Eric Russell 232 & HQ 50 Division Engineers
Eric Russell is a good friend of mine and is now approaching 90 years of age. When talking to him it is apparent that his engineers division was at many of the main battles of World War II. He is therefore one of the thousands of heroes that have stories that lie untold in the main. The majority of this potted history is re-printed from the official magazine of the North East Military Vehicle Group, and was written by John Stelling in 1995. I will add extra pieces as I hear them but I am sure you will agree that Eric's is a remarkable story.

The Company and HQ were based at Barras Bridge, Newcastle. Call up papers arrived for the Division and the Engineers had to report at 7.30 24th August 1939.
Eric misunderstood the 7.30 and took it to be at night, so around tea time two Red Caps arrived to arrest him. However, all was sorted and they moved to Whitney in Oxfordshire where they were responsible for looking after the Division's billets, preparing and maintaining them.

The bulk of 50 Division crossed to Cherbourg on the 19th January 1940 and the vehicles loaded on to flat cars. As there was no antifreeze all radiators had to be drained and one driver forgot, which was a chargeable offence. They climbed over the flat cars and found it frozen solid, and after their first stop a mechanic found a brazier and carefully defrosted the engine, without cracking the block (much to the driver's relief).

They were based at Everoux, training on mines in addition to a little bridging. Eric was a Dispatch Rider and when the Germans broke through things became very confused and he spent his time travelling between the Field Company's (232 and 505 Company's), the Field Pak (235 Company) and the CRE 50th Division HQ finishing up on the beach at Le Pan near Dunkirk. 50th Div. were fighting on the defensive and were among the last evacuated, Eric returning on a Destroyer to Dover and moving to Aldershot, ending up at Nutsford where they were given a hero's welcome by the population and given cigarettes by the children.

The Engineers spent most of the Battle of Britain in Weston Super-Mare, tasked with supplying water to bomb damaged Bristol using Bedford MWC water tankers.

The Division embarked for the Middle East in April 1941, the Engineers (232 and 505 Field Company's) on the Empress of Russia, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to Port Said, a journey of 7 weeks. 232 Field Company disembarked and were camped under canvas at Quassan, Egypt, where the temperature soared to 107°F.

On the 22r.d June 1941 they sailed to Cyprus on the HMS Violeo to work on the Island defences until November 1941 when they returned to Hyfa in Palestine on the HMS New Zealand S Khandar. Due to an expected German attack from southern Russia the Division moved through Syria to Iraq, again to construct defences. Transport was ex Indian Army vehicles.

The Division was returned to the Western Desert, 232 Company was with 150 Brigade, 505 with 151 Brigade; and 233 Field Company which had rejoined the Division in June 1940, was with 69 Brigade. The Brigades formed defensive boxes along the front, each box an inde­pendent fighting unit with minefields between. This position was known as the Gazala Line. However, the defences were stretched and when the Germans attacked, 150 Brigade, including 232 Company were cut off and lost. Eric was one of the last out before they were cut off. Racing across the desert without lights the truck in front vanished and when he stopped he found, much to his embarrassment, that he had driven into a cesspit.

The Division took part in the battle of El Alamein and the Engineers were tasked with mine clearing and water supply, a job they carried out all the way to Tunis, after which they were returned to Alexandria to train for the invasion of Sicily. After waterproofing their vehicles they em­barked and sailed for Sicily on the 1st July 1943.

The Division landed in the south east of the island to capture the Port of Syracuse. The Engineers task was to clear the beach and route of mines. After the battle of Primosole Bridge it was feared that the bridge at Cantanin was blown by the Germans. Eric had to drive one of his officers in a scout car to reconnoitre the town in case bridging materials were required. Fortunately the bridge was captured intact.

The Engineers did not cross the Straits of Messina with the rest of the Division, however, the entire Division returned to the UK to prepare for the invasion of Europe. Eric received his first leave in 5 years and married his Land Army fiancés Milly, whose name he had painted on the petrol tank of his Norton motorcycle. Based in Cambridge the Engineers spent their time re-equipping and waterproofing their vehicles before moving to Romsey, where they were confined to camp prior to embarkation for Europe.

There is a little story Eric tells about Milly. When she was based as a Land Army girl they also had Italian prisoners of war based at the farm where she was. Eric used to send chocolate home as a "special treat" for Milly. One prisoner called Giuseppe always appeared when she received the parcel saying he was a poor prisoner could he have some chocolate. One time when this happened she was so fed up she pushed him off the haystack top. He never asked again!

The Division landed on Gold Beach at 7.25am on the 6th June 1944. Eric landed in a mixed group of Infantry and Engineers, with the crew of the landing craft testing the depth of water with long poles. The man in front of Eric stepped off and immediately disappeared under water and Eric grabbed his webbing straps and pulled him back up.
The Divisional Engineers were involved in mine and obstacle clearance, fighting through to Villers Bocage and were with the Guards Armoured Division at Falaise where they trapped the retreating German Army in Normandy.

The advance through France and Belgium was rapid, and when the Division entered Brussels they found themselves unable to move due to the reception of the population. 505 Field Company was based in King Leopold's Park and when HQ sent orders to move they could not find the troops as they were all at parties organised by the Belgians.

The Division was involved in XXX Corps dash through a narrow corridor to Arnhem which unfortunately ended at Nijmegen, short of the British Paratroopers at Arnhem.

The Highland Light Infantry were dug in and one of the Engineer officers was measuring the depth of water at the bridge and warned them that the river was in flood and there was a danger of flooding, so they pulled out before their positions were swamped. The Sappers were billeted in the power station in Nijmegen.

The Division was withdrawn to the UK in November as a training Division but the Engineers and Service Corps were retained as XXX Corps troops still keeping the TT badge. They were attached to the 53rd Welsh Division, fighting through the Richwald Forest into Germany. The Sappers crossed the Rhine at Reele, first with a Pontoon bridge and then with a Bailey bridge named the Tyne Tees Bridge. They ended the war at Itze near Hanover and often undertook illegal deer hunts in the Black Forest.


Eric and his mates
Eric second from left
Eric 3rd from left
This bridge Eric was awarded a very high medal which to this day he has never recieved.
Eric's handy work.





Norman Bell
Norman is another friend of mine who served in the latter part of WWII. He was just a boy but really served his part for the war effort. This is his story. The area involved is Blyth, Northumberland, UK.

Norman's Father was a Veteran of the Great War and had served in France as a driver of a motor cycle & sidecar with a mounted machine gun. He volunteered for the 9th.Batt. Tank corps. (thinking they were for water delivery for the troops). He trained as a tank driver promoted to a Corporal, he did his training and moved to the front. Baden Powell, Later Lord Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scout movement) was Commander of the 9th. Batt. Tank corps. (After the Great War he was a tank instructor in Dorset.)

In 1938 when Norman was 11 his father joined the A.R.P. as a Warden with a rank of Corporal.

The Blyth grammar school annex was used for the assembly of gas masks, and Norman went with his father to help. He was taught by the instructor how to assemble gasmasks, learning how to fit the rubber face piece to the base filter and place the rubber sealing band around to complete the gasmask they were then inspected and passed O.K. Later in 1940 modifications were needed, an extra filter was fitted to the base of the original filter after a recall, as new gases were developed;

During the school summer holidays of 1939 he went with my pals down to the beach at Blyth and helped to fill sandbags along with naval personnel. The sandbags were placed on the jetties near the submarines for gun emplacements.

The war started 3rd.Sept. 1939 at 11am. on a Sunday morning he was on the beach that day filling sandbags, the siren sounded, I made his way home. When he arrived his family and neighbours were standing in a partly dug air raid shelter which Norman and his father helped to dig. He laughed seeing them in the open, holding gasmasks, he was later told off.

A large public air raid shelter was built on the junction of Plessey road and Broadway (A road named Rotary Way now covers the site of the shelter; an historical find for the future.) The shelter was of brick and concrete with a flight of stairs down, built on an E shape construction.

A concrete barrier was assembled across the road and blocks of concrete were built into the adjacent private gardens. The barrier had an opening for traffic and slots for railway lines to be placed in them. Round concrete blocks that could be rolled in the middle of the road were also made. His father was Warden for the shelter and they lived near-by on Broadway.

Rechargeable lanterns (Accumulator Types) were kept in their garage, on the nights of the raids a yellow warning would be received, we would install the lanterns in the shelter, and a red warning indicated a raid had started. Norman spent many a night carrying these heavy lanterns to the shelter. The shelter would hold about 100 people but not that many would come later in the war as most had Anderson shelters in their gardens. A very damp concrete smell pervaded the shelter those winter nights.

His education suffered, because if the all clear sounded before midnight the schools opened at 10 am the next day if the raids lasted after midnight the schools were closed until the afternoon.

Norman left school in 1941 aged 14 and joined his father’s radio and cycle business in Blyth. He says he learned more with his father than he did at school.

A year later he joined the Civil Defence Corps when he was 15 years old as a pedal cycle messenger and posted to a first aid centre at a local school in Blyth His mother wasn’t pleased at this, as I was out during air-raids, but my father thought ahead of what may come, and experience would be needed.

His civilian style gasmask was changed for a thick rubber mask with large eye-pieces. Air raids were frequent every night due to the submarine base there. A local Doctor would attend at the school first aid post during an air-raid or lectures.

 One time, he travelled home on a bus from Newcastle with a pal, after a day visiting bomb damage areas. As it was dark blue lights were used to illuminate the interior. When they arrived in Blyth an air-raid was in progress. They hurried home to change to their uniforms.

The sky above was suddenly illuminated by orange flares suspended on parachutes. We ran to the nearest air raid street shelter, but found it locked. We heard the screech of three bombs being dropped, we dived to the ground against a house wall, biting on our ties in our mouths covering our ears with our hands, as we were trained at lectures we attended. We felt the thud as two bombs exploded, roof tiles dropped near us as we bounced across the pavement and wondered what happened to the third bomb by the time we got home the all -clear was sounded.

 The next day was Sunday, we met and went to find the bomb craters. We found them in a field a good few hundred yards away from where we lay. They seemed much nearer that night, Years later in 1999 a bomb was found on a new building site near where we found the two craters, it was defused by a bomb disposal unit from Catterick North Yorkshire.)


When Norman was 16 years old I bought a 1929 D.O.T   Villiers Motor Cycle for £5. He learnt to drive it, no road tests were necessary then, and became a dispatch rider. His thick rubber mask was again changed to a service type with flexible hose.

He soon sold the Villiers and bought a 1937 A.J.S. 350 cc motor cycle for £40. He was then posted to the Blyth control centre.

The motorcycle photographs were taken in 1943 at the Control Centre Broadway circle Blyth. This control centre was situated on the "Broadway Circle" in Blyth. (it is still there today 2006). The photograph opposite is take there. 

His parent’s house was on Broadway, and as they had a telephone and as lived so near to the Control Centre he was first to be called for any extra duty.

He spent many a night in an old spooky big house near the control centre and got paid 3 Shillings a night. (The average wage then was 40 shillings a week (£2)  


He had a list of Home Guard KEY personnel to call out if an invasion happened. He did training courses on poisonous Gases, also motor cycle maintenance and scrambles in local woods.

The civil defence dispatch rider corps was keen to form a rifle club. Norman was asked by their Corps. Officer to arrange an interview with the Commander of the D.E.M.S (Defensibly Equipped Merchant Ships).

He met Commander Roberts at the quayside drill hall Blyth and he agreed to allow them to use the rifle range, he would arrange a team to appose us and give them the use of their American .22 5 round magazine Mossberg rifles.

They didn’t win, but enjoyed their tea and biscuits and used their range a number of times. (In later years Norman was a member of the Blyth home guard rifle club, and won a place on the Northumberland county 20 team.)

In 1944 Norman was "called up" for National Service officially and was posted to R.E.M.E. Royal Engineers. To his great disappointment he found he was in a reserved occupation as he was involved with the Naval Submarine base in Blyth. He serviced and charged Aldus signal Lamp batteries for the Base, the 12 x 2inch batteries were held in a wooden carrier Box for each battery cell. He would flush them out with distilled water and re-fill with Sulphuric acid then charge them up ready for delivery or collection by Naval rating personnel each week.

When Seventeen using his fathers Woolsley 14HP car he collected radios from the base for repair at the family shop. 

These days boys of 14 to 17 watch TV, play computer games and generally have a relaxed time to grow up. In Norman's day he was risking his life, being bombed and most certainly not living a relaxed life. How times change.








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