The long way to VE Day

John Bower was in Zwolle, Holland for VE Day with his regiment, but it was a long journey for him to get there.

John was 16 when war broke out, and he joined his father (who had served in the First World War) in the Home Guard. He was told “this will all be over by the time you’re old enough to fight.” 

Of course it wasn’t and when he was old enough, John joined the tank division after failing entry to the RAF because he was colour blind. Training began in April 1942, first at Bovington where he practised firing the big guns at targets out at sea, then around Salisbury Plains. John was a radio operator and gun loader.

With a shell in the barrel, one on his knee and one by his feet they could fire three shots before the first one hit the ground (that speed was only possible in a training situation though). John trained in Covenantors, Crusaders and Valentines, then about three months before D-Day they were given Shermans. The main advantage Shermans had over German tanks was their agility, being able to traverse ground quicker. Before they crossed the channel the tanks had to be waterproofed and to test this they were driven through a pond.

When the tank drove onto the beach at Normandy (the first time he’d left the country) they plugged in a charge which blasted off the waterproofing. The noise was so loud John thought they’d been hit. Whilst in France they were involved in a street fight in Lisieux. Three tanks, with John at the back, were travelling down the street when they were hit from behind by a bazooka. All the tanks went up in flames, so John and his driver Jimmy got out and ran down the street.

 

They were shot by German troops as they ran, Jimmy through the back and John on the side of his head, but despite this they made it back to their regiment and were flown home. Everyone else was killed, and their company was terminated as they had lost too many men and all of their tanks. Once John recovered he returned to his regiment, travelling across Europe by himself to meet up with them. When he arrived he was given his Sergeant stripes back (if you'd had them for fewer than six months you lost them, but an officer overruled this).

John and Jimmy remained friends for the rest of Jimmy’s life. John has been back to Normandy with his regiment, plus Holland and Belgium. Last August he returned to St Aignan de Cramesnil which his regiment liberated in 1944. It’s the 3rd or 4th time they’ve been back. He’s sold poppies in Marlborough for many years, and his son Brian places crosses at Westminster Abbey every November. John will be attending the Westminster Abbey service for VE Day with Brian on Sunday 10th May.

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