Robert Govan (middle) in Bramshott Camp, near Haslemere, Surrey, England, where he was paid 25 cents an hour to pick and bag potatoes, summer 1942.Robert Govan
Robert Govan (third from right), stacking ammunition in preparation for an attack outside Dunkirk, France on January 20, 1945.Robert Govan
The 3.7 anti-aircraft gun on which Robert Govan worked, being set up near Cleve, Germany, March 1945.Robert Govan
Robert Govan and his comrades preparing to move a 3.7 inch gun, Belgium,1945.Robert Govan
Pontoon Bailey Bridge crossing the Rhine River between Wesel and Emmerich in Germany, March 1945.Robert Govan
"When it quits and the guns stop firing, you’re not enemies anymore."
When I joined up, I wanted to go in artillery, but I didn’t join the 2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft [Regiment], but I got to England. Being on… V-1s [rockets] stood out quite vivid because we were just out, we had no buildings, we had no shelter, we had nothing, we were just out about four miles from Dover in England. And the English, the ones that were on the guns, were from the Eighth Army and they were pretty well men that was played out. They weren’t much good for military service.
When you went on the guns on ‘Doodlebug Alley’ [in South London], you went on for 24 hours at a time. They relieved you every 24 hours. So we went on there because these men were playing out. That’s really the main reason we were down there. They usually started about 5:30 in the evening. And then they came over mostly from 6:00 until about 8:00. Not too many during the night, but some during the night. They were all the V-1s. They had a motor that shot flame out the back. So you could see them quite plainly at night. Well, we weren’t allowed to go into air raid shelters. That was for civilians. You know, they had trenches dug around in different cities and places we were supposed to go into, but we weren’t supposed to go into an air raid shelter the civilians were all in.
We had to go down the English Channel to go to France, and they were shooting from Cap Gris-Nez across to England, and also they would shoot at the ships when we were going down the Channel until they put up so much smokescreen, the Allies did, that they couldn’t see where we were. And then we landed with landing craft because the boats couldn’t get in close to shore, but you know, the fighting was back far enough so that when we landed, there was no problems for us.
And then we moved up to Falaise. Then from Falaise, well, we went up to places like Boulogne, Calais and I think places like that all up the west coast of France. Well, I was called a fuse setter. I’d set fuses on shells. I’d prepare shells ready for firing and I’d set fuses. Also, when I wasn’t setting fuses, quite often I was loading the guns. We fired nearly all air bursters. We tried to burst them in the air, just above the ground a little bit, so they would spread out. And set fuses and load guns, that’s about all, and maintain it. I spent three years on one gun so I kind of got to know what it was like. Oh, the gun that I was on, that was a [QF] 3.7 [inch AA] gun. It’s just called a 3.7.
Our extreme range was 14 miles. And it took nine men for a crew. And we had to dig them in all the time. And if there was a regiment of us, of 24 guns, and you know, that was modern times, and we had 275 shovels. You dug your gun in, then you dug your slit trench alongside, then you went back a little bit behind and you dug a hole to sleep. The hole where you slept in, you tried to cover it up with planks and then get some dirt. Usually it was a door off of some poor farmer’s house that went over the top. Then you put dirt over that to sleep in.
At night sometimes, we used to fire on what we called a time on target. So the infantry could try to get some sleep. Our whole line would just fire one shell, then you’d wait maybe half an hour and fire one more, just to keep them on edge, on the other side, so that they never knew when you were going to fire. And you might be firing 25 miles long, every gun, exactly at the same time.
It’s the loudest thunder you ever heard. And actually, when we heard it quit, you never heard anything so quiet, nobody talked, they just sat down. You know, the pressure’s great and when that pressure was off, well, you just sit down, you don’t even talk amongst yourselves. And for two days after, we slept because we were too tired. Can you understand that, no celebration or nothing? Where we were, you’re just so tired that you went to sleep. When it quits and the guns stop firing, you’re not enemies anymore. Do you get what I mean? Where we were, it was all Wehrmacht, that’s the guys in the German army that just as soon be at home and didn’t want to be in the army. You know, they’re not fanatical or nothing. And they were getting tired. They were very, very tired and dirty and they had no food hardly, the German troops. And they were in bad condition. In fact, we almost felt sorry for them because how are you going to go home, you might be 200 miles from home, there’s no transportation, you’ve got no wages, you’ve got no food and no place to sleep. And nobody wants you.