Our Century

We knew they aimed for pilot'

Alf WilsonJune 6, 1944, was D-Day when hundreds of thousands of British, US and Canadian troops invaded Normandy to liberate occupied France.

Among them was Alf Wilson (right) of Bloxwich, a glider pilot, delivering a group of soldiers into a Normandy meadow. He recalls his part in one of the most important days of the 20th century:

"We all knew it was dangerous. We knew they always aimed for the pilot. Kill the pilot and you've killed the glider.

"You felt pride in your regiment and pride in your army. But it was what you trained for and what you got paid for. We trained very hard in the Glider Pilot Regiment. By the time we finished training I could land my glider on a sixpence - and it was huge, with an 88-foot wingspan.

Devastation in Brierley Hill
Devastation in Adelaide street Brierley Hill after a Halifax bomber crashed there in 1944

"My job on D-Day was to land my Horsa glider near the River Orne, inland from the invasion beaches in Normandy. We were towed from Brize Norton by a Halifax bomber. We cast off higher than I expected and I headed straight for the city of Caen, trying to lose speed and height. But there was a burst of ack-ack fire and it made a hole in the wing.

"I looked for somewhere to land. There were dozens of gliders already on the ground but I saw a spot and I was hedge-hopping towards it when suddenly there was one hell of a bang. Another Horsa had crashed into us from above. Hell of a bang.

"It was hinged in the middle and as it shot past I could see it beginning to open up. Thankfully, we both got down without any injuries.

"I was carrying a gun team and they unloaded. I made my way back to the invasion beaches. On the beach there were lines of British dead. I walked past to see if I knew anyone but I didn't."

All the big plans failed, but it could have been different'

Eric Brady of Penkridge has researched a litle-known escape by German prisoners-of-War from Camp 194 at Penkridge. This is his account:

"In December 1944 the general feeling was that the Second World War would soon be over. But the Prisoners-of-War in Camp 194 in Penkridge, close by the Wolverhampton-Stafford road, had other ideas.

"The hardliners were still convinced that, somehow, they would still win the war. The reports of German reverses broadcast over the Camp loudspeakers were dismissed as lying British propaganda.

"Encouraging them to plan escapes were rumours that there was a Plan' to co-ordinate them into something bigger. There was a plan for the mass escapes to capture weapons (including tanks and possibly planes) to link up as far north as Oldham and then swing southwards to attack London. Penkridge would have been on their route.

"At Penkridge the hardliners' determination to escape increased, fed by the news over their illicit radios of the initial successes of the Ardennes offensive.

"Under the cover of thick fog and noise created by other prisoners, 13 men slipped out of the huts, met by the wire and cut through it. They scattered in twos and threes. Not knowing how far they had got, the rest kept up the noise .

"The duty officer, well used to noisy POWs, wasn't worried at first, but as it went on he sent a squad of armed guards to make a hut-by-hut search.

"In spite of the obstruction given, they found 13 men had gone. Two were quickly recaptured in Wolverhampton, two more in Walsall, six in Derby and two in Liverpool. One disappeared and, apparently, had not been heard of again. "The morning after the escape a Luftwaffe officer led a mass escape attempt. Some armed with coal shovels, the POWs surged towards the gate. Halt,' bellowed the sergeant-major in command of the guards there. The order was ignored.

"They were only yards away when the sergeant-major levelled his Sten-gun to chest height. Prepare to fire,' he ordered the guards quietly.

"They aimed their rifles at chests. There were going to be no warning shots over heads. When I order - fire,' he shouted loudly, for all the PoWs to hear. Facing the unwavering guns the advance slowed and stopped.

"Get back to work,' snapped the sergeant-major. They did. Despite the escape failures and then the collapse of the Ardennes offensive, the POWs were determined to try again. This time through a tunnel. And for 100 of them to go. For months they dug, aiming to go during Easter 1945.

"But early on Easter Sunday the guards moved into Hut 4 again, going straight to the tunnel entrance under a bed.

"With only a couple of feet left to dig, the plan had been to break out that same night. All the big plans had failed. The Ardennes offensive, the mass escape by POWs, the attack on London. But so easily, so much could have been different."

Jack PritchardNever had I seen such intense firepower' Some official records claim that the US 82nd Airborne Division seized the crucial bridge at Nijmegen in the ill-fated battle for Arnhem in northern Holland. Not so, says former Grenadier Guardsman Jack Pritchard of Willenhall.

The bridge fell to a troop of tanks of two Grenadier battalions, a feat now recorded on a plaque at the scene. He recalls:

"Why hadn't the Americans captured the bridge? Why did they give us the false information that the equipment for blowing the bridge was in the post office? Were they planning to blow the bridge themselves from that position, to save their own troops in case the German annihilated the British at Arnhem?

"The tank of Lieutenant Prescott spearheaded our attack.

"Never in my experience of previous battles, had I seen such intense firepower as there was on the streets of Nijmegen that day.

"The nearer we came to the bridge, the more resolute became the opposition.

"My luck ran out. The force of the bullets hitting my legs and right arm flung me headlong through an open doorway, my Tommy-gun spinning to the other side of the room.

"It was some time later, and with great difficulty, that I was able to struggle to one foot. I was stretchered on to a Dakota aircraft and flow to Brize Norton in England.

"After several operations in the military hospital at Stratford-upon-Avon for the extraction of scraps of German metal from my arm and leg, I was finally allowed out of bed.

"On the day I was permitted out of hospital for the first time, with the help of an orderly, I made my way to the banks of the River Avon.

"It was here that, one at a time, I threw 30 rounds of Tommy-gun ammunition into the flowing waters. It was a symbolic gesture, for never again was I to handle lethal ammunition."

From Jack Pritchard's book, From Dunkirk to Nijmegen (Force & Corporate).

News in brief: On a visit to Wolverhampton School of Art in July, top designer Norman Hartnell predicted that women would soon be wearing clothes made from parachute silk.

Wolverhampton's Major General Sir Donald Banks was revealed as the man responsible for the latest flame throwers used by British troops.

A Cannock man was fined under the Official Secrets Act for showing classified items to his chums.

Sir David Wright
It isn't just a club with a history, it's a club with a huge following, not just in this country, but globally..

Scottish Oats Ad