Although a childhood incident compounded by the guns and bombs of World War II have left Frank Mouqué profoundly deaf, he is good-humoured and active – travelling to France every year to visit a family involved in the liberation of Armentieres.
Frank Mouqué was brought up by a strict mother. She hit him so violently on one occasion that it triggered hearing problems, which have continued to plague him throughout his life. His harsh upbringing prepared him for the rigours of Army life:
“Discipline was very Victorian – you did what you were told and if you stepped out of line you were crushed, reprimanded. So the Army was one step away from my parents’ jurisdiction. You accepted it. If you were told to jump, you jumped. It was no hardship to be in the services.”
Frank decided to volunteer to avoid the alternative:
“The MP Aneurin Bevan was recruiting 18-year-olds to go down the mines. I didn’t want to, so I volunteered.”
He was working in the bottling stores of a brewery when he went to sign up:
“I went to a building and first I asked about being a rigger fitter, but there were no vacancies. Then I went down a floor and they said they have vacancies for stoker – I thought that meant coal – I didn’t realise it was oil ¬ so I said ‘no’. Then I went down to the RAF, but they were only taking on people to man anti-aircraft guns, but I thought that was boring. On the ground floor, the Army were taking on Sappers for the Royal Engineers – I said ‘yes’. There was a six-month training as a soldier, then you decided and I chose to be a motor mechanic.”
Just after his 18th birthday, Frank was called up and sent to train as a sapper for six weeks, before being posted to Northern Ireland, and then Maidstone in Kent. Then he learned he’d be sailing for Normandy:
“I was scared stiff. I didn’t want to go to France.”
“We loaded into the boats and the sea was very choppy. The landing craft was a flat-bottomed boat and many men were violently sick. I was drinking rum. A fellow Sapper and I would take a swig and pass it back and forth between us. I don’t know if it was the nerves or the adrenaline, but I was completely sober by the time I got off the boat.
Frank’s first job was to clear a path to the beach:
“When we got there I ran up the beach towards a parapet, once there, my sergeant crawled over to me and asked me to clear a footpath to the road. He gave me a roll of white tape and I said to a lad ‘Come on’. I was shocked when he said ‘I’ve only been in the Army for six weeks’. I showed him how to dig with a bayonet and look for fuses sticking up, because if you snapped one off, a bomb full of ball bearings would explode. It could take your legs off or kill you.
“After 12 hours of being on the go we were exhausted and then had to dig a fox hole to sleep in. We had to dig six foot down and two foot wide.”
The following morning, Frank’s regiment relieved the airborne and he stayed for another 14 months mine clearing, bridge building and doing demolition. He was involved in building the first Bailey Bridge in France (a portable, prefabricated bridge) and taking over the Pegasus Bridge, which played a key role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack, following the Normandy invasion. He recalls one frightening incident, that occurred 10 days after D-Day:
“We were taking tea in hay boxes to a group building a bridge further down the river. When we got to the civilian bridge, we didn’t know where they were building the Bailey Bridge, so I walked one way and my driver walked the other. The shells started to fall. My driver had disappeared and left me alone. I ran back to the village and found our field – it was chaos, an invasion in reverse, cars and lorries were coming out of our field then we were told to turn back – the panic was over, it was a false alarm!”
Looking back Frank, who went on to work in bomb disposal after the war, says he didn’t question his D-Day experiences at the time:
“I just accepted it. It was the way I’d been brought up. I didn’t realise the significance at the time. You were brainwashed. You did what you were told.”
When asked for his thoughts about D-Day, Frank just smiles and says: “That’s the way the mop flops!”