(John) Albert WHAITE, Corps of Royal Engineers
I have been asked to record and recount Albert’s WW2 war service. The following account has been based on a small number of old service records left by Albert (e.g. his Army Pay Book and discharge papers), copies of his service records (from MoD), and from first-hand accounts provided by family friends (these entries are shown in italics). It has also been augmented by reference to Unit War Diaries held at The National Archives http://(http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ Extracts are shown in bold italics.
Albert was born in Manchester in 1918. Prior to the war he was employed as a “roofer”; he was also a sidesman at a local church, where he met his future wife Joyce, the daughter of the church verger. Albert underwent an Army medical for the TA on 11 July 1939 as part of the expansion of the forces and preparation for general mobilisation; he was proud to be, in his words, “a Militiaman”.
He was called up on 20 October 1939 and, because of his civilian trade, was allocated to the Royal Engineers (R.E.), in the rank of Sapper - his trade being “Pioneer”. After being enlisted he initially reported to Halifax, West Yorkshire, following which he received his basic training.
His records show that he was posted to 291 Army Troops Company R.E. who were stationed at Ranton Abbey, Staffordshire. Albert appears to have joined this unit sometime towards late November as his Pay Book shows that he was vaccinated on 24/11/39 and this is reflected in the unit’s War Diary:-
“24/11/39 - 10.45 - Further recruits vaccinated by Capt Fowler R.A.M.C.”
At the end of November, his unit moved to Rowledge in Surrey, where they stayed until the end of March 1940, undertaking further training, before being sent to France.
In late March 1940 they received orders to proceed to Southampton, and Albert’s service records now show him as part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) w.e.f. 28/03/40, the date on which the main body of his Unit left Southampton for Le Havre on deployment to France, arriving at their destination on 30/03/40.
(The pages for April 1940 are missing from the War Diary, so the following section relates to May and June, which are fully covered in the aforementioned War Diary.)
Albert’s unit initially came under command of HQ Lines of Communication, Rouen Sub Area, as part of the support troops. The War Diary records that his unit was located at Blargies and was primarily engaged in construction work (e.g. building permanent facilities and other infrastructure at various base depots).
In mid-May, his unit were moved back to the HQ in Rouen and - following the formation of “Vickforce” (later “B” Brigade, Beauman Division), an ad-hoc formation to which Albert’s unit was attached following the German breakthrough and advance - were subsequently moved forward to Forges-les-Eaux.
His unit became responsible for supporting the defence of an area lying between St Vaast and Forges-les-Eaux, fronted by the Rivers Andelle and Bethune, protecting vunerable points (e.g. road/river bridges), constructing road blocks, laying minefields and carrying out demolition tasks, later moving to Rouen to construct road blocks. On occasion they were required to act as infantry. The War Diary records that the unit was in constant from 20 May to 8 June - the following Diary entries give some indication of the workload and conditions (locations shown = HQ) -
21/5/40 – BOSC EDELINE
“01.00 - Railway Bridge over ANDELLE between NOLLEVAL and BOULAY blown
11.00 - All demolition preparations complete.
E&M & 2 Section Bridges blown from FORGES (Excl) to ROUVRAY M.4827 incl.”
25/5/40 – HOUPPEVILLE
“07.00 - Lt Hill & 6 men moved to thicken Anti-Tank minefield South of FORGES.
No.1 Section, E&M Section and 2 Section commenced works on ROAD BLOCKS north of ROUEN on line (of) Road ROUEN - AMIENS incl – MAROMME – ST MARTAIN DE BOSCHERVILLE incl.”
3/6/40 – BRACQUETUIT
“Whole Company commenced work on defence line.”
“Work continuing steadily men working all hours of daylight.”
“Sections all completed firing Mine Fields and preparing demolitions for firing within the prescribed periods.
Enemy air activity increasing in intensity. Nearly all trucks and D.Rs either Machine Gunned or bombed.”
Due to the German advance they were eventually forced to withdraw, eventually crossing the River Seine, south of Rouen, on 8 June and gradually made their way to Le Mans, where, as the War Diary records 11/6/40 – LE MANS
“Spent day refitting. Company also bathing for first time for 4 weeks.”
Albert’s unit moved northwards towards the coast, carrying out various demolition tasks etc., where they met up with 157 Brigade (52 Lowland Division), part of the 2nd B.E.F. who had been dispatched to establish a new bridgehead and to help evacuate any remaining allied troops. With 157 Brigade, his unit made their way along the coast to Cherbourg.
Because of the advancing German troops, it also became necessary to destroy any unusable equipment, vehicles etc.
Albert recalled on his pilgrimages with the Stockport & District NVA Branch that his unit drove along the French coastline, and talked about avoiding the Germans and destroying vehicles and equipment. He recounted how, in one episode, his unit buried a whole field kitchen in the dunes – he believed that it is still there, lying undiscovered!!!
On 17 June 1940, he was eventually evacuated via Cherbourg to Southampton; Albert recalled that he travelled home on a “fishing boat” and came ashore at Southampton, dressed in chefs’ whites, the bulk of his own kit having being abandoned during evacuation.
(It should be noted that Albert was one of the many thousands of British troops of the 1st B.E.F. who were left in France after the “official” Dunkirk evacuation between 26 May and 4 June 1940. )
Following his return to the UK, after assembling in Leeds, Albert was given a period of leave.
A close family friend recalled that following his evacuation from France in 1940, Albert was home on disembarkation leave. On a night out in Manchester with Joyce and her friend, a car backfired, causing him to dive into the nearest doorway to take cover, the sound of the backfire reminding him of recent events in France.
On 16 August 1940, as part of a scheme to transfer experienced soldiers from ex-BEF units to non-BEF units, he was cross-posted to 256 Field Company, R.E. During this period Albert was based in Darlington and Stockton-on Tees, and elsewhere, in the North-East undergoing further training and providing coastal home defence.
After almost 2 years on home soil, Albert sailed in June 1942 for the Middle East with 51st HD, arriving in Egypt in mid-August to join the 8th Army. Albert recalled the convoy stopping off in South Africa, and enjoying a spot of R&R in Cape Town. On arrival in Egypt, Albert’s unit was involved in reinforcing the defences surrounding Cairo, underwent desert acclimatisation and undertook training.
Albert recounted that he was one of the few men in his unit trained in the use of the “Tommy Gun”. As a result, he was asked to act as one of the bodyguards for General Montgomery during a morale boosting visit to his unit, and 51st HD, prior to El Alamein.
Albert took part in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (23 Oct 1942 to 5 Nov 1942). His unit’s role at El Alamein was to breach and clear routes through the German defensive lines so that the Allied troops could breakthrough and advance against Rommel’s Afrika Corps.
During the battle of El Alamein, Albert was caught up in a shell blast but narrowly escaped serious injury, being wounded near the base of his spine. He was “patched up” by the medics and continued fighting.
This incident is borne out by the following entry in 274 Field Company’s War Diary for the night of 23/24 October –
El Alamein –
23 - 24 “Moved on, following axis lights. After a further 500+(feet/) detected another M/F of C.V.P. mines and a network of trip mines and Italian B4s, while gapping this, were subjected to intense shellfire, shells were falling so close that 2/Lt (name redacted) and party had to clear second half of field lying on their bellies and crawling forwards. 4 men became casualties during this period from shrapnel wounds, two of these serious, the other two carried on after attention.” (My emphasis)
Following the success at Alamein, Albert’s unit was engaged in numerous tasks, including track construction / maintenance, clearing / laying minefields, salvaging equipment etc., helping to clear the North Africa desert during the pursuit of the German forces, until the North African campaign concluded in May 1943.
From North Africa, Albert sailed with his unit to Malta. His unit was part of the GORDONS assault group, which were the first troops to land on Sicily on 10 July 1943, on RED II & RED III Beaches, and thereafter fought throughout the Sicily campaign until the island’s fall 38 days later. Following the liberation of Sicily and a period on “garrison duties”, Albert returned with 51st HD to the UK in November 1943 to train and prepare for D-Day, initially in Buckinghamshire but later in East Anglia. During his disembarkation leave, Albert and Joyce got engaged; Joyce also managed to visit Albert in Charteris, Cambridgeshire, prior to “the big one”.
The Normandy Campaign
Albert’s records shows his service in France from 8 June (D-Day+2), the date the main body of Albert’s unit embarked for Normandy. It was not until 11 June 1944 (D Day+5) - after being delayed due to bad weather - that the bulk of Albert’s unit landed at Courseilles-sur-Mer (Mike Sector, Juno Beach) as part of the second wave, along with 154 Brigade; 154 Brigade (along with Albert’s unit) was initially in reserve and was at one time, one of only two reserve units available to reinforce the front line troops.
During June and August he took part in the heavy fighting to the east of Caen (on 31 July, Albert had been cross posted to 275 Field Company, attached to 152 Brigade). In the following months, Albert fought through Northern France (re-visiting the scenes of his early days of active service in 1940 with the B.E.F.). With his unit he fought on through Belgium and Holland, including following the route of the land element of Operation Market Garden.
Albert recalled that during the advance through Holland (in late October 1944), his unit came across a ragged stream of prisoners; it turned out that they were from “SS Kamp Vught” concentration camp, which had held Belgian and Dutch prisoners and had been abandoned by the retreating German forces. (This was the first concentration camp that the Allies liberated on the western front.)
Between late December 1944 & early January 1945, his unit (with 51st HD) was sent to the Ardennes in support of the First US Army following the German counter-attack against American troops, after which they returned to Holland.
On the night of 23/24 March 1945, Albert crossed the Rhine at Rees into Germany - 275 Field Company RE, being among the first British troops to bridge and cross the Rhine.
Albert’s role throughout the above period was many and varied – blasting routes through obstacles, clearing roads of obstructions, demolitions, mine clearances, and erecting temporary bridging over the many rivers of the Low Countries and Germany, etc. When VE day (8 May 1945) was announced, Albert was in the Bremerhaven area, later moving to the Hannover area, where he remained until his return to the UK. During this period his unit was involved in reconstruction work and supervising work parties drawn from prisoners of war and the local population.
Albert and Joyce planned to get married after the end of hostilities in Europe; however in typical Army fashion, his return to England was cancelled and the wedding was hastily re-arranged for 29 July. Albert was granted 9 days leave, starting on 24 July, but due to travelling difficulties his journey was delayed and the wedding had to be hurriedly put back 24 hours. Eventually, on 30 July 1945, Albert and Joyce were married. For quite a while after, when asked the date of their wedding, both Albert & Joyce frequently had to think carefully before answering, due the cancellations and confusion surrounding the actual wedding date!
Following the victory in Europe, like many servicemen, Albert expected to go to the Far East but VJ day (15 August 1945) intervened and he remained in Germany. Albert was de-kitted on 29 October 1945 (his 27th birthday) and returned home for discharge back in Halifax, where he had originally reported for duty, some 6 years earlier. He was released from wartime service on 5 December 1945 after 6 years 47 days continuous active service. He was finally released from reserve liability on 30 June 1959.
Like many others of his generation, Albert rarely spoke of his experiences; as one of the first British troops to see the effects of a concentration camp, Albert hardly ever spoke of what he had seen and witnessed or the many unpleasant experiences he had encountered. As a result he could appear unmoved (“detached” as one contributor has put it), but he had “been there and seen it all” at first hand and no longer easily shocked. In public he recalled only the “good times”, often in a deadpan manner, e.g. when asked what he carried into battle (e.g. Sicily / Normandy), he would jokingly reply - “a gun in one hand and a spare pair of pants in the other”!
In common with many, the Army - and the war - shaped his character and as one lifelong friend put it “it (i.e. the war) was the making of Albert”. It also gave him the opportunity to meet other nationalities from the (then) empire – Canadians, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders etc., as well as the people of Europe, an opportunity that would ordinarily have escaped him.
Albert adapted the “skills” he had learnt in the Army to use in later years, such as being able to improvise solutions to problems and repairs around the house. Having learnt to survive in all conditions, he used this when organising campsites with the Scouting movement in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. He impressed upon those present the need to be disciplined, leaving no waste, no sign of occupation and to leave the site as you found it - a foretaste of today’s environmental outlook. This was adapted from the lessons learnt on active service to ensure that the enemy could not identify bivouac locations, units etc.
In contrast, on another occasion, on a family holiday in North Wales, Albert explained to his two (then very) young grandsons, how it was possible to “brew up” in the sand, knowledge he had gained during his time in the desert, much to their amazement and amusement!
Later in life Albert became an active member of the Royal British Legion, Marple Branch, serving on the Committee as Assistant Secretary, Secretary and, finally, Chairman - he was also President of the associated British Legion Club (now Marple Social and Forces Club) - positions he held up to his death. He was not only an active member of the Normandy Veterans Association (Stockport & District Branch) but also the Market Garden Veterans Association (MGVA), valuing the comradeship and shared experiences of fellow NVA / MGVA veterans.
Copyright @ The Whaite family 2009 & 2018