Arthur Whelan – Royal Armoured Corps
Arthur Whelan was born in Beswick, Manchester on 25th August1922 and attended Christ Church Infants School and Ravensbury Street School in Clayton, leaving at 14 years old to work in a solicitors’ office in Manchester, where he ‘Hated every minute’. He left to join the Royal London Insurance Company as collector doing clerical work.
Arthur was not happy in this clerical role and since he had always wanted to join the army he volunteered for military service at the age of 18. The Recruiting Sergeant for the Manchester area used to leave ‘in the next street but one’ & he alerted Arthur that they were recruiting for the Border Regiment in early 1941 (there was a choice of the Border, Staffordshire & Sussex Regiments) and since the Borders were one of the oldest regiments in the British army, the sergeant said he thought I’d be better off with them.
Arthur had been able to drive before he went in the army (a relatively rare skill) & because of this when the regiment was disbanded through rationalisation, he was transferred to Royal Armoured Corps, based in Carlisle, to be trained to drive tanks. The 79th Armoured Division was being formed and Arthur was posted to them as a (trooper) tank driver. The 79th were called ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ after General Hobart (Arthur’s summary was that he was a head banger) who was commissioned to set up Flail Tanks; these were Sherman tanks with a 3 metre metal frame at the front & chains on a roller which rolled round to clear mines in front of the tank, and consequently make the area safe for troops following on foot.
The Normandy Campaign
Arthur’s memory of the Normandy Campaign begins just outside Gosport near Portsmouth on 2nd June when his vehicle was waiting to be loaded on a Tank Landing Craft (TLC), which took place on 3rd or 4th June. He was fortunate to have been loaded on an American TLC, since the captain (after saying: “Welcome abroad you limeys”) ordered that each man should be given 200 cigarettes and they were fed with fresh food. By the morning of 5th June they were standing by off the Isle of Wight, with the intended destination of landing on SWORD beach but the captain miscalculated the location and they went onto JUNO beach, arriving at 4 or 5 am in the morning and landing in 12” water. Five or six of Horbart’s Funnies moved forward in formation (with Arthur in one of the spearhead tanks) clearing the minefields from the beach area, followed by infantry troops.
There are lots of memories – we didn’t know what we were coming into. As we came ashore the scene was chaotic, with gun fire and it wasn’t clear what was going on. We were scared to death, because we didn’t know what was over the hill and it actually took a couple of days to get used to it
We got to Grey Sur Mare on 7th June and once we’d cleared the mines we were lined up in fields next to the beach. A French woman came running up after the beach had been cleared to welcome the troops and we said: “What are you doing here in this lot?” And she said: “I’ve been in that trench” which she showed us and she told us she came there every year on her birthday (7th June) and she wasn’t going to let the Germans stop her going there this year. Crazy!
It was on 8th August at Cinthau (the main road from Caen to Falaise) that Arthur was in a battle that ended his involvement in the Normandy invasion.
We came up against some German tanks and it was just a battle with 88mm guns and their firing was spot on. It was armour piercing and we got it. The co-driver alongside me was killed and I couldn’t get out because the hatch was buckled. I must have sat about half an hour there, thinking all sorts of things, and the Canadian officer in charge got hold of a chain & they ripped the hatch off to get me out. I had shrapnel in the shoulder & both legs and was taken to a Field Hospital.
My legs were smashed and both legs were placed in plaster with a metal bar between them, like an A frame, before being transferred to a hospital just outside Swansea. He remembers that: It was like being in heaven, I was so well looked after and a sergeant there said to me that he’d get me walking again, which he did.
Eventually, Arthur was sent to Chester to be reassessed for military duty and he was designated B7, and sent to the army headquarters at Catterick. A former Borders’ army colleague recognised Arthur and arranged for him to belocated on light duties in the pay office until his demobilisation in 1945.
Arthur returned to Manchester to work for the Manchester Corporation Bus Company as a guard/ conductor (since you had to work your way up to being a driver, despite Arthur’s vast experience of driving in the Army). Although able to undertake normal life, his legs were not able to take the physical demands of going up and down the bus stairs all day. Consequently he transferred to English Steel where he worked in a clerical job until the steel company closed & moved to Sheffield. He finished his working life at Monopumps at Guide Bridge, retiring at 64 years old in 1986.
Arthur reflects on his experience in Normandy:
I still think back to that mate who died. About a week before we left for D-Day he’d received a message from home that his wife had had a baby. Of course, we couldn’t have any leave, so he couldn’t go back to see her and I still think of that baby who was born. She never knew her father and he had never seen her.