untrue.
I remember seeing the Typhoons that were called in blasting German tanks with their rockets right over our heads. Also I recall watching our lads bombing Caen from the distance.
One thing that always sticks in my mind was the whole of the countryside - trees, bushes and grass - completely covered with strips of silver foil dropped by our planes to put their radar out of sinc; it made all their screen unreadable. And the bodies of our lads lying around. I couldn't stop looking at their boots and thinking, only hours ago they were like us, dashing around, all young lads.
When one is wounded a record of events is started in writing on a label attached to their tunic. After my first operation in the field hospital, I came round lying on the grass, still with my scarf and smock on, being as sick as a dog. After a while I was able to read my label. It read "CRS (Camp Reception Station) see as soon as possible. Amputation considered. Large deep wound in right ankle. Compound fracture of both tibia and fibula. All extension tendons destroyed. Evacuate (air, lying)"; but before I could be flown out, the big storm broke, which destroyed much of the Mulberry harbour, so I was put on a tank landing craft, picked up with a convoy next morning and came over to Hasla Naval Hospital in Portsmouth. The first night there, in the early hours, two orderlies came to my bed and started taking the blocks away that elevated my bed. I asked them what was going on and was told I was due for the operating theatre. I told them I had only recently had an op, so they replaced the blocks and went away, only to return a short while later and took away a young Canadian from the bed next to mine. In the morning he was back, minus a leg. I always maintain, had I not been conscious when they came to me, then I would have had my amputation.
As I mentioned, I went to Hasla Hospital, then park Prewett Hospital at Basingstoke, then on hospital train up to medical hospital, Sunderland. Then Winterton hospital and, between operations, they would send me to Egglestone Hall in the Tees valley. This happened about three times. Then down to Orpington War Hospital, then East Grinstead for three operations. Then back to Orpington again... Finally being discharged in 1947, but I had my last operation in 1994. I have now been on pension for 56 years, as I was invalided out in 1944 when it was known that I was to be hospitalised for some considerable time. I was down for amputation at first, but due to cross leg flap, tendon transplant, bone and skin grafts, it was saved.
My thanks to Bill Gladden, Vicky Stone and Keith Flint for this account.
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