The feature Page
Congratulations to Norman Prior, one of
our Lancashire Fusilier veterans. He has been honoured by the French Government
for the part he played in the Liberation of France in WW2.
Veteran Norman Prior, 96,
awarded France's highest decoration for bravery in recognition of Dunkirk
He risked his life as a young soldier to help liberate France from Nazi occupation.
Now more than 70 years on, veteran Norman Prior, 96, has finally received the recognition he so richly deserves from the country he fought to protect.
He & rsquo;s been awarded France & rsquo;s highest decoration for bravery, becoming a Chevalier in the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur - and branded a hero.
The honour was personally recommended by French President Francois Hollande and equates to the title of knight. It’s the highest distinction in an order of chivalry created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
In a letter to Norman, France & rsquo;s ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, thanked him for his ‘steadfast involvement’ in the Second World War. She added: & ldquo;As we contemplate this Europe of peace, we must never forget the heroes like you, who came from Britain and the Commonwealth to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France. We owe our freedom and security to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life.”
Norman, who lives in Middleton, is a former president of the Manchester branch of the Dunkirk Veterans Association. He served as a Fusilier with the 1st 5th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers having joined at the age of 20 in 1939.
Norman was 21 and had only been in France for eight weeks when he found himself hemmed in on the beaches at Dunkirk alongside tens of thousands of his comrades.
Letter from the French Embassy
He recalls being camped on the Belgium border then being ordered to retreat to protect bridges and aerodromes from the threat of German paratroopers before his unit was switched to Tournai then Dunkirk.
Norman, a grandfather and great-grandfather, said: “We did not know the names of all the towns and places. We would always only move at night. We had been fighting rearguard actions across France and we were 30 miles outside Dunkirk when the evacuation began.
“There were so many people. I never thought I would get on a boat. I remember there being fishing boats loaded with men and making makeshift piers. I remember one night walking on the beach with another chap because we couldn’t sleep when a small boat came ashore.
“We rowed the boat out to sea in the hope of finding a ship and suddenly this huge black shape materialised in front of us. It was a destroyer.”
Norman went on to serve in North Africa and Italy with the King’s Own Hussars regiment during the war.
Friends at the Fusiliers Association in Bury recommended Norman for the honour.
He added: “I am please and proud. I feel that I have not been forgotten and that people are still remembering.”
Reflections on The Past
It was said that during the years between 1930 and 1939, a man joined the Regular Army because he was considered to be a complete drop-out from Society.
This is far from the truth however, because first of all you must remember that during these years, there were no DHSS Handouts as we know them today, and with unemployment in the order of 30% of the working population, most of the workers were trying to exist on some 10 shillings a week, in terms of today's value this would be 50 pence.
You have only to look at the living conditions
being experienced by the Welsh Miners and the workers in heavy industries
of the North during these years to understand the squalid conditions
in which they were forced to live.
Hitler had the same unemployment problem when he came to power in 1933 and promptly solved the problem by initiating a massive Public Works Programme, and as we were to learn to our cost, an equally massive re-armament programme.
In England we did nothing to solve the problem. Infact, it took a declaration of war, in 1939, to solve it by simply introducing Conscription into the Armed Forces., for all suitable men and women and directing the rest into War Work.
During the 1930s, a boy in so called working
class was expected to leave school when he was 14 years of age, in order
to seek employment to supplement the family income.
As far as the girls were concerned, it was
expected they would enter into "Service", which of course,
meant drudgery, in the full sense of the word. Involving the waiting
on, hand and foot, on the more fortunate "Gentry".
It was only natural, therefore, that young men looked to the Regular Army as a means to provide three square meals a day. A spending allowance of some 10 shillings a week, with clothing and accommodation thrown in for luck. Also the means to provide the opportunity to visit all parts of the world. Such travel would normally be completely out of his reach.
Having decided that Service in the Regular Army could provide a better and more exciting life-style compared to what he could expect by remaining in civilian life, the next question was how and where to enlist.
In all big towns in the UK, were Territorial Army Drill Halls, staffed by a Regular Army Soldier, Usually a Sergeant Serving in his local County Regiment. This soldier was not only the custodian of all the military hardware in the Drill Hall, But combined these duties with that of a Recruiting Sergeant. You therefore arranged an interview with him and made known your wish to be accepted into the Regular Army.
At this first interview, you would probably be asked to apply for enlistment in the Brigade of Guards Regiment. The breason for this is the fact that he would receive a higher Recruitment Fee. If you were accepted for Service in a Guards Regiment. Unfortunately for him, however, the majority of potential recruits could not provide the high physical standard required by these regiments. Particularly the height requirement.
You were therefore faced with the problem of which Unit to apply for. Armoured, Signals Etc.There was also the problem that you may not possess the necessary qualifications to enable you to be accepted into a specialised Unit. As an added problem, not all the Units would be recruiting at this particular time. This could mean that taking all these factors into account, you could well be persuaded to enlist in your local; county regiment, which of course would be an Infantry Regiment.
After all this hassle, you sat back, to await
a letter from the Regimental Depot for a medical examination and future
documentation. On receipt of this letter, you would prepare yourself
for your first experience in the Regular Army.
He would also have to satisfy the Bandmaster of his selected Regiment, that he was sufficiently educated to enable him to become a skilled musician. Care would also be exercised in selecting such boys for enlistment, in that he would require uniforms to be made for his particular size and special facilities would have to be made available for his welfare.
On arrival at the entrance to the Regimental Depot, you marched down the driveway in what you considered to be a most soldier like attitude, to be confronted by an immaculately dressed soldier.
From his Cap Badge to his Boots, everything
was polished and gleaming. Needless to add, he took not the slightest
notice in my arrival.
After looking at you as if you were something
the cat had brought in, regardless of the fact that you were wearing
your best 50/- shilling Taylor's blue suit, complete with turnips. The
Orderly Room Sergeant would detail a soldier to escort you to a barrack
room containing some twentfour iron framed beds. On each bed would be
stacked three Biscuits (Not the edible type) but Hessian filled squares
which served as a mattress, three blankets and two sheets, uttering
the ominous words, "sooner you than me mate". The soldier
would then tell you to stand by for future orders.
In retrospect, I was to learn that this number
of recruits would form a training squad and each squad would be named
after a particular Battle Honour awarded to the regiment. It is also
true to say, that each squad of potential soldiers, would represent
all walks of life. Be it tinker, tailor soldier, sailor, rich man, beggar
man and thief
The next phase would be for all twenty-four recruits to be directed to the medical Officer for a medical and dental examination. This examination would be fairly stringent, and particular regard would be given to eyesight and feet, which were possibly the most important medical requirement for a soldier serving in an Infantry Regiment. A recruit who required glasses to read, or suffered from flat feet, would not be accepted for the Service.
After this medical and dental examination
you would report back to the Orderly Room to accept what was known as
the "King's Shilling", which committed you, body and soul,
for seven years with the Colours and five years Service with the Reserves.
All recruits would now report to the barrack room to find that in their absence, they had been allocated, A Full Sergeant, A Lance Sergeant and a Lance Corporal, all of whom had been detailed to act as their instructors for the next six months until they had completed their basic training at the Depot.
As soon as you had been introduced to the
Sergeant, the introduction took the form of a bellow to "Get Fell
In". You proceeded to the hairdresser for your first experience
of an Army Haircut. This was a very simple matter of running the clippers
up and over the crown of your head, after which, with any luck, you
might be left with a slight bristle on top. It is true to say that many
a recruits' vanity was left on the floor of the hairdressing saloon.
After all this drama you would creep back to the barrack room in order to unload all this military hardware and clothing onto your bed, and to wonder where it all fitted and where it went. This pause was not to last however, because you now had to assemble all your equipment and learn how to fold all your clothing and bedding in preparation for the morning inspection by The Orderly Officer.
With this in mind, the L/Corporal Instructor would come into his own and detail all recruits to look at all his equipment clothing and bedding which had been assembled as a demonstration module and to inform all their kits would be equally immaculate for the morning inspection, or else.The inspection by Orderly Officer the following morning would be the first chance to sort out the wheat from the chaff, because however hard they tried, some recruits just could not master the art of general cleanliness and to maintain their belongings in the manner expected by the army.
This is when army discipline would first begin to be applied, because no excuse would be tolerated for what, in the Army "Jargon", would be called, "slovenly behaviour". In fact, the army had a name for just about everything you could commit. When all else failed, you could be charged with "Dumb Insolence". You just could not win. The simple answer was of course, to keep out of trouble as much as you possibly could.
To arrange your belongings for the morning inspection, you would first of all, telescope the two parts of your metal bed into one. Then place your three biscuits on top of each other and stack them at the rear of the bed. You then would then fold two of your blankets and fold two folded sheets between the blankets, and finally encircle them with the third blanket. The resulting package would look very much like a Liquorice Allsorts. This would then be placed on top of the stacked biscuits.
Your webbing equipment would be completely
assembled and suspended by the shoulder straps, hung on the two protruding
pegs fitted to the wall behind the bed. The equipment would then be
opened up flat against the wall by means of a length of wood behind
the webbing belt.
Bolted to the wall behind the bed would be
a cupboard containing your belongings and on top of this cupboard would
be your mess tin, encircled by your white belt
Suspended on a
coat hanger on the side of the cupboard would be your spare tunic and
All equipment, brasses and buttons would need to be polished every morning in order to pass the scrutiny of the Orderly Officer at the morning inspection. As far as cleanliness of the barrack room was concerned, each recruit would be responsible for the immediate area around his bed and a Roster would be maintained, appointing each recruit a specific task is it cleaning Ablutions, Fireplace, Windows or centre part of the barrack room floor. The floor would be highly polished by means of a hefty piece of iron work with bristles, called a "Bumper". This was a lethal piece of ironwork because it was not unknown, when swinging it in a rhythmic manner across the barrack room floor, for the operator to lose control with disastrous results for anyone in its path.
By the end of your first day's training, you
would have learned that recruits joining the regular army would have
originated from all walks of life and from all parts of the United Kingdom.
You would also have learned that the army
had a fascinating habit of referring to a soldier by a nickname as distinct
from his proper name, for example. A Smith would become known as Smudger.
A soldier named White would become Chalky. Equally, a Bell would become
Dinger. A tall soldier, Lofty and a short soldier, Shorty. Needless
to add that a soldier from Ireland would be Paddy. If a soldier did
not have a name that readily lent itself to a nickname, but was a bit
ungainly, he would become known as Hoppy. In the case of recruits serving
for, example in a Welsh Regiment, there might be several of them answering
to the name of Jones. In such a case it was practice to identify each
particular soldier by the last two numerals of his Regimental Number,
E. G. Jones 60. It would follow his nickname would become 60.
He would be learning that Regiments would
have their own particular nickname. The 11th Hussars were the "Cherry
Pickers" because one group had been captured in an orchard during
the peninsular war. From their long Service in Ireland, the 4th Dragoons
Guards were the, "Mounted Micks" and the 9th Hussars, The
After your first night at the barracks, you
would be awakened at 0630 hours by the strident notes of the bugle sounding
Reveille, Indeed all your future duties and activities in the army would
first be heralded by a particular bugle call. There would be a call
for every occasion, be it getting up in the morning to lights out at
All this preparation had to be completed by 0730 hours, because at this time you had to parade for physical training, dressed in shorts and gym shoes.
This parade would finish at 0800 hours; you
would then have to rush back to the barrack room to change into fatigue
dress and to parade at the cookhouse for breakfast. This meal would
generally consist of porridge followed by fried egg or sausage, together
with bread and margarine, and tea.
When you were first issued with your clothing
and equipment, all these items would have been completely new, and as
a result, would need to be cleaned and pressed to a very high standard.
The brass work would now be highly polished and fitted to the equipment. The whole operation could well have taken a couple of hours of dirty work. Furthermore, this operation might have to be repeated every time your equipment was used.
The art of blancoing was a skill not always achieved by every soldier, some of whom could never attain the even matt finish required. In such cases, it was not unknown, for a soldier, more skilled, to undertake this work on his behalf for a small remuneration.
Your overcoat and tunic would have been issued
with general service type buttons. These would have to be removed and
replaced by a Regimental type peculiar to each Unit. With this in mind,
every soldier would have been issued with a cloth wallet, containing
needle and cotton, referred to as a "housewife". It was quite
entertaining to watch a soldier undertaking this task, because it was
more than likely to be the first time he had ever sewn a button on in
Your boots would be considered things of beauty, for you could see recruits spending endless hours of toil, using all sorts of theories such as a hot spoon to remove the pimples found on the toecaps of his new boots. The end result would be a mirror-like finish to his footwear. It was nothing to see a recruit fidgeting about on a drill parade in the attempt to stop a fool scraping his toe caps with a rifle butt.
The chin strap of your SD Cap would also require
a mirror-like finish, with of course, the brass "D" piece,
which altered the length, always being on the right.
Your Service Dress Tunic would have to be
altered by the depot tailor to ensure a perfect fit, but the recruit
would still be required to keep the Tunic well pressed with particular
regard for a crease down the back. Intelligently called a "bum
The primary level was called a third class
certificate. And would require a pass standard in arithmetic and Regimental
history. It is interesting to note that, a recruit would not be allowed
to graduate from the depot until this examination had been passed.
The final level was a first class certificate.
This examination would probably be equal to that of today's GCE "A"
level in Maths and English, but would also a proficiency in a second
language. You would be required to pass this examination before promotion
to a Warrant Officer Rank.
The Army was however, very keen on promoting
Sport. In any shape or form, and considerable emphasis was placed on
this aspect of training.
In order to maintain some measure of unison with each other when performing a drill movement, each recruit would shout out the timing of the movement. With several Squads Drilling at the same time, it could be bedlam when a recruit was learning the art of Foot and Arms Drill; there were certain hazards to be mastered.
The first might be related to the command , "Fix Bayonets", at which command, amongst other things, the recruit was expected to secure his bayonet on the end of his rifle by means of a small spring operated plunger. The snag was, however, that you were not allowed to look downwards at the rifle to ensure that all was well and truly secured. If this was not the case , the next time you "Sloped Arms", the bayonet would make a beautiful arc into the rear rank of soldiers, resulting in unprintable remarks from the Drill Instructor.
The second hazard might also be related to
the command, "Right Form". This was a highly complicated manoeuvre
at the best of times and when being executed by inexperienced recruits,
the results could be disastrous.
Weapon training would consist mainly of achieving a high standard of proficiency with the Lee Enfield Rifle. You would be taught to shoot accurately by following the doctrine, "Get the Tip of The Foresight in line and in the centre of the U of the Back sight. Sights thus aligned Focus" the Mark. You would also be expected to fire ten rounds in one minute, with reasonable accuracy.
The highlight of this training would be a
visit to the Rifle Range in order to calibrate the Sights of his Rifle.
It is true to say, that a soldier seemed to spend all his spare time with a "Pull Through" and lashings of material referred to as , "Four by Two"in an attempt to keep his rifle clean at all times. To accuse a soldier of having a dirty rifle, was a crime only slightly removed from murder.
Weapon training would also include the use
of automatic weapons, such as the Bren and Vickers Machine Gun.
The best the army could do in this field
was a two pounder Anti-tank Gun, manned by the Royal Artillery. This
weapon was, however completely outclassed by the famous Eighty-eight
Millimetre Anti-tank Gun used by the German army.
When this gun was fired, however, it would
either break your shoulder with the recoil or land you flat on your
back. Needless to say that if you ever hit an armoured fighting vehicle
with this weapon, the round would bounce off. It was therefore the ambition
of every soldier to dump his weapon at the first opportunity. , .
During his training at the depot, the whole outlook and bearing of a recruit would have changed sp much that even if he was to wear civilian clothes, his upright stance and arm movement would make him instantly recognisable as a Serving Regular Soldier.
However, there is still no doubt that, regardless of the fact, the present day soldiers enjoy the advantages of a better type material for their clothing and stay bright metal for their buttons and badges, coupled with plastic type equipment, requiring very little cleaning. The Pre-war soldier was equal if not smarter in appearance and bearing than his present day counterpart.
It was regrettable, however, that some recruits would not be able to accept the discipline of the regular army and would have, "Gone Over The Wall" and deserted. If he were caught, such a crime would result in severe punishment.
The next phase in the progress of a soldier would be a Posting to a Regular Battalion of his Regiment and then to undertake specialised training in Signals, Driving, etc. Who knows, he might be offered promotion to the dizzy heights of Lance Corporal
************************************ . .
of the little ships
HERO: Norman Prior
Second World War.
It has been described as the worst defeat suffered by British Forces during the Second World War. But the evacuation of Dunkirk was also something of a Miraculous Victory.
Over the course of ten days, the Royal Navy, along with a flotilla of small vessels famously known as "the little ships" rescued thousands of battle-weary soldiers from the French beaches in the face of hostile fire.
By the end of Operation Dynamo - 64 years ago tomorrow - 350,000 troops had been evacuated, enabling the Allies to continue the war with Nazi Germany.
Retired works director Norman Prior, President of the Manchester Dunkirk Veterans Association was among them. And as the Nation remembers D-Day Norman and his comrades recall their feelings during a week they will never forget.
A 21-year-old fusilier with the Lancashire Fusiliers, Norman had only been in France a little over eight weeks when he found himself, along with tens of thousands of his comrades, hemmed in on the beaches at Dunkirk.
"There were so many people, I never thought I would get on a boat" he admits.
YOUNG SOLDIER: Norman in uniform
"And never for a second did I think we would be going home. We assumed we were simply being moved further down the coast to renew the fighting. "We lined up trucks in the water, filled them with sandbags and then laid planks across to act as a makeshift jetty to get the lads out into deeper water," he said.
"It wasn't too successful however, and we got most of them away by loading the boats in the shallows then wading out chest-deep into the sea to push them away from the beach.
"It was exhausting work, and we were both hungry and thirsty, but we did that umpteen times." One dark night he helped row a collapsible boat carrying a dozen men half a mile out to sea in the hope of finding a ship to take them.
"It was back-breaking" he said. "We hadn't a clue where we were going, but suddenly this huge black shape materialised in front of us: a destroyer."
Now aged 84, a grandfather and great grandfather, he recalls: "We hadn't had a square meal in days.
"I was with a Bren carrier crew in the
Fifth Battalion. We had been fighting rearguard actions across France,
and we were 30 miles outside Dunkirk when the evacuation began on May
"Our last meal had been simple cheese and biscuits which one of the lads managed to find on a foraging mission at a town where we stopped."
Hear Norman Talk about the Evacuation on,
My clothing was almost threadbare from our time in France and being soaked in sea water, so a complete new set was issued by the QM from a warehouse in Durham which we found out later was infested with lice. Not having experienced lice before we thought the itching was caused by the newness of the clothing and carried on scratching.
Seventy-two hours leave was granted and a
special train lay on to the Manchester area. Early in the trip and still
suffering the itching it was quite funny to see everyone having a little
scratch. We stripped off to check but again our lack of experience led
I went with Dad to the club and on our return
was invited to view the bucket of clothes which had a layer of dead
lice floating on the top. Then came the washing to remove the smell
of paraffin. When dry a lot of the colour had come out with the lice.
However, I did extend my seventy-two hours to seven days and did my
seven days "Confined to Barracks" (Jankers) as punishment.
It appeared almost everyone else had done the same.
Bell Tents had been erected by the advance party who had gone by road, and after a meal we were allowed the pleasure of a few hours rest.
Training restarted and included practicing
rapid deployment to intercept expected German Paratroops. Coaches were
commandeered for quick movement of troops, this included embossing and
debussing in the fastest possible time.
I never went into the pub, just could not afford to. One reason was that even though we had not been paid before and during The Evacuation from Dunkirk the "Records of Accounts", IMPRESS had not caught up with us so we could only have the basic weekly pay and in my case, from my pay of 14 shillings per week, I allotted 7 shillings home each week which left me with only 7 shillings (35 pence).
The Carrier Platoon moved about two miles to Great Whittington, reputed to be the original home of Tom Wittington or was it Dick Wittington and his cat. some of us on the floor of the, by this time, disused small Methodist school or Chapel. Others were in the stables of a small farm across the road and where there were facilities to house the few vehicles we had. The chapel itself was still used for Sunday evening Service.
On the first Sunday we heard the Organ start
playing for the Service, after a quick discussion four of us went to
join them on the back row.
It was the best decision we could have made
because apart from enjoying the service we were invited by a farmer's
family to go with them for the evening meal. On arrival at the farm
we found the large kitchen table already set out with an array of home
made farm food we had not seen in a long time. They were lovely people,
helpful and generous with an invitation for the following week
2nd August we moved to the area around Newcastle.
With the Battalion spread in Throckley, Walbottle, Newburn and Heddon
on the wall.
Our billet was one of a semi detached house
belonging to two brothers and a sister who had a Pie making factory
in Gateshead. Their business had actually started in the house we occupied
and a very large oven, almost up to the ceiling high, was still there.
The great Invasion Scare came then, the code
name CROMWELL was received. Within a few hours the Battalion had packed
all stores and entrained for an unknown destination.
The two Sgts in charge of us decided that
we would travel via Bury and Ramsbottom where most of the crew lived.
During the journey, the Ford V8 engine of one Carrier stopped and we
realised that we would have to switch over to the reserve fuel tank.
They duly arrived on time , Stayed for about
an hour drinking, chatting and we gave the children rides on the Carriers.
Demonstrating the capability of both the carriers and the drivers.
The journey was quite eventful when one carrier
ran out of fuel and the other carrier found an army depot and succeeded
in obtaining a two gallon can of petrol but the Sgt had to stay behind
as hostage until the petrol can was returned.
15th Sept 1940
We spent a few happy months here until the whole of the 42nd Division's next move in November, to East Anglia on coastal defence with the Battalion spread out in Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Bulcamp and Halesworth. The 1/5 Battalion were in Southwold in Suffolk where the Duke of York's Annual Camp for boys was previously held.
Battalion HQ was at St Felix School for Young Ladies. There were no young ladies there then of course as most of the population had been evacuated. The QM's Stores was at Bulcamp, (In the Workhouse) along with the Carrier Platoon. The Rifle Companies were based along the coast at Southwold, Walberswick and Dunwich.
This was an ideal situation for the Carrier Platoon who at night time was responsible for Guard Duties. The cookhouse acted as Guard Room and it was next to the QM's Store so it was an easy matter to break into the QM's store to get extra rations during the night and have a Fry Up between spells on guard. (Two hours on, four hours off.)
All our moves were for Home or Coastal Defence so it was always important to be at state of alert and ready to move at a moments notice.
In all cases the beaches were mined and barbed
wire entanglements in place except for designated places left clear
In May 1941 we moved again, this time to Clacton
on Sea in Essex. Again on Coastal Defence. The night before we arrived
there was a heavy air raid but everywhere was fairly peaceful during
It wasn't to last, in June 1941 after only a month there the Battalion moved to a place called " Duke's Ride" ,near Thetford, Norfolk. We were under canvas over a dry pit about three feet deep, in a large forest. miles from anywhere. This was another of those out of the way places that the army were good at finding.
The weather was very hot and dry; everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. It was an ideal training area and we worked very hard but that dust was everywhere,. Yet there was one respite. Each morning a number of Land Army Girls from a Hostel a few miles away would pass the camp in trucks on their way to farms or forestry duties. As they came by they started throwing things at the troops who in turn would make sure they got them back the following day. That broke the monotony a little.
But with the Carrier Platoon we could usually find an excuse to break the monotony by taking the carriers out for driving instruction of non drivers.
One Friday afternoon while driving along, two Land Army Girls were on the roadside trying to hitch a ride to Bury St Edmunds railway station. Of course it was not allowed but after a short discussion and a bit of pleading from the girls we agreed. After about two miles we were overtaken by a vehicle which stopped in front of us and woe and behold, out stepped the Adjutant from our own Unit on his way to the station, going on a weekend leave.
He ordered the girls out and gave us a severe
talking to with the promise we would hear more. We were up for "Orders"
on the Tuesday morning
Fortunately for me as the driver and in control of the Carrier the same with the other carrier driver we each had a longer serving soldier who each had served in the TA, and were deemed responsible for allowing civilians to be carried without permission. We argued this, knowing it was a bit unfair and saying we thought that being Land Army, they were classed the same as us but that excuse did not wash so two trainee drivers under instruction received seven days each, confined to camp. It was really a most unfair decision but it did have its funny side. One of them, Jimmy Dentith nearly cried. It was his first offence. Until that time he had had a clean record.
Even in the worst situation troops always make the best of it and find something to keep them amused and the mind occupied.
It was not long before we were on the move
again .We stayed until July before going to Long Melford and Sudbury
in Suffolk where we celebrated "Minden Day"1941.
At the end of August 1941 we moved to Colchester again, this time to Le Cateau Barracks. Wherever the troops go, training continues but in the barracks an additional stint was Fire Drill with the barracks own fire fighting equipment. This was a nice change and something else to learn about and of course it was always easy to make sure the hose slipped and gave someone a soaking. All taken in good part.
Between these dates I attended an advanced course in Leeds on the latest Tanks, this was for only two weeks but was followed shortly afterwards by a few weeks course in Eastern Command REME Workshops. The Instructors decided that my engineering skills and knowledge could be put to better use and made me an Instructor for the rest of my time with them.
Before leaving them to return to my Unit I was asked if I would transfer to REME. and backed that up with a letter to my Unit to that effect. I said I would consider it.
On my return, I was called into the Office and pointed out to me the advantages of staying with my Unit and the increase in pay I could expect as we changed over completely to a Tank Regiment. I agreed to stay. I realised later that promotion would have been higher and quicker in REME but I had not realised that at the time. I had made my choice and I don't regret it because I stayed with comrades I knew and the later training was valuable in my civilian work after coming out of the Army..
It was at this time, October 1941 that the War Office decided that the 42nd Infantry Division of which we were a part, would be changed over to an Armoured Division.
Training for this began by selecting personnel for the various new roles. Such as tank driver /mechanics. Wireless Operator/Gunners etc. Everyone had to be reclassified under all the different headings and jobs to which they were most suited. Each man had to be skilled in more than one job.
Anyone not happy with the new role were given
the opportunity to stay as Infantry but join other Regiments or where
possible go to one of their Regiment's other Battalions.
I was selected to go to Martin Walters of Folkestone. International Coach Builders and Motor Engineers for three and a half months on a Vehicle Mechanics Course along with another man, Ernie Ramsbottom from Heywood, who was from the Transport Section and me from the Bren Carrier Platoon?
We were given rations and travel warrants
and travelled down from Colchester, through London threading our way
through loads of fire brigade hose pipe,carrying all our equipment as
bombing had taken its toll. Then by Southern Railway to the home of
Mrs Reynolds of 64 Morehall Avenue in Folkestone. Mr and Mrs Reynolds
were nice people with a son in the RAF and a daughter; a nurse in Canterbury,
then Betty who was the youngest and worked in the local grocer's shop.
This was almost home from home, working at
Martin Walters during the day and doing lots of homework at night ready
for the following day.
Occasionally we would go to the cinema and call at a café for supper afterwards. Being in a vulnerable area, the café's seemed to have more rations available than some places we had served in.
Small Sprats from the local fishermen came up regularly in Mrs Reynolds household as did a Hare or half a Hare. On those occasions it was important to be aware of lead pellets in the flesh; there would be a little pile of these on the edge of each plate.
Lunch was taken in the Martin Walter's canteen and was free to us.
Sometimes at weekends we would do our turn at Fire Watch against air raids plus if one of the workers wanted to miss their turn at fire watching they would offer us about five shillings which to us was a good pick up.
The works closed for Xmas so I was able to
go home for a few days after which it was back to work.
By this time our Unit had moved to Barnard
Castle Co. Durham so that was our destination.
I had only spent about three weeks there with
the Unit and of that I had 10 days leave due. On my return from Leave,
I learned that because of the excellent results I had received from
Martin Walters of Folkestone I was to go to Tom Garners, Motor Engineers
of Manchester, but we were based at Knott Mill in the Deansgate area.
This was an Upgrading Course and would last Eight Weeks.
We were billeted in a house in Raby Street,
Moss Side in Manchester and even though meals etc were provided by the
owner we had Sergeant Mathias in charge to keep everything up to army
standards and Discipline and of course to march us to the works each
As the buses were not always reliable and it was late, Dennis, being the hero of the hour volunteered that we would walk with them from Belle Vie to Rochdale Road so they could catch the all night bus service to Middleton. This we did, saw them safely onto the no17 bus and then made the long journey back to Moss Side and our Billets.
We arranged to meet and go to the pictures
on the Tuesday night in Manchester. Elizabeth and I carried on the relationship
and a year later we were married. The best decision I ever made, thanks
to Dennis who was probably more outgoing than me.
We were very fortunate that no serious accidents
occurred during this period where men were learning to drive tanks.
Not that it was all trouble free. The road from camp to the village
of Staindrop was a good long stretch and many learned to drive there.
The 125 Brigade of 42nd Infantry Division
now became the 108 RAC. of 10th Independent Armoured Brigade of 42nd
An area known as The Dukeries, consisting of Welbeck Abbey, Rufford Abbey and Thoresby Hall, a lovely area where during that summer in addition to our army duties we were called upon to help out the local farmers harvest the Flax which had to be cut by using scythes etc.
After training so many troops into tank crews the War Office decided that 108 RAC and 10th Independent Armoured Brigade were now longer required. After Hundreds of men had been trained and sent abroad to join various armoured regiments the Brigade was to be disbanded. This was a sad blow for everyone but the decision could not be changed.
The 10th Armoured Brigade went up to North
Yorkshire to be disbanded. This took some time The 108 Regiment RAC
was stationed at Wensleydale and Middleham,
We boarded the ship whose name I don't remember
and sailed out past Northern Ireland in convoy into the Atlantic, zigzagging
our way south. The sea was rough; some men were out of circulation for
several days. That didn't matter to the rest of because we got their
rations as well as our own.
Eventually we turned east into the Mediterranean
Sea and docked at the Port of Algiers then south to the dirty, dusty,
little town of BLIDA.
After a short stay there, we went to the outskirts of Algiers for a few days before boarding a train which had no windows; the seats were just wooden slats. From the outside.apart from the lack of windows we looked quite normal.
This was quite a long journey with frequent stops for the engine to fill up with water etc At each stop a crowd of tribes people would come charging from the hilly areas begging for whatever we could give them.
These people were obviously very poor, their clothes were just rags really and the food must have been very scarce. The strange thing was that they all knew the words biscuit and cigarette. When the train set off again they would disperse.
We travelled through many tunnels and the smoke from the engine filled the carriages so that we were gasping for breath and glad to reach fresh air again.
We eventually arrived at our destination which
was the dirty little village of
We had search lights in watch towers to assist us on guard duty against the thieves who prowled at night time. Thieves who could take your blankets while you slept leaving you to waken up shivering and wondering what had happened.
Away from the camp entrance but on the pavement was a man with a mobile charcoal burner cooking Kebabs. The meat on the skewers was really an apology for meet, something the average person wouldn't look twice at. To walk past it meant a step into the road and at that moment a battered old car came passed and hit a soldier, knocked him to the ground leaving him with a deep wound to the side of his head. The car didn't stop so we returned the man to camp for treatment. He went to hospital and we never saw him again.
Training never stops of course and in my case
I attended a Course on the General Motors Two Stroke Diesel engines
as fitted in the Sherman Tank. These diesel engines replaced the original
petrol engines which were so prone to catching fire. The Course lasted
eight weeks and was equal to a City & Guilds qualification. As with
other Courses I passed with flying colours.
The camp was close to the Atlas Mountains and the weather was atrocious with snow at night melting during the day and making the ground into a quagmire, so much so that in the whole of the war years it was the only time we ever received a Rum ration and had a spare pair of boots issued. One pair worn while the other pair was drying around a slow combustion stove made from a 40 gallon oil drum and burning wood from trees which had been cut down by the troops.. This was housed in a special wooden hut.
It was also the only place that a supper was
available to combat the cold and damp. This was always cheese melted
into a liquid and a thick slice of bread to dip in it.
Our camp was part of a larger one with one
part for British and the other for Canadians and they too had their
own Tanks and parking area. .
The Order came for a move to Italy, one we were looking forward to and we watched the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius spewing out flames and red hot ash, then onward through Caserta (a US Main Depot,) Avelino, Benevanto etc and ended up in the Apennines.
Our equipment had gone astray including blankets
etc, so we were each given a two man Bivouac which appeared to be made
of rigid sail, cloth to keep out the freezing cold but they were almost
useless.without our blankets.
Behind Monte Cassino was the Adolph Hitler
line constructed across the Liri valley. Behind that the Allies had
made a landing at Anzio.
The 3rd Hussars went into action at Coldragone
Wood Nr Arce
During the next two days the 3rd KOH were
ordered acoss the Liri river to join the 78th Division near Ceprano.
More than 100 Germans were killed and twenty-six taken prisoner for
the loss of one Infantry man
The enemy retreated until third week of June when they made a stand about 100 miles north of Rome east and west near Lake Trasimino.
Battles were fought at Civita Castellana,
Gallesi Castiglioni, and Orvieto which was only twenty miles south of
Lake Trasimino where Kesselring had rallied his forces. The resistance
was much tougher, the opponents were the Elite German Paratroops who
had orders to hold the line at all costs.
We started off up the road and met only small arms and mortor fire but as soon as we entered the narrow streets of the town, hidden anti tank guns and bazookas opened up from every side. The Hussars Tanks fought back as best they could in the confined space, but lost four tanks with five men killed and ten wounded before the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry were sent to take over..
From this action where much bravery was shown
there, where awards were made.
Later on 16th the Regiment was withdrawn five miles, back to the village of Santa Maria and visited by the Divisional Commander Mjr, Gen Keightly.Here he consoled them for their losses and praised them for the confidence and inspiration they had inspired in the infantry battalions of the 78th Division to whom they had shown they had the gallantry and dash to defeat the enemy at every turn.
We rested up at Santa Maria during forty-eight
hours of constant rain.
The next action, at Ripa Ridge, a few miles
east of Perugia, was equally deserving more battle honours, for it was
there that great courage was shown but it was also a feat of tactics
that was reported to be unique in Armoured Corps history.
From the top and its steep slopes to the north,
the Germans, heavily dug in, cotrolled the approaches to the main road
running along the left bank of the Tiber to Umbertide.
The key was to advance and attack a steep
hill, point 450 on the right front which the Regiments predecessors,the
North Irish Horse had failed to do and said it was a tank obstacle and
impossible to ascend.
The 8th Indian Division were reluctant to risk further casualties so the Corps Commander agreed to allow the 3rd to make the raid alone, supported by the Divisional Artillery to draw the enemy fire and gain information
It was a great success. As "A" Squadron was moving forward under a bombardment .The Germans were taken by complete surprise and withdrew in disorder, believing their line was broken and they were almost surrounded..The enemy were pushed back five miles at no cost except for a random shell which landed in "C" Squadron B Echelon area, and sadly killed SQMS Dixon.and Cpl Sellars and wounded four other men.
The 3rd counted their bag; 11 guns and many vehicles destroyed, three bazookas and one Field gun and Field kitchen captured, at least one hundred Germans killed and sixty taken prisoner.
More Italy and beyond
Dixon was hit on the side of his head with
a lump of shrapnel. George worked frantically to drive the truck out
of trouble as I dressed Dixon's wounds . We cleared the area and took
Dixon to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) we had passed earlier, from
there he would be taken hospital. I don't know if he survived.
We had received an allotment of Valentine
Amphibious Tanks. These were only three men Crew. Driver, Wireless Operator
/Gunner and Tank Commander. We Trained in these on Lake Bracciano with
very tight security for an intended assault across the wide stretch
of the river PO on the Adriatic Front.
One night during the training where we were
to make a landing on the other side of the large lake, The
On reaching the landing zone the canvas supports
were deflated, this only took about four seconds.
Then came the news that men who had served
four years abroad were being sent home on the Python and Liap scheme.
(Leave in addition to Python).
This was completed but we did not get the
chance to continue, instead we left our comrades who were going home
and went South by road to Taranto in the foot of Italy. From Italy,
next stop the Middle East.
It was at this time that the uprising by the
Syrians against the French started and we moved to various places to
intervene. We made camp at Jebel Maazar a few miles from Damascus when
the Signal Sergeant fell sick with suspected Meningitis and went to
hospital We were placed in quarantine for ten days.
However, we restored order and the area declared
safe. Time for a Brew. As the water in the billycan T started to boil,
I bent down to switch off and drop the tea in and as I did so, a machine
gun opened up from the area of the barracks and missed my head by inches
if I had been standing, my head would have disappeared.
Eventually, all was declared safe. On entering
the Barracks, the first thing to attract my attention was the body of
a Syrian Soldier, just placed on a handcart with the side of his head
blown wide open but there was a Pulse beating away inside. There was
nothing we could do for him.
On approaching the village, we met guards
armed with knives swords and other weapons .Eyes everywhere following
our every movement. We gave them a friendly greeting and proceeded into
the village where everyone seemed to have a weapon.
From there to HAMA and the Bug ridden army
barracks vacated by the French Army.
By now the French Army and their families
which had retired to their headquarters in Allepo, near the Turkish
Border was ready to leave Syria and the K D Gs (King's Dragoon Guards
escorted them to North of Hama and handed them over to us to continue
the journey to Tripoli, passing through the Town of Homs. I was at the
rear in the Fitters truck with the driver two Fitters and tools in the
back to take care of any problems including breakdowns of the French
trucks which were in a bad state through lack of maintenance.
The French trucks came under violent attack with the stones. Including ourselves Some drivers were badly injured the one in front of us very much so.. His hands were so badly damaged that he was unable to turn the steering wheel to turn onto the Tripoli Road and drove straight into the railway station goods yard followed by an Armed Baying mob. We radioed to our Convoy for help and held the mob at bay until two Armoured Cars and the ambulance came to our assistance and dispersed the crowd.
This Operation was to last several days so
it was important that there was no repeat.
Later as problems with the Jews got worse
we went into the Sarafand Garrison in Palestine.
Back to the Regiment then I went to Egypt
to the Mitoqra College in Cairo for four weeks to prepare me for life
as a civilian again. Before going back to my Regiment in Palestine.
After about a week or ten days moved via Ismailia
on the West Bank of the Nile to Port Said.
We were due for a stop at Ismailia Station
We had been issued with a booklet, "The Way Back". It described the changes in conditions at various stages of the journey back to England.
On arrival at Port Said, we boarded the Liberty
Ship "Empire Battleaxe" which was not the most comfortable
with three tier bunk beds for Ors and Senior NCOs better accommodation.
As a Sergeant, I had free movement over all
the ship and supervised a fatigue party of 12 men to sweep and clean
the decks morning and evening and prevent men going to the Prow of the
ship because of the danger as huge waves crashed over.
With the boiler repaired we set sail again,
still with the rough sea and sea sickness still very bad for some.
On arrival at Dieppe we boarded a cross Channel
Ferry. The sea was as calm as a mill pond.
From Newhaven by train to Aldershot for the formalities of Demob. Here it was found that our Demob Books and general paper work had gone astray so we were delayed for a further forty-eight hours. Before proceeding with the formalities.
Then off to the clothing Centre for an issue
of clothing. Suit, Raincoat or Overcoat, Socks Shoes etc.
Change into Winter clothing. Woollen Vest and Long Johns and we certainly needed them, the weather at the end of February 1946 was bitterly cold and more so after my time in the warm climate of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
With my travel warrant to Manchester. Piccadilly
Station, here I come. I arrived at about 7-30 pm. Across Manchester
for a bus to Middleton.
Over seventy years ago in the last days of
May and in early June 1940 --------
This is a moving story of courage and devotion
to duty, in the face of odds which no other British Force has ever been
called upon to face.
God Keep Their Memory Green
In the fields of Flanders, at Dunkirk and
elsewhere in the quiet countryside of France, now again peaceful and
free, lie those of our Comrades who did not return from that forgotten
campaign. Beside them are the graves of the men of an earlier BEF who
made the same sacrifice so few years before, facing the same enemy.
God Keep Their Memory Green
Britain’s Lost Mines
Local Journalist Geoffrey Shryhane kindly put an appeal in his column in The Wigan Observer asking if any readers had worked at Bryn Hall. It was more in hope than expectation on my part, the pit having closed so long ago. But a few days after my return from Wigan, I took a call from one Norman Prior, sounding remarkably robust for a man of 94 years.
He lived at Croft Cottages, Bryn Hall, left school at 14 in 1933 and joined his father and brothers at the colliery later that year. He trained as a fitter, working on the surface as well as underground where he might be called upon at any time of the day or night to fix the conveyor belts or coal cutting machines, amongst other things.
Norman’s work proved good training for what was to come when he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1939. I remember being partially buried when a Shot-Firer shouted a belated warning and we had to dive for cover, he added, almost chuckling at the memory.
By 1940 he was up to his chest in water rather than coal. Despite being a non-swimmer, he was just off the beaches of Dunkirk pushing heavily loaded rowing boats out to sea.
When he finally made it back to Bryn Hall, the job he had been promised on his return had gone. The pit had closed. Disappointed but undeterred, he took a job with an engineering company on the outskirts of Manchester and finished up as works and production director.
So this has been the story of three remarkable men: George Orwell, an Old Etonian who took the road to Wigan Pier, Alan Davis, grammar school boy who chose to work as a coal miner; and Norman Prior, who had an elementary education, followed his father’s coal-dusted footsteps,