[page last updated 14 May 2015]
Selected excerpts from Lieutenant Keith Best's autobiography 'Best Endeavours'.
This transcription appears by kind permission of his family, who retain the copyright for the main text.
Published by the author in 1992, the ISBN is 978-0951 956 106.
Explanatory notes for phrases used in the original text are in parentheses and italics. Names which appear in the Roll of Honour are linked to their relevant page on the website.
During the last few months before our finals [Sheffield University -civil engineering] , various recruiting officers from the services would visit the University. I imagine that like myself, most teenagers selected their war service according to their particular vanities- the style of uniform, degree of glamour, ability to attract girls, etc. At school, in the 6th form, I had visions of becoming a Spitfire pilot. At university, an exquisitely uniformed young man from the 17th/21st Lancers came to interview those of us who were interested. I think the main attraction was his skull and crossbones cap badge but they turned me down because one of my eyes was not up to scratch. That was in the days before one learned how to cheat the eye testers. In the end of course, they advised that only the Royal Engineers was appropriate for me and they were probably right.....
... In due course I got notice, telling me to report to Seventh Training Battalion, Royal Engineers at Chatham in September 1942....
At the age of 19, in September 1942, I reported to the Seventh Training Battalion, Royal Engineers at Kitchener Barracks, Chatham in company with thirty or forty other teenagers, the majority had been on short courses at various universities. We were issued with our kit, including stiff randomly creased battledress impregnated with some chlorine compound which left a white residue as if starched and then trampled on. I suspect these uniforms had been specially processed so that we could be easily identified by the resident swaddies [now more commonly termed as squaddies] as derisive objects. Moreover, we were housed in the Boy's Block and someone had painted 'OCTU CRAP' [OCTU=Officer Cadet's Training Unit] in large white lettering above the entrance.
We were a collection of reasonably intelligent, healthy and no doubt arrogant young men, quite a handful for the middle aged gentlemanly CSM [Company Sergeant Major] who was put in charge of us. Certainly there was an initial period of licentious misbehaviour, including the smuggling of young Chatham ladies through the windows of the Boy's Block. But it didn't last long and we were soon bashing the square and humping rolled steel joists and timber baulks in the Raveline, learning how to build stock span bridges without crushing your fingers.
After a short time we were transferred to Wrotham in Kent, to a unit known as a pre-OCTU training camp. There followed several weeks of hard physical work while they tried to turn us in to soldiers and at the same time check out whether we were fit to be officers. We drilled and learned about various weapons, how to ride motorcycles, how to drive Bedford 3 tonners in convoy, boot polishing, blancoing [camouflage] and all the other things that make up basic soldiering. Two events during this period especially stick in my mind. Digging a slit trench, facing my partner, we were chivvied up by an NCO who warned us about the imminent arrival of the Commanding Officer on an inspection. Accelerating the dig I was felled by my partner's pick axe, top dead centre of the skull. They took me to the Joyce Green Hospital near Dartford, stitched me up and afterwards put me through a series of psychological tests, ringing bells and intelligence exercises etc., before sending me back. But the other incident was a tragedy for one young man from the Lake District. He was a popular high flyer who performed better than the rest of us. Then without warning, over a short period, he became increasingly depressed until he began talking about suicide. None of us took him seriously but no one could get through to him. One night he blew his brains out in the ablutions. Those of us who had talked so much with him were left with a feeling of failure and perhaps negligence.
Towards the end of 1942, I transferred to 140 Royal Engineers Field OCTU at Bowbridge Road, Newark. We were taught military engineering, how RE officers should conduct themselves, tactics, ceremonial drills, battle drills, man management and all the other essential parts of a war time Sapper's makeup, including a lot of fun. Bailey bridging provided diverse opportunities. Apart from the mental, physical and practical experience, including carrying panels with five others, with your forearm crooked and learning how to keep your fingers out of the way of panel pins driving through holes (especially during the night crossing of the River Trent at Kelham), there could be occasional hilarity. I'm not sure now whether it was at Newark, but I remember a bridging exercise over a river supervised by a young officer. Everything went according to plan until the launching. As you know you have to have enough bridge structure or counterweight on shore to balance the cantilever during launching. Well several of us could see that this particular launching was reaching a critical stage but he had continued to order 'Altogether heave'. What a joy it was to see the launching nose drift gently downward into the drink.
My favourite military subjects were those concerned with demolition and explosives and it was my first real introduction to calculations based on empirical principals. You had gun cotton slabs and sticks of Nobel's 808, both were cutting charges and there was a handbook which gave rules for calculating the thickness of metal, masonry or concrete that various weights and arrangements could demolish. The word 'camouflet' has a pleasant ring about it, as if it were some provincial dish out of Elizabeth David [an English cookery writer] instead of blowing a crater. You first drove a small borehole to the required depth and exploded a small pre-determined explosive charge at the end to make a cavity. This cavity was filled with 'Ammonal', a low explosive which was detonated to make a crater. All the necessary dimensions and quantities could be estimated from empirical rules. And I found cordtex [explosive chord] interesting, especially when it was arranged in circuits and ring mains to join successive charges with a single detonation....
... My friend from school and university, Roy Coupe, was a contemporary at 140 OCTU. Newark is not far, perhaps 35 miles, from Sheffield so whenever we had weekend passes, we would hitchhike there. Hitchhiking in uniform in wartime was a perfectly respectable occupation and almost always 100% successful. We would stand on the turning beyond the level crossing to Kelham, Clowne, Ollerton, etc. and would soon get to Sheffield. On Saturday nights we would go to the Brincliffe Tennis club dances, resplendent in our battledress with white flashes on epaulets and caps. We would consume quantities of Worthington, dance with girls to the sound of Bernard Taylor's band and generally enjoy ourselves. It was there that I saw my future wife, without however making contact at that time.
I seemed to get on reasonably well at Newark, becoming an 'under officer' which entitled you to wear pips on your sleeve and carried a few privileges. One of these was a separate room at the end of the Nissan hut which I shared with Harry Yeadon, another under officer with whom I kept in touch over the years. He retired a few years ago as County Surveyor of Lancashire. My proudest moment at OCTU was being in charge of the passing out parade- full ceremonial with the band playing. A short time before passing out, there were visits from various officers, recruiting for various units. I put my name down for a Parachute Squadron, I suppose because I fancied myself in a red hat. In due course I was interviewed by Captain Allan Jack and found myself accepted.
Five weeks training followed, first at Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield and then at Ringway Airfield, Manchester [now Manchester International Airport]. Hardwick is a stately pile, built by Elizabeth Shrewsbury and the grounds had been converted to a battle course. There was a combination of hard physical exercise, learning how to fall and roll by keeping the feet and knees together and constant assault coursing supervised and enlivened by a bunch of madmen using live ammunition. There was also some of the nasty stuff- unarmed combat, how to burst eardrums and break necks, how a knife to the carotid could kill in 12 seconds and so on. At Ringway, there was an introduction to parachuting using a series of fuselage mockups and fancy equipment to simulate jumping. The most exciting machine was known as 'The Fan', a kind of air brake that slowed you down just enough after jumping from the roof of the hanger. To qualify for your wings you needed eight jumps; two from balloons and six from aircraft, landing on Tatton Park.
The first jump from a balloon in daylight was undeniably frightening. There was no slip stream so you fell a considerable distance with a nibbling feeling at the shoulders before the canopy cracked open like a spinnaker and you began to feel better. In those days the chutes supplied by the GQ Parachute Company [Gregory Quilter Co.] were 28 feet in diameter with 22ft long rigging lines and a static line twelve feet six inches long, which remained fixed to the aircraft. Unlike the modern versions, steering was limited and landings were fast and hard but when you finally got there, the exhilaration was unbelievable. The RAF instructors at Ringway were right when they told us to expect 'the second greatest thrill in a man's life'.
We also jumped from converted twin engined Whitley bombers which were obsolescent even in 1940. There was a hole in the floor of the fuselage and ten men, five sitting fore and five aft, would jump. When the green light went on, we jumped alternately from each side, those on the outside shuffling sideways like crabs towards the centre. The hole was thirty inches diameter and three feet deep so if you were sitting aft, special attention was necessary to avoid smashing your face on the side of the tunnel as the slip stream caught your legs. I managed my six Whitley jumps without too much incident and then there was the final balloon decent at night. This required a big effort of will power after enjoying fast opening canopies from aircraft. And there was the darkness and silence as four of us sat gloomily round a hole in the basket going slowly up to five hundred feet before a sepulchral Scot's voice was heard- "I canna go." Prompted by our instructor, he went, so did I and we both qualified for our wings.
After swanking around the Sheffield pubs during a short leave, I reported to the Officer's Mess, Beacon Barracks, Bulford camp. The mess was empty except for this determined looking chap in full battle rig leaning on the mantelpiece. He was Bob Beaumont and during the last 45 plus years, I have regularly dined and wined with him, the first of a series of friendships that developed after what in present day terms would be a short term acquaintance. There were two Sapper squadrons at Bulford in 1943- I was posted to 591(Antrim) and the other was 3rd Squadron. Bob Beaumont was in 3rd Squadron commanded by Major Tim Roseveare, a future partner in Freeman Fox and partners. 591 had been a Field Company in Northern Ireland converted to parachuting and was commanded by Major Andy Wood. Peter Cox, a future senior partner of Rendell, Palmer and Tritton and a future President, Institution of Civil Engineers, was a contemporary in 591 as was Tony Oliviera, who became a medical consultant on the Isle of Wight. He was a particular friend from Newark days who died prematurely in 1980 [ correction should read 1983]. My few years in the wartime army were a fruitful source of lasting friendships, as will become apparent in the course of this book. By that time, Whitleys were things of the past and we jumped through doors, from C47 aircraft, Dakotas, flown by 38 Wing, later Group, RAF.
During 1943 and 1944, we were exercised over and over again, sent on street fighting courses etc. And generally sharpened up. We also played hard in Amesbury, Salisbury, the Wallops, Winchester, Southampton, Ringwood and Bournemouth among many other places. Jock Hinshelwood and I were regular visitors, by motorcycle, to the Clausentum Club in Southampton and the Traveller's Club in Winchester.
On Sundays we would often congregate at Sarah Ann Bundy's pub in Middle Wallop where Gordon Davidson, 3rd Squadron's adjutant was a notable consumer. [This was likely to be the Crown Inn at Cholderton where Mrs Bundy is recorded as licensee in 1939.] We also had some good parties in the mess at Bulford. The Bank of England had evacuated to Whitchurch, just down the road, so there was ample availability of handsome girls. Usually, our parties in the mess would end in pyramid scrums, with the object of getting girls up to the high ceiling, which they autographed with lipstick. In 1944, a glider battalion of the Worcestershire Yeomanry joined us in the mess; they were a bit stuffy. I regret to say that we Sappers, not too pleased with this intrusion of our mess, used to break up their formal dinners by singing 'The CRE' and by other disgraceful activities.
By the spring of 1944, we realised that something was in the wind. We had a visit from the King [George V], pep talks by Montgomery and exhortations by Major General Richard Gale who commanded 6th Airborne. I was in No. 2 Troop of 591 Squadron and we were attached to 9th Parachute Battalion. We were given the job of building a replica of a gun battery using tubular scaffolding and hessian, in farmland near Hungerford where crops were bulldozed and we worked night and day to reshape the ground to a certain specification. Then we made a perimeter of barbed wire and laid dummy mines. Secrecy and security measures suggested that the real thing was not too far away and sure enough, we were soon briefed for the operation without disclosure of the location or timing. It was a complicated, apparently foolproof plan. A hundred Lancasters were to bomb the battery, three gaps would be blown through the wire and minefields cleared by Sappers; then there would be an assault on the guns which would be demolished. We moved to concentration areas by the airfield, got to know the aircrews who would be flying us and studied maps, models and aerial photographs. I well remember the final briefing by Dicky Gale. After reminding us of all the rehearsals, training, familiarisation and so on that we had experienced, he went on to say 'I now have to tell you that inevitably there will be cock ups and it will be up to you to find a way round them', or words to that effect.
Well it certainly was a cock up. The Lancasters missed their target by miles, one of the gliders landed in Basingstoke, most of the RAF navigators mistook the River Dives for the River Orne, 9th Battalion was dropped over a huge area, some towards Honfleur and ultimately about 150 men out of 800 reached the rendezvous. But Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway was deposited in roughly the right place, took the initiative with his depleted force and demolished the Merville Battery. To cap it all, the guns were found to be of smaller calibre and less sophisticated than intelligence had suggested. But it was a great achievement by Otway and of his men, very many of whom gave their lives fighting their way out of a gigantic balls up.
I forget which airfield we went from, near Oxford, (The paratroopers destined for Merville left from RAF. Broadwell) but can remember the balloons made from inflated French letters that we tied to the aircraft. When we got across the channel there was a lot of flak and our pilot seemed to be taking evasive action. We began to get thrown about inside and then the red and green lights came on in what seemed to be unusually quick succession and we were bundled out of the door. We carried our explosives in kit bags attached to our right legs and the drill was to release them and pay out the bag on about 10 feet of line as soon as the chute opened. I was unable to get that far because as I felt for the release gadget, I hit the ground hard. Instead of a six hundred feet fall, it must have been around three hundred and as I found out later, instead of finding the dropping zone near Varaville, the RAF put us down well east of the River Dives and ten or fifteen miles off target on higher ground near the village of St Pierre-Azif near Deauville. I expect the RAF exercised due skill, care and diligence, but there was nothing I could do about getting to Merville on time.
Of course, one initially assumed one was in the right place but it was not long before doubts set in. For a start, it was hilly and full of trees, totally unlike the models and aerial photographs and despite a lot of clicking with the signalling gadgets they gave us, I failed to make any contact with anyone. At dawn, after setting off in what should have been the right direction, I found myself in a farmyard watching a very old lady milking a cow. In full battle rig and blackened face, carrying a Sten gun and a pack full of beehives and similar fancy explosives, I stood before her. She looked me up and down, gave a directional jerk of her head and carried on milking. Soon afterwards I was joined by a chap in a black beret. With my limited knowledge of the French language, acquired at school, his instructions eventually became clear. I was to walk behind him and whenever he fell flat on his face, I was to fire my Sten gun over him.
He led me to the church of St. Pierre-Azif and down into the crypt where I found a collection of odds and sods from 9th Battalion and some of my Sappers. So we got ourselves organised. There were some wounded and injured who were left concealed at the church to await relief. There were some who elected to get out of uniform and try their luck getting back in disguise (they were successful) and the rest of us formed ourselves in kind of platoons, setting off westwards to rejoin the 6th Airborne Division. We travelled by night and lay up during daylight; during the next week or so, my group dwindled for one reason or another from about thirty to five or six.
I cannot give a blow by blow description of everything that happened during that time but there are some things that have stuck in the mind. I suppose that in compensation for the disappointment of the Merville cock up, we tended to be looking for ways to justify our roles as invaders and liberators. I soon popped off my stock of explosives on anything that seemed handy and we did our best to spread alarm and despondency among the enemy. Above all, I remember the unlimited hospitality and help we enjoyed from the Normans who put themselves at great risk by feeding and concealing us in daylight. Pot au feu's [stew] made with cabbage, ripe un-pasteurised Camembert and Pont-l'Évêque cheeses, rough cider from vats containing drowned mice, Calvados, cleaning Sten guns with butter are memories which have imprinted a lasting affection for the French. There was one occasion when I was buried in a hay loft, searched by German soldiers poking their rifles around in the hay- quite exhilarating because they missed me. But there was another occasion which left me with a funny feeling for some years and which although diminished, continues today. In our journey westwards we had to cross a main road and there was a single German sentry. I used my knife on him.
We slowly made progress westwards, past Glanville, Branville, Douville [Douville-en-Auge] , heading towards the river Dives which we planned to cross opposite Varaville where we expected to find the 9th Battalion. One day we were laid up in a ditch on a farm west of Dozule planning to cross the river that night. At dusk there was a commotion in front of us and we saw the farmer, his wife and children walking towards us. Behind them followed a line of German troops, rifles at the ready, behind us advanced another line who started shooting. We had become complacent on the last lap and fell for a simple deception. Our captors were real professionals from 21st Panzer Division sent in to stop the rot in Normandy.
Keith Best spent 9 months as a prisoner of war and subsequent chapters of this book cover his harrowing time in captivity, followed by liberation and a posting to Palestine, before he ventured back into civvie street as a civil engineer. He writes of his involvement in the designing and bridge building for the film production of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' and numerous other projects. Copies of this book are currently available on Amazon and assorted other online book retailers, and I heartily recommend reading it. He led an extra-ordinary life.
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