My dad was no-one special to anyone but his family. He was of the “Old School,” he was boss in his house, Ma got a share of his wage if he was working, but only as much as he chose. She worked wonders with the pittance he gave her, and she brought up two kids, my sister Jean, and myself, Jim. He would be in the bar, or later the “Club” almost every night, he was a “Committee Man,” at times a sponger, at times totally stubborn, would not back down to anyone, and had an opinion on just about everything. My sister and I were afraid of him until he died, alone, probably bitter, but reaping, as he had sown. BUT, He was MY DAD, and when I was a young lad, and asked “What did you do in the War da?” he told me. He later told more tales, some true, some jokey, and some plain daft. This little attempt at literature is to give him some pride back, he said he would do it again, with the same lads, said National Service should never have been withdrawn, [I missed it] and sometimes, when the pints were flowing, and he was in a good mood, he and some of his mates would draw me into that special circle, to listen, in awe, at ordinary men, men I knew only as middle aged and sometimes grumpy, but then I noticed the blazers they wore. On the breast pocket was a badge, usually in gold, or silver thread, and there were many different ones now I noticed, and then a special look came over their faces, they were back in uniform, remembering, and by the end of the night, I appreciated them, and Dad a lot more.
Here was a hunting horn with DLI under it, I knew that, it was the same as Dads badge in pictures I’d seen. There was a Cannon with a pointing barrel, [RA] one had GR in big letters, [RE?] a WW1 tank? [Tank Corps] but one I knew was missing, I remember my Ma saying it was the best looking badge in the Army, it had a star, a wreath, and a hunting horn, now who was that? No one wore that one in our local club, but I had seen it but where? Then it hit me, it was in a picture of Dad in uniform, so questions asked when I was small, were asked again. This is a way to pass on to my Nephew, and his sons, and even my son, and his son, a small record of what MY dad did in the War so for them and to them, I rack my memory for some “War stories” of Billy Charles, of Birtley, England, near Newcastle upon Tyne, An ordinary Soldier.
His War Service began in August 1939, when his TA unit, DLI, became “Embodied” into the Army, the War was just a couple of weeks away, but the call up was in effect before September 3rd.He had hurried home from the brickyard where he worked with his father, he was going to take his girl Jane to Newcastle, to see a new film, as he was washing up, his mother said someone was coming to the door with a blue envelope. Dad knew what that was, so he told her to say he’d gone out, and come back tomorrow, But, the messenger told Nana the lads were meeting in the “William” a pub in Birtley, After discussing what was happening with Jane, they decided to go to the pub and see what was up.
It seems that many a pint was drank that night, as the lads in uniform were told to report to the drill hall, now! Being the true soldiers they were, hardly anyone turned up that night, but next day, with thick heads, dry mouths, and a following crowd, the unit formed up in the drill hall. They were tasked with digging holes in the farmer’s field next to the hall, dad had a rifle and two bullets, and said “If I fire these, can I go home again as there are no more?” He was on night sentry, and only had a couple of curious dairy cows snuffling around for company. Next night they were allowed home, but had to be back the following night to be “Moved” to parts unknown. As was related to me by both Mam and Dad, “you could have sailed a ship down Harras Bank that night” women crying, old timers like my Granddad asking to be allowed to go, as they had been there before, and all the while, drink flowing from the pub, the landlord was losing a lot of his best customers that night.
Eventually, the buses, not trucks, set off, no one knew where to, and hours later they were in a strange part of England. with no means of letting anybody know they had arrived safely. At least that’s what the officers and NCOs thought, A bright lad had stuffed a couple of his champion pigeons in his kit bag, and he sent one home now, they were in Oxfordshire for Home Defence, and the people in Birtley knew before anyone else.
After some to-ing and fro-ing as a prisoner escort, back home some nights, but all over the country with his mate Bob Elliot, Dad was settling into wartime life. He was trained on the PIAT, and until he died he had a scar over his eye, where the “bugger hit me” he swore he could tell a PIAT man by that scar, and he did a number of times.
All good things come to an end, some of the Battalion had been sent to France, some would die, and some escape from Dunkirk, some were captured, to spend almost six years as prisoner, and some simply disappeared. Dad was posted to Iceland, he spent Eighteen months there, coming back for invasion training, late 1942 I believe. He was trained to drive a Bren Carrier, and loved it. Many years later I took him to the DLI Museum in Durham, and he literally taught me to drive a carrier, there in the museum. The guard guy was about to say something until dad told him he was an ex Durham, and an ex- carrier driver, he showed me and the guy some places that only those crews knew…
I could retell some tales from his training days, but this is about his Cameronian days, so we’ll skip to June 1944, not D-Day, but D+ 6, when Billy Charles invaded France, was told to drive his carrier into that field, park it that side, then get a cup of tea. Not a bad start? Then he’s told to drive out again, through That gate, and now, by the way, you are rebadged as Cameronian, NOT Cameron!!!!! and he found himself in company of fine Scottish Gentlemen. at least that’s what he told me, but I’m sure he had something else to say about that. I asked about the pipes, “Fine music, stirs the soul, but when you see the Scots charging, it’s not the Germans they want, it’s the guy playing those bloody things” I asked about the Kilt, “We could wear trews, tartan just the same, and as easy to start fights” and of course “What’s worn under the Kilt?, “Absolutely nothing son,- It’s all in first class condition.” Oh yes, Dad took to his new regiment with a great spirit…. and that spirit went with him through Belgium, Holland and into Germany, to be drunk when it was all over, but that was a way away just yet.
He landed at ARROMANCHES about D+ 6, he told me of driving his carrier over the Mulberry Harbour, how this was a marvel of engineering, but he was glad to get to firmer ground, he was no great swimmer. The next thing he told me was of his being Rebadged to the Cameronians, he told me this occurred either during, or just after the Battle of Caen,the DLI, and the Cameronians had taken a good hiding, and it was decided to consolidate, so he and others were told to report into a certain field, as he said, “I was told to drive into this field, told to wait, have a cup of tea, then report to an Officer.” He told us we were now in the Cameronians, and God help anyone who said Camerons!, so get your transport and prepare to move.
I’m not sure if they went to Bayeux from here, or what happened, I’d love to know from anyone else who was rebadged. He traveled to Villers Bocage, it was here he came under fire for the first time, at least it was here he “heard and felt somebody was trying to kill me” He recalled how he was in a field, and a Spandau opened up from another side, and he could see the trail of tracer and earth as it was spurting up. He dived to the ground and found great relief to be behind a blade of grass, “as thick as a tree trunk” it was amazing he said, how anything, no matter how small, could be as big, as to hide behind when the bullets were flying. That was his “Baptism of fire” He was scared, feared for his life, but lived to tell the tale, with a glint in his eye.
Villers Bocage was a fierce battle. I’m sure all who were there do not need reminding of that fact, I have read the tales of it, and am proud My Dad was there. As the carrier driver, he became a “shell carrier” when his team was ready to start a mortar shoot. He used to laugh as he retold how when he pulled up somewhere, the regular Infantry would call him names, and tell him to go elsewhere, because as soon as they’d fired off a few rounds, the Germans would reply in kind, by which time S Company was on its way somewhere else, “thereby missing that which we had sown” He never spoke much of France, except to say he’d like to see parts of it again, like Bayeux, he’d seen the Tapestry, and while sitting in a shell hole from WW1, he wondered if he was sitting where his Father had been.
After France was Belgium, and some fun times, he told of the Union Jack club, in the main square, next to the railway station. He said he had some good times in there. He loved Brussels, some things he would not share, like a certain sergeant who was famous for his “dancing” that was all I got on that subject. He also told me how he met up with a big French Canadian, and they became friends, who bumped into each other now and again, up until the end of the War. One story was that he and “Frenchy” were in a bar in Brussels, when a Yank started to become “aggressive and argumentative” and was about to fight any and all comers, he pulled a flick-knife, to which Frenchy pulled a hunting knife from his boot, threw it so it landed on the table, and told the Yank to be quiet. He was, and DAD was happy Frenchy was his friend.
Again I must say I am not sure of any timeline to these recollections, I wasn’t there, and Dad didn’t elaborate. He would just say something like “One time in Brussels…” or something along those lines. But I can recall how he told his stories, and how he “enjoyed” his War. In the heat of battle, some strange tales emerge, he recalled the time when he and some mates were in a farmyard, they found some edible eggs, some potatoes, and decided to do some egg and chips, except they had no fat, so on searching again, found a jar of honey, decided this would do, and fried the eggs in the honey. He never said if they did the chips, but he did say the eggs were “different” another time, they had real, fresh pork, after spending a lot of ammunition, and a very long time trying to shoot this pig, “It just would not die,” he said.
Driving the Carrier, he was used to doing the “Dixie run” to outlying positions, so the lads could get a hot meal. He told of one time he was taking a “hot box” to a sniper lying up in a barn. Dad and his friends knew this guy, and they all had agreed they could not do his job. It was a quiet approach to his spot, Dad walking the last few yards so the enemy not too far ahead would not hear the sound of the Carrier. He went in the barn, up the stairs, and was watching the sniper work. A German moved away from his group, to relieve himself behind a tree, but in view of the sniper, who offered Dad a look through his ‘scope, Dad saw the German was indeed “Havin’ a good un” and asked the sniper if he was going to shoot him. The sniper looked through his sight, shook his head and said not yet. They waited until the German had finished, pulled up his trousers, fastened his belt, and was starting to walk away. Then the sniper shot him, clean as a whistle. Dad said “ why the wait”, the sniper replied, ‘ I’m not that hard hearted I’d shoot a guy on the toilet. He died happy, with nothing on his mind” Dad swore that this story was true I have to believe it. All was not fun, and laughs I’m sure, but there must have been instances that broke through the seriousness.
He was driving his Carrier and he caught an infection in his thumb, it swelled so badly, and was so full of poison, it was touching the palm of his hand. He had to go back down the line to an aid post to have it lanced, when he got back, it was to the “Tail end” of the Gheel battle. He was not happy to be sent backwards when his mates were going forward, but he was ordered to go, as he could not grip because the thumb was touching the palm of his hand, he told his Officer he would just burst it by driving, but the officer would have none of it and sent him back. I believe this officer was killed near Gheel, when he dived under a carrier to escape shelling, only to have blast blow under the carrier he was under. Dad said all in all his Officers weren’t too bad, I’m not sure if one was a Captain Jurgensen, [he may have been DLI,] but he got on OK with them.
One day, or it may have been toward dusk, an officer came to Dad and his pal, another carrier driver, and asked if they would “Dash down the road to that Villa thing, load up with as many wounded as possible and get them back to the R.A.P.,” It was also pointed out that the road was under observation, and any dust brought forth some ‘Nastiness” that we didn’t want too near to us” He and his pal, set off, the Officer in Dads carrier, until they were almost at the gate, “Turn Now !!!” and the gate post was demolished, “That made it easier for my pal to get in the drive” said Dad. Loading up with stretcher cases first, and doing a number of runs until it was just too dark to see, the two carriers did sterling work. Other drivers had ‘ not exactly refused, but…” and the Officer told Dad, “You Will, hear more for this night’s work” Alas, he was killed just a few days later, so no more was heard. Dad wasn’t bothered; he and his pal were just pleased to help other pals.
Leave came around, but so did the “Battle of the Bulge” and hardly had the lads got their boots off, than they were back to help the Yanks, this was not a pretty site he recalled, young men hanging from tank guns by wire, or their “dogtags”, and yet the one thing that stuck in his mind, was the fact that there was cake, and soda pop, and decorated trees. He always said the Yanks were not concentrating and were caught out because their troops were not as disciplined as ours. During this period, he and his mates were trying to sleep in a farmhouse, but just outside was the body of “The biggest bloody Jerry” he ever saw, and no-one could sleep just thinking of this poor man, so in the middle of the night, they had to bury him, so they could sleep. I asked if they marked the grave, so his family would be notified, “Nope,” and that was that.
Eventually, he came into “The land of clogs and windmills” [that got past the censor, so Mother knew where he was heading, and she kept that letter for years.] Market Garden, the mad dash to a sudden stop, He couldn’t explain why XXX corps, or Second Army, never pressed on, he felt they should have. Nijmegen, and the flat tops of the Dykes, the bridges, being told by a “Tankie” to get that effing mess tin out of his way, or he’d be run over. Then came Tilburg, I have a picture that says “with the first troops to liberate Tilburg” its dated, and I would love to go over there, and find the house in the picture, and some “friends” of Dads, iut may happen.
The War was winding down now, he was either in Kiel, watching over SS officers in the prison, “Several slipped on occasion, those uneven floors” He met a cousin somewhere in a Prison Camp, who begged him for a loan of his rifle, as he had a score to settle. He was not overly impressed with the conditions the Germans had to live in, as they denied ever knowing about Concentration camps nearby….so let the “buggers starve” He made another trip home just as the War was ending, in fact the War was over, and by the time he got back to Newcastle, the news was just breaking there. When a guard told him the War was over, he smiled and said I know…. Leave over, War over, but he had to go back to Kiel, the picture there is dated June 45. He met a friend of his being de-mobbed, and they drank that spirit he had carried since landing. Swaps were made, another town was driven into, a manicure set was thrown at him, incomplete, but I have it still. Werewolves as they called the German “Underground” were still active, and he was in on the hunt. One night, on returning to barracks, one of the new boys was playing cowboy with his pistol, a chip flew up and hit Dad over the eye, so now he had two scars, one from a PIAT, and one from “after the war”
Now it was time to clean off the Carrier and park it for the last time, check the oil, redo the tracks, grease it, wash it, and say bye bye to a friend, who had saved “me walking all that way” He missed that Carrier, and many years later in the DLI Museum in Durham, he showed me how to drive it. I’d love a real go at one, I’m sure he was a good teacher that way. When the Surrender was signed, I believe he was on the banks of the Escaut Canal, when I asked how he felt, I was told this, “ I felt relief, a sadness at friends lost, I felt I needed to thank God I was in one piece, I kneeled and prayed, then we laughed, had a drink, and were very very careful, we wanted to be sure the guys on the other side knew it was finished too. There was also a sense of something ending, I would be going home to Birtley, the lads would be splitting up and going their own ways. Reunions were talked of, but I never went to any, except one of the DLI where I was told I could pick the best carrier they had, then I found out that it was a recruiting drive, not a reunion. Ilost touch with the lads I served with, but if I could go back, would I? You bet I would, we had some good times, and I had some great pals.”
After his de-mob, he gave a load of his souvenirs to a relative, who in turn sold them, all that was left was a very small selection of pictures, my Grandmother wanted only his Cameronian Cap Badge, she got it, but on her passing, it “was lost” When I was old enough to ask about his war, he related these tales here, but in his style, eyes twinkling, a memory stirring, a thought of someone, somewhere I never would know, something he would not tell me about just yet, but that tale went untold, it had to do with a sergeant, and his “talent” it involved “dancing too” I never did get that one.
As I said, I loved to hear the guys in the Club telling their stories, Tankies, Sloggers, Drivers, each a joy to my ears, I wish I could have written them all down, or recorded them. Time is passing, I hope someone reads this and recalls my Dad, but also I hope he recalls some of his own stories, and someone writes them down for him. It’s a legacy to be proud of, we need to have the ‘Ordinary” side heard, not the Medal winning Hero, though that has it’s place, but the guy who, all he got was two Stars, and two round ones, as Dad called his medals, alas I stand guilty of playing with them and losing them. So in ending, I thank all who served, I hope I hope I can meet some of you sometime, and listen to your stories.
The last word of course is Dad’s, when he was talking to his best mate from before the War, in the bar sometime after it was all over, “Colin, you flew in Lancs, and bombed Kiel didn’t you?” “Yes “ was Colin’s reply, “why?” What were you aiming at?” The harbour he was told, “again, why?” “cos you hit every bloody thing but….” Goodnight DAD, sleep well, and I promise I’ll find that someone in Tilburg and we’ll meet, sometime. God Bless..
Bill Charles' son, Jim Charles