525 (Ammunition) Company, Royal Army Service Corps.
This is an extract from the journal of the late George Clare, 525 Company, Royal Army Service Corps. His journal has kindly been provided by his niece Margaret Clare. This extract covers his enlistment and his service up to St. Valéry. The journal goes well beyond that covering his time as a prisoner of war and subsequent escape and a further extract will follow.
“Reminiscent of World War One when Earl Kitchener was seen on the hoardings pointing the finger directly and saying "Your Country Needs YOU", this was the time the slogan was; "Follow Your Trade In The Army". The printing trade certainly had slowed down in the early days of the war affecting the typesetting business. As I was 23 years of age I was sure I wouldn't be called up immediately under Conscription. Nevertheless, I was concerned about the conditions at work and imagined I might be reduced to short-time working, even the Dole queue. What if they called up the unemployed first? Such as the state of my mind everyday as I passed the slogan: "Follow Your Trade ln The Army", and the seeds of an idea were planted in my brain. Why don't I volunteer for service and perhaps have a choice or something "safe" rather than wait to be called up and maybe find myself in the infantry! I kept these thoughts strictly to myself for some weeks when on Friday, 29th September, 1939, I walked into the Gorbals Pubic Library, being used as a temporary recruiting office. I was confronted by a smiling Army Recruiting Sergeant, dressed in blues, sporting a black moustache, complete with red sash and at least 6ft 4ins tall.
"Good evening", he said, still grinning. Can I do something for you?"
Starting to feel a little uneasy I pulled myself up to my maximum 5ft 3 ½ and declared:
"I'd like to follow my trade in the army."
"And what is that?" he enquired.
He shook his head very slowly "All the old sweats are in these Jobs" he confided.
l felt a wave of relief right away. They don’t need me I thought. But the sarge had other ideas. He wasn't dressed like a General for nothing.
"What else do you do: That disarming smile again. Do you drive?"
I couldn't think fast enough "Eh, yes."
"Could you go through tomorrow? I could perhaps see about getting you through as chauffeur."
Now he was doing me a favour! I must have felt like putty in his hands. I was trying to think quicker and since I could see makeshift cubicles and white-coated personnel milling about I decided it must be only the medical stage. Even if I did pass I could be a few weeks to get used to the idea.
"Could we have your name and address:" asked the sarge.
There were a few guys actually queueing behind me. I reported back next morning, 30th September, which happened to be my mother's birthday, and by noon I had been stripped naked and examined by several so-called medical specialists, declared A1, swore allegiance to the King, given a shilling, a railway warrant and ordered to report to Central Station, to board a train for Aldershot at 9 p.m. that very night! It’s not true my brain kept trying to tell me.... but it was and I still had to break the sad news to Ella and my mother. If I said it was a tremendous shock that would be an understatement. As it travels fast the news got to the family who gathered in the house prior to my departure. There were many tears shed as the "hero", who was feeling he had taken leave of his senses, took leave of his family and girlfriend that night himself almost blinded by tears.
I arrived in Aldershot early next morning. The huge barracks were in a chaotic state and it became clear that thousands of others had had the same daft idea as myself and the barracks just couldn't cope with the sudden influx. So much so that we queued for what seemed like hours for meals because the Army had insufficient cutlery. In the end the only way to be sure at getting some grub was to go to Woolworths and buy a knife, fork and spoon.
We were pushed from place to place for a few days in civvies then we were lined up and issued with our kit. I was handed a rifle, dated 1918, a gas mask, a kit bag full of clothing and a haversack containing about 14 different bits and pieces of straps and pouches. The barrack rooms looked like a second-hand market. Some fellows were trying on boots while one guy held up for all to see a pair of used long johns; another had taken the bolt out of his rifle and could not get it back in; one, dressed only in an Army shirt, was marching up and down with his rifle at the slope position. The din was awful.
By midweek 200 of us were set aside and warned to standby for a move. A jovial Capt. Norwell had arrived from Perth in Scotland to take us back there to make up to war strength the Territorial Royal Army Service Corp of the 51st Highland Division. We looked a comical bunch as we tried marching to the railway station. We were all drivers and on our arrival in Tulloch Dye Works, Perth, we were allocated a space on the floor of a huge drying shed with palliasse to sleep on. In the morning when I awoke after a disturbed night and looked around me the realisations of my foolhardiness really came home to me. However, visions of a weekend pass helped a great deal to allay the depression. l got in touch with the family through the shop and after lone whole week in the Army the "hero" met his sweetheart at Buchanan St railway station in a creaking new uniform and grinning from ear to ear. Life in the Army didn't seem too bad after all. Ella was not impressed.
I spent a number of weeks at Tulloch during basic training: route marching and manoeuvres on the surrounding hills, rifle drill, map reading and generally trying to look like a soldier. I was beginning to feel very fit and, of course, the weekend passes were still coming. l was almost enjoying myself. Then alas with only a few hours warning we were packed up and marched to the Station, the whole company moved back to Aldershot. More square-bashing, mounting guard, picket duty, bugle calls....you're in the Army now, son! Vehicles started to arrive, cars, lorries and motor-cycles.
I had been keen on bikes in civvie street but the thought of being out in all weathers soaking and freezing did not appeal to me so as far as the Army was concerned l had never been astride a bike in my life. l was eventually assigned to a company car. In the mean time I had been sent to the Quartermaster's stores to issue kit, this job I liked. Second uniforms had arrived and, surprisingly, were service dress (brass buttons and all) and not Battle Dress. Of course, on the day before the issue the Company Sergeant Major and Quartermaster were both in the store reserving their second uniforms. The C.S.M. was a small man, in fact the same size as myself a size 2 uniform fitted him like a glove, but there happened to be only one size 2 in the whole issue and in the melee while fitting out the whole company this suit mysteriously disappeared! When the C.S.M. came to collect his outfit and I couldn’t find it his remarks were less than complimentary:
"What the hell did you do with tha’ suit: you must have issued it to someone else. I think you're bloody brainless.”
But no-one argues with the C.S.M. Couple of days later I was told to report to the Commanding Officer's office first thing the following morning with my car, my first job. When the C.O. appeared, accompanied by a young Lieutenant and the C.S.M., I could see by bit expression that he was pleased with what he saw, a smart soldier in a smart suit with pressed trousers and polished buttons, saluting and reporting for duty. The C.S.M. just stared and I felt he was taking in every button and seam of that suit but said nothing. The first run was no short trip but reconnaissance of the south coast, South Devon and Cornwall, North Devon and Somerset. The trip took nine hours with one break and covered more than six hundred miles.
The Company, now fully equipped with over 100 vehicles was moved again to Camberley, Surrey. In most cases we were billeted in empty villas a residential area and as this was a welcome period of little activity it felt almost like home from home. Some of the "upper class" were living there and the ladies, anxious to do their little bit for the war effort, decided to run a canteen in the local church hall. It quickly became apparent that the ladies didn't know how the other half lived and were quite clueless about prices. The fellows, of course, took advantage of this and during NAAFI breaks often paid for teas and not for food. It was obvious the ladies would be out of pocket but it was easy on our two-bob-a-day wages. New Year, 1940, I got my first ten days leave and the highlight was our engagement on New Year's Eve. Although we had known each other almost all our lives, placing the ring on Ella's finger gave me a feeling of real possession. I was broke again but very happy. When I returned from leave l learned that the Company was preparing for embarkation on 24th January, 1940, we moved from the outskirts of Southampton to the docks in full marching order with as much bull as we could muster, a Captain and 2nd Lieut. leading each section, another fellow and myself detailed to form one or the connecting files in the space between sections. Although it was late January the sun was shining and before long I was sweating beneath all the gear. Rounding one of the bends in the road I stepped on tram lines and fell flat on my back. The scene must have been comic to the people lining the route; the section officer bawling halt, my mate's rifle clattering to the ground as he bent to assist me and a woman from the crowd running onto the road, rubbing my arm and staying “That’s good luck”. Perhaps at the time but the bad luck was still to come.
We sailed overnight across the Channel to Le Havre and although it was sunny in England the contrast in France was astonishing, it was bitterly cold and the snow underfoot was hard as concrete. Our vehicles had been shipped in a cargo vessel called "City or Derby", a name I am not likely to forget, and we were instructed to wait on the dockside until our own vehicle was unloaded then driven off and rendezvous at Montevilliers, a village in the outskirts of Le Havre. Since my car was not unloaded the first day I had to spend hours in the freezing cold stamping my feet trying to keep warn beside a brazier and staring for a whole day at the "City of Derby" then being marched along the dockside into what looked like an empty three-storey car park. Conditions the first night were worse than grim…the building had no windows, damp patches on the floor and turned to ice and all we had for cover was a groundsheet and two blankets. Needless to say, not as much as a boot came off. Sleep was impossible and one man to my knowledge was stretchered away during the night. In the morning we were served two slices of bread and cold meat loaf and boiling hot tea in our aluminium dixies. Anyone who has ever drank hot liquid from an army dixie knows you can't get your lips near it until the contents are nearly cold. Next day my car was unloaded and I spent the second night sharing my blankets with Ian MacRobbie, another Glasgow man I met on arrival in Aldershot. We slept on the bare stage of the Salle de Fete and this was luxury compared with the previous night. As the weeks passed we were becoming more accustomed to army life and gaining some knowledge about France and the French. As officer’s driver I covered lot of ground often in advance parties of three or four including a French Army liaison officer arranging billets, parking, etc. Bill Menzies from Scone in Perthshire was driving for the C.O. and we had become very friendly and often spent waiting time relating our journeys and sharing our mail from home. So far we had not seen any real action and apart from being way from home we were almost enjoying ourselves.
On one occasion we took about a dozen officers to the town of Lille. One of them had come of age and they were about to have a celebration. We dropped them at a club in town, were given some francs for drink and told to report back at 11p.m. and to make sure we were sober. We had a wander around town, visited a couple of cafes and had beer and "deux oeuf et pommes de terre frittes", the only thing we knew how to order. Later we were standing by the square watching the antics of the French drivers when I suddenly felt two arms being wrapped around me pining my arms to my sides, a soft feminine cheek being pressed against mine and with the smell of heady perfume filling my nostrils a soft voice was saying:
'Bon soir, Tomee. You come and sleep with me, 0ui'
Her compatriot had made a grab for Bill but he kept running in ever decreasing circles round us both with her in hot pursuit. We were being accosted for the first time and while I had no intention of sleeping with anyone I was fascinated and it was a boost to my ego to have such pretty girl speak to me in the street like that....wow..., that perfume!
By this time I had slipped my arms around her waist and tried to prolong the conversation, so I asked her:
"Combien?" Bill was now firmly in the clutches of the other girl and he looked as though he was suffering from shock and afraid to move. The first girl said it would be 45 francs (about a week's hard-earned wages after deductions) so I tried to hide my shock and said:
"Je suis petit, 20 francs."
“Oo, non. You come to my house, 45 francs."
When we said in our Best French that this was 'Pas possible' and we had orders to ‘partir' at 11 o'clock they took off at speed without as much as an ‘au revoir’.
The 51st spent some time in the north of France deployed around Rouen, Abbeville, Bethune, Arras and Dieppe. My Coy, 525, was involved with ammunition and had the task of transporting all kinds from docks or railheads and establishing APs (ammo) points or mobile supply bases as near to where the front line happened to be at that time it was on the Belgian frontier. Life was quiet and humdrum and the only sign of war was the occasional German plane, perhaps reconnaissance, flying very high. We even formed a stall concert party. I was thinking seriously about marriage and as I was due ten day’s leave I wrote to Ella, and her parents, and proposed. I didn't have any money but this did not seem to bother me.
Early in April, 1940, the Division was moved south to the area of the Maginot Line. Metz, Alsace and Larraine and the River Moselle became familiar. The girls there were outstanding for their mixed German/French good looks. It was the time of the so-called phoney war, the only news item we heard was 'Some slight activity reported east or the Moselle.'
But it wasn't so phoney for us, we felt we were getting nearer to the real thing. All leave was stopped, then restarted again. As I still had not received a reply to my letter to Ella and not knowing if I would get leave or not I wasn't at all happy. The phoney war was beginning to hot up, at least for us. Infantry, positioned in front of the Maginot were the nearest to the enemy we had been so far. Our Despatch Riders reported cases of sniping on some stretches of road and it was there we suffered our first casualty. David Storer was killed on his motor-cycle.
At last, almost simultaneously with the news that I would be given leave, I got my letter from Ella and good news...I would be getting married when I got home. Many people would think it was a crazy idea. But we were by no means unique these things were done in wartime. The young officer with whom I travelled a lot seemed almost as pleased as I was at the news so on one of our trips we had a celebration roadside lunch of Bully Beef, Army Hard-tack biscuits and Champaign! He was the Officer i/c our concert party and after lunch and a few glasses of bubbly we drove along singing at the top of our voices.
By the beginning of May I was on my way amidst all the red tape and Army Regs. Orders were: 'Take haversack and sidepack. I could leave gas mask but must take rifle (soldier's best friend)' the loss or which would be as bad as deserting. I was given five rounds of ammo. for which I had to sign and which had to be given up at port of embarkation and collected on return. My one-day journey through France was uneventful and after an overnight stop I sailed from Dieppe and finally arrived home on Saturday, 4th May. My journey had taken three days as this was precious time out or my leave everything as GO. Arrangements had been left to Ella and she had to make sure I was actually there before adding the final touches. War weddings were usually hurried affairs; we were married in St Roch's RC Curcb, Glasgow, but the banns had to be called out in public by the minister from the steps of our local Parish Church 'Hear ye, hear ye, etc'. They were also as a rule quiet affairs and this suited us only our immediate families being invited. The ceremony took place on Wednesday 8th of May, 1940, and thanks were due to our parents for what we had by way of a wedding reception. Unknown to us at that time Ella's brother Tommy McManus, a Regular in the Cameron Highlanders, was captured by the Germans almost at the same hour when he and three comrades were manning an outpost in front of the Maginot Line.
"... after three blissful days' honeymoon I was due to return to my unit. Listening to the 6 p.m. news we heard that the Germans had invaded Belgium. That was on Friday, 10th May, 1940 and the war was on in earnest."
I was married in uniform so my wedding attire was ready-made and Ella looked lovely in a navy-blue costume and little pill-box hat.
Following our wedding breakfast we made for the photographers and as we entered the premises a second passer-by rubbed my shoulder 'for luck'. We had arranged to go for lunch in a restaurant in Argyle Street in the centre of Glasgow. Accompanied by the Best Man and Ella's sister Betty, Maid of Honour, and in an effort not to appear to conspicuous, we carefully dusted off any confetti still remaining on our clothes, dismissed the taxi some distance from the restaurant and walked the rest of the way. When we arrived in the crowded dining room and sat down. I removed my Service hat and sitting on top of my head was a little pile of confetti which fell about my ears! My sister, Annie, had put her house at our disposal and after three blissful three days' honeymoon I was due to return to my unit. Listening to the 6 p.m. news we heard that the Germans had invaded Belgium. That was on Friday, 10th May, 1940 and the war was on in earnest.
I wasn't caring how long it took to get me back to my unit. The tempo of the war had quickened and a good indication of this as the method used to return the five rounds of ammo. to us, it was done through the carriage windows. As the train pulled out bundles of clips were thrown in with instructions to sort it out ourselves. I managed to get my five rounds but inevitably some fellows got more and the occasional pot-shot could be heard as we travelled south. When finally I got back the Coy. had moved to the Maginot Line area. My bed that night was two of the Quartermaster’s hampers in some sort of empty factory and while I prepared to get my head down Bill related all about the attack on the railhead by German planes. We were awakened at first light next morning by the crashing of anti-aircraft guns and the sound of planes. Then the whole place was shaken to the foundations when what I thought was a stricken plane was actually bombs exploding... my first experience.
It was difficult for us to get any news or what was happening or to separate fact from rumour. After two weeks we heard that the Germans had made a rapid advance through Holland and Belgium and the 51st were rushed to the Somme area. Then we got news that the German advance been so rapid that the 51st were there as part of a rear-guard to assist the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk. I was moved to another Section because the captain's car had been smashed and was useless. I found him a highly nervous type and was uncomfortable in his company, he never once called me by my name. During this period the Coy was still supplying the front, when we could find it. The Germans seemed to be having it all their own way, there were no British planes around.
At Coy. H.Q., housed in a marque, the captain (no names/no pack drill!) must have received orders to go back up the line and find his Lieut. and nine or ten lorries and bring them back to a new location. As we drove we could see a single German plane circling overhead, obviously on reconnaissance and I was sure not concerned about us, but the capt. had us out of the car and into the dry ditch three times to 'take cover'.
The plane disappeared and we continued on our journey for several miles more. The road continued through a forest and there we met a 15-cwt. truck filled with troops with blackened faces and travelling in the opposite direction (retreating).
"Pull up," ordered the capt. "I'll see what's going on."
He got out and spoke to an officer then got back into the car.
"Turn about and clear out"
l soon caught up with the truck which the capt. ordered me to overtake.
"Are you in a f...... hurry? asked a voice from the truck.
It wasn't long before WE were overtaken....by five German bombers.
"In there", almost screamed the captain.
I swung through two wide open gates into a farmyard in time to get down flat on the ground among some other guys and a British soldier with a rifle and fixed bayonet as the planes unloaded their cargo of bombs. Also in the yard was a dry lavatory standing like a sentry box and this the captain completely encircled flat on his belly with his eyes glued on the falling bombs. I was fascinated, I had never seen such expression. The target for the Germans was the railway and not the farm. We had actually turned into our Divisional Headquarters and after the raid the captain went in to report. The others in the yard sat up and I didn't recognise the uniforms so I asked the guy with the rifle:
"Are these French Airforce?
"Naw," he said, "They're ....... German prisoners."
The captain reappeared "Back to base," he said.
Back at the marquee I had no way of knowing what the conversation had been inside the tent. I only know the captain reappeared with orders for me to go back again in an effort to find the Lieut. I looked straight into his eyes for two or three seconds then got into the car and drove off. l went back the same way and eventually met the Lieut. and the lorries making their own way back. He chose his own route which went through the village of Londinniers but when we reached it the village like a tinder box was a mass of flames. The people were out on the road stopping the traffic from going through. He instructed the lorry drivers to stay in the outskirts and to me he said:
"We must get through in the car.”
As we drove through as fast as we could I could see the tar on the road burning. Thanks to the Lieutenant's directions we got to base. Later I could not move the car because of two flat tyres. The lorries got back too eventually without any help from me.
The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk had been completed and the Germans were concentrating on the remainder. Hopelessly outnumbered, we were caught up with the Division being forced towards the Channel coast. In the morning of June 11 our Company was positioned in an orchard outside the small town of St. Valery en Caux. We had been constantly on the move for three days, had had no sleep and were quietly trying to organise some breakfast (I remember distinctly what it comprised of. Bully Beef, "Dog" Biscuits and tinned plums!). A constant stream of Army vehicles was passing on the road as an evacuation was being attempted from this point. We were given an order to dump all surplus gear and to wear side-pack only. For us it was a question of survival and for the Germans an exercise in mopping up.
Then it happened. German artillery opened up and shells seemed to be falling all around. Some of our lorries laden with ammunition were tightly packed into a small area and a direct hit on any lorry would have caused a chain reaction of devastating proportions. In the end we were told to empty two lorries and get ourselves out of it. That was the quickest action I have ever seen... in to two trucks and on the road in seconds. I was seated on the tailboard of the second truck when they suddenly shuddered to a halt. I looked round to see men scattering and throwing themselves in the ditches on either side and two planes coming in low and machine-gunning the road. Everybody out, I shouted, but I needn't have bothered. By the time I got the words out the truck was already half empty. Miraculously we suffered no casualties. We abandoned these trucks and continued on foot towards St. Valery. Soon we met a mixture of French and British troops in complete disorder coming towards us out of St. Valery and a British Regimental Sergeant-Major in the middle of the road waving a pistol and shouting to everybody to 'Get back down there'. Bill Menzies and I together were not about to take orders from any strange sergeant-major so decided the nearest ditch was the place for us. The situation was chaotic and an obvious case of every man for himself. After a time things become quiet with some semblance of order and Captain George (one of our own officers) ordered a number of us to make for a nearby hillside and take up infantry positions and we lay there, a straggly bunch, waiting for the enemy. They never arrived and I still shudder when I think of what might have happened if they had. Then all was quiet with only occasional shots being heard. In the evening still under orders we made our way towards the town and by the time we reached the edge our numbers had swollen into hundreds, packed tightly into the streets near the sea front. Darkness had fallen and l could see a red glow over the town and hear spasmodic explosions. l thought the German shells whistling overhead must have hit an ammo. dump. Everyone was making for the little Town Square, it was packed and included in the crowd was the Commander of the 51st Highland Division General Victor Fortune and many other officers now waiting to surrender themselves to the Germans. I saw then what the red glow was…. dozens of fires, the whole town seemed to be ablaze and the explosions were the German shells still falling on it. It was over. Any further resistance would have been futile.
Packed into the narrow streets we were left to our own devices. Bill and I were sure we would be there at least till morning. We scrounged around and found a lump of sailcloth and with this we covered ourselves and lay under an awning and tried to get some sleep. I remember watching as a heavy downpour of rain helped to douse some of the flames. Next morning, June 12th, some of us were instructed by one our sergeants to make for the beach where a ship was waiting to take us off
"Ships or the Royal Navy are offshore and are shelling the German positions behind us," he said.
In all the confusion I was ready to believe almost anything. So we made our way in single file through the wrecked houses from which people had suddenly to run for their lives, entering through shell holes in one wall and leaving by another: through a living-room with dishes still on the table and a shivering family dog still in the room I got my eye on a box of loaf sugar and threw a handful to the dog in passing. At last we stepped out in daylight on to the Promenade and sure enough away to the right there it was, a ship, looking huge, high and dry waiting for the tide to float her off. Also I could see out on horizon silhouettes of a number of ships but the shelling had stopped. We were met by our C.0. Major David Thompson, looking pale and exhausted but trying to cheer us up as he directed us single file down on to the beach to walk towards the ship. The terrain surrounding St. Valery is hilly and the beach as far as the next village is enclosed by a chalky cliff about 300 ft. high and the ground, a mixture of sand and rock sloped down from the high wall to the sea so I found the walking tough stepping two steps forward and slipping back one. Also we had to share in carrying wounded on makeshift stretchers of blankets and window shutters or doors on an endless chain, walking a few steps and passing back the load. I had walked about 500 yards when I came across a soldier sitting against the wall with his feet tucked under him and staring out to sea. As I got nearer to him I saw his deep, deep brown eyes were sightless. He was dead with not a mark on him that I could see.
Then all Hell broke loose. The Germans had moved in the guns at both ends on the high ground overlooking the beach. At first I didn't realise what was happening, shells were exploding all around and we just ran in circles hopelessly trapped.
"Over to the wall, Bill", I shouted.
But shells were exploding with accuracy among small groups and we decided it was safer out in the open. It was sheer slaughter
"Look at the ship," said Bill.
When I looked up I thought aloud Oh my God. She was on fire. An armed troop-carrier she must have returned fire, but her efforts against the German superiority were futile and she was a sitting duck. I could hear screams and see lots of men dropping over the side of the ship to die from their wounds. There was pandemonium as the shelling continued. The momentary heat and smell of gunpowder after some nearby deafening explosions was terrifying. My worst memory of that period is the vision of a soldier blown in two who I nearly fell over in my mad rush to get cover. Out in the open Bill and I stayed close as we tried to shelter behind boulders no bigger than kit bags. No one of authority appeared to be prepared to make the first move towards surrender, then a white flag appeared then several more. There was no doubt everyone saw the hopelessness of our position. The guns had stopped and for a few minutes there was an uncanny silence. Germans appeared along the top of the cliff and waved us towards the end of the beach away from St. Valery. We passed many dead and wounded especially around the ship still burning on the bench. I passed a fellow, his hands and uniform soaked in blood holding his stomach and looking at me with a bewildered half smile on his face. I couldn't help him. My first reaction to it all was one of indescribable relief.
“For you the war is over."
This phrase spoken in English was to become very monotonous as every German seemed to think he was the first to use it.”