World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            T Hayden 

The De-mob Suit - A Moment Of Glory.

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Teresa Cora Hayden, Ernest William Hayden, Stan Ridley, Robert Ernest Hayden (Tom), Cora Wallis Hayden, Albert 'Ginger' Sheldon, Myra Hess, Joseph Klaus, Roy Illingsworth, Eugenie Eley
Location of story: Cleethorpes, Oswestry, Isle of Wight, Leeds - UK. Dunkirk, Normandy - France. Holland. Hamburg, Hannover, Bergen Belsen - Germany.
Unit name: British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Royal Army Service Corp (RASC), 4th Division Petrol Company, 52nd Ambulance Unit. Corp Troops.
Background to story: Army


The story was submitted to the People's War site by Louise Treloar of the "Action Desk Sheffield" team, on behalf of T Hayden.

This story is written on behalf of my dad, Ernest William Hayden. Due to events it has been left until the last minute. Hopefully his story can be included before the BBC WW2 People’s War project closes at the end of 2005. It is a summary of his 6 years wartime service in the army, in the BEF and the RASC. During these 6 years he was at Dunkirk and in the D-Day landings in Normandy.

On the 10th July 1939, Ernest, known as Sonny to his family, and Ernie to his friends, was celebrating his 21st birthday. One week later, on the 17th July 1939, he had been called up on National Service and was on his way to Oswestry in Shropshire. One of the first in and the first out, he was discharged on ‘B’ class in October 1945. He recollects that initially the uniforms were still those from World War 1 (WW1).

By the autumn of 1939, he was with the BEF in France, driving a petrol lorry (RASC). The lorries all had to be abandoned and destroyed on approaching Dunkirk in May 1940. The men only carried with them little provisions and food to sustain them on the beaches of Dunkirk, whilst they waited to be evacuated by the allied evacuation - the small vessels (fishing and pleasure boats) alongside the British Navy. All coming together to rescue the men trapped on the beach. Dad says that he managed to get onto a paddle steamer, The Gracie Fields. Then he was ordered off to help push out the rowing boats for others to escape from Dunkirk. This he duly did, which enabled him a very lucky escape. The Gracie Fields was hit by enemy aircraft fire and many died. Stan Ridley of Sandringham Road, Cleethorpes (who has recently died) was one of the crew aboard the Gracie Fields that survived the sinking. He compiled an article about this incident, Grimsby Telegraph Bygones No. 130, 30/7/02 (p13). Stan said that the Gracie Fields was a minesweeper, although dad thought she was a paddle steamer.

By now it was the beginning of July 1940. The evacuation was nearly over, but Ernie was still pushing out the boats off the beach into the sea. Whilst pushing out one of these rowing boats, he got dragged along with it. Since he couldn’t swim, he held on for dear life. He was pulled up by one of the crew from the cruiser and scrambled aboard. The HMS Calcutta brought him back to the south coast of England. Once on board the Calcutta he fell asleep, glad to be finally rescued in the last days of the evacuation. This was after leaving his clothes to dry out in the sun. It wasn’t allowed to lose your kit, but when Ernie awoke, he found that most of his kit was missing. Back in England, he was sent straight back to Lincolnshire by train. This was to his waiting parents, Robert Ernest Hayden (Tom) and Cora Wallis Hayden. Their and his home was in Hawthorne Avenue, Cleethorpes. Tom Hayden worked in Grimsby ‘down dock’. He was a lumper. Later he worked for Rushworth’s as a ship’s husbandman. During the 1930’s he was manager of the Humber Albion Football team (the Lumpers Team).

On his return, his mother was so upset when she saw Sonny walking down the street looking so dishevelled and with no underclothes on. Before he went to France, his mother had given him her rosary, asking Sonny to wear it while he was away for protection. For one moment he thought she had forgotten that he was home and the rosary had kept him safe. Thereafter, he carried and wore the rosary until the end of the war.

After Dunkirk, Ernie didn’t return to his old regiment. He was briefly with the 15th Scottish Division. Then he was moved to the Isle of Wight. He played football for the 4th Division Petrol Company RASC 1st XL. He became good mates with another member of the team, Albert ‘Ginger’ Sheldon. Dad spent many a happy hour on leave with Ginger with his family in Sheffield. Ernie had an accident on his motorbike and went into hospital. His old unit was posted to Africa. Ginger went with them and Dad never saw him again. He remained in the UK, and Dunkirk became a distant memory until he returned with the allied invasion forces in 1944.

The D-Day landings began in Normandy on 6th June 1944. Dad landed at Caen, on Sword Beach. He came ashore on the Mulberry – the makeshift D-Day harbour, then on to Arromanches and Bayeux.

He was in the RASC as a dispatch rider. He was responsible for escorting the ambulances (an ambulance escort for/with the Red Cross). Unfortunately for Ernie, not long after the landings, he rode his motorbike over a minefield in France. Injured with shrapnel wounds to his back and ankle, he came back to England aboard a hospital ship. Then he went to recuperate for a few weeks in St James’ Hospital in Leeds.

Once recovered, Ernie’s destination was Holland. In the meantime, and before the winter had set in, his unit had advanced from France into Holland. Dad rejoined his unit, then remained there until the springtime of 1945. He was billeted with a Dutch family. The family was very good to him and the other soldiers. It was a farm/smallholding.

From Holland they moved forward into Germany. Ernie’s job was to guide the ambulances. One of the drivers dad rode his bike in front of was Roy Illingsworth, a close neighbour from Cleethorpes. Roy lived in Robson Road, next door to Ernie’s aunt, his mother’s sister.

By May 1945, Roy and Ernie were in Hamburg and Hannover in Agermany. Two young men from Cleethorpes found themselves in a very distressing situation. A turn of events that would not only shake them, but shock the world. Yet for both of them, something so personal that to this day it cannot be forgotten. Whenever they see each other, which is not often, it brings back some awful memories for both of them.

These two local lads from Cleethorpes had come a long way from the beaches of Normandy. Now they were entering the gates of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. Dad had to be inoculated prior to going into Belsen, due to Typhoid and other diseases. The conditions were atrocious. The sights which they confronted and beheld shook them to the ground. The atrocities they saw and witnessed are not possible to describe in this story, except to say that it was a terrible experience.

Roy Illingsworth was responsible for taking Irma Grese, a warder and the camp’s commandant’s (Joseph Kramer) girlfriend in the ambulance as a prisoner of war. Later, she stood trial for war crimes.

Many of the people in the camp were displaced persons from Eastern Europe, including Russia. After the liberation they rushed out of the gates to freedom, only to settle afterwards in the woods outside the camp, just sitting there, relieved to be out of Belsen, yet not knowing what to do with themselves or how to find they way home. Once free, they were too traumatised to go any further, for the time being. Later they moved on.

Dad remained in Germany until October 1945. He was discharged on ‘B’ class. As a brick layer, his skills were needed for the reconstruction of the UK. The Olympia Exhibition Centre in West Kensington, London was used as a de-mob centre. Ernie, like many other ex-service men was there waiting for his civilian clothes (civvies). An American reporter for Colliers magazine asked him to pose for a series of photographs, highlighting the different stages of getting his de-mob suit and his trilby hat. This article, and photographs, appeared in Colliers magazine on 19th January 1946, covered by the Grimsby Telegraph Odd Man Out (23rd February 1946, copy enclosed).

In the early 1940s, Cora (his mother) had gone to work on munitions in Grantham. On leaving, she became an ARP Warden in Cleethorpes. Sadly, she died of cancer in April 1943, aged 48, so she never saw Sonny come home in his smart clothes from the D-Day victory. Two months after his discharge from the army, Ernie married my mother, Eugenie Eley on the 22nd December 1945, at Old Clee Church.

Dad celebrated his 87th birthday on the 10th July 2005. This was National Commemoration Day, 60 years after the end of WW” VE/VJ Celebrations. Dad watched the celebrations, in Trafalgar Square/Buckingham Palace, on BBC television.