World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            John Firth 

The Story Of A Don R.

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Jack Firth
Location of story: Normandy
Unit name: R.A.S.C.
Background to story: Army

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of John Firth.
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I was a Don R. (dispatch rider) on motorcycles, stationed on the Helensburgh on the Clyde with the Royal Army Service Corps (R.A.S.C.). One of our many functions was to maintain supplies to the front line, ammunition etc. When D. Day was announced, we immediately set off with convoys of vehicles to the south of England.

When we arrived at Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex, we hurriedly had to waterproof all the vehicle (mainly their engines), which involved virtually covering all electrical points with plasticine, to keep out the water. In addition, a funnel, which protruded about 2 feet vertically from the vehicle, was attached to the carburettor. When this was done, we then had to embark from Tilbury Docks.

We joined a massive fleet of ships sailing to Normandy. I was on a huge Landing Ship Transport (American) that had three decks. We were at sea (anchored) for two nights, as a convoy. We went over on ships with Canadian commandos. When we arrived at Juno Beach - whilst we were waterproofing vehicles, our C.O., Captain Craven, had a special vehicle fitted for his own use, complete with sleeping quarters etc. The order of loading onto the L.S.T. was, all trucks with motor cycles inside them, were on the lower two decks, and Captain Craven’s truck was the last one on. That one went onto the top deck.

When we beached at Juno, Captain Craven's was first to go off. However, the driver of his truck couldn’t get the engine to start. This was happening whilst action was going on all around, bullets and shells flying etc. After 15 to 20 minutes of trying to get the engine going, the American Captain had had enough and came out with this phrase, “We can’t stop the goddamned war for your truck Sir.” Then the U.S. Captain called up a dozen naval ratings and got them to heave our captain’s vehicle into the sea at Courseulles-sur-mer.

On landing on the beach and approaching the town, I noticed a recently made cross in front of a cornfield where the corn was really high. A grave on which the cross stood, had a Canadian soldier’s helmet with a bullet hole right through it. As I was the only person who spoke French, albeit schoolboy French, I enquired of the local citizens how this sergeant came to be killed in the cornfield. The locals told me that a French girl, who had been living with a German soldier, had been lying with the German troops in the cornfield and she had shot the Canadian soldier. The next day, the locals told me, they strung her up and hanged her.

After we’d been in Calvados (Normandy) a couple of weeks, the battle for Caen was raging and we were ordered to dig down for protection etc. Whilst digging down, I came across a stone slab in the orchard, and after lifting the slab, realised there were graves. Having scooped out the soil, we had ready-made dug outs to lie in to protect us from air raids etc. But what surprised me was the speed at which news travelled, even though, I’d only told my C.O. The very next day, a local man came up and asked for me, and he said he was a head teacher from the local school. He told me that they’d always thought there was a Roman cemetery in that area. And that’s what we had accidentally discovered. Realising what we had done, sleeping in Roman coffins, we returned the bones and soil to where we had been sleeping and covered up the ground again.

When Caen fell, and the Germans retreated eastwards towards their homeland, our unit was held back at Le Havre (a big harbour), because the German army at Le Havre had refused to surrender, and we were held up there for several weeks. At this point, our unit occupied a chateau, which was at Honfleur, on the heights, looking down onto Le Havre. The R.A.F. was pounding the boat with thousands of bombs and our artillery was pounding them from the heights of Honfleur. Eventually, the garrison (German) sent an officer out with a white flag and he said, he had not come to surrender but to negotiate a deal, whereby the civilians of Le Havre would be given free passage out. Our officers agreed to this and after the civilians had left, the battle continued for several days with more R.A.F. bombers coming and targeting Le Havre, and then the German commander at last surrendered to the British army.

We went up the coast, then arrived in Brussels in late summer of 1944. We were eventually intending to go to Antwerp, but were held back around Christmas time; there was heavy snow and we were called out on emergency at 2 am for reports of German paratroopers landing around Brussels. This was part of the Battle Of The Bulge, where Germans tried to retake Antwerp. Fortunately for us, the Americans took the brunt of the assault and the Germans were driven back into their own country, over the Rhine. This was the start of the end.

Unfortunately for me, I was stricken with double pneumonia and was rushed into Brussels General Hospital. After two to three weeks in hospital, I was sent back to Blighty to recover and for convalescence.
When it was all over, I was trained at the university in the newly formed Army Education Corps in Italy, It was at Perujia University where I was on a teacher training course. That was the end of my service, then I came home in 1946.

One of the dangers of being a Don R in action was the fact that during the height of battle, as Don R’s journeyed from port to front line, they had to be aware that the Germans were stretching taut piano wire across the roads, and in some cases, were decapitating motor cyclists.

PR-BR