This memoir covers three very different topics. We begin and end with the author's experiences while working on the railways, pre-war as he worked his way up towards driver status, post-war as a qualified driver and his early wartime experiences with the Military Railway. He then volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, so we se his training, and the fighting in Tunisia, on Sicily and at Arnhem. He was captured at Arnhem and so we get an account of his experiences as a POW.
The pre-war railway life is interesting in its own right, taking is back into a lost world of the pre-Nationalisation steam railways. I also didn’t realise just how large the Military Railway service was during the Second World War - I was aware of the large scale use of railways during the First World War, but not in the Second.
Hicks joined the parachute regiment fairly early in its history, so we get a view of the early training regime, which he felt was being developed around him. This involved drops from static balloons and Whitley bombers, both involving dropping down a tube in the fuselage floor. His first combat jump was onto Bone airfield in North Africa, an unopposed jump that helped secure that key base. His next battle was very different - the attempt to capture Primosole Bridge on Sicily. This was a classic airborne attack - an attempt to capture a key facility before the enemy could destroy, and just as at Arnhem it went wrong. Hicks was onboard the aerial armada that was so badly disrupted by friendly fire over the Allied invasion fleet, so we get a rare eyewitness account of the chaos. His was one of the few aircraft to reach the right area, and he was involved in the fighting at the bridge. The paratroops were eventually forced to retreat from the bridge under heavy pressure, but did prevent its destruction, so despite the problems the mission was a success.
His next, and final, combat jump was at Arnhem. His unit fought in the defensive perimeter outside the town, where he was wounded and taken prisoner. The account of the fighting here takes up about 30 pages, so is actually a fairly minor part of the text, but we do get a good idea of Hicks' experiences in the fighting.
We then move on to a large section on his experiences as a POW in the last few months of the war. Most of the famous POW accounts were written by officers, who weren't used as forced labour and thus had plenty of time to attempt escapes. In contrast the private soldiers and NCOs could be used as paid labour, although not in things that directly aided the war effort. Hicks was sent to work down a lead mine, a clear breach of that rule. Again this is a valuable eyewitness account of a part of the war that is rarely portrayed. This period ended with a fairly short march to freedom, where the main concern was the danger of being attacked by Allied aircraft. It is a sign of the collapse of German resistance at this point that Hicks and his comrades marched east from their mine and found American tanks!
We finish with the author's return to the railways, where he spent another twenty years on steam trains and a decade on diesels.
The author's own text is supported by some useful notes explaining the background to his experiences, combined with some material from official reports.
This is a fascinating memoir giving a fresh picture of life in the Parachute Regiment and some of its less famous operations (as well as Arnhem), as well as placing the author's military experiences firmly within the context of his peacetime career.
Part One: Life on the Railway
Part Two: My Years as a Soldier, 1939-47
Part Three: Prisoner of War
Part Four: Life Continues
Author: Norman Hicks
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military