| I was interned as an “Enemy Alien” in June 1940 and spent two months in a camp near Oban. I had already volunteered to join a British Cavalry Regiment because I loved horses, but was not accepted because there was no need at that time for more soldiers in these particular regiments. I was sent to Ilfracombe to join the Pioneer Corps on 27 September 1940 and was amongst the very first recruits to arrive by train from Scotland. We were accommodated at the Osborne Hotel in Ilfracombe and issued with a uniform and straw palliases to sleep on.
In the summer of 1941 I attended an NCO course at Woolacombe where I gained my first experience of live ammunition. After training, I was promoted to Sergeant. I was posted with 251 Pioneer Company and until 1944 was stationed around the south of England. At one point, I was employed as a carpenter in Southampton preparing for the arrival of those troops who were due to form the groups for the D-Day landings. It was there that I met Lieutenant Geoffrey Perry who suggested that as a tough and healthy soldier I should volunteer for a fighting branch of the army. I chose the 6th Airborne Division and trained at Salisbury until I was sent abroad in July 1944. By this time, I had changed my name and number from Erwin Lehmann, Pioneer Corps number 13803241 to John Langford, number 13117572 (in case of capture by Nazi forces).
I attended an interpreter’s course in Brussels and re-joined the 6th Airborne Division. After D-Day our Division fought through the Normandy en route 240 UP where at the end of the war we met the Russian forces on the Baltic coast at the town of Lubeck-Wismar on the Baltic coast. En route, we had to clear up the town of Caen after all the heavy fighting. I was on the first vehicle to drive through Brussels, to the applause of the locals. We had joined the 15th Scottish Division who was scheduled to make a link up with the Airborne forces, and I crossed the Rhine with the assault troops. A few hours later, I was back with my unit again. At that time we had already linked up with the American Forces on the Baltic coast and we became neighbouring fighting Divisions with the American 82nd and 91st Airborne Divisions. On the way to that point we had another air landing crossing across the Rhine, which eventually led us, at the end of the war to Lubeck.
On the way we saw a lot of fighting and enough horrors to last a lifetime. Particularly, during the last few days of the war we fought the Hitler Youth part of the German Army, which consisted of 15 and 16 year olds who we considered children but Hitler had no scruples about having these children fight experienced soldiers of the British and American forces. I remember finding a young German soldier dead in the field. I retrieved his army book and wanted to return it to his family in Germany, but was unable to do so. One of the sights I remember well was on the last day of fighting May 5, 1945, I was driving a Jeep having collected our food rations and the German Army marching to surrender in the opposite direction saw the kind of food we were supplied with and saying “If we had food like that, we could have fought better.”
We eventually got to Luneburg Heide and were told that we were being flown back to the UK to attend the Victory Parade. The entire division was to go back with the exception of me, who was to stay behind as interpreter-intelligence corps man to help the relieving division with their new task of forming a military government. My Commanding Officer at that time, when I told him I felt very hurt that I should not go back with the division with whom I fought since the invasion started, told me he could not change the orders. However, if he were to find me in his plane at many thousand feet up, he was not going to throw me out. I managed to find my way into the cockpit of a Lancaster and sat in it for many hours, possibly 6 or 8 before we took off. The heat from this unattended plane caused me to pass out many times. We landed at Salisbury but instead of attending the Victory Parade we were all issued with 28 days SEAC leave passes, which meant we were going to Burma instead of the Victory parade in London. I went on this leave to Glasgow but after 7 days I had a telegram ordering me to report to HQ First Allied Airborne Corps at Moor Park, Herts to report to Colonel (whose name I cannot remember … it sounded Greek to me) … and after a few days of military government training I was flown on my first secret mission to Brussels.
I visited one or two friends and on returning to my billets (tour et taxi) I was told I had been reported AWOL, because during the night I was ordered to a secret destination and I wasn’t there. This charge was consequently dropped the same day and I found myself on a plane and landed somewhere at an airfield near Hanover in Germany. My commanding officer was Brigadier Hill and it then became clear to me that the reason I was ordered to report to Allied Airborne Corps was that the 6th Airborne division was ordered to go to Palestine and no Jewish personnel was to be sent because it meant fighting the Haganah. Captain Hill and I were the first British Personnel to cross the demarkation line into the Russian zone in preparatinn for the Potsdam Conference due to take place July 1945. I was part of the 317 (Parachute_ Para Field Security Section under Captain Ede.
There were four Jewish German speaking soldiers and we were subsequently attached to the British delegation at Potsdam, where I became one of the two field security officers to our Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This was possibly the highlight of my army career because we were living in a beautiful villa at Potsdam belonging to Prof. Dr. Urbig and it was quite an honour for a German refugee to be given the post of security man/body guard to our Prime Minister. I attended various functions and meetings between the heads of the four governments, Eisenhower, Churchill, Stalin, the French head of Government at that time. During this conference, Britain had an election. Churchill lost and in came Attlee.
After four weeks at Potsdam, I was transferred to Berlin HQ of British Military government and together with one field security officer, a staff sergeant, 10 sergeants and we were billeted in houses belonging to Dr Schacht, the German Reichs Bank Minister who until then was Germany’s Finance Minister. I personally was in charge of field security at Spandau Prison where I interrogated repatriated East German civilians and German soldiers released from Russian Prisoner of War Camps. We concentrated on trying to find Martin Bormann. At one time, I searched under floorboards at a dinner party as we had intelligence that he was hiding there, but he wasn’t. Because of my personal assignment to two British Prime Ministers during the Potsdam Conference and in recognition of my work, I believe that I was honoured as the first alien soldier to be naturalised as a British citizen whilst still in uniform (Shell House, Hamburg).
I was then transferred to Tiergarten Bezirk, where the prime jobs of the British army in Berlin were located at that time. There we British soldiers experienced similar circumstances to the Americans when they first came to Europe. In addition to living in that particular house, 5 Baden Allee, Charlottenburg, I had for my personal attention a Chef by the name of Solomon (ex-Kempinsky) who managed to make the most wonderful meals out of army rations. I had a private car, most of the time I was in civilian clothes due to the type of job I had to do, the use of a horse for riding and a boat on the Wansee Lake. I was demobbed on January 17, 1947.