Last year in the Bugle, Arthur Cooper of Pelsall, Walsall, recounted the tale of his wartime service. Arthur served with the Royal Artillery, landing in Normandy in 1944 and fighting his way across northern France, Belgium and Holland, to spend VE Day on the banks of the Elbe in Germany. Then he was posted to India to prepare for the Allies’ invasion of Malaya, but the Japanese capitulation on 15th August, 1945, spared him that ordeal and he finally returned to England in early 1947.
68 years ago last week British, Commonwealth and American forces spearheaded the invasion of Nazioccupied Europe, landing on the beaches of Normandy in Operation Overlord. It was the greatest amphibious invasion in history and the culmination of years of planning and preparation. Arthur now writes of his part in that preparation to liberate Europe, from his call-up in 1943 to crossing the Channel in 1944 ...
“After Dunkirk came the Battle of Britain and the Luftwaffe threw everything at us. But against the odds, the RAF stood firm and won the day. Preparations then began for Operation Sea Lion, the planned Nazi invasion of Britain. Although we stood alone, I never saw any panic and people still went about their daily lives.
“In 1941 I was serving with the 27th Battalion South Staffordshire Home Guard. Our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, persevered in his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt of America and, consequently, on 11th March, 1941, Congress passed the ‘Lend-Lease’ Act, which meant that we and our allies would now receive war aid from the USA, without having to pay for it all in one go. I believe our war debt to America was finally paid off two years ago.
“It is my view that this act was a saviour to our country, as we all knew the chips were down and we had a great fight on our hands. Although we were not fully aware of our serious situation, Britain was in dire need of help and could not afford to fight as our financial affairs had gone and our foreign trade was paralysed.
“I’ll always remember our first consignment of Lee- Enfield rifles and bayonets from America, which were delivered to our Home Guard base at Highgate Brewery, Walsall. They were covered with sticky grease and we spent hours cleaning them with rags and using our pullthroughs until they were spotless and ready for action.
“Shortly after the Lend-Lease Act the Japanese made a surprise attack on the USA naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The USA declared war on Japan, with Britain following suit. This was a great boost to our morale, as America was now on our side.
“I joined the army in 1943 and after six weeks basic training at Norton Barracks, Worcester, some of the men were transferred to the Worcestershire and South Staffordshire infantry regiments, and the remainder, including myself, were posted to artillery regiments. This included 9th Field Training Regiment, which was stationed at ‘Unique’ Barracks, on the Yorkshire Moors, near Harrogate. We found out that this was a 25-pounder regiment and, on arrival, met our gunnery instructor Sergeant Chettle, who informed us we were there for eight weeks.
“Our gun position training was carried out on the parade ground and we were issued with leather kneepads as we had to kneel at our respective gun positions and if your back wasn’t erect, you got a jab from the sergeant’s baton. Shooting exercises were held on the moor firing range and instructions were given regarding laying the gun, setting sights and range, preparing ammunition and charges, etc. The main concern was a good ram of the shell into the breach because a badly rammed shell screamed away and had a tendency of drop short of its range. One had to bear in mind, with advancing infantry following a creeping barrage; you had to be spot on. This happened with a badly rammed shell that exploded about 10 yards from our OP officer, who fortunately was in a slit trench. Our gun position officer got quite a dressing down, the OP major was livid and it never happened again.
“Our only leisure periods were at the Toc H club in Harrogate and we spent many happy hours there. One time we took part in a ‘Wings for Victory’ campaign in Leeds. We were up early, polishing our quads and guns until they gleamed in the sunlight. I remember parading past Leeds Town Hall with King Peter of Yugoslavia and other civic and military dignitaries taking the salute. We were complimented on our turn out, which out a rare smile on the sergeant’s face.
“Our training came to an end and we were drafted to various artillery units. I was passed to 59th Medium Regiment RA who were stationed in Kent; HQ was at Hildenborough, 235 Battery at Four Elms and 236 Battery at Chiddingstone Castle. Chiddingstone consisted of a castle, church, Castle Inn and a few medieval cottages. On one occasion the village was used for a scene in a film called The Man in Grey. Most of us used the Castle Inn, which sold the strongest cider in Kent.
“Bombardier Brown was our signal instructor and informed us that were potential RA signallers but would have to go on a special signalling course at Redford Barracks, Collington, Edinburgh. A few days later we were on our way to Scotland; we arrived at Redford Barracks a bit late and met our new instructor, a sergeant from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The next day the sergeant came at 6am, slamming the billet door open and shouting his head off. After a run around Collington we did two hours foot and rifle drill on the parade ground and in the afternoon we went to the signalling room and began our course in Morse code and practised using the Morse code key and the 18, 21 and 38 wireless sets.
“It was much nicer to go to a signalling course because it was so interesting and I intended to qualify for my crossed flags insignia, but it was not going to be easy. Some of the lads couldn’t get used to Morse code.
“For the rest of the course we had three days foot and rifle drill a week and many days on signals training. We spent two days of the week going over the assault course – there were greased logs over the water course and was one of the first to get soaked. I used to enjoy firing on the rifle ranges, I was quite a good shot, I got plenty of ‘inners’ and my Home Guard training came in useful. We practiced priming and throwing lives Mills and hand grenades. I think what we liked to do best was bayonet practice as we ran, howling our heads off, towards the swinging sandbags, we were able to get rid of our pent up feelings.
“We had our exam results and only 20 men passed the signal course, including myself. We were presented with our blue and white crossed flags insignia by the CO on the parade ground. It was a proud day, we were now, finally, RA signal instructors and I still wear my flags today on my NVA uniform.
“Before I leave Redford I would like to say something about a mate of mine there. His name was Syd Outon and he was a jockey in the ’30s. During a race, he was riding in George VI’s colours when his horse fell and another three horses went over him. One day in the shower he showed me his scars and one ran from his neck to his feet. When he was recovering in hospital the king enquired every day as to his condition. I believe his trainer was a Mr Jarvis. A few months ago I traced his whereabouts and found he was living near Hungerford, happily married and still with the horses and he’s got to be 80-plus. We hope to have a reunion soon.
“I’ll always remember the night we left Edinburgh as all the church bells were ringing to celebrate Italy dropping out of the Arthur Cooper joined the RA in 1943. war. When wearrived in London we had to make our way to Tonbridge in Kent, where trucks and BSM were waiting to take us back to Chiddingstone Castle. On arrival we were met by Bombardier Brown, who congratulated us all on getting our flags.
“At Chiddingstone we came under 3rd AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery) and they certainly kept us on our toes with regular exercises at Lydd, Maidstone, Eastbourne, Alfreston, Ashdown Forest and the shooting galleries at Sennybride and Larkhill.
“Sadly, a tragic accident to one of our No.1s on the gun happened on our way back from Larkhill. We were passing through a little village when suddenly we heard the noise of a crash. One of our trucks had slammed straight into the leading gun and the muzzle went straight through the windscreen, hitting Sergeant Griffiths under the neck and killing him instantly. It was horrific and the driver and gun crew in the back had to be treated by the MO for shock. The night was rather dark and misty, so it appears that’s how it happened. It took half-an-hour for our officer to get the driver back into the cab to come home, as Sergeant Griffiths was sitting next to him. The whole regiment attended his military funeral at Penshurst. It was a very sad day for us and it took is quite a while to come to terms with his loss. After the accident all gun muzzles were fitted with a red light.
“We used to drive round the Kentish countryside in our Mike trucks (5cwt) transmitting and receiving messages on our 21 and 38 wireless sets and trying to get our ‘netting’ calls and ‘flick’ frequencies spot on. At this time Britain was becoming a fortress; One-and-half million GIs were already here with their tanks and guns. I encountered quite a few of them and we got on quite well, but many of us disliked their high pay, compared to ours and there was this resentment, especially as many girls were attracted to the GIs, who bought them nylons and candy. Nevertheless, it didn’t last long and the GIs did a great job in Normandy and Arnhem.
“Everyone was talking about a second front but no one knew when. At that time we left for Northumberland, travelling to the coastal town of Alnmouth. From there we used to go shooting at Reesdale Camp, on the Scottish Moor, and our leisure time was spent in Newcastle, Morpeth and Alnwick. At Alnwick we used to visit the new army canteen and one day I was served my tea and buns by the Duchess of Northumberland, who served regularly at the canteen and lived in nearby Alnwick Castle. She was a very nice person and got to know many of the lads.
“After a month’s training at Reesdale we came down to Worthing on the south coast and went into lovely guest houses there. Some of the lads took a confirmation course, including myself, and we were all confirmed by the Bishop of Rochester, Christopher Chavasse, at Tonbridge parish church, and given a Bible by the padre, Captain Eric Treacy, later Bishop of Wakefield, who published many books of his photographs of steam trains.
“The confirmation service was one of the most important religious events in my life. As I knelt at the altar to receive a blessing, Bishop Chavasse placed his hand on my head and it felt like an electric shock going straight through my body. All of us have some sort of religious experience in our lives, this was mine. I felt as if the Holy Spirit had touched me that day, and the bishop was a very holy man. I’ll never forget it, and during the war, when I came under fire, I always thought I was coming back. My father, who served in the Great War [see Bugle 1011], said it was a good sign. Bishop Chavasse’s brother served in the Great War and was awarded the Victoria Cross twice.
“Suddenly we were sent to Wanstead Flats in London as, one Sunday evening, we had orders to leave for Tilbury Docks to embark on board two US Landing (Tanks) Craft. We embarked at 9pm and picked a pilot up off Southend. We then sailed through the Straights of Dover in darkness, so that we would not be seen by the German long-range heavy guns at Cape Gris Nez, near Calais. We carried on past the south coast of England, until we got to the Isle of Wight, and there a fantastic sight awaited us. There were hundreds of ships around the island; it really was breathtaking, and we knew the landing in France was imminent.
“Two days later we set sail, together with two Royal Navy torpedo boats, destination ‘Juno’ beach. We had been issued with a booklet on France, French francs, 24- hour compo packs, sterilising tablets, water-wings, and a bag to be used by those prone to sea-sickness. The rest of my story is history.”
Arthur Cooper’s account of his basic training at Norton Barracks appeared in Bugle 990, and the Normandy campaign appeared in Bugles 996 and 997. His story of the fighting in France and Germany was published in Bugles 999, 1003 and 1004, and his tale of his service in India featured in Bugles 1022 and 1025.