The narrative is based on a letter by the Rev. Wisewell in response to written questions in 1999.
Bookmarks Becoming a noncombatant / Call up / The RAMC / D-Day / Delays and failure to take Caen / Wounding of MO Lang at Periers / D-Day night / Tankers and infantrymen / KSLI / Stress / Remembrance / Hatred for the enemy / What do you tell young people of war? / Comrades / Britain's "finest hour" / Cameos
I was born on Nov. 20th, 1916, just under a year before my father was killed near Paschendael at the outset of the Third Battle of Ypres, Oct. 1917. We would have seen each other but I never knew him.
I was married at Easter, 1939, when it was clear that war was coming. As a "born-again Christian'' I had already settled in my own mind that I could not take another man's life but was willing to serve in the RAMC as a stretcher-bearer. Because the British Government insisted that non-combatant status could be only given through a tribunal, I could not volunteer, but stated at my tribunal that I was “more than willing to serve as a stretcher-bearer in the RAMC”.
I was called up in Aug. 1940 and trained while the Battle of Britain was at its height and posted to a Field Ambulance in a Division intended to counter a German invasion. Apart from work in hospitals, civilian and military, on detachment from my unit and treating the sick of the Brigade, I was not engaged in active service for nearly four years.
The Royal Army Medical Corps, formed in 1898, corresponds, I imagine to the organisation in the U.S.A. film M.A.S.H.
In WW2 an Infantry Division consisted of three Brigades, each with three Battalions. Each Brigade was served by one Field Ambulance which in addition to dealing with casualties from actual Battalions (e.g., KSLI) also cared for auxiliary units—Engineers, Service Corps, Signallers, etc. In war and peace the RAMC was responsible for the health and hygiene of these units.
I was a member of the 223 Field Ambulance (Fd Amb) responsible to the l85 Brigade of the 3rd (British) Infantry Division, one of the assaulting Divisions on June 6th. A Field Ambulance consisted of three companies A, B, and Hq.
The line of evacuation of casualties was as follows. Men wounded as their infantry platoon advanced were picked up Regimental Stretcher-bearers —infantry-men (not RAMC) within the regiment. They could do little for the casualty except stop bleeding and put on a field dressing, then get him back to the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) staffed by a Medical Officer, (supplied by the Fd Amb) and a few more proficient RSBs, where he would receive an assessment of his chances of survival. (In some cases the MO had to play God and decide who would be evacuated - who not.) From here men of either A or B Coy of the Fd Amb would take him by stretcher-carrying Jeep back to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) where there were all RAMC personnel and RASC Ambulance drivers. Here he would receive fuller treatment, inoculations, transfusions, application of splints, renewal of dressings from MOs and Nursing Orderlies, First Class. (I was one of the latter and worked in the Treatment Centre throughout the NW Europe campaign.) From here he would be evacuated as soon as he was fit enough to go to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) which might be two or three (or 20 or 30) miles back depending on the military situation. Here were surgeons and refined equipment which did all possible for him until he could go on to the base hospital—or back to fight again.
At many times these stages could telescope into each other, as on D-Day when the CCS was on the beach and the fighting only a few miles inland so that the ADS could be by-passed.
I did not go out into the field but treated soldiers who were brought into the ADS—unless they were wounded at the ADS itself!
I think the RAMC was held in respect by the army as a whole. We were given lectures in esprit de corps even at the Training Depot and told that in WW1 only one man won the VC twice - Captain Noel Chavasse, RAMC. Because of our non-combatant status we were subjected to banter by fighting men who claimed that our title stood for in reverse Can' t Manage A Rifle. Or with reference to the claim that we looted watches and money from our wounded it was Rob All My Comrades! But no one really believed this and they were glad to fall into our hands. I think most of us felt a special pride in our work and were depressed when men died on our hands.
Either A or B Coy of the 8th Fd Amb would have landed with the 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division at 7.30 a.m. on D-Day. 185 Brigade was the follow-up Brigade and we landed with the KSLI, Warwicks and Norfolks at about 10.15 a.m.
I think the traffic jam built up after we left Sword Beach, for the Staffs with whom we shared the LCT for the voyage over, disembarked before us and they were off the beach before we were. A large part of the 3rd Division landed at La Breche de Hermanville but we landed at Lion-sur-Mer, at least half a mile to the right but our rendezvous, like most of our Brigade was in Hermanville village. I do not recall seeing the Staffs tanks after landing.
Our route from the Lion-sur-Mer beach took us through the town which was badly damaged by shell-fire and bombing. As we dived for the nearest shell-hole in the sand on the beach I saw nothing of floating bodies or burning ships. In fact, the first dead I saw was as we made our way through the rubble of the streets; three men with their Div signs immaculate as mine, one unmarked, one in a crouching position, and one dissolved from the waist down. A piece of him, like a pound of steak, lay at my feet. A little further on earth shelling and mortaring increased and we lay in a shallow gutter seeking what shelter we could when door opened across the street and a girl in nurse's uniform came out, mounted her bicycle and rode calmly away. Shamefaced, we got up and did not stop again until, taking the road round the back of the church we left the town. It was not completely taken until evening. We found the road free of traffic (it might have been a better way for the armour to have come but each side the meadow had the skull and crossbones sign with "ACHTUNG! MINEN!”
We found a soldier lying on the verge in a bad way and, though ordered to leave all wounded to beach medical services and press inland, we took him with us. At the outskirts of Hermanville village we were met by one of our officers and told to dig in as Hermanville was not yet clear. We did so in the back garden of a house and while there one of our RASC (Service Corps) drivers brought in the first German soldier I had seen, a little, under-sized, frightened specimen with a large sausage hanging from his belt. We waited there until gone midday when we were told to go into the village. A knot of villagers with their typical blue overalls and berets watched us in silence. We called out, “Vive la France!” but they made no response. I suppose they were doubtful of our permanence; it could be another Dieppe?
We turned right and went up the village street, past the WW1 memorial and turned into the grounds of a chateau and halted in a short avenue just beyond. In our briefing in UK and again on board the LCT, we had been told we would set up our ADS in “Poland” code-name for Caen, and we knew this was still some miles inlaid. It seemed that there was a definite hold-up but we did not worry unduly—as we might have done had we known the reason. We sat in the sun or under the trees all afternoon of D-Day, forbidden to set up the ADS because every moment we expected to move into Caen and set up there.
Thousands of men were being wounded within a few miles of us and all our training and skill were not being used; we chafed at this more as time passed. A and B Coy were more "fortunate” as they were up with their infantry and draining their casualties direct to the beach, bypassing us. As speed is usually important this was the best choice. Even so, many were taken to 21 and 22 FDS (Field Dressing Stations), half a mile behind us to spread the numbers involved.
At about 4 p.m. orders were received from the ADMS (Assistant Director of Medical Services) in overall charge of 3rd Div. Medical facilities, for us to set up our ADS proper and prepare for casualties, and we were glad to do so. We utilised two large pits, dug by the enemy a day or two before, as our Treatment Centre and set out our equipment. Whilst we were doing this there was a burst of small arms fire from the direction of the village church about 100 yards away. A sniper had taken a pot-shot from the tower and this was returned by English soldiers nearby. A field gun was levelled at the tower and a shell put through which presumably killed him.
You will have read all the many reasons for the delay in advancing—they have been written and debated for decades and some are valid, some not. Two factors seem obvious to me. 1) To expect one Brigade (the 185th) to capture a city the size of Caen was asking too much. 2) Had the impossible been achieved and the 185 gone into Caen they would have been slaughtered that night by the 21st Panzers and next day any survivors would have been eliminated by them and the 12th SS Panzers.
There was more than a skirmish between the Staffs and our own tanks on Periers Ridge. Col. Eadie had foreseen the likely German manoeuvre and with the aid of the Staffs Yeomanry, the KSLI, and the 41st Anti-tank Battery, he knocked out 13 Mark IV (Special) German tanks. The enemy retired to Lebisey.
I recall the M.O.'s halftrack being hit and the M.O. himself being wounded. This was Capt. W.R.C. Lang, RAMC, serving then with the 1st Royal Norfolks. Several of the regimental (not RAMC) stretcher-bearers were wounded at the same time. Capt. Lang was replaced from our ADS by Lt. Anderson. Capt. Lang was well known to us as he was originally with us at the ADS before the assault.
That evening we watched the Gliders cast off overhead and land a mile or two away. This was partly the reason for the retreat of a squadron of panzers which reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer. (They must have passed about one field away from our ADS.) Casualties came with the dark; Airborne men, infantry, tank-men. We received only 35 but there were severe wounds and we were glad to be doing the work for which we had been trained.
It was a noisy night for the Luftwaffe ventured out after dark and tried to bomb the two bridges, river and canal at Benouville. And artillery barrages continued. Most of all I remember the rushing noise like an underground train passing through a station as one of our battleships hurled one-ton shells at Caen. Morning dawned fresh and clear. It was D + 1; we were still alive—and surprised to be.
Tankers and infantry, Welshmen and Englishmen
I cannot recall any instances of friendship between amour and infantry as there was little or no intermingling out of the line—or even in it. Infantry required stealth and silence. Armour was perforce noisy. It was only in battle that the two came together.
Probably a majority of KSLI came from Shropshire. This is a border county with Wales so a Welshman [in the KSLI] would have felt at home. There was no tension between them—as there might have been between English and Scottish.
The KSLI were a close-knit unit, as were most others. Infantry, more than most, depend very much on each other in battle.
The KSLI were never given their full title but the initials were run together as ''kayesselies”.
Stress of handling casualty
I did not usually see men at the point of their being wounded, I saw more of them and in greater detail [than men at the front]. On July 8th, during operation “Charnwood” when Lebisey was finally taken, our ADS alone dealt with 466 British casualties and 40 Germans. They had every type of wound imaginable and on every part of their bodies.
I kept balanced by knowing that I was not inflicting these awful wounds but in life-saving and healing. (Madam Barrett [of Bieville], whom I never met, was engaged in the same task. She would have saved many 3rd Division lives and I like to think that I did, too.) And I used to pray about it and I never reached a point where I was in danger of going over the brink.
Many of us visit Normandy each June and recall those momentous days and share in services of Remembrance, meeting with men who were boys when we were boys and were pitched into the maelstrom of events. I knew the padre of the Green Howards, Tom Lovegrove, who died about a year ago. We must sound boring to younger people when they hear our, “Do you remember?”
I never had hatred for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht—the SS were a different matter—they were for the most part decent, brave, professionally better than English or American. They respected the Red Cross and even when our ADS was sandwiched between two gun batteries their artillery avoided shelling us deliberately. The times we were shelled were when we were so mixed with combatant troops that the whole ensemble was a legitimate target.
What do you tell young people of war?
I tell them of its waste, its pain, its lasting tragedy in bereavement, and yet its comradeship, its fortitude—and its inevitability when a situation is allowed to develop as it did in the Thirties. I am not popular with the younger pacifist Baptist Ministers when I ask how they would have stopped Hitler and halted genocide if the democracies had refused to fight.
I obtained permission from our C.O. to hold Gospel Services when possible, attendance voluntary. The congregation was usually twice the size before a battle! Related to what we called Slit-trench (foxhole) Religion. Everyone grumbled about everything at times, food , accomodation, weather, NCOs, officers, lack of mail, etc. yet in times of real danger complaints were few. There was a certain fatalism—"If it’s got your name / number on it, it’ll get you." Smoking was almost universal. I did not so exchanged my cigarette ration for boiled sweets. Most men were faithful to their wives and wrote them two or three times a week. They would help each other—“Can’t let your mates down” they would have said. Some became “exhaustion” cases (WW1 shellshock) but recovered in a day or two. Strangely, these were the “less imaginative” types.
I have always been glad to think that in Britain and Germany there are men in their 70s and 80s who have had 55 more years of life because I was at a certain place at certain time.
Like Luther’s “Hier steht ich…” Britain, even when standing alone in the 1940, “Here we stand. We can do not other. So help us God.”
Razor-blades were in short supply in wartime Britain and on the crossing from Newhaven to Normandy on June 5th, 1944 several of us made "verbal wills” leaving our accumulated few to one another in the event of either being killed, the overall survivor to get the Jackpot. In the event no one was killed and we kept our blades.
Gordon Buffard, studious bachelor then (and still in 1999) found landing up to his waist in four feet of icy sea-water off the North of Scotland in February not to his liking, invasion rehearsal not withstanding. O the day itself he climbed on to the outside of a tank and went ashore with dry feet but a perfect sitting target for snipers who were still in houses at along the shore at Lion-sur-Mer. That he was unscathed says much for the regard most Germans had for a Red Cross armband or pennon.
The motto of the RAMC at the foot of its badge is “In Arduis Fidelis” (Faithful in Difficulty) and we felt our first responsibility to be to our patients. When a man is wounded, and lying flat on a stretcher he presents a larger target than when standing up - that is, unless he is lying beneath the surface. In the event of heavy shelling starting up when we were treating a casualty we ensured that that his steel helmet was on his head and we placed our helmets to cover his chest. Probably not much use, except psychologically.
Our RSM (Regimental-Sergeant-Major) was regular army and then in UK rather contemptuous of us “conscripts”. In Normandy he showed another side and a fear almost amounting to cowardice. While he away from the ADS for an hour or two, heavy shelling took place and one of us threw two pieces of an exploded shell into his slit trench. When he returned, and found them he regaled anyone who would listen with the story of his “narrow escape”. He had the choice of staying in the front line and being considered for a commission - the acme of the professional soldier - or remaining RSM and being posted to a rear unit. He chose the latter.
Corporal George West was a kindly, gentle man in charge of a stretcher-bearer Section whose duty it was to pick up casualties from the Regimental Stretcher-Bearers at a particularly dangerous time and place. They were reluctant to go forward. He seized a pick-axe haft and threatened to use it on then if they did not. They went with him.
One of the Norfolks was brought in to us badly wounded in the neck and elsewhere. "Do your best for him," someone said, “He's a hero.” We evacuated him after treatment but he died back at Bayeux. At Soudeval he had stemmed an infiltration of 60 Germans single-handed. They awarded him a posthumous V.C. and I shared in the inauguration of a monument to him where he won it.
A young Nazi of the 12th Panzer Division was badly wounded and we began to rig up a a blood transfusion for him but he refused it. "It may have Jewish blood,” he said. Our ambulance orderly said he died on the way back to the CCS.
We were burying a young German at Nordhorn, Germany in April, 1945, when a woman and her two children came from the house opposite with a bunch of spring flowers “for your English comrade”. We explained that he was a “German comrade” and she snatched the flowers back. “I’m Dutch,” she said. (It was border country.) No flowers for a German.
Siegfried Sassoon, WW1 writer, says that on Nov. 11, 1918, he spent the day not in wild celebration but “sobbing, cursing, and thinking of the dead. At Delmenhorst, near Bremen, on May 8th, l945, I didn't curse.