When ordinary men became heroes

by Joanna Davies

Published: May 8 1985

WHEN Bob Main was first sent to the front in the second world war he ended up on a 75-mile march with no sleep or food before evacuation from Dunkirk.

Back in Britain he felt he'd had enough so he joined the glider pilot regiment so that next time he could fly.

“At the beginning of the war our army was totally out of date – we were fighting first world war style.” he recalls. “But we were beginning to get up to date and I thought the gliders would be more adventurous as well as saving my feet.”

HISTORIC

Training was basic, if you didn't earn your wings in 13 hours flying time you were out. Bob won his in eight hours and ten minutes.

Sitting in his comfortable home in Somerton, Newport, he relived those days over 40 years ago. Bob was not a hero – at least no more so than every other young man who took up arms against Fascist Germany – but his experiences included three historic landmarks: the evacuation at Dunkirk; the D Day landings and Arnhem.

When he returned from Arnhem having seen most of his friends and colleagues die he was a different man to the 22-year-old youth who joined the South Wales Borderers. He refused to talk about what had happened at first; later he spoke only to his family.

It was the build up to the VE Day celebrations on television that eventually convinced him he should speak out so that his memories would not die with him. He stresses that he was nothing out of the ordinary but that the ordinary soldier's story should be heard.

No sooner than he'd joined the South Wales Borderers, he was “volunteered” for a transfer to a territorial battalion with the 5th Manchester Regiment and sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force.

His memories are of an endless trek across the French countryside being pushed back to the sea by the advancing Germans; dodging bullets and longing for food and a cigarette.

When his regiment reached Dunkirk all was chaos. British destroyers were waiting outside the harbour to bring the troops home to Britain but the small craft which were ferrying them were overcrowded and stranded men were being picked off on the beaches by German snipers.

A strong swimmer, Bob felt his best chance lay in making his own way to the waiting destroyers but as he swam the boat seemed to be moving away from him.

“It was a strong tide that was pulling me back in. There was an oil slick burning at the entrance to the harbour and i was heading straight for it when someone from the boat threw me a rope and hauled me aboard.”

All he had was a pair of tattered trousers with a picture of his sweet-heart Joyce in the back pocket, and, from exhaustion, he slept for the 48 hours it took to reach the safety of Ramsgate.

That Christmas he married Joyce and she still has that photograph of herself now stained with sea water.

He then joined the glider regiment which kept him in Britain in comparative safety for the next few years.

It was as a father of two that he set off on operation Overlord better known now as the D Day landings.

He flew 32 men and an anti-tank gun to Pegasus Bridge with strict instructions to return to Britain as soon as possible due to the shortage of pilots.

TREK

After days of fighting to hold the bridgehead his feet were back in action. The glider couldn't be flown back so it was another long trek to a beach where he was again evacuated back to his country.

For a while he was stationed in Leicester teaching RAF bomber pilots how to tow gliders but then his luck ran out when he drew a straw which gave him the first drop in Arnhem.

The landings were magnificent, he remembers, thousands of parachutists floating to earth but the joy was short lived. They soon discovered they had landed in the middle of the German army and were surrounded. The Guards who were supposed to meet up with them couldn't get through and they only had 48 hours of supplies.

Arnhem has gone down in history as one of the greatest blunders of the war; thousands of men were killed and Bob remembers feeling numbed; doubting if he would ever see his family again and trying to concentrate on fighting.

The woods where the men sheltered were being shelled, flame throwing German tanks were brought up and Bob saw his friends and colleagues dropping all round him.

“It was a dreadful time We fought there for ten days with no food, water, or cigarettes. By the end I don't think any of us cared whether we'd live or die.”

Then, on the tenth day, a message came through from the Guards who were not far away but were unable to reach their fellow soldiers. The order to retreat was given.

Survivor

“It was nothing like the film A Bridge too Far,"

“I never saw a Yank or a tank” says Bob. “It was the most horrific thing I've ever experienced. We had to try and cross a river but our men were being mown down by the Germans before even reaching the river and then killed in the boats trying to get across.”

They were hungry and weak but once again Bob decided to swim to safety. He made it to the other side and after a mile's walk came across a large tent. He did not know whether it was British or German but was past the stage of caring.

“Luckily it was one of our Red Cross tents. They gave me rum which nearly burnt a hole in my stomach and some Woodbine cigarettes. I remember there was a whole trunk of them and I was trying to pick up as many as I could. A cigarette has never tasted so good.”

The survivors of Arnhem were then taken to a nearby town, in Allied hands, and were directed to an hotel celler. Within hours the Germans had taken the town and looking up through the grating, Bob could see them clearly

“We felt it was only a matter of time before they found us but i really didn't care. I was tired and hungry and far too weak to put up any resistance. Luckily for us it was back in our hands a few hours later and we were taken by road to Brussels and flown home.”

Those days were also dark ones for Joyce. She had two young children, was very young herself, and listened to the radio news every day to hear the fate of the gliders.

As the days passed and there was no news from Bob she became more and more concerned. She asked her brother to move in with her for support. Then one night she heard the front door open and Bob was standing there. She frozewith shock. He showed her he had nothing worse than a couple of minor burns.

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