Anthony George (Tony) Verth
Mentioned in Despatches
I was to report to the TA Drill Hall in Queens Square, Brighton. I arrived there to find an old army officer with a waxed moustache - I did not know what rank at that time but I was soon to learn! He was sitting behind a desk, looking very important. I immediately said I was just off of a naval ship and would like to join the navy. “You are in the Army now. Navy full up!” He asked the usual questions - full name, age, religion, then handed me a rail warrant for Horsham in Sussex and told me to report to the Territorial Army Drill Hall in Horsham. I think that was 4th October 1939. While waiting for the train at Brighton Station, I met an old school friend, Jeff Wood. We used to sit next to each other at school, two to a desk in those days. “Where are you off to?” asked Jeff. I told him Horsham. He showed me his train warrant and replied, “So am I.”
On reaching the Drill Hall, we arrived in a large hall with several smaller rooms off to the right. Men were being vetted and sent to different rooms. Jeff and I stuck together like glue, neither knowing what lay ahead for us. Apprehension, I suppose you would call it. Hoping we would land in the same room, after a heap of the usual questions, married, single, full name, address etc. Luckily we did. When the room became full, a sergeant walked in. I said, “Excuse me, Sergeant. Where are we off to?” In his full barrack-room voice, he said, “You lucky lads are going to the seaside! You’re going to Brighton.” Jeff and myself had to have a laugh, we had just come from there. The sergeant led us outside to a waiting bus and we arrived at Westcombe, in Dyke Road, Brighton (Apparently, it had been a private girls’ school, commandeered by the military). This was about mid-day. Sergeant told us they were opening the canteen, as Westcombe were not ready for us. Another little story - we went to the bar and Jeff asked what I would like to drink. I said, “What are you having.” He said, “A pint of bitter.” “OK,” I said, “I’ll have a half.” Funny thing was, I could not stand the smell of beer. Jeff’s pint was disappearing. I kept lifting my half pint as far as my nose but could not drink it. Jeff asked what was wrong. I had to tell him. “Don’t worry, have a soft drink!” I settled for an orange juice. After about an hour, we filed off to the storeroom, where we were handed a great pile of army gear. The webbing to us rookies was like a jigsaw puzzle but we helped each other and eventually managed to sort it out. We were all ready, dressed in our army issue, feeling very strange in tackety boots, rough underpants and a khaki uniform. Not quite looking like soldiers yet! One poor chap was still standing in his underpants, almost in tears, holding up his army boots and leather laces tied together, which of course you only had to pull them apart. “What’s wrong with you, son? I suppose your mummy always ties your laces for you!” “Yes, Sergeant,” was the reply. We all felt so sorry for him, including the sergeant. He told us to help him get dressed, which a few of us did. He should never have been called up in the first place. Just to look at him, you could see he should never have passed the doctor. Fortunately, he was discharged six weeks later.
Being called to the colours from civilian life, all twenty-year-olds were enlisted into the army. Quite a shock really but we just had to make the best of it and get on with it. We were to be known as the ‘Militia Boys’. The Sergeant told us we were to do six weeks training, with plenty of square bashing and they would make soldiers of us. We went from boys into men and, together with the Territorials, we would form the 7th Battalion of The Royal Sussex Regiment. Basic training took place at Highcroft, Dyke Road. Field training was done at Devil’s Dyke. When our six weeks basic was finished, we were sent to different branches of the Battalion. Jeff and I landed at Westcombe, which was Battalion HQ. I was sent to the signals section. Jeff went to the office. I enjoyed the signals section for a short while.
One day, we were asked who could read music, basic of course, as they were forming a Regimental Band. This appealed to me, thinking of my schooldays and my choir experience. I put up my hand. My signals instructor was not very pleased. He reckoned I was a quick learner. However, we were told the band would be stretcher-bearers. This also pleased me very much as, deep down, I did not fancy killing another human being. Well, we had to sit a first aid test, which was a piece of cake to me as I had plenty of that in the Boys Brigade. Gaining top marks, I was told to report to the Medical Officer, Captain Mannington, in the Medical Inspection Room and I became the Battalion Medical Orderly. Now this I did enjoy and this is where I commenced my chiropody. Doc. Mannington gave me a crash course, using a candle to teach me the skill of using a scalpel. Financially, I was doing quite well, being proficient with the use of rifle and bren gun, which I never used again after my six weeks basic training - but I received sixpence a day. Another sixpence a day as a proficient bandsman, playing bugle and fife, and another one shilling a day as Battalion Chiropodist, which amounted to 14 shillings a week, on top of our 7 shillings a week, which was our army pay on enlistment. We did not think too much about the war, as nothing seemed to be happening. We went to an occasional dance and were entertained by Dickie Lord, who was an accomplished musician on piano accordion, piano and organ.
We thought there was a move coming, as the whole Battalion received their inoculations and vaccinations. I went down with vaccine fever. My arm became very swollen and I could not get my arm in my battledress blouse. So I got off with a week’s sick leave!
When I got back, Doc told me that we would shortly be going to France, as part of the British Expeditionary Force. The Battalion was given a week’s embarkation leave, after which we entrained for Southampton, then boarded a ship to Le Havre. That I think, was the only time I was a little apprehensive. We were packed on the deck like sardines and we were hoping there were no mines floating about. However, we arrived safely. From Le Havre, we went in cattle trucks, usual army transport, to the little village of Rosay, about 20 miles from Rouen. It was here that we were camped, the camp being set up by the advance guard. It was wonderful under canvas, with a beautiful summer approaching. When off duty, Jeff and I used to go for walks through the country lanes.
Two incidents stand out while we were under canvas (very impressive, rows and rows of white bell tents, a lovely target for the Jerries we thought!). There was a Lance Corporal in the MI tent with me. He was a Territorial, which meant that he was a part-time soldier before the war. Practically all the Sergeants, Corporals and Lance Corporals were TA men. All promoted on the ‘Militia Boys’ first weekend leave, in Brighton. To get back to the incidents, the Lance Corporal and myself had alternate evenings off duty. One particular evening, I was off duty. One of the cooks cut his hand very badly, opening a tin. No one could be found in the MI tent, so they went to the Sergeants’ Lines and found the Sergeant in charge of the stretcher-bearers. He was a big round ‘O’! Useless! He panicked and went to the Officers’ Lines. Doc was out of camp, so one of the Officers attended to the casualty. In the morning, Doc was furious! He asked me, who was on duty the previous evening. As I did not know of the accident, I said that it was my evening off. The Lance Corporal had left the camp. He was a likeable rascal but quite irresponsible. He was taken out of the MI tent and put on VIP guards. The first night he was caught asleep by the duty Officer. As a Lance Corporal, he should have been in charge. Poor old Ben!
The second incident, two chaps came rushing to the MI tent and asked if I could come to ‘D’ Company Lines, as one of the men had a boil on the back of his neck and was in terrible pain. He had a very high temperature, was perspiring badly and, when I looked at his neck, I found what was called a carbuncle, today it would be termed an abscess. It was about the size of half an egg. There was only one thing I could do and that was to lance it, which I did. It gave the chap instant relief! I made sure that it was clean, dressed it and told him to report to the MO in the morning. I informed the MO in the morning, what I had done. When he had examined the chap, he told me after sick parade I had done the right thing and made a good job of it. I must say, Doc and I got on very well. If he was going into Rouen, he would always ask if there was anything I wanted and he always gave me his ration of 200 cigarettes.
I knew this was all too good to be true - marvellous weather, lovely and peaceful! War? What was war? I was soon to find out! On 17th May, still 1940, Doc woke me about midnight, saying they had just had an Officers’ meeting and the Battalion was moving out at 7am. He told me in confidence, that it was serious and if we were not back in three days, we would not be coming back. I have never forgotten those words to this day. I still did not know what lay ahead. I did not have a clue. Maybe, just as well! The Battalion was told that we were going on a three-day exercise. Some exercise that turned out to be!
We set off in the early hours, quite a beautiful morning, and marched to the station. The train had two carriages for the Officers and the usual cattle trucks for the men. Our destination was to be Lens. It was passed through the ranks that the Germans had broken through Belgium - ‘Only five tanks! Nothing to worry about!’ How young and stupid we must have been, being told they were only made of compressed cardboard! However, we never did reach Lens. We were stopping at a siding at Amiens, for lunch, which the cooks were preparing and which we never got! For, as the train was slowing down, I remember sitting at the truck door with my legs dangling and hearing aircraft up above. “Hoorah!” shouted the lads, “We have an air force after all!” As I said earlier, it was a beautiful summer’s day, the 18th May. Never forgotten it! A few fluffy clouds had gathered, with gaps of blue sky between them. As I looked up, I saw three planes diving at us through the light clouds. A stick of bombs had left the leading aircraft. I shouted, “They are Germans! Get down!” All in our truck scrambled and dived flat on the floor, terrified, thinking that it was our last. Then all hell broke loose! Bombs came screaming down, terrific explosions, dust, earth and the smell of cordite (still with me to this day). The aftermath was frightening. The engine had had a direct hit and was lying on its side. One of the Officers’ carriages had been hit, killing three of them, with several others injured with shrapnel or flying glass. Two of the cattle trucks had had direct hits, with approximately 150 killed and many wounded.
To our left was a wood, while on the right, was a chalk pit. Doc. Mannington, having been wounded by flying glass, sent a message to me, to go through the train, give the wounded first aid and have them stretchered over to the chalk pit, where he would attend to them. All were evacuated to Amiens Hospital, himself included, and I never saw him again until years after the war. I won’t go into the gory details of the sights. All the wounded from the train were evacuated back to England and went to a hospital in East Grinstead. I heard after the war that Corporal Chainey, in charge of the stretcher-bearers, one of the wounded evacuated, died in East Grinstead Hospital. He was a fine chap!
I spent the night after, attending to the wounded in the woods, the Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Gethen included, where some sort of order was restored and a roll call taken, with the men being assembled in their respective Companies: ‘HQ’, ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies. I was really amazed at the number of wounded I found in the woods. The CO had surface wounds in his head, caused by splintered glass, which I managed to cope with and then there were several shrapnel cases, in arms legs and body and a couple of badly bruised ribs, where the chaps had been thrown down on the railway lines with the blasts of the shells. All these had been received while running from the train and, through shock, had not realised they had been hit. There was one case of shellshock. That was pitiful to see, crying for his mum and saying prayers. The sad thing was that there was nothing you could do for him.
This was our initiation into real war, for twenty-year-olds. Really quite frightening, for after all, we had never heard a loud explosion in our training, the loudest being a 303 bullet from a rifle or bren gun. Looking back, it was diabolical! The Government were certainly not prepared for war and had no equipment ready. The Battalion had left for France with six bren guns and one mortar gun, with only three mortar smoke shells. The men had their rifles with fifty rounds of ammunition. Now to get back to the woods: after spending the night in the woods, early on the morning of May 19th 1940, a German spotter plane flew overhead. The CO immediately ordered the Battalion to evacuate the woods on to high ground, across from the marshalling yard where we had been bombed the previous day. Around 9am we watched the woods being bombed. The city of Amiens was also being bombed.
Hundreds of civilians, women and children passed through our ranks, fleeing from the town, quite a few had been wounded, which we gave first aid to. They were most grateful, some were too frightened to stop. They had barrows, prams and carts with all their worldly belongings. Another very pitiful sight! I think you could now call us men. Gone were the days of boyhood. So much had we been through, in such a short space of time. The CO then deployed the Companies into defensive positions. This was now the 20th May 1940. About 2pm, I was having my first shave for two days. I was on a hill, which led down from the Amiens-Poix road to the marshalling yard, when a hail of tracer bullets came flying over my head. The Regimental Sergeant Major, RSM Eames came running down the hill, shouting, “It’s the Boche!” He had been a soldier in the First World War. I snatched the MO’s medical pannier, raced to the top of the hill, saw a farmhouse a little way up the hill and shouted to the RSM, I would use the farm as the Regimental Aid Post. I crossed the road, which fortunately had a five-foot bank, where a few of the men were taking cover. Two stretcher-bearers were amongst them, with an Officer. They informed me that he was our new Medical Officer. I told them to follow me to the farmhouse, which was about fifty yards further up the road. Before we could reach the farmhouse, there was a gap in the bank. This would have been an entrance into the field for tractors. I said I would go past the gap first and tossed the medical pannier over, as it was rather heavy and awkward to run with. As I threw it, a burst of machine gun fire opened up. I said we would have to dash across at intervals. By this time, the Germans had begun to send over mortar shells. As each of us ran across the gap, so the machine guns opened fire. There was no problem with the farmhouse as the owners had fled!
When we were settled in the farmhouse, I asked where was the MO. They told me that he was too frightened to move. Later, we were told that he had been killed by a mortar shell.
We began organising the farmhouse when the first wounded were brought in. I attended to the wounds, leaving the stretcher-bearers to complete the bandaging. Some cases stick in my mind to this day. The worst was one of the DCLI chaps, attached to the Battalion to make our numbers up to strength, just two weeks before we left England. He had been caught in cross machine gun fire. Another had lost all his fingers, still attached, hanging from his elbow by the skin. Another I knew quite well, he was a Lance Corporal from the Signals section, known as ‘Ginger’ Durston. He had been shot in the stomach. I met him again 40 years later. The brass button from his battle dress tunic had lodged in his stomach, which I managed to remove with forceps. All future correspondence addressed to me from Ginger was to ‘Button Pincher’. I shall never forget Ginger, for as he lay on the floor, he told me to attend another of the wounded, that was far worse than him. As we used to say, ‘Ginger for pluck’, when we were children. Through the afternoon, Arthur Lovell came into the farmhouse and asked if he could help me. He said that he was a volunteer with St John’s Ambulance Brigade before the war. I thanked him and said a little prayer. I felt he had been sent to me. The afternoon seemed to fly past. The shelling continued all this time. The windows of the farmhouse were shattered with the shell bursts but, fortunately, we did not get a direct hit!
I’m positive, the Germans could see what was going on. We discovered later, that periscopes were part of their equipment. Never heard of in the British army at that time. Later in the afternoon, quite a few men came into the farmhouse, as there was nothing else they could do, their ammunition being finished. I got them to put bales of hay up at the windows. They had left their rifles stacked in the front garden.
Around 6pm, a German tank pulled up outside the farm, with guns trained on the house. A German Officer shouted Rouse! Rouse! Loose! Loose! This meant Out! Out! Hurry! Hurry! Actually, none of us had a clue what it meant but had a good idea with the Officer’s gesticulations. I was the last to leave. I explained that a number of wounded were in the farmhouse and I would stay with them. But unfortunately, I had not stopped to put on my Red Cross armband, as everything happened so quickly. I argued that I was staying with the wounded. The Officer was not for arguing and began to unfasten his pistol holster. He won! I joined the other men outside, who were lined up in the field. As we marched to the field, we passed a burnt-out lorry of ours, which had had a direct hit, with three burnt bodies lying outside. Later we learned that Sergeant Pritchard had fetched some ammunition and was taking it to ‘A’ Company.
Talk about a cat with nine lives! I reckoned I had had a few of mine! We were searched for dangerous weapons, then sent into a field, where there were some other men from the Battalion that had been captured, one of them being the Commanding Officer, while the Germans rounded up a few more. I must say it was very strange, I had felt no fear all the afternoon, as I had been so busy with the wounded, that I had no time to think of anything else. Sitting in that field, having nothing to do, I broke down completely. Wondering what would happen to the wounded I had left behind. We had been fed propaganda that the Germans shot the wounded. Just more lies! I worried about them for forty years, before I learned what had happened to them.
Apparently, the Germans had come through Belgium, Holland and France, advancing fifty miles a day. Amiens was the first time they had met any serious opposition. It was Rommel’s Armoured Division. He thought that he had come across the British Army! So he stopped outside Amiens the 18th, 19th and 20th of May, to replenish his stock of fuel, ammunition and food. He had not expected such an advance and was moving faster than his supplies. He could have gone through our depleted Battalion in half an hour, if he had only but known, as we had nothing to stop his artillery, mortars and many machine guns.