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John Rickman Roberts
The birth certificate that I have used throughout my life cost threepence in 1920, when it was issued.
I was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire on 2nd May 1920 in 86 Harrowby Rd, a Victorian terraced house. My elder sister Joan had been born in Derby in 1916, and five more children followed; Anthony, Veronica, Anne and Jane, all born in the Harrowby Rd house, and then Susan, born after the family moved to a larger house in Barrowby Rd, Grantham.
My earliest memory is of the lamplighter coming along the road at dusk, carrying a long, hooked pole with which he turned up the gas street lamps. Another early memory is of my father saying ‘Goodnight, and God bless’ to each one of us when we were tucked up in bed, and tracing with his thumb a small cross on each of our foreheads. That little gesture gave me a comfortable feeling that all was well, and I would go to sleep peacefully.
Hall’s hill overlooks Harrowby Rd- I first climbed it when I was two, with Joan encouraging me up the final, steepest part. Each winter there would be at least one cold snap with snow and ice, when we would be able to get out our family’s heavy wooden sledge and drag it up the hill to toboggan down at great speed- sometimes becoming airborne over a hump in the middle. It was hard work dragging the sledge back up after each run and I remember the feeling of utter, but happy, exhaustion at the end of a long afternoon’s runs. But how I longed for a lighter, Swiss-type toboggan which some families owned and which always seemed to go twice as fast as ours.
As a boy, I climbed the hill several times with my father. Once, when aged about eleven, I looked back with him over the little town and an overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me. I could not understand why, but probably it was the realisation that I was about to leave behind the carefree days of youth and would soon go out into the wider world. Eighty-four years later after having been away for over sixty years, I climbed the hill again. This time with my walking stick!
The sight of a full moon rising over Hall’s hill through scudding clouds is deep in my memory too. The local fire brigade was once called out by someone who had mistaken the rising moon for a fire beyond the brow of the hill, an occurrence that was lampooned during the 20s in the Grantham ‘Rag’, an annual carnival held to raise money for the local cottage hospital which, in those pre-NHS days, was funded entirely from donations and legacies. In the procession, a fire engine had a pole projecting from the front carrying a disc representing the moon, in the manner of a carrot leading a donkey. A medical student was dressed as a Zulu warrior, brandishing a fearsome-looking spear in one hand and a collecting tin in the other; his tin was soon filled as he passed along the crowd.
I was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith of my parents, as my mother had been born into a Catholic family in derby and my father, although brought up an Anglican, had converted to Catholicism during World War One when he married my mother- a conversion he had been contemplating for some time. I had been baptized in the Catholic Church of St Mary Immaculate in Grantham by the then Parish Priest Father (later Canon) Leo Arendzen, who lived in the adjoining Presytery with a housekeeper called Agnes Bamber.
At the age of seven I contracted a chill that developed into double pneumonia; I became gravely ill and was attended by our family GP, Dr H.P. Dawson. There were no antibiotics in those days and my treatment consisted of hot poultices and careful nursing. My parents paid for a night nurse when the crisis was reached- I became delirious, when I must have been close to death, I felt as if a heavy cloud loomed over me, but I did not lose consciousness. Father Arendzen gave me the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, after which I slowly recovered. For a week or two I was unable to walk and was in a wheelchair, pushed around by our family’s maid, Ida Gee. Ida was a member of a large Grantham family and I became very closely attached to her.
Father Arendzen was a member of a wealthy Dutch family, at least three of whom became priests, the best-known being Monsignor John Arendzen D.D., an erudite and much-travelled theologian. Father Leo had a noticeable Dutch accent and he smelled strongly of snuff, which he used copiously. Summer and winter alike, he wore a brown leather jerkin over several layers of pullover. He usually wore a biretta when outside the church.
I made my first Confession and Holy Communion at St Mary’s at the age of eight, and was confirmed two years later by Bishop Ellis of the Nottingham Diocese. I was an altar server from the age of six, as was my friend George Steer. George’s elder brother John was the first Grantham boy of our generation to be ordained a priest, and after leaving the seminary was assigned to a parish in the East End of London. George, the youngest server, carried the ‘boat’ holding incense to be sprinkled on lighted charcoal in the thurible, which was wielded by me. Another server was Peter Hadlow, who lived (and still lives) near the church. He was the Sacristan for more than sixty years, including more than fifty years in the servers’ Guild of St Stephen, during which time he became the mainstay of the parish, being particularly helpful to visiting clergy. His health is now rather frail and he is no longer able to take part in services. He and I are almost certainly the oldest members of the congregation, although my membership was interrupted by many years away from Grantham. I am given to understand that during WW2, Peter had a most traumatic experience, which confirmed his commitment to the church.
In the days of my youth, Mass was said in Latin in the Tridentine rite. There were no girl servers, as females were not allowed on the altar during Mass, although flower arranging and church cleaning was usually done by ladies.
Until I was nine I was a more conscientious attender than subsequently, and for the whole of one summer I served daily at early morning Mass (after having convinced the priest that he could rely on me to attend promptly) cycling between home and church on my old hard-tyred children’s’ bicycle- without a safety helmet, as cycling was quite safe in those days as few people owned cars. Traffic lights had only just been brought into use, and I remember Grantham’s first set being put in at the blind junction of Brook St and Swinegate.
In those days the collection at Mass amounted to about two pounds from a congregation of some three hundred- most people gave a half-penny or a penny- my father gave each of us a penny for the plate and gave sixpence himself. The amount of the previous week’s collection was announced from the pulpit and was always just over two pounds. Many of the congregation were unemployed in that time of depression, and there were queues at the local labour exchange in Castlegate, collecting the dole of five shillings (25p) a week. A highlight of the altar servers’ year was the special collection for their annual coach trip to Skegness, when Peter Hadlow and I held out plates at the end of Mass- we had our own estimates of how much each attender would give, according to how generous (or how mean) we considered each member of the congregation to be.
My father, William Roberts, was a hardware merchant who owned a shop at 84 Westgate which traded wholesale and retail with other shops in the district, including the shop at the corner of North Parade and High St, owned by Alfred Roberts (no relation) who was mayor at the time. Alfred had two daughters, Muriel and Margaret. I often went into the shop on errands for my mother and was quite friendly with Muriel, who served behind the counter. When I was about ten I was there with my father (I often accompanied Dad on his rounds of the shops with whom he traded) when he said ‘you must meet Margaret’. The family lived upstairs, and we met a bright, happy-looking seven-year-old girl who came tripping down the stairs. We said ‘hello’, but didn’t chat- I wasn’t interested in girls yet. We did meet again, as I will describe later.
One of my paternal grandmother’s sisters, Mary Elizabeth Marshall, married Edward Payne, a wealthy silk mercer living in Hampstead, London. They had three children, a boy and two girls. Both girls died from tuberculosis in 1926. The boy, Edward Geoffrey, was a brilliant scholar and became head boy of Forest school in Walthamstow. His sporting prowess was also excellent and he was Victor Ludorum of the school in two successive years. Edward was training for a career in the Anglican priesthood when the First World War broke out. He volunteered for the army, was commissioned into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, went to Flanders and was killed in the trenches during that terrible bloodbath, near the town of Festubert during the battle of Loos. His body was never found. I hold some letters that were written at the time by a fellow officer to one of Geoffrey’s sisters, giving the circumstances of his death.
When I was about eight, my parents took me to London to see Aunt Payne, who was by then a widow. The capital city made a great impression on me, as I had never previously travelled outside Grantham except on the family’s annual holiday to Skegness. The London underground was an eye-opener, as was Chinatown- I remember seeing Chinese people for the first time and being fascinated by their appearance. On that visit Dad took me to a show featuring the famous conjurers, Maskelyn and Devant. Aunt Payne’s house was in Rosslyn Hill, directly above the London Underground; one went to sleep and woke up to the sound of trains rumbling below.
Father’s mother, Emma Marshall (‘Granny’ to us) was one of Aunt Payne’s sisters and she lived with my parents in Derby when they were first married. My father was Emma’s only child, and it is believed that Granny may have been jealous of her daughter-in-law, my mother.
When our family lived in Harrowby Road, Granny was boarded out with a couple who lived a few doors away. After the move to Barrowby Road she occupied a ‘Granny flat’ there. We children loved her and visited every Sunday morning after Mass. She always wore mourning- a long black dress reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s attire. She had a glass biscuit barrel, always well-filled and she sometimes gave us a silver threepenny piece, which she called a ‘ticky’ ( a South African term, I believe- Granny had a brother who had emigrated to South Africa) She was totally deaf, and my father communicated with her on his hands, using the deaf and dumb alphabet. She died in 1934 at the age of 84- my first experience of death in the family. I remember her funeral at Grantham cemetery, with the glass-sided hearse drawn by two magnificent black-plumed black horses, and the two gravediggers standing respectfully back from the grave.
I had started my education at the age of five at a small ‘dame school’ run by the two Misses Fowler at their house a few doors from our home. My brother and four of my sisters also started their education there, as my parents wanted us to have a wider education than that which the local Catholic Primary could offer. I was regarded as the clever one in the family and was able to absorb knowledge rapidly, mainly because Ethel Fowler was such a good teacher. She taught me to write legibly and in addition to English (language and grammar) and mathematics, she gave me a good grounding in French. Several other children from the area started school at Miss Fowler’s too, including Peggy Allen who was the daughter of a close friend of my mother.
When I was eleven, Miss Fowler entered me for the ‘scholarship’ exam, the forerunner of the ‘eleven-plus’ exam. I had to take the test at the school in Huntingtower Rd as Miss Fowler’s premises did not qualify under Board of Education rules, but I had been so well prepared that I found the paper quite easy to complete. I passed with good marks, qualifying for a bursary to attend the Kings School, starting in the lower third form. I did well that year and was put in the fourth form, skipping the upper third. I matriculated from the sixth form, gaining distinctions in pure maths and applied maths, but with lower marks in other subjects. I did not wish to go to University, which rather dismayed the careers master, Captain M.H. Raymond (‘Pedro’ to the boys, pronounced ‘Peedro’) When I told him I was thinking of taking up a career in the bank, he said “You don’t want to waste your time looking after other people’s ‘dibs’- aim high, my boy; there’s plenty of room at the top” However, I didn’t take his good advice. Captain Raymond, a WW1 veteran, lived in one of the ‘Art-Nouveau’ style houses on Beacon Lane with his wife and her sister. They all used to take a daily walk, he walking between the two ladies- on seeing them, my sister Joan would say “there he goes, with his two wives”.
One incident that sticks in my memory occurred when I was about fourteen. I was accosted one evening under the Barrowby rd bridge by a weedy grey-faced man wearing a dirty raincoat, who stopped me and made an obscene suggestion. At that, I experienced a feeling of the most intense anger; I was beside myself with fury and could barely restrain myself from punching him in the face, and I didn’t recover my composure for about an hour afterwards. I mention it to illustrate my natural aversion as a heterosexual person towards homosexuality. I had not yet learned that it is not in itself a perversion, but is, to some degree, present in us all.
One of my earliest friends was a Harold Wilson (no relation to the later Prime Minister) living on Dudley Rd, quite near our Barrowby Rd home. His father worked at the Post Office, in their telegrams section. Telegrams were much used for urgent messages in those days, as few people had telephones. I met Harold’s parents again shortly after WW2 when they told me he had been killed in the conflict. Harold was their only child.
The Appleby brothers were two more friends, living near us on Barrowby Rd. Both excellent cricketers, they followed in their father’s footsteps; he was captain of Grantham Cricket Club. Unfortunately, the brothers met a tragic end when driving along the Great North rd (now the A1) near Wittering aerodrome outside Stamford. The wheels of a low-flying aeroplane touched their car, causing it to crash and both brothers were killed. That led to the introduction of the current road sign warning of low flying aircraft.
Another friend was Peter Lee, the rather spoiled seventh son of Alderman Rothwell Lee, who was Grantham’s mayor at that time. Although we were friends, we didn’t always get along too well, and we had a minor spat that ended with Peter falling in a trough of evil-smelling pig muck. Accompanying him home, I was most apprehensive- Peter had big brothers. Surprisingly, they were amenable, patted me on the back and said they were glad someone had taken him down a peg, as he had been getting too big for his boots!
My father’s uncle, John Daniel Roberts, (always known as ‘J.D.’) owned a hardware shop at 84 Westgate. He incorporated the business as J D Roberts (Grantham) Ltd., and when he died childless in 1916 he left a controlling interest in the company to my father. As it traded wholesale as well as retail it provided a good living, but the business did not expand because Dad, although thrifty, was not at all go-ahead. It had no delivery van, just a motorcycle and sidecar on which a long-standing employee, Mr Harvey, did the rounds of the country shops to which the business sold wholesale. As well as Mr Harvey there were two other full-time employees, Mr Westropp and Mr Towers (who was disabled and used a wheelchair), also a part-time shop girl.
My brother Anthony started work in the shop after WW2 and he could well have taken over from our ageing father- by that time, I had started work in the bank, away from Grantham. However, dad was reluctant to let go of the reins and the shop could not afford to pay another employee so Anthony, a natural salesman, found a better-paid job with a nationally-known wool firm and he quickly became one of their best salesmen.
There used to be a row of old houses belonging to Dad’s shop in Wilkins Yard, behind the shop. They had no gas or electricity. Although the shop had gas, water was obtained from a standpipe in the yard. The houses were tenanted and eventually condemned by the local authority, so rents could no longer be collected. Dad then used them for storage of shop goods. The garden behind the shop held an unfloored wooden hut in which lived Antonio Fracano, always known as ‘old Antonio’. He was an itinerant Italian pedlar who visited local villages on foot, with his wares on a wooden tray suspended from his shoulders by a leather strap. He obtained his supplies of leather bootlaces etc from dad’s shop, and spent his leisure time making bone carvings which he arranged around the walls of his hut. Antonio made my father his executor and when he died it was found that he had amassed over one hundred pounds in the bank- a substantial sum in those days. Dad tried to find out if Antonio had any relatives, even advertising in Italian newspapers, but there were no genuine claimants, so Dad gave the money to the Church.
Another Grantham character was ‘Brammer’, who used to push a barrow around town selling fruit and veg. At the foot of Barrowby rd he would stop passers-by and try to browbeat them into helping him push the barrow up the hill. He once accosted my sister Anne in that way- wisely, she just ran away. Yet another eccentric was an ex-Navy rating. He would enter the Catholic Church just before 11 o’clock Mass wearing hob-nailed boots and freshly-laundered uniform in the material called ‘white duck’. Marching up to the Communion rail, he would kneel and loudly recite the Lord’s Prayer before clomping out again, but never staying for Mass.
As a boy I had one penny a week pocket-money and went into town on Saturday mornings to spend it on sweets from Woolworth’s which advertised ‘nothing over sixpence’, or from Piper’s Penny Bazaar which was even cheaper. My parents did not buy from those shops because part of their trade was in competition with Dad’s business. Later, my pocket money went up, eventually reaching one penny for each year of my age.
I always found the market an interesting place. One trader used to bring in a lorry-load of bananas from Covent Garden market in London, attracting an audience with an entertaining ‘spiel’ and by throwing free bananas into the crowd. The auctioneer Mr Golding (founder of the Grantham firm that still bears his name) conducted a general auction from his stall, finalising each sale by banging his stick (in lieu of a gavel) on the stall. A more colourful stallholder was a confectioner called Lewin, the self-styled ‘Rock King’. He was distinctive in a ten-gallon hat and had a raucous voice, dispensing seaside rock lettered right through with the words ‘Skegness Rock’. He also sold what he called ‘chutney’ (actually broken bits of cheap sweets) at ridiculously low prices. His main market was in Skegness, where one could watch the rock being made, on a long metal-topped table.
Grantham market went on late into the evening and the Rock King’s stall was lit by a brilliant naphtha flare, whereas the other stalls used oil lamps. Another vendor had an automated sweet-making machine which he towed behind his van. The constituents were heated up in the machine and extruded from a container, automatically cut into slices and wrapped in paper twisted at each end.
There was a rabbit-seller for those who could not afford butcher’s meat- it was a cheap source of protein. We often ate rabbit and I enjoyed the taste more than that of chicken. They were hung head downwards in rows outside the stall and could be prepared for the pot in about a minute. With a sharp knife the stallholder would slit the rabbit open at the belly, remove the entrails (which went for cat food) then skinning the carcass starting at the scut and pulling the skin right over its head, then breaking off and discarding the paws. Holding it up, he would judge its weight and quote a price, usually about a shilling (5p). the fur would go to make cheap fur coats and muffs. Rabbits were a menace to farmers because they ate off the grass for a distance of several yards from the hedges round every field. After WW2 the rabbit problem was eased by the introduction of myxomatosis from continental Europe- but the rabbits would go blind and die slowly and painfully.
The afore-mentioned Ida Gee occupied an attic room in the Harrowby Rd house and she accompanied our family when we went on holiday. My parents also employed a maid, a rather simple girl who helped my mother in the kitchen. One day the girl disappeared, following which we received a message from the Police saying they had picked her up on Kings Cross station. She told them she had gone there to see Harry Roy, who was a popular band leader and was regularly heard on the radio. Kings Cross was a notorious haunt of prostitutes and the girl was obviously in great moral danger- she was returned to us quickly!
My brother and I were day boys at Kings School, except for one term when our mother was pregnant with our youngest sister Susan, and had experienced a threatened miscarriage. Kings had something like the old public school system, where junior boys were ‘fags’ to the School prefects and were often badly treated, although prefects were not allowed to use the cane, a privilege that was reserved for the headmaster, and was sparingly used. How times have changed- any master using physical punishment on a pupil these days would be taken to court immediately!
Each school prefect had his own study, leading off the main downstairs corridor. We boys vied with each other to see who could be the most daring. On a corner of the quadrangle there were two iron drainpipes close together, leading up three storeys onto the school roof. One afternoon when all was quiet, three of us (led by Tudor Palmer, who became a Battle of Britain pilot) climbed these drainpipes onto the roof. We swarmed up wearing sand shoes, negotiating a hair-raising overhang at the eaves of the building, where we had to hang on by our fingers while feeling for a foothold with our toes. How we escaped disaster was a miracle. I notice now, seventy-five years later, that the drainpipes have been re-positioned (and are now plastic) to prevent such foolhardiness!
The school was heated through large old-fashioned iron pipes leading from a boiler in the basement which was tended by Jock Manderfield, an ex-Royal Navy stoker employed by the school. The entrance was via a steep flight of stone steps, known to the boys as ‘Jock’s hole’, at the top of which Jock would greet us as we arrived at school.
Naturally, there would be arguments sometimes between boys. If two came to blows, the other boys would gather around shouting ‘scra-a-p!’. Hearing this the duty master would rush out of the common-room and bustle up to them, parting them and either inviting them to shake hands or to put on boxing gloves and settle the matter in the gym. Bullying was not tolerated; any that did occur was dealt with by the boys themselves. The bully would be grabbed by several boys and frog-marched to a large tap in the corner of the quad, where a powerful jet of cold water over his head would soon cool his temper.
Our family always had a summer holiday in Skegness. I often walked from the clock tower in the town centre to the boating lake and paid for a half-hour’s row, afterwards gazing wistfully at the slot machines and roll-a-penny stalls but rarely having anything left to spend there. There was a huge roller-coaster on which we were treated to one ride during the holiday, also a hall of distorting mirrors, a ‘Tunnel of Love’ for courting couples, a ‘Ghost Train’ with spooky and frightening tableaux and a ‘Crazy House’ containing a spot where a powerful jet of air blew up from the floor, causing some embarrassment to girls, as well as amusement to the onlookers.
Within the town and along the front I usually walked, but from the town centre there was a bus service run by ancient hard-tyred buses for about a mile in each direction. It was called ‘Penny all the Way’, that being the fare for any distance.
If we were in Skegness on a Sunday, we attended Mass at the small Catholic Church in Grosvenor Rd. During the summer holidays there would be so many worshippers there (mainly from Nottingham) that many had to stand outside to hear the Mass. One year dad shut the shop for the whole of August and we spent the entire month in a rented bungalow in Ocean Avenue. I recall Dad looking at his pocket-book afterwards and remarking ruefully that the holiday had cost him all of twenty pounds.
In 1930 an entrepreneurial Canadian, Billy Butlin, bought out the amusements and built a large holiday camp at Ingoldmells, just outside the town. It was well patronised and immensely popular, becoming the prototype for a number of holiday camps that later sprang up around the country.
As a boy, I went for my haircuts to an old-fashioned barber’s on Watergate, run by Mr Brewin. When cutting boys’ hair he placed a plank across the arms of the chair so the boy could sit at a convenient height. He first cut my hair when I was seven. Later on, I used to go to a barber’s shop on a balcony above the foyer of the ‘Picture House’- one of three cinemas then operating in Grantham. One of the others was the ‘Exchange’, known locally as the ‘fleapit’. It had been the Corn Exchange. The third was a cinema/theatre in George Street.
A number of the town’s businessmen went to the barber’s at the Picture House for a daily shave, costing fourpence. Each customer had his own shaving mug, marked with his name, kept on a shelf there. For a small extra charge, hot towels could be swathed around the face afterwards (presaging the use of after-shave lotion). Cut-throat razors were used- electric shavers were not invented until many years later. Much local gossip was exchanged, and I remember listening with awakening interest to the comments (sometimes bawdy) that were made there in 1937 when the liaison between the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson, an American divorcee, became public knowledge. Edward renounced the throne, explaining his reasons in an emotional broadcast to the nation. Mrs Simpson was spirited away to France accompanied by Edward’s friend Lord Brownlow, owner of Belton House near Grantham. Edward and Mrs Simpson married in Paris, lord Brownlow being the best man. An international crisis was precipitated and the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, faced calls for his resignation, but he weathered the storm. The British press played down the matter but the American papers went to town, one headline being ‘Broadway cutie rocks the throne of England’
After my war service I went again to Mr Brewin for a haircut. He recognized me and I told him something of my war experiences, which seemed to interest him. He died some years later, but the premises are still a barber’s shop, with the barber’s pole prominent outside. I went again recently; it is now run by two young men who have re-named it ‘Barber Zone’ and I told them I remembered it from so long ago. They were most interested, and showed me a photo of the shop as I remembered it. So now at the age of 90 I must be their oldest customer!
In my youth I had unlimited energy ad was probably rather hyperactive. Before 1937 I cycled from Grantham to Nottingham at least once during settled weather in the summer, to see a County cricket match at Trent Bridge, usually with my friends Leslie Annable and Peter Godfrey who both lived near us on Barrowby Road. Leslie’s father was a Co-op manager and Peter’s father kept a jeweller’s shop in Watergate. The Nottingham team had some good batsmen, and their fast bowlers Harold Larwood (of ‘bodyline bowling’ fame) and Bill Voce were in their heyday so were assured of some exciting cricket regardless of which side was batting. We left our bikes in a West Bridgford garage advertising ‘cycles stored, twopence each’, biking home after the match. It could be an exhausting day, especially if the wind turned against us for the return journey, but the exercise built up my stamina.
I watched the hometown matches of Grantham Town Football Club at the old ground on London Rd with my friend Ken Blomeley who lived on Harlaxton Rd. In 1935 Grantham reached the first round proper of the FA Cup and played Notts County at home, losing 2-0. We watched the match- boys always got a good view, being pushed to the front of the crowd by the taller men. The ‘gate’ was usually about 2,000, with a record 4,000 attending that match. Our hero was our goalkeeper, Arthur Jepson.
I have always been susceptible to female charm, but because of my innate shyness was unable to get on comfortably with the opposite sex. My first girlfriend was Maureen, a pretty girl who lived near us and was the daughter of a friend of my father, but the friendship lapsed when her family left town. At about fourteen I fell madly in love with an attractive but very precocious girl whom I used to see about town. I called her ‘the gypsy’ but did not know her real name, and we only went out together once, when I was rather put off by her boast that she had been out with every boy in Grantham. My close friend Leslie Annable and I were friendly with two local girls, Joan and Joyce, but it was all fairly innocent fun. A friendship with another Joan foundered naturally because of my shyness.
My father’s friend George Freeman, a farmer owning about 120 acres, lived in Tugby, a small village on the way to Leicester. George’s wife Lizzie, who was also his first cousin, was fond of children and for several years we spent a fortnight’s summer holiday with them. Lizzie had a large goitre, probably because the water in that area lacked iodine. Access to the farm was from the railway station at East Norton- subsequently closed during the Beeching cuts- and farmer George would meet the train with pony & trap. We would all pile in for the three-mile journey to the farm. There was a hill on the way where we children had to get out and walk so the pony could manage the gradient. One year, Dad, with Anthony and I, cycled to the farm and back via Melton Mowbray and Tilton-on-the-Hill.
The Freeman’s had two children, George and Jasper. George had died in childhood from peritonitis resulting from a botched appendectomy operation. Jasper was rather slow-witted but he was a great favourite with us children. He taught me the rudiments of fishing (at a small lake on the farm) as well as how to snare rabbits, at which he was expert. I enjoyed walking the farm with farmer George – he fattened bullocks for the market, feeding them on oilcake which was chopped up in a machine operated by a huge hand wheel. The same machine operated the clippers when it was sheep-shearing time. George watched the Leicester market closely and would always get a good price for his animals, which he referred to as ‘beast’. Lean meat was unpopular in those days, so when his animals were sent to the slaughterhouse the bullocks always had shiny coats, rippling with fat.
George had a shotgun which we children were not allowed to touch- it was kept in a locked case high on the wall of the farm’s living-room. After tea, he would often poke the gun through the open window, firing when a rabbit came within range- he never missed, so we usually had rabbit for dinner. Farmer George got up at dawn to milk his own cows, assisted by two milkmaids, and he supplied milk to most of the village. One room in the farmhouse was set aside as the dairy- there were strict regulations as to hygiene and pasteurization and we children were not allowed in the dairy, which was visited regularly by Government inspectors.
The farm had a number of hens which were fed on the best maize, and we found the hens’ favourite laying-places so we always had free-range eggs- usually two each at teatime. I loved the farm life and would actually feel homesick after we had returned to Grantham. Much later when I was working in the South of England in 1937, I was astonished to read a newspaper report to the effect that there had been a severe thunderstorm in the Leicester area and that Jasper Freeman had been struck by lightning and killed instantly. Apparently Farmer George, with Jasper and a farm hand known as ‘Luker’, who also drove George’s car for him, had unwisely been sheltering under a tree in the home field. George was quite unharmed, but Jasper’s body bore a dark mark over the heart area in the shape of an ivy leaf. Luker was struck dumb, and it was said that he never spoke again. The tree was subsequently felled.
My father sometimes described George as ‘one of nature’s gentlemen’. He was indeed a simple man- for example, he appeared to regard aeroplanes as akin to birds, and once when a plane landed in one of his fields, he described it as ‘settling’ in the field. I always enjoyed playing with the village children in the house garden, which held a lot of blackcurrant bushes and I enjoyed picking the fruit- Aunt Lizzie made and sold blackcurrant jam and jelly.
In the early 1930s a touring circus visited Grantham, putting up their ‘big top’ in the field below Hall’s Hill. I was overjoyed at being able to help when extra hands were needed to haul on the ropes, which were secured by large metal-topped pegs hammered deep into the ground. Four men would position themselves around the peg, bearing huge club-hammers. One man would swing his hammer over his head to strike the first blow, the others then joining in, in turn- a circle of hammers, rising and falling as if in response to an unseen conductor.
My father’s abiding passion was for the circus- he never missed an opportunity of attending a performance. The leading showman was Bertram Mills, whose circus performed annually over the Christmas period in the Olympia stadium in London, and Dad took Anthony and I to a performance. Dad also wrote circus stories as a hobby and two of them, both very readable, were published in a magazine ‘The Sawdust Ring’ produced by him and a group of fellow enthusiasts. The group held an annual Christmas dinner at the stadium, the food being brought in and served inside the circus ring. There were a number of touring circuses in the 1920s and 1930s, some of them very primitive outfits but Dad enjoyed them all equally. A leading one was that of the Roberts Brothers (no relation) which, although support for circuses has declined in recent years, still tours the country.
In the 1920’s the metalled road from Grantham town centre towards Hall’s Hill led only as far as the old barracks at the Beacon Hill/Sandon Rd junction. From there to the top of the hill was an unsurfaced track, leading to a collection of wooden hutments which we knew as the ‘Pensions Hospital’ at the junction with Harrowby Lane where there is now a traffic roundabout. That hospital accommodated long-term patients who had been wounded in WW1, wearing ‘blues’- wounded soldiers’ clothing consisting of blue pyjama-style jackets and trousers, with white shirts and red ties. The New Beacon Rd area was built up between the wars, one of the roads leading off it- a cul-de-sac- being named Jubilee Avenue, which is where I now live and write this autobiography.
My mother once told me I was born in a caul. I believed the old wives’ tale that one so born will not die by drowning, so I took to the water readily and taught myself to swim in the unheated outdoor pool in Wyndham Park. The pool was filled through a pipe leading from the nearby river Witham. It was emptied and cleaned weekly by two men scrubbing the bottom and sides with bass brooms, which must have been back-breaking work. The water temperature was chalked on a board outside, daily. Throughout the early part of the summer it would be in the low sixties Fahrenheit, and only from July to September would it sometimes reach seventy degrees. The price for a swim was fourpence for juniors but a season ticket was only two shillings. Changing facilities were primitive; there were about twenty small cubicles, also a large communal changing room pervaded by the smell of sweaty feet. At the deep end were diving platforms, also a chute and a springboard. The pool was open at different times for male, female or mixed bathing. The Kings School held their annual swimming sports there. There was another swimming pool at the other end of town in Dysart Park. It was more modern and rectangular in shape, whereas the Wyndham Park pool was an irregular shape having been originally formed from a backwater of the river. Nowadays people seem to have gone soft, and there are no more unheated pools; the Wyndham Park pool is only used for sailing model yachts.
While at the Kings School I passed lifesaving tests held by the R.L.S.S. (Royal Life Saving Society) and I obtained their diploma. That training served me in good stead much later in my life during my Army Service in India, as will be seen later.
I also enjoyed rowing, at the canal basin on Wharf Rd, which then connected up with the main part of the canal- skiffs could be hired from two ladies at the wharf. When I had enough money I would pay for an hour, usually rowing as far as Vincent’s bridge near Harlaxton, and back.
One of the Kings School masters, ‘Beak’ Waterhouse arranged outings by coach for the boys, visiting local places of interest. One visit was to Leicester, where we saw a performance of one of the Savoy operas, ‘The Mikado’. It was my first experience of a professional performance and I was entranced by it. He also arranged a visit to Oxford, to see the Morris factory manufacturing cars- the first example of mass production of cars in England.
The Kings School headmaster was Mr Bispham, a stern disciplinarian. He lived in a house beside the quad, and had a large family. His wife was a Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiast and she arranged performances of some of the Savoy operas by the boys, the female parts being played by younger boys with unbroken voices, wearing ‘drag’. Several of the masters during the 1930s were memorable characters. ‘Gus’ Golding, who taught English, was one such. He used the blackboard freely and any pupil whose attention wandered would be brought back to reality by the sharp impact of a piece of chalk, thrown with deadly accuracy. Gus always walked with his hands in his pockets, a file under his arm and his gown flying in the wind. Another master who always taught English was Sam Moorey, a corpulent jolly man who married a girl from Wood Nook on the High Dyke. The Art master was Mr Stephens, who also ran the school printing press. My brother Anthony assisted him with the printing.
But the master who had the most influence on me was the senior maths master, Mr Harry F Marks, who lived in a bungalow at the junction of Hill Avenue and Signal Rd. He was also an accomplished actor. Although his pupils were in the science stream he decided they should show their prowess at Arts too, and he coached us in the production of two short plays which he produced and which we performed on the Kings School stage. I took part in one of them and enjoyed my one and only stage performance. Harry also gave a memorable performance in another play- ‘Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure’ which was performed in the Grantham Theatre, and in which he took the leading part.
Harry was a brilliant mathematician and he often set the sixth form problems. One day, he introduced us to what is now known as the four-colour problem. Map makers have always known that it is possible to draw a map in which each adjoining country can be delineated in a different colour, without using more than four colours, but it had never been proved that it is always possible. Harry seemed to have a good opinion of my intellect although I was not, in any sense, a ‘teacher’s pet’. When describing the four-colour problem he said, looking directly at me in class- ‘the problem has not yet been solved, but one day it will be, and one of you could be the one who solves it’. After leaving school I forgot about the problem altogether, but many years later, when I became a reader of the ‘Guardian’ newspaper, their then mathematical correspondent, Keith Devlin, gave the problem some publicity. I considered it again and realised that in order to solve it one must think globally. The map must be delineated on a piece of paper, which can be large- perhaps very large- but cannot be larger than the size of the Earth- it cannot be of infinite size because the Earth is a finite size. So the map must consist of three countries, entirely surrounded by a fourth country- so four colours always suffice. A book has recently been published, entitled ‘four colours always suffice’ which uses this argument, although it introduces complications, none of which invalidate the argument.
I learned at a recent Kings School Old Boys Society reunion that a biography of Harry Marks (now long dead) is being written and will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Kings School Old Boys magazine.
Reverting to the time when I left school, I would mention that although my father’s business banked with the Midland bank, his personal account was with Lloyds. When I was just seventeen the Lloyds Manager, Major H.M. Peacock (who had been a partner in the private Banking firm of Peacock, Willson & Co of Sleaford before it was taken over by Lloyds) told Dad that there was a clerical vacancy at Lloyds. After a preliminary introduction to the Major I decided to apply and was called to London for an interview, where I was rather overawed by the bank’s prestigious Head Office in Lombard Street. The interviewer warned me that the starting salary of seventy pounds a year (paid in monthly instalments after deductions for the pension fund and the widows and orphans’ fund) would not be enough to enable me to dress adequately and my parents would have to help me at first. He told me I would not start work in Grantham, but at another branch where I would not already know anything about their local customers’ affairs. He also warned me against either getting into debt or entering into marriage hastily! I had a brief medical examination consisting of a urine test for diabetes and a test for colour blindness- necessary to see whether an account was in credit or ‘in the red’. I had ordered a suit from the old-established firm of H.H. Cox in Grantham, but it was not ready in time, so I started work in my school uniform of black jacket and grey flannel trousers. I was thankful to be able to abandon my school cap!
My bank service started in Kent, at the Sevenoaks branch. I suffered pangs of homesickness at first, but took to the work readily and was given a bonus of £10 at my first annual salary review. The manager, Mr Carter, commented that I was ‘the best junior clerk he had seen in many a long year’. My lodgings cost twenty-four shillings (£1-20) a week for full board plus two shillings for washing- about the usual price for ‘digs’ in those days. I did not smoke or drink but was fond of the cinema (then in its heyday) which I visited twice a week.
As junior clerk in Sevenoaks I had to arrive at the bank before the opening time of 9am. My first job was to change the blotting-paper and the pens and ink on the counter (the ballpoint had not been invented) and on Mondays I had to wind up the clock, high on the wall of the banking hall. I then had to deal with the daily package from Head Office containing the cheques that had been drawn by our customers and cleared through the Bankers’ Clearing House in London. This involved listing and casting (i.e adding up) all the cheques, often hundreds of them. All additions had to be done in one’s head, as there were no adding machines of any kind, so I rapidly became expert on adding up in pounds, shillings and pence. This was long before decimal currency, and computers had not been invented.
An early friend that I met in Sevenoaks was Ralph Edwards. He had a religious turn of mind and was contemplating training for the ministry in the Anglican Church. I remember we both went by train to Tonbridge to view a famous painting on loan there- Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’. Shortly afterwards, Ralph was moved to another branch- the bank never allowed junior members of the staff to stay long at the same branch.
The Chief Clerk at Sevenoaks was a Mr Tapp, who had a rich Cornish accent; he was approaching retirement and was looking forward to returning to his home town, Falmouth. The first cashier was a Mr W.A.G. Harrison (nicknamed ‘Wag’, of course) and both he and the second cashier Mr Kingston, who had several young children, were veterans of WWI and often discussed common experiences from their days in the trenches. The bank at Sevenoaks had a sub-branch at Brasted, a few miles away and near Mr Winston Churchill’s home at Chartwell. It opened for one morning a week and was staffed by Mr Harrison and myself. He drove us from Sevenoaks in his cramped little Austin Seven and I sat beside him with the leather cash bag on my knees, attached by a leather-covered chain round my waist, under my jacket, down inside the sleeve and clipped to the cash bag at my wrist. In that way the chain was not visible and the bag could not be snatched. A compensation for having to go to the sub-branch was that the village shop in Brasted sold the most delicious fresh baked jam doughnuts.
After I had been in Sevenoaks for a few months the bank moved me to their branch in Dorking, Surrey. The branch was managed by a Mr Turville, an old-fashioned type who always wore a wing-collar. I found good lodgings in Dorking, with a family whose head was a butler at a nearby stately home. The family had eight children, seven older boys and a girl of about my own age. At that time my shyness was most acute and I became depressed, feeling that the future had no prospect for me. I was working hard during the days, and equally hard during the evenings, swotting for my banking exams – I even found that tears would well up into my eyes as I was walking along the street and there was nothing I could do to stop them. That worried me considerably, but in fact it was probably just because I had no friends nearby, and was spending far too much time alone.
One of the customers of the bank in Dorking was a famous film star, Leslie Howard, who lived nearby, when he was not filming in Hollywood, U.S.A. By arrangement he would be admitted to the bank just after the normal closing time, so that he could conduct his banking business without a crowd gathering to see him. He had a pleasant, unassuming manner and seemed to be the personification of some of the characters that he played in his films. I remember his wife too – she also had an account with us. She was a rather brash, outgoing American – not at all like the type of person one would have expected him to marry.
My solace during those first years at work was my bicycle, on which I rode up to twenty-five miles each evening, and often further at weekends, through the beautiful Kent and Surrey countryside, and only the very worst weather could keep me off the road. One of my favourite rides from Dorking was up Ranmoor Hill to the Common, and on to the hamlet of Cold Harbour in order to climb the tower at the top of Leith Hill, from where there is the best view in the south of England, encompassing at least six counties.
Because of my shyness I still had no girl friend, but I got to know some other bank employees and gradually began to come out of my shell. Inside the bank there was no security screen, as bank raids were almost unknown. Cash was simply kept in a locked drawer to which the cashier had a key. There was, however, a bell push on the floor, which could be pressed secretly by a cashier’s foot, when an alarm would sound in the local police station and the branch would, in theory at any rate, soon be surrounded by police. Automatic cash dispensers – “Cashpoint” machines – were not invented until much later.
Reverting to my time at Kings School in Grantham, my parents decided that some discipline would be good for me. The school had an O.T.C. (Officers Training Corps) and I joined that, as did my close friend Robert Edwards. I would have preferred the Boy Scouts and was totally non militaristic but my parents regarded the scouts as rather ‘infra dig’, so the O.T.C. seemed the next best thing. We did our training on the small square of the old Barracks, under the watchful eye of the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who was billeted there. He was typical of his breed, with a fierce waxed moustache and a perfectly-fitting uniform.
In 1937, at the time of the silver jubilee of King George V, a huge bonfire was laid at the top of Hall’s Hill, and the O.T.C. marched up the hill, bearing flaming torches with which we lit the bonfire. That event also commemorated the lighting of signal beacons across the country in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish Armada had been sighted in the channel.
I reached the rank of Corporal in the O.T.C. and took an exam for Certificate ‘A’, the qualification needed if one was to train for a commission in the army, although I had no intention of joining up. However, I had the satisfaction of coming top in the practical part of the exam. Robert Edwards came top in the written part of the exam.
The O.T.C. had a drum and bugle band (my brother Anthony was one of the buglers) and we spent a lot of time marching round the town behind the band. Each summer the Corps spent a week on Salisbury Plain, under canvas in bell tents, O.T.Cs from other schools were there too, and there were route marches and mock battles – a night march was included. In 1937 the week ended with a visit to the huge outdoor arena at Tidworth Pennings, where the massed bands of the Guards Regiments, accompanied by a visiting French band, gave a floodlit display.
The National Socialist Party in Germany (the Nazi party) led by Adolf Hitler, had gained power because the German economy had been crippled by reparations enforced after WWI, and the time was ripe for a resurgence of German nationalism. I remember going to an air display at the old Croydon aerodrome which was visited by the latest German passenger planes, when we were told that the planes could be converted to bombers within hours – perhaps evidence of what Hitler already had in mind for us.
By 1938, Adolf Hitler had taken dictatorial powers as Chancellor of Germany and it had become evident that war was imminent and that there was going to be a general call up. National Registration was introduced and everyone had to carry an identity card. That enabled conscription to be brought in and all fit men of military age were called up for war services, except for registered conscientious objectors and those in reserved occupations such as agricultural work and specialised factory jobs. Women were directed into the Auxiliary Territorial Service (A.T.S.), the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force (W.A.A.F.S.) or the Womens’ Royal Navy Services (‘WRENS’) or into work in munitions factories.
When war broke out on 3rd September 1939 I well remember hearing on the radio, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s fateful words “… this country is at war with Germany” and experiencing, as so many others did, that nothing would ever be quite the same again. The country expected an immediate attack by German bombers but nothing happened, except that a blackout was put into force and no lights could be shown after dark, so that there would be no targets for German bombers. Night driving by car became difficult, as vehicle lights had to be blacked out so that they only showed a slight glimmer directed down to the road, and it was only possible to drive very slowly after dark. All house windows had to be covered by blackout curtains, and air raid wardens were appointed to patrol the streets to ensure that the blackout was observed. Showing the slightest chink of light was likely to be met by a shout of ‘put that light out’, either from the air raid warden or from a nervous neighbour. Railway station names were blacked out and when a train drew in the guard was not allowed to shout the name of the station, making things very difficult for travellers who weren’t familiar with the route. Even signposts at road junctions were removed, so that any invading German paratroops would not know where they were. In short, the precautions were very much overdone.
Post Offices and other public buildings were protected by sandbags round the entrances. I remember spending a lot of time in support of the war effort, filling and laying sandbags in Dorking.
At that time I had two close friends – Robert Edwards, whom I have already mentioned and Ian Dawson, the son of our local doctor. We were quite inseparable and our parents called us ‘the three musketeers’. We decided to have a day out in London together before we were called up, and we saw a West End show. The stars were Judy Campbell who was a native of Grantham, and the comedian Richard Hearne (alias Mr Pastry), also a young Clive Dunn – the same live Dunn who, at least sixty years later, figured prominently in the popular television series ‘Dad’s Army’. A young singer, Vera Lynn, was also in the show. She subsequently became very popular, and during the war entertained the troops in many parts of the world, becoming known as ‘the Forces Sweetheart’. Still occasionally on the stage, she is now something of a national institution.
My call-up came in May 1940, shortly after the rapid defeat of France by Germany, followed by the Dunkirk evacuation. There was a popular walk along a ridge in a park in Dorking, known as ‘The Nower’ from where there is a view over the Kentish Weald as far as the South Downs. Walking along there at the time of Dunkirk I clearly heard sounds of battle on the other side of the Channel – gunfire and exploding bombs.
On conscription I had the choice of army, navy or Air Force. I opted for the army, probably because my father had served in the army during WWI – he had been ordered to go to Belgium, where he was employed on military traffic control duty so, fortunately, he had not had to go into the trenches.
My army service started in Guildford, where everyone was interviewed by an Officer with WWI experience, who allocated us to one of the services that were being recruited for on that day – the Royal Artillery (R.A.) and the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.). The procedure was quite arbitrary – the Officer asked each of us a few questions, and he told me I would be allocated to the R.A.M.C.
We were issued with tropical gear and given a weekend’s home leave. I got the job of writing out the rail passes for the home leave, after admitting that I had some knowledge of office work. That taught me to be more careful of what I volunteered for thereafter. Before leaving Grantham I went into the Robert’s shop on North Parade to tell Muriel Roberts that I had been posted overseas. She wished me well, but at that moment Margaret, who had evidently overheard what I was saying, rushed out of the shop and started talking to me. But what a different Margaret from the happy child I remembered! She “buttonholed” me, began talking and would not stop, saying that she wasn’t going to stay in boring old Grantham but was going to go places and do wonderful things, etc. etc. She kept me there for a solid hour – I timed it from the church clock opposite – before I could get away; I began to wonder if she was mad, but subsequent events proved that she meant what she said – she became head girl at the K.G.G.S. (Kesteven and Grantham Girls High School) then went on to University, graduated with honours and took up research work. She met and married Denis Thatcher, had twins, then stood for Parliament as a Conservative, gaining a seat and eventually becoming a most memorable Prime Minister. The rest of her career has been well documented, showing that her policies were too right wing even for the Conservatives, who eventually combined to force her out of office, resulting in her ignominious resignation.
To revert to my early life in Grantham, I should mention that just off Grantham Market place is an old stone built well, known as the Conduit, which had formed the water supply for a Franciscan Friary that stood there in Mediaeval times. It is listed as an ancient monument and is therefore preserved. A road behind it leads past a tannery owned by the Lee family. The tannery gave off an effluent that smelt so unpleasant that most people were deterred from passing that way on foot, but I often used the route because it formed a short cut from our house to the town centre and the station.
During the depression years of the early 1930s my mother undertook voluntary work for a children’s charity know as ‘The League of Pity’, in aid of which she helped to organise a fancy dress ball in the Guildhall ballroom. All our family took part, kitted out from a local theatrical costumiers. Joan went as a (rather robust) fairy. Anthony went as John Bull, wearing riding breeches, a top hat, a Union Jack waistcoat suitably padded, and carrying a whip. Veronica was a nurse and Jane looked sweet and tragic as Lady Jane Grey, wearing a ruff, a long black velvet gown and carrying a prayer book. I went as Gandi, who was visiting England at the time and was in the news because of his salt march against that unfair tax. My naturally skinny figure was ideal for the part – I browned my face, hands and legs with burnt cork, blacked out all my teeth except one, wore a bald wig and gold-rimmed spectacle frames and wore a sheet as a dhoti. My mother’s strict sense of propriety was offended by the dhoti and she insisted that I wear a pair of Joan’s white knickers underneath. Naturally I protested against such an indignity; this resulted in a family row and my parents eventually resorted to bribery. I claimed compensation of five shillings, and after much argument we agreed a compromise payment of two shillings (20p). However, I won first prize – a football from Collards sports shop – so I did quite well out of the bargain. It wasn’t until many years later, after I had spent several years in India, that I came to realise what an important figure Mahatma Ghandi was – probably the greatest man of the first half of the twentieth century.
Although we had been ordered abroad we were not told where we were going, but it was evident that it would be Egypt. Italy had declared war on Britain in support of Germany and their army had advanced from their Libyan colony to the Egyptian border where they were held by the British Seventh Armoured Division, the “Desert Rats”. Our route to Egypt would have to be by sea round Africa via Cape Town and the Red Sea, rather than through the Mediterranean which was then controlled by German submarines.
At the end of July we left Guildford for an army camp at Walton Heath. The previous evening our unit had held a dance with an open invitation to local girls, followed by a celebration at a pub in Kingswood. Beer was flowing freely and I got drunk – very drunk – for the first time in my life. I had not previously taken part in drinking sessions except after rugby matches in Dorking, when we drank only shandy (beer mixed with lemonade). On this occasion it seems that a mischievous comrade had “spiked” my beer with gin. My good friend Ron George, two years older than me but conscripted at the same time, got me back to the billet safely. But the experience proved to be a valuable lesson, and I have always managed to avoid getting so drunk again.
My hangover had abated by the following evening when we entrained for the north, crossing the Scottish border at Beattock and then on down to Glasgow. The troop train ran along Clydeside, where all the tenement windows were lined with people waving and cheering. I was very impressed as I had not realised that the Scots could be so demonstrative. Our troopship was anchored in the Clyde off Gourock – the ‘Franconia’, an ageing Cunarder of 20,000 tons and a sister ship of the ‘Lancastria’ which had been sunk off St. Nazaire with heavy loss of life after the evacuation from France. One of the stewards on the ‘Franconia’ was a survivor of the loss of the ‘Lancastria’ and he gave us a graphic account of that sinking.
As we swung at anchor, Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond came into view. I had always been interested in hill walking but had never climbed anything higher than the 1,000-foot Leith Hill in Surrey, and there and then I was determined to return to Scotland as soon as possible, so as to be able to climb some real mountains. Before getting on the gangplank, I remember bending down to touch the ground and wondering how long it would be before I could touch British soil again.
We sailed on 6th August 1940, accommodated between decks in a space only about four feet high. Our troopship was in a convoy of several other troopships, including the ‘Empress of Britain’ (which was sunk by a mine on her return journey). The convoy included several merchant vessels and there was on escort of destroyers. Passing the rocky outcrop of Ailsa Craig (known as Paddy’s Milestone) we rounded the north coast of Ireland into the Atlantic. The vessels steamed in parallel lines with a space of about a quarter of a mile between each ship, each one travelling at only the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy. The destroyers took up positions on the outside of the convoy, using echo-sounding equipment to detect the presence of any submarines. The convoy system proved very effective, both then and later on, when America entered the war in preparation for the D-day offensive.
We slept in hammocks, arranged so that we lay head to foot, like sardines in a tin, so as to take up as little space as possible. The hammocks minimised the effects of seasickness which I suffered from at first, but in a few days I found my ‘sea legs’ and began to feel more comfortable. The whole convoy changed direction every fifteen minutes, day and night, thereby confusing any enemy submarines, who could only see a whole lot of ships, all apparently moving in different directions.
As we steamed into the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream the ships disturbed thousands of flying fish, which shot out from under the bows and glided through the air for about thirty yards before plunging back into the water. After fifteen days the waters began to turn muddy, indicating that we were in shallower water and we saw a large turtle, so we knew we were approaching land. We reached landfall on the coast of Sierra Leone, for refuelling but we were not allowed ashore. That stop was our first experience of the tropics and the ship was immediately surrounded by vendors in canoes selling mangoes and other fruit, which we had to sterilize in a solution of potassium permanganate before eating. In tropical waters we slept on deck, which was uncomfortable but was better than staying below in the extreme heat; although we had to be up and out of the way before the crew hosed the decks down at half past six in the morning. We crossed the Equator off the coast of Gabon; hardly any of us had been south of the Equator before but there was no ‘crossing the line’ ceremony as the ship’s swimming pool had been emptied and converted into a dormitory. There was an incident there, when one man in the unit started making homosexual advances to others – something that, in the moral climate of these days, the army would not tolerate. The offender was taken into custody by the military police (the ‘Redcaps’,) to be sent home at the next stop, for trial and probably eventual ‘discharge with ignominy’.
Continuing into the Southern Ocean, the Pole Star dipped below the horizon and new constellations became visible in the night sky – we saw the unmistakeable Southern Cross for the first time. Reaching Cape Town we went ashore and had a short route march to stretch our legs. We then had a few hours free time and some of us went by bus to the lower station of the cable car that goes to the summit of Table Mountain which, that day, had its ‘tablecloth’ on – a thin layer of white cloud that often covers it.
Our ship went on to Durban to refuel there. During that part of the journey we were accompanied by a wandering albatross, a type of bird that never leaves the southern hemisphere. It glided round the ship all day, without any visible movement of its twelve-foot wingspan.
We went ashore at Durban for a short time and I had an exhilarating swim in the huge breakers that pound the shore from the Indian ocean. My great-uncle Joseph lived in Durban; he was one of granny’s brothers and had visited Grantham some years previously, when he had shown Anthony and me the swordstick that it was necessary for him to carry, for his own protection in South Africa, which was then a dangerous place for white people, and he had given us a knobkerrie as a souvenir, but I couldn’t call on him as I didn’t know his address and there wasn’t enough time to find him.
Many years later my sister Veronica lived for a time in Africa, her husband Harry Smith was an electrical engineer and his job was to set up power stations in Botswana. Veronica was then able to visit an old lady from the family that great uncle Joseph had married into. She told Veronica that they had written to our parents when WWII broke out, offering to take some of the younger members of our family to safety in South Africa for the duration of the war. But the letter was never delivered – it was presumed to have been in a ship that was sunk by enemy action. An interesting sight in Durban was the famed Zulu rickshaw men – high stepping, proud and colourful in their ostrich-feather headdresses.
Leaving Durban the convoy headed north into the Red Sea. The narrow entrance at the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb was heavily guarded by destroyers and the convoy slipped through at night without submarine attack. At home, the Battle of Britain was then at its height and there were daily radio reports (perhaps exaggerated for propaganda purposes) of the number of German bombers that had been shot down.
Arriving in Egypt we landed at Port Tewfik on the southern end of the Suez canal. From there we set off in our 3-ton Bedford lorries (which had made the journey from the U.K., welded to the decks of a separate cargo vessel) and joined the North African coast road west of Alexandria, continuing into the Western Desert towards Libya, past the beautiful oasis of Mersa Matruh. We made camp at an un-named spot among some hills of silver sand at the edge of a small bay. The beach there held the burrows of hundreds of land crabs; the sound of them crawling over the corrugated iron roofs of our dugouts at night, in search of food, was eerie.
While we were there, our training was interrupted as we had to do a lot of navvying work digging a huge excavation in the sandy ground, where we were told that an underground hospital was to be built. It was all pick and shovel work as there were no such things as J.C.Bs in those days. My shovel turned up an asp, the kind of viper with which Cleopatra is said to have committed suicide. We had a swim in the sea every afternoon and after about three weeks we were all bronzed and tremendously fit. It was expected that, after the initial battle, the Italian army would have to fall back quite quickly, so we practised rigging up temporary shelters made from tarpaulins, as temporary cover for the casualties we would be looking after when the advance started. We were eventually able to have a mobile dressing station, complete with makeshift operating theatre, ready to take casualties within fifteen minutes of arriving at any given spot; then dismantling it and move it on to set it up again within another fifteen minutes, so we were well prepared for the rapid advance when it started.
The Brigade moved westward and took up positions outside Sidi Barrani, lying low on the desert ready to attack. The enemy was not aware of our presence as they had no spotter planes, the only plane in that theatre of war being an ancient Vickers Vimy biplane of WWI vintage, which made a daily trip from Alexandria, ferrying the top brass and V.I.Ps to the front. Our only source of water was an ancient well, first used in Roman times, and a lorry was sent there daily to fetch water – a slow and bumpy ride and much of the water was spilled as it was in open topped four-gallon cans. The cans were made from shiny tinplate and were initially used for petrol; afterwards they were opened out and nailed to wooden frames, when they could even provide housing for the most poverty stricken members of the local populace. We made practical use of them too, sinking them in the ground and filling them with stones so that they made effective, and moderately hygienic, urinals which we called “desert roses”. When collecting the stones we had to be careful, as scorpions were hiding under many of them. Other waste was disposed of in deep, fly-proofed pits dug by the unit’s “sanitary man”.
A memorable moment at Sidi Barrani was the advent of some canned beer – lager, supplied by Barclays’ brewery, one of the first firms to market beer in cans. I remember trudging two miles along a soft sand track to collect some from the N.A.A.F.I. tent. Our section shared it out, getting about half a can each! Our Brigade was soon reinforced by Australian troops, some of whom were hardened veterans of WWI – they were plentifully supplied with bottled beer brewed in Australia.
Our Brigade included a battalion of the Border Regiment, the ‘Geordies’, whose padre was a Catholic priest and I recall attending a Mass that he said in a tent at Sidi Barrani – it was, in fact, the last occasion on which I ever served at Mass.
A decisive battle was fought at Sidi Barrani at dawn on 9th November 1940 against the Italian army. Accurate artillery fire from Italian gun positions hindered the British attack at first, but the Italian army proved to have no stomach for a fight and within two hours their army was beaten and the survivors surrendered. It was said that the British commander, General O’Connor, asked his aide-de-camp how many prisoners had been taken and received the reply “we haven’t counted them yet, Sir, but there are four acres of Officers and about forty acres of men”. British casualties were light – twelve killed and about thirty wounded. We got the wounded into tarpaulin shelters and treated them there overnight, putting them into ambulances for the long journey back to Alexandria.
The main body of prisoners, about one hundred thousand of them were disarmed and had to march back. I recall seeing them plodding off despondently, in their blue greatcoats, the next morning with an armed British soldier guarding them at intervals, in case anyone should try to make a break and run for it. Although the Italian army gave in quickly, they did not all surrender quite so readily. One of their Officers, with a jaw set like that of Benito Mussolini their Dictator, refused to surrender. Snatching a rifle from the ground he began to spray bullets around, with the general appearance of being prepared to take on the entire British army on his own. He was not shot out of hand but was wrestled to the ground, disarmed, and was then handed over to the Royal Navy, who had a destroyer off-shore. They put him in irons and took him back to Alexandria on board the destroyer.
By an extraordinary coincidence, I have recently again met one of those Italian ex-prisoners of war, a Mr Proddi. After having been brought back to England he had been put to work on the land, and on release at the end of the car, he settled in Grantham. He now speaks perfect English and I see him frequently as, being a Catholic, he attends Mass regularly at St. Mary’s church.
To revert to the campaign in North Africa, our army continued to advance but met strengthening resistance from the Italian army and there were more casualties. When we reached the small port of Sollum near the Egypt/Libya border more casualties had accumulated with many walking wounded and about one hundred stretcher cases both British and Italian. Owing to the lack of drinking water they all had to be got back to base without delay. The walking wounded were taken back by lorry along the coast road; however, the hospital ship was not in the area and the only possible transport for the stretcher cases was a ‘lighter’ a small transport vessel that had been used to ferry munitions to the front. It was moored at the end of a long mole and as soon as I saw it I had a premonition of disaster. It was evident that, if the lighter was bombed by the Germans and sunk, any stretcher cases on it would have little or no chance of survival. But there was no alternative; ambulances could not be driven on to the mole owing to German bombers patrolling overhead, so we had to spend an exhausting day carrying all the stretcher cases aboard. We had straps over our shoulders, hooking on to the stretchers to relieve us of some of the weight – nevertheless, by the time we had got them all aboard I felt as if I had practically lost the use of my hands and forearms.
The lighter set off under a Red Cross flag, with a large Red Cross painted on its deck. Next day we heard that it had been sunk, and my heart sank too – it was my most distressing experience during the whole of the war. The attack, by a German submarine, had come at night when the lighter’s flag and markings could not have been seen. No Italian submarine commander, or even any German commander at that stage of the war, would have knowingly fired on the Red Cross.
Following up the advance we crossed the Egypt/Libya border at Fort Capuzzo, where our vehicles had to change from driving on the left of the road (the British rule of the road being in force in Egypt) to driving on the right in the continental fashion, which was in force in Libya. Passing through the settlement of Bardia we reached the small port of Tobruk where some Italian shipping had been sunk in the harbour, including a warship that had been beached and was on fire.
About twenty miles west of Tobruk an extraordinary accident happened to me. I was travelling in the back of a Bedford 3-ton lorry loaded with stores, on which I was sitting with my back against the canvas cover of the lorry. Suddenly there was a tremendous jolt when a vehicle coming along the narrow single-track road from the opposite direction hit our lorry at the point where I was sitting. I stood up, then felt blood trickling down the back of my shorts and realised I had been hit in the small of the back. The impact also smashed the steel stanchion holding up the tarpaulin covering the lorry. I fell forward and was caught by my comrades, who shouted to the driver to stop. They got me out and laid me face down on the sand. I felt no pain at first, but fear of damage to my spinal column flashed through my mind so, hoping to reassure the others, who were looking rather shocked, I said (after an appropriate imprecation) ‘I can move my feet’. The bleeding was checked temporarily by two shell dressings and I was told ‘I’m afraid you’ve lost some flesh’. The other lorry did not stop – its driver was probably unaware that he had hit anything. I learned later that the lorry that hit me was a tank recovery vehicle with a crane on the back from which a heavy hook, which had not been properly secured, was swinging from side to side. After about ten minutes an Australian ambulance came by, coming away from Tobruk. It was flagged down, turned round and took me back to the Tobruk ‘hospital’ – actually just a casualty clearing station sited in the only roofed building left standing in the town, the whole of the rest of which had been flattened by bombing. A casualty clearing station would normally have had nursing Sisters in its personnel, but owing to the unhygienic conditions the Sisters had been withdrawn and the nursing staff was entirely male.
Immediately on my arrival, a nearby anti-aircraft battery was attacked by German Stuka dive-bombers. We called that a ‘Stuka Parade’, and it was always an intimidating experience. Apart from feeling the concussion of the bombs I was unhurt although temporarily deafened but, surprisingly, I didn’t experience fright- I felt I was in enough trouble already and nothing worse was likely to happen to me. I spent a couple of hours on a stretcher in a queue of casualties waiting for X-ray. I later found that the X-ray revealed a fracture of the right transverse process of the fourth lumbar vertebra and a pelvic fracture at the sacroiliac joint, but the main body of the vertebra was intact and the spinal cord was, mercifully, undamaged so I wasn’t going to be a paraplegic case.
While I was waiting for X-ray the delayed shock made itself felt and successive waves of extreme weakness came over me like the tide coming in and then receding, leaving me trembling and covered in a cold sweat. Those are the classic symptoms of surgical shock and I was given mugs of hot, sweet tea – the standard army remedy for shock. When it was my turn for the operating theatre (a mobile theatre was already in use there) I was given an intravenous injection of pentothal which put me out, although I kept coming round and vomiting throughout the night. Next morning the surgeon, a New Zealander named Captain Spring, told me I had a hole in my back big enough for him to put his fist into.
The wound was treated by a generous application of sulphanilamide powder (antibiotics had not yet come into use) with Elastoplast strapping round my waist. Another painful day and a sleepless night followed, during which time I received no painkillers. After another painful day I accepted an intravenous injection of morphine and found myself in a drug induced state of euphoria – I felt as if I was floating in a warm sea, with all the pain gone, and I drifted into a long, blessed sleep. Knowing that morphine is highly addictive I refused further injections and was then put into a ward. Although not paralysed, I could hardly move a muscle for the first few days. It was in that ward that I first detected the vile, unmistakeable sickly smell of gangrene, from a leg wound of one of those patients. Our surgeon, Captain ‘Butch’ Bailey, successfully performed the emergency amputation.
Another patient in the ward, an Officer, had been hit in the groin and the bullet had carried away one of his testicles Captain Bailey spent some time explaining to him that his reproductive capacity would not be affected and he would still be able to function properly with only one ball. There were a number of Italian casualties in the ward who were not so phlegmatic as the British and cries of ‘Mama Mia’ were frequently heard. One patient had received a bullet right through the head – it had gone in at one temple and out at the other, leaving only two small holes but it had severed the optic nerve and he was totally blind, although otherwise practically unhurt. An unfortunate Italian was stumbling about outside, call for ‘Aqua, aqua’. He had a bullet in the brain and would have to wait for surgery. A German was left lying on a stretcher outside, plainly in a dying condition but still holding on to life. Captain Bailey marked his medical card to the effect that he was moribund, and in the absence of intensive care facilities it would be useless to try to resuscitate him.
After I had been in the Tobruk medical unit for twelve days the hospital ship ‘Dorsetshire’ put into the harbour. I was still lying on a blood-soaked mattress wearing only the top few inches of my shirt, which I had kept on because my pay book was in the pocket – the rest of the shirt had been cut away where the dressings were applied.
I was transferred to a stretcher and winched aboard the ship. By this time the wound smelt very bad, but fortunately it was not gangrenous. The nurse who dressed it was the first woman I had seen for several months – she was a year younger than me and told me her name but, to my eternal shame, I cannot remember it. The ship reached Alexandria within twenty-four hours and I was taken to a Royal Navy hospital. A lady visitor there sent a cable home for me, to let my parents know I was injured and in hospital. They would not have heard from me since I left the UK, as the army postal service had not kept up with our movements. Ron George had, somehow, heard that I was in hospital and he visited me later that week. Ron had been withdrawn from the field unit and was on his way to take up a position in ‘public relations’, as he had some journalistic experience.
A fortnight later I was moved by hospital train to another hospital this time in Cairo. I remember the sister there looking at the wound and saying “I can still see your spine”. This was six weeks after the accident and I had to continue lying on my stomach, though I could sit up for short periods. After having been bed-ridden for so long the old, hard skin on the soles of my feet peeled off and I had to learn to walk again. I tottered along the ward with my hand on a nurse’s shoulder. More exercise was needed and I helped to scrub and polish the wooden floor, which helped my strength to return
When I was in Cairo, a photo shoot was arranged to publicise how well the war wounded were being looked after in Egypt. The British and Australian wounded – some of us wheeled along on beds, from the hospital nearby – were taken to a picnic on the bank of the river Nile at the bridge in the centre of the city. The British ambassador and his wife, a glamorous Italian lady, were present but the Egyptian monarch King Farouk, was conspicuous by his absence. He was a fat, dissolute figure and was most unpopular with the Allied rank and file. For that occasion the hospital kitted us out in ‘blues’, the same kind of clothing that I had previously seen, worn by WWI veterans at the ‘pension hospital’ in Grantham, red ties, white shirts and blue jackets and pyjama-style trousers in a very coarse material that had probably seen service in earlier conflicts, possibly as far back as the Napoleonic wars.
A medical board was held at the hospital to assess the condition of long-term patients. I was told it was up to me – I could be medically down-graded as unfit for field service and could then go back to the U.K. for light duties or I could go to a convalescent camp until my wound had healed and then soldier on as medically A.I. I opted for the convalescent camp which was in Palestine (now Israel) at Nathanya (now Netanya) on the coast south of Haifa. I arrived there on my twenty-first birthday. One of my companions in the camp was a young Scot of my own age – ‘Wee Jock Gordon of the Black Watch regiment. He was interested to learn that I came from a large family, because he didn’t know who his own parents were; only that he had been born in the Gorbals, the most deprived district of Glasgow, and had been brought up in an orphanage. At the age of fourteen he had been put into the army as a bandsman, a tradition that had continued in the army since the days of the ‘drummer boys’. He had served on the Northwest frontier of India and his regiment had been brought back to Egypt when WWII started. Both his legs had been riddled with machine gun bullets during the battle of Sidi Barrani but he had survived, despite a massive loss of blood.
At the convalescent camp we had a relaxed routine and were allowed to play whatever games we could manage, as the camp had plenty of sporting equipment. A cricket match was organised, between army and navy patients. ‘Wee Jock’ and I were in the army team and batted together at seventh wicket down, when the army needed four runs to win. We got the runs, Jock making the winning hit. Another friend I made at the camp was a German Jew, born in Berlin and with the surname ‘Berliner’. Also about my own age, he had lost both parents in the Holocaust but he had escaped, joining the British army. He had a brilliant mind and could speak several languages, as well as being easily able to beat me at chess. He had two girl cousins in Tel Aviv – we went there by bus and he introduced me to them, but I lost touch with them all after I had moved on.
On discharge from the convalescent camp I was sent back to base in Egypt, to a transit camp where an assembly of men were awaiting postings. I met Fred Rickard there; he lived in Rushden in Northamptonshire and proved to be a kindred spirit. We became firm friends – he had been through the campaigns in Greece and Crete with another Field Ambulance unit, many of whom had been captured by the Germans before they invaded North Africa. A new Division, the 70th, was being formed and Fred and I were allocated to the 189 Field Ambulance in the 23rd Brigade within that Division. So, in the event, I never got back to my comrades in the 215 Field Ambulance.
We were soon moved from Egypt, crossing the Sinai desert via the Gaza strip and on up the coast, past the ancient settlements of Tyre and Sidon into Palestine (now Israel) through Beersheba and Nablus. We stopped overnight in the grounds of Kibbutz and continued north to Tiberius on the sea of Galilee (where I managed to get a swim) camping there among the olive trees at a hospice building on a hillside, that is said to be the site of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes. Continuing to Nazareth we were shown a carpenter’s shop that is reputed to occupy the same site as that of St Joseph’s workshop. We were also privileged to visit Bethlehem where we saw the Church of the Nativity, which was then in the care of Coptic priests. They showed us the place, now below ground level in the church, that is the traditional site of the Saviour’s birth, where church-going members of the unit, mingling with ordinary tourists, were able to kiss the ground at that spot, which was marked by a gold star, with an incense burner above it.
Crossing the Lebanese border below the Golan Heights of Mount Hermon we stopped at the village of Merdjayoun just over the border with Lebanon. An engagement against the Vichy French army took place there – Lebanon was then a French Protectorate. A French Foreign Legion fort nearby had evidently been hastily abandoned, as there were loaded machine guns on the ramparts, surrounded by piles of spent cartridge cases – a situation reminiscent of the ‘Beau Geste’ story. Some Legionnaires had been killed in the fighting and were buried in shallow graves. Several dead horses remained unburied, and the stench was overpowering. Our infantry had the unpleasant job of burying the horses. There had been civilian casualties too, as we heard sounds of mourning in the village.
Fred and I visited a café in Merdjayoun and were surprised to see a Legionnaire there in full uniform, openly taking his ease despite the fact that he was supposedly our enemy. The explanation was that the Legion had suddenly changed sides in order to support General de Gaulle’s Free French forces; they had evidently realised that the interim Vichy government was a puppet of the Nazis and was doomed to fail.
Our mail caught up with us at Merdjayoun – it was over a year since I had left home and all the letters my parents and others had written arrived at once. Fred’s fiancée Win had written to him every day, so he had plenty of news. One man heard that his wife had left him – he was immediately given compassionate leave to go home. The mail service to soldiers was notoriously bad at that time – it was improved later when the importance of keeping up morale was realised.
After leaving Merdjayoun we established a dressing station at Zahle, a village overlooking the Plain of Esdraelon, the biblically – prophesied site of the battle of Armageddon. From Zahle the road traverses the Liban mountain range to the City of Beirut, the playground of the wealthy from all over the Middle East. Beautifully situated at the foot of the mountains, it has a balmy climate. Nevertheless I didn’t like the place; the French barracks in which we were accommodated was infested by bedbugs and much of the town was in a filthy condition, both literally and morally. Prostitution was legal under the French rule and the brothels were in bounds to our troops because our medical officers regularly examined the girls for signs of venereal disease. Fred and I found a good restaurant in Beirut which we patronised while we were there, but that was the extent of our use of “the fleshpots of Beirut”, a phrase coined by my friend Vivian Meynell, of whom more, later.
A large buoy was moored in Beirut harbour, about 150 yards offshore, and one day I swam out to it – not an easy swim but an attractive French girl whom I met on the beach accompanied me. Despite the language difficulties we seemed to be getting along well and she told me that she used to swim there daily, I arranged to see her again there the next day, but later in the same day our unit was ordered to move on immediately, so I was unable to keep that date.
Our route from Beirut northwards took us within easy reach of Damascus, the capital of Syria, where we had a short stop and I walked through a covered track into ‘The Street called Straight’, which is mentioned in the Bible. We took the road north through Homs, an ancient settlement that is surrounded by old Moslem cemeteries with their small headstones; then past Hama where we saw the massive old wooden water-wheel that has been creaking round for centuries raising water channelled from the mountains to irrigate the plain. Although no longer needed for irrigation (now dealt with by electric pumps) the wheel was (and probably still is) maintained as a tourist attraction.
Continuing north to Aleppo (now Halab) we passed the Dirucherie, a monastery occupied by a sect know as the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ – so called because their ritual dances, performed to loud music, require the worshippers to spin round rapidly, eventually falling to the floor in a kind of trance.
The Division’s presence in Aleppo was required in order to discourage Turkey from entering the war on the side of the German/Italian axis and seemed to have been effective because Turkey remained neutral. A major tourist attraction in Aleppo is the ancient Citadel at the end of a mile-long Souk, the traditional Arab market place. Inside the Citadel I found myself gazing with horror into an ‘oubliette’, a hole in the ground in the shape of an upturned bottle, into which prisoners could be flung, and from which there could be no escape.
While in Aleppo I went down with severe headaches and a dangerously high temperature, diagnosed as sandfly fever. After treatment with large doses of aspirin I recovered in a few days and was evacuated to a convalescent camp in the hills, within sight of a grove of the Cedars of Lebanon, which still grew there in a natural hollow. On discharge I was sent to a transit camp to await a posting back to my own unit. After a few days it became evident that there would be a long wait before I got the posting, so I absented myself with the object of getting back to my unit as soon as possible under my own steam. I walked out past the guardhouse, unchallenged and carrying all my kit, and hitched a lift on an army lorry travelling north to Aleppo, where I rejoined my unit. Meanwhile, after I had missed a daily roll-call, the transit camp posted me as A.W.O.L. (absent without leave) but I was never charged as I had, in fact, got back to duty sooner than would have been the case if I had gone through the proper procedure.
We were soon on the move again, under sealed orders. We were not told the destination, but I had the gut feeling that it would be Tobruk, which by then was under siege from the Germans. My instinct proved correct – it had been decided to relieve the Australian Division that had been there for six months. Our unit embarked at Alexandria on the decks of four Royal Australian Navy destroyers. I was on the ‘Nizam’, a Tribal class destroyer, which was then attacked (but not hit) by German high-level bombers. We travelled north into the Mediterranean; then westward at high speed all day – the destroyers were capable of forty knots, which is rather more than forty miles an hour. As dusk fell, one could just make out the dim shapes of the vessels on either side. We entered Tobruk harbour in total darkness, maintaining complete silence and wearing ‘daps’ (sand shoes) with our boots slung round our necks by the laces. The destroyers slowed gently to a stop and we disembarked, using the deck of a sunken Italian warship as a landing stage. Complete silence was maintained, as the German army was within earshot. The Australian unit that we were relieving embarked on the same destroyers for their journey back to Alexandria. By this “cloak-and-dagger” type of operation, the whole of the Tobruk garrison was replaced over a period of several months (but only during the moonless nights) right under the noses of the German army, who never realised what was going on.
Life in Tobruk when it was under siege was very difficult. The Germans were determined to capture the port and they bombed it continuously – there were about a thousand raids while we were there. The garrison’s air raid warning was given by a Bofors gun firing two rounds in quick succession, followed by another round after a gap of about a second. That warning became distressingly familiar to us. Most of the raids were by several planes only, but the worst one was an all-night raid by two hundred bombers. Actually the air raid warning was hardly needed – the bombers were based at El Adem airfield, three miles outside the town, and they could be seen when taking off.
To add to our troubles, the Germans had two long-range howitzers, one of which fired from Bardia, several miles away. We called that one ‘Bardia Bill’ – when it fired, the flash could be seen from Tobruk and the shell arrived twenty-eight seconds later. It could not be targeted accurately, and one morning a shell from it landed among our vehicles. I was unhurt, but I had to pick up the broken bodies of two of our drivers and prepare them for burial. The other German gun was sited at Derna, several miles away in the other direction – we called that one ‘Derna Kate’.
The defence of Tobruk was controlled from ‘Navy House’, which was a strong-point dug in very deeply in the centre of the town, and was more or less bomb-proof. My first duty after arriving in Tobruk was to be in a squad which had to enter the area where the bombing took place, in order to look after my casualties that might have occurred on the destroyers if they had been attacked en route. We had to enter a part of the town that we knew would be bombed, finding cover in a bomb crater and trust to luck that we wouldn’t be hit. Fortunately we weren’t, but it was a nerve-wracking experience. One night the destroyers did not arrive they had been attacked en route and had had to turn back. That meant that some troops were not relieved and had to remain in Tobruk for the whole time it was under siege. The unlucky ones were the Australian 13th Division, but I don’t suppose they were superstitious.
In Tobruk, our unit ran the ‘hospital’ – actually just a casualty clearing station sited in the only roofed building left in the town, all the rest of which had been flattened by bombing. The Red Cross was prominently displayed, so we were not attacked but a few stray bombs came our way, as we were very close to a battery of four 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns which were attacked often, and in defence they had to fire vertically upwards. What goes up has to come down, so we had to wear our tin hats at all times and we got used to the sound of shrapnel pattering down around us.
We regarded it as a relief to be attached to the infantry on the perimeter of the defences, where there was much less bombing. In our sector the defences were manned by the Essex and the South Staffs Regiments and the Black Watch. I was attached to the South Staffs for a short time. A kind of gentlemen’s agreement had been arrived at there – the Germans didn’t fire on our troops collecting their meals from the cookhouse (actually only a tarpaulin rigged to keep the wind off the cook’s fires) and we didn’t fire on their troops going to their latrines.
The worst thing we had to put up with in Tobruk was the drinking water, which was extremely brackish and you felt as if you were drinking sea water. We found that the only way to get it down without vomiting was to make cocoa from it – a tip which we learned from the Australians. After being expelled from North Africa, the Italians had left behind large supplies of spa water labelled ‘Recoaro’, and we used that water for the patients until it, too, ran out.
There were 30,000 men in Tobruk, but no women at all, until one day a merchant ship was bombed and sunk off-shore and one of the survivors was a woman, the ship’s doctor. She was billeted in the Officers’ Mess – I remember seeing her one day and feeling disappointed that she wasn’t wearing a skirt, just battle dress uniform like everyone else! One casualty I dealt with in Tobruk was a minesweeper radio Officer whose ship had been sunk by a mine he told me he could only remember flying through the air after the explosion. He had multiple wounds – both legs and a shoulder were broken, as was an eye socket but he had not lost his sight.
Hygiene was a problem in Tobruk – we took it in turns to wash ourselves and our clothes in the sea, in small groups at a time, as a large body of men in one area would have been a target for bombers.
A New Zealand battalion advanced along the desert, with the object of relieving the besieged garrison. At the same time a breakout was planned by the garrison itself. A Polish artillery unit was stationed just outside Tobruk; the Poles had more reason than most for hating the Germans and they had been agitating to attack for weeks. As the New Zealanders approached Tobruk the Polish artillery was given the go-ahead; they put down a massive barrage and at dawn the garrison’s infantry attacked, led by a battalion of the Black Watch. The crashes of the artillery shells were then replaced by the rattle of machine-gun and small arms fire, and our dressing station was inundated with casualties. It was a scene of carnage, with bodies lying all around; we just had to keep close to the ground and drag any surviving victims to our dressing station. In the general mayhem I particularly remember two casualties among the many that I attended to. One was a man from the South Staffs regiment who had received a bullet in the chest. It had missed his heart but had lodged in his lung and frothy venous blood was seeping from his chest. All I could do was to prop him up into a sitting position so that he would not drown in his own blood, and then cover the wound heavily with Elastoplast so as to seal the ‘sucking’ wound, pending such time as he could be evacuated.
The other memorable casualty was Pipe-Major Rab Roy, of the Black Watch. In accordance with that Regiment’s tradition he had piped them into battle during the attack and I could clearly hear the skirl of his pipes. In that situation he was, of course, a prime target and was hit in the leg, but got up and continued piping. He was again hit in the leg and went down, but got up again and carried on piping. A brave man, he was hit for a third time, this time in the buttock and he stayed down. When I reached him he was most despondent – for a member of the Black Watch to be hit in the backside was, he thought, a fate worse than death and he told me he wished the bullet had finished him off properly. None of his wounds appeared to be life-threatening, as evidently no artery had been severed so I bandaged his leg. I could do nothing about the buttock wound which I assured him was not serious, although I was rather worried in case there might have been some internal damage.
In view of the increased mechanisation of modern warfare, that was almost certainly the last occasion in which a Scottish regiment was piped into action.
The breakout from Tobruk ended what the records show was the longest siege ever experienced by any British army, and the word ‘Tobruk’ is proudly included in the battle honours of the Black Watch. The New Zealanders soon mopped up the remaining German attackers. However, their Maori battalion had fought so fiercely, suffering so many casualties that the High Command withdrew them from all further action, fearing that genocide might result, as nearly all Maoris of military age were in that battalion.
We returned to our base in Egypt but, for the life of me, I do not remember anything about that journey – I can only assume that I was “bomb-happy” – our term for anyone suffering from shellshock. In Egypt we had a few days leave, when I was able to visit Cairo and see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. However, after a couple of weeks our Division was hastily shipped out again, this time for a journey to India. The Japanese had unexpectedly attacked Hong King and Shanghai, parts that were quite unprepared for war and had little defence, so they had had to surrender quickly. The Japanese army had treated their captives with the utmost cruelty and had then overrun Malaya and Burma and were preparing to attack India. The whole of our Brigade, 5,000 men, was taken to Port Tewfik at the Southern end of the Suez Canal and embarked on the liner “Mauretania” which was then brand new. It had been built to be the flagship of the Cunard line and had been converted for use as a troopship. It was capable of a very high speed and could therefore travel without Naval escort. There was scarcely room to move on board, but the journey from Suez to Bombay (now Mumbai) took only three days.
Entering Bombay harbour the first thing we noticed was hundreds of solar topis (pith helmets) floating in the water. It was then the practice for troops returning from a tour of duty in India, to throw their topis into the sea before disembarking – a returning troopship which we passed on the way into the harbour was the source of the topis. Landing at Bombay we marched through the ornate portal known as “the gateway to India”, and were driven to Poona, about 100 miles inland past the hills known as the Western Ghats, in order to start acclimatising to the heat, which was already becoming oppressive before the breaking of the monsoon.
In Poona we continued to acclimatise, living in purpose built barracks that had been used by the regular army – a luxurious way of life compared with the nomadic lifestyle we were used to. We had the services of all the camp followers associated with the regular Indian army. The char-wallahs (tea makers) were ubiquitous, serving a good cup of tea from their charcoal-fuelled boilers, together with a slice of cake, very cheaply, at anytime of the day or night. The early morning ‘cuppa’, always known as ‘gunfire’ was particularly welcome. There were also dhobis (washermen), munshies (tailors) sitting cross-legged at the side of the road while operating their Singer sewing machines, who could fit you with a smart made-to-measure bush jacket and shorts within two days. There was even an earwax wallah (yes, its true), who for a small tip would manipulate a sort of cocktail stick to remove wax from one’s ears!
One of my staunchest friends throughout my service in India was Len Felix, who became almost like an elder brother to me. He was an expert photographer and was appointed the official photographer for our unit. Throughout our service he took many photographs (mostly in the form of colour transparencies) of the places we visited and after the war he gave me a set of them. Long after the war had ended, I passed through a period of revulsion against all things military and I destroyed many of my war photographs and other wartime memorabilia, and I’m afraid I can’t offer any explanation of my aberrant behaviour in doing that.
In April 1942 our Division travelled from Poona (still in response to the threatened Japanese invasion) for 2,000 miles across India by lorry, covering only about 100 miles a day as the roads then were only rough tracks except in the cities. We finished up at a village named Khunti, near the military hill station of Ranchi, about 2,000 feet above the plain, where the climate was cooler. That place was to remain our base for a whole year.
The Ranchi area of Bihar is subject to extreme weather conditions. For two or three weeks in the spring a violent sandstorm blows up every mid-afternoon, presaged by an approaching wall of sand. When the sandstorm hit, it was hardly possible to breathe without choking – one could only do as the Bedouin do – cover one’s mouth and nose by a damp cloth and sit it out with one’s back to the wind. The wind would threaten to blow our tents away and we had to hold on to the tent pole in an effort to keep it in place – sometimes vainly when we would have to give up and retrieve the tent later, from anything up to a mile downwind. When driving, a cross-wind could catch the canvas covers of our lorries, sometimes blowing the vehicles right over. On one occasion there was a violent hailstorm, when lumps of hail larger than golf balls crashed down on our tents. Those storms could be very damaging and there are records in India of people being killed by being hit on the head by even larger lumps of hail. There were also violent, and sometimes frightening thunderstorms, with lightning strikes every few seconds for up to an hour.
During our time in Bihar we were able to take advantage of local leave, which was available on the same generous scale as for the regular army. The Indian railway system is extensive and for the fare very cheap. Many members of our unit spent all their leave in Calcutta (now Kolkata) but some of us preferred to explore more remote places. In fact, it was the travel opportunity of a lifetime and I made two long trips, in each case with several friends. On the first occasion I teamed up with Fred, Johnny Solan and Arthur Lester and we decided to visit Srinagar in Kashmir.
Travelling by rail to Rewalpindi on the Frontier Mail, we passed through Lucknow where we saw the Union flag flying from the ruins of the Residency that had been demolished during the Indian mutiny of 1857. That flag had never been hauled down, day or night, since the brutal suppression of the mutiny – to teach the Indians who were the masters, it was said. No wonder that independence eventually became inevitable. We also passed through Indore, a city that in later years became notorious because of a chemical spill by the company known as Union Carbide, which killed hundreds of people and blinded others. The company was later charged with corporate manslaughter and found guilty, though the victims probably never received adequate compensation.
In Rawalpindi we hired a car and driver for the two hundred mile drive up the Indus valley of Kashmir. The capital city in Srinagar, and we had booked to stay there in a houseboat moored just off the Bund (the main street) in the city centre just by the premises of Lloyds Bank, which in those days had several branches in India. On the evening of our arrival we chatted to the owner of the houseboat, a Kashmiri named Hassan. At first he thought that we were what would nowadays be described as ‘sex tourists’ because he told us, in a rather surly manner, that he could provide us with a ‘bibi’ (a prostitute) if we wished. We politely declined that offer, at which his attitude softened when he realised that we hadn’t come to abuse his womenfolk. We settled for a bottle of genuine Scotch whisky, normally only available to Officers but which he could obtain at a reasonable price on the black market.
Next day, Hassan got us a boat with two oarsmen for a day on the lake; it is quite shallow but full of large fish darting about under the boat, and we visited four of the ancient Mogul emperor’s gardens at the lakeside. The most well-known is Shalimar, famous in song, but I thought the best one was Nishat Bagh, beautifully situated just below a mountain and having a central stream running over a series of cascades made from pierced stonework, each one different from the rest. The whole is framed in an avenue of huge chenar trees – quite unforgettable.
The branch of Lloyds Bank in Srinagar had a sub-branch at Gulmarg, three thousand feet above the plain, where the residents live in Swiss-style chalets that are covered in snow in winter. From Srinagar we made the trip to Gulmarg on horseback – my only experience of equestrianism. We were no horsemen, but the syces (grooms) were used to tourists and the horses were quiet and easily managed, so it was an enjoyable outing. Returning from Srinagar we rejoined the Grand Truck Road and went through Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, reputed to be the most beautiful building in the world. However, that building’s famous dome was completely covered in scaffolding. The war had provided an opportunity for it to be renovated without harming the tourist trade. In Bihar we rejoined the Grand Truck Road, built by the British to facilitate military movements across India. Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Boots’ must have been written with that road in mind.
My second spell of leave from Bihar was to the Nilgiri Hills in South India, north of Madras. My companions on that occasion were Fred, Alan Burridge, Len Felix and ‘Chalky’ White. We stopped at a guest house in Coonoor, where there is a narrow-gauge rack railway leading up through a deep gorge rising for thousands of feet up to Ootacamund (now Udagamandalam). Ootacamund was a very select hill station known to the British as ‘Snooty Ooty’ where, incidentally, the game of snooker was invented and the rules formulated, as a more interesting form of the original game of billiards. The rack railway has recently featured in a television programme ‘Great Railway Journeys of the World’.
‘Chalky’ White was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and had an introduction to one of their missionaries stationed at Coonoor. The area grows some of the best tea and we were able to see how it is prepared. The tea bushes grow on steep hillsides, under the dappled shade of tall trees and the female pickers take only the tip and the top pair of leaves from each shoot (keeping a sharp lookout for snakes, as they work barefoot) placing the shoots in a large basket on their back. The leaves are then spread out on a large table for drying, following which they are bruised (but not crushed) by rollers before being packed. The factory offered a postal service to visitors, sending tea to the U.K. and I ordered and paid for a six months supply for my family at home. It was duly delivered, forming a welcome addition to their meagre ration – the familiar tea bags sold nowadays consist only of tea dust.
In Coonoor we hired bicycles to visit the Blue Mountain Hotel (locally famous) a few miles away, also the Toda huts nearby, populated by a primitive tribe who were still living in stone-age fashion. From Coonoor we travelled south by rail to Trivandrum, capital of the Indian Communist State of Travancore (now Kerala) and booked in for a week at the prestigious Mascot Hotel. Trivandrum was a centre for ivory carving and I bought an ivory cigarette case that I sent home to my mother, although she didn’t smoke except when at her Bridge club. The prosperity of Trivandrum has probably declined recently, following a ban on the sale of ivory.
When we were on the street in Trivandrum all the passers-by suddenly stopped and turned to face away from the street. Police appeared and hustled us into a side street. They told us that the Maharajah was about to pass by in his limousine; his subjects regarded him as a demi-god and none of them was allowed to look on his face.
At the Mascot Hotel the staff treated us like Rajahs despite the fact that we, as B.O.Rs (British Other Ranks), represented just about the lowest form of animal life in the Raj. A Brigadier-General (he represented the top end of the scale) was staying at the hotel that week. We only saw him at meal times and he spent his evenings in the billiard-room, but by the end of the week he had thawed out sufficiently to acknowledge our presence by giving a nod in our general direction! Our bill did not include an item to cover gratuities but on the day of our departure the entire staff from Manager to punkah-wallah, lined up outside in strict order of precedence, to receive their ‘baksheesh’.
We hired bicycles in the town and went to the beach at Kovilam a few miles away, for a swim in the warm green sea, continuing for few more miles to the extreme southern tip of the subcontinent at Cape Comorin where there is a Hindu temple. The Kovilam beach is nowadays a Mecca for tourists visiting that part of India.
At Periyar, north of Trivandrum, a large artificial lake has been created to attract wild life. The lake is controlled by the Peermade Game Association, whose secretary was a retired Colonel, of the type that I would describe as a ‘Pongo’ (somewhat like the literary character, Colonel Blimp). He told us that trips on the lake were reserved for members of the Association, but that we could be made temporary members for a small fee, which we duly paid. Taking advantage of our membership we hired a boat on the lake from where we were fortunate enough to see, at close quarters, a herd of wild elephants including a huge tusker and several females with young.
After the war had ended Len Felix and I went our separate ways but we telephoned each other quite often, always opening the conversation with the words ‘have you renewed your temporary membership of the Peermade Game Association?’ It became a sort of password between us.
While in Bihar I found time to visit Calcutta only two hours away by train and I took a walk along the main street, Chowringhee. A saying among old India hands was, that if you walk down Chowringhee, you are sure to meet someone you know. And so it was – the first person I bumped into was Ron George, whom I had last seen in Palestine! He had then held the rank of Corporal but this time was resplendent in Officer’s uniform, sporting a crown on each shoulder. He told me he was still in ‘public relations’ and the rank of Major went with the job. He insisted on taking me for a meal at the Italian restaurant of Firpo’s, which was something of an institution in Calcutta. We had lobster thermidor, the restaurant’s speciality dish.
During our time in Bihar our Brigade was temporarily detached from the Division and sent to Patna, a large city on the river Ganges and the capital of the State of Bihar. Patna had long been a centre of dissension against the Raj and a number of nationalistic hotheads had been stirring up trouble there. Our operation was known as ‘internal security’, and the Brigade’s presence in support of the civil police enabled the rising to be put down with hardly any bloodshed, the police using only ‘lathis’ (long wooden truncheons), their normal method of crowd control.
While we were at Ranchi we kept fit by playing football – we had a number of minor casualties there, from football injuries – I suffered a broken nose from an ill-advised tackle on Bob Shaw, who in civilian life had played half-back for West Bromwich Albion. The Black Watch had seven Scottish internationals in their battalion team and played exhibition games against other teams in the Division.
On leaving Ranchi we were all physically very fit, but then the Japanese army took a hand in things. They invaded the Arakan area of southwest Bengal and, in response, our Brigade left the Ranchi area for Chittagong on the Arakan coast, but the Japanese withdrew without giving battle. When we reached the Arakan we found that the inhabitants were in the grip of a serious famine. Our army had surplus food and we opened a kind of soup kitchen, feeding thousands, but it was only a drop in the ocean and the famine eventually claimed over a million lives
Everyone who served in India in the days of the Raj was expected to have a tiger story of some kind. I can’t claim to have actually seen a tiger in the wild, but one day when Len Felix and I were walking by the Damodar river near Hazaribagh – ‘Hazari’ = a thousand, and ‘Bagh’ = tiger – ie “the place of a thousand tigers”, we noticed the ‘pug’ (the footprint) of a large tiger in wet sand at the river’s edge. There had been torrential rain in the early morning that would have washed away any footprints already there, so the beast must have come out of the thick jungle beside the river, to drink in the early morning, shortly before our arrival.
This was the time when safaris were organised for big game hunting, and one or two of our Officers wanted to bag a trophy. They bought a goat, tethered it in a clearing and positioned themselves in nearby trees with rifles at the read. After several hours there were sounds of something approaching up a gully from a nearby lake. The Officers fired prematurely, but missed the retreating intruder which was then seen to be a crocodile. If it had been a tiger, it would certainly not have let itself be seen so easily.
Since those days, tigers have been made a protected species and efforts are being made to protect them from complete extinction.
During our off-duty time in India, those of us who could swim took every opportunity to enter the water, using the local ‘tank’ – the village water supply for that activity. On one occasion I saw a man, who I knew couldn’t swim, suddenly go under, as he had inadvertently got out of his depth. Remembering the drill I had learned at school so long ago when qualifying for my R.L.S.S. (Royal Life Saving Society) certificate of competence I was able to save him quite easily, and he thanked me profusely – that small incident highlights the importance of every schoolchild learning to swim.
Reverting to my time in Chittagong, we experienced torrential rain there, but were told that was not unusual, as one occasion six inches of rain had fallen in twenty minutes – that is equivalent to three months’ normal rainfall in the UK. The climate in Chittagong is consistently hot – between ninety and one hundred degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity, day and night throughout the year. On one occasion we experienced a shade temperature of one hundred and twenty six degrees, only one degree less than the highest temperature ever recorded in India. We found ourselves quite disorientated, wandering around in a kind of trance – I, for one, was thankful when we left there because I had developed symptoms of jaundice, causing a complete loss of appetite and I felt very poorly. Fortunately we were soon moved again and were sent to Bangalore in South India, taking ten days on a troop train to get there. The carriages were fitted with bunks and meals were brought aboard in baskets. Containers of ice were put on the carriage floors, with fans trained on them, in an effort to reduce the temperature within the carriages. Bangalore was much cooler; any jaundice symptoms subsided and my appetite returned.
That part of India has a damp atmosphere that creates unusual conditions of light; one night I was lucky enough to see a ‘moonbow’, a rainbow at night, cast by the light of a very bright moon – it showed the usual spectrum, though muted in colour.
From Bangalore we travelled by rail to Puri, in Orissa state, where devout Hindus worship Jagarnatha, a manifestation of their supreme God Krishna. We arrived on his feast day when a carved wooden image of the God was being paraded through the streets on a heavy chariot, several metres in height. Fanatical devotees of the God were said to have sometimes thrown themselves to their death under the iron wheels of the chariot. Our word ‘juggernaut’ is derived from that God’s name.
We then travelled by dirt road across the mangrove swamps of the Ganges delta (the Sundarbans) via Jessore to Dacca (now Dhaka) where we boarded a large river boat going north up the river Brahmaputra (the ‘Great Water’) about four hundred miles upstream from its delta in the Bay of Bengal. And what a river it is! About two miles wide at that point the torrent, rising in the Himalayas, was bringing down fallen trees and animal carcases, with river dolphins sporting about. Two hundred miles further upstream we disembarked at the small port of Jorhat.
To put this story into its historical content, in 1942 a small force of British regular troops commanded by Brigadier Orde Wingate crossed the Chindwin river and harassed the Japanese army from their rear. That force became known to the media as the ‘Chindits’, a name derived from the word ‘Chinthe’. The Chinthe were mythical animal-like guardians of Burmese temples and stone carvings of them stand at either side of the entrance to each temple. General Wingate was killed in an air crash shortly afterwards and another force, code-named ‘Special Force’, was then raised under the command of Brigadier Lancelot Perowne, for a larger operation on the same lines as that of the Chindits. Our 70th Division was chosen for that job (reputedly by Winston Churchill himself, who was known to have a high opinion of the Division, after its stand at Tobruk). The Division’s shoulder badges were a depiction of the Chinthe, and we were classed as Commando troops. Volunteers for the campaign were called for, the number then being made up with men detailed for the operation. Fred and I were among those who volunteered. Fred was turned down because it was considered that he was not fit enough, but I was accepted. The selection was made by our much respected Sergeant-Major, Jim Dawe who, rather to our regret, could not take part himself as he was too old.
For the campaign, our Brigade was organised into columns and equipped with jeeps (in fact, the jeep was the first vehicle I ever drove, after a brief instruction from a comrade who was already able to drive a car). But the mountain trails soon proved too steep for jeeps, even though those vehicles can operate on gradients as steep as 45º ( a gradient of one in two), when in their lowest (booster) gear and with chains on all four wheels. So the jeeps were withdrawn and our columns were supplied with mules for transporting the Lewis guns and heavy equipment. Each mule had its own muleteer – ours was Alan Stringfellow – a farmer’s boy who was used to handling horses – he had trained at the army’s veterinary centre at Melton Mowbray. His mule was named ‘Lady’.
Our column was No. 33 column, and consisted of two hundred infantrymen armed with WWI type Lee-Enfield rifles. The column included a medical section commanded by Major P.B.L. Nicholas, a Cornishman, who, in civilian life, had been a G.P. in Truro. He was a strong character, both physically and mentally, and was a born leader of men. The rest of the medical section consisted of a Sergeant (Len Nunn), a Corporal (Bob Marsh) and two stretcher-bearers (Johnny Wells, a London-born Cockney, and myself). Major Nicholas was known to all of our section as ‘Nick’ – the relationship between Officers and men in our non-professional army was always very informal. Throughout all the campaign, Nick was a tower of strength to us all and we came to depend on him more and more.
When the campaign started we had to remove our R.A.M.C. shoulder flashes, badges of rank and al other identification except for the identity discs that soldiers wear, attached to a string round the neck, at all times. Japan had never been a party to the Geneva Convention, so we could not claim its protection as non-combatants and we therefore had to be armed. We each carried a Sten gun and two hundred rounds of ammunition, also two hand grenades, in addition to our normal kit. That consisted of a waterproof groundsheet of WWI type, a blanket, a two-pint water bottle (with chlorine tablets for sterilization as we often had to drink water of doubtful cleanliness from village water holes) and we each carried a chagal (a porous canvas container that kept its water cool by evaporation), a towel, Dixie, knife, fork and spoon and five days supply of food consisting of American K-rations. All of our kit was accommodated in the standard army back-pack, enlarged by the addition of two extra pockets made of webbing, sewn on to the sides. The whole lot, including clothing and boots, weighed about 90lbs (6½ stone) so we were, literally, crouching under the weight, which we had to carry all day.
During training we wore tin hats, which we normally carried at all times. Indian sepoys could wear them without much discomfort, but we found them far too hot, even when leaves were put inside for insulation. So the tin hats were left behind and we wore wide-brimmed Ghurka hats. Officers had some latitude in what they could wear and Nick sported a hat made from fibreglass (then the latest development and an effective insulator) which he had bought in Calcutta.
We wore trousers of jungle green instead of our usual khaki shorts. Everything had to be camouflaged and all white items such as towels, underwear and handkerchiefs, had to be dyed in kutsch, a brownish Indian vegetable dye. Short puttees were worn round the ankles as protection against possible snake bite.
The personnel of our column included some memorable characters. One such was Peter Glennon, a native of Wigan with an appropriate accent. Physically he was a puny individual with a tiny frame, and if there had not been conscription he would never have been accepted for army service. Although he had little formal education he was very well read and told us that before the call-up most of his spare time was spent in the local library. Popular with us all, but usually a straggler on the march we would often take turns to carry his pack for him (it was forbidden for any of our packs to be put on top of a mule’s load). Peter had been through the earlier campaigns in Greece and Crete, and those who had been with him there spoke most highly of his selflessness and care in dealing with casualties.
Another memorable character was Jake (real name Jacobs). He was quite a different kettle of fish; a thoroughly nasty man, he was also a confirmed homosexual, although not practising. But no one could stop him from recounting, with relish and in sometimes objectionable detail, his homosexual experiences dating back to the early 1920’s, when there were evidently a number of clandestine homosexual cells in London. But it must be said that he was a good soldier – a bit of a ‘barrack-room lawyer’, he was given a stripe (the rank of Lance-Corporal) as a sop to his ambitions. On an earlier occasion during the siege of Tobruk, he had just collected his dinner from the cookhouse when a shell came over and exploded in the air just above where he was walking. Miraculously, Jake was quite unhurt but the concussion lifted him six feet into the air and dropped him spread-eagled on the ground. We all said the same thing on that occasion – “the devil looks after his own!”
Our mules and muleteers travelled by train from Ranchi to the railway at Jorhat and the Brigade assembled at the nearby village of Mariani, from where we made a forty-five mile three-day climb to the village of Mokokchaung at the top of the mountain range. Mokokchaung was the last outpost of the Raj and our Officers had a long briefing from the young District Officer there, who had some knowledge of the unexplored and as yet ungoverned territory of the Naga tribes who lived there.
The football field of the school at Mokokchaung commands the most spectacular view that I have ever seen. At one’s feet is a four-thousand-foot gorge; to the west is a tumbled mass of mountains and to the east a steep trail known as the Wokha track, up which we were about to plod. In the centre is a gap which appears to be at the top of a precipice, but from which one can just pick out an immense tract of land far below – the great plain of the Indian sub-continent. Turning round and looking back one sees what at first sight appears to be a long thin line of white cloud, but which one soon realises is the distant snow-capped summits of a gigantic mountain range – the main chain of the Himalayas.
Our columns were supplied by the R.A.F. dropping bales from Dakota aircraft, the dropping zones being indicated by small fires which we lit. Bales containing ammunition and important supplies were dropped under silk parachutes, with bales containing food and clothing under canvas parachutes. Fodder for the mules and horses was dropped in sacks, without parachutes. I once saw a fodder sack land on a horse’s leg, severing it at the fetlock. The poor animal couldn’t realise why one of its legs had somehow become shorter than the others, but fortunately the vet was nearby – he just had to draw his revolver and shoot the horse.
One day a supply plane failed to appear – a tribesman reported that he had seem it fly into the side of a hill, in the mist. Bob Marsh went on foot to investigate, returning to say that the report was, unfortunately, true and he had found the wreckage of the plane with three bodies inside – he brought back the victims identity discs.
An extraordinary thing happened once; one of the men pushing bales out of a plane overbalanced and fell out – fortunately he managed to hold on to the bale, landing heavily with it, but unhurt. Being weaponless, he was allocated to our medical section, walked on with us and was a useful help.
We were all very fit at the outset, but the long marches and heavy loads began to sap our strength. Our rations were mainly bully beef and army biscuits – the only fresh food we had was onions. Men became ill and we all had dysentery. We entered a village called Phakakedzumi (we abbreviated that name to ‘Phak’) by which time the men who were ill had become noticeably worse, with large red blotches on their faces and chests. Nick became worried, realising that it was probably an outbreak of the usually fatal disease of louse-borne typhus. We were, of course, all louse-ridden, through having been unable to wash either ourselves or our clothes properly. Forty-one men caught the disease and we commandeered the village headman’s spacious hut as a makeshift hospital, staying there while the men were so ill. The first night I slept there I was awakened suddenly before dawn by a heavy object thumping down on my chest – it was a large rat that had fallen from the rafters!
The Naga tribesmen were, traditionally, head hunters and the hut contained a grisly relic – a human skull. We had an interpreter with us and the headman told me, through the interpreter, that he had taken the head himself when he was a young man. But I had no time to wonder about the skull – we had forty-one gravely ill men to look after, day and night, and we took it in turns to tend them so that we could each get some sleep for at least one night in three. Typhus is a disease that only strikes when there are large numbers of seriously undernourished or exhausted people in close contact with each other – it was typhus that was the ultimate cause of death of most of the victims of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. Of the forty-one men that we were looking after, forty died, one by one, over the next few days. I shall never forget the look in the eyes of that one survivor after he had suffered the worst of the disease and had pulled through – haunted, but strangely peaceful.
The infantry dug shallow graves and we buried the victims, wrapped in silk parachutes as shrouds. In the absence of a padre, the column commander read the words of committal and we marked the spot with a wooden cross. The remains would have been re-interred later in a designated war cemetery – probably the one at Kohima which is now a permanent war cemetery maintained by the Imperial War Graves Commission.
The narrow tracks in Nagaland zigzagged along steep hillsides with an almost vertical drop of thousands of feet down to a river bed in the valley. That drop was known as the ‘khud’ and one of our column’s mules (with its load) was lost by falling down it when the animal’s load hit a rock projecting from the cliff face. The precipitous terrain prohibited the use of any wheeled vehicle (the Nagas never used the wheel) so we had to take all our wounded and sick along with us on stretchers, paying the tribesmen to act as bearers. We sometimes had to climb through boulder fields when as many as eight bearers were required to carry each patient, on stretchers lashed to long bamboo poles. The villages were sited on the tops of the hills and we would wake to look down on a layer of cloud, with the village occasionally appearing above it.
We had to take any possible opportunity to evacuate the patients, and came to a spot where there was just enough level ground on which to land a light plane. An Auster aircraft, a two seater high-wing monoplane, was called up from Calcutta by radio – it was fitted with a metal frame welded to the outside of the plane on which a patient strapped to a stretcher, could be carried.
There was no room for the plane to take off normally – with the vertical rock face behind us we held on to the plane to hold it still and the pilot revved up fully. At a signal from him we let go, when the plane moved forward and tipped over the edge, becoming airborne that way. One of our wounded was got out from there – a man from the Border Regiment whose ankle had been smashed by a bullet and his foot had been kept in a Thomas’s splint under traction for four days. He had been in acute pain and it was a relief to us, too, to watch the plane winging its way across the void and to know that the casualty would be able to get treatment in a civilian hospital. Nick gave the pilot a phial containing a blood sample that he had taken from one of the suspected typhus cases, with instructions to take it to a hospital for analysis. The test proved positive for typhus, confirming Nick’s diagnosis.
A young Naga boy who had been caught in some crossfire and had received a severe leg wound was also got out from there. The boy’s mother insisted on going with him, so she was crammed into the plane, too. I can only imagine what those passengers must have felt – they had, almost certainly, never even seen a plane at close quarters before. Another tribesman had been hit by a bullet in the lower leg, causing a compound fracture of the tibia, with the broken bone sticking out. The artery had been severed and the wound would become gangrenous, so Nick offered to amputate the limb there and then, even though the only anaesthetic we had was chloroform, but the patient refused, convinced that he was going to die, anyway. We just had to splint the leg and leave him with a supply of dressings, in the hope that some way could be found of getting him to a civilian hospital. We heard later, with some satisfaction, that the man from the Border Regiment had been able to keep his foot, also that the Naga boy had reached hospital and was on the way to recovery.
Our column had several brushes with the enemy, when at least two hundred Japanese were killed by our infantry during the night, using rifles, Lewis guns and hand grenades after Naga scouts had told our patrols where the Japanese were encamped.
One small, but worrying incident happened to me during our trek. Stopping briefly and moving off the track to attend to the wants of nature I was about to pull up my trousers afterwards when looking down, I noticed with horror that a leech had attached itself to my scrotum, and had already withdrawn enough blood to swell itself up to the size of a golf ball. I knew that I should not brush it off immediately as the creature’s mouth parts would be left in the flesh and would cause infection. The remedy was to touch the leech either with salt or with the end of a lighted cigarette so, grabbing a lighted cigarette from a comrade who was smoking, I applied it to the leech which immediately fell to the ground. Leeches troubled our mules too, as they got in the animals fetlocks or, worse still, in their nostrils. The damp valleys were infested by leeches, which normally fed off the blood of forest animals. The tribesmen never went into the valleys for that reason, but in order to avoid our patrols the unfortunate Japanese soldiers had to go there, so it is probable that many of them died from loss of blood because of the leeches, and few of their soldiers would have got out of Burma, let alone back to Japan, for that reason alone.
A Japanese Officer had been captured near Ukhrul and was held for interrogation. He proved to be a Samurai type of warrior who, by allowing himself to be captured, had irretrievably ‘lost face’, and could only redeem himself by committing “hara-kiri”. His sword had been taken away, so he could not take the traditional way out by disembowelling himself on the sword so, instead, although under close guard, he managed to cut his own throat with the sharp edge of a ration tin lid. Nick had once told us that his own sister had worked as a Nursing Sister in Hong Kong when the Japanese had first attacked that port, and that she had been shot dead by them. Under the circumstances I thought that Nick would have been quite justified in letting the Japanese Officer die but, remaining true to his Hippocratic oath, he stitched up the Officer’s throat. The Officer was tied on to a horse and taken along with us, but he kept falling off and died the next day from loss of blood.
My own contact with the Japanese came on the day after we had left Phak. I was escorting a stretcher-borne casualty when we came to a place where the trail crossed a stream by a wooden footbridge. Approaching the bridge, I noticed three armed Japanese soldiers lurking among some nearby trees. They had obviously seen me, and it looked as if there was going to have to be a shoot-out, at almost point blank range, if I was to get any further. I put a full magazine on my gun, cocked it and with my finger on the trigger led the way across the bridge, ready to shoot if any of the Japanese fired, either at me, the bearers or the patients. The bearers looked at me anxiously, but didn’t run away. But, by what seemed a miracle, the Japanese did not fire, and I was able to proceed. It turned out that they had no ammunition left – when their army was seen to be losing in Burma, the Japanese high command had simply ceased to supply them and had written them off as a fighting force.
About that time, a signal came through to say that our Brigade was top of the list for supplies and we could have anything we wanted. What we needed, of course, was a helicopter to evacuate the wounded and sick, but all helicopters had been sent to Europe for use in the planned second front against Germany. So, instead, a supply drop of new clothing was ordered for everyone on the column. When it arrived we stripped off all our old clothing, including boots, and made a bonfire of the lot. After donning the new clothes we found that the typhus had been completely wiped out, and it did not recur.
The radio telephone had then just been invented and each of our columns was issued with one, so that the columns could keep in touch with each other. We called them ‘Walkie-Talkies’, but the instruments were large, heavy and cumbersome with an aerial several yards long, and in the absence of a radio network they had to be powered by petrol-driven chargers, which meant that our supply drops had to include petrol. I got used to using our column’s radio; it is rather ironic that, although I now have difficulty in using a mobile phone I was, in fact, one of the first people ever to use one! Mobile phones have, of course now been miniaturised by the use of computer chip technology, and almost everyone uses one.
But our Brigade was still faced with the task of mopping up the remnants of the Japanese army, while at the same time getting ourselves and our patients out of Nagaland. Apart from the hut at Phak we had no cover, either by day or night, during the whole of that four hundred-mile trek. At night we just had to lie down in the open in the pouring rain, like animals, with our bush hats over our faces, waiting for sleep, which eventually came from sheer exhaustion. The patients, on their stretchers, suffered likewise. The trek took about six weeks, but it was not all doom and gloom. At one place we came across an area of several acres in extent, which was covered in orchids of many varieties, growing and flowering profusely. The soil conditions and unpolluted atmosphere in those remote mountains must have been ideal for their growth – in fact, the whole area would have been a Victorian plant hunter’s paradise – the whole crop would have been worth a fortune in a British garden centre.
Entering a Naga village, I noticed that the villagers grew runner beans, exactly the same as those that grow in Britain. Realising that the beans would be a healthy addition to our diet, which normally consisted entirely of bully beef, army biscuits and onions, so we were very short of fresh veg. I got hold of a sack and started to pick some beans. A villager soon appeared, waving his arms in protest. I got some silver rupees from the bullion mules load – the bullion mule was so called because it’s load included rupee coins which we used for odd expenses (for instance, the going rate for bamboo poles that we cut down was two rupees per pole) and offered them to the villager, who then indicated that I could have as many beans as I could pay for.
At the end of each day our medical section would meet together for our evening meal, consisting of a stew, into which we mixed everything in a huge iron pot (we took turns to carry the heavy pot during the day). So the beans all went in, too, and I’m sure they did us good.
But, by this time, we were nearly exhausted by our long trek and there were many miles to go before we could reach Ukhrul, where our transport would be waiting, so many men just dumped the heaviest items of their kit. Our hand grenades were no longer needed, so I dumped mine down the ‘khud’ after pulling out the pins and I watched them explode, apparently harmlessly, a couple of hundred metres down.
On the last day of our trek we covered a distance of about twenty miles, the last two miles of which was along a track that was thigh-deep in liquid mud. Here and there beside the trail lay the rotting bodies of Japanese soldiers, with huge obscene looking black flesh-eating beetles swarming over their exposed hands and faces.
Approaching Ukhrul we met another column of men toiling up the hill, with the object of taking over control of Nagaland from our Brigade. They were newly out from the U.K. and looked fit and healthy with fresh ruddy complexions, in contrast to our drawn, yellowish countenances. Among them I saw a man I knew – he recognised me too, and said, “Gawd, you’ve gone down the pan, haven’t you!” It was only then that I realised just how emaciated we were.
By this time we had all become very weak, and Nick tried to encourage us by saying “if we all get out of this mess (which seemed to me, at the time, very unlikely) I’ll see that you all get a mention in despatches”, adding, with his usual ‘braggadocio’, “and I’ll give myself the O.B.E.” But it wasn’t until about two years after the war had ended, that I found out that he really had been as good as his word.
In times past, the monthly publication “Readers Digest” used to publish articles entitled “The most unforgettable character I have ever met.” Nick would certainly have qualified for that appellation.
Our jeeps met us at Ukhrul, having gone by road from Jorhat where we had left them at the start of our trek. We parted from our mules there – those patient animals had been our lifeline, and some of us would not have survived without them. Small wonder that many men, the muleteers in particular, did not have dry eyes when we parted.
From Ukhrul we were able to reach Imphal and at the airfields there we boarded a Dakota transport aircraft for the two-hour flight to Dacca (now Dhaka). It was my first flight – we sat on the floor of the plane, which was not adapted for passengers, with some sepoys, who prayed loudly as the plane took off. At Dacca we had a few days rest; I went into the N.A.F.F.I. tent there for some refreshment, and was astonished to see a familiar face behind the counter – Frank Lury from the family I had lodged with in Dorking before the war. Frank had been manager of the small Sainsbury’s branch there, and was therefore in a reserved occupation and had not been called up. He asked me what unit I was in – when I told him it was the 23rd Brigade he said “you’ll be in the Chindit basha then”. Bashas were the huts in which we were to be accommodated for a few days. The huts were built entirely of bamboo (in India, bamboo grows to be as thick as a man’s waist, and can easily be flattened out and made into boards). Something had gone wrong with the construction of one of the bashas and it was sloping at an angle of about forty-five degrees – usable but very uncomfortable. The authorities must have thought that, as we were used to living rough, we wouldn’t mind the discomfort. There was a war artist at Dacca – he drew a picture of the ‘Chindit basha’ which I believe is now in the Imperial War Museum.
After about ten days at Dacca the order came for us to be repatriated to the U.K. and we entrained, bound for the army depot at Deolali, near Poona. Deolali was the site of the army psychiatric hospital during the days of the Raj and gave rise to the word ‘doolali’, meaning mad or deranged. From there we joined a troop train bound for Bombay (now Mumbai) for embarkation, our troopship being the ‘Otranto’, and old P. and O. liner. Steaming back through the Suez canal we spent Christmas Day aboard in Alexandria docks, my fifth consecutive Christmas abroad. In the Bay of Biscay we met heavy seas, with the ships pitching so violently that two-thirds of the hull came right out of the water with each wave, and yards-long steamers of weeds could be seen hanging beneath their keels.
In Cardigan Bay we rejoiced at seeing British shores and green fields again, and we docked at Liverpool on a bleak January morning in 1945. Going up the Mersey we were kept below decks so that we did not all line the ship’s rail on one side, and so upset the vessel’s trim in the narrow channel. Emerging on deck we saw a deserted quayside – no welcoming crowds because, for security reasons, the docks were off limits to all except those who worked there. It seemed as if there would be no way of releasing our pent-up emotions, until a solitary ‘bobby’ in uniform appeared from a small hut on the quayside. We gave him the loudest and most heartfelt cheer I have ever heard!
Looking back, I cannot help but contrast our homecoming with the more recent return of the troops who served in the Thatcher-inspired and quite unnecessary invasion that recovered the Falklands Islands from the Argentinian invasion, causing the loss of hundreds of Argentinian lives on the warship “General Belgrano”, as well as many British lives. In that campaign the British force had briefly experienced what they called a ‘yomp’ across the small island, receiving on their return a rapturous welcome from cheering crowds, with bands playing “Land of Hope and Glory”, whereas we had returned from five hard fought and bloody campaigns in three continents.
From the depot we went home for seven days leave. I arrived at Grantham station late at night, in three inches of snow. No taxis, of course, but the W.V.S. (Women’s Voluntary Service) had a hut on Station Road where I was able to leave my heavy kitbag overnight. I had not been able to let my parents know of my return as they were not on the telephone (although the shop itself was on the phone) so I walked up Barrowby Road and knocked them up at 2am. My sister Joan was living with them – her husband Terry was away, preparing with the army, to take part in the forthcoming D-day landing in Normandy. Joan came downstairs in her nightie to greet me with astonishment, followed by my parents.
I was soon posted away again, this time to Tidworth and I was there when the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan on 6th August 1945. After another bomb on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered unconditionally on 15th August. One wonders why the world has subsequently allowed such weapons of mass destruction to continue to exist. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D.) was formed then, and I immediately became a member.
Other postings soon followed; to Colchester for a few days, then for similar periods to Luton and to the village of Sall, near Reepham in Norfolk. At Sall we occupied rooms in a stately home, Sall House, and while there I recall seeing a Wellington bomber fly over after an overnight raid on Germany. The bodywork and tail plane were peppered with shrapnel and one engine was out of action but the pilot managed to land successfully at the nearby airfield. One evening an R.A.F. rear gunner wandered in, saying he was on his way home but couldn’t get transport and he asked to stay for the night. We gave him a bed, but next afternoon he came back with the same story and asked to stay for the night again. I refused that request, guessing that he was a scrimshanker who just couldn’t face any more flak; rear gunners were in the most dangerous place on the plane and were known as “Tail-end Charlies”.
At that time the Americans had come over in force to join in the preparations for an invasion of Europe. They were stationed at many places in Lincolnshire and when off duty would flood into town. Most of the local traders took advantage and trebled their prices; Dad was far too honest for that, but did a roaring trade nevertheless. The Americans were a great success with local girls, much to the chagrin of our soldiers, whose pay was not in the same league. The ground was laid for many “G.I. brides”. The latest fashion accessory was nylon stockings, which the Americans were able to supply in quantity.
My sister Veronica got to know a G.I. by the name of Jim. He was rather shy and diffident – not at all like the brash American stereotype. He was partly of native Indian blood. My parents invited him to tea and I took him out for a drink at the “Black Dog”. He came from a Mid-west town called Bowling Green, but his unit soon had to leave again for the D-day preparations. I did not know how he fared, but Veronica told me later that he survived and she kept in touch with him for about two years afterwards.
One incident during that time sticks in my mind; my friend Robert Edwards’s father told us one evening, very irately, that he had seen an American soldier canoodling with a girl in a shop doorway on Grantham High Street. Mr. Edwards’s actual words were “he had her knickers down and was fiddling with her – er – apparatus”. He seemed to think that, now the local lads were back from service overseas, they would take the wind out of the Yanks sails and would teach then how to behave in public. Nevertheless, the American influence tended to prevail.
My spell in the U.K. was short, lasting only from January to July 1945. That period was uneventful but I had the opportunity of some sporting activity, and I joined the Grantham Badminton Club and played for them in a few matches. I also played rugby for Kings School Old Boys in that year, Old Boys v. School match at the school playing field (the last occasion on which I played Rugby). During that match my friend John Pacey had the misfortune to break his collarbone. John was always in the thick of any action, becoming known as Grantham’s World War Two hero, having been awarded the M.C. (Military Cross) for an action shortly after D-day, in which there was some hand-to-hand fighting and John had despatched two Germans with his revolver. He was not a belligerent person, but told me he was convinced he was in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation and simply decided to take as many of the enemy with him as possible.
In September 1945 I was posted overseas again, this time to Germany. We travelled by rail to Harwich, thence by overnight ferry to Hook of Holland and on by rail through Belgium, stopping for a few hours in Bruges. We had time to visit the chapel of the Holy Blood in the main square. We also saw the ladies who sit outside their cottages making lace on cushions on their knees. We took a boat trip on the canal before going on over the Rhine bridge into Germany, and on to the town of Hamlin. That town prospers as a tourist centre because of the legend of the Pied Piper, but I was particularly fascinated by the old timber-built houses on the main street, which lean over towards each other so that their second stories almost touch – one could lean out of a window and shake hands with someone living on the other side of the street!
My first posting in Germany was to Luneburg, where we were taken to witness the trial of some of the Nazi war criminals (but not the principal ones, Goering, Hess and others, who were tried in Nuremburg). The trial that we saw followed a tedious procedure – the German witnesses were reluctant and every detail had to be dragged out of them and then translated for the benefit of the Court and of the press – justice had to be seen to be done. The witness being questioned was a minor official responsible for food supplies to the concentration camp at Belsen. It took most of the day to find out that, in fact, all the food that had gone into the camp for the thousands of inmates for that day amounted to only two loaves of bread. The parable of the loaves and fishes came into my mind, causing me to wonder where the Holy Presence was during the Holocaust. But perhaps it was there, after all, in the shape of one of the Belsen camp’s inmates, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Czech priest. He could have been released if he had not insisted on taking the place of a married man who was listed for the gas chambers. Father Kolbe has recently been canonised.
But it must be said that there were some heroic Germans, too. When the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Belsen were discovered, the typhus-infected inmates had to be bathed and de-loused. Volunteers for that dangerous work were called for and twelve German nurses volunteered; they completed the work but all twelve of them contracted typhus and all of them died from it.
On the way to Luneburg we visited Hamburg – it was a dreadful sight, at least two square miles of the city having been reduced to rubble by R.A.F. bombers sent over by Air Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris in retaliation for the bombing of London. We also stopped at the site of the infamous Belsen concentration camp – the timber buildings had been burnt down but the burial mounds were a mute reminder of what had happened. They each bore only a small Cross of David and a figure – 4,000, 10,000, 7,000 and so on – at least a dozen mounds in all.
But it was not until some years after the war that the diary of Ann Frank, preserved by her father, was published. It provides a most moving description of life under Nazi domination, and reveals all that should ever be said about the horrible consequences of the evil Nazi ideology. In my opinion it should be compulsory reading for all schoolchildren reading about the history of WWII.
Our unit was soon transferred from Luneburg to the small town of Peine, just off the Hamburg/Hanover autobahn, where we operated a depot supplying medical stores to all the hospitals in the B.A.O.R. (British Army of the Rhine). At that time, a decree was put out whereby each and every German had to donate enough clothing for one survivor of the concentration camps. We employed civilians at the depot, and one morning I had a telephone call from one of them. His words were “I cannot come to work today because I haf no trouser”. He had complied with the decree, but I was sure he would have had more than one suit of clothing, as the Germans are a ‘dressy’ race. However, I had to act as he was essential to the work, so I gave him a battledress uniform. Another employee, a wily old bird named Walther, refused to comply with the decree and was about to be sacked, when we realised he was the only person who could keep the lift working. It was a large lift used to transport heavy loads from one floor of the building to another, and the electrical controls were old and unsafe. A baulk of wood had to be used to prevent the fuses from cutting out and Walther was the only man who had the knack of using it. The work at the depot was very heavy – unpacking and lugging around huge crates which filled every room in the building. One room was filled with crates containing only condoms – they were classified as medical supplies.
A chef and a kitchen maid were employed at the depot – they served up some excellent fare but Sunday lunch was often not a happy meal, as some of our men would turn up the worse for drink. Primarily because of boredom, the consumption of beer had become a major factor in our life at that time – the military had taken control of the local brewery in order to supply our troops. However, the chef and the kitchen maid had evidently found a way of circumventing their boredom, because the maid became pregnant. She and the chef were married in a local village and all of us from the depot attended the wedding, which was celebrated in traditional German style.
When Germany was under occupation at that time just after the end of the war, the army’s policy was one of non-fraternisation between our troops and the former enemy but, in respect of the girls at any rate, it was an unpopular policy and was soon abandoned. Consequently it was inevitable that liaisons would be formed and many of our men ‘slept out’. A group of us frequented a small pub in Peine. That hostelry was also visited by a group of young Germans including a dark haired girl, petite and attractive, who caught my eye. I had no girl friend at the time. The Germans were under a curfew and had to be off the streets by midnight, otherwise they would have been stopped and questioned by Allied patrols, but a German girl out after midnight in the company of a British soldier would be allowed to pass unchallenged. One evening the girl stayed behind after her companions had left just before midnight. Our eyes met again – and held. The message was clear, and I walked her to the flat not far away. She spoke a little English and told me her name was Rita. Two years older than me, she was already a widow, her husband having been killed on the Eastern front – “kaput by the Russkies”, as she put it. Returning to the depot next morning I had to face some good-natured banter from my comrades.
A cinema in Peine had been taken over by the army as a centre for British troops. A rather shy girl from a local village was working there as a ‘kellnerin’ – a waitress. A comrade and his girl friend introduced me to the waitress, whose name was Gisela Kruse. Gisela and I walked out together several times. We became very close, her grandfather lived in the town and she took me to tea with him. A WW1 veteran, when we met he held up his hands as if to be handcuffed remarking. Cynically, “Kamerad”. I was glad that my friendship with Gisela gave me a reason for dropping Rita, who was clearly not my type of girl. Gisela had a great love for flowers and used to help in a florist’s shop in her spare time. Her favourite flowers were sweet peas and I soon became infected with her enthusiasm, so that I have to say that I owe her a considerable debt of gratitude, because in later years I became a keen grower of sweet peas.
Shortly afterwards, I was posted back to the U.K. Gisela and I exchanged letters, but soon lost contact as she had little English and I had even less German. I had contemplated proposing marriage to her but I now realise it would have been a great mistake, as I was nowhere near mature enough for marriage.
To digress for a moment – my good friend and schoolmate Les Annable was serving in the army in Italy at about the same time, when he met and married an Italian girl, Alba, in Milan. Les stayed in Italy after the war, becoming fluent in the language, and he set up an export/import business in Milan. The business prospered and he and Alba visited Les’s sister Evelyn, who still lived in Barrowby, about ten years ago, so I was able to meet him again. Les, Evelyn, Alba and I all had a celebratory meal together at the Rutland Arms pub (better known as “The Mucky Duck”) on the Grantham canal near Woolsthorpe-by-Belvoir.
Incidentally, I sent my usual card to Leslie this Christmas, and was sad to receive a note from Les’s son to say that his father had died recently.
I had a home leave at Christmas 1945, finally returning to the U.K. for demobilisation at Strensall, near York. My father had previously told me that he, too, had been demobilised at Strensall after WW1.
All of us received gratuities, according to how many months we had served abroad. I had been overseas for fifty-three months and got £120 – hardly an adequate recompense for four and a half years of my life, but I have no hard feelings about that – my service had turned me from a boy into a man. I had time to think about my future and the war soon began to seem only like a long nightmare; it was now over and I could put it behind and start taking control of my own life.
I came back to my job at the bank, working in the Cambridge office this time. The year 1947 started with a big freeze-up. When walking from my lodgings to work on the coldest morning of all, 5th February, I noticed that the thermometer on the weather station on Jesus Green was reading seven degrees Fahrenheit – twenty-four degrees of frost; it had even frozen the ink in the inkwells at the bank! Fortunately I had a warm overcoat of blue serge, originally bought at H.H. Cox’s shop in Grantham when I first started work. But, strangely enough, I did not suffer from the low temperature; it seemed as if the Indian sun was still I my bones and I felt quite warm.
I still had an interest in cricket, and went to see an exhibition match in Cambridge between a visiting Australian team and a scratch English side captained by Pelham (‘Plum’) Warner. The Australian side included the greatest batsman of all time, Don Bradman – he only scored a few runs but his mastery was evident and he soon retired, giving the other players a chance to shine. Another famous player, Jack Hobbs, also lived in Cambridge. He was a batsman of consummate skill (the old saying was “you can’t bat better than Hobbs”). In those days, cricketers whose playing days were over were given what was known as a ‘benefit match’, from which a proportion of the takings were given to the retiring player. Hobb’s ‘benefit’ was enough to allow him to set himself up in business as a supplier of sports goods. I went into his shop to buy a pair of skates and was astonished to find him, the proprietor, serving in the shop himself (perhaps I should have asked him for his autograph instead!) How times have changed – leading sportsmen (footballers in particular) seem able to become millionaires overnight, mainly by lucrative sponsorship deals.
The change to civilian life unsettled me at first – I even considered emigrating to Australia on an assisted passage, but the bank in Cambridge was a large branch with a staff of more than fifty, so I had plenty of companionship and I soon decided to stay in the U.K. One of my fellow-workers at the bank was Bob Yelf – we got on well together and became firm friends. Bob was a good companion and he was quite the wittiest person I have ever met. I shared lodgings with him for a short time, and we had a very good landlady.
The exceptionally cold winter of 1947 was followed by a long hot summer, and a group of us formed the Cambridge Bank Sports Club of which I was the Secretary. I spent a lot of time arranging matches, obtaining permission from the Principal of Downing College for our club to use the College’s sports field during the long vacation, also the use of their squash courts (squash courts were few and far between in those days). I became friendly with one of the girls working in the bank, Jeane F., who lived at Willingham, a village ten miles away where her father had a business as a nurseryman, supplying flowers to local businesses. I used to see her off at the Drummer Street bus station for her bus home in the evening, and I took her to a circus that visited Midsomer Common (shades of my father). Jeane was a keen dancer and got an invitation to one of the May balls. When it comes to dancing, I have two left feet so that – and the hard benches at the circus – soon put paid to that romance!
I often browsed through the bookshops on Kings Road, and picked up some book on the Highlands of Scotland, which I was keen on visiting because of my earlier glimpse of Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond. I found that, by joining the S.Y.H.A. (Scottish Youth Hostels Association) I could have a cheap holiday, covering almost all of the Highlands areas. English youth hostels are intended mainly for accompanied parties of schoolchildren, but the Scottish ones cater primarily for individual walkers of over twenty-one years of age, so I joined the S.Y.H.A.
The guide books of Scotland invariably mention the Lairig Ghru the longest and highest hill pass in Great Britain, running through the Cairingorm mountains between Aviemore and Braemar. The walk through the pass is a stiff test of stamina but does not involve rock-climbing, and can be safely undertaken in summer by a fit and experienced walker. Despite all my wartime trekking I still had the desire and energy to undertake such a walk and I decided to try it.
My brother Anthony and our mutual school friend Gerald Emerton (who later married my sister Anne) were both at a loose end and they agreed to come with me, so they also joined the S.Y.H.A. Travelling by train from Cambridge I picked them up at Grantham where we boarded the train for Fort William. Our first objective was Ben Nevis; we stayed overnight at the hostel in Glen Nevis and then climbed the steep track to the summit, relishing for a few minutes the fact that we stood at the highest point in the U.K. Next day we took the train to Aviemore where we entered our names and destination – “Braemar via the Lairig Ghru” in the hostel book, so that the warden could check later with the warden at Braemar, that we had arrived safely.
We reached the summit of the pass at the Wells of Dee (the source of the River Dee) at an altitude of almost three thousand feet and rested a few miles further on at the Tailors’ stones, so called because it was where three tailors had perished in a blizzard after dancing in three counties in one day. Why they took on such a bizarre undertaking is not explained.
We reached Braemar at nine o’clock in the evening after a trek of over thirty miles, the longest distance I have ever walked in a single day. We were exhausted and hungry, having eaten only sandwiches but the warden was able to sell us a tine of soup each from his slender store – postwar rationing was still in force. We returned to Glasgow by bus via hostels at Fort William and Crianlarich, then to Edinburgh and back to Grantham on the East Coast line.
Early the following year I had a dispute with one of the sub-managers of the bank in Cambridge. A mistake had been made in a customer’s account and the sub-manager tried to put the blame on to me, although the mistake was primarily his fault. In an effort to cover things up he had me transferred to the Peterborough branch, to replace a cashier who had been transferred elsewhere, and I moved into his lodgings in London Road, where the landlord’s wife was a very efficient housekeeper and cook. She was also a professional seamstress and made sure that her lodgers’ clothes always looked smart. We called her ‘Mum’ and she kept in touch with each of us after we had moved on. There were other lodgers, one being a Maurice Eastaugh from Ipswich, who ran an old Austin Seven car; at a cost then of seven pounds ten shillings (£7.50) it was the only type of car a young bank clerk could afford to run. Maurice later met and married a girl called Olga – they still keep in touch with me.
Another lodger in the Peterborough house was Hubert (‘Bert’) S., an engineering draughtsman working at the Hotpoint factory there. One Monday he went on holiday to Bridlington for a week. Returning on the Friday, Bert told us to our astonishment that he had met and fallen in love with a girl named Betty, whom he had married by special licence on the Thursday. A year later, Betty had twins, a boy and a girl. Betty rejected the boy at first, but then took him back later and they kept both children. Betty turned out to be a nymphomaniac; Bert then felt unable to continue the relationship and they divorced, although remaining on cordial terms. Betty now lives in York, and both children are grown up and working – I still keep in touch with her by an annual Christmas phone call or letter.
In the bank in Peterborough I became friendly with Rita M, who worked for an insurance company that banked with Lloyds. She was a Catholic living in Market Deeping, but our relationship did not develop as she already had a boy friend.
The previous year, with a youth hostelling holiday in mind, I had made tentative arrangements with Anthony and Gerald Emerton to go to Scotland again for the Whitsun holiday, but when the time came they both called off at the last minute – it seemed that, after the Lairig Ghru expedition they had both had enough of long hikes. So I decided to go alone. Travelling by train from Cambridge, I visited my mother in Grantham en-route. When I left she said to me (perhaps with a mother’s intuition) “maybe you’ll meet your match”. Little did I realise just how prophetic that statement would prove to be.
I caught the overnight train to Inverness, going through Edinburgh and over the old Forth railway bridge early next morning. Rejoicing at my feeling of complete freedom I stayed overnight at the Inverness youth hostel, hitch-hiking next day to the hostel at Strome Ferry on Loch Carron, my objective being the remote hostel at Alltbeithe which is only accessible on foot. When I booked in at the Strome Ferry hostel about teatime a dark-haired young lady, booted and kilted and with a very determined look about her, arrived shortly afterwards, telling me that she had walked over the hill from Kishorn hostel, a few miles away and was on the way to the hostel at Glenelg. I had just made a pot of tea, and offered to share it with her; we started chatting – she had a soft, musical voice with a pronounced Glasgow accent, telling me that her name was Marie Brooks and that she spent all her spare time hostelling, usually in the company of a girl friend. She lived in the East end of Glasgow and during WWII had worked in the laboratory of ammunition factory, testing the guncotton and water used in the manufacture of artillery shells. She was studying for her final exam for the qualification of A.I.M.L.T. (Associate of the Institute of Medical Laboratory Technicians), which she was expecting to fail. However, in the event she passed, as I did for my final exam for the qualification of A.I.B. (Associate of the Institute of Bankers). She also told me that she had just broken off with her last boyfriend, who had met someone else, so I told her about Rita M. I asked her about the tartan of her kilt – she told me it was that of the ‘Hunting Menzies’ clan – but I refrained from asking her what she was hunting for!
For hikers, the route from Strome Ferry to Glenelg had to be started by going on a small motorboat through Loch Alsh. The boat had only six seats, the passengers sitting close together opposite each other in two rows of three, with the boatman at the stern. One could hardly travel like that without speaking to one’s neighbour, so we immediately began to learn something about our fellow-travellers, one of whom was a lady who had just bought a live hen and was holding it on her lap; another was a rather rough-looking man and the third looked well-to-do, with an air of authority about him. He turned out to be a local J.P., who recognised the rough-looking man as someone he had sentenced to a spell in Inverness jail as a “guest of Her Majesty” and who had just been released. The lady with the hen asked Marie how long she and I had been married, so we indignantly told her that we weren’t newlyweds, but had only met the previous day. But it must already have been evident that we were at ease in each other’s company.
There was some discussion in the hostel at Strome Ferry that evening, as to where everyone would be going next day. I was aiming for the remote hostel at Alltbeithe which is only accessible on foot, but Marie was bound for the hostel at Glenelg, a village opposite the Isle of Skye, which she had visited before and which she knew had a proper bathroom. Having little confidence in her map-reading she was unsure of the exact route but I was able to find my bearings easily so we agreed to travel on together, at least for that day, and I found the hostel quite easily.
The hostel building was originally an inn, and is of historical interest in that it is mentioned in James Boswell’s diaries of his travels with the lexicographers, Dr Samuel Johnson – they stayed there overnight. From the hostel we walked into Glen Beag, (the small glen) where there are two Pictish brochs. They are classified as ancient monuments and are therefore maintained by the Ministry of Works. Surrounded by neatly mown grass, one of the brochs has retained its original height of about ten metres – they are cylindrical structures built solidly of unmortared stone and honeycombed with passages about four feet high. The Picts built them as refuges for themselves and their livestock when being pursued by their enemies. The Picts are believed to have been very small in stature, but little is known about them and by the end of the first millennium they had been entirely wiped out by the Scots and the Vikings. There are other, better preserved brochs on the Orkney Islands.
We ate our sandwiches sitting on the grass in that peaceful place, and soon found ourselves both inspired to start swapping quotations from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of versus written by the ancient Persian poet – “Omar Khayyam” – so discovering that we had yet another common interest.
The sea outside the hostel building is restricted to a narrow channel about a hundred yards wide, through which the water races, creating a maelstrom that changes direction twice daily with the tides. Cattle drovers used to swim their animals across, on the way from their winter grazing in Perthshire to the summer pastures on Skye.
We spent the next few days together at various hostels in the area, ending at the small hostel at Buntait above the shore of Loch Ness. On the final morning we visited and explored the ruins of Urquhart Castle, the ancestral seat of the clan of the ilk, in its commanding position on a promontory halfway along the loch. I took a swim in the loch – the water was very cold but there was no sign of ‘Nessie’, the legendary monster that is said to inhabit those waters!
But our holiday was over – we parted on the road, exchanging addresses and promising to meet again. Marie headed south – she told me later that she got a lift from a young couple who drove her all the way back to Glasgow. I walked back to Inverness for the train south. The week had been one that could only have been described as “idyllic” – we had been together, day and night, in the flower of our youth, in perfect weather in the most remote and beautiful part of the Highlands. We both realised that we were falling in love, but Marie’s strict Catholic upbringing ensured that our relationship was not yet fully consummated.
Marie was a bonny lass, and I realised straight away that I was not likely to be her only suitor. The warden of the youth hostel at Ratagan on Loch Duich, beneath the mountains known as the ‘Five Sisters of Kintail’ was Dominic (‘Dom’) Capaldi. He was a second-generation immigrant from an Italian family of ice-cream vendors who had prospered and owned a chain of ice-cream parlours in Glasgow. Marie had met him on an earlier hostelling holiday and it was evident that he had his eye on her. Always kilted, he was wearing what he told us was the ‘Ancient Stewart’ tartan – very frayed at the hem; deliberately so, I thought, as he was obviously no hiker.
In the autumn of that year we had another holiday at Glenelg and climbed a nearby mountain, Ben Sgriol, together. On that occasion we saw a golden eagle quartering the hillside in its search for prey. From there we were also able to visit Camusfearna, the site described in Gavin Maxwell’s memorable book ‘Ring of Bright Water’, about his pet otter.
I proposed to Marie on that holiday – she accepted me but we decided not to announce the engagement until Marie had met my parents. We bought the engagement ring at a shop under the ‘Hielanmans’ Umbrella’ – a familiar sight to anyone visiting Glasgow Central Railway station.
I did, however, observe the old-fashioned tradition of first asking her father (by letter, as I had not yet met him) for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Marie reported that he appreciated that approach and was quite ‘chuffed’ by it.
The following autumn Marie and I were able to take our holidays at the same time so that I could travel to meet her family. From the rail terminus at Queen Street station we took a tram to the suburb of Tollcross, four miles from the City centre where her family lived – the Glasgow trams gave a cheap and frequent service to all parts of the city
The Brooks family lived in a large Council house in Downfield Street not far from Celtic Park, the ground of the football team that was supported by Catholics. Hampden Park was the ground of Rangers, the Protestant supported team. Many Glasgow resident originally came from Ireland, and the fans reflected the long-standing divisions there, so that the matches (know as ‘old firm’ matches) were, and still are, strongly partisan. The joke among Catholic Celtic fans was, that to miss a home game counted as a mortal sin!
When we arrived at Downfield Street, Marie’s father, Robert Brooks, was sitting before a roaring coal fire into which he spat, at intervals. A smallish spare man, he was fifth-generation miner working at Cardowan colliery outside the city. He had pneumoconiosis, the ‘miners disease’ but it was only diagnosed as congestion of the lungs. To have correctly diagnosed all those suffering from it would have given rise to enough compensation claims to bankrupt the N.H.S. I noticed that the skin on the backs of his hands bore the tell-tale blue marks of hours of pick and shovel work at the coalface. In pre-N.C.B. (National Coal Board) days miners had to pay for their own coal but after the Labour party got into power in 1947 they had had a generous allowance of free coal, so that Robert was able to supply some of his neighbours too. A load of coal was delivered when I was there, and I helped him get it in.
Robert was an active member of the N.U.M. (National Union of Mineworkers) and had been something of a firebrand in his youth when he had been blackballed by several of the old pit-masters because of his Union activities, so he had sometimes had difficulty in getting a job in his early days. He was an excellent, though self-taught, performer on the concertina.
In common with other Glasgow workers Robert was a fairly heavy drinker, but he was a devout Catholic and gave up drink altogether during Lent. That was no help to his temper, which had a short fuse anyway, and the family would breathe a united sigh of relief when Easter arrived and he could imbibe again. He was an active member of the Knights of St. Columba, the Catholic men’s charitable society. He was a hard-bitten character – not surprisingly as his father had died (killed in an accident on the railway) when Robert was only seven years old, and from leaving school at fourteen he had had to be the breadwinner for a large family. He went down the mine at the age of fifteen on the strength of an older friend’s birth certificate.
During WW1 he had served in France as a machine gunner having trained at the Machine Gun Corps huge tented camp in Belton Park, Grantham, so that was an immediate point of contact with me. The names and ranks of all forty thousand men who trained there are inscribed (in strict alphabetical order but making no distinction as to rank) in a book of remembrance in St. Wulfram’s Parish Church, Grantham and his name is included – Lance Corporal Robert Brooks. I shudder when I think of how many young German lives his machine gun probably accounted for during that terrible conflict.
Robert always worked on the early shift, rising at 4.30am. His wife Margaret (Maggie) had been born into extreme poverty, she was of Irish ancestry on her mother’s side. Her father William Cook was a blastfurnaceman at the steelworks at Shotts in Lancashire where Marie their eldest child was born in 1924. Maggie had a sweet and gentle disposition, quite unlike that of her husband. She had had little formal education but could read and write. An old photograph shows her as a strapping young woman (she had worked in a laundry) but when I met her she was a shrunken figure suffering severely from arthritis and worn out with childbearing. Like almost everyone who met her, I took to her immediately. Maggie was a simple person – she liked nothing better than to watch a good film and she was inordinately fond of sweets. She had a simple sense of humour too, with a most infections laugh. One would not have expected her to marry anyone like Robert, but years later she confided to Marie that the main reason for her marrying, was to get a clean bed to lie on. She made a great impression on me, and I always felt happy in her company.
Maggie would get up with her husband and give him his breakfast, usually a boiled egg and toast, and she would prepare his snap – cheese sandwiches for the lunch break. Wartime rationing was still in force but men doing heavy manual work got an extra cheese ration. Robert was a gregarious character and as soon as I met him he asked me if I would take a ‘refreshment’. He poured a generous measure of whisky – that effectively ‘broke the ice’ and we adjourned to the local pub, known only as ‘Bradley’s’ which was, literally, a ‘spit and sawdust’ establishment. Robert’s tipple was ‘a hauf and a hauf’ – a small neat whisky followed by a half-pint of ‘heavy’ – the Scots term for bitter beer. I had a good head for drink in those days and was able to keep up with him – even so, at closing time I found that, to use the words of the comedian Will Fyffe, “Glesca wis gaeing roond and roond”. In order to work off the after-effects we walked round the local golf course, where Robert told me he often used to supplement his earnings by caddying. Incidentally, Marie told me that he was in the habit of plying with drink any boyfriend she brought home. The one previous to me had disgraced himself by being unable to hold his drink – needless to say, he had not been invited again.
At about that time my brother, Anthony, who still lived in Grantham, became engaged to Vivien Hotter, who lived in Peterborough but worked in Grantham. Vivien’s father had died young and her mother suffered from chronic rheumatoid arthritis and was devotedly looked after by Vivien’s brother, Dick.
Anthony and Vivien decided to have a holiday in Scotland and when Marie and I next went north in the spring of 1951 we again visited Glenelg Youth Hostel. Anthony and Vivien met us there by arrangement, having travelled by train to Inverness and hitch-hiked from there. Our objective was the remote hostel at Lonbain on the Applecross peninsula which was then only accessible on foot or by motorcycle along a grassy track. The hostel building had once been the school house, but the village had become depopulated and there was only one remaining resident, a forty-five year old bachelor, Duncan Mackenzie, who had lived there all his life. He was a dour character and a devout churchgoer. We arrived on a Sunday and, because Duncan, who was the hostel warden, would not handle money on the Sabbath we had to leave the hostel fees in a tin on the mantelpiece. Incidentally, Marie and I visited that part of Scotland again forty years later, travelling by car. Duncan Mackenzie was still living there – he was probably the last resident of a ‘black house’ (so called because it was chimneyless) on the mainland. The grassy track had been replaced by a metalled road, and the hostel building had become a prestigious holiday ‘let’ at six hundred pounds a week, compared to the 1/6d (7p) a night that it had cost us in 1950!
When we left Lonbain on our first visit there we had to catch the MacBrayne’s large Stornoway ferry steamer in Glenelg bay in order to reach the railhead at Mallaig from where L.N.E.R. (now G.N.E.R.) trains were time-tabled through to London on the East Coast main line. The ferry was timed to reach Glenelg at 6am, so Marie, Vivien, Anthony and I set off from Lonbain on a very dark, wet night carrying hand torches and walked the six miles from Glenelg. The only access to Glenelg was by the ferry steamer run by MacBrayne’s, which picked up passengers bound south at the railhead at Mallaig, whence passengers could be ticketed through to London. The ferry vessel had to wait offshore in Glenelg bay, to be met by a small rowing boat carrying the embarking passengers. The two boatmen peered out into the driving rain, eventually spotting the ferry’s lights and we clambered in and were rowed out to the ferry, climbing up a rope-ladder and being helped aboard, looking and feeling like half-drowned rats.
The ferry’s ticket office was manned by a MacBrayne’s employee. He was wearing a smart uniform jacket but, looking down, I saw that he was still wearing his pyjama trousers! There was a warm drying room above the ferry’s engine room, so we soon felt more comfortable.
Marie came south to meet my parents in the autumn of 1949. We went for a walk in Belton Park and while we were there Marie told me her mother was pregnant yet again. She was absolutely furious with her father about that. The baby was born on 5th March 1950 at Downfields Street and was named Margaret after her mother. I visited Glasgow again soon afterwards; while I was there Marie’s mother suffered a massive stroke and she died two days later, on Easter Sunday in Glasgow Royal Infirmary, aged only forty-four. Although it was a Bank Holiday weekend the main Post Office in George Square opened for a couple of hours on the Monday, and I was able to help by sending telegrams to various members of the Brooks family, none of whom was on the telephone.
Marie and I made arrangements for our marriage, which was to be on 6th August. Following the death of Marie’s mother, there was the five-month old baby, Margaret, to be looked after. Marie’s aunt Mary, Robert Brooke’s sister, took over the responsibility temporarily, but then she fell ill. In fact she had P.K.D. (polycystic kidney disease) an up to then unidentified ailment which we found out much later was a genetic disease that had been in the family for several generations. Marie and Margaret were both subsequently tested for the disease and, fortunately found to be free from it.
Marie and I decided to take Margaret and bring her up as our own. That decision was made after much heart-searching but Marie felt that Margaret was her responsibility and I wanted children, anyway. It was a decision that neither of us ever regretted – on the contrary Margaret (whose temperament proved to be very much like that of her real mother) brought much happiness into our lives and we always regarded her as one of our own. It would have been possible for us to have adopted her legally, as Marie was more than twenty-one years older than Margaret. At any rate, it was a decision that neither of us ever regretted. We knew, of course, that when Margaret grew up she would be likely to marry and would then change her surname. So Margaret remained as Margaret Brooks – she was quite happy with the situation herself and it did not cause any difficulties during her school days.
Marie came south again shortly before our marriage. We visited the Grantham parish priest for the pre-marital instruction required by the Catholic Church. Our parents had not met each other (in fact, they never did meet) but we received the blessings of each of our families in both Glasgow and Grantham. However, even if they had all disapproved we would have gone ahead, confident that the strength of our love would overcome all difficulties.
Our wedding took place on 6th August 1950 at St. Joseph’s church in Tollcross, Glasgow. My brother Anthony was my best man – we travelled from Grantham by train and stayed overnight at the tenement home of Marie’s best friend Helen Thomson, whom Marie wished to be her chief bridesmaid (‘best maid’ in Scots parlance). But the Catholic church raised a problem – they then required Marie to have a Catholic bridesmaid and Helen is not a Catholic. So Marie had to compromise and she invited a Catholic friend, Margaret McGhee to be chief bridesmaid. Marie’s young sister Eileen, then aged six, was a bridesmaid, too.
There was a slight hitch when the taxi taking Helen and Anthony to the church broke down on the way. The taxi firm managed to provide a replacement, but Marie and I were kept waiting at the church for a quarter of an hour until they arrived. Anthony bringing the wedding ring.
We spent a week’s honeymoon at a hotel in Lagg, on the southernmost tip of the island of Arran in the Clyde estuary. There were several other guests at the hotel, including the organist of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and his wife, also a young couple of our own age, Gwyn Evans from Wales and Ann Adie from Edinburgh. Gwyn and Ann were engaged but not yet married, so they were having an illicit week together, although they married afterwards and had a son, Alastair. All four of us got along well together and we became firm friends. Marie and I managed to keep from the other guests the fact that we were on our honeymoon – that is, until the final morning when a chambermaid found a piece of confetti in our wash basin!
At the end of our honeymoon I came south to Peterborough and Marie went to Glasgow to collect Margaret. They came down in a sleeper on the overnight train, which I met at 2am in a pre-booked taxi. When we got to the Dogsthorpe Road house Margaret sat down on her potty, looked all round her and burst into tears, although her tears were not like ordinary tears – they spouted out in jets!
But Margaret was not an unhappy child – she rapidly got used to the change in her surroundings. We spent many hours, in the evenings, dancing round the living-room floor to the strains of Jimmy Shand and his orchestra, played on the radiogram.
Our own children, Anne, Andrew and Francis, were all born in the Dogsthorpe Road house. The midwife attended all the births, which were quite uncomplicated. She said it was a relief to her to deal with normal births, saying, each time she left – “see you next year”.
In common with most of the banking fraternity I planned to be a house owner from the start, without going into rented accommodation first and I immediately began to look for a house. However, there were very few houses on the market, as the post-war housing boom had not yet got under way. I remembered that Marie’s father had once told me that when he had been looking for accommodation for his growing family, he had prayed to Our Lady for help, and the very next day he had been allocated a Council House. So I prayed to Our Lady too. She must have heard me, because the very next day I went into a house agents in Peterborough. They told me that a Victorian property in Dogsthorpe Road, Peterborough had come on to their books that very morning – they took me to view it, and I saw immediately that it was solidly built and in a good state of decoration. The price of £2,500 was a bit above my hopes but I offered £2,000 and we finally agreed a price of £2,100. A mortgage was agreed with Lloyds Bank at the staff preferential rate, with repayments to be completed by the time I reached the bank’s normal retirement age of sixty-five. Marie was happy to live in Peterborough, as she was immediately able to take advantage of her qualifications in haematology, so she got a job at the Peterborough District Hospital in their haematology department, where she was able to earn more than me and was able to save money, particularly because she was ‘on call’ when any particular haematological problem came. She opened an account with the Bradford & Bingley Building Society, and our financial future was now assured, at least until 1984 which was her retirement age. She decided to commute her pension for a lump sum and when she reached retirement age we decided to leave Peterborough. Remembering that I had always preferred Newark to Grantham, I decided to go and live there. Marie didn’t mind, as she was already used to living in England, and we found a small development of attractive looking bungalows about two miles from Newark town centre, the address being Foxglove Close.
Marie had, for many years, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. It had been first diagnosed when we lived in Peterborough – I remember she called in to the bank to see me at work one day, with the news, which we knew was bad news. She had had a pain in her right wrist (although she had not sprained the wrist) which became swollen, and the swelling would not subside. She was examined by a specialist, Mr Glyn Jones, who sent her to Harlow Wood hospital for treatment there – heat treatment, massage, etc. – even acupuncture. These all proved ineffective, offering only temporary relief. The joints of her fingers became cruelly distorted and she had to wear mittens to hide the distortions. Her wrists, feet, hands, knees and neck were the worst affected – the neck being the most dangerous. She eventually had to have both her knee joints replaced, together with the amputation of a finger and the amputation of all her toes (the latter operation being known as a “Pobbles procedure”). The N.H.S. supplied her with special shoes, with inserts, to make her feet look normal and she had to wear a neck brace (something which she hated). Despite all this she could still walk, using specially shaped “arthritis walking sticks” which supported the hands in the right place so that she did not have to use crutches. She went on like this for some time but then, one day, she looked me full in the eye, and said “you’re not my husband”. Seeing that we had been married for almost fifty years, that was a terrible shock to me. I immediately took her to our G.P., Dr. Nigel de Gay, who must have suspected that it was the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (although he did not tell me so at that stage). He immediately referred her to a (lady) specialist in that field, who sent her to Lincoln Hospital for an M.R.I. (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan. That confirmed the diagnosis. The facts were explained to me – Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease – the patient gradually gets more and more confused and loses their sense of direction (for instance, they will go outside their house, and then immediately forget why they have gone out). If their carer can remain with them at all times the condition can be coped with, but that is not usually the case, and the patient has to be admitted to a specialist ward. The patient gradually gets worse, although he or she is not conscious of having the disease, which eventually leads to complete loss of awareness. However, it is not in itself fatal, death usually occurring from pneumonia. I was determined to keep Marie at home and look after her myself. I was fortunate enough to have the services of a home help, Rita Kelly, who is a real gem – she never failed to attend weekly to give Marie a bath and to attend to her hair. On the rare occasions when Rita was not available, I had to employ an agency nurse, which was rather expensive but well worthwhile.
But Marie’s condition continued to worsen and she was admitted to Grantham hospital – she had a fall in the ward there and broke her hip – the bone was pinned but I was told she would never walk again. Her condition then deteriorated rapidly – she stopped eating and I was told that the end was near. I then told them to continue to give her water if she asked for it, but to discontinue all other treatment and let her die as peacefully as possible. Margaret and Anne came over to watch by her bedside –Francis and I stayed beside her during the day, and Margaret and Anne shared the night watches. Margaret was with her at the end, which was quite peaceful – Marie’s breathing got shallower and shallower, and at 3am on 23rd March 1999 it stopped and my good and faithful wife died. The funeral was conducted by Father Minh at Holy Trinity church in Newark and Marie’s body laid to rest in the Catholic section of Newark cemetery. The funeral was well attended – I, somehow, felt beyond emotion but my Grandson, William, who loved his Granny was seen to be in tears during the ceremony.
During the year after Marie’s death I remained in the bungalow at Balderton. My Grandson, William, got a job in Newark. I invited him to move in, rent-free, with me and I was happy to have his company. When he had a week’s holiday I arranged a visit to Rome and he accompanied me. We flew from Gatwick and were able to see the Vatican and St. Peter’s, the Coliseum and other tourist sites.
By about 1960 my father’s health was beginning to fail and he could no longer manage the shop. The Auditor, Mr. Parr, called a meeting of the shareholders, who were all family members. Dad held fifty one percent of the shares and Aunt Simonds, a relative who lived in Liverpool, had a substantial holding – she relied on the income from her shares and was always agitating for a larger dividend. Anthony and I had one hundred shares each, which Dad had given us after the war. Mr. Parr’s advice was to liquidate the Company as it was still solvent and I proposed a resolution to that effect, which was passed. Dad was reluctant to see the Company wound up but he voted for the resolution as it was in Mother’s best interests. By this time Mother had sold ‘Hillymead’, getting a very good price for it. She bought a bungalow for herself in Reedings Road, Barrowby and lived there until she was over 90 years old. Dad became mentally very confused – he was cared for at a nursing home in Dysart Road and died there from a cerebral arteriosclerosis on 5th October 1962 and is buried in Grantham cemetery. Mother continued to live in Barrowby until her health finally failed, but right up to the end she was still able to care for her garden – my last memory of her is seeing her driving her motor lawnmower when she was well over 90 years old. In her last years she was cared for at Nazareth House in Nottingham by the Sisters of Mercy. She died there in 1988 and is buried with Dad, in Grantham cemetery.
One of my father’s friends was his distant cousin Bernard Gill, a Pharmacist who lived in Nottingham. I remember that, as a child, I was taken once a year to Nottingham when our families visited each other. Bernard, known to our family as Uncle Bernard, was a very tall, thin man. During WWI he had served with the R.A.M.C. in a Field Ambulance unit and he was at Gallipoli during the campaign there against the Turkish army, where he had contracted a severe stomach complaint, necessitating an operation that removed most of his stomach and he suffered from chronic dyspepsia for the rest of his life. Conditions at Gallipoli were, apparently, horrendous – so bad that, when my mother was telling us what she had heard about it, even her talent for exaggeration was barely sufficient for her to describe it adequately. However, Bernard must have been very tough and he survived, eventually living to see his ninetieth birthday. He had many talents and was a skilled beekeeper as well as being an expert gardener. His wife, Winifred was, I remember, quite a beautiful lady with golden hair. The Gill’s had two children, Michael (known as Mick) and Mary. My memory of Mary from those days is rather vague; however, I recall that she had rather prominent front teeth, and my brother Anthony was inclined to make fun of her appearance on that account. I warmed to Mary immediately because of that, as I also had an unusual facial appearance that gave rise to my school nickname of ‘Froggie’. I felt that Anthony was being unfair to Mary and that almost caused a rift between Anthony and I when we were, in fact, quite close, feeling that we had to stick together against “the monstrous regiment of women” represented by our five sisters.
I saw Mary again in Nottingham 1946 when I was still in the army, on which occasion I helped her with her homework. I later saw her, fleetingly, at my mother’s funeral, but had only vague memories of her. When researching my family history (as a retirement hobby) I found that Mary and I had common ancestors in the Musson family who came from the village of Waltham-on-the-Wolds between Grantham and Melton Mowbray. The churchyard there holds many graves of the Musson family. I invited Mary and my sister Jane (who had long been a friend of Mary) to lunch at the village pub – I drove them there and we were able to find the gravestones.
At Joan’s funeral I noticed that Mary Gill (now Mrs. Hubble, but divorced) had matured into a tall, gracious lady with a wealth of tawny hair. In conversation it was immediately evident that Mary had much literary knowledge, also, like me, her political sympathies are left wing. I felt impelled to get to know her better – an opportunity arose when I was living in Newark and saw that the Bolshoi ballet company was playing in London, so I booked two seats and invited Mary to come with me. The ballet was enjoyable, if not quite our cup of tea – but the British Library nearby, was of much interest to Mary. Subsequently, we went for an enjoyable holiday at Sutton-on-Sea, which had long been one of my favourite haunts. During that holiday our mutual liking for each other (which by then had an element of sexual attraction, ripened into love and we decided to join forces and live together, although we could not marry as Mary’s ex-husband was (and still is) alive and well. Mary sold her house in Brewery Hill and I sold my bungalow in Newark, and together we bought a semi-detached house in Grantham at 11 Jubilee Avenue (off New Beacon Road) which is where we now live and is from where I am writing this autobiography.
My eightieth birthday was approaching, and in order to celebrate it I decided to invite the family and a few close friends to a trip on the ‘London Eye’ – the huge ferris wheel that had just been opened in London. I booked a ‘pod’ on the wheel for twenty-five persons, which is the number each pod holds, and as a concession I was able to include Francis’s son Nial also – he wouldn’t take up much room. It was an enjoyable outing.
I have recently celebrated my ninetieth birthday, when I hosted a family gathering for a meal at the highly commended Belton Woods hotel near Grantham. That, too was very successful, but it will have to be my ‘swan song’ of family gatherings. I am taking things very easy now, and have cut down my activities considerably, relying more and more on Mary. For sometime I had been exercising my brain by weekly visits to the Grantham Scrabble Club but I have found lately that I have been unable to score very highly there, so I (reluctantly) have to give that up also.
I now live a very quiet life, although Mary still pursues her many activities, and still manages our garden – which, though small, is quite beautiful, in her care. The only thing that Mary has given up is mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges and trees for which we have a local gardener who manages that side of it very well, for a reasonable charge.
So it is about time I finished this autobiography – there may well be “more to be done and good things to be seen yet”, but someone else can write about them.
John Rickman Roberts 2010.