World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                        William Briggs 

My Life With The Yorkshire And Lancashire Regiment

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: William Briggs
Unit name: Yorks. & Lancs. Regiment
Background to story: Army

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Anne Payne of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Mr. William Briggs.

I joined the Yorks. & Lancs. Regiment in 1938 when I was only 16. It was before it converted to the Royal Artillery, and we were based at Manor Lane, and I was there on a gun-site in 1940 in the Sheffield Blitz. Soon after that, we moved to Derby, again on the defence front, and later to the Isle of Wight. Eventually, we found ourselves in Beckenham, South London where we were equipped with guns, transport and everything, before being sent to East India Docks where we boarded landing craft to go to Normandy.

We weren’t in the first landings as we left a few days later than the main force, but it was the only time during the war that I felt really nervous, while we were going through the Straits of Dover---it was only 21 miles wide and we were within range of all the German armoury and especially the big guns---but we got through alright.

It was on the 12th. June that we landed on Juno Beach, which was six days after the first landings, and we landed there because we were attached to the Canadian forces at that time (as they were posted down south near us). We moved from there to Caen with the Canadians, but were soon recalled and put on loan to the 1st.American Army down at Falaise. Patton was just in front of us and we were moved to 20 miles outside Paris. Here, they thanked us very much for our help, but they didn’t want us joining them in Paris.

After that, we were detailed to Amiens and were back in 30 Corps under General Horrocks. (This was the Guards Armoured Division, which combined the Yorks. & Lancs., the 51st Ireland Division from Scotland, and the 50th. Northumbrian Division---otherwise known as T&T or Tyneside and Tees.) From there we went to Belgium to a village below Brussels, where we had to replace the gun barrels as they were all worn out. Once that was done, we crossed into Holland and came to the first bridge leading to Arnhem. We put the barrage down and moved up past Eindhoven and on to a bridge called Veghel. The 101st.American Air-borne Division captured it. They were known as “The Screaming Eagles”. It was while we were there that a German tank hit a mine about 200 yards in front of us and was thrown on its side, smoking and ready to burst into flames. I ran with another guy and managed to get them out. The Commanding Officer of the tank said, “You are gentlemen” and gave us each a medal, which I still have. It was the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, and we were given them just before Christmas, 1944. Then the Red Caps came and took them away. Other people have made more of that incident than it deserves, really. When something like that happens, you don’t think about it you just do it. Instinct takes over---and you certainly don’t think are these men British or Germans, you just get on with it. The whole episode was all over in ¼ of an hour.

We wanted to move forward after that but the Americans stopped us, as north of the village, Tiger Tanks had cut the road. In the end they let us go on, but we had to leave 4 guns at one side of the village and four at the other. (We couldn’t put them down properly as there were Germans on three sides of us, and we may need to move out in a hurry.) As it was, we were heavily mortared and a number of men were badly wounded and one was killed. I was injured on the bridge at Veghel, and was temporarily blinded for nine days. While I was going to and from the hospital (you were never taken off duties for something like that!), I met up with my old mate Jackie Bissell from Rotherham. He’d left us about 3 years before as he’d volunteered to join the 5th.Air-borne Division; and also Sgt. Bill Felvus who was later captured by the Germans and beaten up.

When I was fit again, I went with the rest as we moved up to the next bridge before Arnhem, called Nijmegen. We were based just north of Arnhem at a village called Geleen and we were all waiting to have our Christmas dinner in the Community Centre when the door banged open and our Commanding Officer told us to pack up as we were off to Lovuain. When we got there, we were told to sleep anywhere in the field. By the time we got back next day, our Christmas dinner was cold! In any case, there was no time for that as we were on the move again, this time to Dinant and then on to Ardennes in foggy conditions with only a 20- foot visibility. We weren’t far from Bastogne then and by this time, 30 Corps had moved into Ardennes under Monty. We finished manoeuvres near the Rhine where we put down a barrage over the River, to assist another air-borne landing. Once again we found ourselves attached to the Canadian Army---for the fourth time. (We were also attached to the American Army three times in all.)

Then everything seemed to stop. The Air-bornes (gliders) flew over the top of us and landed---it was a bit like Arnhem all over again. We pressed on and moved further into Germany, and it wasn’t long before our Commanding Officer called us all together and announced that the war was over. Coming down the road ahead, we could see men walking towards us. It was the POW’s from Stalag UB, mainly British and Americans. There were some Italians also in that camp, but they weren’t released immediately as they tried to burn the place down out of revenge---they were detained a bit longer instead.

Next we were ordered to move up to Hamburg where we arrived outside Neun Gamme Concentration Camp. When we went in we found the gas chambers, and the German guards were captured, but we remained on guard in the Towers for some time to prevent any of them escaping. There were no prisoners, just piles of shoes of all sizes (to fit men and women, adults and children) and some bones (which they used to grind up and use as fertilizer!). The in-mates had been mainly Jews from the Hamburg district. Our journey into Hamburg itself revealed 4 ½ miles of complete devastation (for the night that Hamburg was fire-bombed, 60,000 had died). Surprisingly though, in the centre the main Railway Station was still standing and so was the cinema and other buildings. Some of them were used for our benefit, e.g. one building was used as a NAAFI, and another was turned into a Crusader Club for the army. We were billeted into the school and then learned that---unbelievably---the theatre was still open and doing shows most nights, so we went!

Hamburg was always said to be anti-Nazi, and we talked to many people about this while we were there. An incident which occurred while we were there confirmed this. We had to do a week’s guard duty on a big petrol station by the side of the River Elbe, and one day a motor launch drew up and someone shouted “Are you going to the club on the other side tonight? I’ll pick you up.” He was an American who had been in Hamburg when war was declared and had been unable to get back home, so he’d gone all through the war and no-one had ever turned him in. After Hamburg, we went up to the Baltic to Lubeck, taking prisoners to a forest area and then releasing them. It was up to them to make their way as best they could from then on.

It was soon after this that I heard that my wife Sheila was seriously ill. I had to wait 2 days to have it confirmed, and then I was given 3 weeks’ leave. On reporting to Nantwich at the end of that period, I was told to take my papers to York. When I got there, I was lucky because the interviewing officer had noted that my wife had been ill and asked if she was any better. I replied “Not really,” and he said that as I’d been in the army for 8 years, almost without a break, he thought it was time my war was over. I was demobbed on 1.5.46.

After the war, we lived in a back-to-back house on London Rd., which was terrible---I wouldn’t put a pig in that, and to think I’d given up a 3-bed-room semi in Rotherham to live there! You see, my wife was a Sheffield lass and really wanted to live in Sheffield. Rotherham gave ex-servicemen a house, but Sheffield wouldn’t help you, so we did it up and stayed here until 1962 when we moved here to Gleadless. I’d gone back to my old job in Rotherham at Steel, Peach and Toser, where I worked for a few years until going to work at Treeton pit. I was made redundant from there at aged 58 and had no work since. I kept going for jobs but was classed as disabled as I was deaf from the foundries.

I’ve no regrets at being in the army. We weren’t heroes. We just did our bit. I’ve two mates from the war---Harry Hill from Dinnington and Ronnie Gray from Handsworth. Ronnie was a bugler and rings every Sunday night. We were all in the same mob and I was happy with my army mates---we were like brothers. I’m dead lucky as there were only 2 killed out of our battery during the war. You see we weren’t really forward troops, but artillery in support, and we didn’t have a bad war, compared with some. I had a cousin of 17 who was killed along with many others from another battery in Rotherham, because they’d been sent to Burma and were involved in jungle warfare, and those lads had a terrible time. (This was a combined battery with ones from Barnsley and Mexborough.)

As for the next generation, it’s not a question of knowing what happened in the war, it’s a question of will they ever learn from it, or are wars to control the population and stop it growing, as we can’t feed them? Who knows?