John Nicholson: Combat experience – from the Normandy beaches to Germany

Frederick John Nicholson was born in London in about 1925. Not long before D-Day in 1944 when John was 19, he was called up to join the army and had to report to Canterbury from where he was sent to join the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. After battle school training as an infantryman, he was given embarkation leave. He was then sent to Market Rasen in Lincolnshire. From then on, his feet barely touched the ground. His kit was reorganised to equip him for battle – his battledress along with his haversack and light, etc. – and then he was given 50 rounds of ammunition and a bandolier. He travelled down to the south coast and was off to Normandy. He had thought he was going to the Far East as he had had malaria jabs and all sorts of things. He thinks this might have been a spoof to disguise where they really were going, but he didn’t really mind as there was a bit of bravado about it.

John landed in Normandy on 6 July 1944 a month after D-Day. The beaches were more organised by then. There were paths leading to tents where groups collected together. The paths had names such as Knightsbridge on them.

When John landed in the late afternoon, the men were then told to lie down under a hedge and get some sleep. The next morning he had very peculiarly tasting porridge for breakfast and realised it had salt in it, which it the way that Scottish people like it. After eating he was marched off to the tailors where he was told to take off his battledress and the Leicestershire badge, and it was replaced with the uniform of the 51st Highland Division of the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. He realised he was unexpectedly in a Scottish regiment. He thought it might have had something to do with his name, which is fairly common in Scotland.

After a few days in Normandy when some of the mates he’d been training with were killed, John came down to earth and realised what it was all about. Part of the time the men were making jokes and trying to forget about things. They didn’t want to dwell on what was happening, but when someone had to write to a family or mate of someone who had been killed, it was very difficult and terribly hard. It was so necessary to have a sense of humour. There were some humorous incidents. On one occasion John, as an infantry signalman, was laying a telephone cable near Arnhem when his mate, George, began to giggle. John didn’t know why until he turned around and found a billy goat taking an interest in his back. Many animals were left behind when people made their escape from the town when the Battle of Arnhem started. He thinks George would have stepped in if the two-horned goat had actually tried to butt him. After trampling through mud it was a relief to have a laugh. After the war whenever George went on holiday, he would find a postcard to send to John that featured a goat.

Soon afterwards John first made contact with the enemy. The Germans were entrenched in a small village just outside Caen called Tilly-la-campagne and were under attack. The village was being by the SS Panzer Division ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’. RAF planes supported the army by coming down at tree top level and giving the Germans all they had. It meant that many Germans were taken prisoners of war. John found them to be very arrogant. One of them wanted to assert himself with the Regimental Sergeant Major but found he had picked the wrong man when his opponent, who had been a boxing champion, soon made him hit the deck. Discovering how to get these arrogant soldiers down to size was a quick learning experience. It wasn’t long afterwards that these really hardened Nazi prisoners of war were shipped off and the British were dealing with very different people. One of them was Italian and looked as if he would rather make them a cup of coffee than fight. The British weren’t used to foreigners in those days, except for the Americans, and had to quickly learn to distinguish the different nationalities.

As an infantry signaller John had a ‘walkie talkie’ on his back and he could hear all that was going on. For example, he would hear ‘B company over there and another company here’. He could tell his comrades how the war was going.

A couple of weeks went by before they came face-to-face with the enemy at a place called Falaise – the famous Falaise Gap. The Germans were trapped there at what was a significant time in the war. When the heavy stuff started John and his comrades were hurrying along and saw an enormous tank, probably taken out by the RAF, at the side of the road with an 88 mm field gun on the turret. It was a Royal Tiger – the British had nothing like it. How it had been knocked out John didn’t stop to find out but it had a track missing and was on its side. John and his mates came under fire. The idea was that the men should hit the deck and get down when under fire. However, John learnt things from those who had done it before that they hadn’t taught you at the training camps. He learnt that when you hit the deck, you crawl and don’t stay there. As a signaller he had a sizeable tin box on his back with valves in and it could get disabled very quickly when it was hit. It was a speedy learning experience.

Not long after the early days in Normandy the army moved towards the River Seine. Crossing the river meant relieving Le Havre, Rouen and Paris. They turned north from the River Seine to get to Le Havre. The RAF did a good job softening up the defences, most of which were pointing out to sea. One large bomb fell on a bank and the Germans who were there helped themselves to quite a bit of money. John said that when they took prisoners they had to remove things that would help them to escape. They often found that the Germans had this money from the bank. It was returned by the British sometimes not so willingly, but it would have been no use to the British as it couldn’t be exchanged for sterling.

One of the worst parts of the war for John was being at the northern end of the Siegfried Line [a system of pillboxes and strongpoints along the western frontier of Germany] where the Germans were hiding in the trees. There were snipers in trees and, when John and his mates came under fire from higher positions, they were very vulnerable. There was nowhere to hide and it was very frightening. In general, John believed, soldiers always think it is going to happen to someone else not to them. On three occasions between Normandy and the end of the war, his rifle company came down to 35 or 40 out of 100 men. Many of the soldiers lost their lives. Until they moved out of the forest it was the worst and most dangerous bit. It was a good feeling when they finally moved out of there.

John carried a heavy load. Some kit for additional sleeping would be on three-ton lorries. He would have to carry a weapon, and stuff to keep it clean, plus sufficient ammunition; some people carried a grenade but he didn’t. They also needed basic equipment to feed themselves. The radio he carried had a battery, which would keep going for about 8 hours. This weighed a few pounds. The spare battery, plus bits and pieces, was carried by someone else. It probably weighed 50+ pounds in total. John was often with front line men at a maximum of 15–20 yards from the enemy. He had to be with the company commander and, if the commander went forward on reconnaissance, the signaller did too but at other times they were behind the front-line troops. If he got a message for ‘Sunray’ [the radio callsign given to any commander], he had to give it to his commander.

Very often the men slept out in the open. They would dig a slit trench and there would be two to three men in it, with one sleeping at a time while the others were on duty. It was tough on the third man if the commander ordered them to move before he had completed his allocated sleep time! Food was brought on a lorry or truck but, if it couldn’t get near enough, it would be brought on a Bren gun carrier to about 100 yards behind the line. Eight men at a time would go for the meal. Breakfast was always before dawn. If sandwiches arrived with breakfast the men knew they wouldn’t be having anything in the middle of the day. The evening meal was after sunset. Very often when the men thought they were going to get some rest and relaxation something would come up and it was cancelled.  

John was not actually involved in the Battle of Arnhem (17–26 September 1944) in the Netherlands where the plan was for the British 1st Airborne Division dropped near the town to meet up with the Guards’ Armoured Division driving up from Brussels. John had to get through to a group that had landed at Eindhoven and were pushing through to Nijmegen. They got stuck. John felt that the airborne drop was a little bit too soon. The people organising this attack should have given the troops on the ground an opportunity to get a bit closer and then they could have linked up with the airborne men and shortened the war. The gap was too much. It could have worked completely and they would have had a gateway into northern Germany but it went wrong. They had been making good progress and it was all well meant. Just the timing was wrong.

There were terrible winter conditions during the campaign in the Ardennes – also known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was bitterly, bitterly cold and, although the men had been putting dubbin on their boots for some time, the snow clung to them and penetrated, so the men had wet feet. They also found they couldn’t hide in a white background. By this time the Germans had had to pull back from Russia and so had white-painted weaponry to spare as their two fronts, one of which was in Poland, were getting closer together. The Allied Forces were trying to get to the town of La Roche. To the credit of the British ‘base chaps’ the men got a hot meal once a day; John and his mates were very proud of ‘base wallers’. The men were pulled out of the line a few days before Christmas to celebrate Christmas with Christmas pudding from a tin. One or two people had problems with frostbite but not like they had in the First World War. John’s father, who’d been a sergeant in the Essex Regiment, told John things about his army service in the First World War but that had been a very different war.

The Allies did not think the Germans had it in them to fight the Battle of the Bulge. It was their last throw of the dice and their last fling. The Germans had some good troops there and they put up a good resistance; then they turned and ran leaving their weapons but no ammunition, as it had probably run out. It appeared as though they were falling apart. There were one or two heavy skirmishes but no pitched battle. That came a bit later with a very heavily defended position.

After the Ardennes John and his comrades moved into Holland. The people there had suffered and starved. On one occasion, a little boy came running up to John, who gave him a sandwich from his mess tin. The boy thought it so valuable that he went running in to his house. Obviously he wanted to tell his family. Being occupied had been so hard for these people. The secret police were so frightening to the ordinary people. Britain hadn’t experienced anything like it. A Jewish man with his unit explained to John what his family had to go through in Germany and it wasn’t good.

John finished up in Germany near Bremen. He was on leave in England when the war peace was declared and remembered the great celebrations. He returned to Cuxhaven, a navy port where submarines had been. It was a different world. There were very hardened Nazis there walking with their heads drooping. The Germans were very worried in case the Russians got to them and were pleased when the British arrived. People in Frankfurt were pleased to see the Americans, especially when they brought goodies in their canteen and socialised well with the locals. A few weeks later the fraternisation ban began and they had to ignore them. The Germans said good morning but the Allied Forces could say nothing back. A lot of pretty girls would smile at the troops and they would smile back – a sign that the fraternisation law wasn’t working; it was repealed within a year or so.

An officer called Captain Scobie and John had become friendly while making their way to Germany and looked after each other. The Captain’s father was General Scobie, the commander in the Balkans. [Lieutenant-General Sir Ronald Scobie was a career soldier who commanded the British Forces in Greece.] One day Captain Scobie called John into his office to tell him that there was a family problem at home; John knew he was about to be told his parents had separated. The captain thought the best thing for John to do was get on to an instructor’s course for signallers at Catterick in Yorkshire. So an application was made to the War Office for him to get him posted to Catterick. Some months after the war had finished, he did this course at Catterick! Then Private Nicholson became Sergeant Nicholson and he became a sergeant instructor at Catterick where he finished his army career. His friend the Captain told him that it was a straight train ride from Catterick to London where his family was. Captain Scobie had been compassionate in enabling the change for John.

John was classified as ‘walking wounded’ twice. He received a ‘very small piece’ of shrapnel in his left arm, but it was considered better to leave it there as it was not giving him any bother. John felt it good advice and it always amused him and his wife when the alarm went off when he went through airport security.

John was asked if he felt there were any good points about the war. He replied that he had grown up in the East End of London where Jewish people outnumbered others and known so many of them. He felt he had done a good thing in rescuing if only a few Jewish people from the slave labour camps where many of his friends’ relatives were. He was reminded of the story of Anne Frank, which was for real and a bad, bad period in history.

There was a great sense of camaraderie in the army and he made some good friends. Whatever they had they shared and looked out for each other. One of them was Jimmy Quarrel who lived in Trinity Gardens, Canning Town, in London. He was a bit of a controversial man who emigrated to Australia after the war. The mates had fun with his surname.

Another close friend was Jimmy Shand. Unfortunately he died in the very last action they were in. He was one of the four men who worked together.

George Backhouse was a good friend too. He had died a few years before the interview took place. George was a Yorkshire man with a good sense of humour who could write very descriptive letters. He was the one who was with John when the billy goat nearly butted him. George, who worked for Rowntrees, had an allowance which enabled him when sweets were rationed to send some to John on a couple of occasions.

After being demobbed, John who was interested in sport but didn’t want to play football any more started to play badminton and tennis. In 1954 at a tennis club dance, his future wife Joyce Haynes asked him to dance. He hadn’t seen her at the club before as she had been involved in car accident and was only then ready to get back to tennis. Joyce was an excellent tennis player and they began to play mixed doubles together. They had a holiday in Paris in the summer and by the end of the year they were married and began life together in London where they both lived. They found a flat in Merton Park just outside Wimbledon; while there they saved like mad and bought a house in Malden just a little way away. The first of four children was born in Malden in 1959. They later moved out of London to Goring as they had spotted some nice houses there and wanted cleaner country air for their children. When trying to find the right secondary schools for their children, they moved in 1969 to Abingdon as it was central to the area John covered in his job. They had a lovely house on Oxford Road.

Husband, dad, grandad and great-grandad, John died peacefully on 1 February 2017 aged 92. A service of thanksgiving was held at Christ Church, Abingdon.

This account was transcribed from the recording of an interview with John and his wife Joyce by Tony Rogerson on 4 October 2012. Also present at the interview was Tony Gillman, a Club member and friend of John’s, who had suggested the Club should interview John about his wartime experiences.