by The Hon. Robert Boscawen
‘We got away by great good luck,’ wrote Dermot Musker, describing the moment he had found me on the back of Sergeant Major Greenwell’s tank, when the curtain had come down for me on any further part I was going to play. He had given me a shot of morphine from his pocket to deaden the pain, thank God. For me it was over, for most of my friends in the Squadron and the Battalion the costly, cruel and senseless war would go on for a few more weeks. Not on our front was there much sign of a demoralised and beaten Army. The German Para divisions would be fighting to the bitter end, for they knew there could be no unconditional surrender for them. I was aware that the two poor Guardsmen in the turret of the tank below me, Hanson and Wright, could not have survived more than a few moments. I hoped Bradbury might just have escaped, as I knew Bland had leapt out of the driver’s hatch by a hair’s breadth. The heat and pain were unbelievably intense. It seemed an age while I fought my way out of the cauldron of flame surrounding the tank. I knew I was terribly burnt, but from the moment I picked myself up something told me I was going to be all right, to get up and go on.
By the time the MO had arrived from Battalion HQ I could no longer see anything. Dermot says it was about an hour before they could get me off to the Field Dressing Station and Johnny Thompson gave his instructions to get me there as fast as they could on a stretcher laid on the top of their scout car. I had remained fully conscious throughout it all, but there was to be one more moment of alarm when I could just overhear the conversation between the driver and his mate below me. They were hopelessly lost along the route back to the Rhine. Knowing how many enemy we had seen still around the area when we raced through that morning, I was prepared for anything to happen. A despatch rider was at length spotted, and stopped, they spoke and all was well.
The quiet efficiency of everyone thereafter at the Field Dressing Station and then at long last at the 21st Army Base Hospital, near Brussels, gave me courage. Fifty years later I was singled out by one of the Senior Nursing Sisters at that hospital. This was after the dinner given in Portsmouth City Hall to commemorate the landings in Normandy. She wanted to tell me how much worry I had caused them when I was brought in there. It was very remarkable that she should have recalled my name.
I told her it was there that the staff and the Padre boosted my morale no end by saying that my eyesight would be all right. Most kind and encouraging too was my driver, Bland, in a bed close by. Evidently his legs were not too badly burned. Sadly, he told me, Bradbury did not make it with the others.
Then to England — by Dakota aircraft — a slow and painful flight. The relief to be back home was wonderful. I was ﬂown to Swindon Transit 3 Hospital, where my mother and father first came to visit me, with my brother George too; a complete surprise, he was back from Italy. From there I was dispersed to Derby City by Hospital train, most uncomfortable and the pain was pretty dreadful. The war still dragged on, of course. I had heard President Roosevelt had died, but all the talk seemed to be about victory celebrations and nothing much about the ceaseless, bitter fighting in Germany that might still have to be done to achieve it. I wondered often what reception my friends in the Armoured Division were having to face after I left. It would be a long while before I could hear anything about them.
After a week or so a Red Cross Ambulance arrived to take me by road south again to Sussex to the Hospital where the RAF pilots and crews had been treated throughout the war, when shot down in ﬂames with serious burns. I had never heard of it myself until then, but to anyone else the fame of the Emergency Medical Service Hospital with the Canadian Wing at East Grinstead was already a legend. The two great surgeons were of course Archie Macindoe, who originally came from New Zealand and became Consultant to the RAF when war began, and Ben Tilley, in charge of the Canadian Wing from Ottawa. They led a remarkable team of senior doctors and civilians, and dedicated girls and male nurses, British and Canadian, presided over by the magnificent Matron, Cherry Hall. By now they had achieved with practised expertise the restoration of many pilots and crew members of the British Empire and Allied Air Forces to a renewed existence. High morale is what they understood and aimed for — for a few airmen this even meant getting them ﬁt again for operational flying. So for this team, at the close of six years of aerial combat, I was just another patient, and an Army wallah at that. For them all in the day’s work.
The Hospital had been one of the very first too, late in the war, to be allocated the remarkable drug, penicillin, so necessary and effective to counter infection in such wounds. It was then to be endless penicillin for me, and saline baths for weeks on end, the treatment that had emerged from the better recovery trend made by pilots who had parachuted into the sea. Even if I had a small share of the literary talents of the Australian-born Spitfire pilot, Richard Hillary, let alone a Siegfried Sassoon, to write of the countless operations or mental torment that were theirs, I would hate to recall my treatment after more than fifty years, or inflict such memories on anyone today. Hillary has written his story of recovery at East Grinstead and elsewhere after being shot down in the North Sea in his book The Last Enemy. He went back to flying after his treatment, only then to die on active service.
Within a few days of my arrival in the Canadian Wing Hitler was dead. Those in hospital at the time were not to be deprived of their share of savouring the Victory in Europe celebrations. For days they were stocking up the wards, hiding bottles where they could, down the ends of all our beds, to avoid the eagle eye of Cherry Hall. Then the great day came at last and those young men of our generation who had done so much to bring it about made the very best of it they could, with all the girls on the hospital strength that could be enticed along to join the fun. VE day apart, I soon learned there was a totally different approach to discipline in the RAF wards from what would have been the case in an Army hospital. We were all on Christian name terms with staff and patients alike, but when it came to medical requirements that mattered they were rightly as strict as anywhere.
The road to recovery, I knew by now, was bound to be long. I heard Macindoe tell those of the staff around him that my eyes would be attended to first, but they all impressed on me that I could not expect the dressings to be removed for many weeks. I was fortunate, I knew, to be in such good hands, even if I did not feel so at times. Most of all the part my mother played in my recovery was wonderful. She visited me from London, evening after evening, pushing her bicycle into the guards van of the train from Victoria and bicycling up from the station at Three Bridges near East Grinstead to the Hospital. She was exceedingly busy at the Headquarters of the British Red Cross in Belgrave Square, where she was in charge of all the Civilian Relief teams being sent to the former enemy territories that were occupied by British forces. There were millions of displaced persons, DPs as they were called, in the British Zones of Germany and Austria, Nazi slave workers, concentration camp survivors and civilian prisoners, from all over Europe and beyond. There was no United Nations to organise things in those early days and only the British voluntary societies were there to do the welfare work amongst them in our occupied zones. It was a huge job, yet she came as often as she could to tell me about the outside world and help me come to terms with boredom and discomfort.
My father came too when he could. As a temporary civil servant in the Ministry of Home Security, he was involved in advising on limiting the damage done to buildings, factories and services in the Blitz. The kindness of local volunteers and others was great too. They came to read books and correspondence to me and write some letters to my friends. I learned the extreme importance of the human voice to those who cannot see the source. The tone, the expression, even the accent, gave one the only insight and enabled one to assess or guess the sort of person standing near one.
Surrounded as I was and kept in my place by hosts of Canadian girls and their expressions and instructions, my prejudices on one occasion unwittingly escaped. I heard a sweet, low, voice beside my bed asking how I was feeling, and out it came. ‘Thank God for an English voice,’ I exclaimed too loudly, and it became a standing joke in the Canadian Wing. The voice came from the hospital’s Chief Physiotherapist, as English a source as anyone could wish for, Miss Anne Harvey. She was to become a long-time friend and conﬁdante whose skills did so much to get me on the road to normal life again in the coming months. She knew a great deal about the effects of war, having looked after many of the airmen from the Battle of Britain since the earlier days of the Macindoe team. Her heart was with the RAF although her elder brother had served in the Irish Guards, earning an MC in the mud and trenches of 1917.
As the end in Germany approached, news from the Battalion, which I had been so impatient for, started to arrive. As I feared, they had been in action almost continually right up to the end of April. I was particularly sad to hear that No. 2 Troop had lost Sergeant Shipley and Sergeant Lyon who joined them after Enschede. Both were killed by bazookas ﬁred by the Paras from windows of the houses at Berge, a strongly held village about 20 miles east of the frontier. Corporal Siddons, Shipley’s operator, was badly wounded too. Shipley had achieved his last wish to be the leading tank in the Squadron attack. His action, and that of Ian Liddell, rather belies the suggestion that ofﬁcers and men showed less courage when the end of the fighting was obviously so close. It was also a tragedy that our tanks could be so easily destroyed and their crews killed by such small hand-held weapons as the Panzerfaust. Commanding Officers must have had some difficult decisions near the end in reaching their objectives when everyone naturally wanted to keep casualties as low as possible. The last grievous loss was when a tank of No. 2 Squadron was blown into small pieces by a sea mine placed under the road, killing Sergeant Green and all his crew on 1st May, just three days before the Germans surrendered. I could not help feeling that just retribution had been realised somewhat when letters told me that in these last battles the rockets instigated by No. 2 Squadron had killed many more Germans.
Sergeant Fawcett recalled that after one of these fights, probably that near Lingen, a German officer had complained like mad that our rockets were against the Geneva Convention and were not allowed! Dermot Musker, now our Second-in Command, had written that between leaving Holland and the end of hostilities, although I was their only Officer casualty, No. 2 Squadron had lost five of the best NCOs, all dead, and about thirty-five Guardsmen killed, wounded or missing. Of those who served with me in No. 2 Troop since we crossed, nineteen strong, to Normandy, thirteen men had died and eight or nine were wounded.
Soon after the German surrender was complete, it was learned that the Guards Armoured Division was to lose its armour. The enemy had been disarmed and the priority was to carry forward the huge policing job needed for an army of occupation. Val Hermon wrote to me from Pirbright on 11 June, ‘You are probably aware the Division has now reverted to Infantry and I see by the papers that it is referred to as ‘the cream of the Infantry’. No doubt we were just rather gassy milkshakes before!’ He sounded his cheerful self once again and said he would be coming to see me soon. A great ceremonial parade with massed Bands, called ‘Farewell to Armour’, was held at Rotenburg Airﬁeld on 9 June before the Field Marshal. Then the tanks, spruced up to the last, were driven off into obscurity.
Although sometimes questioned, the high standard of discipline and appearance of Officers and Guardsmen in Armour had proved every bit as essential to the success of the Armoured Battalions and the Division as a whole, indeed to the survival of individual tank crews, as in any other formation. The Regular Officers and remarkable Warrant Officers understood this well. That wars and battles are lost by those who make the most mistakes is the truism drummed into us, but without this discipline our mistakes would have been many more.
The longed-for moment had arrived — leave was stepped up, some of our long-serving friends were to be ‘demobbed’. One of the first out, Bill Gray, ‘retired from the Army on V+1,’ Val wrote to me in his letter, ‘to pursue his nefarious calling of MP’, and some were able to come and visit me at East Grinstead. Perhaps the extent of our wounds in this hospital may have taken some aback at first, but the remarkable state of morale engendered by the staff and others soon got across to visitors. One of the first Coldstreamers to visit was Major Bill Harris, whose home was close to East Grinstead. When I first joined the Regiment he was the extremely smart Adjutant at Pirbright, and later became a Company Commander through the campaign in Italy. He was a solid friend to us all and a tremendously enthusiastic supporter of the Regiment. Henry Graham Vivian, badly wounded by a machine gun near Caen with the 5th Battalion and now at Regimental Headquarters, came full of news to cheer me up.
Another great event as the summer wore on was the visit to the Hospital of the Queen, now the Queen Mother. She came round and talked individually to us in our beds on the ward. I could not see her, but I was asked in such a friendly voice what I wanted to do when I escaped from their clutches. I did not really know of course, but said I would like to go sailing again. She made it clear that this was not a favourite pastime of hers, and she recalled she was not very comfortable or happy when ‘off the Needles’. I have not forgotten, since this conversation has returned to me many times when I have been in that very area. Her visit was enormously cheering to all.
My progress had been slowed down because of an unpleasant go of jaundice, but then at last Macindoe allowed the dressings over my eyes to be removed in July. Gradually daylight and faces reappeared and life took a new turn. By August when I could move about on a stick, I was sent home for a month or so and my mother was able to take me in a train back to Cornwall, provided I had someone to come and treat me from the local hospital. I received a great welcome when I reached home in Cornwall, but I knew it was a bit of a shock when they saw how wobbly I was at first.
Some precious petrol had been acquired, we could not ask how, so that we could go around by car. Almost the day we arrived we heard the announcement that the whole of the BBC news bulletin that evening would be devoted to one subject, the Atomic bomb. So we hovered over the wireless. The first Atomic bomb had been dropped that morning, 6 August, over Japan and its devastating power had destroyed the city of Hiroshima in a vast fireball. Casualties were expected to be enormous. My mother’s reaction was, what a dreadful thing, directly opposite from mine which was how wonderful, it must stop the war! A second bomb was dropped and by the 14th Japan had surrendered unconditionally and World War II was finally at an end. Thousands of British Servicemen were in training for the invasion of Japan. It would never happen now. The dozens of ships of all sorts moored in the River Fal below us, many of them damaged by enemy action, sounded their sirens far into the night. I could not sleep and kept asking myself — how can we and our allies stop this bloody stupid thing ever happening again? We owed it to all the millions that had died to find the answer.
From Robert Boscawen, Armoured Guardsmen: A War Diary from Normandy to the Rhine (Pen & Sword, London, 2010)