Despite having served for more than six years during WW2, my father almost never spoke of his war experiences, at least not in my presence. He never seemed to look back, nor did he ever seem to worry about what the future might hold. He took each day as it came, did his very best, and at the end of the day he turned the page. I remember him as being a very contented man. His has been a hard act to follow.
It was not until my early attempts to write my family history that I realised how little I knew of my father’s wartime experiences. He had long passed on and it was through his best friend, Roy Bishop, that some of the blank pages were partially filled. It was in 20o7, in response to my many questions, that Roy, through emails, documented his memories. Where appropriate, I will quote Roy’s exact words.
Royston Bishop was born in Barnet, North London, on 29 November 1918. He had an older brother, Thomas and two younger sisters, Gladys and Gwendoline. His parents, Thomas Bishop and Lilian Lawson, were both from large families; his father was one of eight siblings and his mother one of sixteen.
In late 1939, after the breakout of WW2, Roy was called up for military service. At that time, he was a trainee manager with Hector Powe, the chain of luxury menswear shops, with headquarters in Regent Street, London. At the same time, at Potter’s Bar in North London, my father had a trainee manager position with Sainsburys, which was a rather up-market family grocer in that era. Their paths were destined to cross. They were not yet turned twenty-one, with my father’s birthday on November 11 and Roy’s on November 29.
We met on the first day of being called up in September 1939 at Chelmsford, Essex and we were transported together to the Recruit Training Centre at Northolt and we shared the same hut and even had beds (on the floor) next to each other. After the 4 weeks training we were posted to the same Company, HQ;2nd/8th. battalion The Middlesex Regiment, Harry to the Band and I was posted to the Regimental Police. We remained friends througout our 6 plus years together and even finished up in the same platon in D Company Heavy Mortars; Harry as MPOack and I was the Platoon Sergeant.
In the early days of the war, they were assigned to guard duty at various installations in and around London, eventually being transferred to Portrush, in Northern Ireland, where they spend much of the next three years in training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe..
My father always described Roy as ‘a bit of a character’ and more that once described how Roy had decided to ignore military rules and swam outside the harbour, not realizing how strong were the prevailing North Sea currents. Despite being a strong swimmer, Roy was not able to swim back to the harbour and had to be rescued.
When I was researching for my family history, I came across an account of the Middlesex regiment by a Leslie Dyer and I asked Roy if he ever had come across him:
Les Dyer, known as "Deadly" was in the transport section as a driver and was quite a wild character. I remember escorting him to Carrickfergus Detention barracks as he had overstayed his leave. We had a laugh over this episode recently and he told me that his wife told him to get an education and having no family he took an education course and finished up overseas teaching.
And who was Harry Ellison, for I recalled him being mentioned more than once by my parents?
Harry Ellison I knew very well as he was in the same (HQ) Company as Harry and myself. He was a magnificent drummer; professional standard. He was engaged to a Portrush girl but sadly he was killed in action in Normandy, having been posted to a machine gun company.
It was in Portrush that my father met Ernie Mann, who was then the leader of the dance band that played in Barry’s Ballroom. My father often used to play piano with the band and it was a relationship from which he was able to profit, when he eventually returned from the war in 1946.
It was also in Portrush where my father met my mother. They were married in October 1942.
In response to my question, Roy explained how my parents, once married, could have been able to be together, given wartime restrictions.
In Portrush, sleeping out passes were required but in those days it was an easy going attitude as long as one was on parade in time in the morning.
But shortly after my parents were married, the Middlesex regiment was moved to England.
Harry and I were in Northern Ireland together for about 2.5 years and then went to Yorkshire, Southend and then Amersham. I was away on a number of Army Courses; Gas Warfare Recognition at Winterbourne Gunner, Dorset, Small Arms Cadre at Dorking, Surrey, Regimental Provost Duties at Carrickfergus,Co.Antrim, Light A/Ack at Clacton on Sea, Essex and Heavy Mortor Instructor's Course at Netheravon with Bob Richardson and Frank Godfrey. It was on this course that I met my future wife as Gwyn was in the WAAF stationed nearby at Amesbury, Wiltshire and we were married the following May on a short leave from Germany.
My mother gave birth to a little girl, June Mary, in May 1943, but sadly she died a few months later, in January 1944. I don’t know if my father ever saw his daughter.
It was tragic for Harry at the time to lose a daughter of 8 months.The battalion were in transit at that period from Amersham to East Sussex and I was on a Small Arms course at Dorking and I think Harry had compassionate leave and we met up again at Kemp Town, Brighton on his return.
We then moved to Worthing and we were billeted in the Clear View Hotel, opposite the pier, with all equipment and weapons at hand. We slept on the bare floor boards and awaited orders to proceed into action and were awaiting suitable transit for our Universal Carriers and heavy mortars. All the hotels on the Worthing front were empty and taken over by most of the battalion.
The Middlesex regiment were attached to the 15th Scottish Division for the duration of the war, and the following map, with dates, documents their path through France, Belgium, Netherlands and finally Germany.
For Roy, the earlier days after the invasion were particularly poignant:
Tormaville was without question a terrible battle area, firing most of the night. I buried Corp. Symonds in the early hours and whilst I was digging, a Pte. Peter Benson-Cooper came over from the next field where 15 Platoon were firing. He helped me dig the trench but we dug it too deeply, and the body was never recovered. However, Corp. Symonds is mentioned on the memorial stele in Normandy.
Many times, Roy has spoken to me of passing through battlefields in Northern France in the early days after the invasion. He said that he could never forget the stench of rotting animals and the remains of German soldiers and the mass destruction of the villages and countryside.
Roy and my father were not to be without mishap:
In France we had many shared experiences and we shared a German Personnel Mine when Harry's Universal Carrier with Lt.Bob.Richardson and Private Amelan and Harry on board and with me driving my motor bike alongside were blown up by the mine. I flew up in the air and come down in black smoke, with the engine still running, thinking that was the end! Private Amelan had perforated ear drums and was evacuated along with Bob Richardson who had shock and minute metal pieces in his chest. Harry and I both suffered hearing loss and we were deaf for three days but fortunately we recovered but not back to our normal hearing.
I can vouch for my father’s loss of hearing. It was impossible to have a conversation with him without repeating everything at least twice. In his twilight years, Roy purchased a hearing aid, but I recall that his experience with it was less than satisfactory.
Old soldiers have a language of their own and I once asked Roy to write about his role and my father’s wartime role as an MPOack:
The MPOack was an assistant to the platoon 2i/c and sat next to him in a lloyd tracked infantry carrier. Driving the carrier was Amelan and they operated a No18 radio set and messages vis the OP (observation post) were relayed to the mortar line giving bearing and bombs to be fired. I was on the mortar line and it was my job to liaise with the information of number of bombs fired daily and this information was sent to Coy. HQ, so that replacement bombs were supplied. I usually went to a rendezvous on a cross roads map reference on my motor bike with a Universal carrier to bring back the replacement bombs to the platoon position.
Many years after a battle in Belgium, Roy had a remarkable experience:
Mol in Belgium was the area where we were heavily shelled and Corp. Crowhurst DCM was killed and Pte. Baker was also killed. Pte. Owen Collins was seriously injured and I managed to get him onto a medical truck and he was evacuated to England. Very many years later by a terrific coincidence I was visiting the war graves of these soldiers when a lady and gentleman approached at the sametime. It turned out to be Pte. Owen Collins and his wife, who had travelled from Bovey Tracey in Devon. In fact I paid a visit to them the following year. He told me that he had never fully recovered from nerves and had to leave the police force after a year. He settled for an agricultural job without tension. He told his wife that I was the man who saved his life because of the quick action of getting him evacuated medically.
One of the few memories of my father speaking of the war was his description of driving for hours through the night from Tilburg to the Ardennes in Belgium. They had no lights and had to follow at tiny light under the vehicle ahead.
Yes, Harry remembered the incident well as it was a horrible all-night drive to support the Americans due to a breakthrough in the Ardennes, due to the German breakthrough in the American sector.The 15th.Scottish Infantry Division had only just liberated TILBURG, North Brabant and Harry and some of the platoon were having a celebrating drink in the Burgomaster's house when an immediate recall came through to the Platoon to start-up, for an all night drive in readiness for a crash-action. You could imagine our tiredness having just entered Tilburg as the liberators. I was riding my motorbike half asleep, every now and again being bought back to alertness by my front wheel hitting the Lloyd Carrier in front and after hours of driving in poor weather we eventually went in to a crash action in support. It was a period of battle that always stays in the mind as it was a test of endurance. I will always remember the large number of young American soldiers who were killed in action lying dead on the road on our route.
What happened after Tilburg?
In answer to your query re the target after Tilburg was to MEIJEL when we supported 44 Brigade and which all platoons took part. Bad weather, boggy ground and a very strong resistance ensured heavy fighting for 4 to 5 days until the 6th November when a lull ensued. All were engaged by the 15th Nov when casualities increased. I lost a friend from Finchley, Lt.Cross, who was killed in 12 platoon and also Sgt Wood from the same platoon.
After the end of the fighting, when we had arrived in Lubeck, our platoon were employed in looking after German prisoners of war in the Hamburg area. They were housed in "Nissan type huts", around a dozen to each building. The looking after the Belsen prisoners was dealt mainly by the Royal Army Medical Corps with assistance in transport by the Royal Army Service Corps. We soon reverted to Regimental duties at the end of 1945 with guard duties as we were very close to the Russian Infantry who had their guard room a few hundred yards to the east of Lubeck.
Rensburg was the next town where the Battalion was stationed in 1946, after Lubeck, so it was peace time soldiering. Harry and I were on demobilisation number 26 and left at Lubeck as our age was then 27 years and two months and had served throughout the war years and nearly 6.5 years war service.
You enquired re Normandy landing date and route and amongst my memorablia I found a note of the platoon travels. It is in pencil and written on my motor bike travels, so it is not in my usual script, so some villages and towns may be misspelt. Gosport 7.7.44. St Crois sur mer, Tourville, Evrecy, Caumont, Sutain, ESTRY, Bernay, Theelt, Londerzeel, Gheel, Eindhoven, BEST, Helmond, Venlo, Mol, TILBURG, Bletrick, Neer, Sevenum, Helden, Riel, Nijemen, CLEVE, Goch, Moglands (Schloss), Boxtel, BourgLeopold, Zanten, RIVER RHINE CROSSING, Mehrbou, Leven, Brennhorst, Hazenburg, CELLE, Uelzen, Neetze, Bleclede, RIVER VELBE CROSSING, Hammour, Bolhsdorf,Trenemunde, Wilsted, Carlow, LUBECK, (Late 45,early 46). Harry and I were then demobbed. Both rather tired after that lot!.
Roy often spoke to me of a young German boy, who was ‘adopted’ by the Middlesex regiment. His name was Heinz Johannsen, but the soldiers called him Jimmy. In later life, Heinz collected Middlesex memorabilia. Heinz maintained contact with many of the Middlesex soldiers, including Roy. A few years ago I was also in contact with him.
With the war over, Roy and my father were released from military service, Roy to restart to his managerial career with Hector Powe, and my father to start a poultry farm in Portrush, subsidized by his musical talent. They remained firm friends ever after.
And nine months after my father returned to Portrush, I came on the scene.
Roy, my father and most, if not all, of their friends have passed on, but we must never ever forget their sacrifice of their time, and in many cases their lives, to keep Europe free and at peace.