World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Donald Ward


By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Donald Ward
Location of story: Palestine
Unit name: British Expeditionary Force
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 Donald Ward.
One hundred and twenty of us went out to Palestine as a mechanised squadron in 1938. We went out there on emergency. I was in the cavalry then. They said to us, “You might be out there for three months, you might be there for three years.”

We should have come back in '39 but war broke out: and so it was postponed; we came back at Christmas '39. They gave us two weeks’ leave, and then we re-joined the regiment in France at the beginning of 1940 - the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force).

On the 10th of May, of course the Germans broke through and so we had to go up to the Albert Canal. I was in a little 6 tonne tank with 2 machine guns, a Lewis 303 and a Vickers 5. When they got hot you had to pour water onto them to cool them off!! They were First World War Guns!!

As I say, we went up to the Albert Canal where we met the Grenadier Guards.

I was trained as a parachutist and on gliders. In my old regiment, the 5th Dragoons, I handed my stripes in to join the airborne. The dragoons were dashing about all over the country, and I thought I'd join the airborne instead.

I went to the C.O. and asked for a transfer into the airborne. He wouldn't let me go you know!!! He said, "You're not going anywhere, we've spent too much money training you as a tank commander." I was a tank commander you see, on Cromwell Tanks.

Anyway, I kept going back and asking him again, I went back 3 or 4 times, but the answer was always the same - no, we're not letting you go. So, I decided to write straight to the Airborne Forces General, and within a fortnight, I was in. I had an intensive test, and severe physical and medical examinations and thankfully, I got in.

The Dragoons couldn't stop me then you see! So, I started training in gliders and then I did my parachute course at Ringway at Manchester. It’s Manchester Airport now of course, but back then it was just two hangars, called Ringway.

My First actual jump was from a basket hanging under a Barrage Balloon. We had to jump through a hole, and drop about 150 Feet before your 'chute opened!

We used to draw our parachutes from the girls - you know, the W.A.A.F.’s, and if you got on the wrong side of them, they would tease us: "Right mate, I'm going to put a blanket in your pack tomorrow!". Eh dear, we had some fun! Our training was jumping from one of the old Whitley Bombers - about as wide as a sofa it was! Ten men in it, all crouched up! They took the bottom turret out, and of course that left a big hole for us to drop through. If your pack caught on one side, you smacked your nose on the other side as you dropped. So many of us did it, we used to call it "ringing the bell." I've seen many a lad dropping with bloody noses!

We used to have to jump with an 80lb kit bag strapped to our leg, with a quick release! You threw yourself through the hole, and as soon as your 'chute opened, you released your kit bag. We were the first to use them, and I was the first one out on the day - I hit the drop zone fine, but I looked up, and all around me was bump, bump, bump, these other devils hadn't released the ropes properly on their kit bags, and so the ropes had broken and their kit bags were raining down on me! I was off that drop zone quicker than a frightened rabbit!

We did a lot of training you know, I was also a P.T. instructor for a time. I used to teach un-armed combat.

Anyway, then in 1944, our division was dropped in Normandy the night before D-Day and my lot: were forward reconnaissance. Some of our lads even went on bikes doing reconnaissance. It was a good thing really, because our lads kept: some of the Germans occupied whilst the lads were landing on the beaches.

Our division fought their way to the coast (well, you know they took Pegasus Bridge).

Eventually, once the lads had got the Germans pushing back, we were sent back home, back to England. Then all of a sudden, the yanks were getting pushed back again in the Ardennes - the Battle of The Bulge, so they sent us out there!

So we went to the Battle of The Bulge and helped the yanks push Gerry back again. Because of course you know, they hadn't been thinking that the Germans would come through there because the Ardennes Forest was very hard going, but the Germans were good soldiers, and they very nearly did it. They caught some yanks unawares, coming out of dance halls and the like!

Eventually we shoved the Germans right back up to Rochefort and they then sent us up to Holland on patrol.

We were billeted in a farmhouse – there was a Jewish family there. They had been in hiding for years; they showed us a big hole in the floor where they had hidden. The two daughters used to sing to us every evening -marvellous they were! All they had for supper every evening was boiled potatoes, but they used to invite us in and share it out with us. So, when we used to get a ration of meat (bully beef V and such like), we used to share it with them. There were 4 girls altogether, and one of them was a hairdresser so she would cut our hair for us.

We used to have to go out on night patrol, and they would pack us up! They had a lot of fruit, but nothing much else, so the mama would make us fruit pies and pack us up! It was quite surreal, it: made us feel like we were going off to work on night duty - the only difference was of course, that we were armed to the teeth, and were getting shot at. They were marvellous people.

Anyway, we came back to England again and then had to start training for the invasion of the Rhine; no rest!

So, when the time came to invade the Rhine (I think it was the 24th of March - crumbs, sixty years next week!), we took the gliders across with the tanks in, and of course they had to be towed by Lancasters and things like that; it had to be a 4-engined bomber.

Then off we set to Germany. Of course, as soon as we got over the drop zone the flak was absolutely shocking. We were actually sitting in the tank, and there was stuff coming through it - shrapnel and things, so goodness knows how the pilots went on.

When you landed, the glider pilot had to get out first and lower some struts because the bottom of the glider was about 6 Feet off the deck.

When we landed, we sat waiting for quite some time for the pilot to lower the struts, so I got on the radio to the pilot and asked him what was happening - no answer. Again I tried, again no answer. So I thought to myself, "Blow this," and I had to do it myself.

Anyway, we helped the infantry-all the para lads off. But then all my blummin' tank tracks got caught up in the straps and things of the parachutes, and so we only got stuck didn't we? There we were, stuck under the wings of this big glider, with Germans all around us. So ............. oh no, I'd better not tell you about that, I don’t like to talk about it. (Interviewer: "Why not:?"). Well, because I've never, ever told anyone - it’s why I was awarded the MM. (Interviewer: "Please tell me?"). I’ve not even told my family - but anyway, I'll ............ I'll ............ I might tell you later oh.............

We stopped there, and we had a company of our paras behind us, and they all pulled out! That left just the 3 of us in the tank: the driver, wireless operator and me the tank commander, and all these Germans just kept on and on coming at us. I thought to myself, "Well, we're supposed to get back to the regiment." So, I said to my lads, "Right, you retire through that fence there and go round the back, while I hold these devils off." Of course they didn't want to leave me on my own, but I said to them, "That's an order - you get off." Well I had a Bren Gun, that was all, and I held these Germans off.

(Interviewer: "How many of them were there?"). About forty or fifty I'd say. I held them off for about 3 hours. I don't know why, but they say that's how I was awarded the MM.

(Interviewer: "So, you held at least 40 Germans off for 3 hours on your own with just 1 Bren? I should say that's why you were awarded the Military Medal!”). Mmmmmmm......... must have been! But I just don't know why,I was just doing my job. On my citation it also said, "Keeping his tank in action whilst broken down," but my other two lads were just as good, just as brave. (Interviewer: "You're very modest Mr Ward."). Well, I haven't been modest today have I? I've told you now haven't I? That first day I think our Division took over 4000 German Prisoners. The further on we got into France and Germany, the younger and older the opponents got. Old men and little boys. (Interviewer: "the Hitler youth?"). Hitler youth - yes. Crumbs, they were brainwashed.... Ferocious..... they were mad!

Later on, I was sitting on a grass hill, having a drink and talking to one of the German prisoners. We had such a good chat and enjoyed a drink together. I thought how very much alike we were, what a smashing bloke he was. Only hours earlier, we had been trying to kill each other. I just was struck by the absurdity of it all.