Roy Flogdell of Wisborough Green
Published on 1st September 2015
I was born in Shepherd's Bush in 1923. My father fought in The Great War, where he was gassed and wounded, but he stayed until the bitter end, serving mainly in the trenches. After the war, he worked as a sheet metal worker.
I liked to play the violin. When I was seven, I saw children playing a March to move us along during assembly. I ran home at lunch to ask if I could learn the instrument! My parents were hard up but found the money and by the time I left I was leader of the orchestra.
I planned to teach, and won a scholarship from the county council to study at King's College London, although in reality classes were in Bristol. I never had a chance of doing very well because war broke out when I was 16. I was at University for one year when the council withdrew the scholarship because I hadn't done very well. So into the army I went.
My family escaped the bombing raids unscathed but one night in 1941 an incendiary bomb came through the roof. We kept a bath full of water so used that to put out the fire.
I enlisted on 1 October 1942, and was sent on a six-week training course in York, in the ranks of the light infantry. I had joined the Cadet Corps at Latymer School in Hammersmith and the Cadet Corps at University, so I knew roughly what one did in the army.
At that time, the army was being reshaped, as generals realised war was more mobile than expected. So they created a reconnaissance unit for every infantry unit, as a division of the Royal Armoured Corps. They sorted out those with above average intelligence and posted us to a Reconnaissance Corps training camp near Lockerbie. Basically, in my first year with the army I did nothing but attend training courses to make it possible for me to leave and re-join as a commissioned officer.
In 1943, I was at Blackdown in Surrey, learning all aspects of reconnaissance including driving skills and wireless operations. There was a lot of physical work too, as we would march 15 miles in three hours with a full pack. I then went to Sandhurst, the training ground for officers of the Royal Armoured Corps. I remember we marched in to the sound of 'The Old Gray Mare, She Ain't What She Used To Be.'
I was posted as a 2nd Lieutenant to the 53rd Welsh Reconnaissance Regiment, B Squadron. I was allotted an armoured car, 15 very good men and a dispatch rider. I arrived at the unit headquarters and had dinner with the squadron leader, who was very keen on getting rid of as many Germans as possible. He was a Jewish merchant banker who knew that parts of his family had been destroyed. The other person present was second-in-command, so the meal and the wine was very good!
As a young man - younger than my troops - it was difficult for me to feel part of a regiment at first, but I soon got used to it. They were a very nice bunch of chaps with a good sergeant in charge. I had eight months to get to know them before we set off for France.
The whole squadron moved in one block up towards London. Along the way, there were crowds of people who the night before had been on the receiving end of doodle bugs. Yet there they were, cheering us on and handing us buns. It was incredible and I nearly cried.
When we reached the campsite, it was the best set-up site I'd seen in the army! The main purpose of our being there was to waterproof our vehicles as we didn't know if we would land on the beaches in France or have to drive off the boats. We went up the Thames and anchored off Portsmouth for the night. They formed a convoy of ships with the Navy flanking us on either side to keep the Germans away. They did a very good job and we didn't lose many boats at all.
I landed on 20 June 1944, 14 days after the first Normandy landings. The beach was packed with people, so we found a forested area and awaited orders. We were there for five whole weeks, which was very unusual for a 'recce' unit.
One day, the car behind mine went up in smoke after hitting a mine, and the driver was injured. He was sent home, but travelled across London to see my parents and told them I was well! I also lost one of my sergeants. He was thinking too much about what might happen to him rather than what was happening. He suffered a mental breakdown.
Eventually, we formed part of the attack on Falaise. The Americans were coming in from the east and the British from the north. We drove the Germans back, thanks mainly to air attacks, and closed in on them from both sides. I was in the first group of people to meet up with the Americans, but they took no notice of us and carried on shaving!
We were picking up odd groups of Germans who had surrendered and were transferred to POW camps. We were spending almost as much time dealing with that as we were in pursuing the German retreat. We thought we had found most of them, then one day I was moving down the road when we saw a mass of Germans approaching. I spread out the cars in case we needed to open fire. They were led by a very smart officer holding a pistol. He marched up to my car, saluted, handed me his pistol and surrendered. I contacted headquarters. They said 'How many Germans did you say you have?' 'At least 400 men,' I replied.
We hit a section of road from Falaise to Argentan full of carts and vehicles that had been shot to pieces. There were dead bodies and animals lying there too, but you just have to leave it all behind. At no time were we taken out of the forward line. Being a reconnaissance unit, you are often behind enemy lines, but we kept pushing and discovered the Germans had gone all the way back to Belgium, against Hitler's orders.
What I didn't know until much later was that the 53rd Division were leading the British Army through France. That is what makes reconnaissance so important. You needed every man to be capable of taking charge if anything goes wrong, because no one else is within easy reach of you.
Our trip through France was really a jolly thing as we didn't actually come across any Germans until we reached Belgium. At every village, pretty girls would give you a kiss and the father would hand out wine. They went in a rack with the ammunition. I swear that when we came across Germans, I might have picked up wine instead of a shell!
Some strange things happened. We went to check if Germans were in a town called Roubaix. There were Belgium and French flags flying but I spotted a suspicious looking chap and followed him to a windmill in the nearby forest. I was beckoned inside and told the crews in two cars to park outside with guns pointing. We couldn't believe it, but inside the windmill was a nightclub!
The following day, we were given the square in Lille to parade ourselves, to let the French know we were there. From the crowd came a Cockney woman's voice that said 'Fancy a cup of tea?' She had married a Frenchman who had joined the resistance and been killed. She was so glad to see us. This woman, in a pinafore dress, made us tea and heated up our food packs. Those packs were the bane of my life as it was all we had to eat!
We went back to Roubaix but the flags were gone, suggesting the Germans had come back. I was busy telling the squadron leader about it when my leading car took a wrong turn and we found ourselves trapped down a cul-de-sac. That was when the fight started. The Germans were in an upstairs room firing at anything that moved. I got out of the car and felt a bullet whistle past my ear, so I jumped back in. Fortunately for us, our assault troops moved quickly and cleared them, but they lost their sergeant.
We moved through Belgium, one canal at a time, as the Germans were pulling back. The paratroopers were being dropped in to retake bridges and had taken all except the one at Arnhem. We were tasked with finding out why, and it was quite simple. The road leading up to it was too narrow, so the order came to widen it.
Our division, and our division alone, were to attack s'Hertengenbosch in Belgium, where the Germans were controlling traffic to all the ports along the coastline. Recce planes photographed some of the roads leading to s'Hertengenbosch. On my 21st birthday, I looked at these photos and saw there was a trap. We couldn't see it on the photograph, but the forest the road ran through had a semi-circle look about it and I thought 'they have machine guns there.'
Instead of taking that road, my reconnaissance unit moved along a canal. We had to make sure that the Germans didn't cross over, as there were boats at almost every house along the canal. With a quick burst of gunfire, every one of those boats was pierced. I couldn't care less who they belonged to – the Germans weren't coming across!
A Welsh Regiment was sent into the forest and there was indeed a trap, I had predicted. A sergeant with a Bren gun stood up, said 'If I'm going to be killed, I'm going to get some of them first!' and off he charged. His men had to follow him, and they cleared the Germans. That sergeant was awarded the Victoria Cross.
By that time, five of our nine cars had been put out of action, but always within a day we had replacements. It was the mines that did the most damage, but it was the German's anti-tank guns we most feared. If it had you in its sights, you could forget about it.
We moved along the Maas River, which the Germans deliberately flooded so we couldn't get close to them. On Christmas Day 1944, we found an empty house where there was a cooker that we used to roast a turkey. We were about to sit down and eat when we received orders to cross into The Ardennes immediately. So we had cold turkey instead! Then we prepared for battle in the Reichswald Forest.
The Army had started to give leave back home for a week and I was first in my regiment to go. In London, people asked me:'Where have you come from?' I was able to reply 'Germany!'
It was a great joke within my family that The Daily Express was always three days ahead of the Army. They would report that we had taken a strategic location before it had happened! But on this occasion they had actually missed details about Reichswald.I went back there and was present when we met the Americans.
We were pulled back to Brussels and crossed the Rhine and were ordered to recce a road ahead of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. There were mines all over the road, but I found a gate that took us through a woodland route instead. The sun was shining and it was just beautiful. Then there was an explosion behind the leading car. Two Germans appeared with hands in the air and we assumed they had caused the blast with a bazooka. But it wasn't them.
That explosion had caused a hole in the petrol tank and the leading car stopped. I was about to give instructions to push the car into the ditch when a quiet voice in my head told me to get everyone out of the cars immediately. It wasn't a voice I recognised, but I gave the order.
At that moment, an 88mm gun from a tank, hidden where we could not see it, was fired. I was halfway between the top of my car and the ditch when our car was hit, so it was tight! That was as close as I came to losing my life in the war. The 88mm put all of the cars out of action but we jumped to safety. I'm certain it was the Good Lord who whispered in my ear.
New cars arrived and we were soon back on the road to Hamburg. We were near Luneberg when we received orders not to fire at anything, which was strange. Then I saw Bernard Montgomery arriving to meet the German generals! It was 6 May when we discovered our war was over, not 8 May which became the celebrated day. I was glad that the battle in Hamburg we had anticipated never happened.
We spent six weeks in Hamburg, using the Atlantic Hotel as our headquarters. My regiment provided the guard of honour. We had to repaint our vehicles, and appeared with trousers pressed and everything looked beautiful!
I remained in Germany until January 1946 when I was posted to RAC Gunnery School at Lulworth. I soon returned to Germany, firstly as a Gunnery adviser and then to join the RAC Methods of Instruction Team, which nobody had ever heard of! I worked out that it was something to keep a man in the Army long enough for him to get a full pension.
When I left the army, I thought about teaching, but felt I had a duty to support my parents, as my father would soon be retiring and they hadn't been able to save much money. So I took a job with a firm of East India merchants, who supplied the kiosks at Indian railway stations. I was learning a lot, but our trade was impacted by the separation of India and Pakistan. They had to let me go.
I then worked for Proctor & Gamble who were producing Tide. My job was really credit control. I later became a salesman but didn't agree with the sales tactics we used, so I left and found work as an office manager with a firm making transfers for displays and marketing purposes.
It was a good company, but it was fairly static and I thought if we improved our 'point of sale' displays we could build our business. Batchelors came to see me as they were launching a powdered soup and I thought they needed something that would draw housewives to the products. I asked our designers to draw up a three circle revolving stand on which you can hang packets, which hit them as a good idea immediately.
The stands became a talking point and we received many certificates from magazines who declared it 'Best Idea of the Year'. Momentum built up and that helped double the turnover of the company.
I became a manager at Granada, owned by Sidney Bernstein, producing publicity for the theatres and cinemas. I worked for Sidney for many years, really as a trouble-shooter, moving between the 12 companies in the group when they had problems. The company then bought Novello, the music publishing company, so I moved there and looked after the money side of the operation until I retired in 1988.
I married in 1960 and we moved to Wisborough Green from Richmond 16 years ago. My wife is still with me but has lived in a care home for nine years. It is the usual business of dementia and a touch of Parkinson's. She can't talk, can't read and do anything by herself, yet she will fight and fight to stay. She's the only woman I have ever loved. It is difficult to see somebody you love in that way.
I always had a passion for classical music. Since retirement, I've given talks on music and for 12 years was a tutor in music appreciation with the Workers Education Association. I had 50 students and three classes a week for a time. I did try to get classes going around Horsham and it went very well to begin with, but tailed off. I don't mind admitting that on one occasion I did the lecture for two people!
I'm not afraid to listen to today's composers, but usually they have a short shelf life. Too often, the music tries to break all the rules and not be something that has grown out of the past. It is something planted on the present. The likes of Mozart and Beethoven would read the music that they liked and find a way to advance on it. People don't do that anymore. That, I'm afraid, is true of many things since the Second World War.
Thanks to Billingshurst Weald Probus Group for arranging our interview with Roy.