Lest we forget: An Essex man's war

It wasn't just the recipients of Victoria Crosses who stared death in the face during the war.

Steven Russell

It wasn't just the recipients of Victoria Crosses who stared death in the face during the war. Thousands of soldiers saw their mates die and themselves escaped by the skin of their teeth. Ron 'Popeye' Davies was one. Steven Russell hears his story

LOVE can turn our brains topsy-turvy and make us take risks we'd never usually consider. Throw in the uncertainty of war and normal judgement can go out of the window.

So it was for Ron Davies, a soldier not yet in his mid-20s but with three young boys at home - the littlest still some way off his first birthday.

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The gunner found himself bobbing about in the Solent in the early summer of 1944, trying to kip among the diesel fumes of the engine-room and waiting to sail to France for the D-Day landings. Grotty weather, which delayed the start of Operation Overlord, had left the troops frustrated and miserable.

When mate Bert said he was determined to see his wife before he left, Ron decided to go with him, even though going AWOL was incredibly foolhardy. “The idea scared me stiff, but I knew that I might never see Lily or the boys again, so I decided to chance it,” he recalled, later.

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So, in the early hours, the pair slipped over the side of their landing craft and rowed to shore. They hitched a lift to Uxbridge, and Popeye took a Tube train and bus to Enfield. “I could only stay for half an hour, but it was worth it to see my lovely girl and our boys.”

(It was being a young father that earned him his nickname - a development of Pop, as in “dad”.)

Amazingly, he managed to get back without being rumbled by anyone other than mate Albert, on guard duty, who kept schtum. Bert wasn't so lucky, bumping into an officer taking a stroll on-deck. He lost seven days' pay - but didn't drop his pal in it.

Soon, the weather relented and scores of vessels headed for mainland Europe. As the liberation force neared the French coast, the German batteries opened up.

As Ron's boat got closer and closer to “Gold Beach” (a little village called Le Hamel) he could hear bullets pinging on the side of their “SP” - a hefty gun on top of a Sherman tank body. The SP was nearly ashore when there was an enormous bang. An artillery round had turned the engine to mincemeat.

Tank commander Sergeant Bill Wilby, doubtless concussed, had a look over the side to inspect the damage. “He suddenly fell back into the well of the SP. His face was horribly grey and it took us a few seconds to realise he was dead. We were stunned, and for a while we just didn't know what to do next. The lads were all looking expectantly at me, and it dawned on me that I was now the senior soldier.”

They had to abandon the stricken “tank”, and it was then the full horror of the D-Day landing became clear. “The tide had started to go out, and all along the beach, as far as the eye could see in either direction, there were masses of dead bodies. Hundreds upon hundreds of them.”

With the rest of their regiment having penetrated further inland by this time, Ron and his men were put to work. First, they had to rescue the terribly-injured troops. All the time, more soldiers and vehicles were pouring ashore from landing craft.

Ron's crew also retrieved corpses, laying out their dead comrades on the beach road.

“Later on that evening we got a break and we walked along the rows of bodies to see if we could identify any of our mates,” remembered Ron. “As I lifted the blanket off one face I saw that blood was spurting out of the poor lad's mouth, so I called a medic over. He told us the boy was still alive and they carried him off to the field hospital.”

A few days later, a familiar voice interrupted the crew's meal of bully beef and beans. It was their adjutant, in a Bren-gun carrier, come to find them. They were to be given a new SP, so they loaded up their gear and were reunited with the regiment.

On they went through France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany, often encountering fierce resistance, snipers and booby-traps. (Ron saw a soldier pick up a rigged German helmet and lose his life as a result). Rarely was the grim reaper far away from their elbows.

The tragedies and triumphs, the humanity and the cruelty, the hardships and the happiness gained from small kindnesses - they're all in a new book called One Man's War: An Essex Soldier in World War Two.

Ron started committing his memories to paper in the late 1980s, hammering out about 40 foolscap pages on a little portable typewriter after he and his wife moved from London to the Clacton area. In about 2001/2 he passed it to oldest son Bill to have a look at.

“He did have this compulsion, which I've noticed a lot of people in their late 70s/early 80s have, to set down their life story,” says Bill, who himself later made the move from Enfield to the Essex coast. “I don't think he particularly worried about whether he would get published or not; I think it's just about passing on the information to future generations, really.”

After his father died in 2003, Bill discovered some more of dad's writing: eight or nine pages about his early life that could be added to the rest. Bill trawled his memory, and his mum's, to flesh out the story further. The finished article caught the eye of the Tempus publishing group.

It's a yarn that reminds us just what troops like Popeye went through in the fight for freedom.

At Caen in France, for instance, commanders were ordered to support a US unit holed up in an orchard. But the Americans had gone by the time the British forces arrived, and their spot had been taken by Germans. Unfortunately, no-one had told the Brits, who took “a hell of a battering . . . and quite a few blokes got killed”.

Tragically, there were a number of incidents involving our transatlantic friends.

Two of Ron's best mates were killed by “friendly fire” near L'Aigle. The unit had pulled into a farmyard for a rest when American aircraft screamed overhead - and released their bombs at the British SPs with fatal results.

Later, he and his colleagues targeted a big German gun in the Reichwald Forest, near the Dutch border. They called for a “stonk”, an air strike, but the six US Thunderbolts released their rockets at the British troops, despite markers being laid down and yellow smoke released as recognition aids.

“The Jerries must have thought it was their birthday; they intensified their bombardment and we suffered terrible losses,” Ron wrote. Two-dozen men died, with others wounded.

“After these incidents we didn't have much time for the Yanks . . . It was obvious to us that their army was very poorly trained and lacking in discipline.”

There were more dreadful episodes to come.

The soldiers noticed an awful smell, “so bad you could almost touch it”, the closer they got to Celle. An officer told them what it was: the infamous concentration camp known as Belsen.

A couple of dozen of Ron's group were chosen to help feed the inmates. “Nothing could have prepared us for the full horror of what we saw, heard and smelled . . . As we drove through the gates, we could see for ourselves the stark reality. I don't want to go into any more detail here; for one thing it distresses me trying to recall it, and for another I guess there have been enough films and books about it for people to know what was going on.

“What I will tell you is just how we all felt at the time. It made us sick to think just how any human being could treat their fellow men and women in such a vile way. We didn't see the worst, we weren't allowed to, but what we did see was enough.

“Our hatred of the Nazis increased a hundred-fold that day, and our fervent wish was that all the guilty would be brought to justice.”

When they reached Flensburg, on the Danish border, they heard Hitler was dead and that the German army had surrendered. Unfortunately, no-one had told the fanatics who were fighting on.

English newspapers came through, and reported that Britain had enjoyed a Victory in Europe day on May 8. “They were celebrating victory but we were still losing blokes.” Still, Ron and his comrades were gradually winning, and flushing out the last of the SS. (The Schutzstaffel - Hitler's elite force.)

Then, out of the blue, came The Moment. He'd long grown used to the background noise of war - artillery fire, aerial bombardment and so on - so the silencing of the guns took a moment to register.

“It was quiet, and it felt strange, uncanny. We had forgotten what quiet sounded like. I could even hear birds singing. I looked around me and I could see blokes laughing and crying, and one or two had fallen to their knees and put their hands together in prayer.

“Further up the line we heard cheers going up, and one of our officers came running up to us. He was so emotional he could hardly speak at first, but he finally got it out and shouted 'It's all over! The bloody war is over.'”

One Man's War is published by Tempus at £9.99. ISBN 978-0-7524-4517-5. Royalties are going towards the regiment's museum fund. The Essex Regiment's Museum in Chelmsford is being rebuilt and the top floor is to be given to the Essex Yeomanry.

Bill Davies has a book-signing at Caxton Books in Frinton at 10am on November 22.

RON Davies wasn't one of these old soldiers who tried to suppress his wartime experiences. He'd regale his children with tales of derring-do and scrapes from his days helping to liberate Europe

Oldest son Bill says: “These were the first bedtime stories I remember. He would tell me about the Plönes family - the Dutch family he was billeted with for about a week in Heerlen - and their children, whom he was very fond of, and some of the escapades, like the confrontation in the French cellar when the great big German stormtrooper was standing at the top of the steps with a gun in his hand. They thought it was their last moment, but he'd come to surrender!

“The horrors of war, though, he must have spared me that.

“I can remember him coming through the door, in this great coat, when he came home before D-Day, and he'd got his tin helmet dangling from his pack on his back. He'd brought his rifle home, too. I wouldn't have been five at that stage. Mum cried her eyes out when he left.”

Ron had joined the Territorial Army Boys' Service at the age of 16, later becoming part of the Essex Yeomanry. When the conflict ended he was still not quite 26. He stayed in Germany to help sort out the confusion in the aftermath, and then qualified as a physical training instructor. After 18 months in Germany he had the chance to sign on for longer, but didn't fancy it.

Bill remembers his dad walking up the road after demobilisation, “swinging round the corner with his great big kit bag over his shoulder”. Ron blew his gratuity on a holiday for the family at Butlins in Clacton!

He didn't stay out of uniform for long, rejoining the TA at Tottenham, and got a job as a commissionaire for a shipping company based in the Liverpool Street area of London, where effectively he was responsible for security.

In 1993, nearly 50 years after the D-Day landings, he made a nostalgic trip to Normandy and found the exact spot at Le Hamel where he and his mates had come ashore. Nearby was a plaque dedicated to the men of the Essex Yeomanry who lost their lives on June 6, 1944.

He didn't mind admitting to shedding a few tears when visiting the military cemetery at Bayeux.

“Row upon row of little white crosses, and I worked out that the average age of our dear fallen comrades was around twenty-one. Those men were heroes, and I find it a little sad that the world sometimes forgets them. I never will.”

Ron didn't have a long-lasting hatred of Germans, says Bill, though he obviously despised the Nazi regime. He was sickened by the way German prisoners were treated by some British soldiers in the months after the war. “They had these long sticks with knobs on and would rap them on the ankles to make them hurry along. He also felt for the German civilians trying to reconstruct their country.”

His dad did feel strongly about what he saw as poor organisation among the American forces, “and he used to hate going along to these war films where it came across that the Yanks did it all by themselves.

“The 'friendly fire' broke his heart. Some of his best friends were killed. It's hard to have good thoughts in those circumstances; but, nevertheless, we wouldn't have won the war without the Americans.”

Ron didn't harp on about the war slipping out of the spotlight as time marched on, “but it's certainly something I feel - that the modern generation doesn't necessarily appreciate what these old boys sacrificed for them and what kind of a world we would have faced if they hadn't been prepared to put their lives on the line”, says his oldest son.

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