RAF Broadwell Chapter 6


During the usual heavy bombing by mortars that morning we had one or two narrow escapes from missiles that dropped just outside our trench. The fighting flared up again, not in the wood this time but on the opposite side down the street. A number of troops came hurrying up the road led by a Lt. Colonel. He turned down the street and made towards the battle ground. He was carrying a great—box of ammunition. As he ran he half turned and called to his men. "Hurry up you lads or we'll miss the battle. The war is going to be over before we get a chance to get in it". With those words he turned and fairly flew down the street towards the noise of strife, his men hurried after him faithfully. I could not help but laugh at the incident. I admired that man. He was a real soldier. How he fared in the battle I don't know, but soon after it subsided. The Germans had been pushed back.


The beautiful houses in the street of which we were on the corner were looking badly battered now. Every salvo that came over seemed to knock off a little bit more of one or the other of them. Some had hardly any roof left. All the windows were gone. The road was covered with rubble and glass.

Just after dinnertime Lt. Pickwoad came to see us again. He said the position was very bad. All he could say was that we should have to do our best and try to hold out. He said he would probably need us for a job that night.

I had been worrying for the past three days over the fate of Tobin and Co. It will be remembered that we had lost them on the Tuesday night during the attack on the bridge. I had a few good friends among those boys, including Davison, Davidson, Rice and Davey Lowe. I learned from Jock Davidson what had happened to them. These are his words -


"During the panic caused by the S.P. gun making its presence known, the Flight outside the houses got split up into small parties to make a withdrawal as best as possible. I was with Sgt. Garbutt. We made our retreat via the low gardens on the right hand side of the road making very rapid progress back from the bridge for a distance of three quarters of a mile. We sat down and reviewed the situation. We did not know what to do until a moaning Minnie got to work and made up our minds for us. We took refuge in a house opposite Osterbeek Church. Meanwhile the rest of the Flight were still pinned down at the bridge. The party consisting of Dave Davidson and Lowe, Dalzell, Tobin and Rice made the best of a quiet spell and withdrew through the same gardens as I had done. The journey from their refuge, which lay behind a wooden house on the left hand side of the road, was particularly hazardous.

They each in turn rolled down the garden, across the road and down to the low-lying gardens. From there they made their way back from the bridge.

During the withdrawal they got split up again. Next morning, to my surprise, I found them all close by in trenches. From there we joined a detachment under Major Groot and carried on with him."


I didn't look forward with much relish to the job Lt. Pickwoad had promised us that night. I had a good idea that it would be in the wood. About 5.30 in the afternoon he called us all in the house of Wing H.Q. and began to give us orders. One party was to stay in the house and one party of ten men to go to the wood. Mick and I fell for the wood. We had to leave all our kit again, and we lined up outside the house ready to move off armed with as much ammo as we could carry.


It. was dark when we marched into the wood. We were taken to the north edge of the wood where a long series of slit trenches had been dug. These looked out over a field. At the other end of the field were the Germans. They had a mammoth bonfire lit. I noticed that we had one going too. Because Mick and I had a Bren gun we were sent down into the corner of the wood that formed the hinge of our position. Boucher was put in with us and we were given special instructions by Lt. Pickwoad to watch the front very carefully. The party already defending the trenches departed for a rest on our arrival.


The Germans were incessantly firing tracers at us but owing to their low position the shots sailed harmlessly overhead. We had a heavy machine gun detachment. It was kept firing incessantly. It was the same battery I had been listening to for three days. We took turns to watch the front. Occasionally I would fire off a round or two to let the Germans know we were not asleep. I did not see anything during the night. Boucher didn't seem to care whether he saw anything or not. He was a cool customer.


At first light Lt. Pickwoad came round to see us. As I turned round to greet him I noticed a dead German not three feet away from our trench. I was mesmerised until someone said he had been killed the day before. I had not noticed him in the dark, the night before.


It began to rain heavily. The first rain we had had. We were soon wet through. It did not add to our comfort by any means. I could not stop looking at the German outside the trench. He had his face turned away from me. I could see one fist clenched firmly. It was already tinted that blue yellow colour that denotes death. The rain was dripping steadily over his body. It occurred to me that no matter how much it rained he would never notice it. He was dressed in field grey covered by a camouflage suit. Somebody had partly divested him of his camouflage suit and apparently been through his pockets. All about him lay a number of papers and photographs. I could not bring myself to think that scattering a dead man's private belongings about was the right thing to do. I told Mick about it. It seemed to me that if by any chance we were overrun, and. perhaps captured, the Jerries would take a dim view of the plundering of this soldier's pockets in such a fashion. I got out of the trench and went over to the body. Near lay a box of machine gun ammunition and a stick grenade. In an opened mess tin was half a loaf and some butter. It seemed to me as though this chap was on his way to take up a sniper's position.


I gathered up his papers. There was a picture or two of his girl and family. There was one of him too. He seemed a very good-looking chap. I put all his stuff in his haversack and put it beside him. The ammunition was no use to me so I hid it in the wood. I felt better after I had done that. None of the other chaps agreed with me. Not even Mick. I still thought I'd done the right thing. Once a fellow is dead he's helpless. I could not see the use of kicking him around after that. If his papers were lost his people may never know what happened.


We had a lively time during the morning cracking off a few rounds at some Jerries trying to infiltrate. We kept them off. There were a number of tanks and self-propelled guns near to our positions and they were blasting all the houses to hell. We had no tanks or suitable weapons to go after them. We could only hope that one or two might come in closer. There was a fine looking six-pound gun just behind me. The crew were dying to have a go.


The big moment came just before lunch. A self-propelled gun had come down a track over on our right and, taking advantage of a house on the edge of the field, came lumbering into the field. The sight of it almost killed me. It was like a great house moving in. In front jutted out a tremendous gun barrel, the much-dreaded 88 mm.


Why it didn't open fire at once I don't know, and never will. It would have blown us all to hell. The six-pounder crew saw it and went wild with excitement. "Let the basket come in a bit", somebody said. They did. Very slowly it crept into full view. It could not have been more than fifty yards away. The six-pounder let fly with a shell. "Crash". It caught the Jerry gun squarely on the front. A puff of blue smoke rose in the air. The S.P. gun stopped. The next round from our gun misfired. I could hear them frantically reloading. Two more shells found their mark in rapid succession. The whole contraption seemed to collapse on one side. Out of the top bounded four Jerries, some of them had no shirts on. A whole fusillade of rifle and machine gun fire opened up on them. They fell behind the gun. I could not see whether they were killed or not. It did not seem possible that they could have lived through it.


That episode bucked us up tremendously. The S.P. gun lay out on the field a heap of scrap.


Soon after bad news dampened our spirits again. George Hogg, Mick's second pilot, was killed a few feet away from us. Doddy was wounded. In all the places he could possibly get wounded Doddy had to get wounded in his bottom.

I was deeply grieved to hear of George's death. For months past he had lived only to do an operation. He left a wife and baby.


In the afternoon the faithful Dakotas arrived again. Jerries' barrage was stronger than ever and seemed very close. There was one gun firing that went off with a terrific roar. Rrraff. Rrrafff, it seemed to go and the whole earth trembled. I compelled myself to watch the proceedings. The Dakotas, accompanied by Stirlings, swept in again and again at about 200 feet. They were sitting targets for the Jerry gunners. Down came the parachutes with supplies. It was heartbreaking to see the supplies drifting into the enemy lines. Our area was so small now that it could not be avoided. We got very little out of that day's drop. The Germans benefited most. One basket fell outside our trench about three yards in the field. We dare not go out and retrieve it until after dark as the Germans had the whole area covered by fire.


Round and round went the aircraft. Several were hit. One was belching thick smoke from the port engine. One came over ablaze from end to end. It did not waver or deviate for a moment. Out came the supplies from this burning aircraft. As soon as, and not before, the last package had been dropped the aircraft like a great ball of flame plunged to earth. I sank back into my trench feeling sick and profoundly miserable.


The afternoon wore on. It rained heavily again and during this time we had a few brisk exchanges of fire with the enemy. Owing to the heat of the exploded bullets the Bren gun seized up when it became wet with rain. Mick had to go and change it back at the house. When he came back I had to take my rifle; that too had become useless. We had a few fellows cleaning weapons in a house on the edge of the wood across the road from the trench where we had spent so much time. I passed two 17-pounder guns on the way. They were covering the road. A fellow told me to keep my head down as snipers were taking a heavy toll.


I met Lt. Pickwoad. He told me to go with him to try and find some kind of waterproof covering. We found two gas capes and a leather jerkin. As we passed our old position we came across a soldier going through somebody's kit. It happened to be Lt. Pickwoad's. He asked the soldier what the hell he thought he was up to. The soldier did not realise he was speaking to an officer and gave the Lt. a lot of cheek. I was wild with the fellow because when Lt. Pickwoad pointed out he was speaking to an officer he still continued to give a lot of lip. I was hoping that the Lt. would bash him over the head. He didn't. He let the kid go. He could be very soft hearted.


I always felt to have less cause for worry when the gallant Lt. was about. He fairly exuded confidence and never allowed himself to become excited as some officers do. He never promised us anything and he never gave up hope. He proved to be a great help to keeping up the morale of the men. I think everyone that knew him admired him.

We searched around for a little while for some water. I went to the door of a house. It had small glass panels in the top and through one of them a bullet had drilled a perfect hole. Snipers      I made a quick exit from that


We went back to the trenches. I gave the leather jerkin to Mick. It was getting late now and everything was fairly quiet. Just after dark the good news came round that we were to be relieved and would fall back to reserve trenches where we could get some sleep.


These new trenches were down in a deep gully almost directly behind the ones we had been in all day. It was very dark and we had difficulty in fmding our way. We managed to settle down eventually. We decided to do a shift of sentries two hours for each man in pairs. My shift was to be the last one before stand to at dawn. Now, I thought, a good night's sleep at last.


A good night's sleep indeed! That night was one of the worst. We had not been in the trench an hour when the Jerries opened up with their worst mortar barrage to date. It may have been my imagination but it seemed as though they were all coming our way. Explosion after explosion rocked the ground. After each salvo I thought that will be the last, but, no, on it went, salvo after salvo. It seemed to last for hours. By the time it was over my nerves were in tatters. Lying there all that time wondering if the next one would fall on me didn't help me at all.


I was glad when it was time to do my sentry work. Mick and I kept a good look out: then just before dawn we went round to the boys telling them to stand to. I came to the trench where Ginger Palfreeman was lying. He was hidden under a great piece of carpet. I shook him and told him to get up. He lifted up the carpet, looked out and said, "Come inside and shut that    


I must halt my story for a moment to tell you more about Ginger Palfreeman.


We were good friends and had been since T.A. days. He was not a Glider Pilot but a Tow Master. His job was to signal the gliders away. When the Arnhem "Op" came off he insisted on going with the boys. We tried to make him see sense and stay behind. He would have none of it and arranged for someone else to do Tow Master for the "Op". The C.O. of the Wing would not give permission for him to go but he managed to square the matter with Lt. Pickwoad. Well, he was here now in a trench. I had not seen him since the day Admiral was killed. I asked him then if he was sorry he had come. His big face split into a wide sheepish grin and he said, "I can stick it, Wally". He was still sticking it.


As I was standing near his trench a mortar bomb exploded nearby. At the same time I felt a sharp crack on my head. It knocked me to the ground. I thought I had had it at last. The blow stunned me temporarily but I soon came to. I put my finger gingerly on to my helmet. There was a jagged hole in it, about the size of a penny. My head felt sticky, as though it were bleeding. It was.


Apart from a throbbing head I did not feel any the worse. 1 was thankful that I had made a practice of wearing my helmet at all times. It undoubtedly saved my life.


With the coming of morning we could take stock of our position better. We did not expect to have a great deal to do. The situation worsened, however, by the middle of the morning


At the bottom end of our gully was an open space. This was walled round as it were with a high bank of earth. The top of this bank overlooked a large field stretching across to enemy held territory. Up on our right were the trenches we had occupied the day before. On our left was a detachment of K.O.S.B. Regiment. I was stationed about half way back up the gully looking out to our right flank.


S.P. guns began to cause a lot of anxiety down in the field. They hit an ammunition dump that blew up and burned all day. A call was sent out for a six-pounder gun. I saw it come up on the bank at the bottom of the gully. Hell, I thought, it's right under the enemy's nose. It was, too. They never got it in position A shell hit it fairly and squarely. All the crew were killed. I saw a great shower of sparks fly up as this happened. It was pretty grim.


Just after this panic broke out in the wood. Someone gave an order to evacuate the wood or gave an order that was wrongly interpreted as such. The result was everyone made to leave from the wood and confusion reigned.


Everybody made for the houses. Mick and I were with them. We went into a house and met of all people Hartford, my Co-pilot. We were not long in there. A figure came striding down the road. It was Lt. Pickwoad. He was telling everyone to get back into the wood. There was a general exodus from the houses.


Back into the wood we went. As we were going in a few mortar bombs came over. We took shelter. One fell a few feet away on to the house that had been used for gun cleaning. When I looked up I did not recognise it as the same place.


I saw Bob Gear about this time. He must have caught battle fever. He was another old North Africa "waller". He was using the most violent language to get people down into the wood. To set an example he dashed off into the forest. I saw him five minutes later being escorted out with his foot badly shot up.

Mick and I went back to our old position. Almost immediately one of the boys spotted a Jerry out in the undergrowth to our front They called to him to surrender. I was amazed when he stood up practically under my nose.


He came staggering in with his hands in the air. He looked about 17 and wore S.S. badges. One of the boys who could speak German talked to him. He insisted that he was a Pole. He wanted to know if we were going to kill him. He snatched off his S.S. badges from his shoulders. He looked in a sorry state and stared round from one to another. We told him to shout and tell his comrades to surrender. He did but it did not have any effect. We took his equipment from him and one of the boys volunteered to take him to H.Q. It was Tommy Moore, our deputy Flight Sergeant. Tommy won a M.M. at Sicily. He was living up to his reputation out here.


Someone dug up some rations. Mick managed to get a tin of rice pudding. He shared it with me. It was the nicest thing I had tasted that week. I hadn't had anything to eat hardly for days. I was sorry when it was finished.


No one wanted to go down into the bottom of the gully where all the trouble had occurred earlier. An officer called for some men. Mick, Hartford and myself were the nearest. It is much easier to obey an order than disregard it. Down we went


There were dead bodies all over the place. It looked an ominous position. Two more fellows came down. They were drivers, I think, who had nothing left to drive. They looked pretty worried. We assigned these two to a position and Mick and I took another whilst Hartford had a third. We took steps to improve our position. Almost immediately one of the drivers was hit in the shoulder. Mick dashed over to him. He was looking pretty bad. Mick bandaged him up and he improved. Lt. Pickwoad told Mick to take him to the R.A.P.


I felt worried left on my own. I had been with Mick all the time. I felt lost without him as though my good fortune might change. I wasn't happy until he returned. It occurred to me that if Mick had any sense he wouldn't come back, but he did.


Meanwhile Lt. Pickwoad decided to do a little bombing raid on his own. He asked a chap to cover him and went into the wood, armed with a "tommy" gun, a two- inch mortar with smoke bombs, and same hand grenades. I was glad to see him return after a while (during which there had been some violent explosions) perfectly calm, unscathed and unruffled.


The other driver who was left told me there were dozens of Jerries down in the wood. He asked me to take my Bren gun to his position. I did so. As I was putting it on top of the bank a tracer bullet exploded two inches from my nose. I bobbed my head down pretty quickly. I ventured to look again. I felt something whizz past my ear; down I got again. I took off my helmet; the lobe of my right ear was giving me some pain. A bullet had entered on the inside of the rim of the helmet and emerged on the outside. Up to that moment I had always derided authors who made their heroes have bullets whistling past their ears. It had really happened. Had it been half an inch to the left it would have caught me in the face.


I began to feel warlike at last. I was really mad. Getting back to the bank again I had another look. I saw a Jerry peeping from behind a tree. As soon as he saw me he withdrew his head. I trained my Bren gun on the spot where I had seen his face. I knew he must look again. He did. Through the little aperture sight of the Bren gun his face appeared. I simply pressed the trigger. A tracer bullet went straight to its mark and disappeared in his face. I felt very happy.


The driver went over to Mick who had come back now. He was smoking a cigarette he had just begged from me. As he was talking to Mick a bullet caught him in the chest. He just looked at Mick and said "Oh". He collapsed on the ground lifeless.


There was another dead body near Mick. He wanted it out of the way but didn't like to touch it. He asked Hartford to do it. Hartford moved it as though it had been a sack of coal. I didn't want to look on the faces of any dead men. I couldn't avoid this one Hartford was moving. It looked ghastly. I noticed it was another of our boys. They all seemed to be Glider Pilots around this area.


Lt. Pickwoad was still doing magnificent work. He was dashing round to all the boys keeping them on their toes. He was apparently the only officer left.


I had a word with him and Tommy Moore. I pointed out that the bottom of the gully was a death trap for our chaps. I suggested moving up to some high ground just behind where we could have a better field of view.


We went together to look over it. He was impressed. The place we had found was a Mausoleum. It was built of concrete in the form of a square open at one end. The whole thing was built into the earth on the side of the bank. It was a perfect strong point and commanded an excellent view down on the enemy position. There were seven places in the Mausoleum for graves, and only one of them had been used. That one was bricked up with a memorial place. The other six were open and made excellent shelters.


The open end was fenced with a large stone gateway end iron gate. As we looked down on the enemy position we saw a whole bunch of Germans. Lt. Pickwoad gave them a burst from his tommy gun. I sent in a few rounds from my Bren gun. The Lt. took over my gun and told me to bring up Mick, Hartford, Johnson and some digging tools.

1 went back down the gully. I told Hartford and Johnson what to do but I couldn't find Mick. He was not in the trench. His trench was on the side of the bank and I could not see inside it. The thought came to me that he must have been hit and had fallen down inside. My fears were unfounded: he was not there.


I gathered up a spare rifle, a couple of spades and made by way back. Just as I reached the boys half way along the gully there was a great explosion and a sheet of flame leapt into the air about two feet away. I collapsed on the ground in a heap of shovels and rifles.


Above the explosion in the trees were two containers suspended by a parachute. We had been trying to get them down all day but without success. Now they caught fire and crashed down on to the trenches as the shrouds burnt through.


The canisters were well alight. Tommy Moore worked feverishly to put them out with sand. He did not know what might be inside. He was successful. When the fire had been put out he opened them. They both contained high explosive.


I crept carefully back to the Mausoleum. The Lt. was surprised to see me. "I cannot understand why you aren't dead, Holcroft ", he said, "I was sure you had received the full blast of that shell".


I assured him that I was very much alive. In fact at this time I was feeling fine. I had a strong, almost irresistible notion to go down into the wood with a few hand grenades. It was only the constant thought of the family at home that made me feel it was unwise to stick my neck out any further then was necessary.


I was ordered to dig in behind the gate immediately after dark. It was still raining hard as we all took shelter in the empty graves of the Mausoleum. We could still keep our eyes on the enemy. Mick came up a few moments later. He was well pleased with the place; I felt that we could hold it, if it took the Second Army months to reach us. It was not to be.


We hadn't been there long before the Germans commenced to attack our position in the wood with a number of S.P. guns. The boys were helpless against these things. They had nothing to strike back with. The Jerries began to put in some rapid fire. Every time a gun went off the whole Mausoleum rocked. It was built of concrete at least a foot thick and then there was six feet of earth all round it, but still it shook. Every blast made my head "sing". Mick said he felt the same. It was like concussion.

I couldn't see the gun but it must have been damn close. I don't think they were doing us much damage. I think the shells must have been striking at the back of the Mausoleum.


Lt. Pickwoad went off to review the situation. About this time, two ambitious Jerries rushed our trenches in the gully. They got to the top of the bank end killed one of our boys. The next moment, they fell, riddled with lead, on top of the parapet.


The situation deteriorated and Lt. Pickwoad felt that we could not possibly hold that position throughout the night. I was all right but the boys in the gully were becoming more and more exposed to an enveloping movement.


The order was given to withdraw to the houses. The Lt. called to me and told me to take up a position at the gate with my gun to cover the withdrawal. Hartford was to stay with me. I got down to the gate with my gun. I had very little ammunition left and only four magazines. Hartford had gone off to try and get some.


Mick and Johnson moved off with the rest. I thought Hartford would not bother to come back. He did, though, after the rest had gone. Good old Hartford came back to stay with me. I felt proud of him for that. He could easily have slipped away.


We did not have to stay long. Tommy Moore shouted down the wood to me telling me to get out. Hartford and I withdrew together. We were the last out of the wood. There were many of our boys still in there. They would make it their last resting place.


We found Mick in a house halfway or more down the street. He had with him Boucher.


The house was badly smashed. The roof was off. The windows were all smashed. The back of the house was no longer there. All the beautiful furnishings were smothered in glass and plaster from the shattered windows and walls. In the lounge a lovely grand piano was smashed. One thing struck me grotesquely. It was an oil painting hung on the wall of the back living room. The frame still hung on the wall but the painting had been blown out of its canvas and hung from the frame by a few threads. It was the picture of an old man.


On the walls were rows and rows of bottled fruits and a quantity of apples. Boucher made a quick survey of the fruits and promptly selected one and without further ado settled down on a mattress and began to eat. The rest of us soon followed his example. We forgot the war. The fruits were delicious.

We received no orders of any kind, and, apart from desultory mortar fire, everything was quiet. We decided to keep guard in turn and by so doing we should all have an opportunity to get some sleep.            SD

We laid out the mattresses and arranged the clothes and soon we had three beds fit for kings. In one corner of the cellar high up on the wall was a small aperture. We could see through it from the cellar steps. We would use that as a firing slip.

We had a fairly uneventful night and most of us managed to sleep for a little while at least. Occasionally the Jerries would blast us with mortars but our luck still held.

I heard a new sound that night. It was a gun that made a very distinct and different noise. Turn Tummmmmm, it seemed to say in very deep tones. I could hear the shell whistling over but from south to north. Where they were dropping could not possibly be in our lines. Could it possibly be the Second Army firing in our support? My mind was muddled. I would listen to the gun for a while and decide it was ours. Then I would change my mind and think it impossible. We had another strong rumour from a fellow who said the Second Army was at the river and ready to cross next morning.

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