wartime

A Chesham Man at War – the Story of WJ Dell

WJ Dell

This is the account of the war of WJ Dell, a Pednor resident, aged 14, when war broke out.

I was 14 when war broke out in 1939 and weighed just 6st and was 5ft tall – in common with others who had just left school. I worked for a local baker, the lowest form of life, and was given all the dirty jobs, with a little bullying thrown in. I worked an average week of 50 plus hours for 12 shillings [perhaps £80 in today’s terms. Editor].

I was a member of the Church Lads Brigade. 1935 was King George’s Jubilee over the Empire on which the sun never sets. We had our photo taken outside the church and then the band took part in the Carnival through the town with a display in the Cricket Meadow. Little did we think that in fewer than eight years we would be defending that Empire and that some would not return.

Sunday, September 3rd was a lovely sunny morning; we learnt on the radio that we were now at war with Germany. I cycled into Chesham, laden with plums, when the air raid sirens sounded. As I arrived in Church St., a steel-helmeted ARP warden stopped me and told me I could not enter because of the air raid. I carried on as I couldn’t see any planes. I arrived at my destination and found the door open and could hear voices inside. In accordance with government instructions, those inside were sheltering under the stairs. Fortunately the all-clear sounded and I was able to get rid of my plums.

Over the next few days hundreds of children arrived from London, evacuated in case of air raids. They were billeted on families whether you wanted them or not. Life began to change with the introduction of the blackout and we carried gas masks at all times.


[Mr Dell’s account then relates the early years of the war. At some point in 1941, after the German invasion of Russia, the government ‘asked for volunteers to man the canal boats essential for the war effort.’]


Seizing the chance to escape the drudgery of the bake house, I did so and volunteered. I was placed with a man and his wife. We had the traditional two boats – one with a motor which pulled the second one, with another man. We lived on that one. So we left the depot at Southall for Limehouse docks where we were loaded with cement brought up in sailing barges from the Medway. These, despite enemy activity, continued to sail. Loaded, we set off for Birmingham. It took six days whereupon my companion packed his bags and left. I was on my own. The next move was make our way to a coal field near Coventry to load coal for Dickensons at Apsley who working flat out needed 700 tons a week!

With my limited experience could I steer and work the Butty on my own? We set out and, not without some problems, I did so and for the rest of my time on the canal. Stuck on butty for hours on end, it became a lonely existence; the couple were not very sociable either and nor were they very fair with the rations. I was always hungry while the traditional boat people resented our presence. It lasted until I managed to get home. My mother took one look at me and said ‘ You are not staying there’ but I never lost my fascination for the canals.

Returning home I reported to the Labour Exchange and was told I would be sent to Slough to be trained to become a Fitter. It proved to be a sentence of purgatory as I had no ability to be one and in the end I said I wanted to return home to work on the land. Nobody was more pleased than my instructors.

My brother already in the army had left a gap on the farm I could fill. Now 16, I was able to join the Home Guard (originally the L V D) now armed with rifles and machine guns and grenades. They were a force essential for the defence of the country, relieving the army of many duties. We trained one night a week and on Sundays and every 6th night a platoon would be on duty throughout. I was put in the mobile platoon; we trained hard and on one exercise with the army we raided and captured their Commander in true Commando fashion. It rather shook them.

By now my brother had been sent on extended harvest leave. He proved very useful in training women conscripted into the Womens Land Army to work on the land (he was recalled in time for D Day). Some of them had hardly seen a horse or cow before. It was now 1943 and I was now old enough to volunteer and I chose the Artillery. I tipped the scales at 9st and 5ft 8ins and was accepted and left to report at Maidstone where one spent 6wks being tested as to one’s ability for service. I was then posted to the Artillery young soldiers regiment at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain where we would spend the next 9 months on extra training until we were old enough to join a service unit – except for one lad. We had only been there a few days when he stayed back from going for dinner and used his rifle on himself. We were ordered to accept it and not dwell on it and
get on with the war.

We were handed over to the Drill Sergeants whose task it was to turn us into gunners in the highest traditions of the Regiment, still serving the guns even if you are last man standing but properly turned out and shaved. We were rewarded by going out on the plain and firing the guns which, under the sergeants, had tested us to our limits. We moved on. We were to learn to drive and maintain the vehicles that pulled the guns after 6 months we had 7days leave – we had earned it. By now we were into signalling, which demanded many skills not least the Morse Code as it was still the main means of communication to control the guns whether by phone or radio.

It was most demanding and when we passed we took great pride in sewing the crossed flags on to our uniforms. It was now early 1944 and we were now being posted various units. Oddly enough I was posted to a holding unit in Lincolnshire on my own and never met up with my comrades again. The unit was at Sutton on Sea and was billeted in the boarding houses of happier days. The rooms were completely empty and we slept on the bare boards. Our training became more demanding and realistic.

At the same time the bombers of the American air force would form up over head. Sometimes there were so many they could not be counted and then they would turn eastward to bomb Germany. At the end of the day, the RAF, preferring to operate by night, took over. Although the Luftwaffe was no longer the force it had once been it was still capable of hitting back sneaking in and attacking the returning bombers at their most vulnerable as they came in to land so the year opened up and on the 6th of June the long awaited return to Europe was taking place on the beaches of Normandy. Our long wait and training was over.

The first move was to place us on active service, subject to being confined to the area and roll calls, then reduced to ‘ Field Marching Order ‘ which meant that we were reduced to the uniforms we were wearing, our large pack with our great coat, spare boots with a change socks and linen. The small pack stuffed with ground sheet and gas cape, mess tins and the holdall with our washing and essentials. There was also our gasmask (throughout the war we trained to cope and deal with gas warfare but thankfully it was never used), also a water bottle added to the load and we were ready.

We did not to have to wait long. Within 2 days we marched to the station and finished up in Felixstowe. We remained there until 15th and then it was by train through London to Aldershot (when we were held up little boys would come along and wish us luck and they were rewarded by being thrown lose change of English money on the assumption we would not need in France).

The camp was overcrowded so many had to sleep under the trees, but on Saturday 17th we were once more marching to the station. We had to board a normal train so we travelled burdened for war with civilians going about their peaceful business. Without getting lost, we finished up in Newhaven. The next day, in the pouring rain, we boarded Landing Craft Infantry manned by the US Navy. The vessels were designed to ferry about 120 men on a short sea crossing. Below deck there were accommodation tiers of bunks we could use but no other facilities – except some very exposed toilets at back of the boat. We remained on deck taking our last look at England but soon realised we were heading into rough seas.

We were ordered below where at least we could lie on our bunks then we were battened down. The boat pitched and tossed. The ‘Bags Vomit‘ were soon used up and somehow the sea found its way in. With no ventilation and fumes from the racing engines the air became putrid. We could only cling to our bunks (I have always said since ‘If you had never prayed before you would have done so that night ‘). At some stage it must have eased off for next thing I knew we were not moving, the doors were open and there was day light. Coming up on deck we found we were back in Newhaven.

We staggered ashore to be taken back to the camp where we were able to clean up but, even so, many had to have new uniforms and some finished up in the sick bay. We now learnt that we had spent the night in a gale as ferocious as anything in living memory and the damage it caused brought about a crisis in supply as vessels and barges were sunk and convoys, including us, had to seek shelter. We were to remain there until 25th when there was another attempt to sail.

We were given 200 rounds of ammunition to carry as a means of getting it to Normandy. This time we made it and we waded ashore. Amongst our draft were men of the 59th division. (Many years later reading up about Normandy I came across the following ‘ after 8 weeks the 59th division had suffered such heavy casualties they were taken out of the order of battle and never reformed’). We marched off and spent a disturbed night as the Luftwaffe kept coming over. We moved further inland and on the 27th we were posted to an anti-tank regiment and finished up serving on a self-propelled gun, armed with a 17 pounder. It was the only weapon that could take on the formidable enemy Tigers & Panthers with any hope of success.

I told the sergeant while the radio was not a problem I had no other training so he had to show me that it was also my job to pass the ammunition to the gunner when in action. I then remarked that while there was activity further away, we seemed quiet. He took me over to the hedge, carefully parting the foliage, said “down there in that spinney are the infantry and that field beyond our killing ground and Jerry starts at the top of the hill. I settled down to frontline service. At all times someone had to be on watch. Dawn and dusk were the most vulnerable times and we all had to be in our positions.

There was also maintenance on our gun to be carried out and we had to cater for ourselves. A chance to snatch a few hours of sleep became one’s greatest wish. Unlike the field regiments, who banged away at targets miles away, as an anti-tank unit we could only wait for the enemy to be seen and when the chance came you did not have to make any mistakes as the enemy did not give you a second chance.

I remained on the gun for about 2 weeks. We shifted our position several times but never engaged a tank but we did support the infantry by posting shells into enemy strong points. Then original radio gunner returned (he had been sick) and I returned to Tactical HQ Tack HQ was where the Battery Commander deployed the guns. There was the radio in an armoured half-track and a carrier for reconnaissance with a signaller on each. We took it turn and turn about to share the more risky ‘Recce carrier. (We referred to it as riding shotgun. Before the Normandy campaign ended 3 Battery Commanding Officers or 2 i/c’s had become casualties). l cannot clearly recall how the next 6 weeks went. It was a case of watching every hedgerow, crossing open ground, making a lane safe before attacking a village whose name we knew not, all against an enemy that we could not see but kept fighting back. By the end of August, we had broken them and they were in full retreat. Note from diary 31 Aug: for 3 weeks we had been kept on the move except when we spent 3 days for rest and maintenance at a Chateau. We had sports day. l won the High jump. The chateau had been an SS HQ. A group of Maquis [French resistance] turned up with a prisoner accused of betraying them to the Germans. Before we knew it, they took him into the walled garden and shot him. We were not very happy about it and told them if they came again we would stop it.

We were soon on the move, crossing the R. Seine. We were deployed on the flank that was both fast and confusing sometimes we entered a village who hadn’t realized the Germans had gone but in others there were great celebrations of welcome, all in a matter of a few days. At the beginning of September we passed 1st World War battlefields in a day near to Arras (with Kipling’s Silent White Cities of the Dead). Sept. 3rd, we were near Tournai when we learned that a small part the rear RHQ had been ambushed and 7 men killed and 5 wounded. They were all men from the beginning who had served through the desert and been given duties as far back and safe as possible. We crossed into Belgium at Tournai and pressed on to Brussels, taking many prisoners who had had enough and entered the city on the second day of liberation (4th Sept.). The citizens were still celebrating and greeted us with tomatoes and, crying ‘Goodbye’, we pressed on towards the Albert Canal where ~ Jerry was waiting with a different sort of reception.

The Division, against stiff opposition, crossed the canal. The Battery suffered casualties and [the loss of] 2 guns and then on to the Escaut canal and the Dutch frontier. (It seemed to rain all the time and we were sodden for days on end and we lived on captured enemy rations). A bridgehead was established which the Luftwaffe attacked continually and once again more losses, including the driver of the half-track under which we had taken cover. We then learned that Montgomery planned to launch two American and one British Airborne divisions 60 miles down a single road to a place called Arnhem, it would shorten the war.

On the 17th September it began and we watched the air armada fly in, the Guards armour broke out of the bridgehead to link up with them; but the enemy had other ideas. In a few minutes, he had destroyed 13 tanks. It meant the infantry had to clear the way we were soon to follow because the Americans had no anti-tank guns. We were deployed to support them while the main effort was to reach Arnhem. The enemy realised if they could cut the road we would be in trouble so they tried to do so and sometimes they did. It all became very confusing. At times we were surrounded and there were fierce fights to restore the situation.

For the Americans it was their first action. They did not lack courage but they suffered in the hands of the experienced Germans. We found we were as much infantry as gunners. All the time the battle to reach the British at Arnhem went on but after nine day it was ‘too little to late’ and the offensive was closed down. The war would go into the winter for another 7 months. The Americans remained (or us with them) and we moved over the great bridge at Nijmegen into the disputed land to Arnhem. Both sides wanted to strengthen their positions and some fierce actions took place.

The Americans proved to be quick learners and were soon beating the enemy at their own game. We also were involved and took casualties, including my immediate officer and for the second time I had to report ‘My Sunray has been killed’. We also lost 3 guns. At the end of October, our friends returned to their own army, glad to be finished with British rations and they never understood the old standby ‘When in doubt reach for the teapot and brew up ‘. The area was almost surrounded by rivers so it became known as ‘the Island‘. The enemy opened sluice gates and the land became waterlogged. We received extra rations of tea and two issues of rum daily to cope but we had to be relieved every 48 hours to rest and dry out and all the time the enemy made aggressive patrols. They were paratroops – Hitler’s best – and we had casualties.

We moved into November and, on the 11th, those not on duty were able to attend the traditional service during which our own losses were remembered. They numbered over sixty. Towards the end of November there were rumours of a change but not the one that became reality. By now, Britain had reached the zenith of its war effort. Manpower was in short supply and none more so than in the Infantry. The infantry is 20% of the army [but] they suffered 8o % of the casualties. There was a great shortage. We learnt that our division was to be broken up to meet the need.

On the 29th November we moved off the island to join our new division and while still in Nijmegen an enemy jet plane swept over and dropped a single bomb. It fell in the street where our guns were. We lost three killed and seven wounded including the driver of the half-track I was sitting in and so we left to join the 15th Scottish Division we learnt that we would be amalgamated with their regiment, so creating a surplus of gunners available for the infantry. Based on Age & Service number, all those over number 28 were to be posted (my number was 52). For the time being we were billeted on civilians. December 16th, sitting in the kitchen, in came Brindley with the news that we must be ready to leave at 0700 in the morning. December 17th at 0700 we were collected (no time to say goodbye) and we finished up in a transit camp near Brussels. December 18th we were inspected medically checked and deloused.

We were able to pass the time by going to the pictures. There were quite a few traders where one could buy presents to take home: watches, scent, fountain pens, lace and even sweets – all things not to be found in England. Dec. 19th we were told we would be going tomorrow. We finished the day by going to an ENSA concert, which was quite good. December 20th we awoke and paraded for an early roll call. We were then kept hanging about until midday and then we marched to the station to be taken to Ostend. We found it would be in cattle wagons which would have been familiar to our fathers of the 1st War. We finally proceed rattling along with long stops (which gave us a chance to relieve ourselves), bone weary, cold and hungry at another transit camp. Dec. 21st, we had excellent breakfast (it was staffed by Belgians). We were told we would be boarding a ship later in the day.

Before we could finish our dinner we were ordered to collect our packs and we were on our way to the docks another wait of six hours in inclement weather before the ship turned up. We gratefully climbed aboard – at least we were out of the elements. December 22nd we arrived in England at 0300hrs, (somebody said it was Eastbourne). In the pouring rain, and much cursing, we marched to a station loaded on a train and taken on to Sunningdale? We were then told we were being sent on leave. The rest of the day was spent collecting our travel warrants, ration coupons and back pay. As there were several hundred of us this took time.

Saturday 23rd, we were up early and a special train was waiting to take us to London. This meant I was back in Chesham by 1. 30hrs standing in a bus queue when two Military Police took an interest in my appearance and said it was a disgrace. I explained I had been on active service, that my unit had been broken up and I had been posted back to England and had been given leave and was to report to a transit office on York station. On January 1st, I finished up escorted to their HQ in the Bury. Their officer was more understanding and apart from wishing me a Happy Xmas arranged for a truck to take me home. By then I was almost out on my feet and my arrival was more of shock than a surprise. When mother recovered, she simply said ‘ At least I know one son will be safe tonight’.

After the excitement I chose to go to bed with the luxury of clean sheets warmed with a brick out of the oven. I was to sleep the clock round. Dec. 24th, I rose well into the day, a neighbour had taken my uniform and later brought it back cleaned and pressed and presentable. I spent the day quietly and thinking how far I had come in the last six days. Xmas Day 25th, there no presents and dinner was a breast of mutton but it was as good as a banquet. But we did have a small pudding (one of two she had made to send to us but missed the posting date). Boxing Day 26th, Mr Burt, a family friend who was awarded the VC in the 1st War, was most interested to have a chat and was taken aback when I said the losses in the infantry had been as heavy as in the 1st War and that was what I was about.

Jan. 1st 1945, I reported at York and with many others joined the Green Howards to spend 8 weeks conversion course for the infantry. After a miserable winter on the Yorkshire Moors we were on our way. By coincidence I was back at Nijmegen, now in the 1st Leicesters who had spent the winter on the island with 49th Division. In March, an all-out offensive to finish the war began. The 49th were ordered finish what had been planned in the previous September: the capture of Arnhem and a drive to the ljsslmeer, thus cutting off Holland from Germany. This was accomplished by mid-April. By now, they had found out I was an experienced signaller and I was in the Signal Platoon. Then there was some talk of a truce. The rumour was the enemy threatened to open the sluice gates if we continued to advance but in reality the Dutch were starving and the International Red Cross brokered a cease-fire with the result that convoys of food driven by the Canadians crossed the lines. Also bombers dropped food by parachute.

On the 4th May, the local German commander surrendered. The following day amid scenes of great jubilation we entered the rest of Holland. We finished up in Hilversum with our HQ in a school and we set up communications to control the surrender. [There was] not much rest for us. 10th May, 1940 was the day the Germans had invaded Holland and today we were to disarm the Hermann Goring Parachute Regiment. They marched with no acrimony from either side. In fact they joked ” we had met before” (on the Island) everything went smoothly (we even stopped for tea) when disaster struck.

A pile of Panzerfists with other explosives blew up (the Panzerfaust or Panzerfist was a hand held rocket with an explosive that could knock out a tank). In the carnage that followed we did what we could to help the injured, ignoring who they might be (the Germans had their losses). A roll call was made. Twelve of our mates had been killed on what was to be a memorable day for all the wrong reasons. 12th May, we buried our dead with full military and civilian honours and all flags in the town were at half-mast.

We did not stay in Holland and moved into Germany taking over from the Americans. We were very thin on the ground [with] only a platoon to occupy the town we were in (Menden?). It had not suffered from the war. But there was a problem. A large number of slave labourers were roaming unrestricted, robbing and causing mayhem. They were mainly Russians, we appealed for help and they sent a team to sort them out. They herded them back into their camp and confined them there. After they shot 3 who tried to get out, there was no further bother but we were not very keen, if that was communism.

But once again the Age & Service numbers had been active, and all us young ones on Aug. 16th were posted to the 2nd Royal Warwicks – a unit selected to go to the United States to train and be part of the British contribution for the invasion of main land Japan (we were not very happy about that). We were moving back through Belgium when the Atom Bombs brought the whole show to an end. I can’t recall any celebration.

We were billeted on the citizens of St Lievens Houtem. We remained there for the next 7 weeks during which time we had to accept we were now Royal Warwicks. But we were to learn they had found us other employment In Palestine. The Jews had begun a campaign of violence to establish a state of Israel and Thomas Atkins (us) – not for the first time or last time – was being sent out to be
Piggy-in-the-Middle. Oct.5th, we were on our way. The whole village turned out to wish us well with tears as if we were their own (something I have never forgotten). The Battalion left without a blemish on its character and for the first time we began feel we were now Warwicks.

We arrived in Egypt – although my plane had problems over the Mediterranean and the pilot had to make a forced landing in North Africa and we were stranded for two days (it makes another story). We were late and missed the chance to see the Pyramids. 16th/17th Oct. we moved and finished up late in the evening in Jerusalem. There were no arrangements for us and we had a supper-less night, sleeping in the open on a bare hill side (no comment on what was being said).

Notes from the time:

Oct. 18th, we moved into tents vacated by the Middlesex: very basic, restricted water and ablutions and no lighting made for frustration and sickness.
Oct. 25th Percy goes in ‘dock’, I go into Signal Stores (much more comfortable).
Oct. 26th: a mob had collected in the City and a platoon was sent down to support the Police I was on the radio. A few bricks came our way but nothing else.
Nov.1st: explosion in the night; learn next day it was a bomb at the station – one of 50 that were set off all over the country on the railways (one squaddie killed). We were warned of coming winter rains, every spare man was put to dig gullies around the camp to channel the water away.
Nov. 11th, a service of Remembrance was held in a 1ST War cemetery. (There was much fighting here as well as Flanders). As we left, children, encouraged by their elders threw stones at us. We were no longer the Iiberators of Europe, but an Army of Occupation, preventing the Jews achieving their goal of a state of Israel.
Nov. 18th: woken in night by thunder & lightening, followed by a tempest of Biblical proportions. We didn’t think the tent would survive, there was nothing we could do but hope (and pray) the tent did survive but the floor was under water. Looking out, it was clear most of the camp was flattened and the occupants sheltering where they could. The ground became a quagmire. In no way could we remain, and general evacuation into the city began. RHQ [Regimental Head Quarters] finished up in the Hospice of Notre Dame – a large building overlooking the old city. Its purpose was to accommodate devout pilgrims to the Holy land!

We took over the top floors, a clever arrangement. To get to us, the Jews would have to somehow get pass the Nuns & Monks below. We settle in, our letters home are headed On Active Service (free post) but we are caught up in a situation in which we have no interest – except the hope that we come out safely when our number comes up. So, with a mixture duty and frustration we move towards Christmas.

The Jews seemed to have ‘gone to earth ‘ – so much so that on Christmas Eve those who wanted could go to Bethlehem and sing carols in the Fields of the Shepherds. Christmas morning, the sergeants served us the traditional tea in bed, the officers waited on us at dinner and the CO proposed the Toast. The RSM replied and that was it. Some of us visited Holy Places in the city. When we returned, we found the beer had been flowing (good job there were no turnouts).

Dec. 27th: being off duty, four of us (we always went in fours) went to the pictures. The usual arrangement with servicemen and the like up in the balcony, civilians below. We hear shooting and the next thing an explosion shook the building. The light & film went out, pandemonium broke out below. We decided ‘when in doubt stay put ‘. The lights came on and we left the police and army restoring order. It appeared that an alert sentry (he was a Bursoto – a coloured South African) thwarted an attempt to blow up the Police Station, opposite the cinema. They left the bombs in the street where they blew up.

We arrived back in barracks, soon to be out patrolling the rest of the night. But the birds had flown. So we entered 1946. The Jews, supported by sympathizers from the USA, stepped up their campaign of bombings, the odd bullet and organised anarchy – not only [against] us but they also started to persecute the Palestinians. We were frustrated that they could call all the shots – except on one occasion when we got in first and they suffered casualties and we had that satisfaction. In April we returned to Egypt for rest and training and here I had my last posting.

Back in hungry Britain, food production was a priority and, because of my farming background, I was released to work on the land – a commitment that lasted until 1950 when my Age & Service number matured. One’s thoughts go back to 1935, of the Jubilee and our pride in the Empire – now no more – of the Leicesters and Warwicks and other proud regiments, only to be found in museums. But we still have our freedom and soon we shall celebrate another Jubilee.

WJD 2012 (Yesterday seems so far away).

Bill Dell was thanked by The Secretary of State for War, Antony Head, for the ‘loyal and willing service which you gave to the Country as an active member of the Home Guard. during the period 1952–1956’’.  On Nov. 2016 The President of France “appointed you (Bill) to the rank of Chevalier in the  Order Nationale de la Legion d’honneur” for his efforts in France. Bill {W.J.} Dell passed away on the 9th September 2018 aged 93. R.i.P.

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