Percy Redfern – Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E.)
Percy Redfern was born on 3rd August 1925 in Newton Heath, Manchester. As a child he moved to Withington, in the south of the city, where he attended St Paul’s School. After resettling in Didsbury, he then studied at Didsbury National Church of England School until the age of 14. Although his father was keen for Percy to follow him into the printing trade, Percy’s love of cars inspired him to become a mechanic. He therefore worked for the next few months at his Uncle’s garage, after which he moved on to become a trainee mechanic at Burgon’s Grocery garage.
In July 1942, Percy received his call-up for military service, which began with 6 weeks of training at Leicester Race Course. Percy’s experience as a mechanic meant that he was selected to join the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) at Croydon. He completed a motor mechanics course and was then sent to a REME base in North Wales. After further experience of working on lorries, and some tank training, Percy joined a REME recovery unit in Hucknall, Nottingham. The training proved highly relevant, for in his civilian work Percy had never dealt with the heavy duty vehicles used in the army.
Preparation for Normandy
The vehicles that were to be used in the invasion were collected from Salisbury plain, where they worked to waterproof the vehicles in preparation for D-Day. They then moved down to Southampton, where the vehicles were left outside on the roads while Percy and the others were locked inside a camp guarded by the Americans. They were not allowed to leave the confines of the camp, within which Percy recalls experiencing American food and entertainment. This changed after an air raid destroyed several of the vehicles parked outside the camp, which necessitated the collection of four new vehicles from Nottingham. The officer in charge arranged for those men who lived around Nottinghamshire to be those sent to pick them up, and he ensured that Percy was granted a pass to go home for a day when he got to Nottingham.
Once back in Southampton, the men and their vehicles were moved to be locked up again at Portsmouth. At this stage the men were given rations, a letter from General Eisenhower, a book of France and some French money. The following morning, the 5th June, they were taken out of the camp with their vehicles and lined up on the road to Gosport. Percy vividly recalls an elderly lady coming out with a tray holding some china cups, a teapot and some sandwiches. She came over to the men and said, ‘Here lads, you need this. You’re going to France.’ She gave them a cup of tea and said goodbye, after which they moved inch by inch until eventually at around 5.30pm they reached the boat.
The Normandy Landing
Only 4 vehicles from Percy’s REME unit went across with the 50th Northumbrian Division on the 6th June. Percy’s vehicle was pulling an Armour D8, a vehicle similar to a bulldozer without a blade. As they left Southampton, he remembers hearing a motor torpedo boat coming up to the side of their landing craft and shouting through a megaphone: ‘Eh, Paddy, you’ll have to find your own way across, we’ve got an e-boat scare.’ Percy is unsure as to whether they then zigzagged across the Channel, but it was not until half past two in the afternoon that they landed on Gold Beach in Normandy.
Their boat rammed the beach and dropped the front down, and the sailors on board were immediately shouting, ‘Come on, come on, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up’’. As they drove off the boat, Percy saw German prisoners of war carrying wounded Allied soldiers on stretchers onto the boat. They were the first Germans he had ever seen, but he recalls being too scared to think properly at the time.
After unloading the trailer and the D8, Percy was tasked with pushing the wreckage on the beach to one side, away from the road. On their recovery wagon, there was a driver, a driver mechanic (named Alf), and a vehicle mechanic (Percy). As Percy was only 18, Alf looked after him on the beaches. He remembers that they were not on the beaches as long as he thought they would have been, and they soon moved on to begin to clear the roads. There were far too many vehicles to salvage them, so they were mainly pushing the British and German vehicles into ditches. At this stage, they encountered a Canadian pushing along a motorbike who asked them for help. They discovered that the ignition systems were just wet, so they dried them out and set him on his way.
France and Holland
Over the course of the remainder of the war, there were of course a number of painful memories. Percy can still vividly recall looking out of a slip trench to see a Platoon Corporal being hit by a mortar bomb. He also remembers the carnage of dead soldiers, cattle and horses in the heat at Fallaise. However, Percy also recounts a number of happier memories, including two chances to see Montgomery, an encounter with a radio presenter from Canada, and using fire crackers to imitate light artillery for a film crew.
The first chance to see Montgomery occurred when they were moving across France. Percy recalls that their recovery wagon arrived at a village to find nobody there. They pulled over on the corner of the square, with only the three of them in the village, and dead Germans lying all over the place. They entered what appeared to be the Mayor’s office, and went through the back of a house to a store-place, where papers were littered everywhere. At this moment a German sniper fired from the direction of the church, but missed them. They decided to stay at the village for a bit, keeping clear of the church. The following day, a convoy of vehicles arrived at the village, which provided them with an unexpected chance to see Montgomery first-hand. They informed the convoy about the sniper, and a Sherman tank duly came through and shot at the steeple.
After the convoy passed through, the local French people then brought three Germans to Percy and the others. They could not do anything with them, and an unlikely encounter followed when they sat with them in a room. Percy pulled out a tin of cigarettes, and asked Alf whether to offer one to the Germans. The German prisoners were chuffed, and one replied, in perfect English, ‘Ah, my favourite brand!’ Percy immediately exclaimed, ‘You’re English!’, to which the German sergeant replied that he had been brought up in Newcastle before being taken back to Germany when the war started. The following morning, they saw some British troops going back with some Germans, and were able to hand the prisoners over.
While the lull was on in France, they did go out recovering vehicles and tanks, bringing them to a large field to be worked on. At this location, a news crew arrived and informed the mechanics that they were looking for some footage of front line recovery for the news reel. The subsequent filming consisted of some of the mechanics pretending to lift up vehicles while fire crackers were thrown about to imitate ‘light artillery’!
A further strange incident occurred when their recovery wagon got lost while driving towards Brussels. As they passed through one village, they were at a loss as to why all the villagers were coming out and throwing flowers at them. After they pulled over to ask for directions, it emerged that they were the first British that the villagers had seen and had effectively liberated the village. The British tanks and infantry had bypassed the village in their earlier advance. When they later caught up with their unit, they discovered that an officer had been sent to find them. In the process he had been caught and taken prisoner by some Germans, who fortunately decided to let him go.
Percy’s task at this time involved pulling gliders to a staging point where they could be flown back to England. He recollects that although ‘we used to go on about the Yanks, when you got with them, they were smashing blokes’, ensuring they were fed, stocked with cigarettes, and even finding tea when the British troops told them that they did not drink coffee.
In Holland, they were given fresh orders to go on the push to Arnhem and clear a corridor on the road. While doing this, they encountered Jerry Wilmott, who it emerged was a radio presenter from Canada. He asked the recovery wagon to change his punctured wheel, but their driver explained that he would have to move his jeep off the road as there were tanks coming up. Wilmott replied, ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’m Jerry Wilmott.’ After his jeep was shoved in a ditch in order to clear the road, Wilmott caused some amusement by claiming that he was going to report Percy’s team to General Montgomery.
In the event, Percy’s team did not reach Arnhem, getting as far as Nijmegen only. They held up there for a fortnight before coming back to a quiet place called Graves. It was here that Percy had an emotional meeting when he saw his brother-in-law for the first time during the campaign. He would meet his brother-in-law on a second occasion in less serene circumstances. This time, he had found out that he was relatively close to his brother-in-law’s position. He recalls walking to where he was located through some woods, and being ‘scared as hell’ because of rumours that German paratroopers had been dropped in the area. He had thought he would be safe and had not taken any side armour, but was frightened to death when he walked back during the night.
One Monday, Percy received a phone call from the French Embassy, asking if he could come to London the following week. When he inquired as to why, they informed him that he had been awarded the Legion of Honour for his role in clearing the beaches and the rot in Normandy. Percy was one of seven who went to collect the Legion of Honour that day, where he met Montgomery for the second time. Percy still insists that they did nothing heroic, and were all simply doing their job.
At the end of the war, Percy was put in charge of motors for the generators that powered the searchlights of a de-briefing camp for German POWs. He was discharged in July 1947 with pay for a day of every month that he was abroad as a ‘gratuity’. The transition back to civilian life was initially far from smooth. He became ill with tonsillitis, and then pneumonia, and, like many others, was suffering from nerves after leaving the routine of Army life. He would jump at the sound of a car backfiring, and would not forget some of the things that he had seen. Over time he was able to readjust and then progress in his career.
Burgeon’s had offered him a job, but this was on the same wages as before, even though he was now a lot more experienced and also married. Although ‘people looked at you when you left the army as if you were still the same’, Percy felt he had grown up while in the Army. He rejected this offer, and initially went to work at a garage in Palatine Road, before joining Crossley Motors in Levenshulme. Percy then went to work for a family member who ran a business as a haulage contractor, and in 1964 applied to be a manager of a garage in Heaton Chapel, where he finished as General Manager.
Percy Redfern passed away in January 2008 aged 83