Bill Firby – notes from a conversation (2007)
Peter Best writes: In 2007, I had the huge honour of going to Canada to meet two of the veterans I had traced who were then still alive. One was Muir Adair, living close to Vancouver, and the other was Bill Firby, who at that time lived at Victoria, on Vancouver Island. I wrote up the notes and attach these. I have no other information about Bill, who did not write a contemporary account.
Meeting with Bill Firby at his sister’s home in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on Saturday 24th February, 2007
When were you posted to 15082?
April 1944. Bill was born in 1922.
What was your trade and rank?
Corporal. He was a Radar and Electrical Engineer. When he was 19, Bill joined up in Winnipeg. He had one month’s basic training, and in late 1942, came over to England. He was attached to the RAF, and was selected to go on Radar courses. The reason was that he had been asked if he had any interest in Radios and at school he had built a radio and had an interest in electrical matters. He attended a series of courses. The first was close to London (Bill did not recall where). The second one was at Yatesbury, the third one at Cranwell and then at Malvern. Bill liked Malvern very much and also enjoyed the work. He felt that he was good at it and that he had found something he could get to grips with. He said he was an immature firebrand. He had a short fuse but with Radar work, he could show his potential and won respect. He did not know why he was promoted to a Corporal so early on. He explained the system of ‘Shadow’ ranks between the RCAF and RAF. In normal ways, he should have been an LAC but received the pay and stripes of a Corporal. The starting rank was AC1, AC2 and then LAC. Probably due to his trade, he earned his promotion early.
In the RCAF, the section he was in would have been called WEMR (Wireless Electrical Mechanical Radio). Bill repeated that he was immature and that he was surprised at being promoted once he had finished his training.
His first posting as a trained Radar Operator was at a CHL station at Westcliffe (Editor: East Kent?) By this time it was 1943. He was there until early 1944. He became a specialist in 10cm Radar and knew very well Type 13 Radar GCI equipment as well as having a working knowledge of Type 15 10cm Radar. He also had other skills including being trained as a driver of trucks (for the equipment).
He was posted to 15082 GCI in April 1944, when 15082 were training in Scotland. He was a late replacement as the original 10cm specialist was taken ill and needed to be sent home. He was given some training in wet landings but basically the rest of the unit was pretty much fully trained in landings and he had to “catch up”.
What was your job with 15082?
Bill’s job was to be the 10cm expert for Type 13 Radar GCI equipment. He knew what to do and that he was good at it. He was also a spare driver. 15082 were his first Mobile GCI group. His actual job title was Radar Technician
What piece of equipment were you with?
10cm Type 13.
Can you remember what LCT you were on?
Not really. He remembers that all the Type 13 equipment went on one landing craft.
What nationality were the crew?
He thinks that they were American but cannot be sure.
Can you remember where you landed?
No. He was not in a lorry. Even though he was a driver, his orders were to leave the landing craft on foot and make his way ashore to join up with the rest of the 21 BDS group.
What was your experience of the landing?
When he left the landing craft, he was immediately up to his chest in water. He had his rifle and a respirator. He also had a bottle of brandy! (May have been Scotch). He walked towards the shore, but instead of getting shallower, it actually got deeper. He could just touch the bottom, but was beginning to be pulled along the beach by the tide. He was completely wet and to keep afloat, he lost some of his equipment. He saw that all the lorries from his LCT were drowned out and most were beneath the surface. He was particularly mad as he lost his bottle of Brandy. Bill was able to just keep his head above water and had his rifle held above his head to keep it dry and described it as “moon hopping”. Bill drifted eastwards and was at least 200 yards away from the point of the beach that they landed, and was separated from his unit.
He remembers the noise of the guns and the mortars coming in. He landed and recognised another from his group, an RAF type who was another Radar Operator. Bill thinks this man’s name was Love.
Both of them found some shelter in a crater, some yards from the shingle wall. Bill said he felt a flash of relief, as he was on his own and free from Authority. He could do what he wanted and no one could argue with him. It was his rebellious nature coming out and he was pleased. Even though he was under fire, Bill thought it fun and was amused that he had no one ordering him around. It was a type of freedom.
He saw many Americans around him, some dead and some injured but the bulk were lying along the shingle wall. Once he got their bearings, he called out to them asking what was going on. He remembers not getting a reply. He called out again, and still no reply. This got him mad, and so he went up to the shingle bank, and was close to them when he saw that they were all dead.
It was at this time that he became aware of the danger and the isolation. He became aware that they were on their own, and he and the RAF Operator decided to walk along the beach towards where they could see trucks from 15082. There were many shells landing and they (the Germans) obviously could see what they were shelling as they hit many trucks and troop concentrations.
They were now cold as their uniform was soaking wet and they had lost much of their equipment. They were now becoming less sure of themselves. After walking about 200 yards, they saw some of their equipment shelled out but then came across a Padre. Bill has no idea where he came from and has no recollection of seeing him before, but he was a tall, thin, straight upright man. Calmly this Padre called out to them “This way boys”, and guided them off the beach, through a gap and through barbed wire. The Padre was amazingly calm and assured, and just guided them off beach. He told them what to do and they followed his instructions.
They walked a short distance off the beach and passed a few houses. Shelling was still taking place and Bill had to jump into a shell hole. He saw a part of a pig in the crater, and jumped out of it and into another crater. There he hid and realised that what he had seen was not a pig but the rump of a man, burnt and dismembered. This shocked and scared him.
In a lull in the shelling, he moved up the road a bit. There was a shallow wall on the left and he walked passed an American Infantryman kneeling in the prone position, with his rifle pointing up the valley. Bill called out to him “What’s going on“? No reply. Bill called out again, keen for an answer. No reply. Bill flipped and lost his temper. “Why can’t this guy tell him what’s going on?” He left his cover and went across to this GI and nearly reached him, when he saw his face was grey, covered in dust and motionless. He was dead. This made Bill very scared and remorseful.
Not much further on, he was walking past one of the lorries and was called to crawl under it by some others from his section. “Get under here. There’s room for you.” At that point he felt lost, bewildered and scared. He cannot remember seeing any NCOs or Officers and felt incredibly alone. He said that he stood his rifle up against the wall and crawled in under the lorry with his mates. Bill said that the gesture of standing his rifle up was like a sign of resignation of his position and the guilt he felt about being mad with the poor dead American.
Where did you spend D-Day night?
It was here that Bill spent D-Day night. He heard a man moaning all night long on the far side of the road, and was told that the Medics were with him. He heard that he died that night. He also remembers the burnt-out lorries on the beach and thinks that there were about 6 or 7 lorries lined up where he was taking shelter.
Who was your CO?
Trollope, but he cannot remember much about him. He was a Corporal and did not talk with or communicate with Officers.
Do you remember the Padre?
No. He cannot recall seeing him again after their brief encounter on the beach.
Do you remember the Doctor?
No. He only recalls the fact that the wounded man was being cared for by ‘the Doctor’.
Can you remember the names of your colleagues?
No, apart from his NCO who was Muir Adair.
Are you in contact still with any other Veterans?
No. He met some Veterans about 15 years ago, but did not keep their addresses.
How long were you with 15082?
Until the fall of Paris. Bill told the story of when they arrived in Paris, they were actually (in some cases) the first troops in and were also the first RAF personnel. They were ordered to go to Longchamps where the Germans had (previously) set up a Radar station and see if this would be a suitable site for 15082 to set up. They went to the site of the Racecourse and found much of the German equipment still intact. They had a bunker and Bill went searching in the bunker to find some tools. Bill had lost all of his tools when the lorries were lost at D-Day including some of his own tools that he had brought over from Canada. He had been scavenging tools ever since and saw the opportunity of getting some quality German tools. Just as he was about to pick them up, a GI who was also there shouted out to Bill not to touch them. Bill asked “why?” And was told that they were probably booby trapped. And they were. The tools had been wired to detonators and would have exploded if Bill had picked them up.
The site was not a good one and they did not set up there but at a place called Morangis, on the outskirts of Paris. They had a wonderful reception when they entered Paris, with lots of drink and kissing from the French. It was wild and also dangerous, as the Free French were also after revenge with any collaborators. They did have time off and Bill remembers having a pass that allowed him a day and evening in Paris. He had a lot to drink but was sure that he got back to the pick-up point by the right time. However, there was no truck. So Bill went back and continued to drink, sleeping rough. When he did get back, Trollope had him up on an AWOL charge and he was in deep trouble. This was not the first time Bill was on a charge. He was a firebrand and commented that the only time he seemed to see Officers was either on a charge or requesting leave. However, Muir arranged for him to be quickly transferred away to another GCI unit and he was whisked away in a jeep, not knowing where he would end up. In the event, he had been transferred to GCI 15081, who were with 15119 GCI stationed on the Belgian border. He stayed with 15081 until the end of the war.
What happened on D+1?
On the morning of D+1, Bill cannot remember any type of organisation or orders. He seems to recall that they moved into a field and soon after that his NCO, Muir Adair, joined up with them and helped to organise the set up. He recalls that some time on D+1, Muir asked for volunteers to go down to the beach to reclaim drowned-out equipment. Muir asked Bill and another Canadian Jack (John) Stevens to go with him. It was still a dangerous place, subject to mortar and sniping attacks. He seems not to remember any Officers being involved. Eventually, that night they had a crude camp set up in this field and he slept in a bivouac During the night he was awoken by a terrific bombardment, and such frightening and terrifying noise.
After the war, Bill returned to his native Winnipeg. He did not know what to do. Although now 24, he still felt immature. He joined the Manitoba Power Company as an apprentice Electrical Engineer. He was not sure if he liked this and so decided to sit exams to join the Canadian Civil Service. He passed with flying colours and high marks, and went to work for the Post Office as a Civil Servant. After a few years, he joined Air Canada. The money was very much better and so were the opportunities for advancement. He was an Electrical Maintenance Engineer. Bill was always very conscientious and very detailed in what he did. This carried on into civilian life and he supposed that this became a bit obsessive. He recalls that one day, when crawling within an aircraft wing to carry out work he knew that he had to crawl through a space with his tools in one hand and pulling himself with the other. Such was his dedication that he became obsessed with the worry that he might have left his tools in the wing at the end of the job. He got up in the middle of the night and drove to work to check.
Sadly, Bill had a nervous breakdown soon after this incident and had to leave this role.
After he recovered, he had a friend who suggested a job with CN. CN is Canadian National Railways. His friend was being promoted to Signalling Supervisor and asked Bill to join him as his deputy. He joined CN as Assistant Signal Engineer and worked with CN for a further 22 years until his retirement.
Bill recalled some other incidents:
On D+1, Bill recalls that their Technical Officer was a Pole called Effenberger (or the like). He was a good technician and was friendly and helpful. He recalled that he carried out a reconnoitre up the lane on D+1 to see if they could move the convoy further away from the beach and to a safer ground. He recalls that whilst carrying out this task, he was shot at and that it came from his own side. Bill cannot recall himself being shot at but the problem was that their uniform was too much like the German uniform.
He recalls that they moved up from their overnight position to a field where he met up with Muir Adair. That night sleeping in a tent and being woken by a terrifying barrage of shells and noise. From inside his tent, the flashes and light was terrifying and the noise unbelievable. He thought at any second he would be killed and was frightened. He had a strange sensation, as all he could think of was to grab his steel helmet and try and pull it as tight as possible over his head. He definitely had the sensation of trying to make himself into a ball and actually crawl into his helmet; such was the fear and terror of the occasion. This sensation has stayed with Bill ever since.
Only later did Bill find out that the noise and shelling was from his side going outbound, as a US Artillery Company was in the next field to them, and it was they who had mounted an Artillery barrage. Scarily for Bill, there was no sign of them in the morning.
Bill recalls that there was plenty of War trophies around to be had. The most prized trophy was a German Luger pistol. You had to look hard for these. Bill had collected a German rifle. However, he saw plenty of horrific acts. Many Germans were stripped to scavenge any items and he saw several Germans with fingers cut off where people had stolen rings.
Bill remembers the trip from camp D2 to Portland and the slow pace they had to travel due to the trucks being waterproofed and prone to overheat.
Bill does not think he was seasick.
Bill recalls that when they were first due to land was the morning of D-Day with the LCT coming towards the shore before a US patrol boat came alongside them and via a megaphone told them to “Get the hell out of here“. Bill took offence to this, and got mad at the US man. He took it as a personal insult. He hated being told what to do, but in hindsight it saved them.
Bill was discharged in 1946.
Bill recalls not having any contact with Officers bar discipline matters or leave requests.
1st March 2007