17th Field Company, Royal Engineers
Tommy was born in July 1921 and grew up in the north-east of England. He joined the army before the war.
He joined the Royal Engineers, and participated in the Battle of France in 1940. He drove trucks carrying bridging equipment. As the 3rd Division retreated across France, he had a few memorable incidents, the best of which was being able to sit in the cockpit of a Hurricane fighter, his favourite aircraft, at Seclin, near Lille. Less pleasant was when a German twin-engined fighter-bomber (he always said it was a Messerschmitt Bf110) strafed his column, and as it flew over the trucks, it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, passing just inches above his cab before crashing.
His platoon also came across an abandoned supply depot, so they stuffed their packs with as many cigarettes as they could fit into them, for trading later.
Having made it to Dunkirk, he spent a few days on the beach, constructing piers from trucks etc. His cigarettes were buried in the sand dunes. As it happened, he never got a chance to recover them. (Are they still there?)
He often spoke about an incident when they bumped into a unit from one of the Guards regiments. He said they were like they were on parade, all neatly lined up, shouting "left, right..." as they marched. This was with the Luftwaffe in regular attendance, and with artillery fire never far away. He said they all got as far from those men as possible!
He almost made it off the beach one day, when he was in a line of men boarding ships, but an officer saw his royal Engineers flash on his helmet, so he was ordered back to the beach.
Finally, he boarded HMS Havant on 31st May. Once on board, they were given corned beef sandwiches and tea, "the best meal I ever had", he said. As they pulled into Portsmouth, he remembered passing the accomodation for the Wrens, and there were lots of them in the window, waving greetings in, in his words, "various states of undress". Incidentally, on her next voyage, HMS Havant was badly damaged by Stukas, and had to be scuttled.
Once disembarked, and been given passes, he and his friends went to a few pubs, but they stayed in their uniforms, which were still damp, and covered in oil. With the news being full of the evacuation, the locals in the pubs wanted to do what they could for the returning soldiers, and if you were in oil-stained, damp uniforms, it was assumed you had been evacuated from Dunkirk. People were buying them drinks all night.....
The next few years were spent in England and Scotland training. They practiced building the newly designed Bailey Bridge, and Tommy took classes as a signaller, and trained to drive the Universal Carrier (although that's the official name, he always referred to it as a "Bren carrier" or just "carrier").
By 1944, he was a Lance-Corporal, driving a Bren carrier in 17th Field Company, Royal Engineers, which was attached to 185 Brigade, itself part of 3rd Infantry Division.
For D-Day, he was to land on sword Beach, at around 1030. He had two "unoffical" passengers with him, meteorologists from the RAF who saw Tommy's carrier as a means of avoiding wet feet.
As their LCT approached Sword Beach that morning, German artillery fire was hitting the water, sending large spouts up into the air, but his boat wasn't hit. Having landed, there was still a fair bit of small arms fire around, hitting the side of the carrier. As he made his way off the beach, one track came off the sprocket. He leapt out, shouting to the two guys from the RAF to give him a hand, but as soon as the carrier had stopped, they'd jumped out and ran off up the beach! So he was on his own, trying to get the track back on, with occasional "clangs" from stuff hitting the side of the vehicle. Eventually succesful, he drove inland, meeting up with the rest of his unit as they pushed south towards Caen. As they passed through a village, he saw a French woman shouting at his CO. As the CO knew Tommy spoke a bit of French, he asked him to translate. The lady's garden wall had been knocked down by a tank, and she was asking the officer who was going to fix it. Once Tommy had told the officer this, the CO just shouted, in his very posh accent, "Tell her to fix it her fucking self!"
As Caen didn't fall quite as swiftly as had been planned, the next few weeks were spent mine-laying, and ferrying patrols from the infantry battalions of 185 Bde.
Finally, on 8th July, the attack on Caen commenced, preceeded by a massive air-raid. As 185 Bde pushed south, the air was thick with fog, but Tommy said as they got into it, they could feel grit between their teeth- it was dust from the air raid, a huge, dense cloud of it.
Just north of Lebisey, Tommy's carrier had a near-miss from the intense mortar and artillery fire, and it was blown over, Tommy being thrown out.
He was helped back to an aid station, and from there to the beach and back to England.
Whilst convalescing, he became friendly with one of his nurses, who later became his wife.
Despite travelling throughout Europe many times (he worked for an international furniture remover after the war), he never could come back to Normandy. "Too many painful memories".
Finally, in October 1994, a few months after the 50th anniversary commemorations, he came back (that was when I met him).
After that he came back every year, sometimes more than once a year, until his last visit in June 2004. He had made plans to come back in 2005, had booked his hotel, his ferry, everything, but about two weeks before he was due to travel, he passed away.
He was a good old boy, with a cheeky sense of humour. Irreverent sounding comments would be accompanied by a slight grin or wink to clarify his intent. His career in the Royal Engineers, of which he was extremely proud, was such that despite coming close to death many times, he never actually shot at anyone. On one of his visits to Normandy, we went to the large German cemetery in la Cambe. Upon leaving, he said quietly:
"I'm glad I didn't kill any of them".
Rest in Peace, mate.