World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                          Reg Simpson 

Memoirs Of A Butcher/Cook

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Reg Simpson
Location of story: England, Europe and Africa
Unit name: 420 R. & S.U. (Repair and Salvage Unit)


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Reg Simpson.


My story is really at the beginning of the war, well, not exactly the beginning, but the beginning of my wartime experience. I had a school pal, and when we got to 18, we realised we should be called up. I could have gone into the mines, and been excused. My pal was mad on flying, so he cycled to Sheffield and volunteered for the R.A.F. My own trade was that of a butcher, but my pal wanted me to volunteer for flying, but I’d spent three years at technical college, studying for my National Federation of Butchery Diploma, which I achieved, and my intention was to carry on in that way.


I was going to go for further examinations, for inspecting meat. My pal, Pete, went into Bomber Command and I went into what’s known as the Second Tactical Air Force, which was the Air Force, being prepared for the invasion of Europe. Every man could learn how to drive; you had to be a driver. Regardless of what trade you were in, you had to be able to drive. Consequently, I was sent away to the British School of Motoring, then I had three weeks with the army, driving everything that moved apart from tanks. After that, we were sent off to Biggin Hill, just outside London.


There was a Canadian squadron there, but to come back to Pete, I came home on leave, after my initial training, and my mother said, “Pete’s father and mother have been interned.” I said, “What for?” It emerged that Pete’s father, who had worked as a chief electrical engineer at Barnsley Yorkshire Traction Company, had a caravan with a transmitter in it. He was one of Oswald Moseley’s right hand men. Now, Oswald Moseley was a fascist and consequently, he was against the British operation, and he was feeding as much information to the Nazis as he possibly could. Anyway, they must have slipped up because they interned him, his wife and his daughter in the Isle Of Man. Pete, by this time, was in Bomber Command and he was in operations.


After I came home, following the end of the war, I heard that Pete had never returned. A friend of mine did a bit of research and discovered that a mission had been shot down and six crew members were killed, one survived. Pete was one of those who didn’t come back. On Armistice Day, I always think of old Pete, we had been schoolboy buddies, we went everywhere together. We used to knock hell out of each other in the boxing ring, and y’know, it’s hard to imagine that one side of his family was fighting for the Nazis and the other was fighting for his country. And of course, the lad died for his country. The chap who researched this for me, discovered the figures, there were 73, 748 total air crew casualties; that was just in Bomber Command of course, not the Fighter Command.


Now, I served for quite some time with the Canadian Air Force, just before D-Day. Obviously, we were prepared to go over to France, but the only way the R.A.F. could go over there was after the Army had captured an air field; it would have been no good sending personnel over there if they hadn’t an air field. So consequently, we went over in August and immediately, we were put into a ‘crab apple culture’ for two weeks, because the calm in Normandy was a stumbling block to the Army. They didn’t capture it as quickly as anticipated, so, we were out of a job; surplus to requirements in fact. Consequently, the lads started eating these crab apples and finished up with dysentery.


Eventually, when we captured an airfield, our operation started. I was in a set-up called ‘420 R.and.S.U.’ which was ‘Repair and Salvage Unit’. That was a unit in which all of the lads, 240 of us, used to go out to wherever there was a crashed aircraft that was recoverable. Of course, if it was no good, we used to blow it to pieces to make sure it was no good to the enemy. That was our whole experience throughout the war. When the army captured an airfield, we used to move up; first there was an advance party, then the main party, and then the rear party.

Many times, we had as many as five or six groups of aircraft fitters etc. going out to these different places, so instead of having 240 men at the base camp, sometimes we used to get below 100. These lads were out two or three weeks sometimes, because they could only move when the army said so. The army had priority, so when we had to move to an airfield, we had to do it with the army’s permission. Now that’s where the old saying came from: ‘the army liberated, and the R.A.F. celebrated’. At the end of the war, I was at Fasburgh, which is near Celle, in Germany. Fasburgh was a peacetime Luftwaffe station, and they had everything there. As far as the kitchen was concerned, it was tiled from floor to ceiling; they had stainless steel boilers and every bit of equipment they could wish for.

There was also a ‘walk in’ fridge and there was also 36 cwt (hundredweights (approx. 50 Kgm) of Danish butter in there. Danish butter in those days used to be in barrels; it was what they had stolen from Denmark. In Fasburgh, boredom set in for quite some time; we had a victory dinner, then it was a question of waiting for demob., not for me, because I was still in my early twenties and I knew I was heading for the far east, to Burma. But in the interim, we used to do all sorts of things to alleviate the boredom. One of the lads had been into the town and brought a coach back, so we used to go touring Germany in it at weekends. But the biggest thing was football; the British Army had a football team that was second to none, and that was in the days when football was football; none of these plastic balls.

Leather balls with laces in were used. Stoke City sent a team over to play the British Army and it was planned for Hanover Stadium, which was far away. Of course, we all went. You’ve probably seen the situation at Wembley with thousands of cars all centring on the place, well, imagine the same set up with military vehicles, and every vehicle had 20 to 30 lads in the back, going to the match. It was a glorious day and the place was choc-a-bloc. The stadium was so full, they allowed the troops to stand on the touchline. There was a military band playing, in the centre of the field, and there was an officer on top of the stand, with a loud hailer. He said, “I want all the troops on the touchline to sit down. The game will not start until all the troops sit down.”

There were three to four thousand of them, and it took them more than half an hour to get them all sitting down. He said, “They must sit down ‘cos the lads who are standing in the terraces can’t see.” It was a fantastic sight, the best part of thirty to forty thousand troops were there. Then what happened? The Military Band struck up with God Save The King. Everybody had to stand up; you can just imagine what forty thousand troops said. That will be a day to remember, because the older lads, y’know, those in their forties who were old enough to be our fathers, were in demob. And I was sent back to England, to prepare to go to Burma. I was sent to an airfield near Epping Forest in Essex, North Weald to be precise.

Douglas Bader was the Commanding Officer there. He was known as the ‘Legless Pilot’; although his legs had been amputated, he still went out on operations. There were a couple of hundred of us sent there, we were still either teenagers or early twenties. One night, I thought, “I’ll go into Epping, to the cinema.” As I was waiting for a bus, my nose started bleeding and I couldn’t stop it. I thought that I couldn’t go into town with a bleeding nose, so next day, I reported sick. The M.O. said, “You’ll have to have it cauterized.” I’d just been kitted out with the khaki shorts etc., and I was in the billet on my own; 27 empty beds and mine. After three weeks, two military policemen appeared. They said, “You’re on a charge for failing to attend a medical appointment.” I said, “I haven’t been told, I’m waiting to go.” Anyway, I had to go in front of the adjutant. He sent for the person who was supposed to have told me and she said that she couldn’t find me, so I had to wait another fortnight before I had this operation. By that time, the Americans had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, so I finished up going to Accra; that was virtually a free holiday on the Gold Coast, which they call Ghana now.

There were some bungalows that had been built by the Americans, who were stationed there, out of aircraft packing cases. Each one held just four beds; they were really comfortable, and they had netting over the windows to stop the mosquitoes from coming in. After I’d been there for four months, I was sent to Freetown, which, during the early part of the war, was called ‘The White Man’s Grave,’ because hundreds of troops had died from Malaria. I was sent there for three months, because there was a signal station, which was run by our R.A.F. members, and they were waiting for civilians, on contracts, to come out from England,. We used to sign up for three years and go out there.

There were just six of them there, they were wireless operators, and they were operating a transmitting station on behalf of the G.P.O. So we were waiting for people to come out on contract, and then we could get demobbed. During that time, they depended entirely on local cooks and they were nicking all the grub. Now these six lads were virtually starving to death, so they sent me up there to sort it out. At the end of the operations, we came back on a troop ship, and that was at the time when Princess Elizabeth and the Duke Of Edinburgh went to South Africa. While there, they took all of our Diesel, so when our troop ship came in, we hadn’t enough fuel to get home. Consequently, we called at Dakar, which was French.

A large French battleship was too big to get into the harbour there, but we could manage it, we were on H.M.S. Derbyshire, which was about 40,000 tons. We pulled in at Gibraltar on our way where we refuelled, then we came home. But, just to end, there’s one thing that always leaves a lump in my throat: I’ve seen television programmes about the Ardennes. This was the early part of the war. The Ardennes was an area held by the Americans, and the Germans made a big push in the Ardennes, because they came out and they were going straight across to Antwerp, which at that time, was our major port of supply.

If they had achieved that, all the troops in France would have been cut off, and all those in Northern Belgium and Holland would also have been cut off, but I don’t know whether it was due to etiquette or not, but this was never made known. The 51st Highland Division was pulled from the front, to come down and push the Jerries back. Now that has never, never been reported. It was said that the Americans pushed them back, but they did not; I personally was serving tea to those lads, and two or three of my pals were at the side of the road as we were coming past.

It was snowing, and the lads couldn’t get into the back of the lorry, because of the damage, so they were sitting on the tanks. I took them blankets, and they had a billycan, which we just filled, so we could have a hot drink. As soon as we got down there, we went into action, and pushed the Jerries back. But it has never been officially stated that the British troops had to help the Yanks out. That has always stuck in my throat, to see those lads at 2 or 3 in the morning, and how they had virtually frozen to death, and that cup of tea, had helped to warm them up a bit. This is what hurt me, the fact that, in the Ardennes……….it was so crucial, I mean, if they had managed to get to Ankara, we would have lost the war.

I was in a place called Woensdrecht, near Bergen op Zoom, a seaside place in Holland, where I was writing a letter on the bonnet of my truck, and I looked up to see that the sky was black, with Lancasters; and I mean black. One would have thought it was a swarm of bats coming across, and they were only 3 or 4 thousand feet up. They knocked the hell out of Germany; we could see these ten thousand pound bombs underneath the planes. They couldn’t put them in the bomb doors because they were too big. They could put one thousand pound and five hundred pound bombs in, and close the doors. The vibration caused by the planes overhead was such, that I had to stop writing. Like when we were in Hanover of Hamburg, we would see these huge steam engines stuck in a field, and we’d say, “Where’s the railway?” But we couldn’t see one; the bomb blast had lifted these huge locomotives and thrown them as if they were cricket balls.

It was said that we were bombed pretty bad, but those lads did an amazing job. As we went further into Germany, we were seeing Tiger Tanks, stuck in fields, brand new, shells up their spouts, and not a drop of petrol in their tanks. We’d cut off all their supply of fuel. And of course, they had bitten of more than they could chew because they had started on the Russians. When I finished my training, I was posted, well, I went for my butcher/cook experience to Aylesbury and then I was posted to Biggin Hill, there was a Canadian squadron there, a fighter squadron that had Spitfires. We had a hotel just outside the main gates.

You can tell how big it was; the billiard room had six snooker tables in it. It was the headquarters for the officers. We used to serve tea at four o’ clock, and if the fighter pilots were back, they used to come in too. At five o’ clock, there’d be a knock at the door and one of the officers would be standing at the door. “Can I come in Cookie?” They called him Screwball; he was a Canadian. He was twenty-four years old and was as mad as a hatter. When he came in to land, he used to take the chimney pots off the hotel. He would come in, and I’d have a table ready. I used to put down for him, a two pound tin of butter (butter was in tins then), a seven pound tin of jam, a loaf of bread and a pot of coffee. He used to eat half a loaf of jam butties. Then at half past eight at night, he’d come down with his lads for dinner and he’d say, “If you want a drink, go to the bar and get a drink, then put it on my account.” I never did however, I thought, “He’d be sat here one day, the next day he could be shot down and killed.”

Every month when he came in, he used to bring a pack of two hundred Canadian issue cigarettes and a bottle of cream Sherry. That was a token of thanks. Anyway, at the end of the war with Germany, he wanted to be transferred to Burma, so he could have a smack at the Japs out there. You see, he had 32 German aircraft to his credit, but a Commanding Officer, a South African called Johnson had thirty three to his credit, and he used to ground Screwball on every little detail so that Screwball couldn’t get past his own score. So, Screwball applied to go to Burma, but they wouldn’t allow it, so went back home and he retired from the Canadian Air Force, which of course he could do as a Canadian after he’d done so many operations. He then applied for a position with the Americans and was accepted, and he went from Canada to America. He was a smashing lad who lived for flying, and he died flying. ................................................