Ok you throw the questions and I’ll throw the answers, thats the best way. First of all I presume you want to introduce so I will shut up until you are ready.
Yes, if I can take your name, rank, regiment and number?
Name, Frank Ashleigh, Regiment, Glider Pilot Regiment, Regiment Army Number 14417002, Rank, Sergeant.
Thankyou, can you tell me a little about your life growing up?
Im cockney born, we moved from that area when I was about 6 months old so I don’t remember any of it. I eventually wound up living in a house up on Stamford Hill in London until April 1939 when we moved to Charles Hill which is between Golders Green and cant remember what its called, and I volunteered for the Army on my 18th birthday. Took the Kings shilling so thats why my army number is a volunteers number. I did my primary training, none of which was necessary because I’d been in the army cadet force and also served in the Home Guard so I was a fairly good shot and I knew military drill. But I had to go through the paraphernalia, that was in Nottinghamshire and then because I had been a welder in civvy street they sent me on a 6 month course to learn to be a welder where the instructor was a man who had worked under me so he gave me the test pieces and said now go away and that was it.
I was eventually posted to a garage in Southend-On-Sea where because I was a skilled craftsman, a welder they wanted to make full use of me and so they made me a Regimental Policeman and my function there was very simply to marshal 3 Tonne Dodge lorries in and out of the garage, that was all I had to do, and while they were out I had nothing to do. One day it came up on orders volunteers were required to join the Glider Pilot Regiment with the warning this might be hazardous. With two other friends both from Yorkshire I volunteered, was sent up to London for ‘to see if you were suitable to be trained as a pilot’ because at that time the RAF was not happy about men in hobnail boots flying airplanes and I was successful, I was accepted and both my colleagues were rejected. Then I was sent to Thargo Camp on Salisbury Plain where we went through six weeks of purgatory, mental and physical. Would you like to know dates and detail?
Every morning at 0600 we’d go on what’s called a ‘run march’ in battle order. A run march was 5 miles, 5 minutes running, 5 minutes marching and the 5 miles had to be completed in 1 hour. Complete that and go and get your breakfast. Don’t complete it, be a little longer and lets go round again. That was part of the physical, there was lots more physical. The mental was rather more devious, we slept on steel beds on which there were three, we called them biscuits, they were padded pads of about two and a half foot each and they were laid out and they formed ‘a mattress’. And each morning those biscuits were stacked and every piece of kit that you had was to be put on that stack in a specified order for inspection and something was always not good enough! And… do it again. And no matter what you did it was never good enough. The Regiment only wanted the very best and I say that with all modesty. At the end of six weeks all the torture suddenly stopped, in the interim you could ask for RTU (return to unit) there was no stigma on your papers if you asked for it but if one of the instructors sent you back that was different then there was a stigma and the letters LMF were on your documentation which is ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’.
Having survived the six weeks you are made up to Corporal and for the first time you have got into the Corporals Mess and on the door was a painting of a hideous grinning devil. ‘So you want to be a Glider Pilot’ was the caption. Nobody would apply for RTU after that. And then it was of for flying training, primary flying training. I was sent to Booker and bussed every day to Denholm and from Denholm Airfield I was taught to fly the Tiger Moth. I solo’d in 7 hours after having the 3 ‘quoting from my notebook’, perfect landings and that was not easy to do in a Tiger Moth, you usually bounced them but these just didnt bounce, everything went right. So in the seven hours I did a few more hours of training aerobatics and whilst it didnt have a radio there was a field about 4 miles away where for some unaccountable reason it picked up the BBC and we used to all fly to this field and go round and round and round always on a left hand circuit listening to the radio then back to the field and make a landing. And from there it was to Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire where you met your first glider, now a glider is a rather interesting animal in that it can only exchange altitude for distance, it cannot under any circumstances gain height, it has to be towed and the Hotspur glider was towed into the air by a Miles Master with an 800hp engine. Tow us up and within 2 hours I had gone solo in the Hotspur, that was about the average and then you’d go to North Lavenham in Leicestershire where you would meet first either the Horsa or the Hamilcar but you started by going in the tail gunner seat so you could advise the pilot when the glider was airborne. You’d be towed of the ground by a 4 engine bomber and after a few hours you would then start to fly the thing, you went solo in that and then you had the ceremony of being awarded the Army Flying Badge which was their terminology for the wings and then you became operational.
I was sent to Harwell and that was A Squadron and there I was paired with another man who was senior to me because he had already got his wings and I had just got mine, his name was Bernard Cummins, he was the tallest man in the Regiment standing 6 foot 3 and he and I did everything together, we ate together, we slept in the same room together, we went on parade together, we flew gliders together everything we did we did together and gradually a sense of mutual trust developed between you. he knew that he could always rely on me and I knew I could always rely on him, neither of us would let the other one down and then we flew glider on the 18th September to Arnhem. We had a bit of a shaky take off in that our Sterling lost one engine on the take off run and a Sterling whilst it could fly perfectly happy on 3 engines it cannot take of loaded with a loaded glider so we pulled off and fortunately were not airborne and he did a circuit went back to the ground and he was serviced, meantime we were towed at the mouth of the runway, air bottle was refuelled because we had used it obviously applying brakes and we were last of the ground but not the last to land happily.
We landed on landing zone X-Ray, we spent the night in the cellar of a cafe which we afterwards learnt was owned by a Nazi sympathiser, a Dutchman so nobody was upset that we were in there and in the morning we made our way to the Hartenstein which was our orders ‘Get to the Hartenstein and report in’, which we did. With Lofty we started to dig a slit trench, very close to the road but in the grounds of the hotel which of course had been the headquarters of General Model, German Commander. He done a bunk when we got in and I hadnt got very far down when I was sent on a patrol with 2 other glider pilots Ray Osbourne and (?) Watson and a Captain O’Malley in the South Staffs. And their orders were find the Germans, come back and tell us where they are and how strong they are. We got about half a mile or thereabouts and everywhere we looked were German soldiers and they had seen us so we dived into the Saint (?) Church, a Roman Catholic church and we climbed a winding staircase which led to the loft, the stairs were about a hands width that was it, from there on an even narrower stairway leading up again less than a hands width and we ran up them and the last time I went to Arnhem I couldnt even walk up them let alone run. This led to the roof of the church, there was this huge bell and a small door which we opened and there was a catwalk which led to the east, old places of worship would face east to west, this led to a small window which was directly above the altar. We opened it very very carefully and everywhere we looked were German soldiers so we opened fire. We fired about 20 rounds and we realised the Germans had no idea where the shots were coming from and by the way we were all excellent shots. So we stopped, we went down to the organ loft to decide what to do and we thought lets see how long we can hold out. We held out from the Tuesday to the Friday and every now and again we would go up to the roof along this narrow shaky catwalk, the window was open and we would let go a few more rounds and take down a few more Germans and then go back down below.
There was one small problem, we had nothing whatever with us to eat or to drink. We eventually managed to go down into the body of the church where we got some water but nothing whatever to eat but there was nothing in Holland to eat. On the Friday the door, we were in the over loft and the door opened very quietely and slowly, we didnt see it and a German soldier was standing there and the first thing we knew was he let fire one round from his Luger and fled. That one round hit Captain O’Malley in the stomach. We knew that a stomach wound was serious and decided he would go down and surrender to get medical attention. Now my interpretation and I could be completely wrong of course was that he was in shock because we afterwards learnt that he had told them there were 3 more British soldiers up there. A man came in under the loft and without a trace of an accent ‘Gentlemen we know you are there, you have 5 minutes to come down with your hands up. We have men posted on the staircase above you and below you and here in the church. There is no way out’. We decided there was no sense whatever in throwing your life away so we used the 5 minutes to disable our weapons by breaking of firing pins so they were so much as junk and we surrendered. I had a few words of German, very few, like a schoolboy but I said ‘Not eaten four days’. And within five minutes food was brought out for the three of us. Then it was of to interrogation over the river. The river we had tried to get over anyway. They took us over the river to an interrogation centre. That was at (?)
They gave me a fake copy of the Geneva Convention and drew my attention to one particular page which said that a captured soldier may reveal the name of his commanding officer and the location of his unit. I said my name, my rank and number, thats it! Look Im not answering anything. But we only want to know on… NO QUESTIONS…. Im not allowed to answer any questions at all. They kept this going for 2 or 3 days, I was not ill treated and then one morning they came to my cell, took me out and said come on you’re going to be photographed. I thought thats it goodbye life they are going to shoot me but no they took my photograph and then I was sent to Stalag Luft VII.
The Germans had a little bit of a problem in the Luftwaffe every pilot was an officer and I was a non commisioned officer, they couldnt send me to an ordinary Stalag because I was a pilot and they couldnt sent me to an Oflag because I wasnt an officer. So they sent me to Stalag Luft VII and I stayed there until the following January when Allied forces were advancing very very quickly and the Germans didnt want air crew, by the way everybody in the camp was aircrew. The didnt want us to be released and so we did the long march over the Oder which was if my memory serves me right 87kms to be covered in 17 days on starvation rations. I learnt one very interesting thing there, horses do not give of body heat but cows do so we would try and sleep where there were cows and that was to another camp at (?). We were there for about a week, it was packed solid with Russian prisoners of war who were skin and bone and we gave them what food we could, not that we had much to give but we gave them what we could give them until the camp was released by the Red Army. The guards had all fled but the commandant was still there and he was captured by the Russians, all I know is they gave him to the Russian prisoners, what happened to him I dont know, I dont really want to know but Im sure it was very unpleasant and the following day I was flown home. Sent home on 6 weeks leave on double civilian rations.
What was life like in the prison camps?
Highly regimental, very incredibly well organised. The German is an odd man, if you have been a coward, if you haven’t gave him much of a scrap he looked at you with contempt and treated you accordingly. If you gave him a real fight he respected you and treated you accordingly. The fact that I wore a Red Beret, they had dubbed Red Devils earnt be respect and I was treated as well as they could. It wasnt very good because as far as food was concerned because they had very little to give us and under the Geneva Convention they had to feed us the same rations as the gave the civilians, but of course we had the advantage of Red Cross parcels and they were wonderful.
With regard to your training did you feel like you had sufficient training when you went into the operation you felt like you were fully prepared?
Oh fully prepared and I could handle any weapon. I had been trained in unarmed combat, trained to kill with the bare hands. Yes I had sufficient training. I dont think I could do it today. I walk with a stick.
And is there anything about your service you would look back on and think you wish you had done differently or I wish this had happened or do you look back and sort of think everything happened as it should?
When I joined the Glider Pilot Regiment I learnt very quickly that I had joined the finest band of men that God ever put on this earth. Every man I meet today wearing a Red Beret is my friend and I am his. No, I would not have changed a thing except I would rather not have been captured but with that one exception.
And I know you’ve been back to Arnhem since…
Many, many times.
Whats that experience been like, going back after the event?
I think the best thing I can explain is I was with my wife, we stayed at the Hotel directly opposite Arnhem main line station and we went for a walk down the equivalent of Bond Street and a fella on a bicycle came up rather fast behind us with a can of beer in one hand. He stopped, carefully put his can of beer on the ground, threw the bike down and came toward us. My wife said ‘Are we going to get mugged?’, I said ‘No we are not going to get mugged’. He stopped in front of us and he saluted me. And I mean he threw up a salute, it was a Navy salute but that doesnt matter, he then held out his hand. ‘Thankyou for all you did’, picked up his bicycle, picked up his can of beer and rode away. That was the last time I was in Arnhem but Ive been invited to homes, people stop you in the street and ask to shake your hand. I am as much at home in Arnhem as I am here in London and I have a great love and respect for the Dutch.
And can you tell me a little bit about your life after the war, what happened when you came home?
I didnt want to go back to welding because before the war it was a highly skilled and very well paid occupation but after the war it was not. I didnt know what to do with myself. I found myself temporary work working for a company called Tilly Lamp Company who made parrafin lamps and I learnt to use a machine, lathes and I decided I wasnt going to do this for the rest of my working life, I decided there is one thing I can do and thats to go on the road and become a commercial traveller. I picked up a couple of agencies, I formed a company called Ashleigh marketing services, I still have some business cards somewhere AMS and I got very cross with the man who runs the programme because he trades as AMS as well… I said ‘Thats mine’. Hes a multi-millionaire and I am not. Gradually I got better at the job and my uncle introduced me to a man and his wife who had a toy manufacturing business, they seemed to like me and I joined their company as a trainee rep. 16 years later I left that company as the sales director. Joined a number of other companies at various times always in a managerial position bcause if I say it myself I was good. The happiest time I had was at a company called Timpo who made toy cownoys and indians among other things and I stayed with them for 6 years and eventually was the southern sales manager, and they had 2 sales managers. I was one of them. I could see the skids were going to be nder this company that it couldnt carry on, it was going to go bust and I left them and I joined another company who were sellers of books and also of playing cards and they put me in charge of the playing card division which I built from nothing. Eventually they lost that agency and the playing card manufacturer told the people who had taken it over yes you can have the agency as long as Frank Ashleigh runs it so I got the job with them and that was Childs Play in Swindon and I stayed with them until I was 72. And then suddenly I realised Im not enjoying this anymore so I had a word with the MD and said Im going to leave, he said why and I said I don’t enjoy it anymore… Im getting tired of it. They persuaded me to stay on for a further year as a consultant and thats what I did and a year later I retired. At 73.