Wartime adventures of late Woolmer Green veteran
PUBLISHED: 07:41 25 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:31 25 February 2017
Normandy veteran Fred Archer, who sadly died at 96 this month, had earlier given the Welwyn Hatfield Times some splendid photographs of his wartime adventures.
Fred, born in Burnham Green in 1920, transferred from the Hertfordshire Regiment to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1940, specialising in maintenance of heavy military vehicles.
He landed on Sword Beach in the first week of the invasion of Normandy, and was kept busy by frequent collisions on the crowded beachhead.
He must have worked on a huge range of military vehicles, such as the “crab” tank shown in the photograph - a Sherman with a flail added to clear minefields.
One photo may show the famous Mulberry harbour, floated across the English Channel, and still partly visible today at the town of Arromanches.
Fred told the Welwyn Hatfield Times about entering the town of Caen immediately after stiff German resistance had been ended by massive Allied bombing.
He recalled: “It was devastation, but they (French civilians)) were not as steamed off as I would have been.”
Driving a Diamond T tank transporter, he fought through Normandy to Falaise, where thousands of trapped Germans were captured in August 1944.
Interviewed in 2015, after his award of the Legion d’Honneur, he remembered fields full of maggot-infested corpses of cows and sheep, slaughtered in the fierce shelling the two armies exchanged.
After advancing into Belgium and the newly-liberated Netherlands, Fred’s unit was sent to defend the bridge over the River Waal at Nijmegen, shown in the photograph.
If Arnhem was “A Bridge Too Far” as the famous film described it, then Nijmegen was where the ill-fated airborne Operation Market Garden should have stopped.
Fred expected to spend a relatively peaceful Christmas near the Dutch/German border, but his seasonal festivities were dramatically interrupted by the Germans’ surprise Ardennes counter-offensive into southern Belgium.
Describing his rapid Christmas deployment back south on Christmas Day, Fred said: “It was very cold, and there was snow. Monty (General Bernard Montgomery) wanted as many troops as he could get. There were a lot of doodlebugs (V1 rockets) going over.
“But when we got to the Ardennes, it was all over.”
In March, his unit crossed the River Rhine, and he recalled seeing the remains of several gliders that had preceded his unit in an airborne offensive.
He said: “They ran into some ack-ack (anti-aircraft fire). A lot of gliders got mashed up, and there were heavy casualties.”
By VE-Day, he had arrived in Hamburg, reduced to rubble by intense Allied bombing.
Fred, who had married in the war years, did not return from Germany until spring 1946, when he moved to North Yorkshire, his wife’s home county.
She had given birth in Brocket Hall, but sadly the baby boy lived only about a month.
More tragedy was in store for Fred, who was widowed twice, and had no more children.
He said: “I have had some hard times, but in the war, I was one of the lucky ones. A lot didn’t come back.”
He became a watch trader and repairer, and moved to Garden Close, Woolmer Green, where he died peacefully on February 9.
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