Frank Read interview by James Holland @James1940 on Twitter

I was born in Bow, East London, not far from Mile End Station. When I was 16, my mother was ill so they moved to Barking, Dagenham. I used to work in London as a tailor, was apprenticed for 3 years. I left school at 14. My father was an accountant in Southwark. I got married and my mother said Seeing you’re going into the forces, apply for the house next door, as the lady there has moved and get that one. And we did, and there I lived til 2000. No other moves in between. My father suffered from St Vitas Dance, so he wasn’t accepted for the 1WW. I was exempted for one year because I was making battle dresses for the army, as a number one charge hand. They wanted me to go for a permanent exemption. I had to go to a place in Aldgate and when I got there I was told very abruptly You’re not wanted here. Go to East Ham. I went back to work and said If you want me exempted, you’ll have to go and do it yourself. There was an argument that I should go, but I refused. After 3 or 4 weeks I got a letter saying Report to East Ham. They said What would you like to go in? I said If I’d had a college education I would’ve liked to have gone into the Royal Air Force. They didn’t take that too well. I had a medical and went home and then got a letter telling me to report on 21 October 1940, in Eastbourne. From there I was attached to a battery called 155, defence coastal battery.

Didn’t you have to do some training first?

No, I went straight into this St Anne’s House in Eastbourne which had been requisitioned by the government. We did ordinary training there, marching up and down and all that nonsense. They asked me one day Can you ride a bike? The major said to me Is there anything you can do? Any hobby or anything, belong to any brigades? I said Yes, the boy scouts. What did you do in that? Signals and he said Well, then you’re a signaller. Can you do anything towards signals? and I said Yes. They brought in the signals officer and he said What can you do? I said Semaphore. So I went into signals. Did some training. Went down to Pevensey Bay. They had an old 4 inch naval gun from the Cossack and they covered it with big sheets of wood to camouflage it and came the day when they were going to shoot it and they cemented it into the ground on a platform and finally the target was going across the channel and I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was 2 in the afternoon and as they did it, the wood blew away from the camouflage, up to a mile away the windows of the houses were blown in – there was no recoil on the gun itself. Then I went to Bexhill after I’d finished training. We was on the front then. It was 41 then. Finally we were called the 172 field regiment.

So up to that point you hadn’t been attached to a regiment?

No, they attached us to the 172, which was newly formed. Everyone from 155 battery went into that. We were sorted out into troops. Some went to Winchelsea and Hythe.

Was it coastal defence at this point?

Well, they were placed there at the time but they were now active as 172 regiment. From there I went to Hastings, then on to Camberley and that was the jumping off point they had the orders we were going abroad.oh then we went to Mersham in Kent and that’s where I was playing in the band with her husband – he was a professional guitarist and he said Frank, go and have a dance with Queenie, cos she’s pregnant. No-one would dance with her because she was pregnant, so I danced with her. That same area my son was born.

You must have been quite young when you got married.

I was 23. From there we went to Camberley. We were there about a week. I slipped up to home, to Barking and back quickly, and then we went to Greenock, and that was 10 January 43.

You knew you were going abroad then did you?

Yes. As we were going to get on the boat I got down and kissed the ground and said I hope to be seeing you again.

You were sorry to be going? Leaving your wife and young son?

Well, at the time, I was with all these others who were reserved occupations. Most of them seemed to come from up North. Then we went right out into the Mediterranean. The sea was a bit rough. I was on an old South African tramper called the Albeata (?) with 2000 men on it. We went through the Bay of Biscay and I was so ill. I’d never been on a boat before, only a rowing boat. It was so rough, when you looked in front of you all you could see was a wall of water. I got in a coil of rope and I wouldn’t budge out of it. My mate used to come along and throw some crumbs over the top. It calmed down and we went through Gibraltar at 12 o’clock at night. The other side we had a stand to – submarines in the vicinity. I said to my mate I’m going up the sharp end. If there’s any mission, I’ll be in. Then finally we pulled into Algiers. I thought we’d go inland, but we didn’t. We stayed on the platform and arrived in there just about midday. We stayed there til about dusk, and then they said This group is going onto this Corvette. We shot out backwards and went down the coast and in the early hours of the morning we went into a little place called Bone. We had to creep about with rubber shoes on cos Gerry wasn’t far away. We were in camps and then we found out that the transport ship in the December had been blown up by a German sub, so we had to wait for replacement guns and equipment. It all finally came and we went to Baja.

How much did you know about what was going on in the campaign?

We didn’t get much information. I think if they had told us, we would have been scared out of our lives.

So you weren’t scared at that point?

No, we were pumped up, built up to be killers.

You think so?

We were going to shoot and kill somebody, you know? Then we got into St Nazare (?). We were there for a couple of days

So this was not long after Baja was it?

No. Then we found out they were going to use a new type of deployment, never tried before in the British Army that the artillery was going to go in front of the infantry to pave the way for the infantry to go on. So we were stuck in St Nazare.

You can’t have been too happy about that?

Well, it worked and Alexander I suppose I don’t know if it was him but they deployed it and that’s what happened. That morning, 26 February 1943, they said Guns alert! and then they started firing.

What gun were you manning then?

25 pounders.

How much experience of those had you had before you went to North Africa?

Well, I was signals. I’d had gunnery but the strangest thing was that I was E troop and F troop was up there.

How many men in a troop?

About 30. That includes cooks and office people and all.

How many people on a 25 pounder?

5 on a gun. One was a gun layer, one was a loader, one was the ammunition.

What does the gun layer do?

He lays the gun up, giving the degrees, the elevation and so on. As you turn the wheel, it elevates the gun.

Who is telling you the elevation?

That was the OP.

They were up in a good position.?

Yeah, and the OP went back to the command post and they sorted out the.

So the command post is the CPO?

Yes. At the command post they have a plan of the area, the contours and he knows, works out what degrees each gun takes. I was signals taking fire orders

With a radio and headset?

Yes and I shout out what degrees the fellow sitting on number 2 ..he winds it up and the loader puts the shell in and the sergeant gives the order to fire.

Is there one sergeant per gun?

He’s at the back of the gun and says fire. If there’s a five round salvo, they’d put 5 in.

That’s the maximum a 25 pounder can take?

Yes.

And do they go boom, boom,boom,boom,boom? That quickly?

There’s a second or two’s gap. It’s not automatic. It’s got to be loaded and have the cordite out behind.

So each shell, even a 5 shot salvo, you fire the shell, the casing’s got to come out, you’ve got to put another one in?

Yeah.

So you’d fire 5 in a minute?

Oh, I don’t know, I forget. But a shell is only about that long. About a foot and a half, 2 foot. Then they had cordite and they had to load it with blue bags and white bags. They called them HUR 19 charge 3 (??) I always remember that and they put the shell in, bunged in the charge and then fired. There’s a lot of operations before they fired it. We carried on firing all day. From memory, I was down here. Up here Gerry had mortar shells he was firing down onto us. There was a stream running down the back. As the tanks were coming out you could see smoke coming up where some had been hit. As they came round this bend here, all these boys had been knocked about..

F troop?

Yes. We were the last gun to be firing – number 4.

Did you think, oh my God, there’s hundreds of them? Did you feel you were outnumbered?

It was too busy and your brain was numb. All you knew was that you were firing that gun. All of a sudden I said to the sergeant Take a high explosive shell and take the cap off, put it in and blow it out..we could see the tank, 200 yards away.put it open sites, because we’d been given the order Every man for himself and God bless you!

When that happens you know it’s..serious.

I smashed the whole set up..we knew then what was going to happen. Then we fired what they call open sides – they lift the trail up and guide it, point it. As they put the shell in, I don’t know what happened, but there was an enormous bang and it blew one fellow out and I was then laying on the gun sight, I took over the sight and all of a sudden, bang! The muzzle of the gun opened up like a great big tulip. There was a direct hit on the gun’s muzzle form the Tiger tank. I was smothered in bits, atoms of metal. I saw Brown, he had his arm all opened up. I dragged him to a little slit trench, I got into it first and then pulled him down on top of myself, and I took a little bullet I had in the side and I dug holes to get his arm in it so I could get a bandage round it. We was in there for about an hour. I thought to myself I hope that all finishes and they miss us and then all of a sudden Gerry comes up and says Raus! And pointed his gun into the slit trench, so I got out and said can I get my piano accordion and bits and pieces we had in a little bivouac at the side, No! Up on the road! and with that he marched us up onto the road towards all the others.

How was Brown?

Oh he was alright. He survived; they took him to hospital.

Who were the other guys on the gun with you?

Billy Webb, me, Brown, Poulter the sergeant – he lived up the other side of London and he said Frank, I am going to recommend you get your stripes back again! Because I lost them in England when I planted the gun in amongst the bushes, but off of the road. We went on a shoot, a practice. When the referee came round, he was a school teacher, he looked around and said this is where they should be. I came out of the bushes and he said You’re in the wrong place; your reference number says you should be here. I said But they can see us there! He said You’re commanding this valley. I said But they can see us there Sir! and he stripped me then and there in the field.

You were a lance corporal then?

A corporal.

Were you annoyed about that?

No, I knew it was coming. I got back into the village with the boys with the piano and it was all mates together. Anyway we marched and got to some big lorries; there was me, Les Bell, Bill Tulick (?) – he lived at 104 Longstone Road, Eastbourne and I could never trace him but I would liked to have done, I would have liked to have known what happened to him. He was a Methodist and he didn’t believe in doing any harm to anyone. He wouldn’t steal, wouldn’t sabotage. Anyway we were stood there and I said to Les Bell, he was a country boy from near Bristol. What do you think they’re going to do to us Les? He said Bloody well shoot us! and I thought Oh dear no! and that was the first time..I pulled myself together then. Anyway they told us to get in the trucks and they took us to this Italian naval base, Filipville (?). They asked if anyone was wounded. I said yes because I had this lump of shrapnel in my knee.

Oh you didn’t mention that.

I only noticed it my trouser leg was hard because it was full of dried blood. I saw this German doctor. He spoke perfect English. He said What regiment are you in? I said 1091348. He said Look, you know I speak perfect English. I was at an English College. Major Rayworth is your commanding officer? I didn’t tell him anything more than my name and number 1091348. He told the sentry to bring in a cup of ersatz coffee. Sugar? he said. Then he pressed my knee and clonk, took the piece of stuff out and then he opened it up, it was like a mouth and he got this red paste and a palate knife and spread it on and I thought that’s red lead. My father worked at a structural engineers and they used it to paint the girders, and I thought oh God gangrene’ll set in for sure.

You thought he was doing it on purpose?

That was my thought but he plastered it all up and said That’ll be alright. I went back and it was all dark and I called out Harry! Jack! And they said Here! So I found my way to them. The next day we heard a lot of droning and the Junkers 88’s were going out and that was the Germans evacuating. We were put on to an old tramper. There were 2 boats and they were going over to Sicily but we never had any yellow flags up and the first boat went down with a terrific bang in the middle of the Med and they had the Durham Light Infantry on there.

All drowned?

We believed it might have been one of our own submarines.

Almost certainly I should think. So you actually saw this other ship go down?

Oh yeah. It was only a little boat. We were down below and everybody started to make a rush for it. I got up the ladder just in time to see it going like this. I thought I hope they don’t do no more. We got into Palermo harbour and we got on another boat which took us to Naples and then we went on to Kapour(?) which was a big prisoner of war transit camp, because the Gerries had handed us over to the Italians at Flipville. We were there for about 6 months (?) I saw my mate Bert in that camp as well. The 172 regiment was smashed but they reformed after and went into Italy where they got smashed again. Then some officers escaped and got caught. We were right by the side of Mount Vesuvius. They out us on a train and went up north, because the Germans were retreating a bit by then. We went to Masserata near Ancona, the Italian naval base. We were in this big sugar factory, about 2,000 of us.

Were you put to work?

No.

It must have been pretty boring.

Oom, we were only there for a few days and then suddenly we saw all these lights up in the hills and then the Italians guarding us threw all their rifles into heaps and set light to them because Italy had capitulated. Then there were bullets flying all over the place and I thought it’s about time we got out of here and my mate he was in hospital there with yellow jaundice, so Jack and me got this friend and got out. We got up on the road and got in a ditch with some pieces of wood over us. We thought we’d stay there til it got light in the morning and then head to the hills. We hadn’t been there very long when Gerry came along, scouring the countryside, and caught us again. We were taken to the Brenner pass by train and we could see all these German trucks going towards Germany. They took us into Austria to a place called Millburg (?). Everybody was there. It was a massive place and they had big boxes with yellow stripes and black stripes. They took 141 out of this hut I was in and put us into a truck and we was in there for 3 days on the move. They opened the door a couple of times then we got to Leipzig. Then we got on another train and got to Gaswitz (?) and that’s where I was stationed and worked on the railway. Time went on. There was 141 of us in 4 huts. It was only a small place. 4 sections in one big hut and 141 spread out. We were along the edge of the railway line.

Were you treated well?

Well, they couldn’t treat us any different because they had nothing themselves. They used to call me Schneider. I used to do a bit of fiddling on the guitar and another fellow played the piano accordion and we were quite good. We had a little get together. We went to a place in Leipzig and did a little show in the mail sorting office. Our boys who were working in there were very rich! They were pilfering everything! And we went back with a few good presents. Time went on and lots of things happened then on I think it was December 4 1943. They done Berlin. Mr Churchill promised he’d send a thousand bombers and he done it. So all the appliances rushed to put the fires out in Berlin and the following night they did Leipzig. 35,000 people killed in less than 6 minutes. We were 11 km’s away and I felt the heat of it burning, coming towards us. After it all finished they took us in there and we were knocking down warehouses and suddenly, we were all sitting around having a cup of coffee or ersatz tea, the sentry, Oswald, the postern. His wife was very ill and I used to give him little bits. He said You come with me. Don’t talk. We went into a beer house and I can picture it to this day. We sat in a corner and he got 2 brown beers and all these soldiers were in there and I had my uniform on inside out because it had a red diamond on it. And they were all talking and I heard the word invasion. I could speak a little bit of German by then. The boys had landed and were making headway. Oswald said Come, drink up. I jumped down the steps and I was jumping over all these railway lines, I didn’t feel my feet touch iron. I shouted out The boys have landed! Of course they put us in the train back to Gaswitz, locked us up and put a special guard on us; up at 6 the next morning back on the train to Leipzig and they put us in a place called a ?? and that was the HQ of the SS, with all tunnels in it. Oh we went in the slaughter house first, then to the SS HQ. Then they marched us, because it was all tunnels and I think that’s where we lost a lot of our mates because we got separated. We came out of the tunnels and started marching down the lanes. We got to a village and a padre came up and gave me a bible, he said Look after this son. We carried on marching and we were working our way towards the river Elbe. We’d been marching for a few days and at one time we thought we were going to be strafed. The Germans shouted Scatter! but one of our chaps said No, stay where you are! and we did and this plane went like that, a victory roll. It must have been one of our planes because the Americans wouldn’t have done that, they’d have done loop the loop, stupid sons of.then we went into a big barn and we were there for a night and a day and another night.

Were you with any mates from 172?

4 of them. After the second night we got up. We’d been laying on straw. We opened the doors of the barn and there were no Germans and there was an old barrow so we put our bits and pieces on it and I still had my piano accordion. We said where are we going to go? Towards the Elbe or the American Line? I said I’d rather stick to dry land and so we headed for the American Line.turned tape over Dresden. As we got towards there, turned into a turning, we thought Oh no, we’ve done it again. Walked right into the Germans. Germans either side. ? said It’s alright, they’ve got no rifles! We weren’t interested in knifing anyone; we’d had enough of it. A Yank came up and he had Press on him and he’s throwing out packets of cigarettes. I was having a good old smoke then we went on and got to an aerodrome called Brandes (?). It was smashed up, all these planes but they put us in these big dormitories in there. We went out and knocked off some chickens! There was all nationalities there. They were making landing strip for the Americans to come in. After a couple of days I saw this big clock up in the dormitory and I thought that would be a lovely clock to take back. I went to sleep that night and the next day someone had had it away before I could get it! The Yanks gave us tablets to eat, they didn’t give us anything solid, vitamins, so we knocked off more chickens. Then they put us into bunches of 25 one morning, Jack, Bill, Harry, someone else, and me, they put us on a Yankee trooper plane and took us to Lilles. They deloused us, gave us some uniform and put us on a Halifax. A sergeant major said You’re back in the army again! You can imagine what the blokes felt like. We landed at Horsham. In one of the hangars were Salvation Army ladies, one each side of the door and they gave each one of us a cuddle and said Welcome Home my dear! The second day I went to London and someone said Do you know anyone you can get in contact with? I said Yes, my father who works at ? Brothers in Southwark Street.

What about your wife?

We weren’t on the phone then. They looked up the number and I spoke to him and that was on my wife’s birthday. Dad said he’d call my sister, get her to take roses round to my wife and say Frank’s home.’ And I arrived back home. Then I found myself in Morpeth (?), Northumberland. They said to me Square pegs in round holes,’ then I went down to York. Went back to Morpeth and the sergeant said You’d better phone the hospital in Romford. Your father’s in there. So I rung and he’d died at 3pm that day. I thought there was nothing I could do, and I was discharged the next day; came down on the Flying Scotsman. They asked me if I wanted to go back to the Company and I said yes, but in fact because of the upset I’d had with them, I never went back. I had a managerial job in Stratford in the clothing trade. We were still making gas capes. There were 3 directors; one left, then the other 2 died, and the son took over there I stayed til 1982, but we had to go into liquidation; couldn’t compete with foreign stuff. We had a reunion of 172. Jack organised it and we went to different places in London. At the beginning of 1996 my wife was very ill and I went up to a meeting and I saw Queenie with her husband Bert and she asked after my wife. Then in the November, my wife died. The following February, I went to another reunion and Queenie asked after her again and I told her she’d passed away. 6 months later Bert died and I got in touch with Queenie and she asked me to go and see her for a couple of days, then she came down and stayed in the spare room for a week, then she came again. said to her ’d like to buy you something in memory of good old friends. I’d like to buy you a ring. You choose which ever one you like. She chose one and put it on this finger and I said That’s the wrong finger! So we got married a few weeks later! Queenie’s daughter then got together with my friend Bob, whose wife had died in 1994. That’s a story on its own.

There was one time in Germany when they were going to give us a film show but the film broke . There was a piano in the corner and we started to play Roll out the barrel, and the Germans didn’t like that! They started shooting up at the ceiling and then marched us back in the snow.

My husband was the major signaller. He was the one sending them out. I lived and died it for 2 and a half years when they were training, I was always there telegram – first one came and my mum brought it to me and 2 weeks later I got the other one.

Can you remember trying to be optimistic about it?

I was very upset at first.

You must have been so relieved to get this weren’t you?

Oh yes

Thinking I don’t care if he’s a prisoner; at least he’s safe.?

Yes.was lucky because I went to St James’s Palace and packed up parcels to send him.

Did you get letters from him?

Oh yes. He didn’t have an instrument because it got blown up and so I went to see if I could get them to send him one and they said they’d send a guitar and he received it and had right til he came home.

You’d always been musical Frank had you?

From a lad and it was in the family.

You and Bert knew each other from the word go did you?

Yes. Where I was born he was only a penny ride away from me.

Did you get letters through from your wife?

Oh yes, and I used to write once a month. I was on the Isambard (?) and every time our blokes came over and bombed it we’d have to go and fill it in and replace the railway lines. Outside Hallah (?), which is not far from Dresden, we had to go out there one night when the boys had been over and there was about 4 craters in a long line and the rails were all twisted so they all had to be taken away and all the bomb holes had to be filled in and you couldn’t leave til it was finished. That night they talked about Dresden being bombed, I was on the station with our little party there was 11 of us and a fellow came up, one of ours, and said “There’s a raid coming up, we’ve just heard. We don’t know where it’s going but it is coming towards us. We’ve got a radio under the platform. They were listening to a broadcast from an aeroplane that was coming towards us. We could hear the planes coming and we ran. We got to a hedgeup, over the top and we got to this railway banking and we could see they were heading for the town of Dresden. We were looking and we could see it going up and believe me it was not a nice feeling to know that it was all coming down. Up there they couldn’t care less; it was being smashed to hell and it was supposed to be an open city.

You were telling me who the five were on your 25 pounder you, Brown, Webb, Poulter and one other

I can’t remember who the other one was..

Did you all survive the war?

Yes.

I am interested in the whole idea of going off to war. It must have been so tough, especially if you were married and had children.

David wasn’t born til 42 .

You must be thinking about them, wondering how they were growing up..

Queenie then talks a bit about when her daughter was born and the fact she was in plaster and her father first saw her when she was 2 and a half.

David was 3 when you first saw him. That must have been difficult. A strange man coming into the house

He wouldn’t have much to do with you would he?

That must have upset you

No, they soon get used to you. Right up til he was 17 or 18, he worked for Philco, the wireless people. He did very well. We’re very good friends.

Did you have brothers or sisters?

Yes, I had 2 sisters, Ivy and Joan. Joan died.

Interview ends…

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