Lionel Blanshard – Royal Artillery
Lionel Blanshard was born in Miles Platting, Manchester on 23rd July 1924. While growing up, he moved 16 times around the Newton Heath area of Manchester, attending St Luke’s School, Briscoe Lane Primary School, and then Brookdale Park School, where he left aged 14. He went to work as a packer for JD Williams & Co., a mail order company, where he would stay for 52 years until his retirement aged 66.
His father had served in World War One but rarely talked about the experience and never glorified war. Lionel himself was called up in November 1942, with his initial introduction and medical at Dover Street, Manchester. He was sent to Preston for 3 days, and then shipped to Ballykinlar in Northern Ireland for 6 weeks of training. Lionel was offered the chance to work as a ‘Bevin boy’ down the mines, but instead joined the Royal Artillery as a signaller. He was selected for this role after he showed dexterity for tasks such as putting locks together, and scored 93% in the Army tests for Morse code. He had friends who had learned Morse code in the youth corps and he felt that he had picked up an ear for it.
After enlistment, six months further training took place at Preston, as well as specialist signals and commando training. In 1943, he also took part in six weeks training on shoe making and repairs. Looking back, Lionel reflected that he never stopped learning during the months of training.
The Normandy Campaign
For 3 weeks prior to leaving for Normandy, Lionel’s unit were based in West Ham football ground. Doodlebugs were often heard overhead, while the men slept on the terraces in just a sleeping bag. Although they were not allowed to leave the stadium, on one evening, Lionel climbed out over the wall, just to be able to walk around and say that he was out. As he returned a couple of hours later, his unit were leaving through the main gate to go to the docks, and he nearly missed them. Fortunately, he saw his group in one of the passing trucks, and they called out to say that they had his motorbike and to jump in.
From there they went to Tilbury Docks, where an American ship took them across to Normandy. They left late evening, around 8pm, and after a 12 hour journey, they arrived in Normandy on the morning of the 21st June 1944 (D+15). Lionel’s role was as a dispatch rider as part of the Signals, and from the moment he drove off the boat on his motorbike, he was given a succession of orders. After a de-briefing, they were sent to a map reference straight away to set up the guns, and ‘before we knew it we were already in action’. In alphabetical order, the men were expected to man the Lewiscombe, to guard against any German aircraft. Lionel recalled that he had no idea even where the trigger was, so it was fortunate that no German planes came over!
After that, it was a hectic schedule, of finding a map reference, setting up telephone cables, and then moving on to the next map reference. They were nearly always night moves, with hardly any time to sleep. Early on, they were caught in a German box barrage, and lost several men over 3 days. While Lionel was in a slit trench, his truck was blown away. He recollected that among those caught in the barrage were the battery captain and his batman, the latter of whom had never been to the front. The batman jumped into the slit trench next to Lionel, and before long he had got up and was dancing around telling the Germans to stop firing. Lionel had to drag him back into the trench by his ankles and literally stand on him to keep him still. Lionel actually missed one of the major barrages after he fell asleep in a shell-hole while on duty. When he awoke, he could not believe the devastation around him. In the surrounding fields, there were dead cows everywhere, literally heaving with maggots to the extent that from a distance they appeared to be moving. Life from then on was simply ‘move, move, move’, supporting different sectors, regiments and divisions.
He vividly recalled the events at the Fallaise Gap. On Lionel’s map at the time, Fallaise was roped off with a red circle and simply labelled ‘killing ground’. For 3 days and 3 nights, they fired each gun until they had to be taken out of operation because they were glowing red hot. The Germans had been trapped around Fallaise but had refused to surrender, so were literally annihilated. As shells were fired in from all angles, Lionel was aware that they must have been killing thousands of Germans, and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ He then recounted capturing some Hitler Youth members there, and he found these teenagers to be cocky bullies who were worse than the adults. As he later conducted a large line of prisoners, five or so abreast and looking like they’d been through hell, he remarked that you did say to yourself, ‘Was I part of that?’, but that ultimately it was them or him.
In recounting the advance through Germany, Lionel remembered the Reichswald forest as a horrible place. He stood guard there at night, in the knowledge that there were German patrols around, and would be frightened by animals suddenly jumping down from trees and running across his path, or by the crunching noise caused by wildlife behind him. He reflected that you could drive yourself mad trying to work out what noises were caused by nature, and which might be the enemy. He also recalled painful incidents of losing friends, including one lad who was killed by a mine after he ignored Lionel’s advice to avoid a particular road.
Lionel reflected that the war had changed him from a boy into a man. For the next two years after the war ended, he was promoted to lead the unit, something he would never have imagined he would do. He was discharged at York on the 8th May 1947, and returned to JD Williams & Co. Originally, this was at a basic level of maintenance work, but he progressed through the ranks to become head buyer for a number of departments. This job involved considerable international travel, and when returning to Germany on business, Lionel always maintained that any German he met would be his friend.
Lionel passed away in January 2009, aged 84.