Feature: Tom will always remember those war-weary faces

Tom Wood of the Royal Engineers
Tom Wood of the Royal Engineers

THE SECOND World War took Eastbourne’s Tom Wood from the Sussex coast all the way to Burma, via South Africa. But, as Richard Morris found out, it was his time serving in Europe which proved most memorable.

“I CAN remember laying in a ditch, surrounded by refugees as the Germans fired on us,” recalls 91-year-old veteran Tom Wood. “This was not a military target but they were shooting at us anyone. The plane made two or three runs. I looked at a little girl who was near me. I could tell from her eyes she was terrified. I remember thinking, ‘She just does not deserve this,’.”

Winston Churchill inspects the troops

Winston Churchill inspects the troops

Mr Wood, settled in the armchair of his Brodrick Road home, was reminiscing about the time he and a friend had joined a column of thousands of refugees after a narrow escape from German tanks.

As part of his work with the Royal Engineers he has just finished laying a field of mines in a bid to delay the Nazi war machines pursuit of retreating Allied Forces when his regiment was caught in a vicious fire fight – culminating in the order of every man for himself.

“Suddenly a shell landed near us,” explained Mr Wood, “Someone shouted ‘tanks’ and about half a dozen came over a nearby ridge and started firing at us.

“We were told to take cover but as we looked around we couldn’t see any. The field had a gradual slope so we made a run for it to try and get out of the line of fire. As we ran there were bullets flying passed our heads and hitting the ground by our feet. They were whizzing just over our heads. By rights we should have died in that field.”

Escape the gunfire they did, but not without another miraculous near miss. “My friend turned to me and said he thought he had been shot. His trousers were wet and clammy and it looked like blood. But, when he reached for a drink he found his canteen empty, but with something wedged in it.

“A bullet, or piece of shrapnel had hit his bottle and what we thought was blood was just his water leaking out. It was certainly a close call.”

It would not be the last near miss of his war. Having been told to head for Dunkirk, Mr Wood found himself on a nearby beach, watching from afar as the harbour was bombarded by bombs. Not that where he was was any safer. Ducking between the comparative shelter of the nearby dunes and the water’s edge, Mr Wood spent a day and a half waiting to be picked up, along with thousands of other troops.

He missed out on the first boat to stage an evacuation but, as he explained, what seemed to be misfortune actually turned out to be a stroke of luck.

“A pleasure steamer arrived and there were rowing boats coming ashore to transport people off the beach. I joined the queue but just as I got to the front the boat came back to say they were full up.

“Disappointed, I headed back to the dunes but then we heard the sound of aircraft and we knew it must be German. It bombed the boat. It was terrible. There were bodies and people jumping into the sea but sinking because of their heavy army boots.

“The boat caught fire and sank. The bodies washed up further down the shore. I was very lucky to have not got on the boat.”

Temporary salvation arrived in the black of night when a rowing boat was discovered floating in the wash. Together with five others Mr Wood gave it the once over, picked up an oar and begin rowing for all he was worth. “We didn’t know where we were going, we just wanted to get away from that damn beach.”

The crew were picked up by a little further out and sent into a claustrophobic hold to sit and wait with other rescued soldiers – and with the boat heading into Dunkirk to collect more people the wait, according to Mr Wood, was hellish.

Gradually though the sound of bombs and gunfire faded and the boat made it across the Channel, landing alongside Margate Pier where Mr Wood was given a postcard and told to let his family know he was ok – a postcard he still has today.

After that he was posted to the north of England where his company began improving coastal defences, and he arrived in Hull just as the Luftwaffe began its aerial assault on the city. “Planes would start at around 7pm and carry on, wave after wave all through the night,” recalled the pensioner, stopping to remember one incident when 15 or 20 homes were destroyed just yards from where he sat in an air raid shelter.

Following intense training and pep talks from Winston Churchill and King George VI, he was sent to Burma where he became one of the first Brits to engage the Japanese and took part in some of the fiercest battles of the entire conflict.

However, it is a string of small, personal moments which he remembers most vividly today. One was when a comrade hid with him in a sand bunker during a bombing raid on a rail depot they were working on. “We both sat there and our dispatch rider, a chap called Harry Ralph, said to me ‘This is a good place. If we get bombed again we should come back here’.

“We did get bombed again but Harry was nowhere to be seen. I found out he had been killed. The ground was hard so we could not even bury him. We just had to leave him there. Someone put a bullet in his head to make sure he was dead.”

And, amidst all the blood shed and drama, it is the weary face of a Belgian pensioner which Mr Wood recalls most often.

“We were blowing up a bridge,” he explained, “and there was a house next to it which was going to go as well.

“I had to go and tell the old couple there they had to leave. It was an awful job.

“They came out with only the clothes they stood in and starting walking down the road. The old man turned and looked at me – I can still picture his face – and just asked where he should go.

“There was nothing I could tell him or do for him. I hope somebody did help him.

“I still think about that to this day.”