Deryk Arkell

Eastleach Characters – Deryk Arkell

OVER seventy years after his World War Two service, retired British Armed Forces Captain Deryk Arkell, of Eastleach, on December 4 received the French government’s highest distinction, the Legion of Honour medal, for his efforts in liberating France in the winter of 1944.


“The French had been planning to do this for the soldiers who helped them in the war,” said Capt. Arkell. “It’s been ongoing for about 18 months, but it was a very nice surprise when it arrived in the post.”

In December 1944, 18-year-old Gloucestershire-born 2nd Lieutenant Deryck Arkell was training with his regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire 52nd Light Infantry, for the airborne crossing of the Rhine the following March, when they were briskly shipped to Givet in northern France to help out their American allies.

On Christmas Eve, Deryck, who had volunteered for service that September on his birthday, along with the rest of his regiment, was taken across the channel to Calais, and arrived on Christmas Day in Givet in the Ardennes, for the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge.

“We got to Givet on the River Meuse. Nobody was nervous,” said Deryk. “One was young and I don’t know. Life had to go on.”

American units in the area, many stationed at the Emperor Charles V-built fortress of Charlemont, had endured a difficult fight against German forces in terrible conditions.

They were in need of support, with fears that the Germans would take the nearby bridges and advance through France and Holland.

“They were worried the boys were coming back,” said Deryck. “And they jolly well nearly did.

“That was trouble. That’s why we were rushed out so quickly. We were initially being trained up back in Britain as replacements for those that had been slain in Normandy.”

The 52nd Light Infantry spent the next few weeks in and around Givet, having commandeered homes and shops to live in, while they were “patrolling and skirmishing” in freezing conditions, living on self-heating soup and corned beef.

Derek Arkell - Aged 19
Derek Arkell – Aged 19

“I’ve never known it so cold,” said Deryck. “It was absolutely perishing, vile weather, and the deepest snow I’ve ever seen. We were mostly patrolling and skirmishing. Visibility was poor, it was often snowing and there was never any time to relax. You ate, patrolled and slept.”

The German Ardennes Offensive had targeted Givet due to its Meuse crossing but was eventually stopped just 10 kilometres from the little French commune.

Once the fighting had quietened down and it was clear the German assault through the Ardennes had failed, Deryck’s regiment was moved up to Holland on January 9, 1945, before going back to Britain to continue training for the Rhine crossing in the spring.

“We were being trained for the landing on the gliders,” Deryck said. “Our soldiers would be in the gliders, which were pulled behind planes. The glider pilot cut off from the plane when the time came and landed, hopefully, where he was supposed to.

“During the crossing itself the regimental casualties were horrendous,” said Deryck. “Parachutists and gliders would land and huddle themselves together. Then we advanced until were reached the Baltic. We were there until May when the war ended.”

Deryk remained in the army until 1947, spending two years in the Far East following the war’s end and achieved the rank of Captain.

He said he came very close to his end on July 22, 1946 when a terrorist bomb went off in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which was housing the British administrative headquarters for Palestine.

91 people of various nationalities were killed and 46 were injured.

Deryk then returned home to Gloucestershire to continue working at his family’s wine merchants, before taking up a job at London-based merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd.

He turned 90 on September 28 and has been a church warden in Eastleach for more than 40 years, marrying his wife Jackie in 1978, who he lives with along with their dog, Hazel.

This wasn’t the first time he’d worked with the Standard, either.

Back in the 1950s Deryck had a Wilts & Glos reporter friend who once asked him to write an article.

“We were both big fans of a pub in Malmesbury and he suggested I write a review that he could publish in the paper.

“After reading the article, he said ‘that’s no bloody good. It’s far too nice. There’s not a single critical word in there. You won’t make a journalist.’ “He never asked me to write anything else after that,” Deryck added.

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Author: eastleach