Walter Bingham talks about his remarkable life, including his time in the British army in the Second World War.

Walter Bingham
Walter Bingham

Paul: You were a driver in the British Royal Army Service Corps and you were in the invasion of Normandy, tell us a little bit about that.

Walter: I was in the Royal Army Service Corps after my training and then I was posted to drive TUKEY's, they are trucks that are shaped like ships. They have a propeller in order to unload ships. Interestingly the tires you could inflate and deflate while you were driving, because if you move from the sea to sand you needed a large surface of tyre, you soften them. If you get onto tarmac you harden them. They had six feet in front of the front wheels so you had to really know how to get round the corner and then I did something you should never do in the British Army.

We were all on parade, somebody came and they wanted drivers for ambulances and my wheels started turning. I thought my goodness, in those ship truck things we were five knots in the water, we will be sitting ducks if the invasion and the German air force would bomb us and I'd better volunteer. I did that great mistake and took a step forward and volunteered. I thought now I get a Red Cross arm band and I'll be fine, well as it happened the German air force was nowhere to be seen and those TUKEY's were having a good time on the canals of Belgium and Holland. With my ambulance I was sent to the 43rd division 130 field ambulance, and I was stationed in front of the front lines in dug outs and so I saw a very bloody war.

Paul: I understand that you won a military medal?

Walter: That was during that period, we were on hill 112, which was the pivotal battle of Normandy and there I was as I said in front of the infantry, between the infantry and the anti-tank regiment. The anti-tank regiment were trying to destroy German tiger tanks who were dug in with only their barrels showing, but of course the German tanks were far superior to anything we had and this anti-tank unit was shot up terribly.

Someone came running back to me, it wasn't that far behind in the dugout next to my doctor and next to my ambulance, and said "come and help," so I took my ambulance and I drove forward. I tried to help to evacuate those wounded, and to load them up. The Major who was in charge of that anti-tank battery or regiment helped me to load, and the next thing I saw his head was over there and his legs were somewhere else, so he got torn to pieces.

We were facing not only the Tiger tanks with their 88mm guns but also what was called 'moaning Minnie's'. I think they were eight mortars or 12 mortars and each one had a different whistle as it came, that's why we called them moaning Minnie's to work on our moral.

We were shot up very badly and then we crawled under a Bren gun carrier, which is something on tracks, and it had a bit of clearance underneath. We dived under that but my ambulance orderly caught it, he got shrapnel in his back and I lost him and so I was alone and no ambulance. The ambulance was destroyed and I crawled back in the way I was taught at my basic training. It all came back to me, a special way of getting back quite a long way to headquarters. I secured another ambulance and I went back and with that second ambulance I managed to evacuate quite a lot of the wounded men that weren't already dead. That was noticed of course, so many other soldiers did things like that that weren't noticed unfortunately. My action was noticed and I was awarded the military medal.

Paul: You got a letter from the King as well?

Walter: I have a letter from the King because in the normal course of events you get it at Buckingham Palace, but as I was still fighting in Normandy. I was given it in front of the whole division by the divisional commander in the field which was quite interesting.

Paul: Could you see God protecting your life even though you were seeing friends around you dying?

Walter: Never entered my head. Hadn't time to think about those things. You just had to think about survival, how best to survive, what to do. I want to tell you something. I was a sort of, call it a refugee soldier, I wasn't even British at the time, I still hadn't been naturalised. But there is a difference between the ordinary British squaddie, the ordinary British soldier, and people like myself. The difference is the British soldier was there either because he had to be, was called up, or he wanted to fight for his country. Well I didn't have a country to fight for, I was new in England. Admittedly they accepted me and gave me shelter, but it was not my country, so I had no country at all to fight for. I fought to defeat the enemy, to find my family, which was the motivation that drove lots of people like me to do things beyond the norm.

Paul: You got the opportunity to work in British intelligence as well.

Walter: I was bilingual German, I still am, so I agitated. I said "look anyone can drive an ambulance with a bit of training", you did need some training because people you had in the back of your ambulance, every little bump would hurt, so you had to drive carefully. But I speak German, we're going into Germany, come on, you need German speakers.

They wouldn't release me because every unit was under strength, we lost a lot of men. Eventually they agreed. I was at Eindhoven in Holland. The next big battle was the battle of Arnhem over the bridge, over the river Rhine, where we British were decimated. The Parra troops landed wrongly and everything went wrong. But I wasn't there any more, I got out just before, otherwise maybe I would not be here to tell the tale. I was sent back to London.

Anyone who knows London, Oxford Circus the four corners, one corner today is some fashion shop. It was a four story department store called 'Peter Robinson' and under the roof of that department store through the staff entrance was a secret office for documents. I was trained as a documents specialist, and when I was trained I was sent to HQ Intelligence Corps in Brussels where I did very little waiting for work.

Then when Hamburg fell to the British, I was sent to Hamburg with another colleague and a pickup truck. We were expected to look at every Nazi document in the whole of the Hamburg area, an impossible task of course because it wasn't only SS or Gestapo. There were so many Para military organisations, but we chose where we thought we would go. The Middlesex regiment guarded all the Nazi offices and we went where we wanted to go and checked on the documents. Eventually I did other work. The tailor in Hamburg was asked to make me a civilian suit. I hated to wear it because the material was so bad that it itched and I didn't want to wear it. I was also allowed to wear officer's insignia. My rank was Sergeant and I had eventually an open blue BMW car and I did all kinds of other work.

The most interesting event, I mean I interviewed Nazi's and other things, but the most interesting person that I came across and the highest ranking Nazi was the German foreign minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop, who incidentally was the first to hang after the Nuremburg war crimes trials. They brought him into my office. He was in army uniform because they took off his civilian clothes in case he was hiding some poison. He was tall, good looking, unshaven and I had a camera, a very complicated camera, a Contax, which you had to set manually, the best of the best at the time. I took it off the Japanese consul in Hamburg. I said, "you don't mind if I take that as a present from you" the gold cigarette case that came with it, he complained, I had to give that back. But with this camera I wanted to photograph Ribbentrop and he said "do you mind if I have a shave first?"
I said "sit down" loudly and a colleague of mine who wanted to take a picture of me and this Nazi also tried and neither of us could work this camera, no pictures came out which was rather sad.

They brought him into my office because they knew I wanted to know about the Jewish connections. Jewish destruction of Jews, extermination of Jews and I asked him about that and this man had the gall to say to me "I didn't know anything about that, it was the Fuhrer Hitler." I said "so you know now," he said, "well the first I heard about it was when I read it in the Hamburg Information Sheet," which was a double sided piece of newspaper published by the British in German. That man wanted to tell me that that was the first he had heard. He was really in charge of getting all the Nazi organisations in the different countries they occupied to round up the Jews. Well he got his comeuppance anyway. CR

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