Most old soldiers have the odd memento they brought back home from war some quirky reminder of a brush with death, of comradeship in the face of adversity, of the best of times in the midst of the worst of times. It could be a book, a photo, a letter. Tom Renouf has Heinrich Himmler’s watch.
“When the war ended, a lot of people just wanted to forget. They did remember their fallen comrades but everything else, well, it was a natural reaction to want to put it behind you. For some, the best way to deal with it was as a closed book and keep it that way. But after a while, especially after finishing my working life, I think the perspective changed and I began to look back and think about what the really important years of my life were, what we were part of and what we did.”
Tom, only a schoolboy when the war broke out in 1939, received his call-up papers four days after his 18th birthday almost the age his own grandchildren are now. He reported to the Queen’s Barracks in Perth, home of the 51st Highland Division. It was a body of men which had already played a vital role and would continue to do so throughout the long push against the advance of the Third Reich, from the huge losses sustained in 1940 at St Valery through to the Battle of Normandy, the Liberation of Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine and the final bloody struggle in the heart of Germany itself.
He and his comrades arrived on the Normandy beaches four days after D-Day, to be met by the sight of the dead, of both sides, who had been killed in the initial attack.
“We didn’t have time to take it in we just had to get moving and get off the beaches as quickly as possible. But I can still see it the way I saw it then. Of course, there was much more to come but we just had to cope. There was no time to grieve. That came later.”
Tom and his colleagues went into battle in the front line in June at Rauray Ridge as part of the Normandy Campaign. The viciousness and ferocity of the 12-week battle that followed, including shelling of the Allied trenches, left many casualties. It was also utterly terrifying.
“We were scared stiff all the time although, in a strange way, I think the anticipation of battle was the worst thing. It was living under a death sentence, with the fear of losing your life ever present. You knew for certain you would be killed or wounded, you just didn’t know when. The casualty rate was tremendously high.
“Thanks to our wonderful leadership corporals, sergeants, junior officers, senior men who kept us going by example, we kept on, kept going forward, quite literally into the jaws of death. Many of us made it and survived due to those people rising to the occasion. I don’t know how we got through personally religious faith, perhaps, duty, pride. I don’t know. We just had to do it. There was no choice.”
That long and fierce battle was one of the events that made the biggest impression on the young soldier.
“At the end when we stood down, when we had achieved our final objective, I think many of us had gone beyond our limits there were men like robots, zombies, wandering around broken. That kind of fighting changed you and changed you very quickly, from young untried lads to fighting soldiers to shattered spirits. For many, it took a long time to recover.”
Clearing up remaining pockets of German resistance, Tom himself came under machine gun fire and sustained a serious injury. He survived chiefly because the bullet went through him, missing his spine and ribs by a fraction. He was lucky in other ways, too. His enforced convalescence meant he survived when many of his company were killed in subsequent actions.
After the battle for Normandy, Tom reckons the move into the Reich itself and the Battle of the Rhineland is the time he recalls most vividly. At Goch, where there was again the most furious fighting, he remembers the swirling smoke, the burned-out houses and ruins, flames, gunfire, bombardment from both sides and says simply, “It was hell. It was how you thought Dante’s Inferno would be.
“We crossed the Rhine on March 24 and on March 28, I was 20. By then I wondered if I was going to see my birthday. Then we got too busy to think about it. All the boys were the same.”
Almost as a sideline to the fighting, he mentions briefly coming across the notorious Belsen concentration camp.
“We literally saw men in striped pyjamas inside a huge wire fence but we had no idea what it was until one chap beside me in our truck said, ‘It’s a concentration camp.’ I didn’t know what that meant. Nobody did until after the war was over. The chap who told me was Jewish and he had heard stories through his family and friends.”
Field promotion to corporal and then, in 1945, a commission as lieutenant in The Black Watch was accompanied by the award of the Military Medal for his role in the Rhine crossing.
Asked for his most vivid recollections of an unforgettable time, it was Normandy and Goch he lit upon. His own injury and considerable personal achievements didn’t rate a mention.
As to Himmler’s watch, he says that, eventually, it will go to the British Museum.
After the war, he notes in the final page of his book, “I felt reborn. And I vowed I would live a proper life from that moment onwards. I would never waste a minute. I would make full use of the time that lay ahead of me.”
So why the book, and why now?
He explains, “It’s never been just my story. All veterans could write a book of their own. With time, so much experience is lost, so much that is terribly important and vital and giving people an insight is all we can now do.
“There now aren’t enough of us to organise any more veterans’ reunions but those of us that are left can still tell the story of why these reunions happened and what they meant. We played a little part in huge historical events.
“I’m proud to have served in The Black Watch.”Black Watch by Tom Renouf is published in hardback by Little Brown.Tom bought it from a fellow soldier for 300 fags after his battalion captured the former Gestapo and SS leader without, at first, realising who he was in May of 1945. And he has it still at his home in the Scottish seaside town of Musselburgh.
The broadcaster Edi Stark recently interviewed Tom for her BBC Scotland radio show and said she couldn’t bear to touch the watch, it being something that had belonged to one of the most evil and destructive men the world has ever known.
Yet it is far from the most important element of Tom Renouf’s war. A much stronger and equally long-lasting legacy has been his memories of his time in the army, of the bravery, the fear, the misery and the strength he and his comrades found in themselves and in others.
These memories, and Tom’s reflections after so many years, are brought together in his new book, Black Watch.
Towards the end of his compelling account of his time in the 51st Highland Division, in some of the toughest arenas of world war two, he writes of the Himmler episode: “At the time, we were not particularly interested when we learned the identity of our famous prisoner. And we were even less bothered when we heard of his death. He had it coming, we reckoned. We were much more concerned about the pals we had lost since D-Day.”
Of course, Tom realised perfectly well then and now that what he and his comrades had lived through were some of the most momentous events of their era of any era. But it would take almost seven decades for him to put his thoughts down on paper and when you read what he has to say, it’s hardly surprising.
“I always intended to write it down, I just never had the time. Over 20-25 years, after I retired, I was so involved with the Highland Division Veterans Association, its regular gatherings and pilgrimages abroad, its reunions including three in Perth to mark VE Day, El Alamein and the end of the war that my time was completely taken up.”
It also needed time and distance to put that tale into perspective, to want to tell it. Anyone whose parents, grandparents or relatives served in the war tends to say the same “They never talked about it.”
Tom Renouf admits he was the same, taking time also to get over nightmares and night terrors that took him back to the battlefield long after he had returned to civilian life.