"I was that boy you see in old books and films – riding a big bicycle with a huge wire basket just in front of the handlebars. Home delivery was common practice in those days and there was an army of teenage boys kept busy. As time went on I worked more in the shop but of course we all knew what was coming next and we were ready to do our bit."
At the age of 18 Ralph was called up and passed his army medical A1. He formally enlisted for five years service in November 1942 and was sent to Dale Camp in Chester where he underwent 6 months basic infantry training. At the end of that year Ralph was posted to the 7th Battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and moved to Shorncliffe Camp in Folkestone.
Through 1943 there was more training as Classified Scale D Class 1 Driver and particularly as Vickers Heavy Machine Gunner. Training continued throughout the year and went on to include ‘driver mechanics' and ‘water duties course'. On 11th May 1944 Ralph was given his first home leave. As soon as he returned to base, the Battalion was transferred to Tilbury in preparation for embarkation.
"We were at Wanstead Flats, living in tents within a secure wired area. We spent 2-3 weeks there before boarding on 17th June. At Tilbury Docks we went aboard an LST (Landing Ship - Tanks) along with plenty of other troops, including Canadians. I was driving a Bren Carrier and was just about the last to board. This worried me a bit at the time; I kept thinking – ‘last on first off!'
The Bren Carrier was a tracked vehicle of about 4 tons. We had a crew of three, with me as the driver. There was a Vickers Heavy Machine gun built in at the front, and a Bren gun mounted on the open rail. Driving wasn't easy as there was only a small viewing opening at the front.
Although we were supposed to set off immediately, there was bad weather in the Channel and we just waited off the Kent coast for about 6 days. I really have no idea how many men were aboard, but I'm quite sure everyone was just about as sick as I was. There were virtually no facilities on board as we were supposed to go straight to Normandy overnight.
Rations were a problem; our Gunner Sergeant had suggested we bring bread with us, so we had a few loaves on board. They soon went mouldy! In any case, by the time we finally got to the beaches of France on 23rd everyone was just thrilled to get off that damned boat!"
As Ralph had suspected, he was first off. The Bren Carrier was transferred onto an LCT (Landing Craft – Tanks). Fortunately by that time, the landing was unopposed. Armoured vehicles of all types along with supporting troops landed without much incident. By this time the Battalion was attached to the 59th Staffordshire Division which formed the break-out force tasked to take Caen.
"I always think that it was the delayed crossing which saved my life. By the time we landed the fighting had moved inland. Nevertheless the landing was quite tricky. Our Bren Carrier was fitted with skirting panels which were designed to stop us being swamped by the water. These could be simply removed with a spanner, but on ours the front panel became twisted and it obscured my view. Anyway – I just put my foot down and we were on the beach. I hardly got my tracks wet! We landed in the late afternoon at about 5 o'clock and quickly cleared the beach to move inland in the direction of Caen. We found a wooded area and camped there for the night. Before long our first action brought us to the harshest realities of war and yes, we lost some good pals.
Within about 10 days or so of our landing there was a huge bombing raid on Caen. We were instructed to dig in; this meant digging a hole big enough for me to drive the Bren Carrier into and to shelter the rest of us. Although we had been told to keep our heads down, the air attack was the most terrific sight. We were told it was a 450 bomber raid; throughout this we were standing on the Carrier shouting and cheering! Of course we knew this bombardment was going to make our task easier."
It was a 450 bomber raid, dropping in excess of 2,500 tons of high explosives. The action was carried out by Halifax & Lancaster heavy bombers which crossed the city in waves, starting at about 22:30 on 7th July.
The bombing was only about 1,000 yards ahead of the British lines so there was much concern about accurate bomb aiming and keeping ahead of Allied troops.
The German forces had retreated under this onslaught but fierce fighting continued as the Battle of Normandy slowly progressed south towards Paris and east to he Rhine.
"Despite the heavy bombing, the retreating enemy remained in force and fighting was as tough as it could be. There were always casualties. The way I see it is that there were two main battles: Caen & Noyers Bocage."
"One evening we pulled in by a farm house. We put the netting up over the Carrier and set up the radio mast to get an update and receive orders. One side of the Carrier sank into the ground and the tracks became lodged for a while. Once I drove out we uncovered a food store. The locals had a habit of secreting food in such places and we pulled out a whole ham along with lots of other food. We had a real feast that night! In fact, having the Bren Carrier provided us with a very useful mobile larder and we used the storage bins for all sorts of goodies as we progressed through the countryside. It was just as well since we were rarely in the right place to get our issue of rations.
After Caen, the 59th Division forced its way South against very strong and determined resistance. By the time we reached Thury-Harcourt, South East of Noyers, it was mayhem. In the North & South Staffs we took 90% casualties. After we had taken the town, the enemy retreated west across the River Orne which was to be become our next obstacle."
The town of Thury Harcourt was taken in the early hours of the morning of 14th August. Casualties were so severe that Montgomery took the decision to disband the 59th Division using the ranks to reinforce the 2nd Army which was by then well under strength. Ralph recalls the campaign came to an end with the enemy trapped in an area of sunken roads at Falaise.
This became known as the Battle of Falaise Gap, or in French ‘La Poche de Falaise' where, after concentrated heavy shelling, the 59th Division joined with Polish, Free French and Canadian forces, the enemy was routed. Ralph explained the scene was just a mess of dead horses, troops and burned out armoured vehicles.
Upon returning to Thury Harcourt at the 60th Anniversary of the liberation in August 2004, Ralph was awarded what we would call ‘Freedom of the Town'. The Mayor of Thury Harcourt awarded the 20 survivors present this distinguished honour which Ralph treasures...
"We were celebrated on that day and made to feel like conquering heroes. There were only 20 of us left from the 59th Division; I suppose this is a fair refection of the casualties we took during those days in August 1944.
Everywhere we went that day there were 20 chairs set out for us. All the townspeople made us very welcome; especially the children who had clearly been brought up to know the details of the history of the liberation. It was a proud day for us all, and one which I will never forget."
In June 2009 Ralph traveled to Normandy with D-Day Revisited for the 65th anniversary commemorations. With a cheeky look in his eye, he had gently suggested that we find a moment in the itinerary to visit the town of Thury-Harcourt, and so we did. Ralph was pleased to have the opportunity to lay a wreath in memory of the friends he lost in the battle to liberate this region 65 years earlier.
As a result of Monty's split up of the 59th Division, Ralph and his crew were transferred to No 33 RHU, awaiting a new unit for permanent assignment. At that time Ralph was still a Private but could see the advantage of volunteering so they could stay together as a team. Having transferred as Gun Carrier Drivers to a Machine Gun Platoon they were put on a slow train in cattle trucks. The plan was to catch up with their new battalion which was attached to the 15th Scottish Division in Helden, Holland.
"It was just about the slowest train I've ever been on! Whenever we wanted to brew up one of us would jump off and run ahead to the engine and open the steam valve on the side. Each time I did this, I would then just wait until our carriage came along, then jump back on. There was also a time when we went passed an orchard. We all jumped off, filled our pockets and then just jumped back on again.
We crossed the Rhine on my 21st birthday. In one of those amazing coincidences, we were waiting to cross on one of the ‘buffaloes' when the mail came in. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, and there in the mail was a birthday cake from my Mother! So we quickly shared this treat as we were boarding to cross the river.
As we broke out East, we had help from the Free French, Poles and Canadians and soon became caught up in the mess at Arnhem. This was the most enormous traffic jam with every type of military vehicle strung out all along this narrow road. The troops ahead had run into SS Divisions and the whole situation was one of confusion. To get out of the way we pulled over into a wooded area. This is where I came across one of those strange things which has haunted me since. I caught sight of a Horsa Glider with smashed wings. It was concealed in part and clearly nobody had taken any notice of it there. Just curious, I opened the side door and looked inside. There were two rows of our men in full battle dress, each sitting with his rifle resting upright between the knees. There were all sitting there, stone dead. It was a ghastly scene – quietly shocking. In looking more closely it was clear to see a neat horizontal row of bullet holes all along the side of the fuselage."
After Arnhem, Ralph and his team managed to get clear of the numerous road blockages by driving onto a railway line. "Very uncomfortable in a Bren Carrier!"
The retreating Germans broke the dykes to flood the Low Countries in a desperate effort to slow down the Allied advance. Eventually Ralph and his team continued right through to Lübeck on the Baltic Coast. That's where they were on the surrender and celebrated VE Day in Lübeck. They stayed on in Germany and became part of the Army of Occupation. Ralph was promoted to the rank of Corporal in 1945 and later returned to Britain for demobilisation in 1947.
Like most Veterans, Ralph discusses his experiences of D-Day and the fighting which followed in a modest manner, without a hint of any bravado. It was simply something which had to be done at that time. As much as the D-day Landings were about the Liberation of Europe, Ralph recalls the seven days they spent in the sea off Kent and jokes that D-Day was also about "getting off that bloody boat!".
"We were proud of what we achieved in helping to win the French people their country back. As I recall there were few casualties at the landings in the British Sector, although I know the Americans took a beating at Omaha Beach. D-Day is well remembered and commemorated but for most of us, certainly for the 59th Division, but it was the fighting afterwards which was the tough part. Many fine men did not make it through like I did.
After years of occupation the French people then had to suffer the destruction of liberation. Once the enemy had been forced to withdraw from Caen, there was very little left standing in the city. Even at Thury Harcourt, enemy resistance unleashed a destructive force which wrecked the town and no doubt caused many civilian casualies too. At least Paris survived mainly unscathed, unlike London."
After the War, Ralph settled on the Wirral, not far from Dale Camp where he had been based for military training. By any measure the War changed Ralph's life; he settled 200 miles from where he'd grown up, married and raised two sons, now with families of their own.
"Another funny thing. We moved into our house when it was first built in 1955. Quite recently I found out that our house was built on the actual military training ground used by our Division!"