Full interview with Ernest Cox - Royal Armoured Corp.

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 The Full interview with Ernest Cox is 1 hour and 28 minutes long. You can listen to it as you read by clicking the "Audio MP3" button above.

Interview With Ernest Edward Cox -WW2 Veteran of the 141st Royal Armoured Corp.

  

Ernest Edward Cox

6153709 TPR.E.E.COX

“A” SQUADRON 141

ROYAL ARMOURED CORPS

(THE BUFFS)

by Jeena

 

I meet Ernest Edward Cox rather by accident one day at the Greerton Library. His selection of books, and his apparent age, indicates to me that he might possibly have some association with the Second World War. 

He is visiting the library that day (as usual I have been told) after travelling all the way from early Pyes Pa on his mobility scooter.  A long journey on a busy road for an 87 year old to make every week.

I talk to Ernie about the choice of books he has taken out that day, and mention that our family, particularly our son, is interested in the history of Europe and its wars. Ernie politely and quietly chats about the Second World War, at this stage from a reader's perspective. I ask him what involvement he had during that period, and he humbly says he was a soldier fighting for the British and partook in the D-Day landing. Seeing my obvious interest in this turn of the conversation, he throws a few stories at me, outlining his excitement at partaking in the D-day landings and subsequent battles, and sharing a few brief but dramatic stories of other incidents that he took part in. I am astounded by his memory, his quick answers to my questions and the spark of intelligence in his eyes. He is very quick-witted, and as I come to learn in time, he misses nothing. I ask him if he would be interested in telling his story to me and my son, and for this, the Tauranga Memories website. His reply is one of overwhelming interest.

On the phone later I am surprised to hear that although he has painstakingly hand-written his entire memoirs, it has never been published and nor has his story ever been made public. I am relieved that he has been so forthcoming, as many Veterans find it difficult to talk of their wartime experiences and I have had many reservations about how best to approach them.

I am excited all day, and cannot wait to tell my son, Kelton, of our impending interview with Ernest. This news is met with a thousand questions and huge grin as I explain I will have to take him out of school for the afternoon…..no surprises there!

We organize ourselves: Dictaphone, maps, a list of facts and dates, and mull over a tonne of questions we have always wanted to ask somebody who has experienced something we have only read about in history books.

We finally meet Ernest in his home. Formalities and introductions over, we begin. As the afternoon slips away the most incredible story unfolds. A story packed full of action and casually littered with references to some of the most remarkable battles that we have all grown up reading about and which are now a part of all of us.

Within the first 5 minutes, I know that I will have to ring the school again to ask if Kelton can have another afternoon off; Ernie’s story is so rich with detail and so extensive that I realise the two and half hours we had allocated is not enough time to do his story justice. I glance over at Kelton who sits motionless; eyes widening as each detail is recounted. Despite the large lemonade he knocked back before we came, he sits as still as a statue soaking up every word that Ernest says. My son is too shy to ask questions but I know he is busting with them.

The story goes something like this...

 

ERNEST AND LIFE BEFORE 1939 (you can hear Ernest describe some of his lifebefore war by clicking here)

 Ernie was born Ernest Edward Cox on 17th February 1924 in Lambeth, London. He was one of three children born to Sascha Ernest Cox and Alice Cox. Sasha was a Ballis pit miner (gravel miner) and Alice a housewife.  Ernie often took it upon himself to help take care of his two sisters.

Hard work began at an early age for Ernest. He was a bright boy, and in his school years he achieved the status of becoming the 2nd top student of Turnford School, only being beaten at the post by a small margin, and by a girl! Although his level of achievement in education was high, Ernest left school in 1938 at the age of 14 to join the work force. By today's standards his education had been cut short, but during this era, a parent’s single income was not enough to ensure everybody in the family was fed and clothed. Ernest began work at Bellings, an assembly plant which made electric cookers, earning three and a half pence an hour, and travelling 6 hours a day to work and back home again.

It was 1938 and war was looming. Ernie's life began to change dramatically. There was much discussion regarding Germany and its intentions. England had already begun preparing for the possibility of war. The civilian population was encouraged to establish plots for food in preparation for rationing. Gardening was 'in vogue' as were natural remedies and self sufficiency. National Registration Day was created on 29 September 1939, and every household had to complete a form giving details of the people who lived in each house so that food rationing could be managed. A great deal of time was spent preparing people for gas attacks, air raids etc.

People were taught how to keep themselves safe and healthy; this prompted Ernest to begin building his family their own bunker in the backyard. What ensued was the erection of rather dangerous looking ‘box’ made up of ‘borrowed’ scaffolding from a building site down the road. Much to the family’s relief, official shelters called Anderson Shelters were soon issued. These kit-set bunkers were easily put together, and according to Ernie, were very effective when they were put to the test during the bombing of London. Suffice to say the scaffolding was returned to its rightful owner (under cover of darkness of course) and the family felt more prepared.

This was a time of extreme excitement for a young man barely in his teens. But they were also times of hardship, comradeship and extreme fatigue.

At his workplace, Ernie began making parts for RAF aircraft, 'all things tubular'. No longer were factory workers making household appliances - many industrial businesses had begun supplying the military.

 

CHAMBERLAIN AND THE DECLARATION OF WAR 

At 11am on 3 September 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in a radio broadcast that the country was at war. Ernie (due to an air raid warning on the day, which as it turned out was a false alarm) went out looking for his sisters. At this early stage of the war the threat of incoming German aircraft sent off a siren right through the city of London, and the whole city would come to a grinding halt. Later, London was sectioned off, and the sirens would only sound should that area be under threat.

Ernie was now working 10-12 hour days, 6 and a half day weeks. Like many civilians his age, he was recruited as an Air Raid Warden over and above his regular job. Not only was he responsible for his post, but it was also his duty to once a week stay up all night and watch for incoming raids. Much to his amusement, when the sirens sounded and Ernie took his place on top of the factory building he was allocated to, the staff below would fill the factory grounds and call out 'where are they Ernie?' rather than making swiftly for the shelters. Many hours of production were lost when the sirens went off and many hours of sleep were compromised by it. Exhaustion was a normal thing.

In one instance a very large explosion took out almost every single window of the large factory Ernie was working in. Luckily he and his colleagues had finished for the evening and were scouting for a sandwich up the road. Much of the night was spent hurriedly blacking out the windows, the work pushing deep into the night and  into the early hours. Hear him describe this by clicking here.

As a fifteen year old Ernie became responsible for so much more than our teens these days. He was feeding his family, playing an important role in the production of war material and maintaining a lookout for incoming German planes. Not much time for a young man to get into trouble, however I was amused when he shared his experiences with beer drinking; when I did the math I realised that at the time of his rather adult exploits with alcohol he would have been only 14-15 years of age.

In 1940, at the age of 16 and a half, Ernie enlisted with the Air Force, due to an interest in military aircraft. He was well below the required age, and it didn't take long for his superiors to find out. He was, despite his best efforts and copious amounts of white lies, removed from the force. The plan of using his cousin’s identity (the cousin was 18 years old at the time) did not work out. Ernie was subsequently told to join the Home Guard, a volunteer group. Not exactly what he was wanting, but he was happy to know that he would be entitled to carry a Ross rifle with 50 rounds, something all the boys his age were hoping to be able to do. It was to be one and a half years before he could enlist legally, and during this time Ernie was kept busy enough working and learning the basics of soldiering in his voluntary role. Hear him describe this by clicking here.

Times were tough.  On 8 January 1940 (four months after the war started) severe rationing was put into place. Luckily the family had an allotment garden on which they heavily relied. Later on in the war Britain relied on supplies from the Americans, many of which barely made it through due to the supply ships being blown up. It was now that food rationing came into force and according to Ernest these were very very difficult times.

 


THE BEGINNINGS OF A SOLDIER - you can hear Ernie talk about his training by clicking here.

When Ernest re-enlisted, he joined the East Surrey Regiment as a private, and this time it was legal! He was now 18 and the war had been raging for one and a half years. He began his training initially in Canterbury and then in Dover. Based on the Dover cliffs, looking out towards the French coast, he and his comrades would run up to Shakespeare Cliff and watch the German guns go off on the other side of the Channel. They would stand and count, knowing that the fired German shells would take exactly 1 minute to hit Dover. Dover at the time was a hot spot of bombardment during the war and young Ernie was just aching to get over the channel. One particularly close call had a shell land 50 to 60 feet just below the barracks. Not a window was broken despite the explosion, this was due to the hill smothering the blast and taking the entire impact.

Much to his disappointment, Ernie was listed to join the tank regiments; he had wanted to join the Signalling Corp and stay with his mates. His title was now Private Ernest Edward Cox of the 141st Royal Armoured Corp, which consisted of about 800 soldiers. Ernie was to spend his entire war time as part of the A Squadron. Initially untrained, each soldier set about learning the different professions that would fufill the duty of the Corp.

Passing the Signalling Training, and the Driver Mechanic Training (scoring 94% and only being beaten by his Trainer who got 96%), Ernest's officer purposely failed Ernie on the Gunnery Test as Ernest had told him he wanted to become a Driver/Mechanic.

As a Driver/Mechanic in a Churchill Mark VII tank, which could be converted into a Flame Thrower, Ernie was one of five men in the crew. Their training began in Eastwell Park, where they spent months waterproofing the tanks (allowing for up to 6 feet of water) in preparation for landing on the shores of France. He remembers often being completely black because of the fuel they were using for the Flame Thrower.

He spent many months in training, and when the day finally came for Ernie to head off to war he felt very prepared and excited. Little did he know at the time, but the first campaign he would partake in was to be one of the most talked about moments in history, the D-Day Landings.

 

D-DAY AND FIRST CONTACT 

Unlike the tragic story of the American Sherman Swimming Tanks that sank during the grounding process due to bad weather, Ernie's tank, now called Stallion by the crew, landed without incident and grounded straight onto the beach. After many weeks waterproofing the tanks in preparation for this day, the tracks had barely touched the water. Ernie explained that 20 of the 23 Sherman Swimming Tanks sank. He could not understand why they were put into the water several miles away from shore in heavy swells. These tanks were to have landed on Omaha and he believed that this is why the Americans got such a 'hiding' on the beach, because they had no/little tank support.

It was the 6th of June 1944 and Ernie had come in on the 5th Wave (the 5th 'flow' of troops), landing on Juno Beach with the Canadians, unlike most other British troops who landed on Gold Beach and Sword Beach. Little did they know that their tank, the Stallion, and the crew would be the only tank crew out of the 18 tanks in the squadron that would survive through to the end of the war.

The beach at the time had been secured. One thing Ernie said he would never forget is the sight of the Channel as they made their way in, the sheer volume of the British and Allied forces choking the channel. 'There were thousands of craft, absolutely massive!' he exclaimed. 

His first contact came in Cheux, a little inland from Juno Beach. A wheat field needed securing and it was the first time the crew in the Stallion could put their training into action. The terrain was as flat as a pancake. The battle was a learning curve for the regiment; they found later they were up against Hitler youth who 'fought like demons' and cried when caught. Battle hardened Germans who had come from the Russian front, and the feared 12th Panther SS were also among the first enemy the crew of the Stallion faced in these early stages of contact. Ernest tells us with disbelief an incident where a SS soldier stood up, shot one of the regiment’s crew and in the same motion dropped his gun and put his hands up. They were not at all fair fighters and there was little respect for them. This was the first of many battles he would face in France and it was at this stage the Regiment was split into two, 8 tanks for each group.

Mouen saw Ernie’s tank sent off to search for a missing tank of the group. When they located it, the Stallion came under fire and was shelled heavily. One shell flipped the tank in front of them upside down. It was to be towards the end of the war and inside Germany that Ernie came into contact with one of the crew from the missing tank. The soldier had been liberated and told Ernie of how all four of his colleagues from his tank were stood in a line and shot in cold blood. All but he were executed, this was because he was the youngest soldier there. The fallen soldiers were friends of Ernie's.

 

THE PUSH TO THE NORTH 

Battle stories spill from Ernie at this stage. In one instance a decision by the field officer to bypass two Panthers rather than to disable them, leaves one Churchill in flames. The inside was like a 'baker’s oven' Ernie says sadly as he explains how he rescued a badly burnt colleague. The movement of troops northward meant long tiresome hours of slow and dangerous travel, very very cold nights in the tank in winter, and searingly hot days in the tank in summer. At times Ernie and his colleagues would wear only their shorts and singlets (named PT’s) as they fought battles, something Ernie found very amusing as he tells us on one of the occasions the tank was hit; he was chased up the road and wounded, all the while clothed in a pair of shorts and a singlet! A direct hit on the Stallion resulted in the turret being completely blown off, and the Corporal being killed. The crew bolted and Ernie came to after passing out. At this stage Germans spotted him and started firing away. Taking cover behind a haystack he came under fire from tracer bullets, but managed to escape due to the smoke created by the burning haystack, and he returned to his tank. Unbelievably the gunner was in the turret at the time and according to Ernie he didn't get a scratch. Ernie had spent the entire battle in his PT's and recalls one incoming shell that must have passed by his head only by inches. This was the first time Ernie was wounded and he spent some time in the infirmary. It was there that he came across his badly burnt comrade.

Fitted out with a new tank the Stallion crossed the river Seine and prepared for the battle of Le Havre, which took three days to capture, despite there being thousands of Germans.

At this stage Ernie had only been in France a matter of months. Life in the Armoured corps was, at least as far as food was concerned, fairly good. The men would get food packs which would last them 3 days. The A packs were extremely sought after as they had the better meals, corned beef, tinned margarine, jam, condensed milk and various soups to warm up.

Boulogne Sur-Mer, Sangette and Calais came next (mostly towns that hug the coast of France). It was just outside of Calais that Ernie would see where the Germans had fired their shells across the Channel to the cliffs of Dover. Ernie recalls passing a massive crater he suspected was the result of a bomb weighing about 8,000 pounds; in the bottom of the crater were 4 tanks that had unwittingly 'fallen' into it during night hours.

 

SEASONED VETERANS

The Stallion skirted around Dunkirk as the regiment was needed in the north. They continued on and pushed up the coast and on into Holland and Mons. The Germans were still quite strong at this stage of their retreat and resistance was fierce. The crew were astounded to find that the civilian population they encountered in Mons had access to almost all foods. Just like pre-war England, people were going to the market and buying almost all available varieties of fruit, vegetables and meat. A kindly housewife gave Ernie a bunch of grapes he'd been eyeing. So different to the food shortages of France and England.

As time wound on, Ernest and the crew became more battle hardened. What would have been considered shocking and saddening became everyday life. Infrequently the crew would get leave from the front. At one stage Ernie was sent home to London. Times had changed, and he reminded us of the suffering the civilian population endured during this stage of the war.

_____________________________

 

Ernie’s narration had taken two and a half hours by this stage, and for the last hour I had been wondering if he was beginning to tire.

One quick glance at Kelton and I knew I would not be getting him off the couch. But the time was 5.30pm and I had dinner to get on. Both Ernest and Kelton were visibly disappointed when I suggested we come back….and I knew I would have to make it sooner rather than later.

So much excitement from Kelton on the way home in the car, and much of our dinner with the rest of the family was spent filling them in on the details of Ernie's remarkable story.

I was interested to observe my son's reaction to what Ernie had shared with us. Like many youth of today he seemed very knowledgeable of what had happened to the psyche of World War 2 vets. He also seemed to have a very 'adult' understanding of the suffering our forefathers endured. His comments were not necessarily related to what the soldiers were doing but rather with what effect these situations had on them. There seemed to be so much more depth to his understanding of what went on during these times than what I had as a 13 year old.

Returning for our next interview had us both wondering how people reacted once the war came to an end. Was there strong resistance? Did the Germans see the end of the war as a loss or gain? What was expected from Ernest and the Stallion boys once war was declared over? Our questions were soon answered as Ernest continued with gusto!

_______________________________________

 

ENTERING GERMANY 

Finally the day came for the Stallion to cross the border from Holland into Germany. After being hit by a Panzer again, this time dissembling the tracks, the tank was rendered immovable. Bogged down in water and mud and unable to get out on its own accord, Ernie was sent off to get assistance only to have a regiment of Allied Sherman tanks fire on the A Squadron. Five days later Tank Number Two was left in the bog and the crew were given Tank Number 3. They met little resistance, and the only thing that hindered their progress was obstacles on the road that the Germans had placed there to slow up the Allies. On to Lingen where the A Squadron attacked and captured the town. Ernie tells us that days later the papers read that the Guards (to whom the A squadron had been attached) had captured Lingen. He says not a single Guard raised a weapon to capture that town; it was the RAC division that should have got all the credit.

The 'Stallion' Mark VII Churchill flamethrower

 

Nothing could have prepared Ernie for the suffering that was going on in Germany. As the Division punched their way through the fickle defenses of the retreating German army Ernie was to see just how bad times were for the German civilians. (Kelton still repeats Ernie’s words 'Germany was something like you could never imagine, everything was smashed up and razed to the ground.’)

As they progressed due north, many farms were off limits to the Allied troops. Ernie believes many rural buildings were being used as secret factories, namely for weaponry production. They even came across Italian soldiers who were in charge of anti-aircraft units; after a burst of flame from Ernie’s tank the Italians surrendered. This was often the case as the Crocodile Flame Thrower was feared by all. The fuel used by the tank was napalm, propelled by cylinder tanks. The squadron came into contact and worked with the Royal Marines in these early days of the drive into Papenburg Germany, and also with Polish units.

______________________________

During this part of the interview we were interested to hear what perspective Ernie had on the Germans. We were surprised to hear him say they were very welcoming.

______________________________

The last attack that A Squadron made was in Rees. By then, both the Germans and Allies alike knew the war was coming to an end.  When it did, the Squadron discovered a stash of alcohol behind the couch of an abandoned house; suffice to say they made short work of it!

Ernie estimates that in Rees there were about 3 million German POWs held, and rather than going straight home after the war Ernie was to be held back as part of the occupying troops. He had transferred and became a duty driver in the Transport Corp, working 24 hours on, 24 hours off. This was to continue for 18 months before he could go home for good.

During Ernie's service in WW2, the Stallion was replaced on three occasions, all due to direct hits from incoming fire. The Squadron had lost at least half of the men it had started out with. The remaining crew were to become well known and deeply respected for having had so many successful campaigns behind them. Much of the respect was based on a crew who had somehow managed to survive all that came their way, contact after contact, campaign after campaign, right from the first day of landing on Juno.

When Ernie finally left for home he was almost sorry to leave Germany; he would miss the friendships, laughter and fun the boys had. Turning down the opportunity to go to Korea, Hong Kong and India, Ernie returned to London to his new wife.

___________________________________

 Neville Chamberlaine

Our interview had ended and Ernie passed on to me his handwritten memoirs of all that he had told us. I realized after I had read these that the content of our interview was just a small portion of what Ernie had experienced. He is now surrounded by a loving family and grandchildren. One of which Kelton recognises as a fellow student whom he went to school with, ‘what a coincidence!’ he exclaims. I think he likes the fact there is a connection between him and Ernest. 

The following summary of our time spent with Ernest is written by Kelton, his perspective it seems was always going to be a huge part of this. After all it was for him (and for me to a certain degree) that I tripped over my tongue in the first place and plucked up the courage to approach that sprightly and sharp gentleman on his mobility scooter.

By Jeena Reiter

 

SUMMARY BY KELTON REITER

When I first met Ernie I realized how old he was, and I expected him to have more of an English accent. He was very knowledgeable and pretty sharp for an old guy. When my mum told me that we would be doing an interview I wanted to know heaps more about him and his time in the Second World War. I felt very excited that I had an opportunity to meet a soldier who fought for us. When the day came for the interview I had heaps of questions running through my head.

We met Ernie and he told us his story. I think it was terrible what he went through for us. I don't know how I would feel if I had to see my friends and family suffering like Ernie's did. Kids like me have healthy food, no war and longer educations. We don't have to start work at a young age or fight other people, we are so lucky and we take our freedom for granted. I think if there was a war now, kids would find it very difficult because we have everything handed to us.

The parts of his story that were the most interesting was when his tank got knocked out and he had to hide behind the hay bales under fire. Then seconds later the hay caught alight from the tracers and he had to run to a ditch; lucky for him he had the smoke for cover. He must have had a big adrenaline rush. I would have liked to have seen the Stallion (Ernie’s Churchill tank) spew out its big flames and to see the thousands of ships in formation preparing for the D-Day landings. I think the sound of the battle would have made your ears ring forever!

I felt after I had heard his story I realized how I have not even experienced a tenth of his experiences, and I don't ever want to. Every ANZAC day I feel grateful for all of those guys. I wish that the war had never even started. I don't like it when kids think the war was just a big game, and how they casually do the Nazi hand sign. My great grandfather was Austrian, and he never wanted to fight for the Germans, but because he wouldn't give petrol that was for the Fire and Emergency Services to a Nazi guy, he was drafted into the army the very next day. He was forced to fight on the Russian front, which was pretty much a death sentence but luckily he survived where as most of his friends didn't. So thank you Ernie for letting us document your story, I will never forget what you did for us.

By Kelton

Other sources of information

 1. New Zealand History online databases relevant to the Second World War can be located here.

2. There are also full-text journal articles focusing on 20th century history, with material from other periods being added all the time. Includes primary documents, maps and illustrations.

 

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