France & Germany

Training and Preparing

Bren Carrier Platoon 3rd Bn. Irish GuardsAfter returning from Norway the Battalion was billeted in a variety of locations. I recall Northwood, Pinner, and Croydon during the Blitz.

When on active service carrying a weapon and you are fired upon, you can at least fire back, which may be small comfort, but does engender the feeling that you are not entirely defenceless; but during an air-raid with the bombs whistling down, all you can do if you are caught in bed is put your head under the blanket, and hope – or pray if you're devout.

A decision was made that the Irish Guards should form a third battalion. This meant that Officers, N.C.O's and guardsmen had to be gleaned from existing battalions in order to provide a nucleus; as a consequence I was transferred from the 1st to the new 3rd battalion and, eventually, became a member of its Bren Carrier Platoon. "Training, Training, Training" became the mantra of the day.

Bren Carrier Platoon 3rd Bn. Irish GuardsThe Carrier Platoon had an attached L/Cpl from R.E.M.E who nurtured all our vehicles with unsurpassed skill. However, we all had to acquire a modicum of knowledge of the maintenance and capabilities of carriers, jeeps, and motorcycles.

Therefore, in between heading off to train in tactics in carrier training areas – I recall Barnard Castle, and Pembrokeshire, South Wales – we attended a variety of courses.

One such course I attended was at a chemical warfare establishment in the use of the flame thrower, which could be attached to a carrier. Thankfully, my platoon never acquired one; consequently, any expertise I acquired in the art of flame throwing was a complete waste of time, as I never contemplated in later life becoming a circus flame swallowing act.

Posing for a photographI shall now get one particular aspect of my army career out of the way.

Towards the end of 1940 I was promoted to the prestigious rank of – Unpaid Lance Corporal. Eventually the powers that be decided that "the labourer was worthy of his hire" (St Luke 10.v.7), and paid me the rate for the rank.

Time passed and I was next elevated to – Unpaid Lance Sergeant (a rank, I believe, exclusive to the Guards). Later still I became an – 'Acting' Sergeant and eventually W/S Sergeant. W/S means War Substantive. My dictionary defines substantive as, not imaginary, genuine, real. Hooray! No more unpaid or acting.

Normandy

The build up for D-day carried on apace, and the 3rd Battalion moved to Malton, N. Yorkshire, and then south to Eastbourne for the final days of waiting, which ended on D+17 on June 23rd 1944.

The ramp of the landing craft lowered, and our prepared, water-proofed carriers dipped down into the sea onto the Normandy beach. We then proceeded through the town of Bayeux to our destination within the bridgehead.

The town of Falaise played a pivotal part in the battle for Normandy. A town of Northern France it stands on the River Ante, 20 miles from Caen. Formerly, its chief claim to fame was as the birthplace of William the Conqueror. After the Normandy landings – World War II, 1944 – it became the focal point for a giant encircling movement by Allied Forces designed to trap the German forces retreating through what came to be known as 'the Falaise Gap'.

It then acquired a more bloody claim to fame. 'The Battlefield of Falaise', wrote General Eisenhower, (Allied Supreme Commander), 'Is unquestionably one of the greatest killing grounds of any of the war areas'.

The poem that follows contains my memories and impressions of the battle.

Poem: The Road To Falaise – 1944

Towards the end of August 1944 we were at Douai quartered at a farm, memorable for the generous portions of 'chips' the family regaled us with.

Liberating Brussels - Sept 3rd 1944This sojourn did not last long, on August 30th the Guards Armoured Division which we; 3rd Bn. Irish Guards (infantry), and 2nd Bn. Irish Guards (Sherman Tanks) were part of, crossed the River Seine.

We were heading for Brussels, and on September 3rd 1944 entered the city, where a street photographer captured the image of girls running to greet our Bren Carriers.

Once again our sojourn was brief – no chips – we were soon on the move again. By September 10th we were approaching the bridge over the Meuse-Escaut Canal, which was heavily defended by the Germans.

Shermans of the 2nd Bn. accompanied by 3rd Bn. support troops attacked, and won their way across the bridge. The Germans counter-attacked but were beaten off.

Joe's BridgeOur 3rd Bn. Commanding Officer was Lt. Col. J.O.E. Vandeleur, known to one and all as 'Joe', and the bridge over the Meuse-Escaut canal is now called 'Joe's Bridge' and bears a memorial to the Irish Guards Battle Group. If ever you should be upon Joe's bridge across the Meuse-Escaut canal, and look at the memorial to the Irish Guards you will see their motto 'Quis Seperabit'. Who shall divide us?

The Guards Armoured Division's next task, led by the Irish Guards, was to advance towards Nijmegan and link up with American airborne troops, who were to capture bridges at Eindoven, Grave, and Nijmegan. The aim was then, for us to join our British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.

There is a saying about, 'Best laid plans of mice and men, etc'. We reached Nijmegan, but the Germans had powerful Panzer forces in the area. There was but a single road atop a high embankment linking Nijmegan to Arnhem. Tanks were sitting ducks for gunners manning that formidable weapon the German 88mm gun.

The operation we, the American paratroopers, and 1st Airborne were engaged in was known as 'Market Garden'; there has been much recrimination regarding both its planning and execution. I am not qualified to judge, but I do recall the sense of bitter frustration we felt at not being able to go 'the last mile', and relieve those men at Arnhem who fought so gallantly against all odds.

Germany

Somewhere In GermanyAfter the failure of 'Market Garden' there was to be no lightning strike into Germany, but eventually we crossed the long Bailey bridge that had been thrown across the Rhine and drove onwards through Germany's towns and villages.

It was not all plain sailing, tracer carved through the night sky, and flame would burst vividly in the distance as multi-barrelled rocket firing weapons loosed off a barrage, fortunately, I avoided being on the receiving end.

Nevertheless, time had run out for Germany. We frequently encountered columns of surrendered soldiers of the Wehmacht, and streams of those who had been in captive forced labour, fleeing with their hand carts, prams, and bicycles, upon which were piled whatever belongings they possessed.

Cologne was a destroyed city with its Cathedral, despite bomb damage rising above the ruins. We were billeted around in the surrounding countryside.

Persona grata (Latin, "an acceptable person")

In 1945 the powers that be – whoever they were – decreed that there should be a "non-fraternisation" policy for our armed forces. Germans were deemed to be "not acceptable persons". Imagine, tens of thousands of healthy young warriors were being told, in effect, "chat up a flaxen haired fraulein and you will be disciplined." How long this barmy, unenforceable, policy survived I don't know as my journeying was not yet over. I had one more country to visit.

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