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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories




We arrived in Le Havre, France, as part of the British Expeditionary Force 1939, without mishap. I remember throwing down tins of Maconachies mixed vegetables and beef, to the French docker's who snapped them up - Manna from heaven so to speak.

Down on the docks we were separated into our different companies and marched off. My memory becomes a little dim here as to our mode of transport but we ended up in the province of Lanquedoc in the south west of France where we were billeted in tents situated in an orchard. There were eight of us to a tent and it was a bit overcrowded with nowhere to stow our equipment. It was a bit of an ordeal at night when you needed to go to the toilet and had to stumble around, tripping over bodies and often standing on them. There was a bit of English and a fair amount of French spoken during those nights I'll tell you. I was glad when we were moved from there.

In an effort to protect the French from the impending German invasion, a large B.E.F. force had been despatched during the early part of 1940 but it soon became clear that the governing bodies had grossly underestimated the superiority of the German war machine and with the German's advancing quickly into France we were continually moving forward in our efforts to stall them. During the night we slept in French barns but I don't think the rats enjoyed our company as they were out every night running over us and fighting among themselves. Once we had managed to go to sleep it no longer bothered us so we just let them get on with it.

One day we set out on a march and by the afternoon it was scorching hot. Little Geordie, marching just ahead of me, was an officer's batman who had never done any jogging or marches before and suddenly he collapsed and fell to the ground. I bent over him to loosen his jacket and shirt to allow him some air and an officer came up to me and told me to stay with him saying that there would be a lorry along shortly to pick us up.

This happened just outside the gates of a French farm and the farmer and his lovely old wife came out to see if they could offer us any assistance. The farmer's wife held what looked like a glass of water in her hand, which I took from her, and threw it all over Geordie's face. This made him splutter but the farmers wife said "No, No!" and she trundled off for another glass. This time she motioned me to take a sip, which I did. Then I took another far bigger sip before giving the rest to Geordie. It was white wine, not water as I had thought.

On another occasion the officers placed us on either side of a road which had been cut through a hill and which had steep banks on either side making it an ideal location to set up an ambush. We were settled in nicely taking our ease, when along the road came an old Frenchman with his donkey and cart. It was just so peaceful and the old man was singing along to himself when suddenly he jumped off the cart and immediately raised both his arms in the air. He had obviously spotted something, maybe a glint of a steel helmet, I don't know. He wouldn't have known whether we were French, German or English soldiers, but he wasn't taking any chances. An officer went down to reassure him that he was in no danger. We had to laugh to ourselves later but I don't think he found it amusing at all - poor old chap. I bet he'd travelled along that road hundred's of times before without incident.

We had no idea of the scale of the German assault but we knew they had started to show their muscle. Attacks were becoming more frequent and more intense. The distant gunfire and the sound of exploding shells was getting ever closer.

In the meantime we found ourselves taking cover in a wood where the cooks were preparing a hot meal for us. It seemed ages since I had last washed my spoon and mess tin. Usually it was bully beef and bread and hard tack (biscuits so hard you couldn't bite into them!) though many times we got nothing. The cooks were concealed in a little clearing surrounded by dense undergrowth and nettles. We were really looking forward to a decent meal - you could smell it cooking! Suddenly overhead there was a mighty roar of aeroplane engines. It was a three-engine Junker's German transport and troop carrier. We all dashed for cover and I ended up sprawled in a bed of nettles but the plane took no notice of us. Meanwhile the cooks had kicked over the field kitchens and our eagerly anticipated dinner was gone. That was the first time I really felt hatred towards the Germans!

Events were really hotting up now and the German war machine was forging ahead. It seemed nothing could stop them. I remember crossing a large open field with a few of the lads who had their mess tins covered up. I didn't have a cover for mine and I believed it was just a trivial thing anyway. I cannot recall why we were crossing this field but I remember glancing round and seeing three fighter planes heading directly for us and coming in at grass root height. Hell, I thought, and me without a mess tin cover; it must be shining like a mirror, but fortunately they roared right over the top of us as we dived for cover, and then disappeared into the distance without even waggling their wings.

In a field I remember seeing some dead horses and cows all bloated up and lying with all four legs in the air. Some cows were walking around in obvious pain and discomfort, their udders swollen with milk, which was seeping from them. Two of the lads relieved some of them by milking them.

There were dead soldiers lying in water-filled ditches and one poor Frenchman was leaning against a hedge with the top half of his body missing - sheared off by whatever had hit him.

Marching along the road, with the Durham Light Infantry taking the lead, and the Tyneside Scottish bringing up the rear, we were suddenly attacked from the front by a concealed German machine gun.

Our officer shouted to us to get off the road and suddenly there was shells exploding all around us forcing clouds of dust and debris up into the air. Some heavy German tanks came over the hill firing on us as they raced forwards. We retreated across a field and were then forced to head along a railway siding with steep banks along either side. I remember one soldier ahead of me falling as he received a bullet in the leg.

Our short Lee-Enfield rifles and fifty rounds of ammunition proved no match whatsoever for the heavy equipment and tanks of the German army and with the enemy tanks moving up from behind and German rifles ahead we found ourselves completely surrounded. With very little firepower of our own there was nothing we could do and we were simply overwhelmed by the scale and speed of the German assault.

Jack Aaron

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