Veteran Stories:
Jack Armitage

Army

  • Photo of Jack Armitage in 2010 with his Medals.

  • A message to Jack Armitage for distiguished service, March 22 1945.

  • Photo of Jack Armitage and his comrades in the British Army.

  • Photo of Mr. Armitage with his comardes.

    Courtesy of Jack Armitage
  • Photo of Mr. Armitage when he joined the British Army in 1939.

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"But that’s war. Stupid. That’s what it is. You kill off and badly injure your young people, and the old ones sit back and tell you how to do it."

Transcript

You learned to live very, very rough. And medical facilities were non-existent. No such a thing as antiseptic and washing your hands and all that kind of business – good Lord, I didn’t have a bath for what, nine years? Just, I mean, most of the time from landing in Normandy to finishing the war, I was in Holland, I never even took my boots off. You just lived that way. If you wanted to wash, you’d take your jacket and shirt off and that was it. No such a thing as showers or baths, unheard of.

But I was alive. I was alive for my age now. I look back and I wonder how I managed it. But I did, I survived. The noise is just unbelievable. Fortunately, most of the thing was stuff going from us to them. But then again, there was stuff going from them to us and you couldn’t tell the difference to begin with. Eventually, you learned how to distinguish between one weapon and another weapon. Very quickly you learnt that. But to begin with, it was very terrifying, the noise was just tremendous.

And every explosion, of course, you thought you was going to be part of it. And there was a lot, a lot of shelling and mortaring and airbursts that spread shrapnel all over the place. Mortars which you hear coming. (noise), that’s the sound as they come down. But they’re terrible anti-infantry, they land, they don’t dig into the ground to where a shell will go in like that and then the blast comes up like that. But with a mortar, it just lands on the ground and explodes 360 degrees of very fine, small shrapnel pieces. Terrible stuff it was, it’s deadly against the infantry. That’s where it’s meant, of course.

And there was a lot of that and then you start to recognize the difference between a Bren gun and a Spandauinfantry and the Schmeiser and the Sten gun and so on. But to begin with, it’s very, very frightening and you don’t know what’s going to happen next kind of thing. And I was able to do my job and at times, it was very bloody. But it was the job. But it never bothered me. I mean, some people, they see blood and they faint kind of thing. You couldn’t do that with my job because it was so very, very bloody. Friends that you knew and so on, they were all alive when they left us but many died from wounds. We lost about 220 out of a battalion of 900. Killed that is. We had over 1 000 go through us before the end of the war, from June through to May, 1 000.

Sometimes it was just impossible to, I can’t describe it. Especially the first big battle, which was on June 18, at a place just between Cristot and, what was it, Fontenay-le-Pesnel. And we were fighting for a hill 102. And what had happened was the Sixth Battalion, I was in the Seventh Battalion, and the Sixth Battalion, what was left of them after casualties, they had so many, they just turned and ran. And we were ordered to retake that hill, at all costs. And that’s a frontal assault, which is the worst of all. And we lost 200 men that day, attacking that hill. It was Sunday afternoon, June 18th. And if you’re a historian, you know that that’s the Battle of Waterloo day, Duke of Wellingtons we were. So it was a day when, you know, Duke Wellington’s very celebrated but this was a day when we had to retake this position that the Sixth Battalion had lost. And we did, and we paid for it.

That Sunday afternoon, I never will forget as long as I live I don’t think, just like a charnel house, you know. We had 20 bomb-happies, which the First World War, they called them shell shock, and in the Second World War, they called them battle exhaustion cases. But they were completely useless. They were curled up on the floor sucking their thumb or something like that. There was one old soldier and he was going around with his bayonet stabbing the ground. We had 20 of them. We never had that again after that. Once a battalion gets bloodied, as they called it, it calms down an awful lot. With the assumption that it’s going to happen to him, it’s not going to happen to me. You know. When it does happen to me, I’m very very frightened, they want to get out of action as quick as possible. Still alive, after being wounded, still alive, get me out of here. And that’s what we had to do, get them out and get them away as quick as possible. Sometimes very difficult, very difficult.

But that’s war. Stupid. That’s what it is. You kill off and badly injure your young people, and the old ones sit back and tell you how to do it.

Well, there was a very intimate moment happened in Normandy. Now, I’ve told this and some people don’t believe and some do. But we were at a village called Cagny, which is just after Caen had been captured by the 51st Highland Div. and one of the Canadian div, I think it was the Second, I’m not sure. But they captured, they had a lot of casualties. So we relieved the 51st Highland Div on the morning and it was a perfect time to leave, because there was a ground fog. The unfortunate thing that halfway through the changeover, the fog lifted and Germans were sitting on the hill, looking right down on the plain, which is outside of Caen. They shelled us unmercifully.

Anyway, we eventually got an RAP established, not far from the village, just where the wall to the village started and there was trees there so we could move and couldn’t be seen, you see. And right opposite 30 yards away from us on the corner of the field was a German 88-millimetre abandoned, with a whole pile of ammunition. And I’d been down into the village for some reason, I don’t know what. And I came back to go across and there was four tankers, the guys with the black berets, tank crews, loading ammunition into this truck. I guess they’d gotten an 88 [millimeter] of their own and were going to give the Germans some of their own back.

So I thought, oh, I’ll go and help them. And a voice said, don’t go. Now, there was nobody anywhere near – what am I saying, there wasn’t anyone in sight except those four tankers. They were a good 50 yards away from me. I thought, I’m hearing things, so I went a little step and a sterner voice said, don’t go! So I thought, okay, and I went and got in my slit trench, and just as I got in my slit trench a shell, a German shell, hit this pile of ammunition and blew those four guys to eternity. It would have been me too.

And I spoke to the pastor about it and he said, God spoke to you. And one or two people, padres I’ve spoke to since said the same thing. So it was God. I said, so, well why me, I mean, why, what’s so special about me, why should he speak to me, not to them? Presumably that happened. That was, I would say it was the end of July or beginning of August, I’m not sure now, all the days are alike.

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