From Villain to Hero in Four Weeks

The year was 1944 the place somewhere in NW Europe on the Belgian/Holland border. I with my Troop was part of 1st Corps Troops under General Crocker. Our Regiment along with others known as Corps Troops (ie general service, not infantry or tanks) were not required for the time being and the General wanted the roads kept free so that stores, food, petrol etc could pass freely. We were thus confined to the fields, where we had come to rest.

I got news that some of the lesser Generals who normally hang around Corps HQ were planning to get back to the kind of soldiering they practised in peace time on Salisbury Plain. One scheme was to plan an organised march (in vehicles) to take us up to the front when required. This meant a chosen route with the Regiment marching as complete units one after the other. Not the usual mad rush when we received orders. The front vehicle in each unit was to fly a green flag and the rear one to bear a blue one. It may have been the other way round. All I know is that if you saw two greens together (or two blues) someone had made a mess of things and was probably heading in the wrong direction. There was to be a fixed interval between each vehicle and all to proceed at the same speed. The generals would then stand at the side of the road and observe the "March Discipline".

All this would take time to work out, so I asked one of my Lieutenants to go up to what was to be our new position and find a good HQ - a large building as I had grown tired of sleeping in haystacks or in the lofts of cow sheds - very warm as the heat from the cattle rose, but so also did the smell. Charlie was well pleased with his work having found a young ladies' seminary with the caretaker still there and who said he could provide hot water and loos not requiring the use of shovels.

The day came and we were ready to move with stop watches in hand when a D.R. (despatch rider) rode up to hand me a message saying that Corps HQ were taking our new found HQ, and we were left to find another. Charlie went off with not very good grace saying it was not his turn. My reasoning was he knew the area and would know where not to look.

When we met up with him in addition to his own jeep he was towing a dilapidated battle scarred one. This he said had been given to him by a Belgian White Army officer (the equivalent of the French Maquis). He had found it in a wood with 4 dead Poles. He buried the Poles and I think was hoping to keep the jeep but as he could not get spares for the repair decided to give it up. All he wanted to retain was an overcoat found in the jeep with other gear.

The jeep was quickly repaired and painted with our Regimental insignia. It was very useful as it meant every officer then had his own jeep, very useful particularly for sneaking away to a café or "what have you". Not as conspicuous as a 3 tonner or half track.

Some days later a Dutch Liaison Officer with 1st Corps came around making enquiries. His friend the Liaison Officer with the Polish Division had literally been caught with his trousers down in a "café" and his jeep was stolen from the car park. Apparently it was not uncommon for Polish soldiers to steal a vehicle and retreat to the nearest town and have the time of O'Reilly until all their money and energy was spent. They would then return, filter through their lines and come in from no man's land saying they had been captured and escaped. Thus being thought of as heroes and not deserters.

I handed over the jeep and the gear found in it, although he said it did not matter as his friend would be so grateful just to get the jeep. He had been threatened with being shot by his General if the jeep was not found.

End of story. Oh no.

The next day a horrible Dutch Liaison Officer from the Polish Division turned up demanding to see the officer who had given his coat away and the one who had stolen his jeep. He was so offensive I had him thrown out of the camp.

Again end of story. No.

The next visitor was a Captain in the Military Police (Red Caps). I told him all and I thought he dismissed it as something of a joke.

Oh no.

Our Adjutant (i/c the office) sent for me and said he was to carry out an Enquiry into the whole affair. His report was sent to Corps HQ, then to Montgomery's HQ, then on to JAG (Judge Advocate Generals) Dept. Their report to Montgomery recommended that I be Court Martialled (similar to to civilian crown court but with senior officers as judges).

Monty however was his own man not given to accepting advice. He said Court Martials were to be avoided if possible in war time as being wasteful in time and resources. He decreed that subject to my CO giving me a good report and - this is what pleased me - subject to my permission I could be tried summary by General Crocker, 1st Corps Commander. This meant arbitrary punishment being handed out as would be given to an "Other Rank" being absent without leave, or writing B-- S-- in the dust on his bed space before inspection.

I thought about the punishment the General could impose

I chose to go before the General.

Resplendent in a new battledress with yellow blancoed belt and gaiters I was escorted up to the General. I do not remember whether or not my cap was removed. All "other ranks" had their hats off for fear of them concealing a hand grenade in it to hurl at the "judge". An officer was perhaps considered too much of a gentleman for such conduct.

I was asked, after the charge was read out, if I pleaded guilty or not guilty.

"Guilty, Sir".

"I must take a very serious view of this particularly as the jeep belonged to a foreign power" - the Poles - as much to say if it had been the "Buffs" or the "Green Howards" nothing more would have been said. "Under the circumstances I have no alternative but to award you a Severe Reprimand - March Out."

I thus became the possessor of Army Form 121 which is an officer's conduct sheet. Even in disgrace officers were not to be counted with ORs (other ranks) who had AF122. These sheets should follow you around and be recorded in one's discharge papers. Perhaps mine was not made out, or lost, or sent to the Polish General but I never heard of it again.

A month later I was again sent for to go before General Crocker. As soon as I booked in the brigade major (who was the same one as previously) said "You again. You will not get away with it this time. You are for the high jump". My reply was to the effect that I was not in trouble and the General wanted to compliment me about something. This did not please him. "I do nothing wrong, wait on the General hand and foot, never go on leave and I don't even get 'Mentioned in Dispatches'". My reply was something to the effect that he should put himself around and advertise himself a little. At this he almost foamed at the mouth. As I was led away, my escort said "you said the wrong thing there. In civilian life he has his own advertising agency".

I do not remember the exact set up but General Crocker was most pleasant. If he did remember me from my previous meeting he was too polite to mention it. He congratulated me on all I had done since landing on D Day and presented me with a piece of white-purple-white striped ribbon the size of a large postage stamp. Just enough for a strip on one battledress. He added that HRH King George VI would be giving me a more formal recognition at a more convenient time.

And that is how I came to be awarded the Military Cross.

mc medal

I did not get to Buckingham Palace as the King had become much too ill to stand for longer than to dub a few knights or give a few KCBs. The metalwork came by post.

The citation

mc citation

mc in local paper
Reprinted in the local paper

mc confirmation

©2003 Ron Bromley