Eric Heathcote – Eric’s wife remembers (2007)
David Heathcote, Eric’s son, writes: My father died suddenly in 1990. Before then, he enjoyed good health, and it never occurred to me to sit down with him and ask him about his war-time memories – there would be time later… Looking back, I’m not sure how much – even as a septuagenarian – he would have been willing to share with me.
After his death, I learned my lesson, sat down with my mother, Moyna, and sought her memories of Dad’s war. She didn’t meet the man who was to become my father till 1946, but she still has a story to tell. This is a verbatim transcript.
First of all, David, you do have the official recording (i.e. his written record, which also appears on this website) which your father made of the actual landing on D-day, so it’s only the background that I can fill in.
You say about the young men all suffering the Post Traumatic Shock disorder even before the term was invented. Well, you were quite right: there was no such thing in those days. If you ran up against adversity, you just got over it. There was a certain amount of excitement amongst the young men. Bearing in mind, for them, it was a form of adventure. Something that was very shortly knocked out of them. They were all keen to get into the forces, and most of them, like your father, joined up before the call-up.
First of all he fancied the Navy. And then, no. Didn’t want to go into the Army, so he decided on the Air Force. He went in, underwent the normal training – for an “erk” as they used to call them.
And, after he’d finished training, he was with a group and they heard they were to be sent out to Singapore. This excited them because it was the farthest any of them had ever dreamt of going. But with bags packed and all ready for the off, he was called in by his CO and told that he was not going to Singapore with his friends, that he was going on special duties.
So his friends went off and later your father heard that Singapore had been overrun by the Japs and possibly the whole lot of them had been taken prisoner or wiped out. But your father went off to Yorkshire, and at the (railway) station he was met by an RAF lorry and taken, driving through the blackout, he arrived at the gate of a field. And the driver of the lorry just wished him goodbye and good luck, and out he got and staggered over to the gate, expecting to find some huts or something. But nothing at all!
So he opened the gate and very carefully closed it behind him and got out his torch and tried to find his way, and the next thing he heard was a shout, “Put out that bloody light!” So at least it gave him a focus. He followed where the voice was, and at the other end of the field in one corner was one lorry and in the other corner was another lorry.
Now this was his introduction to radar. His first job was to be sent to the lorry in the far corner and there was this piece of equipment which looked rather like an upturned bike. And it was his job to sit on a stool and wind it forward so many times, like the pedals, and then stop, and then wind it back again. And forward again, back again – he felt an absolute idiot! But then somebody came in to relieve him and he was taken over to the other lorry which contained the equipment of the radar. Something he’d never seen before, but he was quite intrigued by it.
And it turned out that your father was one of the first to take part in the working of radar. So he went on for further training.
And then as time went on he and his unit – they seemed to travel like snails – they had these lorries with the radar equipment in and they were like snails, everything on their back. And they went up to Troon in Scotland. They thought, “This is lovely, nice holiday!” Up to then, the War hadn’t been too bad. I mean, nothing nasty had happened to them.
They spent a year training, I don’t know exactly what it was but they trained, there was a lot of competition. Then selecting the units and eventually the units were cut down to just a few.
The next step was they were told they were going to have the honour of representing the Royal Air Force in protecting American fighter pilots, er – fighters, over the beaches. And of course this meant it was D-day in the offing.
So, very, very hush-hush, they had to go down to the South of England, and they camped there. And then, come the 5th of June, they embarked in very, very bad weather in landing ships… landing barges, they were called. And after an absolutely dreadful night – they were sea-sick, they were feeling very, very sorry for themselves – came the dawn and the sea seemed to have subsided a little; they looked out and one of them said, “Blimey mate, we’ve landed”. But another one said, “Oh no we ain’t mate, we’re back again, that’s The Needles!”
So then they had to come to terms with doing it all over again.
So on the 6th, D-day finally took off. Back they went, over the Channel, and they had to stand off while the American warship Texas bombarded the beach. I think they were held up there for about 5 hours before they got the go-ahead to land.
So they prepared for this, and when they got nearer to the land, they saw these lumps, and didn’t quite know if they were stones or what they were. And then much to their horror, they realised that they were men, and not only that they were men but that they were bodies. So they had to land their lorries loaded with radar equipment, and had a terrible job trying to weave their way between these dead and wounded men.
But eventually they lined up on the beach, feeling quite pleased with themselves that they had managed so far. Then the (German) bombardment started again and they couldn’t work out where the spotter was. But later on, when your Dad and I went back, and visited the Normandy beaches, we saw the church where the spotter was ensconced up there. And he was able to tell the gunners and they then knew where to fire.
It turned out that they (the Allies) had a lot of casualties and the loss of equipment. And they thought then that that was it, the War was over and they were back for Blighty and that would be that.
But then the next day a full range of equipment turned up, and they were all set to go again. They had to go and make their way up the beach, and this was rather difficult because the bombardment was going on the whole time.
Now before your father went over, he visited (his younger brother) Stan who was in hospital with shell-shock. He had been in the Navy and was on an ammunition ship off the coast of Sicily, and the constant bombardment that went on there just gave him a nervous breakdown. He was in hospital and so your Dad went to see him. He recognised your Dad and out of the blue he told him not to dig his fox-hole one way, dig it another.
So naturally when they got on the beach, your Dad remembered what Stan had said and dug his fox-hole the opposite way to how all the others were doing it. And he’d landed with a particular friend (Dickie Parr) that he’d been through training with, and they were carrying on a conversation, just nattering away, and suddenly his friend just didn’t answer him. So he (Dad) thought, “Oh poor old chap, he must have just gone to sleep”, but when he was able to turn his head, he saw that his friend, the back of his head had been blown off. So that really upset him.
But then as time went on, they could leave their fox-holes and get up to the top of the beach.
It was rather strange when your Dad and I went back there and we saw the beach. And he pointed out the ???? where they had taken cover and eventually when they broke through, and he said he didn’t know that Hell was like that, but if that was Hell, God help us all.
Anyway they then found that, before they’d left, they were issued with new uniforms. And they were Royal Air Force blue impregnated with anti-gas powder. Which turned the uniforms into like a German field grey. So, not only were the Germans firing on them, but their beloved allies, the Americans, were also firing on them, thinking that they were Germans who had landed at the back of them.
But there was one American officer who had his head screwed quite right and he grabbed hold of some of the men and told them to go… Now amazingly the Americans had equipment over there even at that time and they had to go along and take their uniforms off and they were kitted out in American battle dress. Now this was a sort of bomber jacket in a light colour, and the trousers were what we used to call “American pinks”.
Well, of course, they kept them. They were given their own uniforms back again.
They were attached to the Americans for quite a while and the only thing they missed was tea. The food was very good but they did miss a cup of tea, and that’s when your father wrote home to his mother and she sent him a little screw of tea.
They boiled up water in a little bucket and put this drop of tea in it. And it was used over and over, many, many, many times. And that was the story that your father sent up to the “Southend Standard” (local newspaper in Essex) which won me that full tea set, a very, very nice bone china tea set. That’s by the way.
Anyway, they got back into their old uniforms but they were allowed to keep the American uniforms.
After I’d met your father, when I used to go out to Hatch End (suburb in North West London where Dad lived before and after the War with his mother and father), there was a very pleasant walk up Old Reading where most of the (local) people went for a walk on a Sunday afternoon.
Up there – by now the War was over – there was a German prisoner of war camp. Your father had kept the bomber jacket the colour that it was but he’d had the trousers dyed nigger brown (sic) and of course we were getting very dirty looks and mutterings. And when we saw some of the German prisoners of war coming towards us, they were dressed identically to your father!
Your father just saw the funny side of it; he said, “I haven’t got any marking on my back, so they should know I’m not a German.”
But there again with his colouring – he was very Nordic looking, he could certainly be taken for one of “the Chosen Race” so-called.
To get back to my story, they pressed on up and went through the village, and started along the road to make a camp. Americans, British, I think there were some French macquis, it was quite a bit of a hodge-podge. But they did make their way up into France.
There was, as I said, when your Dad and I went over on this trip, we were taken along the beach. When the chappie who was running the trip heard that your father had been up there on D-day, he did a diversion and took everyone along to the Omaha beach to see what it was and there were quite a few memorials there, which was rather nice.
On that trip, the Major somebody who was running that trip, asked your father to make a tape whilst we were on the coach about the landings. And I wish to this day that I had a copy of that tape. Because, apart from the very stiff, formal report (which the party had with them on the coach), there was a lot of interest about the different chaps who were on it (that report). But unfortunately I can’t remember their names.
There was one chap… his parents kept a post office, somewhere near us, near Thaxted (village in North Essex) but your father… well, I don’t think he ever wanted to go along because even if the parents were still alive he couldn’t face telling them how their son had died.
Although on that trip we made, we went to the British cemetery there, and all the men who had died on that awful day were all buried there. All in a line. And your father was absolutely choked about it, because all these friends that he’d spent months with… it was very traumatic.
Anyway, they fought their way up and gave the American fighters cover. Funnily enough, there wasn’t an awful lot of German bombing, they depended entirely on the field guns.
We went along to this place where they had some naval guns on top of the cliff and the one in charge of this was a German admiral or captain. He’d been given this post because he was a drunkard. He was given these crews and these guns to look after. Apparently when he woke up on the morning and saw the Allied warships out in the bay he panicked and he ran, and so did everybody else on the station. But if those guns – which were absolutely huge – if they had started firing, they’d have just sunk the whole fleet there.
And the Texas would have been one of the first to go, and as your father was near the Texas, he’d’ve gone with them.
Anyway they carried on up through France. I don’t know where they went after that, but at one stage your father finished up in Holland, still with his lorry on his back. In a lot of ways, they were far more comfortable than the poor old troops, like the infantry. They had no cover but at least they had their van to help them through.
Your father never spoke at length about the War; snippets over the years came out and, as the wife, it was just something you had to stand by and help. I’ve always been amazed that that generation came through such horror and could pick up normal lives again. They just wanted to get home and be normal, meet somebody and marry and have a family. And the majority of them did just that.
Your father went on up into Germany and all he would talk about there was the terrible price that the Germans had had to pay, and he felt so very, very sorry for the women and the children. They were in a desperate situation. I mean, they had started the War and people couldn’t feel too sorry for them…
But then I met your father on his demob leave. I went along to the Headstone, the local dance (hall) and met this very handsome young man in Air Force blue, and very, very bright blue eyes and a cheeky grin. And then I didn’t see him again for another six weeks, and I’d gone to the dance with a naval officer and there was this man who appeared again in a very ill-fitting suit which was his demob suit.
When it came to an “excuse-me” dance, he broke in – well, he tried to break in and he slipped on a match and finished up sprawled between the two of us. And after that he never let go, and at the end of that evening, he said to Mack, “Sorry old chap, I’m taking her home: this is the girl I’m going to marry.”
And I married him, didn’t I?
(Transcribed from an audio tape recording 18 November, 2007)