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. He was 23.
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 defeated the French Grenadiers at Waterloo. Then 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 hard earlier life had given him little to take pride in, must felt a sense of belonging in the army such as he had never had before. He was assigned to the King's Company, an elite corp. because they were short one man and he was 6 feet tall.
After training for about 10 months, he was in Europe for two months; from March 2nd to May 2nd, 1945. He returned in 1946 as part of the occupying force, the British Army of the Rhine.
There were many key events that took place during the two months Chris spent in Europe. 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, 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 towards the end of his life, and although by 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.