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Ashbourne's last Derbyshire Yeoman shares his memories of fierce fighting at Monte Cassino

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: June 26, 2014

  • Ray Sherratt in his Derbyshire Yeomanry years

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The Derbyshire Yeomanry played a pivotal role in the Second World World War. Gareth Butterfield speaks to one of its last surviving veterans.

RAY Sherratt is Ashbourne's last survivor of the Derbyshire Yeomanry. The 95-year-old, from Coopers Gardens, can clearly recall how 70 years ago he was serving in the war as a regimental signal sergeant responsible for the communications.

Brought up in Ellastone, Ray was very much a country boy and it was not unusual for young men like him to join the Yeomanry as it was made up of people working and living in rural areas and its officers were usually prominent landowners.

The Ashbourne B Squadron of the First Derbyshire Yeomanry was run by officers Sir Ian Walker, John Crompton Inglefield and Edward Thompson and all were volunteers. Joining up was considered a patriotic duty.

Many notable people from the town were members of the squadron, and the Yeomanry took up the time of some of the biggest names in industry.

Ray explains: "A lot of Rolls-Royce employees were in the yeomanry and dozens of brewers from Worthington and Bass in Burton.

"Ashbourne could be a little bit like Dad's Army because we had three tellers from Lloyds Bank, so when it was mobilised they had three tellers short. How they went on, I don't know.

"Practically all Frank Wright's drivers were in the yeomanry, too, so I don't know how he got in there.

"Before they were mobilised the Yeomanry took up two or three nights a week, but most people would be there at the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, driving.

"The thrill of it is that you were driving a Rolls-Royce armoured car, 40 or 50 horse power engine with a crash gear box."

Although the Yeomanry played a part in World War Two, its roots date back as far as the late 18th century when the regiment was first formed as the Derbyshire Corps of Fencible Cavalry in 1794, intended as a regiment of full-time fencible soldiers for home defence.

Ray, whose father was killed in the First World War, said: "We got into it because there was always the threat of war and we didn't want to be sent in raw so we joined to get experience.

"And you'll find the percentage of casualties from the yeomanry was low because we were a trained regiment.

"Our regimental sergeant major was a First World War grenadier with a military medal and he was more strict than any regular grenadier.

"His voice could be heard 100 yards away and it made you jump to attention. His discipline was always as hard as any grenadier was.

"At the time we thought it would be easier to fight the war than have the drill and discipline at peace time.

"But we found that during the war we always kept to that discipline, we were always smartly dressed, all our buttons done up.

"As a matter of fact, if you went to the sergeant's mess with a button undone it was drinks all round.

"In Italy, people always used to know if we were yeomans because we were always smart. The discipline was instilled upon you, it was second nature to you. There was no sloppiness.

"I can't speak too highly of the yeomanry. I was very proud being with the people of Ashbourne. The yeomanry consisted of quite a lot of brothers and even a father and son. It was like a family."

On D-Day, as the troops were preparing to storm the beaches of Normandy, Ray was with his regiment at the battle of Monte Cassino, an infamous series of four assaults in a mountainous region of Italy to try to break into Rome.

His role was to use his communication skills to outfox the Germans. He says: "There was as much secrecy, possibly more secrecy than the invasion at Normandy, because we were all there.

"The Germans knew we were there, but we didn't want them to know where we were and what we were.

"As a matter of fact, the Polish troops had to have English wireless operators so that the Germans didn't know the Poles were there.

"To confuse them, there were maple leaves in all the places where the Canadians were, so that was another surprise to them.

"And we'd been quiet for a long time, we moved forward in darkness because from Monte Cassino you could see the whole layout below them, so we had to move by dark.

"At 2300 hours on the 11th everything was quiet, at least it was at a minute to 2300 hours, but then all hell let loose, bombarding and shells.

"This battle had been going on for months – there were four battles and we were in the fourth battle."

Ray has many memories from his time in Italy, sharing space with families who lived simple lives in the Italian mountains, sheltering from the battles at Monte Cassino which cost more than 100,000 lives.

He left the squadron in 1946 and worked in electronics for local firms until he took an opportunity to turn his passion for photography into a career.

He became a lecturer at Derby College and Derby Lonsdale College of Higher Education and emigrated to Australia in 1978, returning to the town in 1995.

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