John Albert WHAITE, Corps of Royal Engineers
(29 October 1918 to 27 March 2004)
I have been asked to record and recount Albert’s WW2 war service. The following account has been based on available old service records left by Albert (e.g. his Army Pay Book and discharge papers) and from first hand accounts provided by family and friends.
Albert was born in Manchester in 1918. Prior to the war he was employed as a “roofer”; he was also a sideman at a local church, where he met his future wife Joyce, the verger’s daughter. Albert underwent an Army medical for the TA on 11 April 1939 as part of the expansion of the forces and preparation for general mobilisation; he was proud to be, in his words, “a Militiaman”.
Mobilised on 20 October 1939 – 9 days before his 21st birthday – because of his civilian trade, he was posted to the Corps of Royal Engineers (RE) in the rank of Sapper. He reported to Halifax, West Yorkshire, sleeping in the local Drill Hall, following which he moved to Ripon, a RE depot, to undertake his basic training.
In March 1940 he was sent to France, joining 237 (City of Dundee) Field Company, RE, attached to 153 Brigade (consisting mainly of Gordon Highlanders) of 51st Highland Division (HD) who, in turn, were attached to the French Army. The RE formed part of the Division’s support troops. Albert was to serve with 51st HD throughout the war years developing a very high regard and admiration for the Highlanders.
Although the main Dunkirk evacuation took place over the period 26 May to 4 June, Albert remained in France after 4 June with 51st HD defending the evacuation routes to the coast. Along with the Division’s other support troops, he was then detached to an ad-hoc force – “Ark Force” – based on 51st HD’s 154 Brigade. Its mission was to defend Le Havre to enable 51st HD and other British, and French, troops to withdraw and be evacuated at the last possible moment.
However due to the rapidly advancing German troops, “Ark Force” was evacuated – after destroying equipment and vehicles – to Cherbourg on 11 and 12 June, to form yet another defensive line and safe route to the coast. On 12 June, the bulk of 51st HD was forced to surrender at St. Valery, leaving “Ark Force” as the only fighting remnants of the Division in France.
Albert recalled on many a trip with the Normandy Veterans Association (Stockport & District Branch) to France that his RE unit drove along and near to the French coastline destroying kit and equipment, and driving around the French countryside avoiding the German forces, awaiting evacuation. He recounted how, in one episode, his unit dismantled and buried a whole field kitchen in the sand dunes, which he believed was still there lying undiscovered!
He also recalled that he was about to be evacuated and was making his way down the beach having joined the queues for the troopship “SS Lancastria”. He was turned back. Shortly afterwards “Lancastria” was bombed and sank with much loss of life (estimated at between 5,000 and 9,000 troops). He was very lucky to have escaped this tragic event.
Albert was eventually evacuated on 17 June 1940,almost two weeks after the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, coming ashore at Southampton dressed in chefs’ whites provided by the Navy, his own kit having been destroyed and abandoned during evacuation.
A close family friend recalls that following his evacuation from France in 1940, Albert was home on disembarkation leave. On a night out in Manchester with Joyce and her friend, a car backfired, startling Albert, causing him to dive into the nearest doorway to take cover, the sound of the backfire reminding him of (then) recent events in France.
Following his return to the UK, Albert, with other veterans of “Ark Force”, was sent to join 9th Scottish (Highland) Division, where he was posted to 275 (City of Dundee) Field Company, RE, attached to 27 Brigade (also consisting mainly of Gordon Highlanders). In August 1940, 9th Scottish (Highland) Division was re-named 51st Highland Division, and 27 Brigade re-named 153 Brigade, thus reverting to the original Divisional (and Brigade) name. For 2 years, Albert was mainly based in the North East of Scotland, within the Division’s “home” area, undergoing extensive re-training, exercises and providing coastal defence.
Albert recalled how, during troop movements, he was passing through Carlisle in a road convoy. Stuck in traffic, he looked out of the back of the transport and unexpectedly saw Joyce’s brother (who would later become his brother-in-law), directing traffic in Carlisle town centre (he was in the Military Police). Quickly exchanging details, Albert was able to meet him later for a drink in the town, as Albert’s unit was camped nearby.
After 2 years on home soil, Albert sailed in June 1942 for the Middle East with 51st HD, arriving in Egypt in mid-August to join the 8th Army. Albert recalled the convoy stopping off in South Africa, and enjoying a spot of R&R in Cape Town. On arrival in Egypt, Albert underwent desert training during the period August to October.
Albert recounted that he was one of the few men in his unit trained in the use of the Thompson sub-machine gun – the famed “Tommy Gun”. As a result, he was asked to act as one of the bodyguards for General Montgomery during one of Monty’s morale boosting visits to 51st HD and other frontline troops, prior to El Alamein.
Albert took part in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (23 Oct 1942 to 5 Nov 1942). His unit’s role at El Alamein was to breach and clear routes through the German defensive lines so that the Allied troops could breakthrough and advance against Rommel’s Afrika Corps.
During the battle of El Alamein, Albert was caught up in a shell blast but narrowly escaped serious injury, being wounded near the base of his spine by a small piece of shrapnel. He was “patched up” by the medics and continued fighting.
With the rest of the Division, he fought alongside the Australians and New Zealanders, helping to clear North Africa taking Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli and other significant enemy garrisons, until the North African campaign concluded in May 1943.
From North Africa, Albert sailed with the Sicily invasion fleet, stopping in Malta where he helped in reinforcing the Island’s defences. He then moved on to Sicily where he landed on 10 July 1943, with the main GORDONS assault group and fought throughout the Sicily campaign until the island’s fall 38 days later.
Following the liberation of Sicily and a period on “garrison duties”, Albert returned with 51st HD to the UK in November 1943 to train and prepare for D-Day, initially in Buckinghamshire but later in East Anglia. During his disembarkation leave, Albert and Joyce got engaged; Joyce also managed to visit Albert in Cambridgeshire, prior to “the big one”.
The Normandy Campaign
On 7 June 1944 (D Day+1) Albert landed at La Breche d’Hermanville (Sword Beach) as part of the second wave, again with 153 Brigade, 51st HD. During June and August, he took part in the heavy fighting from the beachhead through to Caen and Lisieux. During the following months, Albert fought through Northern France (re-visiting the scenes of his early days of active service in 1940). With his unit he fought on through Belgium and Holland, taking part in the land element of Operation Market Garden.
Albert recalled that during the advance through Holland (in late October 1944), his unit came across a ragged stream of prisoners; it turned out that they were from “SS Kamp Vught” concentration camp, which had held Belgian and Dutch prisoners and had been abandoned by the retreating German forces. This was the first concentration camp that the Allies liberated on the western front.
On the night of 23/24 March 1945, Albert crossed the Rhine at Rees into Germany – 275 Field Company RE, being among the first British troops to bridge and cross the Rhine.
When VE day (8 May 1945) was announced, Albert was in the Bremerhaven area, where he remained immediately following the cessation of hostilities.
Albert’s role throughout this period was many and varied – blasting routes through obstacles, clearing roads of obstructions, demolitions, mine clearances, and erecting temporary bridging over the many rivers of the Low Countries and Germany, etc.
Albert and Joyce planned to get married after the end of hostilities in Europe; however in typical Army fashion, his return to England was cancelled and the wedding was re-arranged for 29 July. Albert was granted 9 days leave, starting on 24 July, but due to travelling difficulties his journey was delayed and the wedding had to be hurriedly put back 24 hours. Eventually, on 30 July 1945, Albert and Joyce were married. For quite a while after, when asked the date of their wedding, both Albert & Joyce frequently had to think carefully before answering, due the cancellations and confusion surrounding the actual wedding date!
Following the victory in Europe, Albert expected to go to the Far East but VJ day (15 August 1945) intervened and 51st HD disbanded. Albert was eventually de-kitted on 29 October 1945 (his 27th birthday) back in Halifax, where he had originally reported for duty, some 6 years earlier. He was transferred to the Reserve List on 14 November 1945, and finally released from active service on 5 December 1945 after 6 years continuous active service.
Like many others of his generation, Albert rarely spoke of the harrowing sights he had seen or of many of the unpleasant experiences he had encountered. In public he recalled only the “good times”, often in a deadpan manner, e.g. when asked what he carried into battle (e.g. Sicily / Normandy), he would jokingly reply – “a gun in one hand and a spare pair of pants in the other”!
In common with many, the Army and the war shaped his character and as one lifelong friend put it “it (the war) was the making of Albert”. It also gave him the opportunity to meet other nationalities from the (then) empire – Canadians, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders etc., as well as the people of Europe, an opportunity that would ordinarily have escaped him.
As one of the first British troops to enter a concentration camp, Albert hardly ever spoke of what he had seen and witnessed there. As a result he could appear unmoved (“detached” as one contributor has put it), but he had “been there and seen it all” at first hand and no longer easily shocked.
Albert adapted the “skills” he had learnt in the Army to use in later years, such as being able to improvise solutions to problems and repairs around the house. Having learnt to survive in all conditions, he used this when organising campsites with the Scouting movement in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. He impressed upon those present the need to be disciplined, leaving no waste, no sign of occupation and to leave the site as you found it – a foretaste of today’s environmental outlook. This was adapted from the doctrine of “burn, bash, bury”, learnt on active service to ensure that the enemy could not identify bivouac locations, units etc.
In contrast, on another occasion, on a family holiday in North Wales, Albert explained to his two (then) young grandsons, how it was possible to “brew up” in the sand, knowledge he had gained during his time in the desert, much to their amazement and amusement!
Later in life Albert became an active member of the Royal British Legion, Marple Branch, serving on the Committee as Assistant Secretary, Secretary and, finally, Chairman – he was also President of the associated British Legion Club (now Marple Social and Forces Club) – positions he held up to his death. He was not only an active member of the Normandy Veterans Association (Stockport & District Branch) but also the Market Garden Veterans Association (MGVA), valuing the comradeship and shared experiences of fellow NVA / MGVA veterans.
Copyright @ The Whaite family 2009
Albert and his wife Joyce moved to Marple in 1952. http://www.marple-uk.com