While visiting Wild Bill Guarnere's forum, I came across the fascinating stories from Sapper. After reading page after page of his memoirs from WWII, I left a message telling him how impressed I was with his writing style and I that it was nice to hear from a Royal Engineer. I asked if he would be interested in contributing some of his stories to our site. I told him it would be great to hear from a British engineer and his stories would be a welcome addition to our ever-growing site. So it is with pleasure that I introduce Brian Guy. BTW, Sapper is the name the English use for their military engineers.
I know that there is a great deal of difference between the USA combat Engineers and the Royal Engineers, in the British Sappers there are many different companies dedicated to carrying out different tasks. My Company was a Field Company, in that role they are, it seems to me, more concerned with the front line battle areas, taking part in, and supporting the tanks and infantry, and assault work.
A good example of that is that on D Day; the DD tanks went first, at the same time the Royal Engineers landed to prepare a way for the commandos and the infantry to land. This I believe, is a quite different role to that played by the USA combat Engineers.
One thing is for sure, we all have a great deal in common, I had the honour of fighting alongside the "Yanks" near Vire at the rear of the Falaise pocket.
I would be pleased to contribute an article to your pages, concerned with the problem of mines, Something your folk will be only to aware of.
My very best regards and good wishes,
246 Field Company
Third British Infantry Division.
The Casualties of Mines
After the battles for these two towns, Overloon and Venraij, the war went into a quieter period, quiet in comparison that is, if were possible to ignore the continuous casualties from mines and shell fire. As far as we were concerned, it was fighting patrols, night after night out on the miserable flat lands that made up the Maas river line. Apart from the Enemy patrols, our greatest danger was mines, "Schu mines in particular. Schu mines are made of wood and cannot be detected by normal mine sweeping, there was no metal in them at all, just wood. These mines took a terrible toll, the injuries nearly always the same, it blew a mans foot off and left the remainder of the bone split up through like a stick of rhubarb, every day, men were coming in injured on Schu mines. Holland seemed to be infested with them. We tried everything to counter this threat, there was a lot of talk about mine dogs, some units thought they were wonderful, and that with these dogs, they had found, and lifted, huge numbers of Schu mines without suffering any casualties, my experience was quite different, we found that the poor dog, when hearing the violent explosion of a mortar or shell near by, would disappear, with its tail between its legs never to be seen again! I, for one, did not like putting my life, my feet, or by future ability to father children in the gift of some scruffy canine. The accepted manner of finding these mines was to get down on ones hands and knees and crawl forward, prodding the ground in front of you with a bayonet, hoping against hope that you would prod and find the mine without prodding the top, setting it off. Even when found, these mines had to be lifted with the very greatest care from the surrounding soil without it blowing up 6 inches from your face, at times damn near impossible. Picture if you can, a squad of Sappers, backsides in the air, slowly crawling along on their hands and knees prodding the ground in front of them, and in the middle of a battle field, can you imagine how the Germans would have laughed at such capers? but, that was the method that was used at that time! One sergeant while prodding, came up with a schu mine stuck on the end of his bayonet. YUK
The Garden Roller Man!
Oh God! What next?
Next, someone came up with the idea of using a long handled garden roller. (Please do not put this book down, thinking this is too far fetched) because it is perfectly true! A garden roller was obtained that had a long handle fitted, spikes had been welded on the drum and the operator had a cut down gas mask to protect his eyes, then, a woven rope protector was fitted round the groin, with the addition of long sleeved gauntlets to complete the ensemble. The idea, was to push this contraption along in front of you and as the weight of the roller set off the mine, it would jump up in the air on its swivel and drop down again without causing injury, believe it or not, this did actually work, but how often are you likely to find a bit of ground flat enough to successfully use it? At this point you may think "What a load of rubbish" and that is just what it sounds like! Rubbish. Apart from the fact that I was one of those soldiers who pushed this blasted thing. Imagine if you can, a cold and wet battlefield with all hell let loose, and this lonely soldier bravely pushing this bloody garden roller all by himself. Much to his mates amusement. No. No, we knew the best way to remove them, get a huge armoured bulldozer, drop the blade and cut a deep furrow in the ground, when the mines exploded they did no damage at all. If, dear reader, you think this is a bit "way out" then let me tell you that to counter the threat of these mines, they also tried running a bren gun carrier up and down over the mines, all that succeeded in doing, was to blow its tracks off.
The garden roller device was demonstrated in front of the Deputy Commander in Chief. Air Vice Marshal Tedder. I know, I know, it all sounds a bit “way out” Angered by some, that look at me with a great deal of scepticism, doubting my word. I spent £76 to buy the company war diaries. The result: The war diaries of the company state "The garden roller experiment was a washout"!
This photo was taken in Sting's Elizabethan Manor in England. Quite stately don't ya think? Here's the lo-down from Brian. The manor has quite a history.
That was my war time convalescent home, it then belonged to the Cunard Shipping family, Every time I go into "Lake House" the old Manor wraps its arms around me and makes me feel completely at home....almost magic. Everyone that has been there has remarked on the warmth and welcome the old place bestows on her friends, I have been back several times, and each time I go there, I still get that feeling of welcome from the old Manor. I was recovering from severe wounds sustained in Holland. The BBC took me there and we did a short film on the Manor House. But I could go on all night about the adventures of Sapper Brian, for I did take part in every battle from the shores of Normandy to the borders of Germany, the wounding was the second. Trudi Styler, Stings wife, told me that as soon as she walked through the door of the Manor she experienced that magic welcome, and bought the place without asking her husband, he was on tour.Must stop for it goes on for hours.
The Reluctant Band of Hero’s
Vire theatre of operations
Shortly after arriving at our new location, we harboured in a field near the town of Vire. That same night a small band of Sappers had been selected for a night patrol, a patrol that was to penetrate through the front line, and then venture deep inside the Enemy territory. Now! Some 60 years on it all sounds cloak and dagger, but not then!
Patrols into Enemy territory are by their very nature, horrible, it's very dangerous and can be guaranteed to set your teeth on edge, (Well it does mine!) night patrols are even worse, seldom do you know exactly where you are going! If you arrive at the right place it is more by good luck than judgment. In fact, it is a mystery to me that one survives at all, after blundering about the country side, doing your best to keep quiet, but in fact, making enough noise to awaken the dead. As dusk fell, this brave little band of reluctant heroes, half a dozen strong, set off up this leafy lane that led into Enemy territory, dark and overgrown with trees that cut out what little starlight there was.
To cut a long story short we had completed out task. Fine! We then set off back, but before we reached our own lines, all hell was let loose on us, this time by our own men. The Middlesex regiment, they were the Third British Infantry Division heavy mortar and heavy machine gun group. Now! I have heard it said in boast that a prize crew from the Middlesex regiment could get 18 mortar bombs in the air at one time, I believe them! I believe them.
After this stonking we carried on down the lane that led us back to our harbour area, as we skirted a farmhouse someone fired a star shell into the sky, this nineteen year old Dorset lad with the rest of that reluctant band of Hero’s, Bren at the ready, investigated with a great deal of caution.
I found an English officer in the dark, leaning on his right elbow on the farmhouse steps, one of his legs was severed at the knee with just a little sinew and ligament between the top of his leg and the lower limb. I still recall that even in the dark his face was so pale and ashen through loss of blood. When I discovered him his first words were "Please take my orders and cut this bloody leg off."
I had never disobeyed an order before, but I did this time! A brave man, I wonder what happened to him? I wonder if he survived? I also wonder if he would recognize himself from this story? I never knew what happened to him and probably never will. I just hope that he will remember a very young and frightened teenager who came to his aid on very dark night in August, and inside Enemy territory.
While we were there we heard other sounds from another part of the farmyard, and after investigating we found several wounded, some of them severely. Realizing we were not equipped to deal with this, we hurried back to our base area where our medical officers were harboured. At that time we had a German paratroop doctor who had helped with the wounded , it was this German doctor that accompanied us back to where the wounded were situated. Let me break off for a moment to describe this man.
A big man, dressed in paratroop smock with a large white square back and front of his tunic, both emblazoned with a red cross, He had a black spade beard and was a striking looking fellow, this man had been with the company for a little while, treating both German and British wounded. What happened to him? Again, I will never find out, later we noticed that he was no longer with us, probably in the cage, but I do know that he was a dedicated medical man and one that some British wounded were grateful for his tending their injuries.
Sometimes, at odd times, I think of him, and wonder, what happened to him? Did he survive the war, and would he recognize himself from this story? I also kid myself that he may just recall that dark night in August.1944. The next day, the water wagon, while trying to find us, took the wrong turning and had gone straight into the Enemies territory by mistake, realized his error, he reported that the enemy had pulled out during the night, it now became obvious why we were able to get into his lines without being killed on our night patrol. It is quite possible that the Enemy left the wounded behind for us to find and treat.
Within hours the company had loaded up and chased after them, it did not take long to find him again!
246 Field Company R.E.
This Winters BLESMA magazine (British Limbless Ex-service mans Association) had a charming article about the Goodwood Battles, and at the place where I remember most. ‘Sannerville’ A quite beautiful Third British Infantry Division memorial, with the Red and Black triangles built into the memorial wall.
Opening the page, the picture staring me in the face, was of this 3 Div memorial situated at “Sannerville”.
Why should this picture be of such importance to me? Well simply this, because I found the Goodwood operation one of the most frightening that I had experienced so far. Our theatre of war was to cover the area of; Bannerville, Sannerville, and Toufreville.
We took all these villages and then tried to take Troarn, We never got there. In the meantime my memory of this time was one of continuous and drenching shell and mortar fire, the countryside around was fairly flat, so we often had the frightening sight of watching salvo after salvo of ‘Moaning Minnies’ marching across the plain to wards us. The fire from many quarters continued night and day, for all the time we were there. Accompanied by the fire I dreaded most, ‘Air bursts’.
Air bursts are shells that burst over your head and shower you with red hot slivers of shrapnel. There is no defence from Airbursts, it is no good ‘digging in’
Sannerville! A name that still fills me with an odd and uneasy feeling, nothing I can put my finger on, just a feeling of unease.
While harboured in an orchard at Sannerville, we came under wave after wave of fire, not only shell, but mortar and machine gun fire, that swept the Orchard, The bullets stripping the leaves of the trees over our heads, Then, when a salvo of Moaning Minnies dropped right into the Orchard, one of the men went mad, running wildly around the Orchard brandishing his Commando knife. I had dug in just under the front of the Bren Gun Carrier.
We had a three tonner drawn up, filled with anti-tank mines and explosives. It was then found that the boxes of explosives were in an “Unstable” condition. Jock Mathers and myself were ordered to unload the lorry, and put the boxes of explosives into a slit trench. If they had blown up? then we would all have been vaporised.
Despite the incoming fire, the two of us unloaded these boxes “Gingerly” Meanwhile While Jock and myself had unloaded the boxes, some of the lads had got hold of the man that went berserk, and tied him down. All the time the whole area was under heavy fire...
That was one day in the battle of Goodwood! Rest In Peace Jock Mate.
For Christmas a short and interesting (I hope) little story.
The Pipes the Pipes
Stir the blood a little
It is not only images and scenes that remain with one through the years, but also sounds, sounds that can remind one of times long past. Today, (60 years ago) We were going to take Caen! We had now reached the high ground on the left hand rout into the City of Caen, this dusty road that looked down on the Colombelles industrial area on the outskirts of Caen, with the high building of the ironworks far below, all rusty and gaunt. From our vantage point it was possible to see for miles down below and the ground spread out all round in a wide panoramic view.
Blissfully unaware that the area was still in German hands and that he was watching our every move, (we had been told that the 51st Highland div had taken it) After having a long look at the ground down below we the carried on sweeping and clearing our way forward, to ensure that the way was free from the Enemy and from mines.
The Enemy soon put a stop to this, we had just entered and cleared a farm house when all hell was let loose, from the tall rusty looking steel works down below, came a tremendous barrage of shell fire. Point blank shell fire, where one does not hear the shells coming until the last split second, when the incoming fire sounds like an express train with the scream of shells, with violent explosions and tearing shrapnel, the farm house exploded in a great shower of splintered wood and then came down about my shoulders, the flying debris, the continuing scream and flashing fire, the rippling explosion of the shells, an intense barrage, the swirling smoke and pandemonium and ones whole being gripped with fear. The moans and cries of mortally wounded men, my mouth dry and choked with dust. After the fire died down I started to extricate myself, covered in dirt and dust and splintered wood, the bitter stench of cordite.
When in the distance, I heard the sound of the bagpipes, above all that noise, I could hear the skirl of the Scots pipes, when I got out of the rubble I looked down the dusty track and there he was, nonchalantly marching slowly towards us, this piper, khaki kilt swaying from side to side, as he made his way forward concentrating on his playing. Sounds of war! Whenever I hear the pipes I must admit to having a great big lump in my throat, I have been into battle with the sound of the pipes and I cannot hear them without being deeply moved.
I should have added this here long ago, but better late than never as they say! You can read more about Brian from his personal additions to the Wild Bill Guarnere forum. Grab a cup of coffee (oh heck you'll need a pot and some donuts too) and read this fascinating account of his war memoirs. Thank you.
Brian Guy recalls...