So we went up from this village, we went up to Belgium, and the Germans there were very... mixed - it wasn't like a fixed battle at all. The Panzer divisions were rampaging around, up and down, you know, and you never knew where we were or when the Germans would arrive or nothing. Then we moved up to this farm - Proven it was called, in Belgium, and we just settled in among the straw in a barn, and a dive bomber came over and dropped his bombs all over the farm, and it killed two of my mates, and that... We all ran away from the farm, and when we came back we had to bury the two mates, and there were one or two wounded as well. My eardrums were blasted. I felt a bit shocked as well.
Anyway, after everything had settled down a bit, we was told we were going to be evacuated from Dunkirk, and the Major said, ‘Well, we'll get you so far to Dunkirk with our lorries, and then you've got to smash them up so the Germans won't use them again'. So, anyway we got on the lorries and we travelled to a place called Burges, which is like a little medieval town and there's a moat all round it, with little bridges going in and gatehouses. So before we got there, we went to this field and smashed all the vehicles up and then we made our way to this Burges, to these little bridges and I'll always remember there were a tank wedged in one of these bridges, you know, and we had to sidle our way past it, you know, and there were a dead man draped on the tank. And when you looked behind you could see in the distance, you could see the Germans setting their guns up!
Anyway, we went through this archway and soon after that there was a mighty explosion, they were blowing all these bridges up all around the moat, and we thought it was shelling so we all ran, and there were some German prisoners of War there at the time, and we all got mixed among them, they were all running out of the way (laughs) trying to get cover.
Anyway when things settled down a bit there were a lot of banging, and you know, shelling and one thing and another. This lorry came round the corner, with the tail board down, and there were some troops in the back and they shouted, ‘Come on, get on!' so all my mates ran forward and I was the last one and I missed the lorry, and they'd all gone and went, so I was left on my own. So I thought how do I get to Dunkirk now, from here, you know. And I could see this pall of black smoke in the distance, so I assumed it was Dunkirk.
So I started along this road, and there was a canal and a road side by side. I started walking, and funnily enough there wasn't much traffic on it at all, there was nothing only a few horse-drawn artillery, French artillery going along, and you could hear the shells whistling overhead, you know, both ways, because the Navy was anchored off Dunkirk and they were shelling the Germans and the Germans were replying back you see. So I was in between, you know, underneath it all like. The clouds came and it started raining, and up to then it had been perfect weather, so there were no fear of being bombed at all, you know, because it was too cloudy. So I made my way along, and I kept walking and I had some sugar in my pocket, some sugar cubes, I thought these'll keep me going, you know, because there were no sign, I'd had nothing to eat at all, you know.
So I got within reasonable distance of Dunkirk, I heard this ambulance, I heard the motor behind and he slowed down, it was an ambulance, he said ‘Come on, I'll give you a lift.' So I jumped in the ambulance, there were four seriously injured troops in the back - the driver told me anyway. So he took me to the docks. The docks had been bombed there, the inner docks and there was all these wounded all lying round this docks, you know, and there were no sign of any ship there, whether it'd been there before or not, I don't know, a hospital ship... and we just left it then you see. And one of these ambulances, something went wrong and it dropped into the dock and there must have been wounded on that ambulance, you know.
Anyway, I thought I'd got to wander my way and look for the beach. So I wandered away and an officer came along, and a lot of vehicles and he said ‘Let's try and get one going' he says, and we kept trying these vehicles and nothing would happen, they'd been damaged or something, there were something wrong with them. Then suddenly, one of my mates, from my unit, I met him and he was in a daze, I don't know what were wrong with him, he were bomb happy or something. I said ‘Come on Jock!' you know, I said ‘Let's go and find the beach!' Anyway we got into the town, and we went along this street and there was smoke and there was bodies lying about and one thing and another, and the gas main were set afire and the pavements were... there were flames licking out of the pavements. So we went down into this cellar, and there were a lot of, they must have been drinking, these lot. They looked all drunk these troops and I thought, I'm not stopping down here. If there are any bombs let on this cellar we'll all be buried, you know. So I wandered out and funnily enough, out of the smoke and everything, there were an officer arrived on a white horse, and he was collecting all the troops and taking them to the beach. So we all got fell in and wandered down at back of him, you know, to the beach, and when I got to the beach, there were no sign of any ships, and there were rows of troops in columns waiting, you know. And I thought, well, there's not much chance here. Anyway I scooped a hole in the sand and thought if there's any bombers come over, you know, I'd get my head below the ground.
And after a while, it was getting a bit late, towards evening, I thought I'm not stopping here and so I wandered along, there were like a front there. There were all these vehicles all smashed up, and I came to the end of a group of men, and they were all queuing up and they were going onto the quay, there was like a quay stretched out and the ships decided not to go in the inner harbour and to anchor this quay. But it was tidal, you see, because one minute the ship would be level with the quayside and next minute it would be down, you see, it depended on the tide. Anyway, I stood in this queue and funnily enough, I looked ahead and I saw a mate of mine. One of our unit, and I stepped out of the queue and I felt this prodding to my back, and it was Royal Marines, they were keeping law and order there, stopping the panic, and they said ‘Get back into that queue!' Oh I got back in smartly, you know. Anyway we got to the start of the quay, it were like a jetty, I should say, and it had been bombed you see, and there were planks across and we had to run, so many at a time to the end of the jetty and try and find a ship there.
So my turn came and we ran along, and I heard somebody shout ‘13th Field Ambulance!' and it was a converted hospital ship, that was anchored there, and I shouted ‘Oh here, I'm one of 13th Field Ambulance' and it was one of our officers, he got us on board. There was about, I should say about five or six of us of our unit. And I crawled across onto the boat, and we were asked if we were wounded, and I said, ‘Well I'm just a bit... my eardrums are a bit, a bit of concussion', ‘Well', he said ‘You can go down below' into this cabin, ‘...but if there's any badly wounded, any more badly wounded and you'll have to get out' they said, and we said ‘All rright' and we went down, me and... Funnily enough he came from Farnworth, this other member from my unit - lived in Kent Street at Farnworth, Len Brooks, he were called. And me and him, we stuck together like... and we went into this cabin and there were these two bunks and oh, we were dirty and sweaty and we needed a shave and we looked horrible, but we were exhausted so we both got down on the bunks and we fell fast asleep. And the next time I woke up we was out to sea, and they'd been bombing all night, and it'd slightly damaged the hospital ship, but it could still sail alright, and we got away, like, and they looked at us and it was a nurse, and she said ‘Are you wounded?' We said ‘No, we've been asleep like, you know' and she said ‘Oh, we've been bombed all night' and she said, ‘Would you like to go on deck and peel some potatoes?' We said we didn't mind, you know, so we nipped up on deck and we sat peeling potatoes with another half a dozen men, you know. I mean we were still not very far away from Dunkirk, you know, there were a lot of attacks on the ship, with aircraft, but we weren't bothered you know, satisfied we'd got on a ship and landed.
D Day came along and we were involved in D Day with the Canadians. And we took the Canadians ashore, with some Free French, and our job was to look for targets for the gunners. They'd decided, top generals, they decided, instead of tanks going ashore and waiting until they'd got ashore to fire, they'd fire from the boat! But they had to have somebody in front of them to find out where the targets were. That was my job... well, our job, and I was a Marine Corporal in charge of this Marine attachment on this little boat... We'd done our job, and we'd come under some kind of fire from the Germans, in fact, we were the only target they had for quite a while. Luckily the boat was on the small side, with the waves going up and down, nothing hit us. We were in more danger from our own firing over the top of us, rocket ships I mean. And well we done the job and the skipper said ‘Right, we'll take these men ashore' - three Canadian, I think it was a Major, Corporal and a Private - they were finding the targets for the Canadians gunners on the tanks, and we were all heading towards the shore and we just got hit. Now whether we hit something or we hit a mine or something hit... I've no idea, but I was thrown out of this boat in this turret and landed upside down on the sandy bottom, luckily, and my mates, my own lads, pulled me out, and we were sitting on top of this boat, because it had sunk in seven feet of water. This Canadian Major, he's six foot tall and he drowned in seven feet of water, because he had a wireless on back. The two other Canadians, and our skipper and the seaman lost their lives, there and then. And one of our lads Bert Taylor, he was called, he was from either Grimsby or Hull, and he was smashed up. We looked after him the best way we could, we were picked up, eventually and finished up in a hospital ship. I wasn't too badly... I were wounded, but not too badly. And he... err, I can't... I won't describe them... and he's saying ‘Don't tell me wife...'
At a place not far from Lille we had a brush with a German SP gun and they were causing us quite a bit of trouble. Sgt Farrage had gone out on OP and I was sat at the back of a haystack writing a letter home when a chap from B Company came up to me and asked me if I was a mate of Tommy Cooke. I said yes, and then he told me he had just been killed, and that the same shell had wounded Sgt Farrage. I felt totally gutted, though we were not in the same Company we managed to see each other whenever possible. I told my Mother in the letter what had happened, as she had met him once when we were on disembarkation leave.
In 1995 Tony Colgan and myself toured the battle sites again and we knew that Tommy had been buried in the London cemetery at High Wood. I put a cross on his grave and I also buried a tea bag. Tommy would have liked that, he loved a brew. The last time I saw Tommy alive he had come round the mortar lines and we were just brewing up. “Smashing, I’m just in time!” he said.
Our section was posted to 81st General Hospital, which had been sent to Belsen concentration camp near Celle. I had always believed that the tales of these camps had been propaganda. I was to learn that they were indeed fact.
Belsen had been a large camp, but all the prisoners' huts had been burned by flame throwers, as had been the bases of the trees in the nearby forest. This had been necessary to prevent the spread of typhus that was prevalent when the camp was liberated.
What we saw here shocked us. I personally could not believe that Man could treat his fellow men with such cruelty. These poor people, with distended stomachs and limbs like skeletons, ambled round the place with a dead look on their faces. Many of them lay in the SS barracks, which had been turned into wards, and here they were dying like flies. Help had arrived too late for many of them.
I spoke to children, some not more than seven or eight years of age, in broken English. Each one of them had a number tattooed on their wrist. They seemed unconcerned about their surroundings, and I realised that they had obviously never known any other kind of life.