I had been picked up from the beaches at Bray Dunes with the rest of my platoon, part of 222 Field Company Royal Engineers,
a unit mainly made up of London Territorials. I transferred to HMS Calcutta for the trip across the Channel, and we anchored
in Sheerness harbour at about 5.30pm on Wednesday 29th May 1940. A train was waiting for us alongside the ship to take us
to Chiseldon, near Swindon; the unit stationed there was a battalion of the 60th Rifles, who gave us a fine welcome and
evening meal. The next morning we were given railway warrants for 48 hrs leave and told to be back by the evening of the
On our return, we were told that we were to move to Newark on the 6th of June. Actually, we were sent to Ripon, and spent two days with 3rd Training Battalion R.E. and on to Aldershot where we were told that we would be reforming as a Company. We were then sent to Blandford Camp to reform. All the Company eventually reported in at Blandford and we were told where the “missing” people had been: Nobby Chapman, our CSM, had died in hospital; Sapper Pritchard was in hospital wounded, but not seriously; and four of our Sappers were still missing. OC No. 3 Section, Pat Keelan, had had a very difficult three or four days in Armantières where he was awaiting orders to blow a number of bridges which his section had prepared for demolition. His orders eventually arrived and the bridges were successfully destroyed. He and his few sappers eventually reached Dunkirk and were brought home by the Navy without injury – a great relief to us all!
Nobby Chapman had spent most of the night of 27th May shepherding troops (sappers and other arms) from the beach at Bray Dunes out to the Navy’s boats. The men had formed a long queue in water up to their chests to reach the boats which were unable to get close to the beach because of the shallow nature of the shore. Nobby had stood up to his waist in the water calling forward the men as required according to the capacity of each boat as it approached. He became very cold, and developed pneumonia which was to kill him. He was in his fifties and was more susceptible to the cold than the rest of us – officers and senior NCOs – many of us doing the same job but younger and less at risk. He never complained but we lost touch with him during the night. The four sappers previously reported missing all rejoined a few days later, none of them injured – just exhausted!
My own party, from Chiseldon and Newark, eventually arrived at Blandford Camp on Tuesday 18th June after a chaotic journey, arriving without warning at 11.45pm but warmly welcomed. Our arrival completed the reassembly of the Company after three weeks of confusion.
For the next two years we moved from job to job every month or two. Initially we were in support of an Infantry Brigade of 47th (London) Division which was responsible for the defence of the Sussex coastal strip. This was held with two brigades (each of about 4,000 men), with one brigade in reserve. The forward brigades held positions overlooking the beaches where the Germans might attempt landings. Our task was to build fixed defensive positions for the infantry to occupy: concrete pill-boxes of various designs, sited to overlook the beaches. I spent many hours walking the coastal strip with brigade and battalion commanders, choosing positions from which landing infantry and armour could be engaged by machine guns and anti-tank weapons. We laid anti-tank mines, and for the benefit of the locals, erected barbed-wire protection and “Danger – Mines” signs every ten yards or so. These soon proved very necessary for our own protection, for one day in late summer 1940 our Brigade Commander visited a site in Shoreham, and after congratulating us for the work we had just completed, wished us well – and before we could stop him, stepped over a wire and blew himself to Kingdom come.
My section had been allocated two or three houses in Lancing as billets, a few hundred yards behind the defended area and with easy access to the foothills of the South Downs, from where we could move to our emergency assembly area in the event of a threatened attack.
A codeword had been allocated to warn us of imminent attack. It was used only once. One lovely September evening, at about 6 o’clock, our section was winding down at the end of the day when we received the one-word signal: CROMWELL!
We leapt into the trucks and headed for the pre-arranged assembly points. Between the fifty or sixty men in the section we were armed with only a handful of rifles and a single Bren gun, not counting a large number of shovels. No sooner had we reached the assembly point than we had orders to return to our billets. Hitler had clearly heard of the defensive strength of No. 3 Section, 222 Field Company, Royal Engineers and cancelled the invasion. On a serious note, it was a day on which the RAF suffered great losses: many planes were destroyed attacking landing craft assembled in the Channel ports around Calais and Boulogne. I didn’t record the actual date, but in hindsight, it was probably 17th September 1940, the day on which I later learned that Operation Sealion – the invasion of Britain – was abandoned.
A few weeks later the Company was ordered to move to Leominster in Herefordshire, an area considered vulnerable to airborne attack because of the scarcity of troops within easy reach. My Section was sent further north to protect the major dams in the Elan Valley above Rhayader. With infantry troops being scarce for one reason or another that I never discovered, the Royal Engineers were tasked to perform infantry duties protecting the dams. We were there for about five weeks, at the end of which the threat of invasion was no longer taken so seriously, and we were ordered to rejoin the Company at Leominster.
In November 1940 we spent some time at Halton Bridging Camp in Lancashire. We had spent the short time in France blowing up bridges in an attempt to slow down the German advance. Now we needed to learn and practice how to build them.
Although we were expecting to spend Christmas in Herefordshire, we were unexpectedly sent to Winchester. When we arrived we soon realized that the war had still to be taken seriously, even if the threat of invasion had receded. What had caught our attention was all the talk of a new Corps being established. A Corps meant one thing to us - overseas operations.
I was moved to HQRE and was appointed Divisional RE Intelligence Officer (IORE) and was soon involved in planning exercises and training. Our focus became what or where we would find ourselves when overseas operations became a reality. We staged a number of exercises to test our ability to adapt to a mobile way of life, which proved of great value later on.
In Autumn 1941 I was moved to Norfolk House, London, for about two months to what was to become an Intelligence Centre for overseas operations. Specifically, we examined likely operations in Europe, mobility problems in Belgium and the Netherlands, and what use could be made by the enemy of flooding in the Low Countries. This was interesting work, but of limited value once the direction of the “D-Day” operations was decided. So I returned to Winchester in time for Christmas 1941, and it was there that I first met a young girl, Pat Bunyard, at a Christmas dance in the Town Hall at Winchester, an occasion which set the pattern for much of my later life! Pat had just joined the WRNS, but had yet to receive her uniform.
While at Norfolk House I had been called to see the Chief Engineer, Brigadier Campbell, who briefed me on the coming operation “Torch”, the Allied invasion of North Africa. He handed me a large bundle of papers on “Torch”, all stamped ‘TOP SECRET’. I had no suitable case to secure these, so I immediately found a taxi to take me to the Army & Navy Stores, where I bought a brief case with locks! Security seemed to be a new concept at that time.
Early in the New Year of 1942 I was appointed Intelligence Staff Officer RE (SORE Int), with the rank of Captain, at Headquarters 5 Corps, newly formed under Montgomery at Downton, south of Salisbury. Monty decided that ‘Fat Majors’ had to be tested for fitness for active operations, and so introduced weekly cross-country runs for all officers below the rank of Lt. Colonel, irrespective of their job. This was not a universally popular move, but we younger officers enjoyed the escape from office work each week. For some, Monty’s move to Eighth Army in Egypt in October 1942 was a relief!
The rather leisurely life at Downton did not last long. About mid-summer 1942 Corps HQ moved to the racecourse at Motherwell near Glasgow where we found a new hutted facility prepared for us, although many of the staff had to make do in tents. I found a spacious timber-framed hut allocated to the Intelligence Branch. From my briefing at Norfolk House I knew where we were going - North Africa - and when - October - and could start preparing intelligence summaries for the planned assembly of Corps HQ at Algiers and its move eastwards towards Tunis. I had probably two months to prepare for the real battle in North Africa. There was plenty to do.
Those two months passed all too quickly. I consulted all the best sources of information on roads and bridges and rivers in Algeria and Tunisia. We were primarily interested in the roads along the coastal strip, although it became clear from the start that at least two main routes would be needed, since our main forces would include 6th Armoured Division and 78th Division, and other formations would be introduced later. American units were scheduled to land further to the West, in the area of Oran and Casablanca, although they would move by routes further inland through Constantine and Tabessa. There was a degree of competition between the British and American forces, the latter under General George Patton, to link up first with the advanced elements of the Eighth Army south of Tunis. The British 5th Corps under General Charles Allfrey (as part of the British 1st Army under General Anderson) provided the most experienced troops. In contrast, the American forces lacked battle experience, and in General Patton’s own words, they “were green”. This weakness later became apparent when they failed to hold the German forces at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, and British forces (The Guards Brigade) had to be diverted to close the gap.
Last updated on 10th March 2017