The following narrative combines an historical account of the opening phases of World War 2 during May and June, 1940, with the personal experiences of Robert Otterson, a sergeant attached to D Troop, No. 1 Squadron of the 1st Armored Division of the British Army.
Tanks of the 1st Armored Division on Thursley Common, Surrey, England, July 1940.
Adolf Hitler in front of Eiffel Tower, Paris, June 23, 1940.
After years of aggressive, expansionist moves against his neighbors in Europe, Adolf Hitler finally invaded Poland in September 1939, and unleashed the most terrible global war in the long history of human conflict.
With the defeat of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in quick succession by the late spring of 1940, most of Europe came under the swastika, and Britain stood virtually alone across the English Channel – a mere 21 miles wide at its closest point to the mainland.
It would be another year before the Soviet Union’s Red Army would be attacked by the Germans to open a new Eastern Front in Europe, and it would the best part of two years before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor would bring America into the war.
Few of the millions of men bearing arms throughout Europe expected that the war would last nearly six long years and end in a complete realignment of global politics for most of what remained of the 20th century.
Among those millions was a 28-year-old British Army sergeant from Sunderland, England. Sgt. Robert Otterson’s record on this and the following pages of a single soldier’s perspective - from southern England, from France, from the Middle East, and then as a POW in Libya, Italy and Germany - provides glimpses of what life was like for both soldiers and civilians in several successive theaters of war.
Much of this comes first-hand from some 130 letters written during the years 1940-1945, and from log books and diaries kept during three years of confinement as a prisoner of war. Sgt. Otterson also assembled a small collection of photographs, some of which found their way into his wartime log, while others were probably intended for inclusion later. The origin of these photographs is unknown, but they are remarkable for depicting the face of the enemy - Hitler, Goering, Mussolini and others both political and military - as well as the forces of destruction that they unleashed. They are included on these pages because they meant something to this soldier. They should also mean something to us as we look back upon one of the low points in all of human history - the years of the Second World War.
Above: Theater of war, early 1940
FROM THE DECLARATIONS OF WAR in September, 1939, to the late spring of 1940, Europe entered a phase dubbed at the time as the “Phony War.” It was characterized by not much more than a series of skirmishes involving the larger powers while both sides rushed to build up their munitions and prepare their nations for a full-scale war economy.
By mid-May, 1940, the Phony War was over. Several smaller European nations had fallen to the Nazis, and France capitulated soon after. On Friday, May 10 1940, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned in the face of loss of confidence from parliamentary supporters, and King George VI appointed Winston Churchill as his successor to head a new coalition government. Later that day, German troops marched into Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
On the following day, Robert Otterson wrote a letter to his wife from his billet in Downton, Wiltshire, a village a few miles south of Salisbury in southern England. “It was with rather a heavy heart that I said goodbye to you last night,” he wrote, “not knowing how long it will be before I see you or my darling baby again.”
Uncertainty was the prevailing sentiment at this time for both soldiers and civilians. Although he could not tell his wife, and carefully avoided mentioning his intended destination, the 1st Armoured Division to which he was attached was headed to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, a mobile army that had been conceived many years earlier to be rapidly deployed overseas as needed.
“Do not write to me until you hear from me again,” Robert Otterson wrote on the Saturday at the end of that week. “It may be a week or even a fortnight before I am able to write to you again, dear, so don’t worry if you have to wait for a letter. You will understand that I cannot post letters at sea, and perhaps not for a day or two until after we arrive at our destination ... We have been very busy today loading.”
Sgt. Otterson left his Downton billet late on the following Monday morning, riding a motorbike to the port of departure - almost certainly Southampton, 23 miles away. From there, buses were taking troops to a transit camp a few miles distant. On May 15 he boarded ship and was surprised to find himself in charge of just six soldiers on the entire vessel, assigned to guard the transport.
He had expected the closely slung hammocks of a troop transport, and was pleasantly surprised to be given a cabin and bunk to himself. The ship stayed moored until just after noon the following day when it pulled out to take its position in a larger convoy. The flotilla waited until near dark before moving off. The English Channel was smooth that night and the ship rolled gently. When it pulled into a French port - probably Le Havre - the unloading began immediately and took the whole day.
In fact, the main force of the BEF had already been deployed near the Franco-Belgian border several months earlier, after the declaration of war in September, 1939. When the German attack began in early May, 1940, the BEF consisted of 10 infantry divisions, a tank brigade and some 500 planes. Robert Otterson’s 1st Armoured Division was deployed in a separate area entirely - south of the Somme, the great battlefield of World War 1. His division never linked up with the main BEF force, which was pushed by the German advance to the coast and into a defensive pocket around Dunkirk.
After riding his motorbike another 24 miles inland, Robert Otterson managed to despatch another letter to his wife on May 19. Carefully avoiding clues that might reveal his exact location, he nevertheless remarked on the similarities to the English countryside. “The cuckoo, the thrush, the lark and the hedge sparrow add to the similitude of England,” he noted. “It is only when one passes through villages and sees the queer names and adverts or tries to purchase something at a shop that one is reminded of being in a foreign country.”
The previous evening, a group of the soldiers had been allowed to go into a local village for a couple of hours. They tried to buy tea, the ubiquitous drink of the British Army, but none was to be found. Efforts to use a French phrase book proved impossible. Even if the question was understood, the soldiers could never comprehend the answers. Wine was offered everywhere, but eventually the men found a place that could provide coffee, bread and butter. When the sergeant attempted to pay, the woman shopkeeper refused to take any money. There was no doubt about the enthusiasm with which the local population welcomed the British troops.
Four more letters would be sent by Robert Otterson from France over the next month, but they contain only glimpses of what history has since recorded in detail. France’s capitulation was imminent. The Germans would soon press the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force right to the English Channel, but failed to prevent a mass evacuation of a third of a million men safely to England. The 1st Armoured Division, its lines completely severed from the rest of the BEF, would move west and evacuate from the port of Cherbourg.
Major L.F. Ellis, in “The War in France and Flanders” (History of the Second World War - United Kingdom Military Series) written in 1954, covers the battles of May and June in detail, day by day. He makes this comment about the Royal Corps of Signals in which Robert Otterson served: “The story of this campaign illustrates very clearly the fundamental importance of communications. The responsibilities of the Royal Corps of Signals at every level were very heavy for they were indeed the nerve system of the British Expeditionary Force. They had to provide normal communications within the Expeditionary Force on which the control of operations was entirely dependent and to maintain long-distance communications between General Headquarters, the French High Command and the War Office and Air Ministry in England. Frequent moves greatly increased their difficulties and they were handicapped by inadequacy of wireless equipment.”
They were also handicapped by roads clogged with fleeing refugees. In his letter of May 22 Robert Otterson noted they had moved 80 miles in a single day earlier that week, and had seen something of the misery caused by war. He specifically avoided mentioning the direction of travel, but he can only have been heading east, into the battle zone. “Continual streams of refugees passed us on carts, bicycles and cars,” he recalled. “It was heartbreaking to see so many hundreds of homeless people, women, children and old folks.” As always, he included messages of reassurance, telling his wife that he has had some good nights’ sleep on “nice soft straw.” Adding a touch of humor, he acknowledged the occasional appearance of a rat or mouse, but said that “they are quite friendly - one of them wants to drink out of the same water bottle as me.”
Of actual combat, he spared his wife and avoided the censor by saying almost nothing, except to note in passing what he saw as evidence of “the funny side of war” - a British motorcycle group that encountered machine gun fire, one man diving into a shop window, only to then surrender to his own British forces who had mistaken him for a German. Or a motor cycle despatch rider who mounted the top of a hump-backed bridge to suddenly meet a German tank head on, together with a volley of machine gun fire. “He remarked that he had never turned his machine so quickly in his life,” Sgt. Otterson wrote, possibly thinking that by dismissing such episodes he could minimize the danger of the whole war for those who would read his letter. “I would like to tell you of ... the adventures and bravery of some of our men,” he wrote in a letter of June 13, “but it would be giving away secrets. These tales can wait until I see you again.”
On June 16, 1940, Robert Otterson wrote another letter to his wife. It began, “I can just imagine your surprise when you see my address.” In fact, he was back in Southampton. He explained that he had left Cherbourg the previous evening and arrived in England that morning, being billeted in a school. A move to North Wales was expected the next day.
His own evacuation from France had been a prelude to Operation Ariel, from June 14-25, in which nearly a quarter of a million men escaped to Britain from the ports of Cherbourg and St. Malo - added to the third of a million evacuated from Dunkirk. Less well known than the desperate escape from Dunkirk, Operation Ariel had only one major enemy-caused casualty. The day after Robert Otterson’s safe arrival in England, the merchant ship Lancastria, carrying roughly 6,000 troops and nationals, was bombed and sunk at Cherbourg. There were 2,477 casualties.
Defense of England: the Blitz
Eight letters from Robert Otterson to his wife, Doris, between August and December 1940, have been preserved, plus another 10 written from England in 1941. The earlier ones cover a terrible time in England. Like many other military units, the 1st Armoured Division was now assigned to home defense duties and there were high expectations of a German invasion.
Hitler knew he had to destroy the Royal Air Force since no sea-borne invasion of Britain could hope to succeed without air superiority. Military historians have since expressed doubt that even with air supremacy the Germans could have succeeded in an amphibious assault across the English Channel, since they would have had to contend with the formidable strength of the Royal Navy in its home waters. Nevertheless, in 1940 there were few who didn’t expect an attempt soon.
Consequently, the Battle of Britain was fought in the air from July 1940 through October of that year, although German bombers were not withdrawn until May, 1941 when they were needed for engagement with the Soviet Union. At first, the German Luftwaffe attempted to destroy airfields, munitions and aircraft factories, though their own losses of aircraft were high. Later, the focus moved to London and other cities in an attempt to intimidate the civilian population. Neither plan worked.
The most poignant elements of Robert Otterson’s letters during this period are those in which he talks of seeing from his military base the distant glow of burning buildings in London and hearing the anti-aircraft fire and exploding bombs, knowing that his wife and daughter are in the middle of it all. Despite this - or because of it - his quiet and confident religious faith is remarkable. Extracts from the letters appear below. It is clear from the dates that others were written which have not survived.
During his postings within England, Sgt. Otterson moved frequently from base to base - after France it was Warminster (Wiltshire), then Brockham Park (between Dorking and Reigate, Surrey), followed by Holmwood, Abinger, Gomsall (all in Surrey) and finally Hungerford in Berkshire from the end of May through most of September, 1941.
Top: London burning during the Blitz. Above: Coventry after a major air raid. Both photographs are from Robert Otterson’s journal; their origin is unknown. Below: Heinkel HE 111 German bomber over the East End of London, September 1940.
Occasionally he managed visits to his wife during short periods of leave, and at one time discusses their planned holiday in Cornwall. His army duties meant he was often traveling on the road. In the first week in July he realized what he described as one of his life’s ambitions and went for a flight in a Wellington bomber. A friend arranged for him to join a test flight, which he clearly enjoyed because he described it in detail.
There is a slight trace of frustration in one letter when he refers to a visit by the King and Queen to the base. Whatever might have been the morale-building intent of the visit, it was diminished by the fact that the men had to stand waiting for 90 minutes in the rain, and had to work to clean up the base with “spit, polish and painting."
In the same letter of July 31, 1941, he makes a rare reference to army discipline. He had handed out punishment to two soldiers - one for insubordination (answering back when told to keep quiet) and another for having “a filthy rifle.”
“I don’t like getting men into trouble,” he explained, “but the way these two tried to lie their way out of the situation drove out any sympathy I might have had for them.”
The surviving letters written from England suddenly cease with the one dated 18 September, 1941. Its contents deal mostly with some domestic incident with the children that troubled him. When he writes again, he is at sea, headed for the Middle East.
Photographs from Robert Otterson’s log book and collection
Possibly toward the end of the war, or very soon after it, Robert Otterson stuck several of the photographs below in his POW log book. While it is not known where he obtained them, they capture the age and are included for that purpose.
Top to bottom:
- Battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Hood. Both ships engaged the giant German Battleship Bismark, an action in which the Hood was sunk and the Prince of Wales damaged, but not before inflicting damage on the Bismark which later proved fatal. HMS Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese bombers late in 1941.
- Aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and, below it, HMS Illustrious. Ark Royal was sunk by a torpedo from a German U-boat in 1941. Illustrious survived the war with many battle honors.
- German air attack on island of Crete.
- Survivor-prisoners from the sinking of the armed merchant ship HMS Rawalpindi by two German battle cruisers in Icelandic waters in 1939. Some 238 men died, 37 were picked up by German ships and 11 rescued by a British ship.
Below, top to bottom: Faces of the enemy
- Guard gives Nazi salute as Hitler mounts steps with Boris of Bulgaria.
- Fascist leaders - Italy’s Mussolini (right of picture) with Spain’s Franco and Franco’s brother-in-law and envoy to Germany, Ramón Serrano Súñer (left of picture).
- Hermann Göring, head of the German air force, with Marshal Pétain, head of the French collaborationist government after France’s capitulation.
- German Foreign Minister General von Rippentrop with Japan’s ambassador to Nazi Germany, Hiroshi Oshima.
Extracts from the English letters
August 25, 1940
I’m going to try to get a few hours leave to try to see you. If it is granted it will be from 1 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning. I could get a train back around 7 a.m. I suppose, from London. At present though, besides Signal Office duties, we are having schemes [training exercises] and inspections which keep us pretty busy ... I hope no bombs have dropped at Hanwell, darling. I shouldn’t be surprised if they did as it is surrounded by military objectives. You won’t find it as peaceful as Salisbury. We have an air raid alarm nearly every day here. Yesterday we had two.
August 26, 1940
I hope you got my letter today, sweetheart. I am on duty this morning and there is a scheme this afternoon. Bombers visited us last night and dropped screaming bombs. I went to bed and let them scream.
Undated - 3rd page of letter only
Every day is alike now. There is an air raid in progress at present and I have just heard an explosion not far from here. I suppose you are having a terrible night again darling as I can hear the AA [anti-aircraft] barrage around London and see the bomb flashes. It is comforting to know that the Lord is taking care of you ... Goodnight dearest, and God bless you and the baby.
September 9, 1940
I am on night duty tonight and have just been watching the flashes of bursting bombs in the direction of London and wondering if you are spending the night in the air raid shelter. I have been wondering too how you fared during the big raids on London yesterday and the day before. But though I hate to think of all the discomfort you are probably suffering and the loss of sleep, I am not greatly worried regarding your safety, as I know that the Lord can and will take care of you both ... We have had bombs fall around here quite near enough to shake doors and windows, but only one house has been hit. We are all confined to barracks at present and all leave has been stopped ... Our duties are often from 6.45 a.m. to 9 p.m. with guards and night duties on top of that. Every day including Sunday is a normal working day. Yesterday afternoon I did about 60 miles on a motor cycle visiting various units ... I came on duty at 9.30 p.m. and will be here until 7.30 tomorrow morning and will then start my normal day’s work ... I’d love to see baby’s coloured photograph. Could you please send it by post?
Though still in the Royal Signals, towards the end of September, 1940, Robert Otterson was attached to the 11th (Honourable Artillery Company) Royal Horse Artillery, part of the oldest regiment in the British Army with a history back to 1296. His base was at Dorking, Surrey.
September 30, 1940
I think baby’s photograph is lovely ...I am very proud of you my dearest that you are being so very brave in these awful air raids. I know what you are experiencing and I have seen men turn pale and known them to be panic-stricken under less fearful conditions ... Mrs Barclay was serving in the soldiers’ canteen, Dorking, on Saturday night when three bombs were dropped at the top of the street. She hasn’t got over it yet, and jumps every time there is a bang. German bombers come over here every night and drop bombs in the vicinity. On Sunday morning at about 1 a.m. I woke up and heard a bomb falling followed immediately by the whistle of another and a crash. It seemed to be coming right for the tent so I just turned on my side and closed my eyes waiting for it. As it happened, it dropped in the wood 200 yards from me, and the soft ground deadened the explosion. Then I heard people running around shouting for stirrup pumps as the woods were on fire. I knew there would be plenty on the scene without me and that I would be called if needed, so I turned over and went to sleep. I heard the next morning that about 30 incendiary bombs had also been dropped in the field opposite our camp. Jerry has just come over again and the guns have started.
October 29, 1940.
At this time, the full letter shows that Doris Otterson is seven months pregnant with their second daughter, Ann, and clearly worried about how she will get to a hospital for delivery and care for her other infant daughter.
Sorry you were disappointed in not seeing me last weekend darling, but you know you shouldn’t expect me. I took a big risk last time. If anything had gone wrong with the bike, or I’d had an accident, it would have meant the end of me as a sergeant. So I’m afraid that the occasions when I can run through to see you will be very few and far between.
November 4, 1940
I was glad to hear on the wireless last night that there had been no raids over London. it is bad weather again today so I hope you have another quiet night ... Well darling you only have 6 or 7 weeks to go now, and I know you will be glad when it is over. I’m longing to see you and baby just as much as you are to see me.
December 17, 1940
I arrived back here at 4.30 p.m. after having done exactly 100 miles. I enjoyed the day out as it was fine weather and lovely scenery, and the added joy of seeing you again for a few minutes. It must have surprised you to see me with a rocking horse under my arm. I hope Ruth likes it.
December 31, 1940
On the last day of the year, Robert Otterson’s letter ends, “Give Ruth and Ann a kiss for me.” His second daughter had been born ten days earlier.
From the end of May, 1941, he was moved to another camp at Hungerford, Berkshire. In his first letter, he notes in passing that while he is writing outside his hut in beautiful afternoon weather, a dogfight is going on somewhere overhead. “There seem to be quite a lot of Jerry planes but I haven’t been able to locate them with my binoculars yet,” he writes.
A week later he was “on piquet” - a group consisting of a non-commissioned officer, a sergeant and five men, ready to turn out at a moment’s notice, dressed and armed, to deal with parachutists. That duty lasted for 24 hours. Presumably the parachutists were the pilots from downed German aircraft.