In which Roy goes to France and Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force and waits for Germany to invade
Christmas 1939 was spent in the old brewery - the outstanding memory of which was helping to peel a massive mountain of potatoes! However, I received a Christmas bonus on boxing day by being sent home on 7 days leave. Shortly after returning to the unit we moved up nearer to the Belgian frontier to a village some ten miles south of Lille, Cappelle-en-Pevele, where we were billeted in a hay-loft over a cow shed! Quite apart from the odours, the old roof tiles were unlined and when it snowed our beds, (piles of straw and hay!), were well covered. By this time the coldest winter for many years had arrived in Northern Europe and in order to sleep relatively warm, it was a case of donning all available clothing, including greatcoats. It also meant that, in order to prevent the transport from freezing up, the engines had to be run for ten minutes in every hour. An additional job for the night guards! (No anti-freeze available in those days). Another ‘bonus’ was the water supply for washing - this was a hand operated pump in the cow-yard which raised a coloured liquid from some unknown underground source!
Having completed the hospital job the Company was put to work constructing reinforced concrete pill boxes along the frontier, which in view of forth-coming events, was rather a wasted effort. We did however get a change of venue for our half-day leaves - the city of Lille. Much the same as Douai and Arras, only larger. Early in 1940 we moved down to Sailly-le-Sec on the Somme for a bridging course which was a welcome change. Myself and another NCO, whose name escapes me, were billeted in a lovely old cottage with a charming old lady who treated us like long-lost sons. She gave us a large bedroom with feather-bed mattress and hot water for washing - sheer luxury. Unfortunately we only managed to endure this for about ten days and back to the cow-shed we went. Shortly after this the gods smiled on me again and I was despatched to the school of Military Engineering at Chatham for a Motor Transport course. I cannot remember how long this lasted but it took in the Easter period and I got 7 days leave after the course. My only recollections of the course are 1) Attending a cinema show in Chatham - the film was ‘How Green Was My Valley’, starring Emlyn Williams and 2) Driving a very large mobile Coles Crane, mounted on a 6 wheeled Crossley chassis in convoy to Bodiam castle and back. A stunning blow to Hitler’s war hopes!
On the 5th September we were sent home on 24 hour embarkation leave. Luckily one of our junior officers, 2nd Lt Lubbock, lived in Westerham and delivered me home and collected me the following day. By this time the chaos had started to get organised and we had begun to sort out friend from foe in the ranks. Punch Simmons had left us and been transferred to 501 Field Coy. I was installed as 2 section MT NCO and Geoff Cornford was i/c Mail and First Aid in the HQ Section and, as he fancied himself as a cornet player, was also the bugler! Having brought his cornet along with him he would occasionally treat (?) the troops to a rendering of ‘Whispering’ - at full blast! As a point of interest - ‘Christopher Robin’ Milne, son of A.A. Milne was a junior officer in the Unit at this time.
Friendships started to form, some of which have lasted for the past 50 odd years, e.g. Dennis Sutton, Alick Stovell and Basil Clarkson - the ‘solid backbone’ of the MT section! Among the few who could read a map and knew their starting handles from their ‘diffs’, we were all, more or less, on the same wavelength and shared a similar sense of humour.
After about ten days of activity, we were all moved on to a hutted camp in Aldershot where the vehicles were loaded and prepared for embarkation and on the 18th September the Company embarked at Southampton in the evening. The following morning we awoke in Cherbourg and spent a few agonising hours watching the vehicles being unloaded by derricks on to the dockside. We eventually moved off in convoy, shattering the peaceful Normandy countryside, and headed south to a village near Laval. This turned out to be a night of shame for me - I failed to mount a guard on the Section vehicles and lost my lance-corporal’s stripes for my trouble! This sobering event failed to have much impact on the eventual outcome of the war and certainly failed to prevent 221 Coy surging across France until we came to rest in the Lens area. We eventually settled down in a small, one-horse village called Neuville, roughly half-way between Arras and Douai. This charming (!) place had two estaminets, a main street, probably a church (can’t remember it) and a disused brewery which was taken over as a vehicle park and billets. It also boasted a disused corner shop which was taken over as a sergeant’s mess. As there were only about three or four sergeants I was invited to join the ‘Big-Shots’. (My stripe had been re-instated by this time!). The company sappers at this time were constructing a Field Hospital for 1st Corps, to whom we were now attached. The area generally was most unattractive; miles of flat agricultural land which rapidly turned to mud as the weather was extremely wet. We got the odd half-day leave in Douai and Arras - similar to a wet Wednesday in Edenbridge!
After my leave, I returned to my beloved cow-shed in the first week of May 1940, just in time to be greeted by the Nazi invasion of Holland and Belgium on the 10th. The first inkling of the troubles to come was the distant sound of A.A. fire and bombs, well before dawn on the 10th May and by mid-day we were loaded up and on our way to save the world from Nazism! The convoy crossed the border at Tournai and headed towards Brussels. We came to rest at Nederbrakel, where we stayed for a day or two filling in bomb craters to keep the road open. Refugees had started to pour westwards which caused additional problems - nothing compared to the problems we were shortly to face. As it sank in to the Powers-That-Be that all was not well, we were hustled up to the town of Halle, just west of Brussels, where a bridge over the canal was prepared for demolition.
We sat around with orders to await the last of the Infantry rear guard. When they had passed over, the bridge was to be blown. No rear guard appeared and apparently somebody decided it was time to move and pushed the button. I had just started my trusty Ariel and turned my back on the bridge when the blast hit me in the back and that Ariel broke all 350cc acceleration records!
French civilians watch the German army move in to Neuville after the BEF retreat
Mary, my wife to be, was also in uniform. She is the sergeant in the front row above and kneeling, below.