Wilf Oldham risked being swept away crossing the River Rhine, as British troops escaped the destruction of 1 Airborne Division at Arnhem. It was not his first airborne fiasco, nor his first ordeal by water. First came Sicily.
UPDATE - Wilf died on 27 November 2021, aged 101. He was a warm, wonderful and enormously generous man, a true gentleman. He will be sorely missed by everybody who knew him.
Private Wilf Oldham was a Bren gunner in 12 Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion The Border Regiment, 1 Air Landing Brigade, 1st Airborne Division. The Border soldiers’ job in Operation Ladbroke was to land by glider south of Syracuse in Sicily, then to move into the outskirts of the city. They were to hold it while strong seaborne forces of General Montgomery’s 8th Army raced up from landing beaches to capture the port. The port’s docks were needed to land reinforcements and supplies quickly, to secure the beachhead from counterattack.
It has been my great privilege and pleasure to have met Wilf, and to have corresponded with him about his part in Operation Ladbroke. What follows is a composite version of his story, as told by Wilf himself. I have selected passages from interviews and letters and merged them.
I was born in the City of Salford, on the 28th of August 1920. I was one of 7 children, and when I was a babe in arms unemployment was a lot worse than it is today. There were no handouts or nothing, and after a few months, when I was probably 6 months old, my father got a job at Bury, he was in the hotel trade. We lived in a 2-up and 2-down, very slum houses, no electric, one room light by gas, no hot water.
When I was 4 years old, I started school at the Bury Ragged School. I went there until I was 11 years old, when I went to a secondary school. I left school at 14. After a few months of being out of work, I got a job at a bleach works.
When war broke out I was 19 years old. I would shortly be called up into the forces, and I didn’t want to be in the Navy, I didn’t fancy being a sailor. So I went to the recruiting office at Walton, and volunteered for the armed forces. They asked me which, and I said I’d like to go in the Army. I passed the medical, but when I saw the doctor I only weighed 8 stone. He had a look at me. I was stood there in my altogether, and he said “Well, I’ve seen more meat on a rabbit. But don’t worry, you’ll put weight on when you get regular food and out in the fresh air”.
I went to the East Lancashire Regiment, which was an infantry training regiment, at Choirsgate Camp. I’m not sure whether it had been a Pontins or a Butlins. And you did your basic training there, three months. It was mostly foot drill. Although the Germans were ready for a landing, the British Army, true to tradition, didn’t worry about the rifle. You’d be able to march on the Germans, kick ‘em to death when they land.
Me and a fellow called Jack Hill volunteered for airborne forces. While waiting, more often than not, your request was thrown in the waste bin, but this time it went to the right sources. Me and Jacky had to see the adjutant. He said, “You’ve both volunteered for airborne forces. Well you know there are two branches: parachute troops and gliderborne troops. You’re going to Dorchester tomorrow for an interview, for the gliderborne troops.”
So we went to Dorchester the next day, me and Jack, and we were asked why we wanted to do this, but like everybody else we told a fib or two. It was a shilling a day extra for gliderborne troops, which was probably the deciding factor. Of course a shilling in today’s money is only 5 pence, but a shilling in those days was quite a good rise.
So when we’d been interviewed he said, “Right, your interview is over, report back to your unit and you’ll get word if you’re accepted”. Maybe a month after, the acceptance came through. So we got the train to Andover in Hampshire, and there we were met by an officer and transport, and taken to a big army camp called Barton Stacey.
And there it was, I can always remember, it was early evening. We were given a meal, and two tower billets, and they said, “Starting tomorrow you’re now a member of First Battalion, the Borders, T Company”. T stood for training. You did five weeks intensive training. At the end of the five weeks you were either RTU (returned to unit), or you were accepted. The biggest worry of all the men was being sent back. Nobody wanted to be sent back.
We now discovered how fit or unfit we really were. At the end of five weeks you were capable of doing a 25 mile march, a 10 mile run, with all your equipment. You were really ready to take on the world at the end of that 5 weeks.
The airborne forces, when I joined them, had no shoulder flashes, and they had no red berets. One tale is that General Browning’s wife, Daphne Du Maurier, suggested that we had a red beret. Well, history books now say that wasn’t true. It’s always called a red beret, but the colour is maroon. Once you’d got your flashes and red beret, it didn’t matter how cold it was, under no circumstances did you go out with an overcoat. You wanted everybody to see you were an airborne solider.
Then, about September 1942, all the battalion went to Ilfracombe, for three weeks special training. There was a big battle school there, and perhaps they’d had Sicily in mind, but one order was that when we came back, every man had to be able to swim. So before breakfast we were taken to the local baths, which they’d taken over. I could swim, I was a decent swimmer, but there were people that at the end of three weeks still couldn’t swim.
In early 1943 it was decided that 1 Airborne Division would take part in the invasion of Sicily. The invasion was to be launched from North Africa, where the war in the desert was coming to a successful conclusion.
I think it was about the beginning of May 1943, we had three or four days leave. When we came back, we knew we were going somewhere, but we didn’t know where. It was about a fortnight later, when we got our instructions. We had to cut all of our airborne signs off, we had to take our red berets off, because it was a movement under secrecy. We were taken by train to Liverpool, and there we boarded a troop ship. We sailed from Liverpool, and we headed to pick the convoy up around Scotland somewhere. Then it was probably a 10 day sailing, to Oran, in North Africa.
There were that many troops on that boat, that each meal had to have 5 sittings, so by the time the last people had their breakfast, it was nearly time for the midday meal. We had quite an uneventful journey. You’d always got the chance that enemy aircraft or U-Boats could attack the convoys, and we did hear explosions, which the sailors told us were depth charges going off. They probably suspected that in the vicinity there could be U-boats.
We saw the lights of Oran, all lit up, not like it was in England with the blackout, and it was late at night when we landed. American transport took us about three miles outside of Oran, on the side of a hill, and it was just a matter of posting guards, and getting down on the ground and sleeping.
From then it was a lot of getting acclimatized, because it was late May, and the temperatures were reaching about 35-40 degrees Centigrade. So it was early reveille straight from word go, and you did a foot drill with your KD [khaki drill] shorts on, your ammunition boots and socks, but no shirt or vest. It started off at 15 minutes and it was increased, until after a few weeks, it didn’t affect you. I never got browned, I just went a deep red as most fair-haired people. Those days I had ginger hair, and I was known as “Ginger” Oldham.
Then we did battalion exercises, brigade exercises and division exercises. For some weeks we were doing flights in North Africa. In the air, it was very unpleasant. Because of the hot air and air pockets, you’d drop, there was a lot of that.
In late June, the whole of 1 Airborne Division moved from its training grounds in Algeria to Tunisia, to be close to Sicily. The troops of 1 Air Landing Brigade made the long journey in their gliders.
Then we got word that we were moving to a place near Sousse in Tunisia. A lot of gliders, tugged by American planes, flew over the Atlas mountains. At the time, that was the longest exercise ever done by gliders. It was probably mid-afternoon when we cast off and landed safely on these air strips.
We got out of the glider, and we’d just sat down on the ground, to be given further orders. And I happened to look up in the air, watching gliders still coming in, and what appeared to be the tail of a Waco fell off. This glider seemed to bodily separate, and all the men in the glider fell out. It was a dreadful sight to see these men falling out of the sky at a terrific speed and crash to the ground. They all lost their lives. This tragic incident still lives in my mind, I can see it as if it was only happening to me now.
People say to me, “You see an accident like that, did it not make you bothered about going up in a glider again?” Maybe it did, I’m not sure now, but it was part of your life, you’d volunteered for this business.
By now we were all very brown and trained up to a high point, and ready for what lay in store for the glider battalions. In early July each platoon was briefed for Operation Ladbroke. We were told exactly what our objectives would be, shown maps etc. The only thing that remained a secret was the exact location. We were guessing – Sicily, Italy, the Greek Islands?
I believe it was the day of 8th July when we were told that our objective and destination was Sicily. At last we were to be an invasion force, this something we had trained bloody hard for was to become real. Of course all men were confined to stay in the olive groves which had been our home for weeks near the holy city of Kairouan.
July 9th 1943: Early afternoon our platoon officer Lieutenant Arthur Royall, whom all 12 Platoon considered one of the best battalion officers, and platoon sergeant Sergeant Victor De Muynck paraded 12 Platoon, inspected each soldier and his equipment and weapons (I was a light machine gunner with a Bren), and made sure grenades and ammo were all in good order. We were marched to an army truck convoy and the battalion was transported to a desert airstrip. There the Dakota tug planes were lined up.
Around I think 1630 we had sandwiches and tea, and after an hour, maybe longer, the USA tug pilots came to speak to us. They said they would get us there, but if for some reason we had to ditch in the sea, the tug plane would drop us two dinghies and radio our position to air sea rescue Malta. I can even today hear this pilot saying these words.
Our pilots for the glider arrived. A further check of equipment made sure everybody had a blow-up lifebelt. This was a shape on the sausage style with tapes to tie under the armpits and around the shoulders.
Once we were all seated in the correct seats, the plane engines burst into life, and we taxied along with the props sending clouds of dusty sand in their wake. Shortly we were airborne and on our way to Sicily.
I think it was about 1800 – 1900 hours when we took off. The idea was to fly very low to avoid radar. By then a strong wind had started to blow. The Wacos were mostly tubular steel and doped canvas, with plywood floors, and they were very noisy. One had to almost shout to the next person to be heard.
Our route took us the long way, heading eventually towards Malta, where fighter planes were to give us protection. This was to be near enough to a four hour flight, the last hour or so would be in darkness, yet with some light from a quarter moon. The flight was a very rough one, for by now the wind had increased strongly and most of our journey was very, very unpleasant. Many men were sick and couldn’t wait for us to cast off and get down on firm ground. Once we were, I should think, between Malta and Sicily, the order was given “Equipment on, minutes to cast off”.
Approaching land we were fired on by ack-ack. This shook the glider. We could see the outline of land, at last we were here, then suddenly we were back over the sea. The order came from the pilot, “Equipment off, we’re about to crash into the drink”. By this time it was much quieter as the glider prepared to make an emergency landing in the sea. I at the time thought it would be near or just on the edge of the shore. Gliding down is a speed of between 80 – 100 mph, could the pilot get us down safely?
Suddenly an almighty crash, we had crashed into the sea and within a second or two we were all at least waist-deep in sea water. I was nearest the door but I believe it’s owing to the pressure of the sea it was impossible to open the door. Private Hurley found his rifle and smashed a hole in the canvas glider covering, this caused another rush of water which knocked me over. I was out of the glider and in the open sea, quickly followed by other men.
The glider had settled in the water and we scrambled on the wings. A quick count, sadly there was no sign of Private Hurley, he must have been washed away and must have been drowned. Clinging to the wings and blowing up the lifebelts was all we could do. We had three or four men who couldn’t swim. One has to try and imagine how dreadful it was for these non-swimmers, a rough sea, strong wind and a high swell facing us all. No sign of the tug plane or the rubber dinghies. We estimated we were at least three miles from the coast, and I knew that it was impossible for any of us to swim that far.
The heavy swell I spoke of could be seen like a huge wave coming towards us, swamping us all, but after some time it was better to let this swell wash us away and then swim back to the glider. The non-swimmers were too frightened to do this, and their strength must have been ebbing with each battering. It was 2200 hours when we crashed, we knew that about dawn the seaborne forces would storm the beaches, hopefully we would be spotted and rescued. But how many hours was it to be?
This buffeting went on and on. By now I had discarded my army boots, and all I was now wearing was my underpants and my KD [khaki drill] shorts. In the early hours we started to have men hit by the swell washed away in the dark, never to be seen again. The wings, although very low in the water, were just about floating and suddenly we spotted the outline of part of the invasion fleet. It must have been just before dawn. By now we had been in the drink about seven hours.
Rescue & Return
Then we could see a small landing craft heading towards us, manned by I think two or three men. They settled near us, pulled and helped us aboard, all of us by this time were exhausted and couldn’t have lasted much longer. The boat then took us to the mother ship, and once aboard the medical staff took us to the sick bay, gave us a hot drink, and told us to get into bed to try to get warm.
Later I was provided with a pair of socks, shoes and a shirt, and I went on deck. The AA guns were employed throughout the day keeping German planes at bay. I watched troops landing on the shore. One group of men were hit by a bomb from a plane and I could see bodies wounded and dead lying on the beach, and I could hear artillery fire and machine guns blazing away.
Later that day we were informed that the ship that evening would join a convoy sailing for Malta, and we would be taken ashore to await further instructions. I think it was Valletta harbour we went ashore, transported by army trucks to an army camp near Hamrun. Five days there, then back to Valletta, sailed for North Africa. Our battalion truck picked us up and drove us back to the same olive groves where we had originally set off from. We were interviewed, properly clothed, and we could see how many had gone missing.
Over the next few weeks survivors rejoined us, it depending where they were picked up from, where that particular convoy sailed for, some Malta, some straight back to North Africa. After the last survivors rejoined us the battalion was well down in strength. Besides drownings we also had men killed fighting on Sicily.
It was many, many years before the public were told of this disaster. The War Office I believe were on the point of disbanding glider battalions. What was the very first action by gliderborne troops could have been the last. General Hopkinson I have read fought tooth and nail to keep his troops for further glider invasions. He had great faith in this form of warfare. This was allowed, but sadly this most gallant of soldiers lost his life in Italy.
Maybe I have made errors in my story, after 70 years maybe persons would ask themselves how can a man remember this event, but I believe that it’s a part of my life that will live for me forever.