Seventy years ago, in 1944, our father, Chris Cater, was working in a reserved occupation in Lancashire, a traditional recruiting area for the Brigade of Guards. He enlisted in spite of being of being officially prohibited from doing so and his service record shows that he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards at Wolverhampton on May 22nd 1944. He was 23 years old.
After training for about 10 months, Chris was sent to Europe for two months; from March 2nd to May 2nd, 1945 when he was wounded by shrapnel. He returned in 1946 as part of the occupying force; the British Army of the Rhine.
Several key events 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, in Germany, on March 7th 1945 and on April 30th 1945, Adolph Hitler committed suicide. May 7th, just 5 days after Chris 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 about the war with his family. It was a closed door, behind which were unspoken memories.
He shared the memory of just one day with me towards the end of his life, and although by then it was almost sixty years later, as he told the story, it was as if it happened yesterday.
Chris'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.
Chris 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 Chris the headset and told him to listen to the German broadcast in which someone was warning them in English, saying, "You'll regret it," an intimidation tactic.
Chris 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 living German soldier, but found German horse drawn artillery, all were dead, soldiers and horses. Killed by a bomb blast; 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 Chris 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. They had evidently been ordered to pull back and the reason that they had been fired on was that they were too far forward.
Chris looked back and saw a guardsman crouched over on a tree trunk. He went back to find out if he was wounded, and where. He saw that he had a shrapnel chest wound, the size of a shilling. Chris 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 Chris's shoulder and onto the tank.
Chris suddenly realized as the tanks pulled away that he was in danger of being left behind. He saw a Bren Gun carrier and got into it. He shouted to the driver to get them out of there, but it was stuck because it 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. The Germans were in retreat.
Chris went into the school and found a fine German sniper rifle with wide telescopic sights. He was in a long corridor and on the wall at the end of the corridor was a big picture of Hitler. Chris 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 a German helmet, resting on something. He was tempted to shoot at the helmet, but stopped and went to look at it first. When he picked it up, he found that it was supported on the warhead of a bazooka bomb. The Germans that had been there earlier were either dead or had pulled out.
After going through the school and on beyond it, a young German soldier came out from behind a tree with his hands up in surrender. A British soldier, with a Bren machine gun, normally operated from the ground, on his hip, shot the surrendering soldier with the Bren gun, almost cutting him in two. In horror, Chris said, "Why on earth did you do that? He was only a young lad." It was an act of inhumanity Chris never forgot.
Chris returned to Germany on the 26th of February 1946 and stayed until the 5th of December 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, which oversaw prisoners of war. Some became Chris's friends. This sketch was done by one of them.
Just one man's war, but he was our dad.