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By this time large numbers of German forces had been trapped when the Falaise Gap was closed and the remaining armies in the West were under orders to retreat as the Allies advanced. Jim described much movement: slow to begin with, then faster as the terrain became easier. He noted the happier welcome they received from the population and signs of the Germans moving back: materiel abandoned, troops surrendering and bodies unburied.

B.L.A. France, 27 August 1944

“We’ve been moving steadily but slowly up hill and down, through farmyards and across streams – low gear work mainly, with stops averaging two hours apiece. One morning we left at 5 a.m. and by 1.30 p.m. had done six miles – good going n’est-ce pas? Jerry has scarcely touched this part of the country – just buzzed through it after his massacre farther back – and it was a massacre too – indescribable. As a consequence the people are embarrassingly matey and are round all day. One chap about 30 has spent all day pushing barrow-loads of washing water from his farm so that we may wash… He is proud of the fact that Jerry cut off his trigger finger for him in 1940 as a suspected franc-tireur. They chopped it off in the local butchers.”

“… everyone shakes hands here and it is amusing for me to see some hard-skinned bloke… shaking hands in a bewildered sort of fashion with a child of about three who toddles up and holds out his hand… Everyone must shake with everyone and this ruling is meticulously carried out – it is useless to compromise on seven or eight as the other two will bear down on one remorselessly… They are all ardent De-Gaullists. I must say that there is one thing I’ve noticed amongst them, they or rather several I have met know pictures of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Badoglio, Stalin, and of course all the Jerries but many cannot recognise Churchill or George VI! So much for our propaganda.”

"28th. Twenty miles further on now – a sudden move, and perhaps another today as well. Today is rather cloudy with some wind. It may give Jerry an opportunity to get more stuff away across the Seine at Rouen. Did you hear of the RAF catching that convoy 15 miles long and pasting it for several hours? I hope we don’t pass along that road – I’ve had enough of that sort of thing but the Frogs don’t seem to mind… One family was having tea on the sidewalk table with snowy cloth and dishes, girls in summer dresses and sandals with two Jerries literally lying under the table itself all black and bloated and covered in flies.”

“Remind me to tell you someday, when I’m nice and comfortable and safe, about our Searchlight Nights! I can smile about them now but they were nowt to laugh at then. I’ll bet that will arouse your feminine curiosity – searchlight nights. I don’t know if it was Monty’s idea but if so he’s batty. Those were days of consternation on ditto.”

After describing a snack of chips fried in butter, Jim revealed the source of the butter.

“This particular butter – about 2 lbs – came as rather a surprise – apparently I bought it with two bars of chocolate yesterday – which is rather intriguing as I have no chocolate nor have I had any for some time. Anyway a sergeant – note sergeant – ambled up to the truck with it yesterday and said ‘When are you going to collect your xxxx butter, here it is filling my xxxx mess tin and I can’t xxxx well get my xxxx lunch for it.’ My gentle expostulations were swept aside as he had with his own xxxx eyes seen me paying for it with the aforesaid chocolate and who am I – a mere trooper – to argue with a sergeant?”

“Fred and I slept in a cider-press one night two nights – very quoise. We had a meal that day of french beans from a garden and I found a tomato, one solitary tomato… Because of booby traps we were warned about Jerry mining private gardens at the place where we slept in the cider-press. The warning came when I personally had combed every garden for miles! I did walk across one field and climb the gate into a lane – on the gate was a notice ‘Achtung Minen’ but it meant the field I’d just crossed! Probably a dud field anyway – he uses quite a lot of faked signs. On the other hand the lane was mined but had been swept and the mines were lying beside the holes from which they had been taken. ‘S’ mines they were. Just like a jam pot to look at. When you tread on them there is a little pop and up jumps the inner casing about 6 ft in the air and then wallop she goes and you are filled with ¼ inch ball bearings – just the job.”

Jim went on to play down the likelihood of stepping on a mine as the French knew where they had been laid and warned the authorities. Mine sweeping was a priority. He then wrote about the mixture of nationalities that comprised the German Army.

“I’m damned if I know where all his men come from, though he uses a lot of Poles, Russians, Rumanians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, French, Belgians. The Falaise collapse produced so many that it was an embarrassment and were they bomb-happy! Can you imagine sitting in a road having a smoke when suddenly beside you a white flag appears through the hedge – yards of pole follow and eventually a hairy face appears attached to a very muddy body and followed closely by several more bodies – and a few more of the Wehrmacht are happy. One early morning on the road as we were moving along a Scottie was sitting in the ditch eating his breakfast from his mess tin. As I drew level he suddenly got up and with tin in one hand and bread in the other went to the hedge and kicked – out came a Jerry looking very downcast. The Scot waved with his bread into a field and away they went – another in the bag.”

“I cannot see that with his present rate of losses in men, materials and ground that he can hold out till ’45. He may do as a lot depends on the weather but the strain will be enormous.”

B.L.A. France, 1 September 1944

“I must have spent the best part of 48 hours at the wheel and passed through more villages and towns than I ever dreamed I’d see for a long time. The ‘Anglais’ are very popular at present and there is bags of cheering and flag waving particularly if one happens to be tearing along at the time. I suppose there is something impressive about a line of traffic about seven or eight miles long belting through a village at about 30 mph in clouds of dust – makes them feel as though we’re really going somewhere.”

Prisoners were plentiful:

“Last night our A2 echelon had so many that it looked like a Jerry outfit and in the dark it was impossible to tell one from t’other as all were milling around – the Jerries to get straw as beds (having no blankets) and our blokes looking for each other. Now and then one meets an odd Jerry vehicle driving itself into captivity – this morning an ambulance arrived absolutely festooned with Jerry. There were two sitting cross-legged on the front bumper bar and two on each wing, one on each step and others hanging on to various lumps. They are all convinced that they will eventually win the war and are quite cheerful – they have immense faith in this Secret Weapon which is to appear shortly.”

“At present we are in an orchard which has been used by Jerry as a bomb-dump, spotted as such by Taf" (Tactical Air Force) “ and bombed. There are smallish bombs scattered all over the auction but the big ones about my size are all in neat crates. The whole area is carpeted with apples blown from the trees by the explosions. It must have sounded rather funny to anyone near. First the crash of the bombs and then b-rrrump as all the apples hit the tin coverings of the dumps which were, naturally enough, built under the aforementioned trees… have I a twisted sense of humour?”

“Another thing which amused me was the picture of a small child avec sa mère standing on the sidewalk of one of the villages. He dutifully gave me a beautiful Nazi salute as we passed only to have his knuckles rapped by his indignant and immediately frightened mother and his fingers stretched out triumphantly into the V-sign.”

“2 September. We passed a partially built rocket site a few days ago – gigantic affairs of reinforced concrete mostly underground. I hope he never gets round to using them as I should imagine they would account for a small town.”

Jim described how he and Fred made a stew followed by stewed apples and custard. Note that one quart = 2 pints; cwt = hundredweight and there are 20 cwt to a ton.

“How does one make custard anyway? We boiled a quart of milk and added two beaten eggs in milk and boiled the kooloo up but it curdled – however it would have curdled anyway on the apples so it didn’t matter and it was good. Lots of sugar as we found a cwt sack of it on a Tedesci wagon. We had another two quarts of milk and boiled that but it curdled as well – maybe because we boiled it in the stew tin which wasn’t too clean as the curdled milk tastes a little of stew now.”

After observing that the News was good he added a comment about the Eastern Front.

“The only fly in the general ointment is Joe’s failure to do anything decent this year apart from chase Jerry a few hundred miles which he intended to give up anyway. He is stopped now quite obviously. Still, the end of the trail is in sight I think unless Jerry can pull something spectacular from the bag.”

Jim confessed he didn’t know what date to write on the next letter but the envelope is postmarked 10 September. It also isn’t clear when he left France and entered Belgium but it must have been around this date because by the time he was able to date a letter “10 September” with confidence he reported that “It is becoming difficult now to find anyone who speaks French and their gaiety is not quite so spontaneous.”

Through Belgium at 35 mph

"The chase thro' Belgium after Falaise breakthrough - about 35 mph"

B.L.A. Belgium, 10 September 1944

“The old milometer has been ticking up many miles since I last wrote, most of which has had the appearance of a victory march – we’ve been mobbed silly by thousands of people, showered with apples, pears, plums, beer, brandy, eggs, tomatoes, and I’m afraid many of your Senior Service are scattered all over western Europe. Our wagons are a mass of signatures and slogans written in chalk… They are bedecked with flowers and flags – I’ve never seen so many Union Jacks in my life, huge ones they are and I’ve no idea where they came from… I wish I could give you some of this fruit – we have to bury it at night. One cannot refuse it very well as it is all that most of them have to give but one cannot eat an average of 40 or 50 lbs of apples and pears every day – much being scarcely ripe anyway.”

“The S.S. have given them a bad time indeed and their favourite pastime, men and women alike, is to watch any S.S. prisoners they take being shot in the village square – they never shoot them where they take them but always bring them to the village or town first. We, of course, do not permit the shooting of any prisoners at all but as many of them are handed over to the Forces of the Interior to look after I suppose they sort them over too. The ordinary Wehrmacht soldier isn’t too bad they say and they let him live – nice of them. It is difficult to say whether this shooting is justified though from what they say of the S.S. there is scarcely one of them who deserves any better treatment. They are fanatical fighters we know as we have met them several times in France and they fight to the last man nearly every time – we know they have shot some of our men when taken prisoner – well maybe they deserve it though it’s hard line on those men drafted to S.S. regiments, a thing now becoming common.”

“At the last village we were ‘investigating’ we were offered first some apples over the hedge of a rather large garden, then some honey and after chatting to the chappy involved discovered he was the village schoolmaster – we were ‘in’. He invited us in – Fred, Mac and myself and we sat down to honey and pears. The bloke next door – a mansion le plus magnificent – then rolled in with his wife. He is a cotton mill owner (of all things) and knows Manchester and Liverpool well – again we were ‘in’. He spoke English quite well with their rather gutteral accent and after telling us all the history of the place invited us to dinner the next night… We never got the dinner or dance by the way as we moved once more."

“It is typical of the Tommy’s humour that the word ‘liberate’ now means to ‘knock the hell out of’ – Caen, Falaise, Evrecy, Villers Bocage, etc. were all thoroughly liberated – most of these places are not liberated at all though the Tedesci army is being thoroughly liberated now.”

At the end of the letter he managed to hint to Pip about his location, without upsetting the censor. “… by the way, I’m well past our honeymoon route – I thought of it as I crossed the railway lines – it was night then too. I remember stopping at the station there.” They had spent their honeymoon in Grindelwald and apparently travelled there by train across France.

Driving through Belgium

"Through Belgium"

"Note spare track plates carried on front - always welcome as extra protection against A/P"

B.L.A. Belgium, 10 September 1944

“We still are in the category of Zoological Specimens to the population who wave flags and throw fruit and flowers whilst we are moving and then flood into the leaguer area as soon as we stop… it is utterly impossible to have a bath or a wash down for instance, and folks are there to see you bed down and get up again in the morning. The cookhouse is a great centre of attraction and the crowd surges forward when the lids come off to see what we’re having… They leave a little aisle one man wide, down which we wend our way to draw our ration and then peer into the mess tins as we carry them away again.”

“We have just done a stroke of good business – sold a bike for the equivalent of 35/-. It was an atrocious bike which we have carried since we first landed – a paratroop’s folding bike – there were hundreds for the picking up near the beaches. We were going to ask £1 for it but he offered 35/- before we could ask him, so so be it.”

“The women like to wash clothes for us as we give them a large lump of soap to do it with, which of course they don’t use at all. Their soap is horrible stuff but they seem to keep everything spotlessly clean in spite of it.”

“I saw a rather queer civilian a few days ago – he was actually a Tommy who has been living as a civvy since Dunkirk and had almost forgotten how to speak English – he was on his way home on leave!... We also sent back seven other blokes who had been taken prisoner at Caen and had been marched by Tedesci over 200 miles until we overtook them and reversed the procedure.”

Jim found more to write about than when he was in the Western Desert, not just the varied scenery and rapidly changing state of the war but also the attitude of English-speaking inhabitants of the villages they paused by before the next advance. (He claimed his French wasn't good enough for more than basic conversation.) He worried that the war would last longer than some predicted and was doubtful about the decision of one of Pip's neighbours back in Liverpool to remove the Anderson shelter from his garden.

B.L.A. Belgium, 11 September 1944

“One good thing is the partial disposal of the buzzbomb threat although he can still send them in from Holland. I’m afraid the personnel of the sites have been roughly handled by our blokes. I think Mr F. is very foolish to demolish his shelter – there is every possibility in my opinion of the war dragging on into next spring and no-one knows what Jerry can cook up in the winter months. There is no reason why he cannot increase the range of his buzzbombs and there is no doubt whatever about his giant rocket because I’ve seen one of the sites unfinished I admit but complete enough to show that it is a terrific affair.”

Jim questioned the absence of women in their twenties and wonders if they had all been sent to “the Reich”. He described a visit to a “dive or joint about the size of our living room”.

“… there was a minute bar in this place and a one-man band (accordion and drums)… they have only one dance apparently, which is what they call Schwing – an elementary form of jitterbugging, a fast Charleston step of sorts with a violent pumping of the right arm… the girls go almost hysterical and fly round kissing everyone who offers them the slightest encouragement. They were all in their teens. I’d murder a daughter of mine if I caught her at it – or would I? It seems a fairly respectable assembly, not a joint in the British sense.”

One village, where Jim met another local schoolmaster and the stationmaster, had been liberated three times already.

“Firstly Tedesci went away and a Jeep arrived – hurrah! Up go all the flags – then the Jeep went away and Jerry came back – not so good – down come the flags. Then some infantry arrive bang bang bang – Tedesci hops it – hurrah up go the flags – Tedesci come in again with an armoured car bang bang – not so good. Tommy departs and down come the flags. Then come two of our tanks and hurrah hurrah hurrah up go the flags again and they’re still up at present.”

“Apparently the Germans, in the early days, tried their best to convince them that the war was won already but they would not believe it – as the stationmaster put it ‘We just look at the German so’ and he peers intently at you ‘the English say one day they come here – and poof you are gone – they will come, they have said so’ and quite grimly here ‘and when the English say so – so it will be – the German he did not like it’.”

"14th ... Willy the Despatch Rider is waiting for this now..."

The schoolmaster took Jim's photograph and sent it to Pip together with the following letter which was not subject to censorship and so gave her another scrap of information about where he had been.

spacer 600Letter from Belgian schoolmaster

The first page of the letter that the schoolmaster, Albert Rooms, sent to Pip with the promised photographs, and one of the pictures that he took.

Jim in Belgium

 

spacer 600

The letter concludes: "N.B. Waasmunster is a village ± 6ooo inhabitants just between Gent and Antwerp"

Albert Rooms

Jim is joined by Albert Rooms and two unnamed troopers.

It appears from the last line on the page that Albert Rooms might have sent six photographs to Pip. If so then I have only found these two so far. It may be that there were several copies of the same pictures and Pip sent the duplicates on to Jim's parents.

 

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