The route that Len took across Europe was approximately:
Normandy (Juno beach) > Falaise > Rouen > Amiens > Conteville > Brussels > Waterloo > Antwerp > Eindhoven > Helmond > Nederlands/German border > Osnabruck/Oldenburg region > Oldenburg > East towards Berlin.
Details of some of the route cannot be verified, this is partly because Len wasn’t always privy to the exact location, or as was often the case, they were progressing at such speed that he didn’t get a chance to obtain any bearings as to their precise location.
Once the allies had established a foothold in France, Len was heading for Amiens where he again found he was under some heavy fire and unfortunately witnessed French civilians getting caught up in the cross fire. A mother and baby lost their lives whilst he was driving through Amiens under enemy fire, the event haunting his life ever since.
The next destination was Brussels, however he found himself again resting at Conteville for a few days before reaching Brussels (This may or may not have been the same Conteville he was billeted at in 1939).
Montgomery vs Eisenhower
Whilst in Belgium Len remembers an encounter between Montgomery and Eisenhower, who had by then taken personal responsibility for all forces in Europe, he was apparently just yards away from the two men when the incident occurred. Monty and Eisenhower were having a heated discussion and he remembers the British troops nearby shouting at the American officers, telling them ‘To go home, back to where they came from’. It is well known that Montgomery and Eisenhower did not get on and that Eisenhower had thought about getting Montgomery sacked from his position.
Montgomery had his HQ at Zonhoven and Eisenhower visited him there on the 28th October 1944 and a number of times over the following months. One of these visits could be the one Len is referring to.
(Ref. The Memoirs of Field Marshall The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Published by Collins, 1958).
An unfortunate incident
As Len and his crew approached Brussels from the West in a group of nine vehicles, he was given orders to take a route around the outskirts of Brussels, taking some of the bypass roads. Unfortunately the Germans had laid a few traps as they came around Brussels and they suffered some casualties.
It was about this time that Len and his NCO had decided they needed to relieve them selves and they both got out of the Bren Carrier to find a suitable tree or bush. He could have relieved himself in the vehicle, since the urine would have drained away, however they decided at the time it was relatively safe to get out. All went well until they returned to the vehicle and Len climbed back into the driving position.
As he was climbing in, Len was shot in the leg by some German small arms fire, possibly a sniper or small group of Germans. He never really new where or who they were, he didn’t feel a great deal of pain, he was ordered to drive on at speed by his NCO shouting ‘Come on Heath, come on Heath’. As they continued around Brussels, he noticed a little blood running down his leg, but he didn’t have time to check it. He felt a tingle but just had to ignore it until they got to a safe area.
British soldiers carried a first aid ‘patch’ that was kept on them in a pocket; this was used to temporarily patch Lens leg until they reached a medical facility.
As they came away from Brussels on the East side and into an open rural area, they approached Waterloo. They camped at Waterloo under the cover of some trees; the Belgian civilians welcomed them in the streets and gave them bottles of drink and food. Across the road from their encampment, in a field, was a military Medical Corps tent and he had his wound treated by the staff. Bullet fragments were removed from the wound and Len was patched up ready to continue driving. Near the tent was the historical battlefield of Waterloo, the place that saw the final conflict between Napoleon and Wellingtons armies in 1815.
Some civilians that Len met on his journey were friendlier than others. The French women, once liberated, would jump onto their vehicles, offering them fruit and a kiss.
As they were pushing through France, Belgium and Holland, they found the country people, such as farmers, were very good towards them. They looked after the allied troops, giving them bottles of drink; the allies were well supplied with food and always had rations in their lorries. Sometimes Len used the American Red Cross Clubmobile lorries to get cups of tea or coffee.
They moved on through some small Belgium villages to the border with Holland. Just before they reached the Dutch border they rested for a few hours at a disused railway station. Belgian civilians provided some large urns of tea for refreshment.
They drove up the road to the Dutch border, bypassed Antwerp and eventually reached a large factory near Helmond, a few miles east of Eindhoven, where they camped under some large trees for about 2 days. There they recuperated and were well fed.
It is well known that Churchill was keen to prevent the Russians gaining access to the Baltic Sea via Denmark, so under orders from Eisenhower, the British and Canadians pushed up along the coast to Wismar, blocking any Russian progress to the coast and Denmark.
Life as a Bren Gun Carrier Driver
Len and his Bren Gun Carrier crew were tasked to go ahead of the ground troops, it was lightly armoured and offered some protection. The vehicle had two Bren Guns (machine guns) it was effectively a mobile machine gun platform. An NCO, such as a sergeant or corporal, would be sat next to the driver with one Bren gun. Behind them would be a third crew member, a gunner, with the second Bren gun. They were often used as scout vehicles and sometimes would go into unknown territory. Len, the driver, was sat low down behind armour plating and could see out through visors. He would hear the small arms ammunition ricochet off the armour plating of the Bren Gun Carrier.
They would try and eliminate the many machine gun nests that the Germans would put in place as a defence. The nests would be hidden and they would wait for allied troops to pass in attempt to trap them.
Surprisingly they didn’t suffer many casualties driving the BG Carriers, but the NCOs were more vulnerable, they would be giving directions and spotting enemy positions. Lens unit lost a number of NCOs doing this dangerous job. Artillery would be used to ‘clear a way’ ahead of any advances, sometimes the guns would ‘pound’ the enemy positions for a few hours before advancing. The Germans had superior armoured cars and carriers to the allies; their vehicles had heavier armour and were often faster.
They would avoid any close contact with heavily armoured vehicles such as tanks and would try and camouflage the BG Carrier behind trees and other features to avoid detection. Len did encounter smaller tanks but at some distance, about half a mile away. If they spotted German armour on the roads, the NCO would give orders and directions.
Across the Rhine
They pushed on into Germany from Holland, they now had substantial reinforcements. They crossed the Rhine on Bailey pontoon bridges that had been constructed by the Royal Pioneer Corps, Len was scared of the crossing because he couldn’t swim. Before he made the crossing he watched a few trucks in front go across and this gave him confidence in driving across himself. Two or three vehicles could cross at a time and the bridge would move and he half expected the bridge to turn over as he crossed. On the other side of the river Len was told to ‘keep his foot down’ and not to stall the engine of the BG carrier.
Just a few miles further into Germany Len remembered an incident in which he was travelling in a small convoy of vehicles, his BG carrier was the second in the convoy, whilst an officer’s armoured car drove about 100 yards ahead. They came under attack from all sides and the officers vehicle in front was hit by enemy fire, including grenades. One driver or an officer in the lead vehicle was severely injured and was pulled out of his seat so that the vehicle could be driven. Another occupant was dead and thrown out of the vehicle on to the side of the road. The officers swore at the drivers in the convoy and urged them to keep going.
The first major stop in Germany that Len can remember was at Oldenburg, it had been captured by the Canadian First Army, having been issued orders by Montgomery on the 22nd April.
(Ref. ‘After the Battle’ No. 88 – East West Link Up, by Winston G Ramsey, 1995’)
Len was billeted at some barracks that were under construction in Oldenburg, the resident German commander handed over the barracks to them and they were there for a few days and nights.
Some of Lens comrades broke into some of the shops that had been left unattended and raided them. The food was shared out between them.