World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Albert Watts 

A Proud Normandy Para.

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Albert Watts
Location of story: Blackdown, Surrey; Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire; Ringway Airport; Bulford Camp, Salisbury; Normandy; Bandy Village, the Ardennes; Romant, The Rhine; Bismarck.
Unit name: 1st and 7th Battalions, North Staffordshire Regiment; 9th Parachute Battalion, 6th Airborne Division, 10th Essex Regiment.
Background to story: Army

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Norman Wigley of the BBC Radio Sheffield Action Desk on behalf of Mr Albert Watts.

I was born in a village called Blackdown in Surrey on 17 July 1922. My father was an ex-army man in the Royal Artillery. My early life was spent in Woolwich – my father was based there until we went to Deepcut Barracks.

I left school at age 14 in 1936. Times were hard and I decided to join the Army; the Staffordshire Regiment were in Blackdown and at the age of 15, I tried to enlist but was turned away until I got the forms filled in. My mother wasn’t keen as she had already got several sons in the Forces, but eventually my father talked her into it. I joined on 7 December 1937 in the First Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment. At the age of 15, I was a boy soldier and so went into the band as a bugler – we did no proper infantry training at that age, apart from medical duties, stretcher bearing etc. In March 1938, I was transferred out to India, still as a boy soldier. I was in barracks at Calcutta when war was declared on 3 September 1939, and became a full soldier at age 17½, when I was issued with a rifle and started normal infantry training, although I was still in the band.

I returned to the UK in mid-1942 and joined 7th Battalion, North Staffs which was an ack-ack unit. I was posted to a little village between Southampton and Portsmouth, as air raids were heavy in that area. I had no experience but was sat down at a Bofors gun, pointed it at the sky and fired when enemy aircraft were overhead.

I wasn’t there long because I volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment. I had got into trouble because the Brigadier was visiting and the RSM ordered a pal of mine to clean out a swill bin and whitewash it, and he refused. He then ordered me to do it and I also refused. This was a Court Martial offence in wartime and we were both put on a charge. We had to appear in front of the Colonel, but while I was there, I volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, which I think saved my skin and avoided a Court Martial, although I was sentenced to seven days confined to barracks – which didn’t really mean much because we couldn’t go anywhere anyway!

The next day, I was sent for by the Adjutant to fill in a form and next morning, I was off to Portsmouth railway station and on my way to Chesterfield. Transport met us and took us to Hardwick Hall which was the first parachute training centre of the Army Air Corps.

The first training we did was to jump off the back of a moving wagon and land on our feet. We had six weeks' solid physical and weapons training with absolute discipline. We had assault courses and climbing ropes – it was tough; we carried full pack nearly all day, including on a 10 mile run.

The instructors were tough but fair. I got through the PT work alright but I was always a poor shot with a rifle. The only parachute training we did at this time was in a harness from a tower, where we learned how to roll on landing. I did manage to get through my six weeks training though.

On passing out we went next to Ringway Airport for parachute training for three weeks in late October 1942. Our first parachute jumps were from a balloon at about 800 feet from a basket; if you refused your first jump, you were out, you did not get a second chance. I was nervous, scared even, but I was determined to get my ‘wings’. We jumped through a hole in the bottom of the basket attached to a static line which opened the parachute. Once the ‘chute opened it felt great - the worrying part was the waiting.

Jumps from a Dakota were next; there were 30 men aboard – 15 each side in full kit looking at each other. We were ordered to stand, then to ‘hook up’ to a continuous static line and to turn towards the door and check the equipment of the man in front. The line then moved forward when the red light turned to green. ‘Go’ was the order and we went, quickly, one behind the other! These jumps were from about 1000 feet.

We had to do eight jumps to get our ‘parachute wings’, including one night, jump from the balloon and one by day, then six aircraft jumps – I did five from the Dakota, and one through a hole in the floor, from a Stirling, I think. All jumps were with full normal kit.

We then did a special parade to be presented with our ‘Wings’ and the red beret; that was a proud day that was. The Commander of the RAF Parachute Division presented the men and inspected us all. The parade lasted about an hour and we had a bit of a celebration afterwards; we were all very proud men. I then had two days at Ringway waiting to be transferred back to Clay Cross, Chesterfield for about a week before being posted to the 9th Parachute Battalion, part of the 6th Airborne Division, which at that time was the 10th Essex Regiment at Kiwi Barracks, Bulford Camp, Salisbury. This would be just before Christmas, 1942.

We got a good reception there; the Officers and NCOs were all decent men. We also got on well with the local people in Salisbury – that was where we went when off-duty. I was put into ‘B’ Company. We continued normal infantry training and further parachute training over Salisbury plain when the weather permitted. I was sent on a mortar course because I was never very good with a rifle! Each company had a two-inch mortar.

We were there until June 1944, our first action was Normandy. We had a short briefing and they told us we had a battery at Merville to capture. It was planned that we would be dropped on the day before the operation, on the beaches, re-group as a battalion, then get further orders. We went to Brize Norton to board Dakotas on the night of 5th June. The weather however was bad and we ended up staying there in barracks until the sixth (D Day). We boarded early in the morning, 2 or 3 o’clock, I think; we collected our parachutes and a full pack. I also had the two inch mortar hung at my side, plus ammunition. It was very quiet on the aircraft – nobody spoke.

I remember thinking about home, whether I would get back or not – I worried a bit and probably shook a bit as well. We had a good steady flight but our aircraft had to come in at 500 feet because we had so much flak thrown at us, we had to come in under the flak. As we jumped I remember a lot of gunfire coming at us. I landed six miles from our target – it was a good landing. There were Germans all around but they gave themselves up – nobody shot at us, I was in a group of about 100 or 200. The Sergeant organised the 9th Battalion group together. This was my first time in action but we were too busy to worry – we had to march to Merville and on the way deal with German resistance as we found it.

By the time we reached Merville we had suffered casualties, quite a few wounded; the battery had already been taken by Colonel Ottoway with only 36 men. It was quite a mess and the Colonel finished up with only six men left. The Colonel picked up a medal for this action. We didn’t hang about; we were re-grouped and moved forward in the direction of Holland. We took one or two villages and had a further job to do which was to take a railway station. We had a few skirmishes along the way but the Germans seemed to be giving up by then; I think they were trying to re-group. After the railway station we took one or two more little villages, then we were called out.

Transport took us to Brussels, this was by then September and we flew back to Brize Norton. I went back to Kiwi Barracks and we had two weeks leave, and then on to Bulford for more training, parachute jumping, and in December 1944 we saw our next action.

This was at the Battle of the Bulge. It was just before Christmas 1944 and we were hoping for leave but it didn’t happen. The 9th Battalion was sent to a place called Bandy in the Ardennes. We weren’t dropped, we were sent as infantry, as a Division. We wore our red berets but they made us turn them inside out makinng them appear black, so the Germans wouldn’t know we were a Parachute division, but I suspect they already knew.

On Christmas Day at Bandy, a small farming village, we were in about six feet of snow. The Germans kept throwing a few shells at us but nothing much was going off. One night the Colonel thought it was too quiet down in the village and decided to send ‘B’ company, my company, down to the village to scout around. When we got there the Platoon officer was greeted by an old lady who called him over. She took him to a cellar in one of the houses in the village. It was terrible. In this cellar were the bodies of 36 boys, aged between perhaps 15 and 18, riddled with bullets.

What had happened was that two German sentries, who happened to be SS troops, (there hadn’t been many Germans in the village but these were SS), had been attacked and had their throats cut by two young lads. The Germans had rounded up all the young lads they could find to try to find out who had done this, but they wouldn’t say, so they had all been rounded up and put into the cellar and shot.

The bodies in the cellar were only seen by the officer, the sergeant, and a couple of the men. I didn’t see them, but a couple of days later we decided to give them all a proper burial. Two years after the war the bodies were moved to a vault with a proper memorial, and I was pleased to visit it at that time.

We were there two to three weeks, not long, and were pulled out in new year 1945. We returned to Kiwi Barracks, Bulford and continued normal training until March. We were then in action again, parachuted in this time for the Rhine Crossing. We landed near a place called Romont; this was a divided city, half belonging to France and half to Germany. I landed in a big pine tree and was left hanging in my parachute a few feet off the ground. Luckily there was no-one firing at us as the Germans had moved out. I dropped down using the quick release gear and left the parachute hanging in the tree. I was unhurt. The 9th Battalion grouped up. From here we went through Germany. I used the mortar a lot, dealing with snipers and buildings etc. and we finished up at a place called Bismarck on the Baltic with the Russians, about two weeks before the end of the war in May 1945.

We had met up with a small Russian company led by a very big woman who very nearly squashed me to death in a big bear hug. They got a bottle of real 100% vodka out and we celebrated; lots of drinking and shaking hands I remember.

By VE Day I was in Russia with the same Russian company and there was more celebrating in much the same way with lots of vodka. I returned to Kiwi Barracks, Bulford about two weeks later.

In 1947 I was sent to Aldershot as a lance corporal in charge of batmen and waiters of the officers’ mess. I was in married quarters there with my wife, and my youngest daughter was born there. We stayed there two years and in 1949 I was posted to Chester for de-mob. I was there for two months doing absolutely nothing but I did volunteer to be the bugler, blowing a fanfare for the High Court Judges' Parade in Chester. I did this for two weeks to keep them happy, attached to the Cheshire Regiment.

I was then sent to Guildford to de-mob and moved to Chesterfield which is where my wife came from. I had several jobs locally but then in 1950, out of the blue, I was called up as a reservist for service in Korea. I served there for two years as a corporal; they were the worst two years of my army career. I returned home in 1952 and was immediately de-mobbed.

I found work at Markham Colliery, and ended up staying there 30 years, even though I hated it, until retirement.

I am a member of the British Legion, and am very proud to be a member of the Parachute Regiment Association.

Pr-BR