Sunday, November 16, 2014

John G Downing and John Downing remembered

This was originally posted on Facebook for the lead up to Veterans Day and has been edited for inclusion here. The search started when our daughter Sally e-mailed to say the Imperial War Museum had started an online effort to gather the stories of servicemen from WW1.

I modified this page on May 8th 2015 to reflect the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 in Europe (VE Day). I added some photographs and commentary at the end regarding John Downing's service in WW2.

6 days until November 11th. Known as Armistice Day in UK for the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War and Veterans Day in the US to honor all veterans. These 2 men are both named John Downing. The one at the top is my grandfather John Garret Downing who served in WW1 from 1914 to 1919 in the Life Guards mostly on the front lines in Belgium. The one on the bottom is my father John Downing who served in World War 2 from 1940 to 1946 in Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany in the 44th Royal Tank Regiment mainly on the front lines with Montgomery's 8th Army. I thank them and all veterans for my ability to stand up straight and enjoy my freedom.
My Grandfather John Garret Downing C 1912

John Downing C 1940 

5 days until Nov 11th. On the 5th of August 1914 John G Downing was recalled to active service from his reserve status. 2 months later on 6th October he was sent to France. With the 2nd Life Guards he served on the front lines for the entire war. He survived and amazingly was never wounded. The Life Guards were heavily involved in major battles during 1914/15

2nd Life Guards leaving for the front 1914
IWM collection

4 days until Nov 11th. John G Downing originally joined the British Army in 1905 for 8 Years service in the regulars with a commitment for a further 4 years in the reserves. He joined the 17th Lancers. After basic training he sailed for India on the troop ship Assaye on the 8th of November 1905. He served in Meerut India until he returned to Britain on 6th March 1912. He was called back for WW1 5th August 1914. His son John (My father) was born on 27th September 1914 by which time John G was training with the regiment in England. They sailed for Belgium on 7th of October on the SS Indora landing at Zeebrugge on the 8th.
John Downing Joined the British Army on the 20th of June 1940. Initially he was with the East Lancashire Regiment, an infantry unit. I recall him telling me that his father had told him he ought to get out of the infantry as he’d have to walk everywhere (the old cavalry man talking!). Dad told me he volunteered after seeing a requirement for “Wireless Operator/Drivers” he thought he'd be sitting behind a radio. Instead he was sent to the 44th Royal Tank Regiment as a tank driver. The 44th was converted from a Territorial Army unit - the 6th Glosters - into an Armoured unit.  He qualified as a driver on 16th of January 1941. As soon as they were trained they were sent overseas. John Downing sailed on the SS Sobieski a Polish ship 23rd of April 1941 for Africa. The ship stopped in Durban South Africa for a few days.


John Downing is immediately to the right of the rickshaw driver in this picture taken in Durban. I have seen this same picture with many different British soldiers in the rickshaw, every convoy must have stopped in Durban and the rickshaw driver was waiting for them!

    3 Days until Nov11th. John G Downing's new regiment the 2nd Life Guards were a cavalry unit. They went into action initially as cavalry and moved into the area of Ypres. The war diary notes a novelty...on 20th Oct 1914 they dug a trench for the first time. Another novelty on 8th May 1915 was instruction on the use of "anti-asphyxiating gas masks" . Now they were more on foot than horseback moving in and out of the trenches at night. On the night of 13/14 May 5 officers and 109 men out of a strength of 300 were killed or wounded.

    13th June 1941 John Downing and his regiment landed in Egypt. Their brand new tanks which sailed in a different ship had been diverted thru the Mediterranean arriving long before the men. Those tanks had been sent into action as replacements in other units and now the regiment was unarmed. They did guard duty and training around Alexandria getting their "knees brown" and learning how to live and fight in desert conditions.
      John Downing in Egypt.
They moved by train to Mesa Matruh, alongside their train was another train loaded with tanks going back to the depot for repair. They went to inspect them. From a distance they had looked normal but when they got close they could see they had been holed by anti tank fire. Some were mangled and burned. What a chilling sight for those men who were soon going to be fighting in these same vehicles. That evening they were issued with their own tanks. Matilda's. They were already worn and war weary. 22 Nov they advanced into Libya as part of the 7th Armored Division for Operation Crusader. Hard fighting led to the capture of Bardia on 22nd Jan 1942. They celebrated a victory and bathed in the sea.

2 days to Nov 11. John G Downing served with the regiment thru the first battle of Ypres Oct-Nov 1914, The 2nd battle of Ypres April May 1915, Loos September October 1915 and Arras April 1917. In March 1918 the unit was converted from a cavalry unit to a Machine Gun unit and in May moved over to the 1st Army.

John’s regiment having enjoyed sports days and swimming were ordered to readiness 24 January 1942. Rommel was advancing with his Africa Corps. The 44th moved into a defensive line formed between Gazala and Bir Hackheim. Rommel outflanked the whole line and got behind the 44th who were in an area known as the “150 Brigade Box". On 27th May fierce fighting started, the tanks were cut to pieces by the notorious 88mm anti tank guns. In that single day they lost 29 tanks out of a strength of 90. Each tank had 3 to 4 men in it. By 1 June they were down to 4 tanks. They were surrounded and under intense artillery fire. The whole line collapsed. In a desperate effort to break out they set off at the head of the surviving infantry. One tank that could barely move under it’s own power was put in gear and sent out un-manned to try and draw fire from the rest. This battle became known as the “Cauldron”. What was left of the regiment moved out of the devastation on foot on the night of 14th June, dodging German and Italian troops intent on destroying them.. A mad race across the desert began. The British trying to keep some order and find a place to make a stand. Rommel trying to cut off the British retreat and decimate them. The chase wound down as the British formed a line at a little railway station not far from the Egyptian border.

El Alamein.
The tattered remnants of the 44th gathered at Khataba, there was discussion of disbanding the unit entirely as it was so badly mauled. Replacements of tanks and men came in, many from a sister unit the 41st RTR who had also been decimated. By 16th September they were training again

John Downing later on. He has one ribbon on his uniform. The Africa Star. He isn't the young soldier we've seen before. To me he looks 10 years older.
1 day before Nov 11th. John G Downing’s regiment spent most of the rest of the war in reserve, digging trenches, training, marching backwards and forwards at the whim of higher command. Casualties were had when digging parties of approximately 100 men at a time were caught in artillery barrages while working on trenches. The blinding flash of this man’s history as revealed to me this week has faded away, back into time. The regimental war diaries stop on 31st March 1918 at Buneville. “Divine services in the school” “Regiment at 3 hours notice”......

John Downing’s war in Africa was coming to an end, he took no part in the Battle of El Alamien which was the beginning of the end for Rommel. Instead they were issued the latest in armour, the Sherman tank. They were diesel powered, the tank crews loved them. Plenty of room, a half decent gun compared to the Matildas they'd had up until then, and with heavier armour.

They started to train again, learning to waterproof the vehicles. Disembarking from landing craft. Something was obviously coming. It was called “Operation Husky” the invasion of Sicily.

The first troops landed 6th July 1943. They hooked up with the Airborne Division who parachuted in to capture the Primosole Bridge. Fighting continued until mid August.

Far from resting and enjoying the victory the regiment immediately started preparing for the next invasion and they landed in Italy 23rd September at Taranto. Hard fighting continued up and down the hog back ridges that ran east west across the south to north line of advance. The winter brought a sea of mud. Then rumours were heard that they would be going home to UK.

They landed at Gourock Scotland 10th February 1944. Home leave was granted and John saw his wife Edith and daughter Beryl for the first time in 2 years. But there was no time to take it easy. March, April and May saw them drawing new tanks and equipment in preparation for D Day. The new tanks were still Shermans but not the diesel version. This version was powered by a huge Continental aircraft engine and ran on high octane aviation fuel. Once in action they gained a few morbid nicknames. The British called them “Ronsons”. Named for a brand of cigarette lighter that was “Guaranteed to light first click every time”. The German’s called them “Tommy Cookers”. These horrid vehicles burned and maimed thousands of British and American tankers, but thanks to General George Patton they were all that was available.
Early in the war he had written a report saying that US factories needed to concentrate on a single armoured vehicle and to not be distracted by trying to design anything else.
A Sherman burns

"Tommy Cookers" they were called by the Germans. Compared to the German tanks these were simply targets. The Sherman main gun could not penetrate a German tank from straight ahead at any range. The only way they could penetrate a German tank was from the side or rear at close range. The majority of German tank guns could penetrate a Sherman way before a Sherman was even within range with its own gun, The 88mm antitank gun could not only penetrate the Sherman but go in one side and out of the other even where the Sherman's armour was at it's thickest. The allies had nothing else. Their only advantage was they had thousands of them. Maybe the Germans would run out of anti tank ammunition before the Allies ran out of tanks??

The 44th didn’t land on D-Day and for a reason. They were the hardcore experienced tankers. They landed June 9th, it was planned that way. It was expected that the German Armour would be counterattacking the beaches by then and the 44th would come ashore and go immediately into action. Maybe the fact that they didn’t was a blessing but there was far more in store for them.
I don't know which landing this is. He made 3 if you don't count crossing the Rhine.
If you look at the original closely you can make out white cliffs in the background.

Nov 11th. Once on land the 44th sat waiting for the counterattack that didn’t come. They were sent to the area of Caen and they were caught by the 88’s again at Odem loosing 13 tanks in a single day. By August they were in Ronay. This little village was the southern lip of the Falaise Pocket. The German 7th Army Group was trapped between the British in the south and the Americans in the north. The horrors of past losses were repaid in full in the massacre of the German forces. Some German units slipped away leaving their equipment behind, they would meet up with them again in Holland.
After Falaise the big breakout from Normandy led to a frantic chase across France and into Belgium. Dad was driving a scout car by then which may have meant he was in the “Recce Troop” out in front of the main force looking for the enemy. His vehicle was the first into St Nicolas Belgium 9th Sept 1944.

Dad driving his Dingo scout car into St Nicolas

They were then put under the command of XXX (30th ) Corps as part of Operation Market Garden the attack on Arnhem. The TV Series “Band of Brothers”had an episode in Holland where a British tank unit came up to support the 506 PIR “Easy” company in a town named Neunen. In the TV series the British tanks were cut to pieces by a Tiger tank thru British stubbornness. The 44th story varies! But yes that was Dad’s regiment in Neunen. The German armour in the area were the units that slipped away from Falaise, they had regrouped and rearmed in Holland.
After the failure at Arnhem the 44th moved to a small town named Zomeren where it licked it’s wounds, replenished men and tanks and huddled down for the winter. Dad never talked much about the war except sometimes he would talk about Holland fondly. He described the Dutch people who had been starving for years under the German occupation. In Africa, Italy and France the natives would steal anything they could lay their hands on, but the Dutch despite having virtually nothing would gladly share what little they had with the “Tommies”. Dad was billeted with a Dutch family and told me about the little girl in the household who didn’t know what sweets or chocolate were when he gave her some from his rations, perhaps she reminded him of Beryl?. He shared those rations with the family thru the bitter winter of 1944.

February 1945 brought them back to the army way, they began training again, always a sure sign of going into action soon. 1st March 1945 they advanced on the Siegfried Line and the German border. In fierce fighting around Udem the 88’s and artillery again inflicted heavy losses on the 44th.The heaviest losses since the 44th landed in Normandy with over 30 killed. Suddenly they were pulled out of the battle line and several crews were sent off with no explanation. The rest of the regiment gathered along the banks of the Rhine near Xanten.
The missing crews returned, they had been hastily trained in the use of “Duplex” tanks. These were Shermans that were fitted with propellers and watertight canvas skirts that could be extended upwards around the vehicle. These tanks could SWIM.
They crossed the Rhine 23rd March and advanced into Germany with their objective the city of Bremen.
More fierce fighting was had with an Officer Cadet Training unit who stood resolutely against the tanks but were wiped out when the RAF Typhoons arrived with rockets and bombs. By this time a much improved Sherman had finally arrived with a huge 17 pounder gun which was the equal of the German tank guns and 88’s in range and hitting power. The poor armour plate remained the same however and it still had the aircraft engine and high octane fuel. The British called this version the “Firefly”.
The final attack on Bremen came 25th April 1945 and the city fell on the 27th.

They moved on to Hamburg and at 8am on 5th May 1945 in a town named Bergdorf south of Hamburg they stopped fighting at last. The war in Europe was over.

The First World War ended 11am on 11th November 1918. John Garret Downing instead of going home was retained in the 2nd Life Guards under the “War Act of 1916” he eventually got out 26th January 1919 at Preese Heath in Shropshire. The family talks of his alcoholism and wife abuse. They lived in Stoke Street Birkenhead and were bombed out in the Liverpool Blitz during World War 2. He died in 1953. I have no recollection of him as I was only 3 at the time.

Mum and Beryl in front of 29 Curlender Close. 
This must have been just before the war as Beryl is tiny.

John Downing didn’t get out early either, he stayed with the Regiment in Germany who were there as occupation troops until 1946. He returned to Curlender Close with Edith and Beryl. In 1947 they had a daughter Jaqueline and in 1950 a son (Me) Brian George.

While he was away serving his country Edith and Beryl had been evacuated when a large mine was dropped into the allotments immediately behind their house.
On another night Edith had been visiting her sister Iris across the Penny Bridge in Wallasey. As she crossed the bridge on the way home, pushing Beryl in her pram, the Vacuum Oil Works was hit and burning. Shrapnel from the anti aircraft fire was dropping all around.
On the lighter side mum and dad described how he had been home on leave (The only time since 1942) and mum had saved all her ration coupons up (By starving herself) to get some beef for Dad as a treat. When she went back to the kitchen the beef was gone. Beryl had fed it to the neighbours dog! Mum then had to get the only thing that wasn’t rationed–whale meat! Dad used to tell that one and break out into song. Instead of Vera Lynns “We’ll meet again” he’d sing “Whale meat again".

This must have been taken for dad I think.

This had been a very emotional trip thru history for me. Before Sally told me about the IWM quest I knew virtually nothing about my grandfather's service in WW1.
I have for some time been looking for insight into dad’s service in WW2. He never talked about it. Mum said he had nightmares for years after the war. At his funeral a gentleman in a British Legion blazer came up to me and simply said “Your dad never talked about the war did he? He had a terrible war that’s why he didn’t talk about it” To my dismay now I didn’t get his name or phone number. His brief statement took me over the edge emotionally and I lost it.

To be brutally honest I never felt real close to dad when he was alive, he had a terrible accident in which he so nearly lost his legs and that took him away from me for 2 years when perhaps we would have bonded. Only after he died and mum gave me his pictures and momento's did I realize how much he gave in WW2.

I don’t think either of these men were what would be described as “Heroes”. Maybe they did heroic deeds in battle. If they did then they certainly weren’t recognized for it. Between the 2 of them they only had a handful medals. For service in France WW1, Victory Medal WW1, Africa Star WW2, Italy Star WW2, Good Conduct Medal WW2, Victory Medal WW2. But they were there, they stood up and did their duty. They were as scared as it’s possible to be and they came home permanently damaged by their experiences.

Despite the horrors they lived thru neither of them apparently received a scratch according to their army records. Their records show only 1 disciplinary action against either them. John G was given 3 days confined to barracks for being 12 hours late back from leave in 1914 before they left for the front. Just before John was born.
Just ordinary soldiers? Perhaps but in extraordinary ways.

For most of my life I wondered why dad never talked about the war. I felt left out in some way and we were not really close as fathers and son's should be. What I did not realize was this is common amongst veterans and their sons. I finally began to understand this when I read the book "Flags of our Fathers" by James Bradley.

The movie avoids the story of James and his father but the book hit me right between the eyes. There was so much we had in common in regard to our fathers.
A second book "My Fathers War" by Peter Richmond made my hair stand on end, it could almost have been written about me. I found some comfort knowing that it wasn't just Dad and I, but a generation of fathers and sons. Dad may well have experienced the same things with his Dad.

I still have some photographs to scan and some documents that should be part of this but right now I want to put this where somebody might read it. So check back again and see if I got off my lazy butt and added them.

I finally got round to scanning some more pictures and documents from Dad's collection on the 70th anniversary of the end of the War in Europe May 8th 1945.

Dad's Service Record

This shows that John Downing enlisted in the East Lancashire Regiment (East Lancs, an infantry unit) in June 1940. He transfered to the RAC (Royal Armoured Corps) in November 1941. It is likely that he volunteered at the outbreak of war in September 1939 and had to wait until 1940 before they called him into the Army due to the glut of volunteers.

On the back is a note " Stan, Lol and little me mounting guard"

There isn't much about the East Lancs Regiment in the collection. He would have had basic training with them of course. When I was in the Air Training Corps (ATC) in the 60's and pressing my uniform, shining shoes and blanco'ing my webbing he'd reminisce about "Boning" the Army boots he was issued with until they shone. The picture above is of a very young looking soldier and they have gas mask cases on their chests which to me suggests it must be very early on and probably during his East Lancs period before his Dad John Garret Downing suggested he get out of the infantry or else he'd have to walk everywhere!

 Liberation of St Nicolas Belgium
Dad standing in the scout car. 

A postcard of St Nicolas given to Dad

The back of the card has an address and "Good Luck to the Tommies" hand written on it
Above the inscription is a list of all the towns they went thru in Holland.

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe I dug out these photographs which are all inscribed "Germany" on the back.

This has always been my favorite photo of Dad.
I think he looks like a pirate with his leather jerkin, boots and a Webley revolver on his hip
I own and regularly shoot a similar Webley dating from the same era. It's impossible to find ammo for but I love to shoot it.
The tank in the background is a Sherman "Firefly" with the big gun.

I suspect this is after the end of hostilities as Dad's in regulation uniform
The armoured car is a Dingo I believe, the same type as the one in the picture from St Nicolas
The scout cars did the forward reconnaissance for the main body of tanks well forward of the line of advance.

A better picture of the Dingo. He was probably billeted in the house in the background.

There is no inscription on the back of this picture and the house in the background isn't Curlender Close.
His uniform carries all the ribbons, Africa, Italy, Europe so it must have been after the war ended. He is in full uniform with shirt and tie so I suspect he was on leave.

UPDATE September 2017

I intend when time permits to update this post but for now please also see my blog about donating Dad's memorabilia to the Tank Museum:


All photographs except the burning Sherman and the 2nd Life Guards leaving for the front are previously unpublished and are part of the collection of Brian Downing who reserves the copyright for the images and the content of this story.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, you are fortunate to have the details and family history. Way cool.