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First episode, taken from The Wizard issue: 1735 May 16th 1959.

The crackshot private leads the sealed-off six.

Guns were rumbling distantly as Private Jack Shankland, of the Second Battalion, Royal Midshire Regiment, crawled along a ditch on a French farm. Not far away there was a burst of fire from a machine-gun. Shankland had stuck twigs into the net over his helmet. His battledress was torn and dirty. As he moved along he took great care not to dig his rifle barrel into the soil. He was followed by six other men belonging to the regiment. Shankland had been leader ever since the lance-corporal commanding their section had been killed. Shankland was leading them towards the sea and, in doing so, was avoiding the roads, for there were Germans all over the place. It was a fine June day in 1940, during the Second World War. During May, the enemy had swept like a tidal wave over the Low Countries and France. From Dunkirk, father north, over three thousand British and Allied troops had got away. The Midshires, however, had formed part of a British contingent, including the Fifty-First Highland Division, that had been fighting to the south. The plan was, in cooperation with the tenth French Army, to hold the line on the Somme. A tremendous German armoured force had burst through. From the infantryman’s point of view the fighting had become very confused. Formations had been split into fragments. One of these fragments was Shankland’s section—or what was left of it. The ditch widened into a hollow fringed by brambles and nettles. Shankland stopped and his companions crept up. Syd Meadows, Fred Garner, and Len Judd were regular soldiers like Shankland. Bernard Milford, Roger Clinton and Howard Thornton had been called up when the Conscription Act was passed in 1939. All of them were tired and dirty. They had not taken their boots off for over a week. They had slept only in snatches and had had little to eat. “Where was the shooting, Jack?” muttered Meadows, referring to the burst of machine-gun fire. “It seemed to be in front of us.” Shankland nodded and settled down on his haunches. “Ay, we’ll make sure about it in a minute,” he replied. “I want to take a look at the map.” He looked sharply at young Thornton. Before flopping down limply the lad had dumped his rifle against the bank, and the barrel was half buried in dust. “Don’t treat your rifle as if it’s a blooming shovel,” Shankland snapped. “Remember it’s your best friend. Treat it like that!” Thornton gave him the dull look of a man who was nearly dead-beat, but moved the rifle. Shankland was always very careful in looking after his rifle, and often described it as his beat friend. While Shankland was fetching the map out of his pocket the zrr, zrr, zrr of an aircraft engine became louder. “One of ours, I don’t think,” said Garner harshly.

There was bitterness in his voice. In the week that had passed they had endured the experience of being bombed and machine-gunned by enemy planes without seeing any action by Royal Air Force or French fighters. They kept their heads down as a Stuka dive-bomber passed over. It was heading towards the sea. When the plane had gone, Shankland spread the map out on his knees. Shankland’s height with his boots on was five feet ten inches, but he looked shorter because of the width of his strong shoulders. He had had three years of peace-time soldering before the war started in 1939, and, during that time, had shot for the regiment in the rifle competitions at Bisley and gained himself the reputation of being a keep-fit fanatic. He had a hard, stubborn sort of face with quick, observant eyes. Meadows and Garner put their heads close to Shankland’s and stared at the map, but it was clear from their puzzled frowns that they did not know where to start looking. Meadows had worked as a gardener before he enlisted. Garner had had a dozen jobs before deciding, after a spell of unemployment to join up. Map reading had always been a mystery to them, chiefly because of their feeble attempts to master it. When on manoeuvres they had been content to let somebody else find the way. In fact they had thought that Shankland was wasting his time when he pored over maps and had laughed at his statement. “You’ll need it some day.” After a short scrutiny Shankland pointed to a spot on the map. “This is where we’ve got to,” he muttered. “We’re about three miles to the west of the main road to St Valery.” The coastal town of St Valery, between Le Harve and Dieppe was the place for which they had been ordered to make. Garner pulled a long face. “It looks a blinking long way!” he growled. “That’s because it’s a large scale map,” retorted Shankland. “It’s about nine miles as the crow flies.” “Nine miles?” exclaimed Meadows, and came out with a remark they had heard a dozen times before. “If I’d known I’d have brought my bike.” Shankland refolded the map and put it back carefully into his pocket. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll go and have a look for the Jerry machine-gun.” “Shall I come with you, Jack?” asked Garner. “No, I’ll go on my own,” replied Shankland. He got right down and crawled away along the ditch. At first there was plenty of cover, but after fifty yards or so it became shallow and started to peter out. Shankland’s chin was nearly on the ground as he worked his way forward. In the distance, big guns started to thunder again. Shankland heard thuds as a stick of bombs, dropped by an aircraft exploded. A bramble snagged Shankland’s shoulder and he unhooked himself cautiously. He reached a dense growth of nettles. He crawled through them stealthily so as not to make them shake, and came to a stop as they thinned out. Smoke was rising from the ruins of a cottage. At the side of the cottage was a garden. Rambler roses smothered a trellis archway. It was just behind this archway that Germans had established a machine-gun post. It covered a lane that passed by the cottage. Sprawling in the lane were the bodies of several soldiers in French uniforms. Evidently they had been ambushed from behind the roses. Shankland saw three Germans. Two sat behind the machine-gun and the other, who had a pair of field-glasses, was standing behind the machine-gun and looking round. Shankland’s practised eyes gauged the range. “Two hundred yards,” he murmured and adjusted the sight of his rifle. He pushed his left arm through the sling and brought the butt up to his shoulder. He aimed at the German with the field-glasses. Crack! Shankland squeezed the trigger and the Jerry spun round and then pitched over backwards.

The gunners jerked round in an attitude of utter surprise. As they did so, Shankland ejected the cartridge from the breech and fired again. One of the Germans toppled over sideways and before the survivor had time to throw himself down, Shankland’s rifle cracked a third time, and the German slumped forward over the gun. A figure loomed through the drifting smoke as a fourth German came at a run from the other side of the cottage. Shankland picked him off as he ran. Then the deadshot Britisher lowered his rifle and watched for a full minute. No other German showed up. Shankland had wiped out the gun crew and the way was clear for him to push on a bit further with his section.


Rather more than an hour had passed and Shankland was again on his own. He had left his section hiding in a corner of a field of wheat while he made his way towards a road. It was not a main road according to the map, but Shankland wanted to be sure that it was not occupied by the Germans before he led his lads across and on towards the river. The enemy tactics consisted of pushing ahead fast with tanks and armoured cars along the main roads, unusually with intensive support from the air. The infantry followed up in their own lorries, in captured vehicles and on foot. It took time for them to fan out across country. An orchard provided Shankland with cover as he approached the narrow road. Shankland was near the side of the orchard when he heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. He immediately dropped and crawled forward. There was no hedge. The fence consisted of sagging strands of wire hanging between roughly-trimmed posts. Between the fence and the road was a ditch. Grass grew as high as the bottom wires. It gave Shankland cover, and he peered through. A German lorry was just coming to a stop. At the back there were four rows of troops who sat facing each other, rifles between their knees. An officer, a senior lieutenant, and a sergeant-major descended from the cab, and the former produced a map. Shankland knew the German emblems of rank. He had read all he could about the German Army and its organisation, and had been an attentive listener at lectures on the same subject. Soldering was Shankland’s business, and learning all he could about the enemy was an important part of it. The sergeant-major, a brawny man with a short, thick neck, held a corner of the map. The gruff voices of the two Germans carried clearly to Shankland. He scowled because he could not understand a word. While the lieutenant and sergeant-major were talking, the crackle of a motor-cycle engine was heard. All the German troopers in the lorry turned their heads and looked down the road. They showed no sign of excitement and Shankland concluded that it was one of their own side who was approaching. The new arrival was a dispatch rider. He saluted, took a message from his pouch, and handed it to the lieutenant. The officer read the message and then repeated it to his sergeant-major. It was apparently of importance, for they discussed it animatedly. Shankland fumed because he could tell what they were saying. The dispatch rider turned his machine and rode off. The officer folded the map, put it back in his case, and climbed into the lorry, followed by the sergeant-major.


Raising a cloud of dust, the vehicle lurched into movement and moved away. Shankland doubled back through the trees to the wheat field where he had left his section. There was not enough breeze to ruffle the corn, and it was getting hazy. No one was visible. No one spoke as Shankland came up. Only the sound of heavy breathing could be heard. The rest of the section had all dropped off to sleep. Shankland waded into the corn and nearly trod on Meadows, who was sprawling on his back with his mouth open. It was the way he always slept. “Wake up, Syd,” Shankland said urgently, and gave Meadows a prod with his toe. “Shake yourselves, we mustn’t hang about.” They stared at him with tired, heavy, bleary eyes. “Come on, we’ve got to get going!” rapped Shankland. “I want to move fast now!” As the lads came out of the corn Shankland noticed that Bernard Milford was empty-handed. “Where’s your rifle?” Shankland demanded. Milford, who had been a draughtsman in an engineering works until his call-up, looked at him wearily. “What’s the use of lugging it about?” he asked. “You go and get it!” snapped Shankland. “I’ve told you, it’s your best friend.” “Half a minute, Jack,” exclaimed Garner. “I reckon Bernard’s right. We’ll get along faster without rifles!” “Yes, that’s what I say,” added Len Judd, the tallest man of the section. “Let’s dump the rifles. They’re only weighing us down.” Shankland did not enter into an argument. From the moment the leadership of the section had fallen on him he had a clear idea of what he had to do. It was to keep the section together as a fighting unit, however small, and link up with the Army. He was not going to lead a section that lacked weapons with which to fight. “Jump to it, Bernard, and get your rifle!” he rapped. “We can’t hang about here all day!” He did not wait to see if he were obeyed, but loped away towards the orchard. Meadows was the first to slide the sling of his rifle over his shoulder and follow him. Garner gave a shrug, picked up his rifle, and carried it at the trail. Judd sniffed but made no further protest. Bernard Milford trudged back into the corn to retrieve his rifle. Shankland led the way through the orchard. Shankland waited at the fence and looked up and down the road. On the other side was a ditch. Then came a large field that sloped upwards rather steeply. There was no fence or hedge. A crop of oats had been grown in the field, and about half had been cut. The reaping machine had been abandoned at the end of a swathe and just in front of it lay the carcase of a horse. Shankland ducked through the wires and stepped on to the road. The others followed. They descended into the ditch and scrambled out on to the stubble. “Jack!” Meadows exclaimed and pointed along the road. “Something’s coming!” Dust was rising at a corner about a quarter of a mile down the road—in the direction taken by the lorry. A few moments later they heard the sound of a vehicle moving fast. Shankland pointed across the stubble towards the uncut oats. “Run for it,” he snapped. He looked along the road as he ran. The vehicle was the German lorry and it was still carrying its load of troopers. Milford stumbled as he panted along. Shankland reached out, grasped his rifle and carried it for him. Running desperately the British soldiers reached the oats and rushed into it. “Spread out, spread out!” ordered Shankland. “Don’t bunch!” The section spread out a bit and flung themselves down in the corn. Shankland peered down the slope. They had been caught in the open and inevitably the Germans had seen them. The officer and the sergeant-major were looking out of the cab and all the troopers had turned their heads. The lorry slowed down. “Don’t shoot!” Shankland snapped to his men. “Wait!” He had a hunch that the lorry might not stop. He was right. The officer turned to the driver and evidently ordered him to drive on. The troopers swayed as the vehicle accelerated somewhat violently. “Crikey, that was a near thing,” Meadows panted.


Shankland watched the lorry as it sped away. It had been a near thing—because he had not understood what the Germans were saying. It was clear to him then that the lorry had gone on because the road was very narrow and the driver had to find a place where he could turn. As Shankland sprawled among the oats, giving his men a chance to get their breath back, the idea came into his head that it was time he started to learn German. It so happened that the Germans were in a hurry and had not interrupted their journey to mop up a small party of stragglers, but the time might come when a knowledge of German might save lives in much more dangerous circumstances. It was not an idea over which Shankland lingered, because of the urgency to press on, but it was firmly planted in his mind.


A mile farther on, Shankland and his section waded across a river watched by the survivors of two platoons of the Black Watch who had dug trenches in a position that commanded the ford. Sea fog was drifting inland and visibility was down to about half a mile. There was heavy gunfire to the north, and planes could be heard most of the time. Shankland held his rifle over his head as he waded across. A lieutenant in a torn uniform and with a hand heavily bandaged, waited for Shankland to come up. Shankland brought his rifle to the slope and saluted. “We belong to the Second Midshires, sir,” he stated. Lieutenant Fergus told him that he had reached the perimeter of the last British defensive position. Shankland reported that he had seen no Germans since crossing the road. “The best thing you can do is to push on towards the sea,” replied the lieutenant hoarsely. “We’re thinning out ourselves now and I’ve already sent some of my men back. The situation’s very vague, and the mist is making it worse, but we think the Germans must be in St Valery.” “We shall have to give the place a miss, then,” muttered Shankland. “Ay, make straight for the sea,” responded Fergus, “and the best of luck.” As Shankland led his section away, heavy mortar fire was heard in the direction of the town. The ground became open, with rocky outcrops protruding from the thin grass. Shells whistled overhead. A Messerschmitt fighter flashed out of the mist, flying at about five hundred feet, and vanished almost as soon as seen. Shankland kept his men going as hard as he could. The Germans were masters at infiltration, at stealing past defended positions, and such tactics would be assisted by the fog. After coming so far it would be tragic to be trapped when so close to the sea. Except for Meadows, who trudged along stolidly, the fellows were just about out on their feet, but they followed their leader and kept going. “Hey, Jack – Jerries!” gasped Meadows as figures loomed out of the mist. “No, it’s all right, they’re some of our men!” exclaimed Shankland. They caught up with four men of the Black Watch. One had his left arm in a rough sling, and another, who was very dazed and was being lead by a comrade, had a blood-stained bandage round his head. They said there were Germans not far away. There was no break in the mortar and machine-gun fire to the north.

For another half-mile or so Shankland led on his section with the Black Watch men staying with them. A seagull skimmed over their heads and then meadows pointed at a rugged outline that stood out against the misty sky. “I reckon we’ve made it, Jack,” he said. “We’re on the top of the cliffs.” Everybody started to run, Shankland, however, dropped back a bit to assist the Black Watch soldier whose arm was in a sling. Garner reached the brink, stared down and then swung round. There was dismay on his face and his voice rasped harshly. “We can’t get down here, Jack!” he exclaimed. “We’d break our blooming necks! Look for yourself! There’s a sheer drop!” Shankland hurried to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Just as he did so the mist drifted away below and he had a glimpse, before the haze closed in again, of two or three vessels lying close inshore. He saw that the cliff face fell away to a ledge that would provide a foothold if only they could get down to it. Below the ledge the cliff was more broken and not quite so steep. With a terrific bang a mortar shell exploded not far away. “It’s no use staying here, we shall only cop a packet,” Garner blurted out. “Come on, let’s beat it!” “Come back!” rapped Shankland, as Garner and Judd began to move away along the top of the cliff. “We can get down here!” Garner stared at him. “How can we get down?” he exclaimed. “We ain’t blinking monkeys!” “Take the slings off your rifles and buckle ‘em together,” snapped Shankland. “They’ll make a good enough rope!”


It was in this way that Shankland got his section and the four Scots down to the ledge and he saw to it that the rifles were passed down as well. From the ledge it was a rough scramble down to the beach, but at the cost of some cuts and bruises, they reached the bottom. With a thud Meadows jumped off the last of the rocks on to the beach. He turned as Shankland sprang down at his side. “I was just thinking we would have been daft to have dumped the rifles!” he exclaimed. “We’d still be stuck at the top”—he looked back grimly up the cliff—“if we couldn’t have made a rope of the slings.” There was no doubt that the others were equally thankful that Shankland had insisted on their keeping the rifles. The hoots of a klaxon horn came from the sea and the shape of a motor drifter loomed out of the haze as, with the propeller turning slowly, the skipper worked in as close as he dared. It was with rising spirits that the weary soldiers ran splashing into the sea. Shankland was up to his armpits when his rifle was taken out of his grasp by a member of the crew leaning over the bulwarks. A net had been hung over the side and Shankland scrambled up and reached the deck. It was a Brixham drifter that picked them up. The skipper already had about forty British soldiers aboard. “You can count yourself lucky,” he said to Shankland. “I’d just received orders to put about when the mist cleared a bit and I caught sight of you climbing down the cliff.” “Thank goodness you did,” replied Shankland hoarsely. “You don’t seem to have many aboard.” The skipper shook his head gravely. “It was on account of the fog last night,” he said. “We couldn’t get into St Valery to pick up the troops. A lot of ‘em will never be picked up.” He climbed the steps to the wheelhouse and set course for England. Later it became known that of the troops it was hoped to get away from St Valery, only thirteen hundred and fifty British officers and men and nine hundred French escaped. Eight thousand were taken prisoner. Responsibility now rested on other shoulders. Shankland had a drink of tea and a corned beef sandwich and then stretched out on deck and went to sleep. Dawn was breaking when the drifter approached Pooleham Harbour. She followed another drifter and a trawler to the quay. From the three vessels about two hundred officers, non-commissioned officers and men disembarked. As soon as they got ashore, the non-commissioned officers and men streamed away towards a shed in which food awaited them. Shankland was the first of his section to step off the gangway. He did not follow the crowd, but waited there with his rifle.

Fred Garner came clumping down the gangway and turned away towards the shed. “Where are you off to?” Shankland demanded. “Don’t be in such a blooming hurry. We’re sticking together.” Meadows, who had been unable to get his boots back on to his swollen feet, was the last man of the section to come ashore. Shankland then led his six men into the shed, but shifted so that he was last in the queue when they lined up in front of a long trestle table to collect their grub. Later they joined another queue stretching away from a table at which a sergeant and clerk were sitting. The procedure was for each man to give his name and number to the clerk. The sergeant, a burly man with an impressive moustache, occasionally asked a question. Shankland gathered that lorries were taking the men to the railway station, which was about half a mile from the harbour, and that a train was waiting there to take them to a camp somewhere near Salisbury. While they were waiting Shankland wrote down his name and number and the names and numbers of his men on a bit of paper. “This will save time,” he said when he at last reached the table and gave the paper to the clerk. “Hurry along to the transport exit!” exclaimed the sergeant, who belonged to the Army Pay Corps. “The lorries are waiting.” “We all belong to the Second Midshires, sergeant,” said Shankland. “What I want is a railway warrant to get us to our depot at Midbury.” “That’s what you want, is it?” answered the sergeant. “I shall have to find out if it’s in order.” He pushed his chair back and saluted a captain of dapper, appearance who was walking up and down and exercising general supervision. The officer fingered his moustache and frowned. “No, there can be no departure from the procedure that has been laid down,” he said testily. “I wonder you asked, sergeant! You should know that we can’t have the troops straying about all over the country. Why, we might not see some of them ever again.” The sergeant returned to the table. “You can’t have a warrant,” he said. “Hurry along!” “Thanks for asking, sergeant,” answered Shankland. “Sorry you were brushed off.” His voice probably carried because the officer gave him a stern look. Meadows and the others followed him towards the exit. “Stick to me when we get to the station,” Shankland said to them. “I’ve been here before and I know my way about.” With about twenty other tired men they stood in the back of the lorry and were taken to the station. Meadows turned a thumb at three Redcaps—military police—who were standing at the entrance to the subway from which the platforms were reached. “We’re really back home,” he remarked. “They don’t mean us to get away.” “Put a jerk into it!” shouted the Redcap sergeant. “Hurry along to Platform One, that’s up the first flight of steps.” The troops trudged into the gloom of the subway and that was where Shankland and his section parted from the others. While they turned up the steps to Platform One he went straight on down the subway till he reached the steps to Platform Three. “Hey, where are we off to?” Judd demanded. “The depot,” replied Shankland. “It’s where we belong and it’s where we’re going.” “You didn’t get a warrant,” gasped Meadows. Shankland shrugged. “That won’t stop us,” he retorted. He halted his party near the top of the steps and kept them under cover until a train came in. “Come on!” Shankland exclaimed. “Is it our train?” asked Meadows. Shankland grinned. “It’ll give us a start in the right direction,” he said. Ticket collectors had been withdrawn from many trains because the railways needed them for other work, but this was an important express and a ticket collector was on board. After the train had left Pooleham, the collector made his way along the dim and crowded corridors. They were dim because the windows were painted blue in accordance with the black-out regulations. He reached a first-class coach and stumbled over the legs of a soldier who was asleep in the corridor. “Who’s in charge?” he asked. “I am,” answered Shankland. “Where do we change for Midbury?” “Basingstoke and Oxford,” said the railwayman. “Can I have a look at your warrant?” “Warrant?” exclaimed Shankland. “They never gave me one! We got back from France this morning and we’re making our way back to the regimental depot.” The ticket collector scratched his head. “You should have had a warrant, lad,” he said, “but it’ll be all right.” It was late in the afternoon that Major Thorne, the Adjutant of the Regimental Depot stepped out of his office into the spacious square of Midbury Barracks. The barracks consisted of brick buildings erected during the Victorian era. They were enclosed within a lofty wall and there was an archway over the main gateway. At the side of the square, in front of the officers’ mess, four brightly-polished cannon captured during the Crimean War stood on either side of the flagpole. Major Thorne moved with a slight limp. He had become a casualty in the previous December, during the period known as the phoney war, because there was no heavy fighting on the Western Front. It was his intention to go across to the quartermaster’s store and inquire how the kitting up of fifty recruits received at the depot during the day was going on. His expression was grave. No authentic news had been received about the fate of the Second Battalion of the Midshires. When last heard of they were involved in the heavy fighting on the Somme.

The Major halted and looked curiously towards the gate on hearing the tramp of marching feet. The two sentries watched stiffly. With their rifles sloped, Shankland and his section marched under the archway. They were bristly-faced, disheveled and dirty, but they had the bearing of soldiers. Meadows had managed to work his boots on again and, because there was no transport, had marched with the others from the station. “Halt!” rapped Shankland, and clapped the butt of his rifle in salute. Major Thorne brought his heels together and brought up his hand to return the salute. “I’m very glad to see you again,” he said. “Are we the first, sir?” asked Shankland. “Yes,” answered the Major. “Haven’t you news of any of the others?” “A few of our regiment may be tangled up with a camp near Salisbury, but we came straight back,” was Shankland reply. And not only had they come back to their regimental depot, but they had come back as a fighting, armed unit. The Major looked them over, hesitantly, then came to attention and saluted. He was paying honour to a real soldier, Private Shankland, who had kept his little unit together to fight again. And fight again that unit would!

“YOUR BEST FRIEND IS YOUR RIFLE!” 20 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues 1735 – 1754 (1959)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007