World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Jack Bland

Life In The 49th Infantry Division - Part 1

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Jack Bland
Location of story: Various
Unit name: 230 Field Company-49th Infantry Division
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 Jack Bland, and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr Bland fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I was in 230 Field Company, RE’s in the 49th Infantry Division. When I joined up I was 18 in the Territorial Army.
At the beginning of the war, I started training despite having trained in the Territorial Army, but obviously we carried on training in different things, building bridges, mines etc. and we just carried on training in North Yorkshire.

After a few months, a few of us were sent back to Sheffield, Somme Barracks. We didn’t know why at first, but we found out later, that the Company I was in, was going abroad and we had to be 19 years of age to go abroad, so we had been sent back because we were only 18. Then, we started again in another Company, the 270 Field Company, in the 46th Infantry Division.

After a while, by April 1940, we were going abroad again, and it so happened that I was 19 on the day we were going, so I was pleased, but my best friend Arnold Losemore (his father was a V.C. in the first World War), being still only 18, wasn’t able to go, but because of who his father was, so they let him go. It was only a week or so before his 19th birthday and he was put in charge of the Lewis Gun (a great big World War 1 machine gun) and I was his number two. My other best friend Harold Priestley, was number three in charge of and carried the ammunition.

I had to carry the great big tripod, which came to pieces, but must have weighed a half a hundred weight (50Kg) and Harold carried the ammunition, though we shared that.

We were sent to France, but not to fight, but to build base camps for the troops. The troops came to these camps first and then were transported from there to anywhere they were wanted. I was sent to the Divisional HQ, because I was a tradesman. All of a sudden, we had to go back to our unit and they told us we were moving, so we had to get our kit and everything.

We went to the railway station and got on a goods train and set off to Northern France. It was a very slow train, stopping and starting. If you wanted to use the toilet, you just got off the train and if it started off, you still had time to clean yourself, run and catch it up and jump on. This carried on for about three days, until we approached some heavy wooded areas, and as we went into them, we could see over the top of the woods and could see these planes diving down, which we thought must be German planes. We could hear the bombs and machine gun fire and everything. All the smoke was rising in the air and when we just got into the woods, the train stopped. That would be about the middle of the afternoon, the third day.

While we were there and I don’t know why, the engine driver kept on hooting away and whistling, and then we would start backing away. Then, we saw troops running down the line, away from the area which was being bombed and as we were reversing, they were jumping on the train. When the train moved forward again, they all jumped off! We finally stopped and stayed there all night.

We were up at dawn, offloaded from the train and then realised there was only one of our officers left, a Captain who had been in the First World War, Captain Mills. He said to us, “Come on, I’m going to put you in some positions,” and then he told me and Arnold to come with him and he would show us what he wanted us to do. Across the road, just away from the railway line, one of the roads went over the railway line, no railway gates, it was just in the country, and he said, “I want you to put your tripod here in the middle of these crossroads, set the Lewis gun up and you can cover all four roads.” Then he went off to see to all the others, so I said to the men, "Well, that’s absolutely stupid.”

There was a lovely hedge and a field with a nice banking down to it, so I said, “We’ll go down there and set it up behind the hedge, away from enemy sight.” Anyhow, we got in that position, just after dawn, and then about 9.00pm, he came back and said, “Come on, we’re going.” So we got all our gear, plus the Lewis Gun, Tripod and ammunition, which was a real hard weight, and set off down the railway line, the way we had come.

When we had gone down about three miles, there was a couple of trains all smashed up with the lines all blown up, dead horses all strewn about, several dead French troops on the banking, and one of them, we noticed, was alive, so we said to him, “Come on, come with us.” Then we set off down the line again.

We kept going all night until we came to some wooded area and we were told to kip down until morning. We hadn’t been down for more than a couple of hours when we heard these tanks on the road quite near, and we said, “That’s great, our tanks are here now, and they’ll clear them." But, straight after that, the sergeant in charge said, “Come on, pack up, we’re off.” So, we went down to the tracks and we could see all these tanks, going west, and we carried on walking and walking for a couple of days. The day after that, our officer said to me and Arnold, “You’d better get rid of that Lewis Gun and tripod.” Well, we couldn’t just leave it, so we had to strip it and leave bits here and there until it was all gone.

That same day, we got to a small town and the captain who was in charge, went round and got whatever food he could find for us, because we didn’t carry much around with us. We found the village green and we saw a flight of German bombers coming back, from whatever raid they’d been on. Harold who was on the other side of the green and who had been carrying the ammunition, came dashing over and said, “Quick, get the Lewis Gun out.” We said, "We haven’t got it any more, we threw it away yesterday." So, after all that heavy ammunition he had been carrying around, you can imagine the names he called us!

Then, we carried on and we came to Rouen and I’ve found out since, that they say Rouen is very similar to Sheffield, because it’s made up of seven hills. At the top of one of these hills, we came to a proper roadway. There was a big army camp but it was completely empty. It had everything, all the proper bell tents, there were all these letters strewn about and all sorts of things about. An officer came up, though we don’t know where he came from, he wasn’t one of ours, he said, “If I catch you doing that again, reading other people’s mail, you’ll be court martialed.” So, we went in this big tent, which would have been the NAAFI tent, and everything was still in there, but we never touched a thing. We didn’t know what to do, but an hour later, we were told we were off again.

That evening we came to a lake and settled down there for the night. We had found a rowing boat, so we propped it up and settled down under it for the night, to give us some cover for if it rained.
The next day, our transport came, picked us up and took us back to where we had started from! We moved from there went to a new site to start building a camp for troops which were coming over from England. From there we were moved to a small town and went to the railway line, not a station, just where the trains pulled up next to the main road. While we were there, a lot of French people came up, who had seen us and they had got newspapers. They said to us, “Don’t go, don’t go.” They showed us the headlines, which said, thousands of American bombers were coming over the next day to bomb the Germans. But we had to carry on, so got on the train and ended up in the docks at Le Havre. There was a large transporter vessel waiting for us, which we got on, and while we were waiting, there were NAAFI people still on the dockside, throwing cartons of cigarettes up to us.

We didn’t know what had happened and wondered what we had done to get free cigarettes! We sailed off and came back to Southampton, and got on the train towards London. There were people at the side of the lines all the way along, up on bridges, waving to us. We didn’t know what was going on, until we got through London, and then carried on to Manchester to Belle Vue. We ended up with the animals and that night, we were told, if we weren’t on duty, we could go out. So, we all got ready and off we went.

We saw a seller selling newspapers and bought one, and saw that the Armistice had been signed between the French and Germans, before we had actually came out of France. That surprised us and so we stayed around Manchester for about two or three weeks and went to watch cricket.

Our next trip was a train ride up to Scotland where we were put to training on the defences on the beach near St. Andrew's Golf course. After three or four months we were sent back down south to Dover, and were checking bridges all round the area for some time. From there, we went to Liverpool, where we were put on boats, although we didn’t know where we were going, but we sailed right out into the Atlantic, and eventually sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean and landed in Algiers, then we went right up into the north of Africa. There wasn’t much happening there really so we started laying some mines and repaired some of the bridges the Germans had bombed.

Whilst we were camped, there used to be a little Arab lad who used to be very helpful to us. He was about 14, but one day, an Arab man came and stood by him and the little lad tried to speak to him, but the man couldn’t answer. So immediately we said, “He’s not an Arab, he must be a German.” The man tried to run out, but the place was surrounded by an iron fence, and two of our men tried to get him. When they finally did catch him, we were right, he was a spy. They took him out into a quarry and shot him. I actually thought after, what a shame that was, a brave man like that, probably an officer, to be shot like that.

We travelled up even further north, and I was a corporal then, and my officer said I had to teach any soldier who couldn’t swim, how to swim. After three classes of swimming in the Mediterranean, they could all swim!

Our next orders were to travel to Italy, but the day before we were due to land, we heard over the radio that Italy had surrendered and we were overjoyed and thought it was marvellous. It would mean we would have a great time in Italy, with all the Senoras around. We landed and got the mine detectors out as soon as we landed, and immediately came across telemines, they're the German anti tank or anti personnel mines. Mines that we had nothing like – ours were like little cake tines, which could only blow the wheels off a truck, never mind blow up a tank. But a German telemine was about 10” across and round. The fuse could either be set on the top for vehicles, or for personnel with a lighter fuse, or they could put another detonator on top of the bomb with a trip wire as far as they wanted. They could also put a wire underneath the bomb so that if you were lifting them, they could blow the lot up! We had nothing like that. The Germans also had S mines which had three little prongs on the top, which you couldn’t really see, but if you stood on that, you had it, you’d be blown up.
We got off the beaches and went up as far as we could, about 2 hours away from the beach. We reached an orchard and were told to bed down for the night. We had just got settled down when we could hear tanks, one of the men went to have a look, and he came running back and said, “They’re German tanks.” Our officer told us to get our gear together and go quick!

The next day, our captain said we had to set up two water points which were large plastic tanks and were positioned next to a well. A pipe was put down the well and a Petta engine pumped it into the S tanks which held quite a lot of water really. One was to be put behind one farm, close by, and another at a farm just up a track. There were 12 of us, Sappa’s, and I told six of them to stay where they were and the others to come with me. We walked into the yard and just then, I saw a couple of Germans walking across. I thought about getting a rifle and having a shot at them, but thought better of it, so just waited until they had gone.

We set everything up at the farm by the track and had worked out of sight behind the barn, when someone poked their head over the hedge and said, “Come on, you’ve got to get out of here, empty the S tank, hide the Pettas engine in the straw in the barn and get back.” So the only way to go was up this slope, about 10 ft. I was about half way up, when I heard a German machine gun, but I didn’t think anything about it, but when I looked back, there was no-one behind me. I crept back down, keeping my head down and found all the others still hiding in the barn. I said to them, “What are you doing, aren’t you coming?” They said, “We’re not going anywhere, that machine gun you heard was hitting the ground behind you!” So, we had to go up to the other farm behind the trees and carried on, not on the road, and went about 200 yards, when we found an Infantry digging in.

An officer came over and asked us who we were. I told him we were engineers, setting up water points. The officer told us to get some picks and shovels and start digging in with the rest of them. But I said to him, if we did that, who was going to lay the mines tonight? Just then, our own officer came over and set us off laying mines. We walked down a field and came across an infantry man who had been bombed. We got him up, took his rifle off him, and had to carry him off with us.

The next day, we set off up a mountain. We went up and as soon as we had arrived there, our officer sent us in another direction, down the other side and parallel to a track. We had to dig in there to support a small infantry who were above us. We were squeezing grapes from all the grape-vines around us (this was around September time). About the middle of the night, there was a surprising attack by the Germans. We heard mortars, then the German machine gun fire. We didn’t hear any of ours return fire and it was really dark by then. All of a sudden, we saw about 20 or 40 infantry men screaming down the mountain side, shouting, “They’re not taking any prisoners, they’re shooting everybody, get out of here.” So we said, “What are we going to do?” But I said, “Let’s hang on and see what happens.” So we did that and about half an hour later, we heard a German officer doing a roll call just on the other side of the road.

What were we going to do? We decided we knew they were there, but they didn’t know we were there, so decided to stay put. We had nothing to fight them with really, we had thirteen First World War rifles, the ones which had to be re-loaded every time, whereas the Germans had automatic rifles. We were keeping our heads down, when suddenly we heard a voice calling us very loudly, “Corporal Bland, Corporal Bland.”
I told the men to get down and shut him up, thinking the Germans would definitely have heard that, but by sheer luck, they hadn’t and though there was no more shouting, we followed the man and made our way back down. It was astonishing that the soldier had found us, on his own and in the middle of the night; that was great really. Anyway, we followed him and must have gone about half a mile until we came to this big house and went inside. There were only candles lit and I couldn’t see any of our men there, only infantry men, and after about 5 minutes, one of the infantry men said to me, “Come on you RE’s, show us what you can do.” So, we went back to the farm and went back towards the direction to where we had been. I said to the officer, “Excuse me Sir, but if we keep on going the way we are, we’re going to walk right into the Germans!” So he said, “O.K. I’ll tell you what I want you to do. I want you to take your guns up to the top of the hill, and just keep on firing, just fire into the darkness.” I thought I had never heard anything so stupid, just to fire into the pitch black, to let everyone know you’re there. So, we went up about 200 yards, and all of a sudden, we could hear these shells screaming overhead, above us. We knew they were coming from Solerno Bay, we could see all our battleships light up and firing away.

I decided to take the lads back down to the track and it was just breaking dawn, and as we were approaching the house, about 100 yards or so, there were some thick bushes and all of a sudden we saw this man in a German uniform come out from the bushes with his hands up. One of the men said they were going to go and get him. I stopped him and waved to the German to come forward. I told the men, there may be one German on show, but there may be many more hiding behind the bushes waiting to shoot us.

Anyhow, he came forward and took his gear off him, including his automatic rifle and surrendered to us. We took him back to the big house and handed him over.

We went looking for our Company and found them, so eventually went with them walking further on until we came to a big hill. We were standing at the top looking out over the hills, when suddenly we saw four great big German trucks pulling up at the bottom. We couldn’t fire at them, we were too far away, but they started off loading, lining up and parading. I told one of our men to get back down the mountain to the infantrymen and tell them and put some shells on them. The lad came back and told us that the artillery had said they had their own observation on them, but weren’t firing on them! Anyway, we stayed there all night and the Germans just stayed where they were.

The war went on for us and we travelled on further throughout Italy and North Africa and actually ended up in Austria at the end of the war, where I met my wife.





I met and married an Austrian girl

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Jack Bland and Hermine Bland
Location of story: Austria
Background to story: Army


'This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Alan Shippam of the BBC Radio Sheffield Action Desk on behalf of Jack Bland.

In 1945, as the war was finishing, we were coming up to the Austrian border where we were held up, because the Russian Cossacks, who had been fighting on the German side, were at the border. They wanted assurance that they wouldn’t be handed back to the Russians. When they received word from London, they then let us through and we travelled up to the Graz area, to a place called Premstätten.

When we got there in Austria, there was supposedly a sixth month ban on speaking to civilians, but that didn’t happen, there was nothing else they could do. After the sixth months, they made arrangements to have dances and things with civilians coming to Grantz. When that happened, I met a girl, who came to the dance, and whom I thought was very nice. Although I didn’t dance, all I did was drink, but we met and started going together.

I applied to get married, but they didn’t want me to marry. I don’t know why. My friend who was going with a farmer’s daughter, got permission straight away, but my wife being only with her mother, her two sisters and a brother, they thought she wasn’t good enough for me, I think. But after a while I insisted; I made three attempts and three applications to marry her, and we finally got married in December 1946. Not long after that we had a child, which is why I was trying to get married previously.

I signed on for another six months in the forces so that I could still stay on in Austria, and in that period, our units broke up and I was transferred back to Clagenfert, to a works section. I went with the garrison engineer, Volkemark and it wasn’t long after that that the Captain and Volkemark went on de-mobs, and the major sent for me and said he thought I was quite capable of taking over the garrison engineer’s job, which I did.

My six months were then up, but you could only sign up for two years. Well I didn’t want to sign up for two years, all I was signing on for was waiting for my wife awaiting transport back to England and they used to wait for enough wives married to British soldiers to warrant a train to bring them back to England.

When I got word that that was happening, I said to the Major, that I would like to go two days before and he was very good and said, “Right, you can go.” So off I went back to England, went up and got my de-mob suit and things, came back down to where the wife was landing with the boat across the channel, picked her up and brought her back up to Sheffield.

From there, we had to stay at my mother’s house for approximately two years. Finally, we bought a house near Hunter’s Bar and by that time, I had carried on starting work in England obviously in the building trade. When I came home, my mother and her brother, who had fought in the First World War, my Uncle Bill (who still had some type of bullet in him, which they couldn’t get out, or it was too dangerous to, but had carried on as normal) felt I should never have married an Austrian girl. I think she said to my wife, “I don’t know why he’s picked on you, I had a lovely girl waiting for him,” which I never knew about but wouldn’t have taken on anyway if I had known.

It went along alright really though, it wasn’t too bad. I mean, she didn’t mind us living in their house for two years, until we found a house, which she gave me £500 towards buying, which was very good and then. She visited us all the time until she died.
We’ve now been married for 58 years and we’ve got three grown up children, eleven grandchildren, eight great children and we know there’ll be a lot more before so long, so we’ve finished up with a right family.