West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

WARTIME EXPERIENCES OF
WILLIAM (BILLY) HILL

This is the true story of Mr. William (Billy) Hill, who lived in Willow Park, Pontefract, but who sadly died earlier this year. He wrote this story when asked to visit Willow Park Junior School to talk about life during the Second World War.  Billy was a Corporal in the East Yorkshire Regiment, and although he was a coal miner (and so exempt from military service) he volunteered to join up when he was 21 years old; He didn't reveal the fact that he was a miner! I really hope you can use this as it would be fitting to his memory to at last have his story told, which was what he wanted more than anything.
Submitted by Lesley Claybrough, the daughter of Bill’s friend, Mr. Leslie Norman Joyner.

The people of this country suffered a lot of hardships during the war but they kept going. The old people gave everything for their country and now deserve a little bit of respect and peace and quiet. In those days the children suffered too; there were no luxuries and Christmas was especially sad for them because there was very little that we could give as presents.

But there would never have been a D-Day if, after Dunkirk, when we were on our knees, we had not had the stretch of water called the English Channel. It gave us priceless breathing space without which the Germans would have won the war. If they had done so they would have tried to make us all Nazis, and our children would have been taught Nazi principles like spying on their parents and telling on them if they said anything wrong about the Nazis. Their parents could then have been arrested by the secret police, or Gestapo as they where known, and would have been put into any number of concentration camps. This was what happened in Germany and it was not easy to resist the way the Nazis used to persuade children. Today we would call this brain-washing. I believe that most Nazis were just big bullies, even cocky when they thought they where winning, but big cowards when people and countries stood up to them.

Throughout my whole life I have supported the Labour Party, but Winston Churchill was the man I admired most, even though he was a Conservative. Nearly all of the British people felt the same about him regardless of their political views. He was such a remarkable man, and he was the only man who could have kept our country going in those times and held us together to stand up against the Nazis. He made ordinary men feel like heroes who could stand alone and fight for the rest of the free world.

As for Hitler, since he was not able to cross the English Channel easily, he made his biggest mistake by turning his attentions on Russia. This helped us by giving us some respite and a bit more time to recover and build up to D-Day. We should always be grateful to the Russian’s and not forget the heavy price they paid in fighting the Nazis. They lost millions of lives.

During the build up to D-Day we trained on the Loch’s in Scotland. Thousands of times we practised the landings until we had it perfect. We spent almost three years training for that one day, and we were like brothers who would do anything for one another. When the day came and we lost our comrades, it was very hard, but we had to keep going.

We moved down from Scotland in May 1944 to a place just outside Portsmouth to make our final preparations for the landing. We were put in camps and no one was allowed out of camp, which was guarded day and night by military police, to ensure that nobody could give our secrets away and warn the Germans that we were coming. Five beaches were to be used on D-Day. The Americans were to land on Utah and Omaha, the Canadians on Juno, and the British on Gold and Sword.

On the eve of D-Day, we boarded the mother ship just outside Portsmouth which we had done many times before and set sail. Later, an announcement came over the tannoy, "This is it lad’s, write your letters home; we are going in the morning."

Our ship carried L.C.S.s (Landing craft (assault) on the sides, and we boarded these in the early hours of 6th June and were lowered into the sea. Each craft contained a platoon of men in three sections and I was a section leader. The crew were a naval officer and a rating. As we came near the beach, a flat-bottomed barge, which was sailing alongside of us, fired rockets at the landing site. We then went full throttle at the beach. It was all hell let loose, with battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, all joining in, and hundreds of bombers pounding the Germans. We were the first to land on Sword beach and I was later given £20 from my home town of Pontefract for being the first person from there to land on D-Day. Our job was to secure the bridgehead and blow gaps in the barbed wire so that the flail tanks could get through to deal with the minefields; and a good job they did. The Americans refused them on Omaha to their cost. Some of our lads strayed into an antipersonnel minefield which contained a type of mine on a spring. If you stood on it you compressed a spring that released as you stepped over it and shot a bullet between your legs. What you had to do if you encountered one was to step backwards so the bullet flew in front of you. We also discovered some miniature tanks in the cliff side, which seemed to be controlled by electric cables like some of the toys that children have today, but these were a bit bigger, about two feet high and filled with explosives. We blew them up with Bangalore torpedoes; they would have caused havoc if they had been released on the beaches.

We were under orders to take no prisoners, as they could clog up the beach head, however, we disobeyed this order when we saw what state the Germans were in. Most of them were shell shocked (or as we called it then, ‘bomb happy’) so we disarmed them and sent them on to the beach anyway. We did not have the time to look after them ourselves. On Juno beach, the Canadians carried out their orders, as after a raid on Dieppe that was done by the Canadians, the Germans had shot all the Canadian prisoners.

On a lighter note I would like to tell you a little story that happened to me, but this too ends sadly. A few weeks after D-Day our battalion was ordered to take a chateau just outside of Caen which was occupied by the Germans, who were holding some paratroopers prisoner. As we moved up to attack I found that my bren gunner was missing. I shouted to the Sergeant and we went back down the line and found him sitting on top of a trench just staring in front of him. He was shell-shocked, and mortar bombs were coming in from all directions. Just as we got to him, one came down on top of us. I knocked him into the trench, but I got caught by a piece of shrapnel which cut my ear in half and left a few bits of metal in my back. Whilst this was not pleasant, it was light as war wounds go. The sergeant bandaged the ear as best he could and said, "BIll you have got yourself a blighty", which meant that I was going to be sent home for treatment.

I took our bren gunner back with me to the nearest field dressing station and was soon sent back to a hospital near Worthing, and later transferred to Withington in Manchester. The funny part was that whilst my wounds were not so bad, the way they were bandaged made it look as though I might have had half of my head blown off. Everywhere I went I was treated like a Lord. In the pub it was free beer all the time with people falling over themselves to buy a beer for the wounded hero. The sad bit is that whilst I was at Manchester I learned that my unit had been almost completely wiped out attacking the chateau where they had met very strong opposition from the Germans and been engaged in fierce hand to hand fighting. The newspapers had called it ‘Suicide Wood’. By the time I returned to join my battalion I hardly knew anyone. This unfortunately was part of war life.

Below are some of the weapons used on D-Day:
Bangalore Torpedoes: they looked like pieces of drainpipe and were filled with explosives. They were used mainly to blow gaps in barbed wire defences.
Flail Tanks: A tank which had been adapted by removal of the gun turret and replacing it with a revolving platform to which were fastened heavy chains that beat the ground. They were used to cut a path through minefields.
Sticky Bombs: Bombs that were heavily magnetised so that they could be attached to flat metal surfaces wherever they would do most damage. Used to blow down the steel doors of strong defensive positions.
Plastic Grenades: Very light so you could carry plenty. Not very destructive but they made a lot of noise and were used to frighten the enemy.
Fixed Lines: A German weapon - Mortars set in concrete. If you captured one the Germans retreated to the next one which was arranged to fire directly on to the one you had captured. The trick was to get off them as soon as you realised what they were, and hope you got off before the Germans had time to set of the other mortars.

William (Billy) Hill


 

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