The stories behind the story
Dramatic and poignant highlights from a number of letters that Private Fred Zilken sent to comrade Wilf Shaw over a number of years after WWII. Fantastic number of army best kept secrets!
Comrade Wilf Shaw talks about Fred a lot in his own memoirs of WW2
Fred Zilken proudly wears the 50th Infantry Division TT badge, denoting the catchment areas of the battalion - the Rivers Tyne, Tees and Humber.
"I didn’t get far before Jerry had me in range and dropped a few mortars all around me. I froze, as each bomb seem to get nearer. I could feel the heat off them as they exploded …
In the hot desert, while on guard, some of us drank the rusty water from the radiators of the Bren Gun carriers. I would lie on my back - mouth under the drain plug of the carrier!
6th Green Howards
Wilf said about the photo above: "This was the dress issued to us prior to going to the Middle East war in 1941. We never wore any of it, just like all the morse sending and receiving we did, we never used it, all I can remember was using field telephones and the 18 set.
On this photo, my mate Fred Zilken is far right standing, I have many letters which he wrote to me up to a few years ago, great lad was Fred, he succumbed to Parkinsons in the end. He tried to the end to write to me; only one other on the photo I can remember by name, "Nobby Clements" second right seated, wonder if any friends or relatives of those I knew see this website, I would love to hear from one or two of them.
Enlarged photo of Fred shown next to the sketch, drawn by pal Mitch. Not a bad likeness, Mitch!
Fred top right. Part of signal platoon outside Marston House, Frome, Somerset, England, April 1941 - WW2
Above: Magnificent photo of Stan Hollis.Left: Video of Gold beach showing where the Green Howards stormed ashore towards "Stan Hollis Hut" mentioned in the show.
FT Episode 26 - The Zilken Letters – A veteran reminisces
More great unpublished history!
For security reasons, there are no known photos of Fred Zilken but I’ve managed to get hold of a very mysterious looking sketch of him which you can find in the shownotes. I daren’t say anymore because as Wilf Shaw admitted in a previous show “I’m still afraid of the long arm of the law!”
If you want to hear Fred’s SECRET WWII revelations and the story behind the sketch of him, listen in now to Episode 26 “The Zilken Letters!”
I’m Paul Cheall, son of Bill Cheall, whose WWII memoirs have been published by Pen and Sword – in FTFDTH. The aim of these podcasts is to give you the stories behind the story. You’ll hear first-hand memoirs and memories of veterans connected to Dad’s war in some way – and much more.
I hope no-one had minded my having a bit of fun with all the mystery about this episode but I found that sketch of Fred Zilken just irresistible. He looks like some enemy spy, all pensive with his distant expression and the TT insignia. Fred was actually a British soldier and we’re going to hear highlights from a number of letters that he sent to comrade Wilf Shaw over a number of years after the war.
In all honesty, though, the letters do contain quite a few startling revelations one or two of which could have genuinely got people in serious trouble had they been known at the time of happening. More in a minute, so do stay with me to enjoy some more great unpublished history.
Michael Nibbi - Facebook - I just finished listening to this. Amazing and heartwarming. I love hearing these memoirs, as ince both my grandfathers served during ww2. One in the pacific the other in Europe. I never got to hear their stories. Thank you
Thank you Michael for posting that compliment and contribution to the show.
Faye Pineda on Facebook
I’ve been listening to your podcast for a few months now and I absolutely love it. It is so exciting and humbling to listen to the stories of such brave souls. I can’t get enough of Wilf Shaw. He's always got a joke.
I have to say I've enjoyed the hell out of your show thus far. Really riveting stuff! I was raised on the island of Portland, and many of the guys who left for France on D-day left from nearby Weymouth and the naval base there!
I get chills thinking about those young men who had the guts to get up in a firefight and give it right back to Jerry.
My family emigrated to Australia in 1989. It's a shame as I would loved to have had access to some of the WW2 sites as my interest and appreciation grew!
My great grandfather was one of the last men to be evacuated from Dunkirk!!
Keep up the great work
Tristan James, Australia via Facebook
Just a very brief follow up from Episode 26 when Theresa Stoker mentioned her father Corporal Jock Stewart. These are just a couple of interesting tit bits that Theresa added later:
I suspect Dad was at Dunkirk on the beaches. When I was young and we went the beach, Dad used to watch me like a hawk when I was in the sea. And one day I said to him to come in the water and he said that the last time that he went in he nearly never came back up! WW2
And my Dad’s sister told me that Dad and another soldier accompanied Rudolf Hess from Maryhill in Glasgow police station to London by train - Dad was from Maryhill. Wow Theresa how’s that for 15 minutes of fame to add to the six years your Dad fought as a hero?
Whilst I’m on about words used in previous episodes, you may enjoy a wry smile when you hear me ask if you’ve noticed me using the word shufty a few times here and there. Of course shufty was brought into the show a while back by Sgt Doug Gray talking about a shufty kite so I decided to use it a few times since then just for fun.
Fred Zilken and Wilf Shaw were good pals, both in 6 Batt Green Howards. In the signal platoon at various times, sometimes, fighting, sometimes repairing lines. They spent a lot of the war together and that included Alamein, Sicily and Normandy amongst other things.
After the war they went their own ways but kept in touch and in the early 90’s Fred and Wilf exchanged many letters.
There’s only the one bit of backstory I’ll mention right now and that’s about Marston House in Frome, Somerset, England and it’s a country house where troops were billeted in 1941 before they went abroad. There’s plenty about it in Wikipedia but one story I’ve heard of is about US troops driving jeeps up and down the staircases at some point during the war!
WW2 podcast contd
SO, this show is looking at Fred’s letters, sometimes responding to reminiscences from Wilf, but mostly pulling new memories of his own out of the ether or from diaries he’d written.
I’ve sometimes tried to bring common threads together but everything won’t be in perfect historical order any more than Fred’s letters were.
I’ll let Wilf himself introduce Fred:
“I have many letters which Fred wrote to me up to a few years ago, great lad was Fred, he succumbed to Parkinsons eventually. He tried to the end to write to me.”
Listener Wilf has mentioned Fred enough in his previous stories for us to know he thought a lot about him. This is a short section of one of my previous interviews with Wilf, which you can find in episode 23.
Tribute from wilf
Thanks Wilf, now over to Fred …
Listener, I’m mostly going to read this as if it is Fred himself who’s talking. So close your eyes and picture this brave old hero of a veteran whilst he tells things like they were …
Yes I do remember Jimmy Hannah - his brother did get the V.C. but not posthumously - I think he beat out flames with his bare hands in his Lancaster bomber on its way back from a raid on Germany. Jimmy Hannah I recall - when we were at a billet - a hotel overlooking Studland Bay on the South coast - I remember he used to put a C.S.M.'s crown on his sleeve before he went into town at night! Whatever happened to him?
That Escaut Canal caper of yours you wrote about - wasn’t that where we were going across in a small row boat - I got across OK but then the boat sank and the others had to swim across! Some do!
About Sicily Wilf - when we were at that billet 'Castel Silipen' - whatever the name was -you've got the photo Wilf - a chap - a private in the platoon, did a drawing of me - side view, just head and neck. Forage cap and 'TT' flash on shoulder - done in pencil and he signed it 'Mitch'. I've still got the drawing - found it amongst my army bits and pieces. I got a frame from Woolworths just recently for it.
I don’t know what happened to Mitch. I can't even remember what he looked like!
About that Sicily incident Wilf. Did you know that a lot of Scots in a Scots Reg on their way to Italy refused to pick up their kit etc. and march from the transit camp. They were like ourselves - casualties from the desert, and were being used as reinforcements for the Italian 'do'.
Some had the M.M. and all they wanted was to get back to their wives and girlfriends. They were all 'Court Martialled' and two or three were sentenced to be shot! Later they had their sentences commuted. Anyway that was the only mutiny recorded in the British Army during World War II!
I saw the TV program on the mutiny Wilf. Thought you or I could have been in that position - we were lucky. I think in my case I would have landed up at Monte Casino and you know what that was like! (I remember that song we used to sing 'Bury me out in the desert' etc.
Another incident I recall Wilf - during the Normandy campaign - we were moving up in our Mortar Carriers - God knows where we were but mortar shells from the Germans were dropping all around us and two of our Sergeants - don’t
WW2 podcast contd
recall their names, decided they had had enough and retreated! Later I heard they were caught and were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment! They’d be out now wilf – 1944-64. For myself I was scared to death of being 'up front' but even more scared of running away!
Wadi Akarit WW2
Another thing, Wilf - that Wadi Akarit 'do' in Tunisia - me and Jimmy Wilson were with 'D' Coy - as we were advancing against those Italian (I think it was 'D' Coy!) positions - Jim was carrying the 18 set I was operating and carrying the batteries - as we advanced, across this open ground - shells - mortar shells - were dropping around like rain!
I said to Jim, let's make a run for it - get into a slit trench but then a mortar bomb shell, landed - must have been at our feet!! A deafening explosion and I felt a sharp paid in my top right hand and thigh and at the same instant, I saw Jimmy riddled with shrapnel crumple to the floor! I could do nothing for him!
Ever since that day Wilf, I've often thought - Why did I only get one piece and Jimmy got death! There was just 2 feet between us (Jimmy had lengthened the lead between the 18 set and batteries, just a couple of days before whilst we were 'moving up'. I can't understand how Jimmy was killed and I got away with just one piece of shrapnel. (It's still in my back - I didn’t know this until I went for an x-ray for an appendix operation!)
We spent Christmas Day '41 in Iraq, near Kirkuk didn’t we? When we left Kirkuk - I was put on a charge for not lifting some 200 ft of cable from ground that was solid mud (remember the rain came down like 'stair rods') - I cut it off! What could I do! I did a week's 'pack drill' in Cyprus for my sentence! The Sgt who in charge of pack drill took us behind a hill and we sat down and relaxed! He was a good bloke, a real Sgt!
What were we doing up there in Iraq? We motored down from Iraq through Syria etc, God knows where we were and arrived in the Gazala line around 2 Feb 1942. It was here that Ginger Wright had a do with a Sgt Major, can’t remember his name, we were digging a hole for a cookhouse and the Sgt Major had a pick and was able to pull down lots of earth, much more than Wright could shovel out.
WW2 podcast contd
Wright got mad because he couldn’t shovel out more earth and threatened to hit the SM with his shovel – and he did. The SM turned around and asked if anyone had seen Wright do this but nobody said a word! It’s sad to learn that Ginger Wright is dead now – and Woods.
Thirst in the desert WW2
About the desert Wilf. At night, listening to the tins of petrol in the dumps when on guard - contracting and ping-ponging and making that noise and when on guard getting dug in under the tarpaulin covering the emergency rations and drinking the tins of 'Carnation' milk.
Also - I think some of us - I know I did - drank the water from the radiators of the 'Bren Gun Carriers'. Laying on my back - mouth under the drain plug of the Carrier! Some blokes used the hollow aerials of their 18 sets to syphon the water from the 44 gal drums in the emergency dumps. I could have got shot for that!
What about the Khamseen - that great cloud of sand and wind that engulfed us from ground to sky and the mirages we saw.
Where is all my kit - somewhere in the desert on that retreat from Gazala.
All those knocked out tanks. The lorries, the armoured cars, the graves - the mines, thousands we laid. I often think, out there now, all is quiet, the spirits of all the gallant men who were killed there. I wonder if all the tanks, trucks etc. were collected up - all the mines lifted?
Wilf, you had a rough time there at Alamein. I was lucky, I missed Alamein. I got a dose of 'jaundice' - something to do with the infection of the kidneys or liver - so I was in hospital!
I re-joined the Btn at Benghazi! I also missed the landing on Sicily because this time I was in hospital after being wounded at Wadi Akarit. So I was luckier than you. By the way, April 6th coming up, or maybe gone by the time you get this - the 48th anniversary! [Listener it’s now the 74th anniversary – Fred wrote this in 1991!]
By the way Wilf, I’ve still got that Italian Bayonet you gave me – you got it off an Italian prisoner. I think you used it for an earth pin for the phones we used, remember?
Stan Hollis WW2
Now about C.S.M. Stan Hollis. Do you know Wilf, Stan Hollis was a corporal in France 1940 - he was a despatch rider and I remember him come roaring in to our different positions, giving the officers and Coy etc. directions about where the Germans were!
I didn’t really realize this until long after the War when I thought back to France 1940. He was promoted to C.S.M. after Dunkirk. He was a real S.M. - one of the lads off duty. Sadly he died quite young around 1970 I think and his family had to sell his V.C!
Perhaps I could tell you of France 1940. How as a Labour Btn. we met up with the Germans etc. How I was found asleep on guard by the second in command of the Btn. And was put on 'Coy Office' the next morning!
How we had our first baptism of fire and how we, with only rifles and 50 rounds of ammo, fired on the Germans at a range of 400 yards!
We had no mortars, no Brens - no anti-tank rifles - we did have a Lewis Gun - a 1914 18 one - it used to jam up after a few rounds! One time I was left with a Lewis Gun on my own, as a rear guard action out in the middle of nowhere - Jerry didn’t turn up - thank goodness!
I was on my own once or twice up the desert - but way out in front of our positions in a 'sanger' - a listening post. All I had was a bloody rifle and 50 rounds - all on my own - listening for Germans!! I was bricking it!
I retreated on my own - and I'm still here!
Call up WWII
Your 'calling up' date Wilf - I wasn’t in France then - we were chased out, on the 31st of May 1940! Anyway you went to 'Plumer' Barracks, Plymouth and just up the road from there was 'Seaton' Barracks - remember? Well that's where I was 'called up' to.
Me and George Suzuki - as we went through the guard house we were given a number - George 4617-989 and mine four later at 993 and (I wonder who the three blokes were and whether they got through the War and where they are now! - nos. 4617990-91-92?
I do get the usual aches and pains - as the song goes 'Some days are diamonds, some days are stone, some days troubles won't leave me alone!'
You know Wilf about TV. Those blokes firing those automatic rifles etc. into thin air. I reckon they did that for the cameras - as you say Wilf it was very rare for us to fire at random - I reckoned they would have charged us for the rounds!! Anyway, we were told not to fire like that in 1940 in France- the first person I saw killed was in France '40. A French soldier running for cover just behind me was blasted as he ducked behind a tree. We lost quite a few of our blokes there in 1940!
Tribute to Wilf
You were never in a panic Wilf, I remember when you came over to the Mortars you were composed and didn’t give a damn about enemy shells or Mortars! You were always a rebel Wilf and it was those types of blokes who won this bloody War for us - if it had been for me, the War would have been going now! You were always getting 28 days for something or another Wilf - you were a soldier. They (whoever they were!) said you wasn’t a soldier until you'd been wounded at least once - you qualified Wilf twice over!
A Soldier's WW2 comforts
I remember the newspaper 'Crusader' and 'Reader's Digest'. Do you know Wilf, I never played cards, drank or smoked until I think we arrived in Egypt or thereabouts. At one time Wilf, whilst we were under fire, I used to smoke three cigs at a time - one I was puffing - one ready lit and one out of the packet ready! I'd never had a beer until we were overseas - must have been around 'Gazala'. Remember 'Gazala' Wilf? First time we were in the 'Line'!
I'm still reading your type-written biograph Wilf - I've just got to the part about Peter McKenna. If I'm sadly right he was on leave with me and some others here in Tooting before D-Day and he died of wounds in Normandy. He was with a company Commander - what Coy. I don’t recall.
Do you know Wilf once in the desert we got a ration. Looking at my diary of Sat Feb 27th 1943 it was a NAAFI ration per man - 5 bars choc, 180 Woodbines, 1 tube toothpaste, 1 tin Condensed Milk, I tin meat and beans, 1 tin Andrews Salts, 10 packets of book matches, 1 tin boiled sweets, 2 tablets soap and extras we got 2 bars choc, 2 packets biscuits, 2 bags sweets and 1/2lb tea, large tin fruit, 1 tin blacking, 1 tin Ideal milk.
By the way Wilf did you ever get to Cairo on leave, you must have had some leave, after you came out of hospital at different times? I got 7 days leave from that transit camp (more like a Concentration Camp!) hitched a lift to Cairo and met up with a bloke - private who said he'd just come back from behind the lines in Greece!
Anyway he knew his way around, and he knew Cairo etc. I noticed his shoulder flashes - a winged dagger! It wasn’t until the S.A.S. was mentioned in different situations not so long ago that I realised he was an S.A.S. man! So the S.A.S. must have been formed during the War.
The 18 set
I liked your story about the 18 set - what about those 38 sets and the 46 sets. What did we do with those sets after we landed Wilf - you know on 'D' Day? As I remember they had 2 set wavebands, how did you land and who with, on 'D' Day Wilf? I was with the Mortar Pltn, Capt Lee - whatever happened to him?
Our carrier touched down, beached at 0820 hrs - 'H' hour as 0730 hrs for the Coys. Do you remember McAllister - he was a bloke who never swore or drank etc. but he nearly blew his top and cursed and blinded and stamped his feet as he stood and watched us ride out of that Camp near Winchester to embark on the LCT’s.
He was left behind for some reason and he wanted to be there with us! Whatever happened to him? I think you were with the Anti-Tank Platoon Wilf? I always remember our first target - a barn! We blew it to pieces! There was no one in it! Do you know Wilf we fired an average of 200 bombs a day from when we landed, to when we withdrew from Bemmel up there in Holland
What relief that was - everything packed on our Bren Carriers - I really liked those Carriers - they could bowl along at 60mph at times but track pins were in short supply and our tracks would come off - the pins held the tracks together - suddenly we'd lose a track and stop! We’d have to push the Carrier back onto the track and use nails to secure same!
I'd like to visit those places Wilf - wouldn’t you? Nijmegen, Elst, Bemmel. Do you remember seeing the German Rocket Plane bomb the bridge at Nijmegen. They have one of these planes in the Science Museum here in London.
Do you remember how you used to repair those 38 sets - paint the ammo boxes etc. up there in Holland.
Do you remember that house we were at Bemmel in Holland? The Electric Light was still on and we laid the table in the kitchen and cooked rabbit.
One night a German Nebelwerfer threw over 10 rockets straddling the house, and you and me dived down into the cellar with our phone and we all but fell down the Cellar steps taking the phone with us remember! We were pulled up with a jerk because the line wouldn’t reach!
Did you ever see a Nebelwerfer Wilf? I saw one at the 'War Museum' here in London - six barrels in a circle fired electrically from a distance.
They were originally for smoke shells!
Then going out of that cellar to mend the Coy lines - Uch! Never knowing when a mortar shell was going to come over. You couldn’t hear the damn things coming until they hit the ground - you just heard that swish - too late!
Do you know Wilf we fired on average 200 bombs a day from Normandy to Bemmel.
And do you recall that awful night when we had three mortars on 'stand by' to cover a patrol coming back from the recce patrol - we were to fire 60 rounds around midnight if they got into trouble (this was Normandy) The patrol got back OK but the order came through from B.H.Q. to fire off the rounds!
I 'stood by' on the phone in a bloody deep hole and No.1 mortar fired. Then No.2 then No. 3 mortar fired but the bomb hit the overhanging branches of a tree and blew it up and caught all the mortar bombs primed lying around - flames shot up into the night sky and bombs were going off in all directions!
Only one casualty Sgt Law. He was killed - he was standing near my slit trench with me on the phone! In my diary it happened at 0230 hrs on Thursday the 27th of July 44 and that night at 2100 hrs we were relieved by the 'Dorset' regt.
Listener the CWGC records do indeed show Sgt Sam Law aged 26 died on this date. He was from Skipton in Yorkshire England. “No length of time can dim life’s happy memories, loving wife Mary”
The next day Friday, 28th, we were 4 miles from Bayeux and I moved to 'S' Coy HQ with you - you built a shelter! On Sat after that you went to see George Formby in the afternoon - remember?
That party we had where you and I had too much Vino was on Sat 9th Oct 1943!
We left Sicily Oct 17th Sun on the 'Otranto' from Augusta but we didn’t sail until 23rd Oct and we reached Algiers two days later. We arrived in England on Nov 5th 1943.
We got off the ship on Mon 8th Nov and went and stayed at Riddlesworth Camp in Thetford - gawd knows where that is!
Return to England WWII
Do you remember, Wilf, when you came to London after the war? It was on Friday 2nd Nov 1945 - we got the train from Pickering and got into London 0700 hrs Sat 3rd Nov - you must have stayed at my place!
I can't remember clearly Wilf, anyway Suzuki, you and me had a game or two of snooker at Streatham, then you and I went to the Streatham 'Astoria' and saw 'Captain Eddie' a film and then we had quite a few beers around - blowed if I can remember Wilf can you? How I managed to write a diary at anytime I don’t know!
Wed Aug 2nd 1944 - Shaw and I went to look at some German guns in concrete on the coast of Normandy.
You know Wilf I remember seeing you walking back during one 'do' with your left arm behind your head and I thought blimey there goes old Shaw wounded again!
If I remember rightly you were wounded 3 times Wilf - once at Alamein, in the arm on Oct 24th '42. Didn’t you also get a bullet in your steel helmet which left a bruise on your forehead - it was a light machine gun - Italian - it put a hole in your helmet but not in your head!
I’ve still got my D-Day Detachment Duty Card. Zilken 18 set, Assembly area for embarkation C14, Embark in LCT IV, Unit serial no 27467-2520. Under the orders of OC Mortar platoon. Time of landing H plus 45 mins. Place of landing King Green beach. Open listening watch H-60, also communications will be established at H-15.
I landed on Gold beach at 08.20 hours in a mortar carrier
Sailing to Egypt 1941
That Mooltan Merchant Cruiser had two 6 inch guns on the stern - if either of them had been fired - I reckon the ship would have fallen apart! All of us were in very great danger from those 'U' boats -we wouldn’t have stood a chance if we'd been hit!
I was glad when we got off at Durban. The crew were from Goa and I wouldn’t like to have had their job. As you say, it was sunk later! I think we were on that ship about 6 weeks!
I do remember though how as we sailed South the weather got better and better. The days were lovely and warm and sunny and the nights balmy - the flying fishes and in the sky the Southern Cross.
Yes I remember as well the first part of our journey - the rough seas - rolling and pitching and all those poor blokes who were sea sick and couldn’t eat their grub! I remember going to the galley and getting great buckets of boiling tea and staggering down the corridors with the ship rolling and pitching to the Mess Deck!
Off to Italy WWII
I got 7 days leave in Cairo from the 'transit' Camp (assault courses etc.) and then I was put on a draft going to Italy! Reinforcements for the Italian 'do' I was in a bunch of around 20 blokes with an officer - we sailed from Egypt on the 'Cap St Jaques' ship to Sicily. I didn’t like the idea of going to Italy. I wanted to get back to the 6th!
I heard a rumour that 50 div were on the island so after the first night in this camp - and I knew they were moving out next morning for Italy - I got up early with all my kit and sneaked out, past the guard etc. and started to walk - goodness knows where! I was really worried! I was AWOL! And you know what that meant!
After walking some time I saw the 50 Div 'TT' sign!! and blow me, if I didn’t see a truck with TT on it. I hitched a lift and they dropped me at Div H.Q.! I went in and said I was from the 6th Btn. No questions asked!! They got me transport to the 6th at 'Taomina' - there - no questions asked.
Looking back Wilf, I don’t know how I did it - if the Btn hadn’t been there! I often wonder what happened to that Officer when they found one of his men gone AWOL from there!
Remember that time in Letojanni in Sicily where you, I and no doubt several others drank a little too much vino? Who was that Sgt Major who gave us some entertainment – as an old man playing bowls – and we booed him off the stage?
Yes, I do remember those tomatoes and that vino, drinking the bloody stuff from one pint mugs, like beer! That wine was like vinegar. Ouch! The one wine I did like was called Marsala, a sweet dessert wine.
By the way, Letojanni now has holiday apartments and hotels around it. I saw pictures of it in a brochure I sent for once! That’s the way I travel these days Wilf, send for the brochures!
So you’re living in Oldham Wilf? I read that the remains of a 7'6" giant lie in the vaults of Oldham Parish Church. A nice place to live Wilf - London's alright but I didn’t like it - too noisy, too dirty - too much traffic (to cross the road is like going over the top!)
Down there, open the windows first thing and you could hear the birds coughing in the trees!
I often wondered what happened to those ships - the good old Mooltan, the Goanese crew who used to wash the decks. I think I remember too the destroyer 'Jackal' but not the 'Jaguar' or 'Kingston'. I came back on a minelaying destroyer named 'Abdiel' or am I dreaming?! Those ships were new - 'The Mauritania' and all now sadly broken up.
The picture of Lord Sutherland I recognised right away! If you hadn’t told me who it was I would have said it was Maurice Sutherland - I remembered him mainly from Cyprus. He was on a 'charge' a 252? What for, I can't remember but he elected to defend himself, which he did, and was found not guilty.
H.M.Hospital Ship Maine
Any idea how she fared Wilf? On the hospital we were stretchered on board at Benghazi sailed down the Med to Tripoli at night, she had all her lights burning, no black out, and during the day she was picking her way through stray mines!
Wilf did you ever recall a bloke named private Arthur Garner, a Cockney, who was in the |Duke of Wellington’s regt, who with George Suzuki and myself, just us three, managed to stagger back to Dunkirk in 1940? I’ve never been able to trace him, ever.
Just thought Wilf - another boat I was on - the Lady of Mann a cross channel steamer. We (George Suzuki and yours truly) went on it, with the rest of the Green Howards from Dover to Calais sunning ourselves on deck in early May '40
and blow me after our hasty withdrawal, down to the beaches at Dunkirk we got onto - after much bombing, strafing and shelling we staggered aboard. Yes, the Lady of Mann! This time we kept off the deck and got ourselves - George and me and Arthur Garner down below. The boat rolling from side to side as the bombs kept straddling the ship - didn’t worry George though, he went and had a wash and brush up!
About the desert Wilf.
Wilf, do you remember the nights up the desert - no moon - no light. Do you recall a long German plane way up high would circle around firing a machine gun down on us - it was what they called an haranguing.
Or the Lav, a long pole over a deep slit trench!?
Marston House in England in 1941
What I remember of that billet was sleeping on bare boards somewhere in the top of the house – someone, a civilian, loaning us a Radio for two shillings a week.
Doing cookhouse fatigue, fire picket, quarter guard (when the studs on your boots had to be polished) never did get excused duties as stick man! And guard duties - stuck out somewhere on the perimeter wall 0200 hrs at a wooden gate all on my own with fixed bayonet. Oh! Happy days.
And Wilf that scheme we went on at Exmoor what a do! Yes I do remember those poor sods, two of them suffocated under that tarpaulin from exhaust fumes! I remember too how it snowed - it was bitterly cold and we had no great coats with us! How we all huddled under our ground sheets all night and come the dawn and the cooks arrived on the scene and they lit those flame throwers that heated up the ovens etc. Remember?
Do you know some blokes were still coming back to the House (Marston) a week later! My feet were in a terrible state – I’d taken my boots off before I got the truck back. I'd never got them back on again! We used to do 30 mile route marches there Wilf - remember? One incident there I remember was coming back on a 3 tonner - we'd been out on a scheme or something.
I was sitting on the tailboard - marching order small pack etc. the lorry pulled into the forecourt. I was sitting face inwards when some idiot pulled the pins out and let the tailboard down and me with it. I went out flat on my back - but luckily my small pack took the brunt and I got up smiling!
Who'd have thought Wilf back there in Normandy in those slit trenches - hedgerows - damp - rain - mortars firing - no future. I remember how you used to come over and get my 38 sets working and how you used to relieve me on the telephone which we had to keep open all night - 24 hours a day!
As you say Wilf, all that morse code was a waste of time - direct speech on telephone was really the thing. Did you notice the German phones were far better than ours - handsets like they use today! Remember we used them on the lines we had!
That reminds me Wilf. In 1940 when I went to France - we had a rifle - a short Lee Enfield, 50 rounds ammo, a bayonet and sometimes we had a Ross rifle, Canadian I think! All that flag waving etc but they were using Army things that went out before the 1914-18 war - useless!
Anyway, we went to France really to build a landing place for our fighter planes - it was really weird Wilf looking back on those days!
What were the turn-ups on the shorts for? Gawd knows? Can't answer that one Wilf!
Was watching a film on TV called '9 men' made in 1943 about 9 men in the Western Desert surrounded by 'Ities'. At one time they were throwing grenades and I thought that's Wilf and his grenade action at Alamein. What was the outcome of your action Wilf?
Reminds me of the time up the 'blue' when we were out on one of those 'Jock' columns remember? 'C' Coy Capt Hull and signaller George Suzuki were dug in on a ridge on the top. The signal officer in all his wisdom said “Private Zilkin go up and tell those up there - keep off the skyline”.
Up I started walking - rifle at the trail - crouching until I came upon Capt. Hull and George - heads down in a slit trench. No sooner had I saw the pair in that trench, when the 2" mortars from Jerry started dropping all around us - Capt Hull blew his top! Get the bloody hell out of here, or words to that effect, and if one of those shells drops in here - I'll have you Court Martialled!!
I crawled out of there quick but didn’t get far before Jerry had me in range and dropped a few more all around me. I froze, as each bomb seem to get nearer. I could feel the heat off of them as they exploded. I just lay there head down but I felt unusually calm. I thought the next one will be it! They say (whoever 'they' are) that where there's no hope there's no fear.
Then the mortars stopped - I got up and ran back to B.H.Q. and believe it or not I told the sig officer what an idiot he was sending someone up on the ridge to tell them something they already knew!
You should have seen the faces of Capt Hull and George when I came upon them in that trench - they could have killed me!
Happy days about Cyprus eh Wilf! What I remember about Cyprus - I got 'sand fly fever' and a lovely week's leave at Larnaca up there in the mountains - fantastic!
Conclusion WW2 podcast
I'm settled in now Wilf and hoping that you can get some golf in in spite of this weather - it's raining hard now outside - Sun 12 noon. I'm about to go out for my usual pint on a Sunday. Long gone days Wilf - Exmoor, Western Desert, Loch Fyne, Normandy, Marston House … Ah those good old days - ouch!
I wonder whatever happened to Dibble?
Next ww2 episode
OK – I’m still putting my ideas together for episode 27. It’s going to revolve around a note my Dad wrote about the 50th anniversary of D-Day celebrations in France in 1994 – so it’s an old soldier’s memories of a very emotional few days where he revisits old ground that he’d visited 50 years ago. So that’s the first thing and reading it certainly brought a few tears to my eyes I can tell you.
Also, I’ve been digging around Dad’s army boxes and found all sorts of souvenirs and stuff he’s written about that isn’t in the book or any previous episodes of the show, so I’m going to share some of those with you too, as well as some great photos going up in the show notes of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.
Also I’m going to include some nice extracts from his Battalion war diaries which I got from the National Archives. There’ll be a few more unexpected surprises too – so much so I don’t even know what they are myself yet!
So I hope that sounds interesting enough to tune in next time, episode 27 - 50th anniversary of D-Day.
Listener, thank you so much for being here. As much fun as it is doing this show, I could not keep it up without the support you give me. Thanks also to Wilf Shaw who is turning 97 on 5 February 2018, pretty much as this episode is published. If anyone wants to talk to him he’s on Facebook, would you believe! Happy Birthday Wilf and thanks for digging out Fred’s ww2 letters to review – what a lot of priceless wwii history we’ve heard and recorded for posterity.
Listener – If you’ve enjoyed the show, then if you have a moment after the end, I’d be grateful if you could please take a few minutes to post a review or a rating on the listening platform of your choice. That will help keep the show up in the rankings and help other people to discover one of your favourite podcasts.
You’ve been listening to the Fighting Through podcast episode 26 The Zilken Letters.
Bye bye now
I started this episode thinking there was no photograph of Fred but bless my soul, I was just tinkering around with the show notes and noticed one of Wilf’s photographs taken at Marston House
“This was the dress issued to us prior to going to the Middle East war in 1941, we never wore any of it, just like all the morse sending and receiving we did, we never used it, all I can remember was using field telephones and the 18 set.
On this photo, my mate Fred Zilken is far right standing – so listener would you just believe that – it’s a shame Fred’s wearing a hat because you can’t see all of his but that square jaw of his is still very visible.
1 Who bought Stan Hollis’ VC and gave it to the GH museum?
His Victoria Cross was bought by medal collector Sir Ernest Harrison OBE. And guess what? He only presented the medal to the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, North Yorkshire in 1997. Ten years later, he again bought for the Green Howards museum a Normandy hut which Hollis attacked on the run in to the beach landing.
If you want to know more about the mystery of the hut, nip to the shownotes for this episode, 26 and watch the video I made of the exit to Gold beach. All I can say is what a great gesture from Sir Ernest Harrison.
I’m hoping to visit the Green Howards museum this year so when I do I’ll see if I can get a photo of the medal, and also a photo of my Dad’s bayonet which he brought back from Dunkirk, and which he later gave to the museum.
2 OK – Fred mentioned that as he and George Suzuki joined up they were given numbers and Fred wondered who the three blokes were who got the numbers in between theirs, whether they got through the War and where they are now.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission records: 4617990 was Alfred Taylor Royal Army Service Corps driver. Killed May 23 1945 - aged 26 from Surrey.
Rather sad because that was just a couple of weeks after VE day on 8 May but before VJ day on August 15th. Which means he was either fighting abroad after VE day or maybe he was in hospital in England and died from wounds after ww2 had ended – how sad is that?
1945 VE Day 8 May 45, VJ 15 Aug 45
The other two wwii numbers must have survived because no grave record.
3 Listener I want to just reflect upon Fred’s tribute to Wilf and the fact that he didn’t give a damn about anything – fearless in other words. It’s interesting that Dad pretty much said the same about the rebellious elements within the ranks: “Strange, but there was always the odd tough guy who didn’t give a damn so his turnout wasn’t perfect – he hadn’t had time to shave or something, then he would be put on a 252. Queer, but usually these were really good lads and in later years, when we were in action, they were the kind of boys who would do something very brave.”
4 I’ve looked up one of Fred’s ww2 pals he mentioned, Corporal Peter McKenna. And according to the CWGC website he was indeed killed during the Normandy campaign on 28 June aged 28 at Tilly Sur Seuilles, not far from Villers Bocage and coincidentally that’s exactly where Dad was wounded just two days later when he was having tiffin. Wow!
5 And this one’s a real flashback to a previous wwii episode.
It was on that hospital ship they gave me an anti-gas – gangrene - injection and that made me feel absolutely awful - far worse than the wound itself!
Anyone recall this mention of gas in a previous episode – it doesn’t matter if you don’t but it was in one of the Dunkirk memoirs, Ep 10, about Capt Tom Woods and the Lady of Mann.
Tom is writing one of his many letters to his wife and says?
“Capt Taylor told me yesterday that he met Tommy coming off the boat dressed in soldier’s rig and his blue beret. He would look comical but I am sorry he got a whiff of gas.”
Listener you may or may not recall that we puzzled over what Capt Woods meant by this and that we wondered if it meant that poisonous gas was used by anyone at Dunkirk.
Well I think this note from Fred answers the question – it seems to me it was maybe a polite reference to his friend either having gangrene or at least an anti-gangrene injection– a whiff of gas!
Just in case we need further confirmation … Wiki:
Gas is a bacterial infection that produces gas in tissues in gangrene. This deadly form of gangrene is usually caused by certain soil-borne bacteria and was common in the injuries of soldiers because of non-sterile field surgery and the basic nature of care for severe projectile wounds
So there you have it – gas mystery solved!
6 Finally, I just want to refer back to Fred’s comments about the wwii desert:
“ … how when they were on guard, they used to raid the ration dumps and drink the rusty radiator water from the Bren Carriers?
Listener – the only comment I was dying to make but avoided doing so cos I didn’t want to interrupt, was that all that rust they drank, awful as it was, must nonetheless have been good for their iron intake – no wonder Wilf Shaw’s still trespassing at the age of 97 (as he puts it himself)! Mind you his face has turned orange but at least he’s still alive! Multi-vitamin tablets eat yer heart out!
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