Wounded and Home

Eventually, we moved forward again. It was the end of June and the fighting was still fierce around Tilly, where we had been weeks before. I was given an area to establish a gun position to the NW of St. Pierre, about a mile from Tilly. It was difficult to find a suitable site, such was the steepness and high hedges around, but after a quick recce I settled for a long meadow beside a stream; it had the advantage of being level, and spacious enough to spread out the guns. The guns came rumbling into position, slit trenches were dug, and once again we were ready for action.

It was a very unpleasant gun-position right from the start. There were about a dozen long-dead cows scattered about, killed by gun-fire, swollen and stiff-legged. From them came the sickly-sweet smell of death that permeated the whole area, a never-to-be-forgotten smell that put one off one’s food. We towed most of them up the meadow as far away as possible, but they were too big to bury. There were also some unburied German dead, whom we buried in shallow graves, each marked out with a rough cross or a rifle stuck in the ground. However, in spite of all this, we settled into our usual routine, busy with fire-orders from our FOOs, and the usual barrages, worked out carefully for range and timing, at my small desk in the back of the half-track.

One day, to my relief, a new officer appeared. He was 2nd Lieut. Hicks, aged 19, more or less straight from OCTU and he was to be my Troop Leader, junior to me in the order of things. I remember him as quiet and shy, looking pale and new beside the rest of us, who by now had a certain brown hardiness and confidence that came from our recent experiences. I was delighted to see him, because up to now I’d been carrying all the officers’ duties in the troop and I saw that help was at hand. We carried on as usual with our work. By this time, a German mortar battery had vaguely found our range but not our line, so that salvoes of mortar shells landed regularly on the high ground either side of us, but never in the middle, where we were.

The day after Hicks arrived, in the late afternoon, there was a lull in our own firing programme and during this lull the German mortar found us. The salvoes came over in groups of four, with a slight pause in between, falling on or around our gun-position. Everyone took cover and I found myself in a slit-trench with Hicks and Signaller Forsyth. After a few salvoes like this, a shell landed by the gun 75 yards away on my right flank and I heard loud shouting. Now, a split second reaction occurred in me which was to save my life; probably spurred on by a feeling of responsibility, by wanting to help; all I know is that I didn’t think twice; I got out of the slit-trench and started to run across to the stricken gun. There was nothing noble or brave about my action; in fact it was probably rather fool-hardy. I think it was the result of all that training at OCTU about being responsible for one’s men, for one’s guns. All this training clicked in, and off I went, and as a result of that I had the wonderful bonus of 53 more years of life.

Anyway, off I went, trotting across the grass and the next salvo of mortar-shells came down. The first one got me, bowling me over like a rabbit; all I felt was an enormous blow in my right leg, like a blow from a sledge-hammer; there was no pain, just numbness. The second shell landed in the slit-trench that I’d just left and killed poor Hicks and Forsyth. The third shell landed on the back of the half-track, setting it on fire. Gnr Jay, the Signaller, had been lying in the back of the half-track and was terribly wounded, screaming and helpless. I did a hop, skip and jump back to the half-track and a couple of men were already there, pulling Jay out onto the ground. He was in a terrible state; his right leg was a shattered mess of flesh and bone, with the boot doubled back under his ribs. His face was white and he kept looking down at himself, saying "Christ, my leg, my leg". I gave him some morphia with a one-dose injection, but that was obviously inadequate. All this time we were lying with him under the tail-board of the half-track and the fire was increasing with ammunition going off in all directions. So the two men dragged Jay away. It was at this point that I found that my right leg was useless and some-one dragged me away and left me beside a tank, in relative cover.

In due course, the MO arrived in his jeep, but obviously had to attend to Jay first, then Gnr Hayter, who had been the first man wounded on the gun. So I had to wait my turn. There was still no pain in my leg, just numbness and on the inner side of my webbing gaiter there was a blood stained slit. Thinking it was perhaps just a superficial cut, I took my gaiter off and was faced with a round hole in my inner ankle, 1½ inches or more across and filled with blood - definitely more than I expected. Anyway, I put on my First Field Dressing - a pad and bandage always kept in a special pocket in one’s battle-dress and sat and waited. I didn’t feel too bad; the adrenalin was still keeping me alert, but one thing I did not want to happen was to suffer form shock; with no medical knowledge in those days, I equated shock with the staring pallor and uncontrollable shaking that I’d seen in some wounded men. The only thing I knew about shock was that you treated it with hot, sweet tea. As I sat there beside the tank, in the turret was a soldier surveying the scene cautiously, as well he might. "Bombardier" I called "Got any hot sweet tea?" "Certainly, Sir" he replied and reached down into his turret, came straight back up with a steaming mug.

Eventually my turn came, the MO dealt with me, and Hayter and I departed up a bumpy lane in an ambulance driven by a chap who couldn’t wait to get away. Throughout the whole episode, I’d felt on a high - an adrenalin reaction that saw me through it all; but as I was put in the ambulance, I particularly remember the grim, tired expressions on the faces of the troop and I expect that I looked like that too.

Hayter and I were taken back to a tented Field Hospital behind the lines, busy with khaki-clad doctors and nurses. In no time at all I was on the operating table, dopily complaining because they were cutting off my only pair of trousers with a large pair of scissors, and then, complete oblivion. I didn’t wake up until early next morning; what with the anaesthetic and general exhaustion, I’d slept right through the night. I was in a long tented ward full of wounded men sleeping, an absolute haven of peace. But soon all was on the move and we were taken on stretchers down near the coast, where about thirty of us spent the day, shoulder to shoulder on a school-room floor, attended to be Queen Alexandra nurses. These QAs had landed on D+2 or 3 and were doing brave and invaluable work behind the lines. Lying there all day, my leg began to ache badly, but analgesics helped to some extent. On the next stretcher to me was a chap who had had appendicitis, which struck us both as being rather ironic. In the evening, we were transferred to a hospital ship, anchored off-shore, by the simple method of loading the stretcher crossways on DUKWs - always known as Ducks. These amphibious vehicles drove up to the school, took on a load of stretchers and then just swam out to the hospital ship, where we were taken on board.

On the ship, still on our stretchers, we were put several decks down in long racks of casualties and the worst aspect of our journey home was to follow. For some reason, the hospital ship spent each night on the Normandy anchorage, and travelled by day; something to do with our excellent day-time air cover. But at night, the Germans bombed the anchorage and there’s nothing worse than lying helpless a few decks down and hearing wave after waver of ack-ack fire, then bombs falling somewhere outside. However, all the time our decks were being patrolled by naval nurses and the sight of these cool calm girls forced us to be nonchalant. The next day we crossed the channel, came alongside at Southampton and were carried down the gangway to a hospital train just across the tracks. At the bottom of the gangway there stood a large policeman, giving out such an aura of normality and steadiness that I felt he was the best sight I’d seen for a long time.

It was on the hospital train that I first saw a few wounded men with yellow luggage labels tied to their upper arms. These men were seriously wounded, so seriously that they were given Penicillin, which at that time was relatively recently discovered, and which was in short supply. The rest of us had sulfonamides, either by mouth or in powder form straight into the wound. My treatment was just that - sulfonamide powder poured straight into the wound, which was impossible to suture; over the next few months, the wound granulated up from the bottom with granulation tissue which in the end became scar tissue. In the meantime, the whole thing was encased from toes to knee in plaster-of-paris, which was changed at frequent intervals at first, and later every month. The only trouble was that the healing process threw out a lot of general, possibly infected, pus. This made the whole plaster smell horribly putrid, and when I got home, Mum killed the smell by soaking it in Wintergreen Oil, which at least smelt clean and clinical.

The hospital train took us to a hospital somewhere near Winchester and there we had a thorough clean-up by the nurses. My filthy battle-dress blouse was taken to the cleaners and I was stripped and bathed by two nurses, put to bed and slept like a log. The next morning, some-one came round doling out toothbrushes, shaving kit and so on; and later a girl came round to whom one could dictate a telegram. In those days, a telegram was the quickest communication; instead of the bother of finding a telephone and putting in a "trunk-call", one could simply dictate your message at any Post Office and it would reach its recipient within the hour. It was, in war-time, a double edged sword, because the sight of the delivery boys on their bikes raised anxiety in everyone who saw them. The little buff envelopes so often contained a message starting "The War Office regrets to inform you….." However, in my eagerness to get in touch with home, I forgot such things and my message read " Safe in England. Slightly wounded in the leg. Writing." When this envelope arrived at our house, Mum was down in the town, making sandwiches in a WVS canteen. Dorothy, our maid, was the only one in the house, and she ran with the envelope, all the way through the town in her afternoon frilly cap and apron, to the canteen. When they read the message together, they both burst into tears of relief all over the sandwiches.

There followed a long period of rest and convalescence. The first thing that happened was that the V1 "Buzz-bombs" made our present hospital too risky, and we were moved to Bradford General Hospital. After a few weeks there, I managed to get home because one of our Newquay hotels had been turned into a hospital where I could get treated as an out-patient. For the rest of that summer I became more and more adept at using crutches, even on occasion after a drink or two. I graduated to a walking plaster and walking stick, but the plaster did not finally come off until December. When that happened, my leg felt completely feeble and there was more physiotherapy to strengthen it again.

However, life was not all crutches and hospitals. Newquay at that time was a very sociable place, and I had a pretty good time. 1944 passed quickly into 1945 and I was declared fit and posted to a so-called "convalescent regiment", made up of ex-wounded being knocked into shape. This regiment was at St.Agnes, only ten miles down the coast from Newquay, so that I was frequently at home. It was during this time - May 1945 - that the Germans finally capitulated. VE Day was celebrated throughout the land, with bonfires, bands and an enormous feeling of relief.

One day, I was at home, in my service-dress uniform - tunic, Sam Browne etc. and someone told be that Brad was home, after five years as a POW. I went straight to his house and his mother said he’d be down in a minute. So I sat and waited in the kitchen of the little house. Then, in the doorway there appeared a skeletal, Belsen-like figure; when he saw me, he looked suddenly bewildered, and then he put his hand up in a wavering salute. This was so upsetting that it brought tears to my eyes then, and still does if I think about it now. When he recognised me properly, we went into the sitting-room and he told me the whole story from beginning to end, and at the same time ate his way steadily through a whole loaf of bread. He had been in a POW camp in E.Germany, keeping fit and strong doing manual work. In January 1945, as the Russians advanced, the POWs were made to march West; it was in deepest winter cold, on poor rations and many POWs fell out of the column; if they fell out, they were shot on the spot. This had gone on for four months, when the column, by now half-starved, were made to turn round because the Americans were coming the other way.

In the general turmoil of all this, Brad managed to hide in a ditch until the column had gone, and soon afterwards the American troops picked him up. His identity was established and within four days he was home. He was incredibly frail, but with my father’s care, he gradually built up his weight and strength until he was back to his old self.

My father’s health began to fail at about this time, after five years of overwork. He began to have prostatic symptoms and went up to London for an operation - a simple "boring-out" operation which in those days was all that was available. He recovered for a while, but he became increasingly tired over the rest of 1945. I managed to get away to escort him home after the operation, and we were sitting waiting for the train in the foyer of the Paddington Hotel. He sat there, obviously wanting only to doze and suffer in silence, when a very noisy and vivacious young ATS officer we had known at home for years burst in on our peace. I caught his eye and his lifted eyebrow of despair, and I whisked away to the bar. Leaving him happily alone. After that we caught the night sleeper to Cornwall.

Incidentally, there has a happy arrangement about first class sleeping cars to Cornwall. On the mid-night train, there were always about half a dozen sleepers kept in reserve for for the use of any very senior officers - Generals, Brigadiers, Admirals and so on. These were rarely fully taken up and if, as a junior officer, you spoke politely to the RTO (Rail Transport Officer) Office on No.1 platform, you could use one of these unused first class sleepers. I often did this, traveling in great comfort until the attendant woke me to get off at Par (change for Newquay).

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Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


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Early Years

Clifton College

Outbreak of War



Essex Yeomanry