World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Kathleen Clarke

A soldier's recollection of liberation in Belgium

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Frank William Clarke
Location of story: Belgium, Brussels, Paris, Arras, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Normandy
Unit name: Royal Signals
Background to story: Army

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Maggie O'Neill of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Kathleen Clarke.

Letter from Frank William Clarke to his sister Vera - Thursday 7th September 1944

Dear Vera

I just had to write and tell you of all the wonderful things that have happened to me during the past week. You have no doubt read and heard all about the sensational advance of the Guards Armoured Division, culminating in its liberation of Brussels. We travelled across France, North of Paris, across the Seine, through Arras and the battlefields of the last war, over the Somme and across the border into Belgium – 430 miles in less than six days. It must have been the greatest advance in history. It was very, very interesting and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. During the whole journey, we had little opposition, for the German army was in full retreat. It took us all our time to keep up with them.

When we left Normandy, we were told that our objective was across the Seine. We went across on a pontoon bridge, for the RAF had blown all the permanent structures. Once over we soon captured the first flying bomb sights. I took the message over the wireless and you can imagine the excitement it caused. This was our first real triumph V.

We drove on, liberating town after town, village after village, and we were madly cheered on our way. Some of the places we went through had been occupied by the Germans less than ten hours ago. The excitement was intense! The journey across the battlefields of 1914-18 was most interesting – the Somme, Arras, Vimy Ridge. The whole of that area is now fertile farming land, peaceful and beautiful and it is ghastly to imagine that thirty years ago, those fields were littered with the smashed bodies of good men. Their bones ploughed into the earth by shell-fire! No wonder the soil is fertile. Along the route we passed a number of war cemeteries, housing their wasted dead, and they were a vivid reminder of the futility of war. The Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge looked most impressive.

We continued, riding right through the long days, stopping only a few hours each night for refuelling and a bit of sleep. The pace was terrific, V and all the time we were heading for the Belgium border. Then on Saturday night, we were told that early next morning, we would be setting out for Brussels. What an objective, for it was 90 miles away! It seemed impossible that we would ever make it, for if we did, we would achieve the distinction of advancing faster in one day than any other formation before us.

We set out early and we were soon being cheered on our way, some people even waving to us in their pyjamas and nightshirts. It was amazing! But the most amazing part was yet to come when we crossed the border in Belgium. The French people were glad to see us but the Belgians went mad. Their villages and towns were gaily festooned with flags, Belgian and Allied, and the streets were a mass of colour. Before we had gone many miles, our vehicles were covered with flowers and every time we halted, we had fruit and wine showered on us. We looked like flying greengrocer’s shops. From early morning till we arrived I ate, ate, ate cakes and biscuits, fruit and wine. My god how hysterically crazy and excited were these people to see us. Across the roads were banners, “Welcome to our Allies,” etc. and bands played in the path of this advancing army.

On and on we drove towards Brussels, the excitement getting more intense every hour. The people were getting frantic! The route was a blaze of colour and my arm fair ached with waving to the excited crowds. At times it was almost impossible to move through the seething masses, for they climbed on to the trucks kissing us and crying. These people had been four years beneath the Nazi yoke, suffering, unhappy and now they were free. The Allies had fulfilled their promise. Liberation was theirs.

And then we entered the suburbs of the capital! Our Brigade was the first formation to go in. Well V I don’t know how to describe it. It is almost impossible for I can never put into words the reception that greeted us. To put it mildly, it was stupendously terrific. The city went raving mad. Bands, screams, singing, crying, all these sounds rent the air. It was the proudest moment of my life. We had brought freedom and happiness to these good people. As we progressed further in the crowds began to get out of hand for they climbed into the trucks, on the tops kissing and hugging everyone. The vehicles were absolutely covered with flags and streamers. It was the most amazing sight!

As we neared the centre of the city, progress got very slow for the crowds were blocking the roads. The whole of Brussels had come out to welcome us. It took us over three hours to get from the suburbs to the Centre. We entered the town at 8.00 pm and we parked at about 11.00 pm. It got dark but lights were blazing in the cafes, the noise got even louder as radios blared out their greetings.

Eventually we reached our destination. There was a red glow surrounding the centre of the city, for the Germans had set fire to the tremendous magnificent Palace of Justice. It was a blazing inferno! The red ominous glow was the Germans' welcome to us. High up in buildings we could hear the occasional crack of rifles. Snipers! The enemy was still with us.

And now came the most amazing sight of all V. In the cellars of the Palace of Justice, had been stored by the Germans, thousands and thousands of bottles of wine and champagne. They were all brought up into the streets and Brussels fairly swam in wine. The celebration was tremendous.

We spent the night under our trucks on the fine squares and boulevards of that grand city. So ended a remarkable journey, - an awe-inspiring day.

Vera, I shall never, never forget Brussels. It was the most exciting moment of my life. A moment I shall always remember. Our Division had made history. I shall never forget Sunday the 3rd September 1944.

We were up early on the Monday morning and very soon, the squares started to fill with the good people of Brussels. They had come to see their liberators, those English soldiers that had fled the continent four years before. They knew we would return and never were people more genuinely happy to see us. It is difficult for the English to realise what this day meant to them. The Boche had been driven out- they were free again. What greater cause for celebration!

They visited our vehicles, invited us to parties, in fact did everything they possibly could do to make us at home. They treated us like gods. I made numerous friends, in particular with an English-speaking girl. She showed me all round the town. I had a marvellous time, V, I had my photo taken dozens of times, I nursed babies, kissed them, was kissed, hugged and applauded. Never have I been so excited. I have been unable to eat for three days now. The Belgian people are the most marvellous, greatest people in the world. Never will I forget them. I should feel very proud to belong to such a nation. I will certainly visit Brussels after the war for it is a wonderful city.

Our story, unfortunately, was short-lived V for the war is still to be won. I am writing this out in the wilds, somewhere on the road to Berlin. You’d be surprised if you knew where, but just keep on watching the newspapers. History is being made.

As I sit here thinking of the thrilling, exciting times I was enjoying not so very long ago, it makes me feel sad. Although so fleeting an experience I shall always treasure the memory of our glorious entry into the Belgian capital.

I do hope it will not be long now V before I am with you all once more. I have so much to tell you. But until then I’ll say goodbye and God Bless you all.
Love Frank xxx


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Frank William Clarke

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Frank William Clarke, Kathleen Clarke
Location of story: Leeds, London
Unit name: Royal Signals
Background to story: Civilian

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Maggie O'Neill of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Kathleen Clarke.

Frank William Clarke born 10th November 1916 died 20th June 2005

Frank was born in Islington, North London. He was the eldest of three children and his sisters, Ivy and Vera are still alive. On leaving school he joined the Post Office as a messenger boy, walking many miles around the city of London delivering telegrams. He graduated to the Sorting Office in Mount Pleasant London, not Batley!

His career was put on hold soon after the start of the Second World War, when he received his call-up papers and joined the Royal Signals, where he became expert in using Morse code. Frank couldn’t wait to join the army to escape the dreadful bombing in London, but believe it or not, soon after his initial training, he was actually posted to the Tower of London.

Later he was transferred to Langton, near York, and was there for quite some time. During this period he had a chance meeting with Kathleen on Leeds City railway station on Sunday 2nd January 1944. No addresses were exchanged, but a letter from Frank addressed to “Kathleen, West Ardsley Post Office” eventually did reach her. (Kathleen still has that first letter – no email in those days of course.) However, Kathleen’s reply to Frank took three months to find him, because Kathleen omitted to include his army number in the address. Once contact has been established, regular correspondence flowed and love blossomed. But it was in fact 13 months before they met again. In the meantime, Frank was on duty with the Guards Armoured Division in Belgium, France and Germany.

In February 1945, Frank went to Batley in Yorkshire to meet Kathleen’s parents, and permission was given for Kathleen to return with Frank to London to meet Frank’s mother and father. In spite of all the bombing, they had a wonderful time together and at the end of a blissful seven days, Frank proposed to Kathleen. However Frank’s leave was now over and it was left to Frank’s father to place the ring on Kathleen’s finger!

On the 22nd September 1945, Kathleen and Frank were married, just before Frank’s planned posting to the Far East. The dropping of the atom bomb on Japan meant that instead, Frank returned to Germany to await demobilisation. On return to civilian life, he returned to the Sorting Office, but soon passed the entrance exam to join the Civil Service with flying colours. He was based at Whitehall.

On 21 February 1948, Frank and Kathleen became the proud parents of Robert. Family life in one room soon became difficult and this, plus the shortage of accommodation in London and a desire to live in Yorkshire, led to Frank requesting a transfer to the Ministry of Health in Leeds. Within two weeks of arriving in Yorkshire, they were successful in buying a brand new house and have lived in the Hanging Heaton area ever since.

Kathleen’s interest in amateur operatics with Batley Amateurs led to Frank becoming Secretary, a role which he carried out with dedication for 33 years. Frank was given the honour of the presidency of the Society in 1981 and made many friends during this time.

In 1977 Frank was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal for his work with the Civil Service. He retired after over 40 years service at the age of 62.

In retirement, he was introduced to Probus by Dr Eric Sarraff, a long-standing friend. Regretfully, due to his immobility Frank was less and less able to attend the meetings he had so thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to. As Frank’s mobility worsened and the permanent discomfort increased, day-to-day activity became more difficult. However, his natural good nature and sense of humour never left him, especially when his two beautiful granddaughters, Helen and Jill were around him.

Frank was a gentleman; he was kind, thoughtful and never did anything in anger. He was respected by all. Frank and Kathleen would have been married 60 years this September but unfortunately he died on 20th June 2005.


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