John Wetherall

When war broke out in 1939, I was still at school in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands. All was quiet there and I remember people talking about the war being over by Christmas. Many of those in the Island were convinced that the Germans would never be able to resist the combined French and British armies and that the famous Maginot Line would never be breached.
In the spring of 1940 The British Expeditionary Force was in France and we were waiting for the British and French to attack and advance into Germany. However, this was not to be and when, quite unexpectedly, the Germans attacked, outflanked the Maginot Line, and invaded Belgium, Holland and France, people in the Channel Islands woke up to the reality which was the somewhat alarming prospect of the German army reaching the coast of France only a few miles away from the Islands. The British Government, realizing that to defend the islands would be difficult, causing considerable destruction and loss of life, withdrew the Garrison of British troops and declared the Channel Islands “Open City”, meaning in effect that there would be no attempt to defend us.
One of my most vivid memories of that spring in 1940 was of a huge black cloud approaching Guernsey from the direction of the French coast. We thought at first that a massive thunderstorm was on the way and heard the rumbling of thunder. In fact the cloud was dense smoke caused by Allied forces blowing up oil storage tanks and ammunition depots. The rumbling of thunder was most probably the sound of distant guns and explosions. Another memory was one night hearing the noise of marching troops underneath my bedroom window, - at once I thought that the Germans had arrived but it was British troops marching to St.Peter Port for embarkation and withdrawal to the UK.
Shortly after Dunkirk it was decided by the Guernsey authorities that all schools should be evacuated to England and one night our whole school embarked on a coal carrying cargo boat and we sailed for UK. We had a somewhat sleepless night down in the hold of the cargo boat amongst bags of coal and we arrived in Weymouth the next morning distinctly dusky in appearance. We were met by teams of various women volunteer organisations and were documented, given breakfast and classified as refugees. We all had labels tied on us and issued with gas masks. My school was destined for Buxton in Derbyshire, but as I was due to leave at the end of the summer term to join the army in August I persuaded the Headmaster to let me leave straight away so that I could join my mother who was then living in Farnham. I had difficulty in persuading the authorities in Weymouth to allow me to leave and travel independently - for some strange reason I was told that Farnham was a restricted area! However I eventually succeeded, caught a train to Farnham, sharing a carriage with some Home Guards who were talking about pikes with which they had recently been issued instead of guns. It seems strange, but looking back, it never for one moment occurred to me that there was the remotest possibility of England ever losing the war. Eventually I arrived in Farnham, giving my mother quite a shock. However, after a bath all was well and she was relieved to see me as nobody then had any idea of what was happening in the Channel Islands. My first night I experienced what was probably the only air raid that Farnham had ever had, - the sirens went, we all put on our gas masks and flocked down to the cellar where we sat for about an hour and heard one bomb exploding in the distance.
My last few months before joining the army at the end of August were spent working on Mrs.Terry’s farm in Middle Old Park. I also have vivid memories of the Battle of Britain with Spitfires shooting down German bombers on their way to bomb London and I also remember watching from the top floor of a friend’s house in Putney the fire bomb raid on the City of London.
The rest of my war service, with the exception of the Normandy invasion, was somewhat dull compared with the evacuation of Guernsey. I joined in Aldershot and after a few months training was sent to an Officer Training Unit in Bournemouth and commissioned into the RASC in 1941. After a few months with a Training Regiment in Derbyshire I joined the 49th Division which had just returned from Iceland after participating in the ill-fated Norwegian Campaign. We were training in England and were earmarked to go to the Middle East subsequent to the invasion of Sicily and Italy. However, a Canadian Division in the UK which complained of being kept too long in England was sent to the Middle East, our 49th Division replacing them in Scotland where we continued to train.
Some memories of this long period of training in the UK still remain fixed in my mind. First I shall always remember the delights of sleeping in a ‘pup tent’' in pouring rain on the Troon Golf Course (for those who do not know, the Troon Golf Course is on an exposed position on the west coast of Scotland). A second memory of mine was training was training at the 49th Divisional Battle School and having to climb along a rope to cross a river, all part of an assault course. Instructors, to add to the excitement, were detonating explosives in the ravine below. A third memory was of a training exercise when during a mock ambush of a convoy of vehicles, one of my Platoon threw a thunderflash which regrettably landed on a haystack, setting it on fire. The Fire Brigade turned out but the haystack was burnt to the ground. Understandably the farmer was not amused and claimed compensation from the Army. The General decreed that I should pay £10 towards the cost because I allowed soldiers to ‘play around with thunderflashes in the vicinity of haystacks.’ I think in those days, this amounted to about a week’s pay.
At last early in 1944 the 49th Division moved to East Anglia in preparation for the invasion of Europe and later assembled near Tilbury Docks. I landed in Normandy four days after D-Day (known as D+4). The sky over the beaches was full of allied aircraft and the Luftwaffe were not much in evidence. A Sergeant with me who had been at Dunkirk commented that it was like Dunkirk in reverse.
In the remainder of 1944 our Division was with the Canadian Corps. on the left flank of the British 21st Army Group Once having broken out of the Normandy beach head, we advanced through Northern France, Belgium and Holland. We spent a very cold winter on what was known as ‘The Island’ - a flat area between Nijmegen and Arnhem in north Holland. Arnhem was captured in 1945 and we moved on through Northern Germany until VE Day.
I did not stay long in Germany after VE Day but returned to England to join 6th Airborne Division which was preparing to leave for India prior to invading Japan. Then came the atom bomb and VJ Day and the end of the war. Instead of invading Japan 6th Airborne was sent to Palestine (now of course Israel) to help keep the peace there. The war in Europe and the Far East was over.