VETERAN STORY
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VETERAN'S PICTURE
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PERSONAL RECORDS
Name
Nationality
Driver Walter Uden
British
Date
Location
June 6th, 1944
Normandy, France, Germany
Unit

REME (Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers) 20th Beach Recovery Corps

Wounded
Captured
Survived

"We Cleaned up the Beaches for more Landing Craft to come in and help the craft to get back to U K to reload and then return.I was in the British Army and from the beaches we did recovery work all the way into Germany. The first two months was horrible the only food was COMPO packs and what we could scrounge from the fields, I was one of the Lucky Ones I did not want to remember but when my Wife passed away the memories of my past came back that I had to Share with someone. I hope it never comes back again in Years to come"

I was born in Lambeth, London on September 22 1922. My father was an umbrella salesman, and when I was two years old he was sent to Bolton in Lancashire (in England). Before long, the umbrella firm went bankrupt so he was stuck in Bolton, unemployed...My mother was a weaver in a cotton mill. Her salary was the only money coming into the home at that time, so myself and my three brothers: Arthur, Albert and Roy had to help out. We were two years apart in age and had both a paper and a milk round and all the money we earned went into the house-keeping money. Then, in 1932, my father–because he had been a soldier in WW1–was given a position as a mailman in Bolton. He started work at 4 am, and as transportation was very poor in those days we had to move nearer to the Post Office. So we kids changed schools. This is how I went to a school that taught gardening as well as the basics and I still enjoy the garden even to this day. The next school had a swimming pool under the gymnasium so we were all taught to swim which also stood me well in later years. I turned 14 on September 22 1936 but had to stay in school until the end of the term which was in December. During that term, a man came to the school looking for an apprentice for his painting and decorating firm. Some 12 of us were interviewed and I got the apprenticeship. Turns out he also wanted someone to caddy for him on weekends at the golf course. Little did I know what that meant in those days but ever since I have vowed never to go near a golf course. Fancy a boy of 14 going out every weekend carrying a big bag of clubs on his shoulder, I often think that in those days wheels still had not been invented. Even in the rain we still had to go as it was tied in with my job as an apprentice. Today I celebrate my starting work as an apprentice on every January 2 so in January 2002 it meant that I have been in the painting game for 66 years and I still like it. I even painted while I was in the army from October 1940 until May 1946. More on my painting experience will appear in the painting section of this site. In 1941 I met the girl that I later married. People often asked 'where did you meet your wife' and my answer always took them by surprise as I said 'I first met her in bed...'

In 1941 my brothers and I were away in the forces (even the youngest was in the boys artillery group) so there were three bedrooms in our parents house not being used. The government billeted a mother and three children there, all evacuees from the Channel Islands. They caused a lot of problems as they would not take care of themselves–and with my father and mother both working–so they were moved. My parents decided to find boarders that would fit in with them and found three sisters from Durham that worked in the munition factory with my mother.These girls liked the accommodation, and if any of us brothers came home they could make room for us. Everything went well until I decided to come home on leave–without warning to surprise my parents–not knowing about these girls. I got home at about 5 am and saw nobody at home, so–after traveling for hours–I went to my bed.I was awakened by a scream–my bed was also the bed of one of these girls. They had just come home from working the night shift and she was in the process of getting in bed before she saw me. What an uproar! I was given a good telling off for not telling them that I was coming home on leave. Two years later I married that girl. She was Joyce Walker and we were happily married for fifty-six years.

I turned 18 in 1940 and in 1939 conscription became law. I knew that as I was in not employed in essential services I would eventually join the British army. So I volunteered.The benefit of volunteering was a choice of postings. If I had not volunteered the military could put me anywhere they wanted, so knowing that my Father was in the infantry in WW1, ( I should have had my brains checked ) I told them when they asked what I wanted to join (as I could pick anything I wanted) I said I want to join the Infantry. No wonder they stared at me. When I think back I must have been out of my mind...So on October 4 1940 I was put on a train for Rhyl in North Wales to join the 70 th battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. That is where I did my training, in Bolsover camp, which was just wooden huts with no heat. I think they meant to toughen us up, as we had to go on the beach at 6 am every morning for a hour, stripped to the waist, doing physical training.

After 3 months of that, the whole unit was sent by truck to Skegness in Lincolnshire–to what used to be Butlins Holiday Camp–our accomadation was far better as we had Chalets meant for just one person. Our job was to patrol the beaches in case we were invaded, and we often had German planes over machine gunning us. Along with clock on the pier in Skegness they more or less used us for target practice.In 1942 we were moved to Digby aerodrome in Lincolnshire.They were having trouble with saboteurs messing about with the planes in the dispersal points around the landing field. It was while I was stationed in Digby that I took up cross country running and liked it so much that I ended up doing a lot of runs for the army. We did a lot of invading of other aerodromes to check their defenses. We would blacken our faces and set out to capture an officer in the other aerodrome and they would try to do the same to us.

On one of these night patrols we came across what we thought was a lovely swimming pool. So we had a swim in the raw. Turns out we were raw when we came out as it was where they but sugar beet in to get rid of insects. It nearly got rid of us as our skin just came off just like sunburn. The RAF took over the defenses so our unit was disbanded and I was sent to Batley in Yorshire to the Ordinance Corp.On October 2nd, 1942 they formed the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers which was known as REME. The workshops were in Dewsbury (the next town) about a mile away, and this was where I did painting work on the trucks and cars that were being repaired. I was sent to a driving School in Ashton under Lyme to get the training on all types of vehicles the army had.

From there it was off to an anti aircraft workshop in Manchester and while I was there I got married. We painted the Nisson huts there and once they were finished I was moved to the 20th Beach Group Recovery REME. After forming, up we got sent up to Gailes camp between Irvine and Troon in Ayrshire Scotland.In Scotland, we were put to work waterproofing vehicles for an intended invasion. We would waterproof a vehicle and drive it off to a ramp in the bay in irvine then straight down the ramp and down the coast to Gailes camp. We drove till we were seated in water and if we stalled a recovery truck would tow us out leaving us to find out what went wrong and correct it.

After we had got things satisfactory in the eyes of the red tape that used to visit and watch us in the ocean we were on the move again. This time to Southborough near Tonbridge Wells. Shortly thereafter, on the first of June 1943, we moved to a little village outside of Portsmouth where we slept in the trucks as thats all there was–the place was packed with troops.Then came the big day, D-Day, but we did not know it. We thought it was just more exercises.

While we were on the outskirts of Portsmouth it was more like a prison camp, as we could not leave and no one could get in. There was barb wire every where and even the civilians were in the same circumstances as us. We could not send any mail to anybody and now after it all finished we know why.All our food and supplies were brought to the entrance and the drivers were changed and had to wait till their trucks were returned, we were on rations and had to make our own meals at the side of the road. It was nearly vegetable soup all the time as we could not broadcast our presence there by being in crowds.We moved early in the morning down to the docks in Portsmouth and went aboard the landing craft with our vehicles and waited our turn to move out as there were such a lot of us there.

We set off and it seemed days before we were told that this was the real thing and not practice. Our D-day cruise was not very good as it was stormy and the water was rough, we approached the beach and the Navy was shelling above us and the bombers came over and dropped their bombs well in front of us. Then the Germans at Le Havre started to shell us as well. We went in on a high tide and our landing craft was over the defenses, luckily as later in the morning in first light we saw the minefield and the defenses which our unit of the Royal Engineers demolished.

We waited for the landing craft to come in and helped them to unload their vehicles through the water up to the beach and our mechanics soon ripped out the waterproofing and got them ready for action All this time the enemy was firing at the boats coming in and hitting quite a few, there were bodies everywhere and a platoon of the pioneers was collecting and labeling them ready for burial.

It was our job to keep the beaches clear and let more boats come in so we patroled the British and Canadian sectors and kept the trucks and tanks moving.One day these huge concrete tanks came in and we had to help in getting them in position with our BARV (Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle ) This was a Sherman Tank modified to go into 10 feet of water so as to pull any trucks or tanks out of the water. These huge tanks were placed in a long line from the beach out to the open water and then sunk to make a port so that ships could be unloaded quickly, this port was named the Mulberry and then we brought in a pipeline that was started off in Southampton and stretched all the way to Normandy.... This pipeline carried gasoline under the ocean and so it was known as PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean ).

We also had the DUKS which were amphibious vehicles. They were also used to unload the merchant ships carrying all the ammo and food for us. Talking about food: all we had for two months was hard biscuits. They were so hard our Cook tried for two weeks to soften up in hot water to no avail.Then a US destroyer pulled in to the mulberry for engine trouble so our mechanics fixed it . The Captain of the destroyer got his bakers to make us some bread. It was so good and it was rationed out to us - a half slice of bread twice a day.

All this time we were being shelled from Le Havre, so the French battle ships sunk as a breakwater for the mulberry started to fire at the enemy and on occasions an enemy plane would show up and drop a few bombs and leave, life was never boring but very noisy , we slept in fox holes on the beach because of the shelling and at high tide we had to watch our fox hole in case it got flooded, and our clothes got wet.We were very happy when we broke through their lines and chased them to Falais it meant that we were not the beach group any more, so we took on a job of patrolling the main roads to keep all the allied vehicles on the move, there were quite a few times when we used three jeeps and a tree to get a loaded truck out of a ditch with what we called a three in one pull.

At this time we had got used to sleeping in some of the damaged empty houses and I parked my truck in the corner of a vacant lot, A personnel truck carrying some of the 6th airborne Division down for a rest ,was driven into the vacant lot and hit a mine, three of the men were killed so the Engineers came in and on their hands and knees they prodded the entire lot with bayonets and found quite a lot of mines so the officer told me to move my truck. I said it's clear under there as I service the truck there and I get under all the time. He just turned round and said "move that truck" so I did. My face went white when they found three S mines under it. S mines were small canisters with three prongs on the top and if they were touched it would explode.

On one of our tours we went to Cabourg and stayed for a week in a huge hotel. Our job was to stop any French people from moving in as the military wanted it for a headquarters. In 2001 I visited there and saw the same hotel - a huge building and very posh.While we were at the hotel we were invited to a party in a small restaurant and we took some food with us as the French did not have much since the Germans took it with them when they retreated.The center piece on the table was a huge cheese and it was green and moldy and in everyones place besides a knife and fork was a small fork, we were puzzled about this fork until a frenchman picked his up and stabbed it into the cheese and brought out a maggot which he ate. So all we ate was what we brought with us.

While we were on the beaches, three of us were sent down into no man's land to recover a vehicle that was still on the secrets list, it was called a Weasel - it was an armored small tracked carrier. What was special was that it had rubber tracks and was very fast and silent. It was used by the reconnaissance corps and this one had broke down on a small island on the river in Caen. We went down very carefully and found the Weasel and checked it out, we found the half shaft had broken and we would not be able to move it, so we had to destroy it with the explosive charge that we had. As I was the fastest runner the other two went under cover and I set the charge off with the button and jumped over the side and ran to the others. It went off with a big bang and it started both sides firing at us with everything so we lay low for a while then crawled back up to our unit.

When we got back we found out that our commanding officer had gone back to England and we had a new one. This new CO decided he was having an inspection there on the beaches so as to get to know us. We were supposed to be all cleaned up, but we had just got back late the night before and we were tired so we had slept in our fox hole. We turned up caked in mud for the parade and our names taken to go on record for disobeying an order. The three of asked to see the CO and wanted to change units. I was lucky, I was sent to the 57th Light aid recovery unit. It was our job to patrol the roads and keep all vehicles on the move.

After the Falais gap was closed we in the REME were used to collect parts for Sherman tanks. The Americans supplied us with the tanks, but no spare parts, so we went over the battle area and collected Sherman tanks that were out of action to take to pieces as spare parts. The main parts needed were tracks and gear boxes.One incident, very near-fatal for me, was the time two of us were working on a Sherman for the gear box. I was inside the tank and holding onto bolts while my partner was breaking the spot weld on the outside. A bulldozer came along and bumped the tank I was working in. The turret still had some ammunition stacked in it and a phosphorus grenade fell into the tank and exploded!The heat was literally deadly, so I did the only thing I could to survive; there were still some dead bodies in the tank which I quickly pulled over on top of me. I still got a splash of the phosphorus on my hand and can see the mark to this day. When the fire subsided I climbed out to the surprise of every one, and except for the small burn on my hand, I was alright.After two more weeks of parts recovery we had to move on…

Next, I had to go by motorcycle to a Chateau Montigny just outside of Amiens to take over the chateau for our unit to arrive as the unit in place had to move up to the front. There was an elderly couple that lived in the gate house so I stayed with them for three days till my unit arrived as I had no food. They took care of me, and all they had for livestock were chickens, so it was eggs every meal.

When the unit arrived the captain was very good to the couple. They had all their meals with us. They were also, by that time, fond of me so when news came for me to transfered back to the beach group for the crossing of the Rhine they tried to stop me leaving. To placate them, the captain told them he would send another soldier, but that was just a ruse as the other soldier had my kit and rifle and I drove him for a couple of miles then we changed places. After we met up with the main transporter he went back to his unit and I carried on to Holland.

I arrived at Tilbourg to a REME workshop, then moved to Breda to a recovery unit. It was winter and we had a lot of snow, but we had a good time in Breda. The Dutch people were very nice to us and made us feel very welcome. We had a Colonel Blunt with us in Breda and he slept in a trailer on our site. He kept checking on the guards at night and dished out a lot of punishment...

His trailer was parked on the top of an incline, so one night somebody climbed in to the drivers' seat and let off the parking brake! When he moved around in the trailer the trailer shook, and eventually it took off down the incline into a duck pond. We had a good laugh and one of the mechanics checked and told the Colonel that the cable had snapped - of course he was one of us.

While we were in Breda the Germans were sending V1s ( doodle bugs ) at Antwerp. Some of them came down in Breda. They were small planes filled with explosives, and when the gasoline in the plane ran out, the plane just dived down and created a big explosion.

The allied fighter planes went after these bugs and I watched them fly under the bug and get it on the wing then slowly turn round and send it back where it came from. It was a good laugh - but not to the Germans!

When it eventually thawed out, we were on the move again. We crossed the bridge at Nimegen, then traveled south for Venlo. On our way down we came, to my astonishment, to a town called - UDEN - the army would not let me stay and we had to push on. Just before Venlo we crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge and I was driving the sheet metal truck with all the heavy tools in it. I had to cross first and what an experience! We drove with the truck doors open just in case we sunk, and with all the weight the pontoons were swaying from side to side. They told me afterward that they could not let another truck on till I got to the other side. We assembled again at Goch just outside the Castle then off we went into Germany.

We arrived at Wickede, a small town in the Ruhr and back to the command of the captain that I had on the beaches in Normandy that I did not like. I asked for a new posting again and was sent to Isolohn in Westphalia. By this time the Germans had surrendered, so I was now at !st Corps R E M E. H Q.

And how lucky I was. The Colonel had heard about my success as a cross country runner, so he sent out to all the units in his command for anyone that could run.

He formed a track team and I was the trainer!

There was an officer and a sergeant on the team, but we all worked together and it was a great success. We won a lot of races, and when we won the BAOR championship the Colonel took us back to visit all of the units and when we came to the one Captain that I did not like, I was especially delighted. When the Colonel said that we would have a party in the Officers mess, well, you should have seen the Captains face. The Colonel knew the history, it turned out, and he ordered the party on purpose!

While I was at HQ I went home for fourteen days leave. I was looking forward to seeing my son Neil who born on July 13 1944, a few days after D-day. I went home to Bolton in Lancashire and had a good holiday. The journey from Munster was not very nice: I had bought 4 bottles of cognac because it was January and bitter cold. The train from Munster to Calais was all shot up by the allied warplanes; no windows or doors and no heat, so we sat there in the cold till we came to a slope, and we all got off the train, and with steam coming out of all the bullet holes, we got to the top and back into the train. When I eventually got to Bolton I had about half an inch of cognac left, so I drank it and threw the last bottle away.

Upon arriving home, my wife Joyce welcomed me with the usual question: " When do you go back?" Always the same question for a soldier on leave, all the lads remarked about it. The question was not anything bad just wondering how long they had us around after all this time away. From that point, I had to try get to know my son – a child I was seeing for the very first time. It took him a long time to know who I was. I thought he was a beautiful baby, with lovely curly hair. I returned to my unit, but not before the usual bit of trouble in travelling. I had to go to Dover and there was a terrible storm, which meant the boats could not sail because of underwater mines coming loose and floating on the surface. The Mine Sweepers could not sail either, so I slept for 2 nights on the steps of Dover Castle. I was actually glad to get back to Germany. There was a shortage of food in England: everyone was living from ration books, even potatoes and bread were rationed.

I returned to my unit and in April 1946 a notice was sent to all units for soldiers that were in the building trades to volunteer for a "Class B" release from the army to help with the rebuilding of houses back home in Britain. I thought, here was my chance so I volunteered. In the end, I volunteered to go into the Army and I volunteered to get out. I caught a ship at the Hook of Holland to Folkstone and then the train to Otley in Yorkshire. I was given a dinner there and then we all had to peel potatoes to be ready for the next batch of soldiers coming through. Just like volunteering, I peeled potatoes on my first day in the army and on my last. We then caught a bus to York and to the Rowntrees chocolate factory, where we were given new clothing: a suit, shirt, underwear, shoes, and socks. We were also allowed to keep the army clothes that we were wearing. With that over, I finally found myself on the train home for the real start of my married life at 23 years of age.

In the railway station at York there were a lot of men we called Hippies, and they were after the new clothing that we had just received. All clothing was rationed to the general public, so they could make a killing if soldiers could be convinced to give up their brown bags of clothing. One of the boys told a hippie that he would sell his, but not until the train was moving, as it was illegal to sell our issue. So when the train started, there was a quick rush to the window: the lad got his money and threw his brown bag out. We told him he was a fool, as he would never get the points for a new suit, but he just laughed and told us that he had just sold his dirty laundry and his old uniform, and that he still had his issue and his good uniform!

 

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