William Carter took part in a major Second World War operation and ended up in a PoW camp. Chris Owen finds out more
William Carter’s face erupts into a broad grin. ‘You know, that was the only time I landed in a Dakota.’
The former paratrooper was recalling the moment he returned to Britain, his right leg smashed by a German tracer bullet.
‘Until that flight, I’d only jumped out of Dakotas before,’ he says.
It was April 1945. The end of the Second World War in Europe was a month off.
Walking with a stick and with £10 and a rail warrant in his pocket, the 20-year-old made his way back to Portsmouth from where that Dakota landed at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
‘I arrived at 2am. Nobody was about, but when I got home they obviously knew I was coming because there was bunting in the street and a banner over the door saying Welcome Home Bill.’
Home was at 19 School Lane, Buckland – a tiny two-up, two-down building which William believes had originally been a farm worker’s cottage.
His last ‘home’ had been Stalag XIB in Germany. He had been captured after that bullet tore thought his leg after taking part in one of the war’s boldest plans – Operation Market Garden.
Thirty thousand British and American airborne troops were dropped behind enemy lines to capture the eight bridges that spanned the network of canals and rivers on the Dutch/German border.
William, a private in the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment (1 Para) was dropped from an American Dakota at Arnhem on the first day of Market Garden, September 17, 1944.
‘In a way I was lucky that I was hit by tracer. It smashed through my tibia. Went straight through my leg. It was agony at first but the pain didn’t last long and I was amazed there was so little blood. I reckon it cauterised the wound as it went through.’
When William returned home, his fiancee Violet was waiting for him with his stepfather Richard Chandler. They’d met in Lincolnshire where 1 Para was based. She had been working in the pub they used, but that ended when her father found out it had become an unofficial mess.
They married later in 1945 and now 67 years, three daughters, four grandaughters and four great grandchildren later, they live at Mabey Close, Gosport.
William, who went to Wellington Place School, Buckland, followed by Drayton Road School, North End, left school at 14 and worked in the John Palmer wholesale warehouse at Fratton.
‘I used to firewatch from the roof during the blitz. I remember two planes coming in and bombing Locksway Road and watched when they bombed the Prince’s Theatre in Lake Road.
‘I was only a teenager and found it all quite exciting. Like many of my age there wasn’t any fear, just excitement.’
But he soon realised the toll war could take when his stepmother, Nel Chandler, died in October 1940. ‘She couldn’t stand the bombing and it became too much for her.’
William called Nel and Richard mum and dad. They were really his aunt and uncle.
‘I was only 10 days old when I was given to them because my real mum went into hospital long-term and my dad was serving in the RAF. They didn’t have any children. It happened a lot in those days. But they were the happiest times. I couldn’t have had a better childhood.’
Although many lads in his large extended family joined the Royal Navy, William opted for the army and enlisted in late 1941 when he was 17.
He joined the 70th Battalion Young Soldiers of the Hampshire Regiment and found himself guarding coastal defences in Dorset and Essex.
‘I was transferred to the 12th Battalion Hampshire Regiment and was in Northern Ireland when I saw a notice on the board on day asking for volunteers to become paratroopers.
‘I really fancied that, especially the jumping out of planes bit.
‘During our training we had to jump from Whitley bombers – not from a door but from a small hole in the floor. If you didn’t straighten your whole body as you went through that hole you’d end up with a bloody chin as you hit your head on the side.’
In 1943 he joined the newly-formed 1st Parachute Brigade in Algiers. It was during the North Africa campaign that the Parachute Regiment earned its nick-name, The Red Devils, from their German opponents.
William then moved on to the Italian campaign and a seaborne attack on Taranto Harbour on the heel of Italy. ‘We lost about 500 men there when a ship hit a mine. I’d gone for a swim and I remember the bodies floating past me.’
Five hundred men. One incident. Twice the number of British servicemen killed in the Falklands War.
‘Then we were recalled to Britain to prepare for D-Day,’ adds William. ‘We were supposed to have been dropped on Caen in France immediately after D-Day but that didn’t happen. They’d got other plans for us.’
That, of course, was Operation Market Garden three months after D-Day.
For nine days William and his colleagues dug themselves in during fierce fighting in and around Oosterbeek. He watched several friends die.
Then, on September 26, he was wounded and captured by the Germans. ‘I just lay there looking up at the sky for hours. I remember watching a dogfight and being shelled by our own guns.
‘The Germans gave me a tin of cold, uncooked spuds to eat. They were horrible and to this day I can still taste them.’
He was taken with other wounded British prisoners of war to a German-run hospital where a captured British dental surgeon operated on his leg.
‘From there I was taken to Stalag XIB and that’s where I stayed until the Eighth Army came and freed us. I think they drove a tank over the perimeter fence.
‘We knew they were coming because for days we had heard the gunfire and shelling getting closer and closer... and the Germans had disappeared, apart from some sort of Home Guard which they left behind to guard us.’
And then it was that Dakota flight back to England and a hero’s welcome in homely School Lane, Buckland.
‘I was still only 20. When I look back I seem to have packed a lifetime’s experiences into just three years.’