Monday, May 25, 2009

Christopher's Story Part 3 The War

In 1944, Chris was working in a reserved occupation, glass blowing, in Lancashire. But it also happened to be a traditional recruiting area for the Brigade of Guards. In spite of being officially prohibited from enlisting, he managed to do so and his service record shows that he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards at Wolverhampton on May 22nd 1944.

Although the regiment was formed in 1656, during King Charles the 11's exile, and was originally named the First Footguards, the name Grenadier was given after 1815, when they had defeated the French Grenadiers at Waterloo; after which the bearskin of the grenadier company was adopted by the entire regiment, and the "grenade" replaced the former badge of "royal cypher and crown."

Chris, whose earlier life had given him nothing to take pride in, must felt a sense of belonging in the army, such as he had never had before. By chance, because they were short one man and he was 6 foot tall, he was assigned to the King's Company, an elite corp.

Although he was only in Europe for 62 days from March 2nd, 1945 to May 2nd 1945 (he returned in 1946 as part of the occupying force,) there were many key events that took place during those two months. He arrived as part of an armoured brigade, just three weeks after the horrific bombing of Dresden, by the Allies, which took place in mid February. The Allies took Cologne on March 7th 1945 and on April 30th 1945, Adolph Hitler committed suicide. May 7th, just 5 days after he returned to England, saw the unconditional surrender of all German forces to the Allies and May 8th was Victory in Europe Day.

Chris (Dad), like many other soldiers did not talk a lot about the war with us. That time seemed to be a closed door, behind which were memories he did not care to resurrect.

He did share the memory of one day with me and although then it was almost sixty years later, it seemed as vivid as if it happened just yesterday.

Dad's memory of Friday, April 13th 1945:
He was in the infantry, the First All Grenadier Regiment of Foot guards and their objective was Zeven, in Germany.

Dad was riding with a convoy of 4 Sherman tanks, motorized infantry. This meant that you either rode on top of a tank, or a half track (half car, half tank with regular wheels on the front for steering and caterpillar tracks on the back to propel the vehicle.)

The wireless operator handed Dad the earphones and told him to listen to the German broadcast in which someone was warning them in English, saying, "You'll regret it."

Dad was on the fourth tank. The second tank blew up, hit by an 88mm German gun. All the infantry then quickly got off (and by then were into a heavily wooded area and the tanks were ineffective--they were blind). In open formation they had to go through the woods (seeing "for" the tanks.)

They did not see a single German, strangely, but found German horse drawn artillery, all killed, soldiers and horses, by a bomb blast. Dad said that there was not a mark on them.

Then, quite a way through the woods, they came under artillery fire and took cover. A guardsman named Douglas (Dougie) Clegg, from Manchester, told Dad that it was Friday the 13th and said that it was their own guns that were firing on them. It lasted about 8-10 minutes. Dad said that they had evidently been ordered to pull back and the reason that they had been fired on was that they were too far forward.

Dad saw a guardsman crouched over on a tree trunk. He went back to him and tried to find out if he was wounded, and where. He clearly had a shrapnel chest wound, the size of a shilling, Dad said. He did the only thing he could, and lifted him in a fireman's lift, carrying him to a tank that was pulling out. The soldiers on top of the tank lifted him off Dad, onto the tank.

Dad suddenly realized as the tanks pulled away that he hadn't got on one himself. He saw a Bren gun carrier and got into it. He shouted to the driver to get them out, but it was stuck because is had stopped on ground that was too high and the tracks weren't engaging with the ground. All of them rocked the carrier until one track engaged, and finally it got them out.

After this, they were on foot, in the heavily wooded area attacking the Alpine German troops, the 9th Reserve Jaeger Battalion that had been in a school. They drove them out, including the Volkstern (home guard) and S.S. They were in retreat.

Dad went into the school and found a German sniper rifle. It was a beautiful rifle, with wide telescopic sights. It was in a long corridor and on the wall at the end of the corridor was a big picture of Hitler. Dad thought he would try the rifle and shoot at the picture, but then realized that in a confined space, bullets could ricochet. He turned around, and there was an open doorway behind him. He could see the back half of a German vehicle and there was was a German helmet, resting on something. Dad thought he'd shoot at that instead, but stopped and decided to go and look at it first. To his horror, when he picked it up, he found that it was supported on the warhead of a bazooka bomb. The Germans that had been there were either dead or had pulled out.

After going through the school and on beyond it, a German came out from behind a tree with his hands up in surrender. A guardsman named Burkett ("killer Burkett was his nickname,) had a Bren machine gun, which was normally operated from the ground, on his hip. He shot the surrendering soldier with the Bren gun, from his hip, almost cutting him in two. In horror, Dad gasped, "Why on earth did you do that, he was only a young lad?"

The lines get blurry between friend and foe when a human life can be snuffed out by one of the "good guys."

Chris returned to England on May 5th 1945, returning to Germany on the 26th of February 1946 where he stayed until the 5th of December 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, overseeing prisoners of war.

Next week, Pieternella's War Years continue...and in two weeks time, Chris and Nel meet.

6 comments:

Brenda said...

It's a fascinating story, Belinda. I can hardly wait for the next installment. I'm surprised by all the detail you recall. My memory's not that good!

Belinda said...

Hi Brenda,
If I was relying on memory I'm afraid I would absolutely be in the same boat! I took notes when talking to Dad before he died, and I am so glad he shared the little he did. I also talked to one of his ex army buddies after he died. He gave a little more detail.

It's so good to hear from you!

Marilyn said...

HOW these vets (and those of previous wars) lived whole lives while keeping inside such stories is hard to imagine. I've often wondered about this.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I agree with Marilyn, no wonder those who survived the war do so quietly. My father never talked much about the war, I tried to get him to but words simply failed him. It is a precious and powerful thing that your father opened a door to you, it speaks of his desire to be understood by his daughter. We, you and I, never knew our fathers unwounded and are left to wonder who they would have been, how they would have loved us, had they not been witness to horror.

Belinda said...

Yee, Dave and Marilyn,
I forgot to mention that he was terrified the whole time. He was a sensitive man who wouldn't hurt a fly, literally, on purpose. He despised himself for praying in his extremity, to a God he ignored otherwise; he saw that as cowardice and lacking in integrity and I could never convince him otherwise.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Perhaps his ears didn't hear you, but I'll bet his heart did.