Ben Shaw – Black Watch
Ben (christened Bernard) Shaw was born in Altrincham on July 26th 1925 and attended local schools (Navigation Primary School & Wellington School) until the age of 14 years old, when he went to Yarwoods Construction Company to undertake an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. The wartime demands (from 1939 when he started work) meant that he was involved in the building of air raid shelters.
He volunteered for army service at the age of 17 in June 1943 because ‘it was an adventure’. He went with two friends and when the recruiting sergeant asked their professions, the other two were rejected because they were in reserved occupations (in engineering) but as bricklayer Ben was accepted and allowed to enlist. When he initially went to the Recruitment Centre, Ben had intended to go in the Navy, but was told by the recruiting sergeant: “You don’t want to go into the navy with a good Scottish name like Shaw; I’ll put you in the Black Watch.”
Ben was happy to go along with this, but when he returned home & told his parents that he had enlisted in the Black Watch his father called out to Ben’s mother: “Lily, he’s just signed his death warrant.” (As a WW1 veteran in the infantry he knew that the mortality rate for the Scottish infantry was very high.)
Basic training involved ‘learning how to kill’ and the focus for the following year was preparation for an amphibious assault
The Normandy Campaign
Ben landed on SWORD beach on D+4 having travelled across from Tilbury docks, landing as part of the 51st Highland Infantry Division. He recalls that it was a reasonable landing and that the initial task was digging in. There was involvement with fierce fighting with losses, so that one friend (Freddy Elliott, aged 18) died of wounds in France and is buried at Ranville Cemetery¹ about 10 kilometres north-east of Caen and a Canadian Lieutenant from Montreal (Kenneth William Carstairs from the Royal Infantry Corp attached to the 1st Battalion Black Watch) who had been evacuated wounded to England is buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery² in Woking, Surrey. He died on 23rd August 1944, aged 22 years. Ben always looks for Black Watch graves when on his pilgrimage to Normandy and has undertaken moving visits to the graves of both friends.
Ben reflects that you never noticed the casualties when on active service, but when you are pulled back from the front line, then you had time to look around and see the number of unclaimed clean kits that had been placed out for the Regiment – then it was brought home how many men had been lost.
Ben’s involvement in the Normandy Campaign ended in late July or early August (it was difficult to keep track of specific days) when he was wounded in the leg with shrapnel. The strange thing is, the pain of the wounds was not as bad as the fear of being wounded. When it happened it was OK. He was flown back from Bayeux to RAF Northolt and was transferred to Cardiff Royal Infirmary Hospital for nursing and convalescence.
Ben made a full recovery and returned to France, following the European campaign through Belgium and into Germany. His role, as a non-combatant, was as driver for officers.
He was demobbed in June 1947, when he returned to his home town of Altrincham & joined a company that was establishing itself fitting the latest technology – television aerials. He married Vera (whom he had met on hospital leave in 1944) in 1948 and later became a self-employed contractor. Ben finished his working life as a security guard, working part time until he was 83 years old, in 2008.
¹ Ranville was the first village to be liberated in France when the bridge over the Caen Canal was captured intact in the early hours of 6 June by troops of the 6th Airborne Division, who were landed nearby by parachute and glider. Many of the division’s casualties are buried in Ranville War Cemetery and the adjoining churchyard The CEMETERY contains 2,235 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 97 of them unidentified.
² BROOKWOOD MILITARY CEMETERY is owned by the Commission and is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the United Kingdom, covering approximately 37 acres. In 1917, an area of land in Brookwood Cemetery (The London Necropolis) was set aside for the burial of men and women of the forces of the Commonwealth and Americans, who had died, many of battle wounds, in the London district. This site was further extended to accommodate the Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War. A plot in the west corner of the cemetery contains approximately 2,400 Canadian graves of the Second World War including those of 43 men who died of wounds following the Dieppe Raid in August 1942. The Canadian Records building, which was a gift of the Canadian government, houses a reception room for visitors and other offices.