Interview by Peter John, England, November 1999.
Interview with Peter John (13 August 1999)
Q: You were 20 when you joined the Army?
Rev. Wisewell: No, 23; I was called up. [i.e. conscripted, rather than volunteered]
Q: You’ve noted you were already a “born-again Christian”: I’d wondered whether it had been your wartime experiences which had led you towards the Ministry?
Rev. Wisewell: No: I had already got a keen faith, but my experiences during the war had crystallised it towards the Ministry.
Q: How long after the war were you ordained, and was this via a specific scheme for ex-servicemen as there had been after the First World War?
Rev. Wisewell: Three years after the war. Yes, there was such a scheme, but although I applied for a grant, this was denied me because I had not started the process before the war. As a result, all my studies were by correspondence, and self-financed. I was ordained into the Baptist church in 1949, and my ministry was consistently in the South of England, except for a period in Preston [Lancashire]. I partly-retired in 1981, although, of course, one never fully retires from the calling.
Q: How long have you been in Angmering?
Rev. Wisewell: Three years.
Q: Turning to your actual Army service, when you joined up , did you do so in company with contemporaries with whom you had grown up?
Rev. Wisewell: No, I knew no-one. They were from different parts of the country—it was a strange experience.
Q: Where did you receive your basic training?
Rev. Wisewell: At Boyce Barracks, Crookham, near Fleet [Hampshire]: this was No. 1 Depot, RAMC. We were supposed to have had three months’ training, but this was at a time when an invasion of this country was very much to the fore, and we spent most of our time digging a tank ditch protecting London. Of course, air-raids were constant at that time.
Q: At the end of this interrupted training period, did you thereafter remain in this country until the Normandy Landings?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes.
Q: So how were you occupied? I can’t imagine the Army left you twiddling your thumbs?
Rev. Wisewell: There was far too much routine work—drilling, lectures, and that sort of thing, long after you had acquired the rudiments of the work you would eventually be expected to do. One could become proficient (with extra pay!) by becoming a Nursing Orderly Third Class, then Second Class, then First Class, and this necessitated working in military hospitals and civilian hospitals, and that I enjoyed tremendously. Not that we were able to do much actual nursing, despite the Army title, certainly not in a Field Ambulance in action.
Q: Had you had any experience of Army casualties before the invasion, or had you only seen what had come into hospitals while you were working there?
Rev. Wisewell: Only road accident casualties before, not from fighting.
Q: You hadn’t had experience of men injured during, for example, late stages of assault training?
Rev. Wisewell: No: one could, however, see casualties that occurred in training. There was one occasion in Scotland that I remember when a Colonel Shearer, red tabs, brass hat, was acting as a referee, and standing on a patch of wet sand as a tank came off a landing craft. For some reason the tank had to reverse, and he tried to avoid it but slipped on the wet sand: his skull was crushed like an egg-shell.
Q: In the run-up to the Invasion, where were you stationed?
Rev. Wisewell: Well, the last year was intensive training, which was done mainly in Scotland. We started at Dumfries, and proceeded North by stages. We eventually did our assault training off the Moray Firth. Commando training was done at Inveraray.
Q: Were you expecting to be support troops to Commando forces?
Rev. Wisewell: In the actual invasion? Yes, we knew we were.
Q: At some stage you must have realised that you were being trained for something quite specific: with hindsight, when did you begin to learn where you were headed?
The actual country?
Rev. Wisewell: We knew that we were booked for the Invasion [i.e. of North-west Europe] after the Sicily invasion, which we were supposed to have taken part in, went to the Canadians. We’d got as far as being issued with warm-climate kit, but then the Canadians complained that they’d been over here for two years and had done nothing, so we were taken off that and compensated by being given the Normandy Invasion.
Q: OK, that was the middle of 1943: where did you think you were going when the invasion was launched?
Rev. Wisewell: We didn’t know where on the German-held coastline that would be, but we always believed it would be France, and everybody had their own theory as to where it might be. We came to know exactly by an accident: in the last few weeks we were shown models of the coast, no names at all.
Q: Not even code-names?
Rev. Wisewell: Oh yes, code-names: Caen was Poland. A mate of mine had been a schoolmaster in France before the war, and he saw the town-map of Poland and he spotted a street there, Guillaume le Conquerant, and said to me “That is Caen”.
Q: Did he whisper this to you quietly?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes, and then he told the Commanding Officer. The CO didn’t like him very much, and in his subsequent history, in the CO’s history, he said “I expect he told about half the unit”. In fact he didn’t: he was very conscientious; he told about four of us, who he knew would not tell anyone. But it was leaking: at one of the rehearsals, which was being carried out near Brighton as far as we were concerned, I heard a chap say—this must been the end of May—“We’re going to a place called Cayenne” [phonetic rendering], as in pepper. Obviously, he’d heard it from somewhere.
Q: By this time you were in sealed camps?
Rev. Wisewell: We were sealed in a camp called J2, a place called Stanmer Park, just outside Brighton, on the Lewes road, and there it was wired and guarded.
Q: At what stage were you told officially that training was at an end, and that you were now “for it”?
Rev. Wisewell: I don’t think we were told; we assumed. In accounts I’ve heard from other men, they didn’t realise that it was the real thing until they heard the guns firing on the French coast.
Q: So for many people it could have been just another rehearsal, almost until the last minute?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes, it could have been. Of that I’m very positive.
Q: Have you spoken to officers since and asked them when they knew?
Rev. Wisewell: No, I don’t think I have. I suppose when we knew was, having left Newhaven, and having waited that extra day, it was on June 5 of course that we set sail in earnest, that the Commanding Officer gave us Eisenhower’s message in printed form. We knew then, of course, that this was “it”, and having done that, he filled in the place names from the map.
Q: So before you landed, you knew their real identities? The War Diaries still speak only in code-names.
Rev. Wisewell: From the time that we knew, we knew place-names. This probably depended on the CO: some may have stuck to code-names.
Q: How long had 223 Field Ambulance been working in close co-operation with 185 Brigade?
Rev. Wisewell: Probably from the time that it was known that the Third Division was to have been the assault division. This would have been in ’43.
Q: How closely were you involved with the various infantry battalions?
Rev. Wisewell: Very closely with the three, Norfolks, Warwicks, and KSLIs. During the year that we had been training together, not only had we dealt with their wounded, but we dealt with their sick, so that practically every day there was someone from one of the battalions that came to us because of sickness.
Q: How about the support units, artillery, engineers, tanks—did you know them as well?
Rev. Wisewell: Not as well as the infantry. I had a friend in the 20th Anti-Tank, and we met when off duty at a Scottish church and places like that. And I knew Nobby Clark, who was KSLI, and we were quite close. He came to see me back at the Dressing Station in Periers-sur-le-Dan, so that we did know each other to a certain extent, but more so the infantry than the support groups.
Q: Your ms.
[Part one, above] gives a very clear picture, but can you go through again how things were for
you personally from about first light on the 6th June? Were you
in sight of the coast at that time?
Q: There was enough room?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes, but only on deck. It was raining, and the sea was high, and my chief memory of that night, and the afternoon of June 5…. I don’t get seasick, and I sat up in the bow, and enjoyed the up-and-down motion. But on the deck there were dozens of our men absolutely prostrated with sea-sickness. The Ward-room was occupied by a few lucky chaps who’d made a dive for it; but the atmosphere in there must have been pretty thick. On deck the Navy had put out huge buckets for sea-sickness and urinating, and these were soon full. With the motion of the ship they slopped; and my vivid memory of that is seeing chaps lying in the stream of vomit and urine and rain—it must have been terrible if they were sea-sick. They must have been glad to get off, even if it was on to the beach on the other side. It was pretty awful.
Q: When it got dark on June 5, were you in sight of land on either side?
Rev. Wisewell: No. To keep dry, I crawled under a tank, and the tank had a camouflage net over it, and I realised that if we were sunk during the night then I could be caught up like a fish, so I opened my jack-knife (I don’t think it could have cut much) to be able to cut my way out. I slept on the stretcher that I was to carry in, so that was quite comfortable. About midnight, we heard planes going over, which would have been the 6th. Airborne, going to attack the bridges, and slept again, fitfully after that. When it began to get light—I forget at what time—we had breakfast (not many people wanted the fat bacon!), and after a bit the tank drivers made radio-contact with the shore, so this was after half-past seven, which was when the Third Division’s first wave went in, and they said that opposition was light. After a bit we heard gunfire, saw flashes, and so forth, but the thing that was impressive was the numbers of ships. Whichever way you looked, there were hundreds of ships, and then we could see the outline of high ground—probably Lebisey—and as time went on it got nearer and nearer, and then suddenly a landing craft that was sailing close to us blew up. It was blazing from stem to stern, and then suddenly it was gone, it must have been a lucky shell from somewhere, and you realised that this was really in earnest. As we got nearer we could see the buildings, the shells landing, then we saw rocket-carrying craft going across us, discharging their weapons, then turning round so that their port or starboard side—whichever was left—could be discharged. The next thing was that we carried a barrage balloon—against aircraft—but that was shot down before we got in to land. It was probably a good thing, as the ‘powers that be’ later decided to release all the balloons, as the German gunners at Le Havre were able to use them as markers, which should have occurred to someone beforehand!
We bumped gently on the beach: the tanks, of course, were more important than we were so went off first. There was a fairly broad ledge to the side of the boat, perhaps a foot, so we crouched under there, until the officer in charge of us said “Right, let’s go”, and we went, and it was a dry landing! In Scotland we’d floundered in water up to our waists, but this was a dry one.
Q: Who was the officer?
Rev. Wisewell: Probably a Captain. Our officers were doctors, and they were a decent type.
Q: Were there any who’d been pre-war Army doctors, or were they enlisted “for the duration” like yourselves?
Rev. Wisewell: The older, and therefore the higher-ranking, had been pre-war doctors in general practice, but the younger ones had come straight from medical school.
Q: Your relations with your officers may have been easier than might have been the case amongst the infantry?
Rev. Wisewell: I’m certain of it.
Q: Your ms. notes your frustration that initially you seemed to have nothing to do, when there were things which you felt you ought to have been able to?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes, that was frustrating. One of the younger Medical Officers, having nothing to do, found a cow that had been wounded, a piece of shrapnel had split the cow up the side, so he sewed the cow’s wound together!
Q: Well, here you are, it’s about 10.30, you’re on the beach and hugging Mother Earth, so what happened then?
Rev. Wisewell: We’d dived into the first shell-hole, because things were flying around all over the place. I saw a chap in the next shell-hole catch at his arm, as obviously something had hit him, but after a bit, our Officer said that we’d better go on. The Beach-Master—they were a breed of their own, they must have been terrifically brave to stay on a beach like that—he roared “Get off inland!”, so we got off the beach and on to the promenade at Lion-sur-Mer, and started off through the town, but obviously making for Hermanville. A good number of the folk had landed at La Breche, but we were about half a mile along at Lion.
Q: Did you get as far as Hermanville?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes, that’s as far as we got for the first day, and really for the first week. I suppose it was soon after midday that we caught on to the fact that things were not going as well as they should have been. In all our training, we’d been told “Don’t waste your time on beach casualties, leave them for the beach dressing-stations. Get inland, and on the first evening you’ll put up your dressing station in Poland”.
Q: You got your dressing station up on D-Day instead in Hermanville?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes: we didn’t put it up immediately. Our first stop, there’s a road around the back from Lion which leads into Hermanville, and about half way along this we were stopped, but later allowed on again to our eventual destination, which was the grounds of a chateau, between the chateau and the church. We still weren’t allowed to put up our dressing-station because we were expected to go on to Caen. The afternoon wore on, and by about tea-time it became evident that we weren’t going on to Caen, so we put up the dressing station, which was in a square pit, about ten feet square, which the locals told us had been dug by the Germans the day before. We put a tarpaulin over the top to keep light from shining out, and we worked with the lights we carried, which was hurricane lamps and bicycle torches.
Q: Was that the level of light likely to be available you throughout the campaign? Did you have generators?
Rev. Wisewell: When the transport arrived, the Service Corps [Royal Army Service Corps], which was part of the Field Ambulance, one of their men is in charge of the generator, so that every department of the ADS would have one bulb.
Q: One bulb?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes.
Q: If you’d not found this convenient pit, you’d have had to improvise some sort of shelter yourselves?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes, we probably then would have taken over a room in the chateau. The chateau very soon became the Divisional HQ, but our CO didn’t believe in using buildings as a dressing-station. He felt there was far more chance of being shelled in a building than in canvas.
Q: How long
would it normally take to get the dressing-station operational?
Q: Training and organisation must have been predicated on a particular level of casualties: were you working at that sort of pitch on D-Day?
Rev. Wisewell: No: the 35 we treated were a flea-bite. We weren’t really stretched until, probably, July 8, when Caen was taken. That was 466 British casualties on the day, and 40 Germans. The casualty numbers prognosticated was completely hay-wire—happily—from the point of view of the Division.
[Mr. Wisewell referred to a file where casualty predictions were set out as 2000 per day for the divisional front on the first two days; 1000 per day for the next two days; and 400 per day thereafter. This also contained details of the scale of equipment the personnel of an ADS would normally carry]
Q: Of these numbered packs, did an individual have a specific number assigned to him?
Rev. Wisewell: Yes. The comforting point always to be remembered was that every pack contained 3 yards of string!
Q: How did you manage when you were expected to deal with casualties whom you knew personally?
Rev. Wisewell: That was always more difficult. Happily, there weren’t very many, but it was always difficult, particularly when one knew something of their home circumstances.