25 Advance Across Western Europe

The flying bombs were dreadful bombs.  That’s when they were on their last knockings

London Lad   There really were dreadful bombs.  You never knew when they were coming.  There was no warning.  There was not even an air raid siren.  They just came down and exploded.

London Woman  Them flying bombs were shockers.  They were the V1s.  You’d see what looked like a little flame, and it’d go sailing over and you’d feel quite safe – safe whilst it was moving and making a noise.  There was no harm at all.  But the minute it stopped!  Pandemonium would break out.

Her Husband  Remember when that one stopped over here?  That day?  There was people in the pub opposite and they run over here and stood in our passage, with their beer still in their hand.  I don’t know what they thought, because they were as safe over in the pub as they were in our passage.  It was just panic.  And then there was the rockets – the V2s.

RAF Flight Sergeant   Towards the end of my tour we started doing daylights over France.  The buzz bombs and the V2’s were getting bad and our targets were the various V2 bases.  I was astounded to see field after field pitted with bomb holes – this was before our troops had got that far.  There didn’t seem to be a field in France that wasn’t pock-marked with craters.

Company Sergeant Major  I was on leave from Africa and every time one of those fly bombs used to come over I used to get frightened stiff.  It felt as if they used to go off every time you sat down for a meal.  The siren would go and as soon as it went,  my stomach turned over and over.  When the siren packed up and you came back to have a bit to eat, you didn’t want anything.  Everything went to my stomach.

One of the finest sights I saw when I did come home was a thousand bomber raid.  We were going over to friends that evening.  A fly bomb had dropped near Prince Regent’s Lane and I wanted to see it. (1)  All I saw was people picking up their beds and walking along the streets.  They were filthy.  I hadn’t seen things like that.  On the way there we were going along the sewer bank and there was this tremendous noise and we looked up and the sky – you couldn’t see it for planes.  It was a wonderful sight that was.

Airman, RAF regiment   In 1945 we were in Holland guarding airfields.  It was terrible because the Germans had blown up the dykes and everything was flooded.  I used to see the planes going over in Holland.  It must have been hell in those German cities.  They were bombed by the British during the night and by the Americans by day.  I could imagine what it was like.  It must have been terrible.

None of our lot deserted in Germany,  but I think there was quite a few Infantry blokes who went on the run.

Royal Engineer  They’d had enough to it.  Once they got in a town I suppose they thought:  why go any further?  They’d had enough.

As we’re advancing through Germany I got fourteen days leave, from the Dortmund-Ems Canal.  We was putting a bridge across there, to get our Infantry across.  There was a little village and the road ran straight down to the canal.  We put a folding boat bridge across.  We were sleeping in a farm, a mile back down the road, and they started shelling the boat bridge.  They’d wait until you’ve finished it, then they’d blow a big hole in it.  This Corporal, Bill Berry –  he was a nice bloke –  when I got back he said to me “You’ve got fourteen days leave, starting tomorrow.”  It was a rota system.  Only one of you went, and it had come round to me.  And then he says “They’ve blown one of our boats out the river – Come on, we’ve got to go back up there.”  I said “You go and get stuffed”, I said.  “I’d rather be shot than go back there, Bill.”  “I’ll have to report you.”  “You’ll have to shoot me.  I’m not going back there.”

I got back to England by train and boat.  The driver took me to the nearest town with the water cart the following morning, and I got a train from there.  I still went back to my unit though.  I must have been fucking mad.  I must have been potty.  Mind, I was five days adrift.  I let them keep going forward.  Trouble was, they stopped and I caught up with them.  I suppose the fact I came back was part of the British Army inborn discipline – ‘cos you’d do it in England.  They’d say “Fourteen days.  Report back so and so a day, 1200 hours.”

Funnily enough, a lot of blokes on active service were glad to get away from London and back to the front.  If they came on leave they couldn’t stand it because they hadn’t experienced air raids, being on army service.  They’d say “I don’t want to know this.  I want to get back to my unit.”   Same as our infantry used to say to us, if they came back for a rest.  “We don’t like it here.”  They wasn’t comfortable.  “We want to get back to the front.  All we got to face up there is rifle and machine-gun bullets.  Back here”, they used to say “you get shells and mortars.  Up there we can dodge them little bullets.  Keep your head down.”

They were very strict on fraternisation with Germans.  Very strict.

I never heard of anyone getting caught out with a German girl.  They were too crafty to get caught.  It was as much to do with the German population, as anybody, because they didn’t want to know you, even if you wanted to fraternise.

It wasn’t all Germans you could get off with.  You got Dutch – all kinds.  One place in Holland the locals had to go from one town to another place to collect their potato rations. I was working on the road there, and you’d see these girls carrying half a hundred weight (2) in a sack, walking along the road.  Blokes would give them a bar of chocolate and they’d hop over the hedge and have a jump for a bar of chocolate.  It was survival.  Couldn’t blame ’em for doing it.

With kids, you couldn’t really stop fraternisation.  They couldn’t understand, could they?  If they spoke to you – what could you do?  Couldn’t just kick ’em up the arse.  But I don’t mind the Germans myself.  I found them better than anybody, because they were the nearest to English people that I’ve seen.  The English breed.  They had exactly the same habits, in all ways.  The same attitudes.  I mean, you could offer them a fag and they’d tell you to stick it up your arse.  Some of the others, they’d come crawling up for fags.

At first they was allowed to bring back anything, but they had to put a stop to it

Some of these people were bringing back furniture.  I seen one bloke when I went on that home leave, he had a small baby piano on his back, strapped on his back, coming down the gangplank.  A little German miniature piano.  I didn’t have nothing – No, yes I did –  a kind of horse blanket I’d been using to sit on.  It was black on one side and leopard skin on the other.  I’ve still got it, in fact.  But it got so bad they had to stop it.  They were looting everything.  It was mainly the blokes behind the line – artillery and corps troops.  They was packing it up in packing cases, labelling it and sending it home.  But they had to put a stop to it.

Because of the secret radio we had in the camp we knew about the D Day landings and the advance

Guernsey POW  We even had maps.  It was pitiful – ‘cos towards the end we had a map pinned in our prison cell, with makeshift pins it, and the German guards used to come in, nod to us, and look at the map to see where they’d got pushed back to.  They were really crumbling fast towards the end.  Whether they were losing or winning, I must say that they always behaved correctly with me, with all of us, really.

Towards the end we were constantly getting air raids from the American Flying Fortresses.  We used to spend days down in the dungeons, with our German guards.  Other times you could hear rumblings, bombs and some sort of firing, which we all agreed was only a few miles away.

Finally the German Commandant called up our Chief – our Representative – and said “I’m here to do my duty and I intend to continue to do it.  I can’t put up a white flag of surrender – I’ve got to fly the German flag.  If I put up a white flag, as I’ve told you before, there are other people in Germany, besides the German Army.”  I think he was frightened that the SS and the Nazis would then come into the camp, and he wouldn’t then know who he was fighting!  To give them their due, many of the SS were fighting to the last.  So we had to keep the German flag flying.

Another week went by and I was out on a pass.  The locals were frightened out of their bloody lives.  I’ve never seen such fear.  I told them “I had it five years ago – I saw the same thing in Guernsey.  You’re only going through what my people went through.”  That was the only way I could help them.  I went along this path and there was a load of dead Germans shot through the back of the head, so I knew someone had been there in the night.  But who?  We’d seen no one.  All this was highly unpleasant.

The German Commandant called most of his staff together, promoted them – a typical army thing – shook hands, gave them civilian clothes, told them to filter out of the camp and God be with you.  He himself stayed on duty with a remnant of his staff.  They decided they wouldn’t desert – which I’m glad they didn’t, as we were able to save them being shot by the Americans.

One of the prisoners said, of all things, could he go out of the camp on a bike with a white flag and try and find some Americans!

We kept hearing gunfire.  One day it would be to our left, the next to our right, but you never saw anything.  I went out and I tried to put through a telephone call to a German civilian some miles away.  I got through to the Exchange and it was dreadful – I could sense the fear.  I said to the telephonist “Have you seen any Americans?”  This poor bloody girl – I could sense how scared she was.  It’s dreadful.  it’s not laughable at all, because I’d felt like that five years before.  It’s indescribable.  You could almost feel the telephone trembling.  “No – nein, nein.”  I said “Don’t you know where they are?  Are your lines still open to so and so?”  Yes” she said “they’re still open there.”  But this German guard said “Come off it, Mr Hickman.”  I said “I’m only trying to get some news.”  I said “I can tell you this mate, it’s your army, but there’s no Americans there, there and there.”  He said “That won’t help me much. Come on, let’s get back inside the camp.”

One of the prisoners said, of all things, could he go out of the camp on a bike with a white flag and try and find the Americans!  The German Commandant said “If you go out with a white flag and there’s any Nazi troops left they’ll probably shoot you.  If you go out with no flag at all, or a German one, the Americans will probably shoot you, and ” – he had a bit of humour – ” I’m not going out there.  I’m staying here.”

Finally, however, this guy did go out on a bike with a white flag and he ran into an American panzer column – spearhead – and they promptly clapped guns on him, and what they weren’t going to do to him is indescribable.  He finally told them that there was a British camp five miles down this road.  We were in the camp when two American jeeps came up the road in a cloud of dust with about five Shermans, and our feller was sitting on the radiator with two guns pointing in his back.  They suspected a trap.

The bloke jumps off and says “You see?  I told you so.”  The German Commandant and his staff walked out and clicked their heels, saluted, and surrendered to the officer in charge.  The Germans still kept the gates locked, they were still on duty, apart from those who had walked out to surrender.  We were so pent up we went up to the wire and I saw one guy actually claw his way through the wire.  He went berserk – “Freedom!  Freedom!”  He ended up the other side an awful mess, but he didn’t feel any pain.  He was completely berserk.  But do you know what?  I almost did it myself.

There then followed about six weeks of chaos.  It was total anarchy.  The Americans bowled into another camp near us, which they thought was a concentration camp.   “OK guys! – You’re free!”  Clang.  The door opens and out stream all these men and women in these horrible pyjama suits.  But they were ordinary German civilian criminals.  They were a right shower.  It was dreadful.

I ran into some of these pyjama clad boys along the road.  They had an old car, which they had pinched.  It was like a cowboy film.  It was packed with women and fellers, all firing guns up in the air and waving bottles of hooch about.  They came slap on me, jumped out and said “Who are you?”  I couldn’t speak French or Polish, and I thought it was best not to speak German, so I spoke English.  Nobody seemed to understand me.  They were poking guns in me and examining my clothes, so I spoke to them in German.  I said “I’m a prisoner like you.  Our camp has been freed.”  There was a lot of natter amongst them.  “You’re a prisoner?  Shake hands!  Have a drink.”  I said “Ooh yeah, I’ll have a drink.”  But what horrified me, the geyser with this huge whisky bottle said “Ah, there’s hardly any left – we’ll get some more”, and he goes ’round the back of the car and syphons off the petrol – it was the SS petrol they were drinking!

I was too frightened to say I’m not going to drink it.  I was quite convinced I was going to be done to death.  “Here’s to freedom!” they said, and I drank the petrol.  The funny thing is, it never had any effect.  My stomach was so seized up because I was frightened,  that I could have drunk sulphuric acid and it would have passed through.  Later on, when some sort of control was exercised all these guys were rounded up

The Americans were slap-happy.  They were front line troops.

I saw two of them shoot themselves in the stomach, right in front of me.  The whole thing was hell – it was like Dante’s Inferno.  I went out with them as a sort of unofficial interpreter, with this 3rd Infantry Division.   Things were still pretty dicey.  They were still running into pockets of Germans who were fighting and in a rough and ready way they vetted everyone.

One day I was sitting up near Berchtesgaden, in this jeep. (3)   You know how these Yanks have always got these big cigars?  It is true what you see on the pictures – Yanks were like that.  This guy was sitting in his jeep, sprawled back, his feet up on the windscreen, smoking this big cigar, and he said to me “Well Mr Englishman, whadya think of the American army?”  I didn’t know what to say.  I was quite horrified, to be honest.  While I was thinking what to say he said “You don’t have to worry.  I’ll tell you something boy – half these geysers I’ve got under me,”  he said  “they were playing with guns when they were still in nappies.  They were always shooting each other way back in the States – so it don’t make no difference.”  I began to think, Christ…   He was some executive in the Pennsylvanian Railroad.  Quite a nice guy.  He said “Don’t worry about them.”  But I did, all the same.

After a time I was given a pass and flown back to England.  Coming home finished me off altogether.  I finished up four months in a mental home.  I had such a colossal nervous breakdown, and I’ve been nervy ever since.  I couldn’t cope with it all, at all.  The end of the war for me was worse than the war itself, in a peculiar personal way.  I just couldn’t cope.  I was thinking in terms of committing suicide.

1.   Plaistow, East London.

2.   Half a hundredweight (UK) equals approx. 25 kg.

3.   Berchtesgaden is a small town in the Bavarian Alps, 30 km south of Salzburg.  It is particularly associated with Hitler’s Berghof and his Kehlsteinhaus – the “Eagle’s Nest”.

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