5 June 1944 – the night before D-day
The massive shed at the Royal Albert Dock was a chaos of war materials. Bert looked across the open sided shed full of tanks, jeeps, trucks, shells and guns towards the dock which was full of ships and barges. The place was an uproar of noise as big diesels clattered, engines revved, men shouted and hardware clanged on concrete. The whole area swarmed with activity and it was impossible to focus on any one thing in particular.
All the hardware was American: he saw endless white stars and endless GIs. He put his cigarette to his mouth for another puff, it had been hours since his last fag and he was savouring this chance for a break. Not for him tea or food, but a fag would sort him out for a few hours more. He reflected on when the American 14th Army Transportation Corps had first come to the, very British, Royal Albert Dock.
In their bravado to wage total war they had swept aside all the ponderous safety measures set in place by the English dock workers. With it had come many accidents, Bert had seen it all. He was happy for the Americans to be here, after that night when the bombardment started of the docks in September 1940 for seventy six nights of pure hell as the docks burnt, he had decided the Germans must pay. He was too old to enlist, but as a lifelong dock worker he felt he was doing his bit.
A big troop truck drew up nearby and the men on board climbed down stiffly. He saw they were all no more than boys, even the Master Sargent was very young. The GIs took out cigarette packets and lit up. They chatted and looked around, one of them saw Bert looking over.
“Hey grandad, you see much action around here?”
Bert eyed the cocky young American.
“We see our fair share young man.”
“Hey, get him, ‘young man’.”
There were a few guffaws and the men were herded away in the direction of the barges. Bert watched the Americans grouping up, ready to climb aboard the barges, with their destination of the landings in France and certain death. He thought any of those kids could have been his children, but his children were already gone.
He thought of those days of fire in 1940; remembered their house smashed to pieces and his wife and children crushed by the rubble. He would never forget when he returned from work to find the ARP people trying to find life in his old home and finding only death.
Oh yes, they had had action in this place, without doubt, he thought.
He looked at the Americans going to their death, but he thought that, just one of them could make a difference, one of them could get through and change the direction of all the slaughter.
It was then that Bert saw the abandoned truck start moving. It had been parked on the loading ramp and it looked like no one had put the parking brake on. The truck was some yards from him and before he could think much, it was already gaining speed. No one was going to be able to stop it. The mammoth was standing directly towards the big group of GIs, if it carried on many would be mashed between the truck and the jeeps being loaded onto the barges.
As the truck passed Bert it was already going at a fair pace. Without thinking he grabbed at the handle on the side which nearly pulled his arm out of its socket. Before he knew it he was scrabbling up into the high cabin.
The truck was going at speed now, but he was on the wrong side, and all but the steering wheel was out of his reach. He grabbed it and yanked it around, the big truck slew sideways and he saw the faces of the men through the window as they ran from the iron monster.
The truck had missed the men but he saw the big iron side of the ship rushing towards him. His last thoughts were: “at least I’ve done my bit.”