FROM parachuting into Germany amid anti-aircraft fire to witnessing the horrors of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, Lance Rooke endured some terrifying and harrowing experiences during the Second World War. And as Armed Forces Day approaches, he shared some of his stories with Rob Devey.
Thousands of brave British soldiers put their lives on the line to take the fight to the Nazis.
But not many of them received a mention in despatches when the war was over.
Lance Rooke, however, did. In the London Gazette of April 4, 1946, he was one of only two riflemen mentioned for ‘distinguished service’ and received His Majesty’s ‘high appreciation’.
He received this recognition for his bravery in an incident during the Allied advance through Germany following the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.
“A German opened fire on our convoy and I charged into the woods after him and got involved in a gun battle,” says Lance, now aged 87.
“There were 30-odd Germans all around me and all I could do was keep firing.
“Had the platoon been five minutes later in getting to me I would have been dead.
“My corporal said afterwards ‘you’ll get yourself killed doing things like that’ and I realised I should have turned round when I saw how many of them there were.”
The Gods were on Lance’s side, however, and he was surprised to be told that he had killed five Germans and wounded three others.
Lance, who lives on Belmont Close, Lancaster, with his wife Greta, now attributes his actions that day to the fact he was “young and silly.”
And he was certainly younger than most of his comrades, having lied about his age to join the Army aged just 16 in October, 1942.
Lance, who grew up in Belfast as one of seven children, had just lost his dad, William, to pneumonia.
A former shipyard worker, who was involved in the construction of the Titanic, William was aged only 45 when he died and Lance admits that joining the Army was his way of dealing with his loss.
“I just told them I was 18 and when they asked for my birth certificate I said it had been lost in an air raid, which was believable because Belfast had been bombed heavily in 1941,” he says.
It was a fateful decision, which shaped Lance’s whole life. Had he not lied, he would have been unable to sign up until he turned 18 on May 27, 1944, which would almost certainly have been too late to see any action.
Lance was posted to Omagh, the New Forest and the Isle of Wight before volunteering for ‘airborne service’ and being posted to the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles at Bulford on Salisbury Plain.
He saw action on D-Day as a glider, crash-landing in Normandy as part of a platoon of 60 which came under heavy machine-gun fire. Their mission was to set up a divisional HQ and defend it.
“We were defending the left flank of the invasion until August and there was some very heavy fighting,” he recalls.
The soldiers advanced up the coast, reaching Honfleur, where they found the Germans had blown the bridges before retreating to Le Havre.
“By that time we were very weak after three months of fighting and 4,600 men had been killed or wounded in our division. We had lost half our strength.”
Lance’s 6th Airborne Division was then posted back home for re-inforcements and training, at which point he trained to be a parachutist at Ringway, now Manchester Airport.
He secured his wings to become a paratrooper, and on Christmas Eve, 1944, he and his colleagues were rushed to the Ardennes in Belgium to help counter a German breakthrough at the Battle of the Bulge before moving on to Holland.
They were then flown home to prepare for an airborne assault across the River Rhine.
This took place on March 24.
“We were dropped on top of the Germans,” remembers Lance. “When we parachuted down there was heavy anti-aircraft fire and tracer bullets were coming up from all angles.
“It was terrifying. We suffered heavy casualties – all the while we were losing friends. It was very traumatic.”
After crossing the Rhine, Lance’s division arrived at Hamminkeln – and it was here that he had his closest brush with death.
“I remember it very hazily,” he says. “We were going to attack some Germans in the woods when an 8mm shell landed – only I never heard nor saw it.
“I came to and got up off my knees. There had been a dozen or so of us there but six of us died.
“I was shocked and concussed for the rest of the day but I was lucky.”
He was involved in burying around 50 of his comrades in a mass grave nearby, including those killed in that shell attack.
“Burying my friends, I felt numb, but you almost become oblivious to how you feel,” he says. “War brutalises you.”
Lance continued in an advance up the coast during which he had to contend with the awful experience of witnessing scenes at Bergen Belsen concentration camp, which had just been liberated by the Allies.
“During our advance through Germany word came through about this camp, which had been over-run,” says Lance.
“We escorted some of our officers there and the scene was horrific. It was a scene from hell. There were thousands of dead bodies rotting and the smell was terrible.
“The German prisoners were still there and so were those who had survived the camp but they were still dying in their hundreds for weeks afterwards from disease and malnutrition.”
Lance spent two hours at the camp before his officers heard that re-inforcements were on their way and that their presence was not needed.
The advance ended in Wismer on the Baltic Sea where his division met with Russian troops.
For them, the war in Europe had ended and they were flown him within a week. They were due to go to the Far East to recapture Singapore but then the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Lance’s division was diverted to Palestine to counter Jewish terrorists angered by what he recalls was a crackdown on illegal immigration.
He was finally ‘de-mobbed’ in May 1947.
His discharge letter reads: “Pte Rooke is one of the finest Pte soldiers I’ve ever met – give him a job, it’s done.”
After the war, Lance settled in Lancaster. His uncle, who lived in Scotforth, suggested he applied for a job at the county mental asylum, the Moor Hospital.
He got a job there as a county nurse, where he met Greta, who was on the domestic staff. They married in 1948 and Lance continued to work at the hospital for 38 years, also starring for its football team.
The couple had a son, also Lance, and a daughter, Lynda, a TV and stage actress who has appeared in shows including Inspector Morse, Coronation Street, Z Cars and Casualty.
They also have three grandchildren.
Lance remains glad he lied about his age in order to join the war effort.
“Having been to Belsen and seen the cruelty that had been perpetrated there, I was left in no doubt that I had been right, and that we had been on the right side,” he says. “The Nazis were pure evil.”
Some of his experiences may have been awful, but he will not forget them, not least because of the sacrifice made by many of his friends.
A few years ago, he demanded to know why the Union flag was not flying above Lancaster Town Hall on Armed Forces Day, a situation that has now been rectified.
He has travelled back to Normandy to mark the anniversary of the landings every year since 1991 and has a humble, modest opinion of his own brave contribution to the war effort.
“I was just an ordinary solider, there were thousands more,” he says.
“But what those who died did should never be forgotten.”