Alfred Smith, 97, from Essex, served in the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II. He was evacuated from Dunkirk and went on to take part in the D-Day landings before being hospitalised by a shrapnel injury. Alfred lost his wife Betty 14 years ago. He is now a regular member at SSAFA’s Southend Veterans Club.
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“The 24th May 1940 was my 21st birthday. I was driving an Army lorry and my job was to supply troops with everything they needed so we were a constant target for the Germans. On May 24th I was in a little French square. We were given references but never names of towns or villages. We had the lorries stored under trees to camouflage them and as we walked across the square a German fighter machine-gunned me - on my 21st birthday! We got underway and were driving along a very wide road that went through a forest. I came round a bend and the road was completely blocked by a bombed railway bridge. We thought we should find another way round but someone came over the bank with a revolver in his hand. I grabbed my rifle but then realised it was a British officer. He said lucky for you the bridge is down because the Germans are still in control. He said in case you don’t know, you are surrounded so make for the beach.
“I drove back to where our company was but they had already gone so I then drove for two days with no sleep and we eventually arrived at Dunkirk. We had to blow the lorries up so the Germans could not use them and then we sat on the beach for 48 hours waiting to get off. Planes kept coming over machine-gunning us and lots of my friends were killed because there was nowhere to hide.
“Eventually, a paddle steamer came so I went in the water and swam for a few yards and was pulled on board. I think I just passed out and when I came to they had carried me downstairs. We landed at Harwich and then I found out that just 31 got back out of 107 of us.
“After that we got sent up to Worcestershire and for about four or five weeks I was teaching soldiers to drive three tonners. Then we were sent to Lisburn in Northern Ireland. I was there for three and a half years but was then suddenly brought back to England to Tilbury. We were told to cover all the electrical wiring underneath our lorries but I had no idea what was going on. A few days later I was landing at Gold Beach in Normandy two days after D-Day. When I drove off the ship and down the ramp the lorry actually went under the water, only briefly but that was obviously the reason for covering all the wiring."
“I had a few lucky escapes during the war. We used to drive in darkness with no lights and we would sleep in the cab of the lorry. One night we decided to lie down under the lorries just to stretch out and our whole window screen was shattered so we were lucky not to have been in the cab. Later my pal and I were in a cinema in Brussels when a bomb killed 500 people but we were lucky enough to walk out covered in dust.
“My luck ran out eventually though. After D-Day I got right through to the German border where I got hit in the back by some shrapnel. I was in hospital in Brussels and for six or seven months I couldn’t stand or walk. I was eventually taken from Brussels to Swindon by air and then to Stratford Upon Avon. I was the only service person there so they made a real fuss of me! Afterwards I was downgraded and sent up to Tenby to a POW camp for Germans and Italians. I took people out to the forest every morning to cut down trees.
“After the war I carried on driving as a taxi driver and then I became a driving instructor and I did that for 40 years.
“I had another lucky escape recently when I got stuck in my bath. It was a Saturday night about 10pm and I wasn’t rescued until 3.20pm the following day. It’s a long time to be in the bath. My daughter was away that weekend but I was lucky because I was due to have lunch with a very old friend on the Sunday and when I didn’t arrive she called. I could hear the phone ringing four times but of course I couldn’t get to it. She contacted the police and a policeman came with two paramedics and an ambulance. Fortunately they knew who my key holders were so they were able to get in. I could hear them shouting ‘Alfred, where are you?’
“They were absolutely amazing. They took my temperature and they were amazed that it was alright after that long but I did have a great big cut on my back and my elbow because I kept trying to get up and just falling back again when I was in the bath. They were all wonderful. Now I have got a special chair for the bath so it won’t happen again.
“I have been coming to SSAFA’s Southend Veterans Club for several months now and it’s very nice to meet up with everyone. A friend took me along the first time and Michele welcomed me. I’ve met some lovely new people, both other veterans and volunteers at the lunch club. I didn’t know anybody when I first went and now everyone says hello when I get there. The SSAFA volunteers Michele and Sharon are absolutely wonderful. I even had lots of cards and a cake on my birthday!”
Medals: French and German Star, the Battle of Britain, the Defence medal, War medal 1939-45, Legion D’Honneur.