My “old man” was just an ordinary young man, no different from hundreds of thousands like him who were working or studying for their chosen career in the late 1930s. He had chosen to become a Draughtsman, but his studies were rudely terminated by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Although he had a good enough education to become a pilot, attending as he did, a very minor public school. It was his poor eyesight that let him down. So he tried for top/tail/belly/side and front gunner on heavy bombers, but again his old mince pies let him down. Having now worked out that he was blind as a bat without his glasses, the RAF decided that a perfect vocation for him was to become a driver! This he did for the duration of hostilities, everything from staff cars to bulldozers and Queen Mary transporters!
At Morton Valence Aerodrome in deepest Gloucestershire, he drove a crash tender, and incidentally met my mother! I know he witnessed some horrific sights there, although whether my mother was one of them, he never said. It did prepare him somewhat for the carnage that awaited him post D Day when he became part of a column sent to supply the fighter aircraft attempting to support the troops on the ground. I’ll bet landing on the beaches was a lot more difficult than negotiating the linkspan at Cherbourg, which I’ve done many times in later years.
I remember him telling me when I was just a sprog, that in the early days of the invasion, the French Maquisards were firing on them more than the Germans (hopefully by mistake). The drivers had to sleep in the backs of their wagons clutching large spanners, because the French would pinch anything that wasn’t nailed down. After what they had suffered who could blame them?
Another story he used to tell was of the advance entering the Caen area where his convoy was halted by Military Police just short of a heavily wooded area. Because of the speed of the Allied advance, there hadn’t been time to mop up all the retreating Germans and the area was thick with them, all hell-bent on causing as much mayhem as they could before they surrendered.
Preceding convoys had come under heavy fire, and they were only allowing one vehicle at a time through the woods. As most of the old man’s convoy were carrying either aviation spirit or ammunition you can easily imagine what was going through their minds as they awaited their turn to run the gauntlet of Hitler’s finest! When one of the lorries was hit going through the wood, plumes of smoke and flames could be seen rising above the trees, and those drivers awaiting their turn could but wonder about the fate of the unlucky driver.
When it came to my old man’s turn, he jammed his tin hat down hard on his head, released the safety catch on his rifle, got as far down in the seat as he could, and I imagine, prayed to every God he could think of and probably made up a couple as well, and gunned the Crossley’s engine before taking off like something off the proverbial shovel!
He never said what he saw in those woods that day, but I gather they’d been ordered to not stop under any circumstances. Fortunately, he popped out the other end unscathed apart from a peppering of bullet holes through the tilt and bodywork. Sadly, some of his mates weren’t so lucky.
Earlier in this piece, I referred to the linkspan at Cherbourg when I used to run freight down to Spain back in the 70’s. I used the very roads that spread out from the beach heads, going through the small hamlets en route. In the town of Carentan it was easy to imagine the rumble of convoys as they raced towards Monty’s goal of crossing the Rhine and then on to Berlin. In fact you could still see the outlines of several Crosses of Lorraine, still standing defiant after thirty years.
I ran through many woods on my meanderings either east toward Paris, or south toward Falaise, Alencon, and the long slog to Bordeaux and beyond. I couldn’t help wondering, could this be my old man’s wood? It made me very proud to think of my old man and his mates, and I always spared a thought for the drivers who never made it home.
My mother told me, although he never once mentioned it, that he volunteered to go to Bergen Belsen concentration camp after its liberation. It’s a shame that, along with his peers, he never talked about what he’d seen and experienced. Perhaps if it had been talked about more there’d be less chance of it happening again. I watched a video clip of Bergen Belsen a couple of weeks ago, and I’d swear blind that I saw him driving a bulldozer!
I wrote a line in a poem a few years back: “the cares of war were deeply etched on every face I’d seen”, and nothing brought that home to me more than that video and the look on my old man’s face.
Regrettably, I wasn’t with my old man on Commemoration Day, so I wrote this as a tribute to him and a generation of Servicemen and Women. Oh, and I‘ll leave you with a thought - isn’t it funny how lorry drivers breed lorry drivers? Also, if anyone out there’s got a six wheeled Crossley, I’d love a drive or a shotgun ride in one, as my old man had a love/hate relationship with the things. In fact he’d often moan that when you changed gear, you had enough time to roll a fag. Or changing gear was like ringing down to the engine room.
This is a revised form on an article I wrote for Heritage Commercials Magazine in 2005.