British 8th Army  the Desert Rats in Africa

The World War 2 Veteran Who Saw It All

British 8th Army  the Desert Rats in Africa

Remarkable World War 2 stories do not always come down to us from early commandos or SAS veterans.

Sometimes, more mundane roles, particularly when done throughout much of the conflict, gave those performing them a chance to see a great deal of the war.

That, at least, was the case with Neville Wood, a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps who saw action from the beginning of the war right up until the end.

Here, his son Mike gives an overview of his father’s Second World War service, which is laid out in more depth in his recent book ‘A Soldier’s Story’.

Appropriately enough, some of Neville’s recollections relate to VE Day, as the nation marks the 75th anniversary.

Article By Mike Wood

Many people these days have, or had, a father or grandfather with war stories they passed down to us, and I’m no exception.

In my case though, it took some years before I came to realise just how interesting and varied my dad’s stories were.

Like others, I suspect, this is largely because he preferred funny to gloomy stories – so many in fact, that even though he has now passed away, I can still hear that chuckle of his in my head that he did whenever another funny war story came to him.

In hindsight, I’ve realised it was probably his way of coping with some of the horrors and hardships he experienced. 

For example, when the 50th anniversary of D-Day was approaching in 1994, I asked Dad if he’d like to return to Normandy for the commemorative events. 

He barely considered it before stating firmly, “absolutely not”. He had no wish to go back and be reminded of the blood and the carnage, he said. 

He would sooner continue his habit of remembering the funny stories instead. 

But if his reluctance to recollect some of the things he saw had won out, ‘A Soldier’s Story’ never would have been written, of course. 

Or, at least, it would have been a very different book to the one it turned out to be.

A large part of how Dad got over his inhibitions was, effectively, to bypass them.

In the year 2000, he gave me his medals and his A7 war diaries, which were always written meticulously, day by day, whatever was happening. Rather than telling me everything that happened himself, his journals could now do it for him.

Naturally, they were an excellent resource for exploring and then documenting my father’s war service more comprehensively.

They provided a fascinating insight into his life as a soldier, and six years later I spent months transcribing the diaries and recording his anecdotes as the memories came flooding back during many more conversations. 

I presented him with a full transcription on Father’s Day, 2006. Eight years on from there, and I had begun the work of turning those memories into a book.

What follows is just some of what I learnt about my dad.

Photo of Neville Wood British soldier Second World War
Neville at eighteen years of age in May 1939 – having the surname Wood, he soon acquired the nickname ‘Timber’

Neville Wood’s military career began when he joined the British Army at 18 years of age in May, 1939.

The unit he joined was part of 50 Northumbrian Division, represented by its insignia of three interlocking T’s that represent the three main rivers of its recruitment area: the Tyne, the Tees and the Humber. 

His role in the division soon became that of a driver for the Royal Army Service Corps, 522 Ammunition Company. 

In January 1940, 50 Division travelled to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force and distinguished itself in the Battle of France, particularly at Vimy Ridge. 

But in May, 1940, Neville was told to disable his wagon near Poperinge and make his way to the beaches of Dunkirk, a walk of twenty-seven miles. 

No sooner had he arrived in the devastated town than he was effectively commandeered and told to drive Coldstream Guardsmen to Veurne on the Belgian border. 

Once there, he was instructed to again disable his wagon and walk back to the beaches, which meant a trip, this time, of 15 miles with no food or water. 

Fortunately, though, he did make it back to the beaches as well as off them. For on Sunday, June 2, he would be amongst those wading waist and then chest deep into the Channel as part of Operation Dynamo, the effort to evacuate the British Army before it was trapped and destroyed by Hitler’s forces.

As he stood in the water, a pair of hands grabbed Neville’s rifle and he heard the words “you won’t be needing this for a while”.

Then the man, a sailor originally from the destroyer HMS Basilisk, hauled him up into a Jolly boat. 

Hull Daily Mail picture of British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk
A picture which appeared in the ‘Hull Daily Mail’ of troops returning from the beaches of Dunkirk - Timber is just above left of centre with a cap rather than a helmet (image: Hull Daily Mail/MEN Media)

Fast forward a year, to May 1941, and with the threat of invasion of the UK having passed, Neville left Glasgow with 50 Division on a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Egypt. 

U-boats made a more direct route via the Mediterranean too risky, although that didn’t prevent Neville getting into the Med from Egypt - he spent some time in Cyprus preparing the island’s defences before then moving rapidly through Palestine and into northern Iraq to counter the threat of a German thrust through the Caucasus Mountains. 

The 50 Division then rushed to the Western Desert and right into the heart of the North African campaign. 

When the Axis forces’ attack at Gazala left 50 Division isolated, Neville would gain one of those experiences that gave him a chuckle in later years: in order to escape encirclement, the British launched an audacious breakout, driving right through an Italian Division, in the black of night, with no lights on. Absolute mayhem is how Neville described it. 

The retreat from Gazala would eventually be halted at Ruweisat Ridge, which wasn’t far off from a small railway town called El Alamein.

When I was transcribing his diaries, it was clear that Dad had been through an awful lot, but I still asked him what, out of all of his experiences, the most memorable moment was. 

I thought he would ponder this for some time, given everything he had seen and done. 

But, as quick as a flash, he said it was October 23, 1942. 

I described this day in the book as follows: 

“Neville’s ears were assaulted by what felt like a deafening roll of thunder. The earth shook and the skyline erupted in a wall of fire as if the gates of hell had been opened.” 

This was how the preliminary artillery barrage of the Second Battle of El Alamein began. Small wonder he remembered it so vividly.

The battle is known as the turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the war in Africa. Churchill said of it:

“It may almost be said, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat’.”

Some months later, in 1943, when things were just short of the final annihilation of Axis forces in North Africa, Neville and 50 Division were pulled back to Alexandria. 

However, their initial anger at not being with the Eighth Army as the final blow was struck was tempered by the knowledge of that they were soon going to be involved in the pursuit. Neville and his comrades were ordered to prepare for the invasion of Sicily, and Neville himself landed there in late July, 1943. 

50 Division battled its way up the east coast of the island, with the commanding Mount Etna as their constant companion, being constantly visible throughout their advance.

They reached Messina, just across from the Italian mainland, on August 17th, having just been beaten to it by the Americans.

British soldiers Desert Rats in North Africa World War 2
Men of the Royal Army Service Corps, 50 Division, showing their pride at their achievements in the Western Desert when the Axis forces were in full retreat towards Tunisia and ultimate annihilation

Back in the modern day, in 2003, my wife and I once took Mum and Dad to Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge. 

On our return, Dad suddenly said he remembered the place we were passing. “They used to take us there to shower”, he said. 

It was RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia and, as I later discovered, 50 Division were based around there as they prepared for one of the most famous and important operations of the war: D-Day

50 Northumbrian Division had been last off the beach at Dunkirk and would now be some of the first British troops on the beaches of Normandy. (H-Hour for the British landings at Gold and Sword Beaches were about an hour later than those for the Americans at Utah and Omaha).

Four years later, their June 6 objectives – on the opening day of the Battle of Normandy - were La Rivière and Bayeux. 

Following the brutal slog the Battle of Normandy turned out, not unexpectedly, to be, Neville crossed the River Seine at Vernon and drove on to Brussels before taking part in Operation Market Garden, - aka ‘a bridge too far’.

Once again, back in the recent past, I was watching ‘Band of Brothers’ one evening when the program depicted the Americans liberating a concentration camp. 

I rang Dad to ask if he had watched it and he said, reflectively, that he had and it had reminded him of Belsen. 

Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp was one of those liberated, in this case by the British, right at the end of the war. 

Again, Dad had been there. Another discovery, another surprise - was there any aspect of the British Second World War experience that hadn’t happened to my dad?

When I reached May 1945 in his diaries, I was surprised by how matter-of-fact he was about the German surrender. 

When I asked him why there was no elation or euphoria, he said his first thought was what was going to happen next and concern about his mates. A complete contrast to the newsreels we’ve all seen of the jubilant celebration that went on in British and American cities at the close of hostilities.

Not that these celebrations didn’t happen, of course, nor that a sense of extreme euphoria wasn’t widely felt. It’s just that, for those who’d been in the thick of it like my dad, the end of the war wasn’t always experienced in such a jubilant manner.

Which brings me to the final question I had for him about his time in the war. 

Having looked over all his war experiences, many, varied and terrifying, I asked him what the scariest time was that he could remember.

Once again, without hesitation, and to my surprise, he said it was actually taking supplies into Berlin through the Russians – who had of course been British allies.

It’s almost as if Dad sensed, with some prescient dread, the tensions with the communist powers that would emerge from the ashes of the Second World War.

Ever the conduit for personal experiences wrapped up in major global events, it seems appropriate in retrospect that Dad’s most memorable experience sat right at the junction of World War 2 and the subsequent Cold War - which would go on to dominate the next 45 years of British foreign policy.

A Soldier’s Story: Neville ‘Timber’ Wood’s War, from Dunkirk to D-Day by Mike Wood is published by Robinson on 30th April, £20.00. Click here to pick up a copy.

Book cover of A Soldiers Story by Mike Wood and photo of Mike with Neville Wood World War 2 veteran, and his mother
‘A Soldier’s Story’ and author Mike Wood photographed in 2006 with his parents, Peggy and Neville - the photograph was taken on Father’s Day on the weekend Mike presented his father with the full transcript of his wartime diaries and anecdotes

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