Recollections of Frank Cato – Second World War 1941-1946

Second World War

The day came in 1941 for my call up into the army. Upon reporting a group of us were sent to the Isle of Wight where we were billeted in a former holiday camp. After reveille we mustered in the hall for a few words of information from the BSM (Battery Sergeant Major). We found ourselves in the Royal Artillery. He told us some horror stories of Nazi brutality and gave us some idea of the life to come in he army. Before dismissing us we received the first army maxim -‘never volunteer’. “Hands up”, the BSM commanded, “Anyone who can ride a bike”. Numerous hands were aloft and he said, “You, you, you, you and you, fall out for potato bashing”. Thereafter, volunteers were hard to find. The next day, was spent in the issue of kit and inoculations.

From then on we had instructions in general military procedures. My wife, June, by showing her army wife’s identity card was allowed to use the ferry from Lymington and we met on a Saturday. On seeing me she burst into laughter at the comic sight of the ill-fitting battle dress and forage cap. Later a local tailor was paid to put in some tucks here and there to make the uniform more presentable. June and I took the bus into Newport where we purchased our Royal Artillery brooch of which we both became very fond.

The next holding camp was in a village near Ryde. Here we were billeted in the Priory, a stone building with stone slab floors. There was no heating and it was winter. Despite wearing battle dress over our denims and our great coats over the blankets we were still perished at night. Later June came over again and put up for the weekend at a local house. At night, and under cover of darkness, I was able to clamber over the low wall and spent each night with her before creeping back for reveille. On Sunday morning June and I went to the local Methodist Church. After the service a middle-aged couple invited us to tea, which we enjoyed. It was Christmastime, and, hearing it was our wedding anniversary, they stoked up the fire and departed, with their blessing, leaving us to enjoy the hospitality of their home. For years after this, until their deaths, we kept in touch with Charlie and Beatrice by Christmas cards and messages.

Our initial military training finished, we were posted to a coastal defence unit in the Thames Estuary. This was an isolated brick fort built many years ago for defence from the threat of French invasion. It was situated on the tip of the estuary and far beyond any habitation. Life there consisted of a constant watch to counter any naval attack. In particular the fast German ‘E’ boats which could raid up to London. All vessels using the river had to fly the code flags for the day.

Jack Bullen, my friend from Ealing, was No. 1 on one of the guns and I was B.C.ACK (Battery Command Assistant). The guns were 6″ bore naval guns from the old HMS Hood. My duty was to inform the guns of the elevation and angle required to hit the target. These particulars were obtained by reference to books of tables, which made allowances for the density of air, direction of wind and the individual weight of shell and cordite charge. Life here was very monotonous and the surroundings unpleasant. Mosquitoes swarmed and we had to sleep at night under mosquito netting.

It was therefore, a relief when the German invasion threat was withdrawn and Jack and I, as motorcyclists, were sent to Aldershot to join the Royal Military Police. The discipline here was very strict. We were placed under the instruction of a guards drill sergeant, and how he drilled us. He did not give words of command but issued a blasting screech which we soon recognised instructed us to march, halt, salute, etc. How we did march and counter march too! All good healthy exercise.

Eventually thirteen of us were posted, as a squad, to Yorkshire. As this same squad we spend the rest of the war together. In Yorkshire we were toughened up. Long route marches of up to 27 miles in full pack, wearing our tin hats and carrying our rifles. We had weapon practice in pistol, rifle and bren gun, and also in map reading and military law. At one period we slept during the daytime and worked through the night. To complete our discomfort, we, while on an exercise on the moors, slept out with only our ground sheets for cover. Our nissen huts were in the parkland of a house in the village of Sutton Forest near York. Once again, June joined me and spent a little while staying in the village with Mr and Mrs Swan. They made her very welcome. It was the second Christmas in the army. June and I borrowed two bicycles and rode together into York where we heard the Messiah conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargeant in the Cathedral.

Talk of the impending invasion of France was in the air and our unit was moved further south. First to West Monkton near Taunton and then to Wadhurst near Uckfield. The invasion started and we stood by for embarkation. This took place from Portsmouth where we loaded our vehicles on to a liberty ship. Our vehicles were one jeep, eleven motorcycles, and a 15 cwt truck carrying equipment, cookware, and blankets, with a cook/driver. A liberty ship was a cargo vessel mass-produced in America to replace some of the vessels sunk by enemy action. On board we went below to our quarters in the cargo hold. This was strung with lines of swinging hammocks and formed our temporary home. Food was supplied in tins and heated, individually by each person, suspending their tin on a piece of string into a drum of steam-heated boiling water. After a brief period our ship moved off across the channel. En route we were intrigued to see large objects being towed towards France. They resembled blocks of flats and we had no idea what they could be. They were, of course, parts of the pre-fabricated Mulberry Harbour. They were being towed over to France to form a solid structure to which ships could be berthed alongside and so unload the vital supplies of stores and munitions. Such unloading was not practical on an open beach.

A landing craft took us ashore through a gap in the German sea defences. All around us was vivid evidence of the heavy conflict from when the initial invasion took place. Lying offshore were a line of warships, which were keeping up a constant barrage of shells. They were bombarding the unseen enemy beyond the perimeter of our occupation. Ashore, we moved a little inland and settled in by each man digging a slit trench for protection.

That night, and many after, the sky was brilliantly lit by the flash of guns in the duel between our batteries and those of the enemy. The sky was further illuminated by clusters of ‘onions’ (hanging strings of orange flares). The following day we moved to an orchard nearby. (In such an orchard some French people had buried their family valuables to keep them from the clutches of the German soldiers). The orchard, just outside Caen, was in the area where our bridgehead had been secured. It was surrounded by strong enemy forces and this prevented any further progress inland. This stalemate lasted for some while but, eventually, a breakthrough was forced. Our tanks fought their way through at Falaise which became known as the Falaise Gap. In due course we followed. The city of Caen had been devastated and we had to drive over the heaps of rubble that had fallen into the streets. As we advanced we witnessed the relics of the fleeing German forces, destroyed tanks, vehicles of all kinds military and confiscated, carts and horses littered the roadside for miles.

Our first official duty was to direct and aid the flow of supplies to our forward positions. For this purpose we were posted on a road junction overlooking Le Havre. Unfortunately the Germans remained in control of this port, and their guns were, to our discomfort, ranged on to this supply route and to our peril. Once again it was a question of ducking into a slit trench if the shells began to fall. It was at this spot that the only case of desertion, to my knowledge, occurred. One man could not take the strain and deserted his post. He was not shot, as was the custom in World War 1, but sent to another unit to serve as a batman to one of the officers.

Gradually our front and the front of the Americans forced their way against the enemy and drove forward into France. Our losses were considerable. On one open stretch of road six or seven tanks had been ambushed by German guns hidden in some trees a little way back from the road. The burnt and shattered remains were pushed to the side of the road. As the enemy were driven back we followed and saw the damage caused in the fighting. Many villages had suffered greatly. Many houses were damaged or destroyed by gunfire or gutted by fire. The villagers fled when the fighting took place in their vicinity. In such a village we would occupy one of the houses for the night.

It was in one of these deserted houses that I had a shock. On the opposite side of the village road, was a unit of a field battery that kept up a constant barrage. We slept in the kitchen floor and the vibrations from the guns shook the stone slabs on which we lay. To stretch my legs I walked down the garden path. The roar of a plane made me look up and coming straight at me and flying low was a German fighter with all guns blazing. Instinctively I flung myself behind a compost heap for cover. The plane passed immediately overhead. It was, of course, attacking the field guns on the other side of the road. The incident gave me a mighty shock.

In another incident about this time we were guarding an important bridge at night when we were subjected to a sustained air attack. Our nearby ack-ack guns responded. One of the planes was hit and crashed in the field adjoining the bridge. It disintegrated on impact and the pilot killed. The fighting against the German forces continued right across France.

There had been particularly heavy fighting at one time when a companion and I went ahead to recce a supply route. We were crossing the site of major conflict when we stopped to survey the scene. The recovery salvage teams had not reached this area. Around us the bodies of the dead and their weapons lay as they fell. We moved on to the brow of a small hill and again surveyed the landscape. Everywhere was a complete stillness and silence. We slowly descended the slight decline. After a little while we saw in front of us, crossing the narrow road, a line of ten or twelve men, They were crossing from right to left. As we drew nearer we saw, to our fright, that they were wearing German uniforms. Without a second thought I engaged reverse and sped back up the hill. Not a shot was fired. From our viewpoint on the hill we watched this line of men slowly make their way into the distance. I wonder who was most relieved by our sudden parting? No doubt the Germans, too, had received a shock at the sight of our jeep but, I suspect, their main concern was to get back to the comparative safety of their own lines.

At this time our main responsibility was to get supplies up to the front. By map reading, followed by a recce, the best route was chosen. It was not wise to move convoys by day. Accordingly, having chosen the route we would move forward after dark and place ‘Glims’ on the selected route at desired intervals (glims were cycle lamps fitted with green glass). This enabled the truck drivers to reach their destination without undue difficulty.

We crossed the unmanned frontier into Belgium. Here our objective was to reach Antwerp and to occupy the port and so shorten our lines of supplies. We had not reached there when the German forces counter-attacked and cut through to the sea, separating us from our main body. When we knew this we felt terribly isolated and feared the sudden arrival of the enemy. However, British tanks moved up and the Germans were beaten back. As Belgium is a small country and there were no adverse incidents, we moved into Holland.

Here we were billeted in a house that belonged to an elderly couple and their son ‘Charlie’ to us. He became our interpreter. Their business had been importing exotic birds from the Far East. The adjoining building was a large wooden aviary. Our entry into Holland was a most joyous one. Bunting and flags hung everywhere; even some home made Union Jacks. In the aviary, which was our home for some months, we each occupied one of the wire mesh cages as our personal quarters. Once again it was Christmas, my third in the army, and I decorated my cage with cards sent from home. These were strung onto the netting.

Frank Cato Second World War

Frank Cato Second World War

It was a very severe winter. Each morning the thick cloth bonnet cover of my jeep lifted off completely frozen and so remained all day. The dish of anti-freeze on the outside window cill stayed a frozen mass. Our heating came from a central stove. I was able to drive out into the country and bring back wood. Some of this was given to the family and, in turn, they gave us some of their peat. No person in Holland had tyres for their bicycles and rode over the cobbles on wheel rims. At my request, June sent out, by army post, two inner and two outer covers for the father’s machine. I am certain that his was the only bike in Holland with tyres. There was no petrol for cars. Taxis overcame this problem by fitting charcoal burners in the back of their vehicles. These supplied gas to the engine. When we eventually left, ‘mother’ gave me an antique silver brooch as a ‘thank you’ present for June. This we both valued greatly, June called it her ‘war medal’.

Helmond is, perhaps, 35 miles from Arnham. One day we heard the noise of many planes overhead. We were witnessing the biggest aeria1 armada the world had seen. Hundreds of planes and hundreds of gliders passed overhead. The houses seemed to vibrate with the roar of engines. The object of this aerial invasion was to secure, undamaged, the bridge across the Rhine at Arnham. If this were secured, it would enable the following army to cross rapidly into Germany and thus shorten the war. Regrettably the main British troops were delayed and superior German numbers eventually overwhelmed our forces at Arnham.

One day we had an unexpected treat. Lorries took us to the Phillips theatre in Eindhoven for a show. It was built around the personality of Josephine Baker. I do not remember other members of the cast, but Miss Baker, by her personality, glamorous costumes and dancing is more easily recalled to memory.

The time came for us to leave Holland and we crossed the Rhine at Wasel. The Germans had demolished the iron bridge nearby and we crossed the river by pontoon bridge (this bridge was made by the Royal Engineers and consists of a temporary roadway built over and supported by a large number of pontoon boats). The passage was done safely by all vehicles, although the journey was rather bumpy.

This was our entry into enemy territory. Householders had hung sheets or similar materials from upstairs windows to show that they were non-combatants. As the allies went further into Germany thousands of slave workers were liberated and they made their way westward along the roads. It was readily understood that they, who had nothing and had suffered so terribly under dreadful conditions, should seize anything they could. So we saw them, ladened with pillowcases and sacks, filled with anything they could pillage from houses as they passed by. We were reluctant to follow instructions to stop this looting; our sympathies were entirely with those released. The German troops by now were surrendering in large numbers and, after a rapid vetting, were also making their way westward along the same roads. These soldiers gave evidence of being pleased to escape the area as they, and the civilian population, were in mortal fear of the Russians who were approaching from the East. In the town most shops were empty, but whether this was due to looting or shop keepers hiding their wares I do not know. The Mark was of questionable value and a lot of transactions were done by barter. Cigarettes became a currency of its own, of about 10 Marks each. Soldiers, who received a weekly issue of 20 per man, were badgered by the civilians to sell them some cigarettes.

The route set for us ahead was Osnabruck, Breman, Hamburg, PIon and Keil. In Osnabruck we rested in a disused cinema. The washbasins were most welcome, but sleeping on the dusty floor between the rows of seats was far from perfection. In Hamburg we witnessed the effect of its heavy attacks by allied planes. Great damage was evident everywhere. The railway had been a main target and had been destroyed. Railway lines had been thrown up in the air in fantastic shapes. Here I made a purchase in one of the shops. It is an 8mm cine film showing the conquering Field Marshall Rommel with his tank corps in North Africa. Our route had taken us, on high land, round Essen and the German industrial heartland. As we went around this area we could see the heavy barrage of shells bursting amongst the factories below.

The German army surrendered nearby at Luneburg and we stopped at PIon outside Keil. With the Germans’ surrender, thousands of German soldiers became prisoners. No prison could be conceived to hold them all and they were herded on to a perimeter of land bordered by the sea. Here they remained, unguarded, but under the discipline of their own officers. Our only duty was to enter this area frequently and to check that everything was under control. We had some sympathy for these German soldiers. They were closely packed on this completely exposed land without any shelter. All they had for protection from the elements were their groundsheets. Each day some of their trucks drove out of the enclosures to draw rations. With the utmost speed these men were being vetted. Following this they walked, no doubt with a light heart and step, back home and to become, once again, civilians.

North of Keil and towards the Danish frontier is Flensburg. Here the Germans had one of their major submarine pens. In 1942 a large force of British Bombers were sent to attack them. The German night fighters and ack-ack guns inflicted heavy losses on the raiders’ aircraft. That night forty-seven aircrew lost their lives. My brother Percy was among them. I asked for permission, which was granted, to go to Flensburg to visit his grave. In Flensburg I went to the town hall and made my wishes known. A member of the staff joined me in the jeep and directed me to the civilian cemetery where our airmen had been buried. The burial took place; I was told, with full military honours. On the way we exchanged sympathies when he told me he had lost his son on the Russian front. Later, these graves were transferred to the British War Cemetery in Keil.

In due course, we crossed the frontier into our fifth country, Denmark. Here we received a tumultuous welcome. People filled the streets where, every so often, had been placed a floral wreath to mark the place someone had been killed by the Germans. We occupied the now empty Todt building. Todt was the man who had planned, and supervised, the building of sea defences around the coast. These were mainly large iron obstacles planted in the sea beyond low tide. ‘Charlie’s’ brother in Holland had died, as did many other men, forced to do this work.

In Copenhagen the German soldiers had used a hall as a recreational centre. This we took over and were waited on by members of the English-speaking club. These ladies had been in the habit of meeting weekly to perfect their control of the language. At the club the ladies supplied us with eggs on toast and cups of tea. Tea had been unobtainable in Denmark for years and their great pleasure was to take, in turn, the tea grouts home for a family treat. Their own tea was made of apple leaves, and while quite pleasant, was a light amber colour with virtually no taste.

Our duties in Copenhagen were very light as we co-operated with the Danish police in keeping an eye on the British soldiers. There was no trouble. An incident occurred which I still remember with regret. One of our less pleasant duties was to arrest men who were known to have co-operated with the Germans or who were wanted for war crimes. One wanted man had been a member of the SS and I, with an interpreter, were sent to Odense to arrest him and bring him back to Army Headquarters. We arrived at the house at which he was believed to be staying. Enquiries pointed us to a man down by the water’s edge of a river. He was standing under a tree with his little daughter of about seven. On being told he had to accompany us he stooped to pick up his jacket from the ground. He must have been prepared, for as he did so, he put a cyanide capsule in his mouth and immediately collapsed. Hurriedly we rushed him in the jeep to a doctor, but he was beyond help. I wonder how that little girl of seven was affected by this tragedy?

On another occasion, soon after we have arrived in Denmark, I was sent back to Germany to find a Polish and Czech Officers prison camp and to escort a certain Polish Officer back to HQ. The prisoner of war camp was situated in the heart of a large forest of pine trees. In this forest we drove for some miles along a narrow single-track road. It was completely dark under the trees as they were so closely planted that light could not penetrate. As we went deeper into the forest something in the surroundings and atmosphere gave me a feeling of apprehension even tinged with fear. The prison gates hung open and unmanned as we drove straight into the compound huts. Squatting on the ground were little groups of men. The Germans were not too kind to Poles and Czechs and we do not know what hardships they had suffered, but it had left them in a listless dispirited state. They did not show the normal reactions one expected of persons being freed. We, the interpreter and I, entered the front hut and showed the name of the man we wanted. These huts were not like those airy ones that are depicted in television programmes. The interior was dark. Bunks, three high, filled the space and blocked light from the windows. Little floor space remained. The man appeared and sat, in silence, in the back of the jeep during our return to HQ.

Yet again, Christmas came, my last in the army, and I was happy to send home some painted wooden toys for my son, Tom, and some Christmas tree decorations. Some rather battered, weary Father Christmases still grace our annual tree.

Time passed and after some months in Copenhagen, we left from Kalstrup airport in an old Daycota cargo plane for Belgium. The plane was unheated and we sat on the floor during this uncomfortable ride to the transit camp near Brussels. A day or two’s stay here, before being trucked to the cross channel ferry for the trip to England, the Olympia (London) for de-mob and so home at last. My father, who had saved some petrol for the purpose, brought June with him to meet me. Need I add that this reunion was, indeed, a very happy and unforgettable one, which lasted for a lifetime.

My unexpected experiences concluded, I returned to a life of shop keeping.

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