Jack in 1940
Jack was born on January 6th 1920, in Chorlton cum Hardy, Manchester. At the age of 11 years he moved with his family to Nottingham where he attended the Beckett Grammar School. As he hoped to work for the family motor company he left school to begin training as a motor mechanic. He attended evening classes at Nottingham University and during the day worked for different companies learning a variety of associated skills.
Jack joined the Territorial Army in April 1939, his unit being 2nd AA divisional workshop R.O.A.C. at the drill hall in Derby Road, Nottingham. He attended the annual camp at Fullford Barracks, Leeds, for training in different trades supervised by Warrant Officers. He passed out as a Driver Mechanic. He received mobilisation papers on August 22nd 1939 and subsequently worked with others at Chilwell Depot, checking and 'making good' (i.e. bringing up to military standard) dozens of impressed vehicles. After a further course of instruction at Woolwich Arsenal he spent the next two years travelling to gun sites around the country repairing faulty guns and equipment. In 1942 it was realised by Forces Command that a unit of specially trained men should be formed to carry out mechanical and electrical repairs on all vehicles (tanks, trucks, cars, etc) as quickly as possible. Thus R.E.M.E. (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) was formed by taking men with the appropriate skills from different units.
The Normandy Campaign
The troop that Jack was a part of was designated to land in Normandy at D+10 (10 days after D-Day, the 16th June). But, as Jack explains, they were not viewed as separate days in which troops came across. Because of the huge amount of soldiers and equipment that had to be transported across the channel, there was a more or less continuous stream of transport. They moved from Goring to a strictly controlled large camp surrounded by barbed wire (there were rumours that the sentries were under orders to try and shoot anyone who tried to leave unlawfully!). As well as the constant speaker announcements that were colour coded for different groups of people, Jack remembers thinking that that this was likely to be his last time to eat and rest at leisure, and so he took the opportunity to do both.
From here it was the final move for the convoy to Portsmouth, and the last Jack saw of bystanders cheering them on. They loaded onto two Canadian tank landing craft and began the arduous crossing in poor conditions:
“It was rough. And we were on our own. So we just hoped to God that they’d cleared all the main, mines and everything”
Jack was only to find out later that the reason the convoy was moving was because another workshop had been knocked out, and they were urgently needed to replace it.
The crossing was rough for both Jack and the boat. One of the trucks came loose of its lashings. Although the Captain told them to abandon the truck because of the conditions, Jack and the other troops knew that the truck contained rare and much-needed Sherman tank spare parts. They battled against the weather and gravity before finally lashing it down. With this done, it was time for Jack’s unit to land in 3 feet of water and make their way onto the beach.
Jack was immediately struck by two visions, which he still remembers vividly to this day. The first was all of the damaged vehicles lining the track they were driving on. The second was a series of cows, dead and rigid on their backs at intervals along the field. Both served as chilling reminders of the violence that had preceded him. Bizarrely, the other sense of Jack’s that was assaulted was smell – a perfume factory next to the track had been blown up during the hostilities and scent been spread far and wide.
About a mile down the “REME road”, the convoy had to stop to remove the waterproofing from the vehicles. This would allow them to function properly and not overheat. The ominous sound of rifle fire was clear in the distance, but he was reassured: “Don’t get upset about it, it be our fellers doing the shooting” by a colleague. After an hour’s delay, the convoy set off again and reached its destination, one of 6 workshops along the road.
The workshop was a relatively primitive affair, consisting mainly of tents and slit-trenches (a thin, deep trench infantry soldiers dig to protect themselves from weapons fire) captured from the Germans. Jack noted that they got to work straight away – “we just started as the tanks rolled in or the vehicles and got on with getting them right”. He and a friend managed to improve their trench with an armoured plate for the bottom and a radio, but there was no disguising the difficult conditions they had to live in.
Jack must have been efficient in his job, as he was promoted to Warrant Officer during the war. Upon his return to Britain at the end of the war, his adjutant expressed disbelief at Jack being promoted. When asked why, he replied in good humour “[because] you’re the biggest bloody fiddler I ever met”.
Upon his return, Jack resumed his substansive rank of Sergeant and was tasked to set up and run a workshop to be used for training other soldiers as part of the process of leaving the army. He was in charge of compiling a mechanical training programme for groups of 20 soldiers, and managing his own training team of instructors. It was this experience, combined with his actions in the war, that Jack feels prepared him for civilian life and gave him a successful career. He became one of only 4 chartered motor engineers in Manchester, as well as gaining a host of engineering and mechanical qualifications. He ran a Morris & Wolsey dealership in Fallowfield before becoming a director of a family business, the Williams Motor Co. The experience the army gave him was invaluable, allowing him to lead by example and not give tasks to his employees that he could not do himself – “They used to say ‘You’d better do it or else he’ll come and put his overalls on’”.
Jack has returned to the site of his operations in Normandy. He found the location of his slit-trench, but this and the “REME road” have long since disappeared. However, the sentiment surrounding the war still remains:
“We were sitting waiting for a meal at night, I said to Mary (his wife) “Yes we came in down there, and the workshops went up about a mile there”. Next thing over my shoulder, “Monsieur, a veteran?” “Oui.” “Ah.” This was years after. Next thing you know – Calvados. Honestly. All they said was “Thanks”. I’ve got a half bottle there now. From 10 years ago.”
Jack and his wife Mary moved to Marple Bridge in 1979, living there until Jack died in 2010.