Major John Smale
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"I panicked and shouted, "For Christ's sake, get me out!"
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I was born in 1916. My father was farming at the time near Maidenhead. I was an only child and I went to school at Haileybury College and I joined the Officer Cadet Corps there.
After school I went to Sandhurst. I was very friendly with a boy who had lived in Lancashire and on all the lectures we had we had to say our preferred regiment, the instructor would call and when it came to Smale, I always said “undecided”, I was waiting to find a good regiment and this friend of mine said “why don’t you go into the Lancashire Fusiliers with me”? And that’s what I did.
I joined in 1936 and I was put on what they called a ‘NCOs cardre’ to teach NCOs and young officers to be instructors and then I was posted to Colchester with the Lancashire Fusiliers. I was very lucky that a very nice group of young officers had started at the same time there with me and we used to play rugger a lot at weekends.
I was at Colchester when the war broke out. First of all, we went to a sort of holding area in the south of France and we set up a camp in an orchard. We had three different platoons, one from each battalion of the brigade. There was the Lancashire Reserve Platoon, with its own officer which was me, and there was an East Surrey regiment Platoon and the Ox and Bucks Platoon and luckily we all got on very well together.
We stayed there for a little bit and then we moved up to a coal mining area, and we moved up to a place on the German border, I think it was called Herent near Liège, and from there we moved up to Brussels.
My company was put in a line of houses overlooking a canal, and opposite the canal, there was a road leading up to the canal and we thought that the German tanks would come up that road. The local Belgian inhabitants were very anti-German too and they had turned a bus upside down to prevent the tanks had coming along. And anyway I thought I should make sure that there were no fifth columnists in the houses down the road so l went through the houses and they were alright. We got to one house, and the owner showed us round and he was very cooperative, but he said “I would rather you didn’t go into that bedroom because my old grandmother is very ill in bed there and it won’t do her any good to have strangers coming in”. I wondered if it could be an excuse and so I went in and sure enough it was absolutely genuine and I felt awfully guilty about it.
We were in position and they decided to withdraw us. We marched back towards the Escaut Canal and occupied a farm building on a main road, directly opposite another farm. The Germans came over, but fortunately they attacked the other farm first where another company were and so we were alright.
There were ploughed fields between us and the other farm and we saw somebody coming across and so we shouted at him. He had a white flag and we thought he was one of our chaps who had got away. So we called out to him, “Come on, you’re alright, we won’t shoot you”. And he didn’t answer, he just kept the white flag up. We kept on shouting “come on in you’ll be alright” and he still didn’t answer. So in the end we fired on the white flag and it went down so presumably we shot one of our own chaps. Then the Germans came over the Escaut Canal and they started to mortar our positions. They had sent a plane over so they knew exactly where we were. It was a very hot day and I left my jacket where I had been sitting and the jacket got riddled with shrapnel. So it was jolly lucky that I wasn’t there!
Then we marched back. I had a batman called Charlesworth, who’s quite a character, and he was marching behind me and we had come across a sort of off licence where there was a lot of French brandy, if we didn’t take it the Germans would have done, so Charlesworth was walking behind me and every now and again he, he would have a swig of this brandy, then passed it to me and I would have a swig. We went on marching and we got a lift on a Royal Army Service Corps truck for a while, but they had to go elsewhere and so we had to continue on foot.
We were heading back towards the coast, to Dunkirk. We passed through a place where we had been stationed before and one of our lance corporals had married a local French girl there, the daughter of a café owner. He picked her up, put her in battle dress and she walked back with us dressed up as a man and she was evacuated with us.
When we approached Dunkirk, we didn’t have long to wait. We dug in as a company on the dunes and a message came round saying all officers had to report to the divisional commander, a First World War General who was very well thought of. He was in a chalet on the dunes, and when we got there, it was clear he was having a nervous breakdown and all he could say was “wear a hat!” His assistant, a major, was a very sensible chap. He, he quickly stepped in and got him out of the way and put him in a back room. And then he took over and said, “we’re in touch by wireless with Dover and they’re hoping to send over a destroyer tonight. My only advice to you is to make your way down there”
And so I went back to the company, but there was such a mass of men, I couldn’t find them so I was on my own. I had to walk all night, about seventeen miles to Dunkirk, and sure enough, a queue was just beginning to form, and I got in line and boarded and I found a tyre and I sat on it. A petty officer came round and said, “Sir, I’ve got orders to take your weapons off you because we think the Germans may have infiltrated, dressed up in battle dress, and so you must hand in your pistol”. Well, when I joined the Army, we had to buy our uniform and pistol. It cost about seventeen pounds!
We got back to Dover and there were trains waiting for us. I expected that we were going to be booed by the population because we were a beaten Army, but they were very, very kind. It was a very long train, people were coming along with buff Red Cross forms saying, ‘I am well, I am not well, I am wounded, I am in hospital’, and we just crossed it out as, as appropriate. The Red Cross brought us cups of tea as well.
We got back and we had a lot of casualties, so when the battalion reformed on the south coast. A lot of young boys, aged about eighteen, joined us. After working with wonderful and efficient soldiers, all reservists with about five or six years regular service in India, and a full and true sense of service, I found it frustrating to find myself with these young boys learning elementary training on Bren guns.
A subaltern friend and I saw an invitation to volunteer for the Commandos and so off we went and I joined No 3 Commando. There was a lot more intensive training and then we did the Guernsey raid.
The Germans had only just occupied Guernsey and Churchill was afraid that the Germans would follow up and invade England. Our orders were simply to destroy as many installations and kill as many of the enemy as we could.
Three Guernsey officers in civilian clothes had been sent to spy out the land before the raid. We originally intended to land further up the coast and one of these officers was to be waiting for us at a pre-arranged place. The War Office hadn’t given us much information about the Jedburgh peninsular, and we found we had a very steep climb up a cliff. On the way up there was a house and my troop commander, a RASC chap called de Crespney, thought it might be a married quarter, so at two o’clock in the morning, with blackened faces we banged on the door. A poor chap opened the door, he was absolutely horrified and scared stiff, of course, and I think he probably shouted or something so de Crespney locked him in the lavatory to get him out of the way.
We found the old British barracks, which was supposed to be occupied, but there were no soldiers there at all, so I was given the job of making a sort of road block stop point with a group of soldiers. We weren’t there for very long because we had to be back by two o’clock.
Well, we got back to the rendezvous point but we were delayed because the Navy couldn’t put in due to the rocks and the information about the tide was wrong so we had to swim out. I went into the sea fully clothed and I just managed to get to the Navy boat, a sort of lifeboat thing, and I started to sink. I sank twice and the third time I panicked. I thought, “Well, I won’t come up this time”. So I panicked and shouted, “For Christ’s sake, get me out”, and a naval officer jumped in fully clothed and pulled me out and saved my life.
It was a shambles. We put out in this boat to join the destroyer but we were overdue and the destroyer couldn’t wait any longer because it was thought they would be caught in the open channel by enemy aircraft at sunrise and so they were just beginning to push off. Luckily Durnford-Slater had a compass and a pocket torch and the boat crew saw the light from the torch and that saved us otherwise we would have been left out in the boat.
My next Commando action, the Lofoten Raid, was on a lovely sunny day. There was only one very brave chap who opened up on us as we went ashore and we split up into groups. The main objective was to destroy a factory there helping the German war effort with fish oil that they used in explosives. I didn’t have a particular objective, just to walk around and see if there were any Germans hiding anywhere.
We had to look all over the place but there was no sign of the enemy so Lieutenant Wills found the post office and sent a telegram to Herr Hitler, Berlin, saying, “You said no-one would land in German territory unopposed, well here we are and where are you?”
We were told we weren’t to bring back any woman, which was a silly thing really; the Norwegian civilians didn’t want to leave the women in an occupied country. When we were loading the boats with the Norwegians who wanted to leave, a few women and girls approached and I said, “Sorry but you can’t get in.” We had been given strict orders. They went to the next boat and the chap there was much more sympathetic and he said, “Get in and hide yourselves under a blanket.”
I can’t remember taking any Prisoners of War or Quislings but when we were back on the ship, I remember one German prisoner. They didn’t have a cell for him, I’m sad to say, so they put him in a big bathroom. I was the orderly officer and I checked on him from time to time, he also had a sentry on the door, and when I came round he was very polite and held no animosity towards me at all. He knew I was just doing my job.
We got back and it was a bit of an anti climax because it was back to training. My chaps were saying, “Look we’ve been in action, we know we’re good soldiers, we have done what we were asked to do and we don’t need any more training.” I went to Durnford-Slater with an article that had been in the paper about Newfoundland lumberjacks working in Scotland at Balmoral. I asked if we could go down and join them to keep my men occupied. He said, “Yes, by all means, if they’re prepared to take you then good luck to you.” So we went up there. Durnford-Slater took the view that if you weren’t doing anything, you might as well be on leave.
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