Oral Histories

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Frank Ashleigh - Glider Pilot Regiment

Interview with Frank Ashleigh, 21st February 2012.

Frank is a cockney and was born on December 23rd 1924, (87). He is mentioned in the book Glider Pilots at Arnhem by Mike Peters and Luke Buist. He was educated at Primary School in Stamford Hill and at Secondary School Upton House, Hackney.

“I was always interested in flying, a fascination, volunteered for the RAF – no chance, so I volunteered for the army”.

An AID approved welder, Frank worked at Straughan’s. During his time there he welded probably the army’s first welded Armoured Car. He warned the company that they were using the wrong welding rods, but they wouldn’t listen and the vehicle fell apart when the gun was fired! He also built a girder which ended up being used in the construction of aircraft hangers. The company did not want him to join up, but suddenly his work deteriorated and they let him go.

Frank volunteered on his 18th birthday, and joined in February, 1943 he was ex-cadet force and Home Guard and was comfortable with rifle drill and a very good shot. He went to Woolwich arsenal then to Arnold in Nottinghamshire for primary training.

Frank then joined the REME and was sent on a welding course even though he was already fully qualified. Then posted to Southend-on-Sea where his role was as a Regimental Policeman, “I didn't know what being a craftsman had to do with being a Regimental Policeman!”

It was there he became involved with the GPR. He read in part 2 orders that volunteers were required for the GPR. There was a warning that this might be hazardous. With two friends he applied. “The three of us were sent to a selection board, where two were rejected and I was accepted”. He went to Fargo (Fargo Camp, Salisbury Plain near Larkhill, GPR Regimental Depot) for a 6 week weeding out process. At the end of it those still there were prom ted to the rank of corporal. “I will never forget a painting on the door of the corporals’ mess of hideous grinning devil with the caption; ‘so you want to be a glider pilot’. After that nobody requested RTU. It gave me a tremendous kick walking down the avenue and seeing ‘flying kit’ on the door of a Nissan hut. Then whilst stationed at Booker, we were bussed to Denham airfield every day for primary flying training”.

“It was there I had the weirdest experience of my life. I was told to fly a Tiger Moth; it didn't feel right and I put it Unserviceable. The following day I was asked to fly the same aircraft, again I refused and put it Unserviceable. The Instructor asked if he was refusing to fly, I said no, I’m just refusing to fly that aircraft. Another trainee, Roy Roberts, took it up, got to 50 ft when the engine cut, he stalled and crashed. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. Roy wasn't hurt and 30 minutes later he was up again”.

“Then I was posted to Stoke Orchard to fly the beautiful Hotspur, then off to North Luffenham for Horsa training and the horrible Whitley Tug! After getting my wings, (the army flying badge) I was posted to No2 Flight A Squadron Harwell, , and I was paired up as second pilot with Lofty Cummings who had transferred from the Fleet Air Arm. As well as being the tallest Lofty was the finest pilot on the airfield, sadly he bought it at Arnhem”. Frank visits Arnhem every year and always visits Lofty’s grave in the cemetery at Oosterbeek. Frank feels very much at home in Arnhem and has taken all the members of his family there. He always meets Henk a Dutch historian who has been decorated by the Dutch Government for his services to the airborne forces.

Whilst on a Hotspur training flight in Gloucestershire Frank heard gunnery instructions over the radio and later discovered that they had come from the Normandy landings.

Arnhem was Frank’s first and only operation; “We went in on the second lift on Monday, 18 September. The flight was uneventful; no opposition whatsoever, no flak nor fighters. He made a full flap approach and landed on landing zone X-ray. The glider was unloaded; it was carrying a Jeep with two trailers and its four-man crew from the Royal Corps of Signals. In the trailers was a radar set.. The tail was taken off the glider, the ramps were put in place and the jeep and trailers just vanished; we never saw them again. We spent the night in Wolfheze; the following morning at dawn we went off to Oosterbeek to the Hartenstein Hotel, the HQ of the Airborne Division where we dug in. After about two hours, with 2 other glider pilots and a Captain in the South Staffs (Staffordshires) I went out on patrol. We got about ¼ mile when we realised we were surrounded , everywhere we looked were German soldiers. We dived into a church, St Bernulphus RC Church. We climbed a winding staircase that led to the organ loft, on to the belfry and then higher into the roof. There we found a catwalk stretching the full length of the church with a rectangular window at the far end. We opened it, everywhere we looked there were German soldiers, we opened fire.

We were there for 4 days. At irregular intervals would go up to the roof, fire a few rounds then disappear back into the organ loft. Eventually, when the four of us were in the organ loft, the door opened and a German soldier came in with a Luger. He shot the Captain in the stomach. He decided, quite correctly to give himself up to get medical attention and being in shock told the Germans that 'there are 3 more British soldiers up there'. A German Officer came into the church and shouted up to us in perfect English ‘you have 5 minutes to come down with your hands up. We have men posted on the staircase, there is no way out’. We broke the firing pins off our weapons, took the fuse out of the one grenade that we had and concealed it in an organ pipe, then went down and surrendered. We told the Germans, in broken German, that we hadn’t eaten for days. In 10 minutes 3 plates of food arrived. We were very suspicious, they said ‘don’t worry it’s not poisoned’.

Then over the river to Oberusal, an interrogation centre, where after a couple of days of giving only 'name rank and number'. ‘We were told 'right gentleman you are going to have your photograph taken’. That’s it we thought we are going to be shot, but no we were simply going to have our photographs taken. Then to Stalag Luft 7; at Bankau. We stayed there until January 1945 and then came 'the long march' over the Oder, 83 miles in 17 days at sub-zero temperatures. We quickly learned that the ideal place overnight was in a cowshed, as cows give off body heat; but horses do not. Eventually we arrived at Luckenwald south of Berlin and stayed there until the Russians liberated us. There were lots of Russian POW’s there they were in an appalling state, virtually skin and bone; we gave them what food we could spare, we always found something for them. When the camp was liberated the commandant was captured. the guards having fled. The Russian soldiers gave the commandant to the Russian prisoners I don’t think he lasted long! The following day I was flown home.

“My uncle was serving as a Captain in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), a doctor. He found out that I was back in the UK and sent his sent his personal transport to collect me. His driver took me to my aunt living in Slough. She greeted me very simply with a ‘Hello Frank how are you, I suppose you would like a bite of something to eat’ and put a chicken in front of me I couldn't eat very much of it. The car took me back to the repatriation camp, then I was off on 6 weeks leave with double civilian rations! They didn’t quite know what to do with me”.

“I Was sent to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; just to get me out of the way. I was expected to keep out of sight. One day there was an item on part 2 orders ‘Army flying badges will not be worn’ this was obviously directed at me. I requested an interview with the C.O., he said ‘why have you come to see me’?, “I replied reference part 2 orders; correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that I can only lose my wings after being convicted of a flying offence and as I am no longer flying and have not been so convicted, please advise me under what authority is that order issued. The C.O. then said ‘that order is rescinded’, I proudly wore my wings for the rest of my army career”.

“Eventually I came up to London and was sent to form the London District Leave Hostel Unit; this was 3 houses in Victoria to be converted into a hostel unit for troops on leave. I had a staff of 4 Sappers, 30 ATS girls and 300,beds. A terrifying experience 3 enormous houses integrating doors cut through them 4 sappers, 30 ATS and 300 beds. I stayed for the last 6 weeks before being demobbed in May ‘46 at Woking”.

Miscellaneous Recollections.

Frank feels his oddest memory in the army was being sent on a welding course when he was a fully qualified welder.

“The Hotspur was a delightful aircraft, very forgiving”.

“The Horsa was a wonderful aircraft, it would not go into a spin, it simply did a stall turn. It was very light on controls and very responsive”.

“The angle of dangle was a simple mechanical instrument showing you your position relative to the tug measured by the amount of sag of the tow rope between the tug and the wings of the glider”.

“The telephone cable between the tug and the Horsa didn’t work when under tension, so we used to signal by Morse code using a torch”. “On the Arnhem operation our Stirling tug lost an engine on take-off. As it didn't have enough power to take off with three engines, we were the last off the ground instead of being fourth”.

“The white tape that led the evacuating troops from the Hartenstein to the Rhine , was laid by Glider Pilots. I wasn't one of them, being already in the bag”. (For the troops of 1st Airborne Division retreating over the Lower Rhine)

“We were Total Soldiers; fully trained in every aspect and we took control and we took control and command as was expected of us. Wings give an automatic position of authority”.

On Night Flying: Frank only did one solo night flight in the Hotspur. He did fly at night in a Horsa but never solo.

“With full flaps the ground speed in the Horsa was 25 mph. The flaps were like barn doors and on a full flap approach the Horsa would descend at about 40 degrees from vertical; the air-speed remained constant, the controls were inch perfect”. Flying into a very strong headwind on full flap, it was just possible to undershoot as happened at Harwell, where Frank saw a Horsa flying backwards.

“Before Arnhem there were 16 cancelled operations, the Glider Pilots were on alert for all of them. “After the 13th or 14th cancelled operation, the glider pilots blasted the tannoy to pieces with their Stens!”

“On one occasion I was taken by truck from a secret airfield to Victoria Station to be picked up there that night for the return journey. I was arrested by the MP’s (Military Police) and taken to Scotland Yard. I was interviewed there by the Provost Marshall who, because as ordered, I would not divulge the location of my airfield phoned Lieutenant-General (Boy) Browning. General Browning instructed the Provost Marshall to have his personal transport take me wherever I wanted to go and in future, to 'Leave my Glider Pilots alone!' “.

“In the book 'Glider Pilots at Arnhem' it states that Sgt. Mc Guinness flew with Lofty Cummins. This is incorrect. It was my privilege to fly with Lofty. The book also says that we brought in the only radar set to arrive which is correct. It also says that we riddled it with Sten gun bullets, which is not correct, we made a perfect landing, unloaded the glider, the troops with the jeep and the radar set and they were on their way”.

“We broke the tip off our daggers and re-sharpened them because the tip was too brittle”.

“The sword in the Civic Hall at Arnhem; is engraved with the name of every regiment which fought at Arnhem”.

On RAF Pilots: “Because of the heavy losses sustained by the GPR at Arnhem, pilots from the RAF were retrained to fly gliders. As pilots they were excellent but due to their lack of training once on the ground they were not very useful as they had no knowledge of field craft”.

On Weapons: Frank’s choice was the SMLE (Short-Magazine-Lee-Enfield Rifle); he explained that as a Glider Pilot he could have any weapon he wanted. “The SMLE was so accurate, unlike the Sten, not much use over 50 feet”.

In the action at St Bernulphus RC Church; “When firing, we stood well back from the window, so as not to reveal our position. By the end of the action I had only 3 rounds left out of 4 Bren gun magazines + 10 rounds in the magazine of the SMLE”.

On going into battle “In the Airborne there was no gradual acclimatisation, I was terrified, as was everybody, but simply got on with the job I had been trained to do”. Frank had just the one forced landing in the Tiger Moth. “You had to learn the difference – can’t go around again in a glider!”