Edited by Michael Thompson
Wartime memories of Ken Oldham
Kenneth Oldham was born in 1920 at Newton, Hyde, in Cheshire. He was 19 years old when war broke out in 1939 and joined up in 1940. This story has been written by his son, Keith Oldham, supplemented by other written material from Vivienne Barker (writing in Northern Life in 2009). Michael Thompson attempted to interview Ken on 21st June 2017 at Broughton House, Salford, but for various reason, illness related, this was not pursued. This photograph of him is a still taken from a broadcast by ITV in 1994 of the D-Day Celebrations at Portsmouth, when Ken was interviewed by Harry Secombe Included here is the transcript of that interview.
As told by his son, Keith, written originally in 2006, supplemented by other material from Vivienne Barker (2009) , an ITV Interview by Harry Secombe in 1994 and a brief interview by Michael Thompson of WarGen in 2017.
During his brief interview on 21st June 2017 for WarGen, Ken, referring to his arrival in Normandy by sea, said:
Everything that could go wrong, went wrong ….
Keith, his son, writes:
During the V.E. 60 year memorial/celebrations, programme makers seemed to be struggling to find interesting stories of people’s recollections of World War 2. Real veterans are understandably hard to find these days and are possibly unwilling or unable to recall and relay their experiences.
My Dad, Kenneth Oldham, has never exactly welcomed the chance to talk about his war, but when he has, I’ve listened with great interest and this story has been pieced together from bits that he has said over many years. Despite the recollections which follow, Dad has always said that his part in it all was very minor and no doubt too, Dad harbours those feelings of guilt that he survived when so many of his comrades did not.
Dad is 86 now (2006), quite fit and well for his age. He has always been reluctant to have any involvement with the British Legion for example and though he has always watched the TV on Remembrance Sunday, he would never attend. In 1994, Mum and I did our best to talk him into going to the D-Day memorial in Normandy. At the last minute, he decided that they would go. Obtaining a hotel or ferry over to France proved impossible so a compromise in going to Portsmouth was reached. In hindsight, going to Portsmouth proved to be fantastic and Mum and Dad really enjoyed themselves. TV crews were walking among the crowds at Southsea seeking those who looked as though they may be veterans. They found Dad and asked him if he had been involved, he said “Yes” so they asked him if he would mind being interviewed.
He agreed to tell a story about his great friend, Harry Green. Next day he met and was interviewed by none other than Harry Secombe. I have this interview on video for posterity. I shall recall the story of Harry later.
Dad was born and brought up in Newton. Hyde, Cheshire in 1920. He had a twin sister and an elder brother who had suffered pneumonia as a child which left him a poorly young man. In 1939, Dad, a keen cyclist, was on his way into Derbyshire with his club and, knowing that Neville Chamberlain was due to make an important announcement at a certain time, they stopped in Cheadle. That famous “consequently, this county IS at war with Germany” was heard and they carried on with their ride. This was much to the upset of his Mother who chastised Dad for not returning home immediately, anticipating bombing raids straight away. Dad received his calling up papers in 1940, and had report to Peninsula Barracks Warrington at the age of twenty. He the 13th South Lancashire Battalion and began his basic training.
Soon after this, Dad’s brother, Leslie, died and Dad was allowed compassionate leave to attend the funeral. On his way back to Warrington, Dad hitch hiked from Ashton to Manchester and was given a lift on a motorcycle and sidecar. Dad climbed thankfully into the sidecar which was one of those long, cigar shaped vehicles which the occupants virtually lay in. it was the night of Manchester’s heaviest blitz and, as the motorcyclist weaved his way down Ashton old road between the fire and debris, Dad laughs as he recalls the weird feeling of lying on his back looking up to the night sky as German bombs were raining down. On arrival into Piccadilly, the far side of the square, where the Piccadilly hotel now sends, the whole of the area was engulfed in flames.
- Kenneth joined up at the age of twenty with the 13th South Lancashire Regiment in 1940, after working as an apprentice electrician and boot-maker. He started training at Ringway (the present Manchester airport site) moved on to Cheltenham where he met his best mate, Harry Green who was from Northampton and together they moved on to Larkhill barracks, Wiltshire.
- By that time, the military strategists had realised they needed parachute regiments for the first time as in the First World War there were none. (The UK’s first airborne assault took place on 10 February 1941 in Italy). Consequently, eight hundred or so soldiers were assembled in the gym at Larkhill and the Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Peter Luard gave the news that they were no longer the South Lancs regiment but the 13th Parachute Battalion.
- “You are all volunteers!” he proclaimed, “and anyone who doesn’t wish to be a volunteer has to see me on company orders at 3pm!”
- Two men resisted as conscientious objectors but served in the medical corps and indeed both ended up with the MM for bravery.
The battalion were posted in various locations around England, Lewes, Salisbury Plain, Doncaster and Dover. Most NCOs were the tough, strict type but one, Sergeant Hughes, though still a hard, experienced military professional, did enjoy sharing a joke with the young men. The officers and NCOs were allowed into the local town at one camp but the men were not, so one night, knowing the route that Sergeant Hughes would be taking, Dad and a friend climbed a tree and as the Sergeant passed beneath, they jumped on him and threw him into the river. Having been trained by Sergeant Hughes how to ambush and camouflage themselves, he never found out who had carried out the joke.
At Dover, the battalion disembarked from the train and after being billeted, the men were dismissed. Many of them made their way to the harbour looking across to occupied France. Suddenly a German shell from France landed at the harbour and the battalion suffered its first casualties. Two men were killed, Highgold and Cass were their names. At the harbour, there were several sandbagged machine gun positions which the battalion had to man and guard in turn. Also, in turn, the men had to guard a narrow jetty off the main harbour and furthest out to sea. The jetty was so narrow that it could only be manned by a single soldier. Dad recalls the weird feeling of responsibility and fear as he felt as though he alone, with his .303 Lee Enfield rifle stood as the first line of defence for the whole of Great Britain.
One day, the battalion were brought out onto Parade and were addressed by their Commanding Officer, Colonel Leward [Luard]. “Congratulations” he said, “Gentlemen, you have all just volunteered to train as the 13th South Lancashire Battalion, the Parachute Regiment”. Dad, having been a cobbler’s apprentice, was assigned to the support company, and though training in just the same way as all the other soldiers, those in the support company, did not have to train to jump. As the battalion was forming, Dad met Harry Green who was in the Royal Ordnance Corps assigned to the Parachute regiment. Harry and Dad became great friends. Harry was a giant of a man and came from Northampton; they were always play wrestling and Harry, despite his size, didn’t always come off best as Dad was strong and wiry.
The battalion were brought out for inspection one day leading up to D-Day and it was Monty. Dad, being one of the shorter men at 5ft 7in was on the front row and Monty didn’t speak to the men, he eyeballed each one of them and Dad says that, standing within inches of the man, he can still feel the jitters he got from Montys’ icy stare. He was only very small; but you wouldn’t dare cross him.
The army tried to entertain the troops to help morale and Dad can remember such entertainers in particular. One was George Formby who was great and mixed and mingled with the men. Another was Gracie Fields, who only mixed and mingled with the senior officers, not ingratiating herself with the great majority!
Training intensified and in 1944, there was talk of invasion and the battalion began preparing for their first real action. They were posted near to Southampton and seemed to be waiting forever for the invasion. They were often given, sometimes as a punishment and sometimes just to offset boredom, trivial and silly jobs to do. One such crazy job was whitewashing the inside of coal bunkers. Another job almost certainly saved my Dads life.
He and Harry and a few other soldiers were tasked with digging a trench. Harry had a pick and, probably while larking about again, Harry accidentally stuck the pick through the back of Dads’ hand, a scar he still carries. Dad went to hospital when 6th June, D-Day came. Harry went into battle with the Battalion landing at, or very near to Pegasus Bridge. Heavy fighting took place outside Ranville and the troops were digging into slit trenches under Mortar fire. The story goes that Harry and another soldier had a slit trench against a wall and suffered a direct mortar bomb hit. Both were killed and Dad knows that he would have been the other soldier with Harry.
- On the sixtieth anniversary, Ken wanted to come over the Normandy but couldn’t find accommodation, so they went down to Portsmouth instead where there were some fine ceremonies and spectacles. A lady picked him out of the crowd and asked him if he would be interviewed by Harry Secombe.
- There were 10,000 people there and Ken wasn’t keen to do it but she persisted and promised them a good seat. Little did he know that the occasion would be broadcast on national TV and his brother-in-law in Ontario would actually see him live on the screen!
Transcript from ITV D-Day Celebration Event, 1994:
- Harry Secombe: The power and strength of friendship is a thing that can never be underestimated in the context of the Normandy Campaign. With me is Ken Oldham …. Ken, you feel you owe your life to a friend, don’t you, who lost his life on D-Day …. tell us about it.
- Ken Oldham: Yea, somebody called Harry …. Corporal Harry Green …. he came from Northampton …. and …. before we embarked …. a couple of days before, we had to dig in on the road side …. and because of the danger of …. the threat of German parachuters come over, we had to dig trenches in, and just in case, they did arrive …. and …. digging these trenches, I had the shovel and he had the pick.
- Unfortunately, we got a bit mixed up in the coordination and as I put the shovel out, he came down with the pick and it went into my hand ….
- Harry: Your hand …. oh gosh ….
- Ken: For the consequences of that was that …. I actually missed the first landing as I had to go and have some treatment on my hand. When I did eventually meet up with him a few days later …. Harry had unfortunately been killed ….
- Harry: Had he?
- Ken: Yea …. again, in a ….
- Harry: In a similar situation ….
- Ken: So, the …. the feeling that I’ve always had is that …. his action saved my life, because as buddies, you always stay together …. and I would have been with him at that particular time ….
- Harry: That just the thing about being in the army, especially under battle conditions, it’s a …. friendship comes first ….
- Ken: Oh yes ….
Dads’ hand had healed and he was sent by sea to join the battalion, arriving at Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches. One of his first jobs was burial party and many of the victims were men that Dad knew. Harry and Sergeant Hughes were among them. The graves were hurriedly dug, nearly always too shallow and small and Dad remembers saying to an older para, “How are we supposed to fit a body into there?” “This Is how you do it” as he folded the body in half and pushed it into the hole with his boot. Dad remembers the groan and stench as the gases escaped.
- Like every other regiment the Paras need back-up services and Kenneth, due to the pre-war jobs he had done, was the equipment repairer, the soldier to see to get your kit repaired, and generally-speaking. Kenneth was not fazed by his comrades’ requests. He was taken aback, however when one day, before leaving for Normandy, his captain took him aside and explained that he had had a testicle removed as a result of a war wound and he was anxious not to lose the other, so could Ken make him a protective shield for It? Yes, he could. He made a jim-dandy one made of fine leather.
- This captain sadly died on the first landing mission. The plane pulling his glider was shot down but managed to release the glider which landed some 18 miles off course, to the east of Caen. There were six or seven men aboard who survived the landing but who were met and outnumbered by the Germans. The graves marked with the names of those who died in that glider, are at a village called St-Vaast-en-Auge, just inland from Houlgate. The mayor’s son in that village bought the old mairie and has made it into a tiny museum dedicated to those men.
- The saddest duty and the one that most affected Kenneth, was burial duty. After Ranville was liberated, there were hundreds of dead soldiers to be buried.
- The bodies were piled up above ground, each one wrapped in his gas-cape and with his face covered so that diggers did not have to see them. But as they were laid into their grave, the grave-digger had to open the cape and remove the identity-disc for the records. It was when he saw the name of his sergeant, Sergeant Hughes, on the disc he had just pulled off that it got to him. Back at home, just before leaving for France, Kenneth had seen his own brother put to rest after dying of rheumatic fever. The comparison was stark. His brother had been washed and dressed and presented with dignity. These boys were still dirty and bloodied from battle, without any coffin, just dropped in the hole. Even worse, time was precious, and the troops had to press towards Pont-l’Évêque, the battles for the end of the war were only just beginning.
- Occasionally, the grave the soldiers dug for their comrades was slightly short for the soldier it was to contain. The grave-diggers had to push the body down with their spade or bend the legs to fit. After four days, Kenneth sought out the padre and asked to be taken off this duty.
- Over two thousand British soldiers are interred at Ranville cemetery and a large proportion of those are from the 6th airborne division.
Ranville was taken and after bitter fighting In Normandy, following Operation Goodwood and the battles at the Falaise Gap, the Allied Armies pivoted Northwards through France with Germans in full retreat. The speed of the Allied advance was much faster than the supply chain. For a few weeks, Dad and his comrades slept and ate very rough. They stole eggs from French barns and ate them raw, they dug up vegetables from the fields and again ate them raw grabbing sleep wherever and whenever they could, in haystacks or under trucks.
- Moving on up the coast towards the next village, in a line, under the trees to stay out of sight as much as possible, Ken’s company didn’t fool an old Frenchman who came across them. He excitedly waved a large bottle of transparent liquid in front of Kenneth, who was thirsty and drank in great gulps. He collapsed on the floor and thought he was poisoned. It wasn’t water, it was Calvados and stronger than any whisky he had tasted before!
- Slowly Kenneth’s company fought their way up to Pont-l’Évêque which proved to be a long and difficult battle, the last before the Seine and opening the way to Paris. There was heavy resistance from the Germans and after prolonged fighting without making headway into the town itself, the company were ordered to “withdraw”, in order to advance again. The second assault was successful and soon after that, Kenneth and his regiment were taken back to England by boat for rest and recuperation before being sent over to Belgium in October 1944.
- Two memories stand out in Kenneth’s mind about Belgium and they are about how the soldiers lived when on campaigns. Kenneth and a few mates were told to find their own billets in a village. They knocked on a door and were invited in – the Belgians were most hospitable. However, the poverty in which this family lived astonished Kenneth. The flagstones on the floor were strewn with straw as bedding for the soldiers. The youngest children were put in open drawers in a huge sideboard to sleep. There was a huge tiled stove in the corner into which the father kept throwing logs and pushing them down into the fire with his bare hands. He turned to tell the soldiers about his stove.
- “My son is in the resistance here in our village,” he said, “and there was a German soldier in the occupying force who made a nuisance of himself. He ended up in this stove chopped up into bits!”
Dads’ battalion was heading towards Holland when the German counter attack came in the Ardennes. German armour broke through the American lines and Dads’ battalion was among those whose job was to hold the Germans back. At Namur, his platoon spent the night before going into battle in a chapel. As they settled for the night a Sergeant Bellamy started singing “Abide with me” and asked the platoon to join in, which they did. A British officer arrived at the scene and took Sergeant Bellamy aside remonstrating with him that he should be building up the men’s morale not lowering their Spirits with melancholy songs. Sergeant Bellamy apologised to the officer but saying that he knew that he was going to be killed the next day. He was.
- Also in Belgium, they were billeted in a convent near Namur and Dinant south of Brussels. Although the nuns had to take in thirty or forty men, which must have thoroughly upset their routine, they were, Kenneth recalls, magnificent. The army language was a bit “rough” but the men assumed the nuns wouldn’t understand. There was a lot of swearing and joking going on whilst they cleaned their kit and prepared for the next-day’s fighting. As they were leaving, one of the sisters came up to them.
- “Good morning chaps,” she smiled, I do hope things are not as bad as you obviously expect!”
- During that same cleaning session the night before, one fellow started singing. “Abide with Me”. They all jeered and shouted at him to shut to heck up but he insisted, “Very likely, I’ll be dead at this time tomorrow. I’m singing for my own funeral.” So he did, and he was – prophetically enough.
The battle of the Bulge failed for the Germans and the Allied advance continued.
Not all the British Parachute Regiments were sent to Arnhem and Dads’, the 13th South Lancs. didn’t have to go. Dad saw action again at the Rhine crossing and the only tale, he told of that was of a group of raw recruits (reinforcements) who came over from England. None had seen a German soldier before until they spotted one, on his own having a pee against a 4ft high stone wall. They hid in ambush and waited until he reached the gate where they had a full view. 2 Grenades were thrown, a sten gun magazine was emptied and 5 soldiers fired their Lee Enfield rifles. The sight made them all sick. Dad remembers that one of the men was called Cammotta, a natural comedian who seemed to do everything wrong but a man that Dad liked.
- In the Ardennes, Kenneth says the hardest thing to contend with was the weather, as it was now deep winter. They were joined by the Guards Armoured regiment who had a reputation for toughness. Kenneth and his mates were told to cross a bridge into Germany but there were already some Americans on the scene who were going to blow up the bridge.
- There was a face-off between the guards and the Americans. The guards announced.
- “You are NOT going to blow up this bridge” and proceeded to cross lt. NO Americans were going to gainsay the guards!
A little later, Dad was among the British soldiers who met the rapidly advancing Russian army south of Berlin. There were great celebrations and Dad described the Russians as complete madmen, drinking petrol, diesel and paraffin.
Not long after this, “Victory In Europe” was celebrated. For Dad and his Parachute Regiment comrades however, war was not over and before long they embarked on a ship Eastbound to fight the Japanese. Dad has pleasant memories of that voyage, they slept on deck in hammocks which was relaxing as all the hammocks swung in harmony as the ship swayed. He remembers admiring the young pearl divers off Ceylon (Sri Lanka now) and being impressed by India and Singapore. They received their new Jungle warfare equipment whilst in Java and as they were training, news of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender reached them. Needless to say, this was a great relief. Dad’s only story of the Japs was when his Commanding officer told him to guard around 50 prisoners. Things were OK at first and the Japs were well behaved despite being guarded by one soldier only. No relief came and the prisoners were getting agitated. The language barrier was a problem and Dad was forced to point his rifle and bayonet at the ringleaders. Just before the scene became a riot, a Japanese officer arrived, barked a few orders and the Japanese soldiers instantly obeyed and sat back down.
Apart from assisting the Dutch to restore peace from local rebels in Java, Dads’ war was finally over. As a young boy, I was always interested in some of his memorabilia. He has a beautiful silk Japanese flag and a pair of binoculars taken from around the neck of dead German officer. He had a Luger too, but he had seen enough killing and on his voyage home, threw it into the Mediterranean, much to my dismay.
Mum and Dad have had many holidays in Normandy, visiting Harrys’ grave leaving some flowers or a poppy. I have always wondered whether Harrys’ family have also visited and been curious as to who had left the flowers. Dad knew that Harry was married and had a young daughter. Though it would have been quite easy through the War Office to trace them, Dad never wished to.
Two years ago (2004), another recollection preyed on Dad’s mind. He remembered a Quartermaster Captain, a man in his forties from Yorkshire, who, unlike many of the public schoolboy type officers, was good to the men and popular with them. Dad couldn’t remember his name as he was simply referred to as “Sir”, but Dad tells that before D-Day, knowing that soldiers were afraid, he went round to them all saying “Dont worry, you’ll come back OK and so will I.” The officer went in by glider and the story goes that upon landing, they were immediately surrounded by Germans. Armed with his sten gun, he jumped out of the door, gun blazing and killing many Germans before being killed himself.
Knowing that each battalion only had one quartermaster captain, Dad decided to write to the War Office asking his name and where his grave is located. In reply, the War Office advised that his name was Captain Spencer Daisley and that his grave was not in the main battalion cemetery at Ranville but in a churchyard in a village called St-Vaast-en-Auge, 15 miles away. This backs up the story that his glider was well off course when it went down. Dad has been twice to Captain Spencer Daisley’s grave now. When in Normandy, Dad always visit’s the Museum at Pegasus bridge where, in Café Gondree, the battalion photograph showing Harry, Sergeant Hughes, Sergeant Bellamy, Pte Cammotta, Captain Spencer Daisley, Lt. Col. Leward and of course Dad and all their comrades, is proudly displayed.
Edited/Transcribed by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, UK, for WarGen.