Memories of my service with 2 FOU 6th Airborne Division
August 1944 – September 1947
by Geoffrey Lumb
2nd Forward Observer Unit (Airborne) R.A.
On the 30th August 1944, after completing 9 months in the RAF training to become a Wireless Operator, I was transferred into the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and began my training as a Driver Wireless Operator at Bamber Bridge, Preston. By the end of October, fully trained in driving (non-synchromesh) Guy trucks, we passed our driving test in Humber Snipe (full-synchromesh) radio cars, and were then taken to the Glasgow area to collect some Bedford 3-ton covered lorries, before driving through the night to our next training camp in Sennybridge, Mid-Wales.
The Army was developing alternative ways of pin-pointing the location of enemy artillery, to supplement the existing method of using manned forward observer posts to direct artillery fire. Two methods were being trialled; the first was radar and the second a 4-pen recording system attached by lengths of cable to microphones at a fixed distance apart, buried firmly in the ground in a straight line facing the enemy artillery. I trained in the latter.
In mid March 1945 we crossed into Belgium into a holding camp. Here we were told the unit was joining The 2nd Forward Observer Unit, Royal Regiment of Artillery, 6th Airborne Division. Red berets and identification flashes were issued; a number of American Jeeps with trailers replaced the vehicles we had been driving; and two 6-pounder pieces of artillery with a unit of gunners joined us. So, instead of our being the eyes of the main artillery in the Division, we became a totally self-contained independent unit.
On March 23rd we reached the west bank of the river Rhine. Behind us and on each flank were 100’s of pieces of heavy artillery, and although we were not told precisely what was about to happen it was obvious something ‘big’ was on the cards. At midnight every piece of artillery opened up. Sleep was impossible and we had to treble check every piece of equipment, top up our petrol tank and spare jerry cans, get some food into us, camouflage the vehicles and trailers, and then sit and wait. The noise was deafening.
At about 0900hrs on the 24th March the guns suddenly went silent. Shortly afterwards a low droning noise was heard in the sky. This got steadily louder until it was overhead. Then we saw planes with paratroopers jumping from them. Also other planes towing gliders filled with men and equipment. (Records show that 1500 British aircraft and 1800 American and other nationality aircraft were deployed on this mission named ’Operation VARSITY’). Less than 3 hours after the last glider had landed, our convoy began to move forward. In our sector, close to Wesel, Royal Engineers had built pontoon bridges across the river. Once across them we began heading in a north-easterly direction towards Berlin.
It is impossible to explain the carnage around the landing zone. Crashed gliders with bodies lying inside them. Many had crashed on landing, as the ground had been churned up by the artillery bombardment. There was field after field of paratroopers lying in contorted positions – some had been killed before they reached the ground. It was truly a grim sight which we had to block out of our minds and get on with the job we had been trained to do. (No Counselling in those days).
Our first deployment was that same evening as we approached a large wood, where it was believed German tanks had taken cover. The 4-pen unit was set up – cables were
run out to positions the surveyors had chosen – holes were dug and the microphones inside metal boxes were attached to the cables and firmly buried. Both the 4-pen and the Radar units were busy pinpointing enemy gun positions, and our little 6-pounders were working overtime.
Early in May we reached Lubeck, a town the war had missed. Streets were lined with trees laden with blossom. Stopping outside the Town hall, one of our officers who spoke a little German, entered the building and found civilian staff working normally. They were delighted we were not Russians, so we left them to it. Continuing across Luneberg Heath, where General Montgomery was accepting the surrender of the German forces, we reached Weismar on the Baltic. Civilian houses were commandeered for us to bed down in. It took about 5 days to drive back home. Once across the English Channel we headed for an empty camp at Winterbourne Gunner on the outskirts of Salisbury.
Home leave was uppermost in our minds, but firstly the camp had to be organised, and duty rosters arranged. Volunteers were needed for various duties, and I along with two pals was put in charge of the camp telephone switchboard. Probably the cushiest duty of them all – one day on 24 hour duty, followed by one day excused all duties, followed by one day on relief duty. On your ‘free day’ you could leave camp and go wherever you wanted.
During July part of the Section was sent out to Burma. The rest of us set sail for Palestine in September. I think the idea was that we assist the Palestine Police deal with European refugees of the Jewish faith who were heading in boatloads to this strip of land, then in the main occupied by Arabs, intent on claiming it as their own and colonising it. (Today we know just how successful they were).
We sailed from Glasgow through the Med to Haifa and then went by train to a large transit camp at Gaza. After a few days we moved up country to the village of Ramleh, roughly mid way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where we occupied houses at one end of the village. Already at this location was a unit of the Army Veterinary Corps. The 2 storey houses had flat roofs where washing could be dried, or you could sunbathe in private. Their gardens had vines growing in them. Within the compound was a good NAAFI run by local Arabs, and the Tiger beer was good, particularly after an hour or so in the ‘fridge. Surrounding the camp were acres and acres of citrus groves, and as we hadn’t seen any fresh fruit for ages we did go a bit over the top eating up to 10 oranges at a time. We only did that the once as just about the whole camp was suddenly struck down with ‘the squits’. The MO ran out of his white pills for diarrhoea, and the CO went ballistic!
In the second week we were stood- to one afternoon and issued with rifles and ammunition. Another boatload of illegal immigrants had been sighted heading for the shore, and we were to be used to stop them landing. To much wailing and shouting an old tub of a fishing boat, overloaded with European Jews was seen approaching the shore in our sector. We were spaced out along the shoreline and told to fix bayonets and do our utmost to stop anyone from the boat reaching the shore. A hopeless task if ever there was one. The refugees began jumping ship 100 yards from the shore and all of them kissed the sand as soon as they reached dry land. All we could do was round them up and hand them over to the Palestine Police. I believe it had been the intention of the police to ship them to a detention centre in Cyprus, but we were never told what happened to them. This was our only attempt at stopping refugees landing.
Our C.O. Major Mike Williams arrived complete with his dog, a Boxer bitch. She was a good dog, and if ever you had to ride with the CO, and you were in the back of his jeep, you ended up with having your face licked clean. It must have been the salt in our sweat she liked!
Major Williams decided he would keep pigs. Sty’s were built at the perimeter of camp and a sow arrived and occupied the sty. A few months later I was on transport duty and received an instruction to load up the sow and take her somewhere. Asking what reason for the journey I should put on the work ticket, the major said “ Oh, just put ‘sow to boar’”.
Does anyone remember the Tripoli to Beirut Road Relay Race held in February 1946? Every unit in the Division had to enter a team of runners, and each runner would do about 4 miles in boots. On the day of the race with temperatures in the upper 70’s, each runner complete with one bottle of water, was dropped off at his starting point to await the arrival of the runner carrying the baton. I started my leg of the race at Sidon right on the coast, so I enjoyed a dip in the sea whilst waiting. After about two hours, when I had no idea what was happening on the road behind me, a few runners appeared. They were paratroopers, way ahead of the rest of the field. Eventually I spotted a familiar face, collected our baton, set off on my 4 mile run, and handed the baton to the chap at the next point. A 3-tonner collected runners who had finished and took them to the finish stadium in Beirut where prizes were presented.
One of the things Division did to keep us occupied was to run academic refresher courses in Sarafand camp. There were many subjects on offer, all designed to act as stimulants to keep our brains active. After 12 months in Palestine we were eligible for Liap (Leave in advance of Python). This involved a train journey to Alexandria in Egypt. Then by boat (perhaps ‘tub’ would be a better description of the “Clan Lamont”, which even in the calmest sea, wallowed, making us all sea sick) to Marseille. Then across France by train and by ferry to Dover.
In January 1947 I was posted to 6 Airborne Div Battle School at Acre near Haifa to take charge of paying civilian, and army staff. There were about 60 Arabs working on this base and about 100 Army personnel. For this posting I gained a second stripe.
Finally in July that year my Demob number (57) came up and I was on my way home, again via Alexandria and the dreaded ‘Clan Lamont’, but who cared?
W/Bdr Lumb G. Service No 14983580.