Bill Ward Royal Artillery
Bill Ward was born in Ashton-on-Mersey, Cheshire, on 4th March 1920. He was named after his Uncle (William), who had been designated Missing in Action in 1917. His father had also been a driver in the Service Corps in World War One, although he never discussed his wartime experience with his son. Bill started at St Martin’s Church School, in Ashton-in-Mersey, in 1925, and studied there for nine years.
On leaving school in 1934, Bill’s brother was keen for him to train as a draughtsman. Bill himself had little inclination to work indoors, and on his own initiative was able to get a job with a local butcher. Here he learned butchering and slaughtering in the slaughterhouse, and from the age of 15, he was also expected to drive, with the company providing an early model of a Morris Commercial Van. By the age of 18, Bill was licensed by the local authority to kill small animals, although his true passion was football. Bill’s ambition was to become a professional footballer, and he was helped in staying fit by the fact that he did not drink or smoke.
On 25th June 1940, Bill was called up to register at Fulwood Barracks in Preston. He was quite glad to go and see life outside of Ashton-on-Mersey. Apart from family trips to Blackpool and one occasion where he had cycled into Wales, Bill had never been outside of the small village where he had grown up. There was not a lot to do in Ashton-on-Mersey, and as Bill boarded the train to Preston, it was the first time he had been on the railway in his life.
As the basic training progressed, the skills of the 200 new conscripts at Fulwood Barracks began to be identified. Bill was one of only a dozen conscripts who could drive, so automatically was told that he would form the mechanised section of the battalion. As part of the transport section of the 7th Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashires, the first Army vehicle that Bill drove was an impressed Robinson’s Fish and Game van from Preston.
Until 1944, Bill was undertook a variety of duties across various locations in England, Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, he was tasked for looking for U-Boats off the coastline, and he was then involved with helping the police clear the bombed docks at Liverpool in 1943. Bill recalls the ‘beautiful coastline’ of the East Coast of England and some ‘gorgeous’ scenery in Scotland as Army life introduced him to new parts of Britain.
Although Bill had initially trained as an infantryman, he joined with a new input of men to learn how to be ACK-ACK gunners. He was stationed on the South Coast of England to take up battery duty forthree to four months, before further training saw him head north once more to Scotland. Here he developed valuable skills on driving vehicles through up to 4 foot of water, and making sure that they were waterproof. They were trained on how to respond if the vehicle stalled underwater, and although Bill did not realise it at the time, the importance of this training became evident later. Bill later appreciated that this practical training had been effective preparation for disembarking at Normandy.
The Normandy Campaign
Bill landed at Normandy with the British Third Division on the 10th June 1944(D+4). During the crossing, a (probably stray) shot aimed at Dover had hit one of the Division’s boats, causing it to go down with six guns on board. Fortunately there were no casualties, and after briefly holding to, they continued toward Normandy, with most of the men suffering from seasickness due to the rough waters.
They landed without difficulty in shallow water as part of the Second Wave of the landings. By that time the beach had been cleared, and most of the bodies removed. There was no firing as the Beach master waved them through past various obstacles to enable them to set up their guns.
On Sword Beach, the infantry had already gone in, and the idea was originally to go for Caen in one day. In the event, it was several weeks before Caen was taken. Bill’s route took him through woods on a rise overlooking Caen. From here they saw the first big wave of bombers that went over and practically destroyed Caen. The American bombers were at high altitude when they flew over, but the English bombers went over only 1000 feet up and so were clearly visible to Bill. It was painful to watch some of the English bombers come down, but Bill remembers that ‘they did a terrific job’, and Caen was eventually taken.
From Caen, they progressed through the Falaise Gap, where Bill witnessed the decimation of the German Army, which had been concentrated into a small area. However, it was here that the men got their first tasty food since arrival at Normandy, after they came across an injured cow. Along with another butcher, Bill made the most of the opportunity to have fresh meat.
From there, they progressed further into Europe, and at Auverloon, Bill volunteered to drive a self-propelled boafer, a role he continued in until the end of the war. They continued into Nijmegen, and at this point the guns were stood down as German aircraft had become practically non-existent. They were therefore tasked with going through the forest and rounding up German prisoners. Bill recalls the contrast between the German prisoners who were part of the Wehrmacht, and then those who were part of the SS or Hitler Youth. He felt that to some degree, the soldiers in the Wehrmacht were ‘just like us’, whereas the Hitler Youth were ‘arrogant little swines’. Bill then continued into Germany, taking part in the Battle of Bremen before finishing the war in Schiessel, a few miles outside of Hamburg.
After The War
The unit was gradually broken up, and Bill was called in to the Officer to be told that he was off to Paris. He was told that he should report to the 79th GCU. The Officer told Bill he had no idea what this was, but that Bill was the only one going!
Bill found out that his new role assignment was with the Graves Concentration Unit, relying on map references that had been recorded by the Germans when burying soldiers, or that had been handed in by different factions. Working with a doctor and a civilian crew of several Frenchmen, Bill worked to identify the bodies by any paperwork or dog tags, and then dig the bodies up and piece them together.
After a while, Bill reflects, he got used to it. The worst moment was finding a bomber crew of five and a half bodies, instead of seven or eight crew. Bill had to try and piece them together, recording the colour of their hair, any dentures and any broken bones to help with the identification process. For Bill, this was the worst part of the war.
Bill was discharged from the Army on 24th June 1946, whereupon it was ‘back to Blighty, a suit that didn’t fit and a trilby that I didn’t want’. He would have gladly stayed on in the Army, but felt he had to go back to see his parents. He took on a government job at Trafford Park, sorting synthetic tyres from rubber tyres, before moving on to work at Kellogg’s. At Kellogg’s, Bill was able to continue his passion for football while working on the maintenance of machinery, representing the company team at left-half (a position he had also played in for the Army). He finished his working life as a heavy goods driver, and was still working until his late 80s at Chelford cattle market two days a week.
In his thoughts on life in the Army, Bill reflects that it was probably a good thing for him, as it was for many others at the time. He recalls fondly the sights that he got to see across Scotland and the East Coast of England while training in the run-up to 1944. Bill surmises that once you got fit, got your kit right, and learned discipline (‘discipline was 9/10 of your life’), you were alright. You were treated as men, hard at times, but always fairly.
Yet in Bill’s words, it is ‘Jerusalem’, a small cemetery in France, which sums up the war. It marks a First Aid station, where two padres, a title man and a 16 year old boy were killed by a direct hit.