I was born on 26th May 1919 at 7J Munition Cottages Scotswood – on the River Tyne. My father who must have been about twenty five years old worked in the munition factory of ? Swan Hunter - and I know he was badly injured in the hand by a bursting flywheel.
My earliest memories are snapshots of childhood experiences - in no particular order or rational arrangements – I must have been between two and three years old – not more.
We lived at Number two Moore’s Yard in Scarborough and there were I suppose about ten houses all facing inward to this yard. In front of us across the yard was a high wall and I remember I was very frightened when the huge shadow of a man was thrown up onto the wall when a door was opened and the light from the room behind silhouetted the man in the wall.
At the foot of the wall was a mangle (a wringer for washing) and I managed to get my fingers jammed in the cogs as I played with it. But my father a St John’s Ambulance man (!) came to my rescue and successfully extracted my finger and dealt with my injuries. I was very proud that my father was an Ambulance man and was called upon by our neighbours to deal with accidents – one small child I remember had been accidentally thrown from a bedroom window by an uncle showing off by pretending to throw the child out.
To the right of the yard were the lavatories – dry closets in which one could be surprised when as one sat there a shout came from below and behind and the metal container was extracted to be emptied into the Night Soil cart.
Our family “friends” were the Silverwoods who occupied a large house abutting onto the corner of Moore’s Yard. I think they looked after me when my mother was giving birth to my younger brother and I believe suffering complications which necessitated her being hospitalized in Leeds Infirmary some 60 miles away.
The Silverwoods comprised a family Father, Mother , daughters Lilian and another daughter Rene about a year older than me and a sone Sydney who must have been about a year younger than me.
I remember snapshots of scenes at the Silverwoods – Rene suggested I get into bed with her and thinking nothing amiss was surprised and indignant when the elder daughters scolded me for doing so. I may have been precocious but that really was a little over reacting . When I had an earache I remember Mrs Silverwood boiling an onion and extracting the centre to put into my ear – fortunately the onion was allowed to cool a little first.
Lilian took me to the cinema ( futurist?) where I enjoyed crawling under the seats and popping up now and then to the consternation and irritation of the audience. The film was of course silent and in black and white and the only part I remember was a man coming out of a large building and at the top of the steps clutching his breast and falling down the steps.
Another not infrequent trip was to the beach (the Sands) where I became sick on the swings and on another occasion won a painting box for my prowess in a sack race – or was that much later?
I remember too my first lesson in instant unquestioning obedience to my father. I remember I was playing in the street when he shouted “Dennis, stand still” and I did just as a motor cycle brushed past me.
At that time I had my first taste of bereavement when a tadpole I had been given died in a glass jar of water which I had placed foolishly on a windowsill in the sun.
My father took us each Sunday to visit our grandparents and although it was a long walk (about three miles) we enjoyed the visits. For a while when visiting my maternal Grandmother we found her in bed and we had to stand some distance away sucking a formamint (?) tablet . Grandma had consumption and soon died. I do not know the details but I believe she was of more gentle birth and I believe that when she married beneath her she was disowned by the family.
At some time about this time a crate arrived at their house containing archaic books and documents from some legacy on Grandma’s side. Grandfather was bitter about her family’s treatment of her and refused to open the crate which stood unopened in the yard in all weathers for a long time. I do not know what eventually happened to it.
At the home of my paternal Grandmother lived beside Granma and Grandpa Aunt Maggie. Now Aunt Maggie was very fat and I remember during our visit she had to go upstairs and later, perhaps a day later she re-appeared very slim and by a strange co-incidence at this time my cousin Alice was born. I believe her father was an Australian soldier – but this is half guesswork and half hearsay which a very young child could only make guesses at.
My father was very caring of Alice and went to extra-ordinary lengths to see she did not miss out on Easter gifts and birthdays. He would buy her chocolate easter eggs, open it down the seam , insert a gift of some kind and seal it again. I thought he was very kind to her.
I was allowed to attend St Mary’s infant school very near the Castle and I remember Miss Brown, an elderly lady of very kind disposition, who did not mind when I fell asleep at my desk. I remember too my first act of bravado and defiance when for some reason she said “Dennis Atkinson come out here” and I said sotto voce “shan’t” and promptly got up and went.
On one very dark and stormy day we children were taken to the nearby church for a special service “For those in peril on the sea”. I knew we were a fisherman’s town and that the church was the fisherman’s church but I never knew whether this service had a special significance at that time, but it certainly made a profound impression on me.
About this time there was a General Election and the winner was a foregone conclusion (I since realized) - Sydney Herbert – and the milling crowd would chant “Vote, Vote, Vote for Sydney Herbert – he’s the best man in the town” . Down, Down, Down with ?? Down, Down, Down. I was wearing a red rosette and was shocked when a man seized me and snatched it from my chest. I was surprised that when I told my Father he didn’t do anything about it. How are the mighty fallen!!
Cart horses were the only wheeled vehicles (apart from bicycles and motor vehicles) and it was exciting and interesting to watch them urinating in great torrents and on another occasion one fell down after slipping on the cobbled road. I didn’t really understand why the driver didn’t tell it to get up instead of beating it.
Very shortly after this time we moved to a new house – on Prospect Mount. The smell of paint was still noticeable and other houses around were in the course of construction. Our house was Number 18 Prospect Crescent called Aislec after the name of some house in a book my mother had read.
The lighting was by gas and cooking by solid fuel, we had the luxury of a flushing toilet and we had a garden front and rear – very small but a garden for all that.
Some time later whilst new houses were being built in the area we children would, after the workmen left climb up into these houses and walk across the rafters before floor boards were laid.
Cement was not used but lime was “slaked” in compounds and in some way used for the making of mortar. I never did understand it but remember getting my boots covered in lime when I tried to cross the compounds.
At this time too I was sent to Gladstone Road Infants school at about a mile and a half distance from home. We children would walk there in a body, taking a route through “The Plantation” – a woodland with a stream flowing through it, thence across the tips – a disused tip I suppose – filled in and grassed over, then alongside the railway line (a single line from Scarborough to Whitby), over Alamor Road and thence to school.
Here I had my first encounter with a virago – Gladys Bolder – a large girl who for no reason that I could understand , in great excitement after school rushed up and clawed me. She must have been 5 years old and I was only 4.
I have few memories of the Infants school but some memories of the Junior school adjoining. I was in Mr Passman’s class and frequently roused his ire because of my ineptitude with the pen and ink. At that time the pens had steel nibs which were wont to scratch and ??shatter . The ink wells were filled by the ink monitor and always seemed to have bits and pieces in them which transferred to my pen and thence to my paper.
Mr Passman became unduly angry about my messy , blotchy work and would lift my trouser leg (we all wore short trousers) and smack me hard on the top of my leg, but this was ineffective in making me neater.
My elder brother Abe was in the next class up, controlled by an ex soldier who had a wooden leg and was notorious for his daring remarks when a child asked to be excused – “ get a hose pipe and you can do it from here!” I had not realized until now that our classes were all boys classes. I do not know what happened to the girls.
The headmaster was Mr Fern. He was small and round and I have but one memory of him.
I exhibited at this time the consuming fault which got me into trouble at various times in my life – I was a “show off” – the clown who must make others laugh and then got punished for my temerity. At this time we were singing carols in the hall and I convulsed my neighbours by singing
“while shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground The angel of the Lord came down and glory shone around.
Fer not said he for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind, there’s peas all hot and bubbling in the pot.
I don’t really know why I bothered , it doesn’t rhyme or scan. Naturally Mr Fern noticed my how my neighbours were enchanted by my daring and he hauled me out and later in front of the class caned me on my bottom. I should have learned from this but alas, similar events plagued my life until I matured much, much later (if ever).
About this time (I was 8 years old) the Scholarship exam was held , roughly equal to the 11 plus exam. I do not know how or why but I was entered at the same time as my 11 year old brother.
At this time I attended Manor Road Congregational Church together with my older brother. The Reverend John Strachan was a well known local preacher, much respected by the adults. Miss Kirby was our Sunday School teacher and it was towards her I felt the first stirrings of --------. I would fantasise about bad boys tearing at her blouse and I would in my fantasies come to her rescue and guard her modesty!
I was given a trial for the choir and offered the job of pumping the organ, a most desirable job for I was out of sight under the stage during the boring parts of the service. This was a source of great temptation to get up to mischief and distract the choirboys from my hidden lair. I do not recall whether I got into trouble and thrown out or just reprimanded, but together with a few older boys we left the church one Sunday and set off for the Plantation and no doubt other venues.
We discovered a hornets nest and decided we should try to smoke the hornets out with burning newspaper which we stuffed into the nest entrance. It was boring for nothing seemed to be happening so after waiting patiently (?) for a few minutes we decided to unplug the hole and see if the hornets were all drugged and incapable. First we had to extinguish the smouldering paper and George Stone, some 2 or 3 years older than me volunteered to use our only available source of liquid to put out the embers. As we pulled them from the nest entrance, too soon, the hornets came out in a cloud. I learned then what the true reference was when people spoke about stirring up a hornets nest. I had thirty two stings, mainly on my face and neck, others had similar numbers on hands and faces and poor George had a wonderful collection on his penis, which was nearest to the nest, and exposed. We danced about a bit and then went further afield for more adventures. I know my face was hugely swollen and adults who later saw me expressed great concern. George must have been in agony but all of us thought how brave we were and quite enjoyed telling each other what a wonderful daring adventure we had had.
Prospect Mount was a new estate built on a hill to the outer edge of the town so that we children were within a hundred yards of fields and woodland so we had ample opportunity for our adventure pursuits.
We would build camps in the fields and light bonfires in which we baked potatoes and relished them black and charred as they were. We had secret dens into one of which Willy Sollit brought an old gramophone and records !!! not very musical ones, just the current silly jingles , but because we had this secret location we revelled in them. We buried treasures to be exhumed later – pen knives and other trivia.
There was one girl allowed to join in these adventures – Dorothy Binns, who was one of us. When we went for a paper chase she would run with the best of us and when we played cricket in Duckies field she would field for us and I had profound admiration for her courage when on one occasion the cricket ball landed beside a huge horse – a shire horse – and as she went to pick up the ball the horse reared and I was sure it would stamp her into the ground but she got the ball and ran back to us without hesitation.
Often we would roam further afield along Lady Estates Drive and Rain cliff woods off the entrance to which was a pond we called the mere which was full of frogs and frogspawn. We “rescued” many frogs from other frogs that clung to their backs with claws dug into their necks. Little did we know what a trauma we were causing in frustrating their breeding urges.
Bird nesting was a standard occupation and though we later felt guilty and only looked into nests, we found many rarities and climbed many tall trees to look in. I shudder to think of the risks we took in the slender branches high up.
Conker lane was on the route and in season this was the place for the best conkers. I think the lane had another name but for us it was and always will be “Conker Lane”. In fact, some years after the war a former school friend wrote to me and among other news told me she now lived in Conker Lane – it brought back fond memories!
At that time Prospect Mount was rather like a village on its own , separated form Scarborough , on the fringe, incomplete and consequently we children were very much a community with our own identity. It was a community of new houses , owner occupied and built just after the first World War and occupied by the young families who up till then had lived in old properties. We therefore knew everyone and especially those who had children of about our age.
One man had a hut built at the bottom of his garden and we learned that he was an artist who drew the strip cartoons for one or two of the National comics – Rover, Beano etc. In fact it is alleged that he got much of his inspiration from “ our gang”. I wonder whether Dennis the Menace was in any way connected to us. He had a young daughter, too young to be one of us and strange is fate – thirty five years later when I was Mayor of Chatham I received a phone call asking me to pay a brief visit to a party given for the wife of the Managing Director of a local factory, as a surprise. After much pressure and at considerable inconvenience I managed to attend, much to the surprise of Mary Morley, who was that little girl and who told me how as a little girl she longed to join “our gang” but was too young.
For no special reason that I recall we decided to go for early morning runs and one of the gang, Willy Sollit wanted to join us but was unable to wake up in time so we devised a scheme to awaken him without disturbing his family or the neighbours. We tied a length of string to his big toe and hung the other end outside his bedroom window and we would call him with a tug on the string. It worked well for a while.
Another character of that time was Fred whose father was a press photographer, although that had no significance except that it made Fred more interesting. Fred was an outrageous character and some of his pranks were so embarrassing that we soon fought shy of him. Strangely enough it was Fred who caused us to become C of E rather than Chapel people.
He told us of a new vicar who owned a large new house nearby and he held church services in it and after church one had biscuits and tea and could play in his garden. It seemed an interesting ploy so we went along and became very involved in the Church. In the meantime a new church /church hall was being built nearby and we migrated there having formed a youth club called the teens club which organised for many years activities for the teenagers. We put on shows and plays and organised picnic outings to nearby beauty spots. I am ashamed to confess that once again my showing off caused a great rift in the club. We were rehearsing a play “The Bishop of Candlestick” rather like an excerpt from “the Count of Monte Christo” and I was cast at my request as the convict. I overacted disgracefully. Having learned my part I held court at the back of the hall cracking jokes or sky larking so much that my activities incensed the rest of the cast who quite rightly complained and would have sacked me but I was the boss, chairman , and they couldn’t. This caused a break up, or rather break away of the drama section, the St Luke’s players, and of course they didn’t ask me and I did not want to be part of something I did not control – a sad story of which I confess I was duly ashamed.
Strangely I still meet two of the Players who to their credit do not remind me of these times.
Our new church quickly built up a following and I with several of my contemporaries became a server – another chance for me to show off – oh dear!! A local businessman who owned a local Nursery and who supplied free of charge wonderful floral displays for the church was quite a character amongst the older church members and he approached me one day to ask my help in a “prank”. He had convinced the dear old ladies of the Congregation that he was a ventriloquist and offered to put on a show for them. I was to be the ventriloquist dummy and duly made up and fully rehearsed we did the show for them, after which I was to disappear. I remember that as a “thank you” he gave me a small silver galleon and I regret that I have no idea what happened to it.
I don’t know what happened but some little time later Mr Lawrence was asked to leave the church (I believe). It was the result of some sexual misdemeanour with another member of the congregation, I was reliably informed.
He no longer attended the church and his magnificent floral offerings were sadly missed.
A post script to the Mr Lawrence episode is this. During the War my future fiancée and wife was visiting my home and I took her to meet Mr Lawrence and to ask for a banana (Bananas were never seen or available at this time) from one of his tropical greenhouses. I remember him quoting “any good thing that I can do let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again”.
The great health scourge at this time was tuberculosis, almost invariably fatal and very contagious. My maternal grandmother suffered from this evil complaint and died at a very early age. We grandchildren would visit her on Sundays and I remember we had to stand well back from the bed and suck “formamint” tablets to ward off the infection. I do not remember any details of her death , but I know she did not last long.
Her eldest daughter (my Aunt Lily) contracted the disease and by that time the belief was that being in a sanatorium with lots of fresh air was the only cure. The rich went to Switzerland but my aunt went to Wensleydale , or thereabouts, Laybourne I believe and for some reason, probably s because I could get a free pass on the Railway, I was recruited to take her there. It was a sad journey for we both knew she would not be coming home again. We discussed the beautiful scenery, wonderful weather and all the plants and birds took on a clearer, more focussed appearance. I never saw Aunt Lily again.
There were some school fellows who suffered this disease and were taken put of school. We learned that one of them had to live in a field for the fresh air and I never knew what happened to him.
Admission to the Scarborough Boys High school was by competitive exam or by payment. Payment was out of the question for me and my brother (and most of my contemporaries).
I was successful – a phenomenon, a brilliant prospect etc etc and my elder brother was not successful. How he must have resented me and I don’t blame him. I learned years later that there had been some discussion among the adjudicating staff as to whether I or my brother should be admitted.
My informant a very stern teacher whom I much respected told me that he had argued that I was too immature and that my brother should be admitted , and he was right. Of course I was lauded and paraded, this genius who at so young an age had passed the scholarship exam etc etc. I cannot say it went to my head , I just accepted it and because I found things so easy I didn’t feel there was any need to work thereafter – I had arrived.
My school career from then on was a steady downward path, and I remember a lecture given to my class by Mr Turnbull , our Latin master, when I had scored very high marks in the exam without trying. He told us about spending ones capital and used me as the illustration , but I knew he was wrong , I could get marvellous marks without even trying!!!
A couple of exciting and worrying incidents occurred in the Chemistry lab during my second year (equals 8th year nowadays I believe).
Mr Lidicott was doing a demonstration with us crowding round the bench and he and he took out of a jar a stick of phosphorus to demonstrate that it would burn spontaneously in air, and it did! It suddenly burst into a massive flame and Mr Lidicott who was holding it in a pair of tongs, could hold on no longer and let it go. It was between us and the door so the only way of escape seemed to be through the fire. Naturally the class panicked and raced out through the blaze, during which panic two lads got very badly burned and later spent a long time in hospital. I for no logical reason went the other way and this probably saved me for when the fire came under control I was able to get to the exit with no panic. I used to visit the injured for quite some weeks or months after the accident.
Another sad accident occurred when the Senior chemistry master was demonstrating by heating some substance to give off oxygen I believe, when suddenly the test tube exploded and one boy was blinded. I lost contact with him for he never came back to school but I eventually attended a school for the blind. He became a very successful academic in later years and was nationally acknowledged.
My own minor accidents at rugby – dislocated shoulder, broken nose, broken collar bone, concussion – although they loomed large in my mind , were of course trivial compared to these two incidents.
The headmaster at that time was a Mr H Raymond King , a tall imposing man who strode the corridors in jodhpurs and riding boots, carrying a riding crop, or so I recall.
On two occasions at least he called the school to assemble for a public flogging The first occasion was a boy called Semmel. The details of his crime as I recall are these. There had been an edict about “borrowing” other boy’s gym outfits , borrowing perhaps being a euphemism. Semmel had borrowed another boy’s shorts (his brothers I believe) but H R King was to make an example of him. The wretched boy was marched in and on to the stage where a summary of his offence was read out (I am sure there was much more to it than I have quoted). He was dressed in gym shorts.
Headmaster to head boy “Gillman fetch my canes”. Gillman departs and returns with a selection of long canes – head master takes on or two – victim is bent over a desk – I cannot recall whether he was held or not.
Head wields cane – six times – and the squeal which started at the first stroke mounts in intensity and we hushed and deeply impressed are dismissed to our class rooms.
I remember one other public caning but this was of a much tougher boy and I cannot recall the crime.
Two other incidents of my school career stand out in my mind., although I was caned many times for failing to attend detention or do lines.
One occasion where my show off tendency applied , beside a flight of stairs en route to the toilets stood the caretaker’s cubby hole. Mr Postgate the caretaker was an unpopular little man who tried to be bossy. Seeing in his cubby hole as I went down the stairs I decided it would be fun to lock him in, which I did in the presence of a crowd of supporters. Some little while later H R King arrived at my classroom carrying a cane and making no pretence of investigating, called me out, bent me over and caned me. Surprisingly enough it was not half as bad as other canings I had had.
The second occasion that I recall was somewhat different. Again I was showing off , I was in the Fifth form by then. Our form room was stepped like a lecture room and beneath us was the cycle shed. I conceived the wonderful (stupid) idea of playing a joke on Mr E L Rice, an English teacher who fancied himself. I attached a length of cord to all the bells in the cycle shed and passed it through a hole to my seat in the classroom. I attached the loose end to my foot and at an appropriate moment I jerked my foot and rang the bells, much to the amusement of my classmates who betrayed me by pointedly looking at me in their hilarity. Mr Rice was no fool , he knew something was afoot (!) and told me to come out but I couldn’t immediately comply for I was tied by my foot to the source of the amusement. I did eventually release myself and went forward. Mr Rice was incensed and hit me hard across the face, knocking me down the flight of steps. It was a vicious blow but I bore it as best I could. He told me NEVER ever attend his lesson again. I thought this was only a temper and did go to his next lesson but was thrown out. This was my matriculation year (equivalent to GCEs) and it was important that I pass in English for no English, no matriculation. I determined that he would not stop me passing and was spurred on by my resentment of his exaggerated response to my prank and I had the satisfaction of doing well in his subject (so there Mr Rice!).
Throughout my school career I seemed to have the impression that I could get by without doing my homework , (living on my Capital). There were few exceptions, one of which was Mr Robert King, Maths, who without ever resorting to the cane or detention had us all in thrall. I did occasionally do his homework during the history lesson preceding his lesson, but it was a risky business!
About this time I was eager to make money during the long summer holidays and I got a job selling chock ices ion commission from a tray at the Cricket Festival. It was quite lucrative except on wet days and I earned three pounds in five days when a skilled worker would only receive £2 10 shillings (£2:50) for a week’s work of 6 days. I saw all the famous cricketers in action, Sutcliffe, Burns, Leyland, but frankly I was only marginally interested.
On another occasion I got myself a job as a ball boy at a tennis tournament. The pay was quite good at 2 shillings per day , but unfortunately I didn’t know much about tennis and no one told me so I imagine I was a nuisance on occasion when I went after a ball at the wrong moment, or failed to do so when I should have done.
I earned what was then regarded as a princely sum and bought my mother a rose bowl which I felt she didn’t really appreciate and would have preferred a contribution to the housekeeping.
I then had a regular job as boy for Miss Hardy’s gown shop, Miss Hardy’s being the hight class dress shop in the better part of town. My duties were to deliver dresses to the rich clients on my bicycle, to do odd jobs for the shop , including buying sylko thread and buying picot edging (a kind of lace edging) and buying pins for the fitting room.
Now the fitters would pin up the gowns and unpin them, throwing the pins haphazardly on the floor and one of my many tasks was to gather up the pins at the end of the day, a boring laborious chore. I hit upon the idea of buying stainless steel pins and picking them up with a magnet, but the chief fitter would have none of this. I had to revert to the brass pins. I think she couldn’t bear to think of me finding an easy way to do the job.
This job caused me some acute problems which I didn’t ever manage to solve satisfactorily. I had been selected for the school Rugby team First XV, the school having recently switched from soccer to Rugger and since I worked on a Saturday morning and might be delayed with a delivery towards noon or later, it was a rush to get to the Rugby field in time for home.
Eventually the whole problem of the job was solved because on cycling to make a delivery I didn’t make it and woke up in hospital, having collided with an elderly woman who stepped off the pavement in front of me and I was no longer in possession of a cycle and gave up the job at considerable financial loss (eight shillings a week).
I obtained my matriculation certificate which was the essential qualification to enter University, but that was purely academic (no joke intended) because for me along with almost all of my contemporaries University was out of the question for financial reasons. There were no grants available and only very few scholarships existed (I only ever heard of one a couple of years before my time).
I went into the Sixth form but this was purely a formality for it was clear I would have to get a job. I was offered one with a music shop, prospects to become a piano tuner cum salesman - ridiculous. I made application and was accepted by Ellerman Hall Line, a merchant shipping line as ships apprentice but this meant paying a premium for the first several years, and that was out of the question. I was offered a post (and accepted) as Apprentice Architect and Surveyor but again the premium was not possible and although the Architect unusually waived the premium there was no salary , so I left. I then approached Boots the Chemists and was accepted with prospects of becoming a dispensing chemist but at the same time I had made approaches to London and North Eastern Railway to become a clerk and they accepted me and I accepted them.
Back to the chronology. About this time Dorothy Binns , who was for all my youth and even later, a true friend but never a girl friend in that sense of the word, even sixty five years later we still correspond and I hope she feels for me the same warmth and affection that I feel for her – I digress – asked me one day whether I had noticed Joan Shakeshaft, and frankly I had to be instructed who she was – a girl who attended church, not especially noticeable, but pleasant enough . She had apparently expressed some interest in me and I went overboard. I was flattered so I made overtures to her , which she warmly reciprocated. I remember she attended a posh private school not far from my school , which made her more attractive. I must have been part snob, although I would have heatedly denied it. We started a hot courtship which blew hot and cold for several years , we parted several times and then re-united. She was fickle and wanted to play the field. I wanted to pursue one only. Her parents found me acceptable and I liked them.
About this time I finally left school and joined the London and North Eastern Railway as a clerk (passenger department). This was quite an achievement. My first posting was to Forge Valley station , a small country station about ten miles from Scarborough on a single line from Scarborough to Pickering. At that station I was introduced to the work by Jack Myers , who was a year older and had been posted elsewhere. It was a ridiculous situation I later realised for he was my tutor and mentor, and the Station Master MR Tindall , with whom Jack lodged, was a remote and critical figure in the background. He would stump (that describes it best) up the platform , make unfair criticisms of my ineptitude and then catch the train up to the next station . Wykeham I think.
I travelled daily to work om the single line railway train and it was on this train that I met the author of those memorable words “well Dennis once more and once less”. This he said every morning as we met on the train.
We had two porter/signalmen at the station, Chris and Eric. Their functions were to signal the trains up and down by means of a bell and , in case of doubt, the telegraph. They had to hand a token to the driver and receive one from him, a protection against there ever being two trains on line at the same time.
They also operated the level crossing gates and did the heavy work about the station. Chris was a giant lump who lived with his mother and who was a “good” son, whereas Eric was the fly guy, the village Casanova, who would boast of his conquests to my eager ears. I think he had a wife somewhere but he rarely mentioned her.
For some reason I remember Chris and Eric’s salary – £2 10 shillings (£2.50) per week. Had they been purely porters their wages would have been £2 5 shillings (£2.25). We had very few passengers, there was a bus service to Scarborough and up the line to Pickering. Occasionally we would sell a ticket to Kings Cross for £1, 10 shillings and 9 pence (I think) – a big day! Occasionally we would accept parcels but mainly we had goods traffic, wagon loads of sugar beet and sacks of corn. We rented out sacks and keeping account of delays in returning them was an important part of business. Jack Myers and I would fill much of our time with stupid pranks e.g. putting detonators on the line and hitting them with a hammer, a dangerous ploy. A local carter called daily to collect and deliver local goods and a Railway lorry called to collect and deliver to the remote farms. It was on this lorry that I first learned to drive, only in the Station yard, and this was not easy with the “crash” gears, but I gradually learned until the day I stupidly drove over the weigh bridge and broke it. This of course caused a scandal and sad to say the lorry driver had to face the furore, for if it had been known that I was driving his offence would have been much more serious.
I remember the names of the Moor villages to which we sent farm good , Brickley Heights, Langdale End, Stainton Dale.
Pickering was the end of the line for us and there was a line from Pickering to Whitby over the moors. Until eventually this made a scenic train service from Scarborough to Pickering, over the heathland moors, to Whitby and then down the coast to Robin Hoods Bay and Scarborough.
At that time funerals in winter had to go by rail on hand operated trolleys from the remote moorland farms to Pickering, since no roads were passable. It must have been hard work for I had a “go” on one of these trolleys and it was no easy method of transport.
One day the driver of a goods steam engine allowed me to drive up to the next station , a great thrill, but I had to wait for the “down” train to get back to Forge Valley.
We apprentice railway clerks had to attend classes at York for studies in Goods Railway work and accounts and passenger railway work and accounts. I did not feel that the lectures were inspiring and they bore little relationship to my daily work. After all one didn’t get much breadth of experience in a one horse railway station and in any case I suffered an ongoing malady namely a reluctance to pay attention to teachers when there was so much more of interest around me. Rumour had it that the most promising pupils would be awarded a traffic apprenticeship, which I believe led to accelerated promotion and senior post s – I never knew.
I was transferred to the Parcels Department at Scarborough, parcels being smaller items that travelled by passenger train. It was an interesting experience and involved a particularly early start. Huge volumes of parcels arrived early in the morning and had to be sorted into drivers runs. At the same time they had to be recorded on delivery sheets for the signing of delivery notes. I quite liked the job, but I suppose to vary my experience I was transferred to the Telegraph office in York Station. In this office were banks of telegraph machines , morse tappers and the ultra modern teleprinters. These last were mainly operated by typists during the day shifts but by men during the night shifts.
The telegraph machines were of two kinds In one case the basic machine had a handle below a flat 12 inch square “desk” and an item rather like a compass needle sat vertically facing the desk. The procedure was quite novel. The handle was to the left and right – right for a morse code dot and left for a dash. At the same time the needle would move right and left and in doing so would strike a metal stop, thus making a tinkling sound, slightly different in pitch for left and right.
A variation was a machine in which the handle was replaced by two pedals like piano keys , and the needle as for the other basic machine. Apart from learning the morse code, one’s ear had to become attuned to the slightly different tones from left and right. A veritable beginner could, if transmission was slow watch the needle and read the message from that. A proficient telegraphist would on hearing the call sign YK for York signal G meaning “go ahead “ and the sender would then at full speed go right through the message whilst the receiver wrote it all down on a special form.
The initial stages of learning were laborious, for the different machines had different sounds and learning the morse code so one could translate it quickly automatically i.e. without conscious thought was a skill not easily acquired.
Having hitherto been unwilling to study and apply myself I at last decided that I would master this business. It proved a mistake to do so for I then became trapped in telegraphy as one of a very few support telegraphist/clerks and therefore ceased having the opportunity of working in booking offices and general railway offices. I did apply myself and became proficient in all the apparatus in the office. I then was placed on the shift roster as a fully qualified telegraphist and I had therefore to leave home in Scarborough whence I had hitherto travelled daily to York for a day time shift only, and seek lodgings in York so that I could be fully integrated into the rota system.
I found lodgings with a family and had a happy time as an honoured lodger with free time now to get to know the attractions of York without the restraints of home. BY co-incidence the young companion of Forge Valley railway station was also seeking lodgings in York and we teamed up in the same lodgings. I do not think we were particularly good for each other.
During this time I was sent as relief clerk during the Christmas season to Richmond Yorkshire. This was the station for Catterick camp and we had much business with the soldiers and their families. This was the year of the great Castle Corey Railway crash disaster where on the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow a passenger train carrying hundreds of soldiers and their families on leave crashed, killing many people, many of whom were from Richmond Station.
My lodgings in Richmond were adequate , but only just. There was a large Airedale dog as an important member of the household and it caused me some difficulties. It would sit and stare expectantly as I ate my meal and on principle I would not give it tasty morsels from my plate. My attitude displeased the landlord who said “the dog’s more welcome here than you are” which didn’t reassure me. I attempted to befriend the dog and offered to take it with me when I went for a walk. It was a mistake – the dog wanted to take me rather than let me take him. It was a nerve wracking experience fighting the strong willed dog and I felt too bloody minded to give in and let it have its way. I was glad to get the dog home and vowed never to risk it again. To complete my disillusion with Richmond I had bought a whole Wensleydale cheese , the cheese of the region, and wrapped it with my very expensive Van Heusen shirt on my journey home for the week-end. I arrived home without my shirt and cheese which I never saw again.
I was transferred from York to Scarborough Telegraph office for the summer season. There was a one man telegraph office and enquiry office operated by a very excitable man through the main part of the year but when the Summer Season began and the many Excursion trains started the work became too much and the pressure far too much, apart from the fact that the office needed to be open for longer hours. It was indeed a frantic busy time, we also accepted postal telegrams and loaned a hand with the booking enquiry office.
At this time a young man, much older than me – he must have been in his early twenties – would come regularly from the locomotive department to bring telegrams for despatch. He could have phoned them to me but enjoyed the short walk from the loco sheds and a chat. He prided himself on being a rogue and I fell under his influence so that we started going to the Public House, the Pavilion, incidentally owned by the brother of the famous actor Charles Haughton, and on to others, I thinking I was a real hardened boozer, tough guy (I was just 17 years old).
In the office was the Station master’s clerk, Charles Haines who did a great job of glamorising the Army Reserve. I don’t know whether he got a commission on recruits but he certainly worked hard at selling the “Supplementary Reserve Royal Engineers”. The deal was this. One got £12 per year for signing on and had a fortnight’s training at Longmoor Camp, as an extra paid holiday. It seemed a great bargain so I signed up for it.
I went for my first camp to Longmoor where one was to receive initial training in drill and firearms etc. A regimental Sergeant Major greeted us, I had linked up with fellow recruits, and showed us to our quarters in a Bell Tent. I was the lone member to occupy my tent , pending the arrival of others. RSM Dimmock, quite a character, a caricature of old soldiers, and particularly Sergeant Majors of legend , made great play of telling me, as he had told others, that smoking in the tent was absolutely forbidden and that any cigarette burn holes on the tent fabric would be severely dealt with, and that he would inspect the tent when I/we left. I pointed out that there was already a burn hole on the tent wall and that I therefore could not be held responsible for it. Little did I guess what a storm this would spark for the RSM immediately sent for the one occupant who preceded me and bellowed and bullied the poor unfortunate who was not one whit abashed and gave back to the RSM a string of invective which in a regular army man would have surely got him sentenced to army prison. This man , say Smith, was immediately hauled off to the Commanding Officer and after a summary trial was dismissed from the service and sent home under dramatic circumstances. The sad part from my point of view was that Smith’s pals and not knowing the circumstances decided that I had been responsible for the trouble by “grassing” and I had no chance to defend my reputation. I in any case was a lone recruit whereas Smith and his pals had come down in a body. Needless to say I was given a hard time when word of my treachery was aired abroad.
The fortnight’s training drew to a close and I went home with my new uniform, a World War one outfit complete with buttons and putties.
Having returned home I settled back into Railway routine when the true nature of the Supplementary Reserve became clear. It so happened that the Government decreed that all men of my age must sign up for conscription – the first conscription in peace time – and of course all my friends from school had to register. I alone among my contemporaries did not have to register for I was already “in”. This at the time I felt was very unfortunate for there I was alone in the Royal Engineers whilst all my friends were to be together in the Green Howards unless they already had connections and special reasons for being drafted into the RAF or the Navy, either of which I would have preferred, but I suppose it was a blessing in disguise for I survived the war whilst many of my contemporaries did not.
Within a very short time there came the call up of the Reservists and so I became the first of my friends to be called up. I look back on this as a bit of a confidence trick for I only had one camp and one £12 before being a regular soldier. My call up papers instructed me to report to Fulford barracks in York, so off I went in my new uniform.. The bus conductress refused my fare for was I not off to the war , a war which seemed almost inevitable.
I arrived at York, one of the first to arrive and was sent off to Fulford Barracks where having registered I was directed to take a palliasse and fill it with straw and given a place to put it down for the night. When I had settled in I found myself helping new arrivals , directing them to the office and to the straw and all the manual tasks I had just completed. One chap seemed helpless and I felt sorry for him – he seemed a little simple and I by virtue of a couple of hours precedence. Was the old soldier who metaphorically held his hand and showed him around.
After getting him settled I heard the tannoy call “Sapper Collins report to the Orderly Room”. I asked my novice whether he was called Collins and he confirmed he was, so I pointed him to the Orderly Room and went about my own business. Within a short time he returned and announced “They just made me a sergeant”. Naturally I thought they must be joking but I had a lurking suspicion that he was too simple to be joking. It transpired that he in civil life was a dockyard worker on the quays at Hull and therefore had some experience of Dock work, and we were to form the No 1 Docks Operating Unit. To look ahead I found in future months Sergeant Collins gave me a hard time , possibly because I knew, and he knew I knew what a helpless ninny he was.
I was called upon to go down to the Railway Station and meet and direct any further Reservist to arrive and at the same time guard the large heap of stores addressed to No 1 Docks Operating Group BEF. (British Expeditionary Force). My place of duty was within 20 yards of the Telegraph office in which I had worked until a few months ago. I had wished to pop into the office and greet the staff but could not leave my appointed duty station.
When it appeared no more troops were to arrive I was trucked back to Barracks just in time to receive orders to pack my baggage and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. We stood in the barrack room listening to the Prime Ministerial broadcast by Neville chamberlain, the Prime Minister, and then instantly marched to the Railway Station to board a train, we knew not where.
We arrived at Southampton docks and about midnight we were loaded onto a ferry. We lay around on deck and sailed for France. It was at Cherbourg where we disembarked and we were loaded into Railway waggons, 8 horses of 40 men to a waggon , and set off, again we knew not whither. Eventually we de trained and marched to the Grand Market where we were bedded down on heaps of straw and after a hectic few days we were so tired that we slept well. In the morning we were assembled and marched off in groups of about 30 to various cafes for breakfast. A large bowl of coffee and a piece of bread or a croissant possibly, I can’t recall which , but the coffee was delicious after our journey.
We assembled once more and marched off to our billets, Ecole de Jeune Filles, where wee were marshalled into an Assembly Hall, given a blanket apiece and told to find a space to settle, but first we had to scrub the floor and then settled ourselves in orderly lines to settle down in our bedspace.
By this time I had fallen in with a couple of cockney dockers , crane drivers, who adopted me and we three stuck together as friends and partners for the whole time we were in France. Conditions were fairly primitive and the weather turned very cold so that one blanket apiece was entirely insufficient so my two friends and I snuggled up together and covered ourselves with two blankets over and one under I think. I was lucky to have found pals who would share.
The weather was bitterly cold and we had no heating. The Commanding Officer summonsed me as a French linguist of sorts to discuss with the concierge the possibility of getting the boiler working – it never did! I keep mentioning the cold. The River Loire froze over and I remember a truck bearing a British Soldiers body frozen stiff, Whence I know not but I felt that it had been taken from the river. Reg Meehan complained bitterly that his false teeth had frozen to a solid lump in his glass of water.
We started shift work at the docks where although I was mustered as a Clerk – Railway class 1 , I was given outside duties as a checker , which was outdoor work on the dock side in any weather and older more vulnerable men did duty on the Quay office. Still referring to the cold we were for one night bedded down in a hall in cloisters surrounding a courtyard so that although we had a roof overhead there was no shelter at the front.
On returning from night shift we found our billet had been usurped by a Scottish regiment who had dumped our kit in the courtyard and taken over our places in the cloisters. We were not pleased.
Life soon settled into a routine of marching down to the docks, doing a shift of eight hours and then marching back to the Girls school billets. We had problems and our first casualty on this march. A tram car had ploughed into the marching column and killed one of our company, injuring others. It was significant particularly because it was our first casualty and our first experience of a Military funeral.
Down on the docks a highly organised pilfering system became established and judicious dropping of crates of say tinned milk ensured a steady supply for our billets. On rare occasions men stevedores located small kegs of rum which were supposed to be locked in the ship’s safe and we had a few paralytically drunk soldiers. Very soon a police system was established. As we marched out of the docks a squad of red caps (Military Police) stopped us and searched us. It was in a sad way amusing the first time for tins of condensed milk and other goodies suddenly littered the ground at our feet and around us. It was unfortunate for the first in line for they did not have the chance to dispose of their loot. They were arrested and taken away for punishment, indeed I remember one chap, a particularly nice young man who was caught and sentenced to a spell in Military prison whilst many much more guilty but more astute and quick witted were never caught.
Within barracks we lived in a school assembly hall and there was a stage at our end and many impromptu performances were presented. The man who was killed by the tram car put on a performance which lives in my memory for so very good reason. He was a thin, tall, pale faced pimply young man with thick lips and a negroid appearance His act was the singing and miming a song I had never before heard but was apparently well known to the London crowd. My brother Sylvert had a row of forty medals on his chest, killed forty thousand niggers in the west, he knows no rest he’s a son of a gun, don’t push just shove, don’t push just shove, got an arm like a leg and a punch that would sink a battleship it would take all the Army and the Navy to put the wind up Sylvert. Silly, trite, but as Massah Johnson sang it ,it amused and pleased us. I enjoyed a notoriety for my singing out of tune – that was the essential part, of “stardust”. My simple soldier friends rolled in the aisles. Strangely many, many years later Charlotte found it astounding that I could sing so much out of tune. I believe I changed key when I was wishing a change note.
In leisure time we would wander around town taking a drink in a café or buying a meal at Chicken Joe’s open-air stall, and chicken and chips never tasted so good. At one café the daughter of the proprietor took a fancy to me, probably because I could speak adequate French and was a novelty as a young English soldier. I remember I was invited to join in the grape harvest at a nearby Vineyard and I would have been delighted to do so but there was no way I could get time off or permission to travel so I had to refuse and this gave some offence to the girl and her family.
One interesting incident was the occasion when I went with my friends in the big Prisunic store where they were selling poly photos, a collection of about twenty four snap portraits of which one could choose one or two of the best and have them enlarged for a modest price. My photographs came out so well that they enlarged one of them many times and used it as an advert to attract other soldiers. This photograph was displayed very prominently all the time I was in Nantes and I often wonder when they remembered it and replaced it with a photograph of a young German soldier.
About this time I caught a very bad chest cold (probably bronchitis) and one family we knew was concerned for my health so much so that the lady of the house insisted on “cupping” me i.e. a set of glass containers was used. In the container a cotton wool pad was wet with spirits, ignited and then applied to the chest or back. The flame used up the air in the cup and the skin was drawn in to fill the vacuum. The old lady swore by the efficacy of this remedy and I know not whether I was helped by it.
The army system was an archaic system where one had to report sick, go on sick parade, be seen by a doctor (vey briefly) and prescribed e.g. medicine and duty, light duties , or in extreme cases bed , or hospital. The rules were also strict that having reported sick one had to go again on the date instructed by the M O, to get sighed off or go on to further treatment. I duly reported for signing off and was astounded to be directed to Hospital at La Baulle, a seaside resort some miles away, having to travel there by train.
At the Hospital I was put to bed in a delightful room of the Hospital, on the beach. There were some strange characters in the Hospital, some of whom were clearly malingering – in Army parlance trying to work their ticket which meant get a medical discharge and be sent home to England and the lengths to which they went were mind boggling! One set off to walk, across the sea and since it was a shallow beach he had gone quite a distance before he was “rescued”. He admitted that he was “trying it on”. Another attempted to drink from a chamber pot and again I was assured by his friends that it was just an extreme attempt to deceive the medical people.
After a few days I was told one morning that I was being returned to my unit and must first report to the office for travel documents etc. I was dressed in my cleanest neatest uniform and ready to go when a sergeant major collared me and escorted me to a back entrance where there stood an army lorry and driver plus mate. “Climb into the back of the lorry where you’ll find a shovel” I was told “and go with the lorry to the coal depot. Load the lorry . return and then go to catch your train”. Innocently I thought that though I didn’t feel up to it surely the driver and his mate and whoever was at the coal depot would be working too! Unluckily came disillusion , there was no one to complain to and I didn’t suppose complaint would help me.
I arrived half frozen at the coal depot and was faced with an enormous pile of coal and had to start shovelling it into the lorry, alone. It took some time and I was exhausted, dirty and despairing by the time I had finished. They drove me back to the hospital sitting on top of the coal and I then caught the train to return to my unit at Nantes much worse in health than I had been when I was sent to Hospital. If this was a lesson in avoiding sick parade it worked.
By chance shortly after this a rota for home leave was started and in the ??? my number came up. It was exciting going home, one of the first to be called up and first to return. I had to do the rounds of aunts and uncles and grandparents. It was laid in me as a sacred duty. I remember going with my grandfather to his club and out of my new affluence I left money with the barman for him to supply Grandad with a Rose’s Kings Ale each time he came in. It was a pleasant evening and I remember the long walk home afterwards , the last time I saw my Grandfather.
I remember visiting my paternal Grandfather and giving him a supply of his favourite tobacco, duty free from the NAAFI. Joan Shakeshaft was nursing at Hornsea and her father and I chartered a taxi to take us to visit her. It wasn’t a particularly successful visit. I think Joan had already found more immediate solace than a very young returned soldier.
I remember visiting my Uncle Harold who was most pressing in his invitations to go to the billiard hall for a game of snooker. I had never played it before and I wasn’t much interested, but Uncle Harold loved it and took great pleasure in winning hands down. Of course he invited me to a return match before I went back and surprise surprise it was just like the first one.
My younger brother and his friends were delighted to see me and in my immaturity I responded enthusiastically. I was the hero of the hour. The first of the B.E.F. to return to boast and show off. I blush when I think of this period , but perhaps I grew up later.
Finally I had to return to the Army and France and truthfully I was quite glad to go back to my new friends. I recall walking across London from Kings Cross to Victoria , in the blackout, when I was accosted by a young lady who offered me “a good time Soldier”. I explained that I could not afford her. “that’s alright Soldier” she said “I’m called up myself soon so this one’s for free”. Fortunately I was able to make my escape with honour , she didn’t seem very attractive, by explaining that I had to catch a train. I caught the train to Folkestone , my first visit there, and boarded the Cross channel Ferry the Maid of Orleans , bound for Boulogne.
At Boulogne I found a state of emergency , it was just about the time that the British Army was being driven back towards the coast, Dunkirk eventually and movement control obviously had instructions to send all possible soldiers to the Front. Fortunately for me they decided that I would be useless as an infantryman or that as a Royal Engineer I was too important to be diverted , so they put me on a train , in a carriage this time, to return to my Unit.
Of course along with most of the rest of the British Army I had no idea of the crisis that was looming. Indeed it was not until long after Dunkirk when I was back in England that I learned of the crisis. We of course were aware of fleeing crowds of French people who had managed to drive to the West with gas bags for fuel on the tops of their cars, but somehow we didn’t associate this with impending doom for the invincible British Army.
About this time, perhaps earlier, I had the chance once again to display my immaturity – it took me a long time to grow up. I was sent for by the Colonel and he told me that I was to be returned to England with the rank of Sergeant and there to train up soldiers to do the kind of work in which I was experienced and thereafter to go to a new war theatre. It later transpired that this new theatre was Norway. I hastily and very cheekily said thank you very much but I would prefer to stay with my comrades in France and forego the promotion. This got a very cold reception from the C.O. who said “you have not only turned down this present promotion but any prospect of future promotion so long as you are under my command. I immediately regretted my childish and impulsive decision but of course it was too late to even hint that I had a change of heart.
The man who was selected in my place did in fact get a promotion and was sent to Norway where he was killed on landing.
Shortly after this I was sent with four other soldiers of my “gang” and told to take my kit and report to docks ”Mole Passengers” where we would receive further instructions. I do not remember who greeted us and gave us instructions but I do remember that after we were admitted to the quay the dock gates were closed and locked for a crowd of Frenchmen tried to get in to the docks and we, not knowing what the War situation was, could not understand.
Lying alongside the quay was a small British Collier and lying on the quayside was cargo that we had previously unloaded from larger ships. Our instructions were to clear from the quay as much valuable cargo as we could and load it onto the collier and then await orders – to embark was implied .
With little idea what was in most of the crates which were as usual marked with coded stencilled references we set about our task. There was one special consignment, a small prototype plane from Fairy Aviation in Belgium and this was to go as deck cargo, with the wings dismantled. We could not get the wings down the hatch but by laying them across the hatch and jumping in the middle we did eventually fold the wings and get them down the hatch. We also discovered that there were cases of Whisky which we presented to the crew. Strangely enough I do not remember then or later seeing the crew (there must have been very few of them).
During this crazy muddled period I wandered onto the sidings where these stood covered railway wagons fully loaded but open and containing goodness knows what treasures, such as soap and toothpaste or whatever. I had barely climbed into the wagon when a British Captain with a drawn pistol climbed in after me and ordered me out. He wasn’t one of ours and I felt he meant business so I got out and re-joined my comrades on the quay side to continue loading. I feel, had we known what was afoot we might have done a better job, for we had no idea that we were to return home.
We decided to load a few cases of cigarettes (expensive brands) for our own use and I found a small case containing Rolex watches which I kept by me but generously shared with my fellows- they only had to ask the time to be presented with a watch. Eventually I was left with only one which I gave to my father.
Eventually we were told to board the ship and with no idea what was going on we did so whilst a mob presumably of French men hammered at the gates. A couple of tugs came haring down river towards us , we assumed to help manoeuvre our boat to turn it round to head down river to the sea. Suddenly they both stopped and turned about and headed up river. The skipper of our ship very adroitly did a “three point turn” (although it was probably five points in this fairly narrow river ) and we set off down river at a fair pace.
Suddenly ahead of us all hell was let loose. Dive bombers were screaming down and bombing the ships in St Nazaire harbour and as we watched, futilely firing rifles at the aircraft, a bomb hit down the funnel of a large passenger liner. We later discovered it was the Lancastria , whose demise was kept from the public for the sake of morale, especially since the Dunkirk tragedy has so recently taken place. Again we were totally unaware of this.
The Lancastria turned over onto its side and we could see people running, slipping, sliding down the upturned side into the sea which was littered with hosts of struggling soldiers and airmen. WE felt that our skipper should stop and pick up at least some of the shipwrecked bodies , but he was adamant that his orders were clear, to push on, and if we stopped we would ourselves become victims for the dive bombers were still screaming down and dropping bombs. I was detailed to go to the Bridge and man the Lewis gun , never having fired one before., but it was assumed that I would make out somehow. We sailed on and were soon in the open sea. The bombers had gone and we were on our way home.
We were informed (there were only about four or six of us) that since we had so generously supplied the crew with Whisky from the quay (we had of course thought that valuable cargo included whisky and cigarettes) , the crew (I never met any of them) were drunk and incapable and that if we wanted to get home we would have to man the ship i.e. stoke the boilers for we were losing pressure and losing way ,which in the Bay of Biscay was not wise.
“Fair enough” I thought, it might be a dirty hot job but I was young and fit so I went down below and found out how difficult it was. The boiler door was way above head height and it seemed no more than about eighteen inches square while the long handled shovel was about twelve inches wide. I would shovel up a shovel full of coal and swing it up to the boiler door and “clang” hist the side of the aperture and get showered with three quarters of my shovel full. It was quite a time before I got the knack and even at my best I was only half efficient.
I don’t remember much else of the journey, we were busy manning guns and doing our chores, until we docked at Milford Haven, dirty, sweaty and feeling heroic. As we disembarked we were greeted by a band of W.V.S. who gave us tea and a packet of Woodbine cigarettes (ten I believe) as we were hurried off to catch a train standing at the Dock station. We felt it inadvisable to refuse the cigarettes or to tell the kind ladies that the wooden cases we were carrying contained 20,000 top brand cigarettes, rescued from the quay at Nantes.
An interesting sidelight on the cigarette situation was this. When I joined the Army I did not smoke and had no urge to do so. We were however given a five ration of cigarettes whist on active service. These were in cylindrical tins of 50 cigarettes and as a non smoker I was badgered by my friends (and others) to give them my ration. Sadly giving up my ration did not gain me friends, it angered friends who were not first in line for the cigarettes and eventually I said “I’m sick of the squabbles, I’ll smoke them myself.” It was twenty six years later before I gave up the weed.
We were entrained at Milford Haven and detrained at Southampton where we were accommodated in Bell Tents on the Common. I remember marching to our camp site still carrying our loot whilst small boys , about 12 years old, marched alongside pushing prams and small trucks, offering (for a fee) to carry our “luggage”. These offers we gratefully accepted although I cannot recall how we managed to pay them except perhaps in cigarettes or French Francs.
We spent some time in camp on “The Common” and got to know the local pubs quite well, there was nothing else to do. Very shortly we were placed on duty on the cliffs nearest to Southampton digging and manning trenches for the anticipated invasion by the Germans and in between time going on night exercises in the countryside. I quite enjoyed that although it was quite physically testing.
The immediate scare seemed to subside and we were transferred to a large school and amalgamated with another unit , a stevedore unit and we were not too pleased, for we were a team who knew each other and besides , in a snotty way, we felt that we, the technical specialists, were a bit above the labourers, entirely erroneous and we soon became integrated.
At that time Southampton was suffering heavy air raids which we could watch from our barracks without feeling that we were in immediate danger. I for my part was concerned when we saw parachutes escaping from their planes which were shot down and as they descended ground troops fired on them. I saw more than one parachute collapse and the unfortunate parachutist descend in a rush to certain death. Rumour had it that some of these parachutists were “ours” who had been fired on by mistake in panic. It might well have been true.
At this time I was approached and asked whether I wished to take on the task of Night Orderly, which involved my being beside the office telephone all night to accept calls and if necessary call the Commanding Officer in the event of emergency. Strange that I was asked and not just detailed to do this job but I was glad enough of it for it left me free of Parades and other duties, although it separated me from my buddies, and left me a little lonely since I could spend the days roaming alone.
On one of my lone wanderings I strolled in the hot sunshine to a park on the outskirts of Southampton and there for the first time I experienced real fear. Up until then all danger seemed to apply to others. The air raid sirens sounded and as I stood alone on the hillside swarms, literally hundreds of German Aeroplanes flew low overhead. The sky was black with them, and the unnerving thing was that they flew in formation, steadily and purposefully overhead. I imagine they were London bound and for some reason there seemed to be no attempt to stop them – no ack ack, no fighter planes attacking them. Although I have both before and since then experienced being vulnerable in air raids this occasion stands out in my mind as being the most frightening one.
We went regularly to the dances organised by churches and voluntary organisations and enjoyed them thoroughly. There were many charming girls and had I not been already forsworn I might have fallen! I should perhaps mention that when we first arrived in Southampton I was anxious to get in touch with, and engaged to, my childhood sweetheart, Joan Shakeshaft. Of course in those days no one had a telephone except Banks and Businesses. I had no English money, but I had a bank account with the Yorkshire Penny Bank in Scarborough so from a call box I called the bank and explained my predicament, having just returned from France, penniless and eager to buy an engagement ring for my intended. How could they help me? I don’t remember how they did but they arranged for me to withdraw £20 (a huge sum) from some other local bank and have it debited to my account in Scarborough. All this with no documentation and only my word as security. It is a reflection of the time that the Bank did this for me.
I duly bought an engagement ring and took it with me on my forthcoming leave, and I imagine I gave Joan quite a shock when I presented her with the ring. I suspect she was already in a romantic affair with someone else – a sergeant stationed in Hull where she was working as a nurse. Of course since she was working as a nurse in Hull I arrived home to a disappointing reception, for she was not there. Her father suggested that we – he and I – hire a taxi and drive through to Hull and see her. He had other business duties to fulfil, and he also wished to see his daughter. I cannot imagine why we took a taxi but we did and duly met up with Joan, but it was not very satisfactory – no magic!
When next I had leave and went to Hull to meet Joan, she returned my ring, which I very stupidly threw into the river. It sounds dramatic and sad, but to be truthful I did not feel very upset, I think in fact I had been following a pattern that had no real meaning but was just a logical sequence to a logical conclusion and perhaps I was relieved.
After “defending” the South Coast against the threat of invasion we were drafted to Edinburgh where we stayed for a few weeks before being sent to Glasgow, where the events that changed my life occurred. We were in camp at Pollock when, with a friend, I spent an evening in Glasgow centre as was our wont we went for a meal at one of the ghastly canteens , in this case the CTS canteen (Catholic Truth Society) in I think St Vincent street. I was with Bill Cuthbertson, a very small, very dry acerbic Scot from Falkirk and this evening spelt effectively the end of our friendship.
I ordered egg and chips and was served by a blue eyed laughing girl who chatted to me whilst I ate, and I was smitten. I asked her if I could see her again and she said she would be going to Paisley Ice Rink the following day with her cousin and if I cared to, I could meet her there. “Did I like Skating?” “Oh yes “said I although my only experience was on roller skates in Scarborough. We checked on what time she would be there and I made up my mind that come hell or high water I would be there.
By chance- “Murphy’s Law” - when I got back to Camp I was detailed for some duty or other the following day and I was desperate, for I did not know the girl’s name or address or any way in which I could contact her, so I decided that whatever the consequences I would get to Paisley by skipping the last hour of my duty. This left me little time to get to Paisley and I had to run most of the way so I arrived panting at the door, ordered some skates and tumbled on to the ice, staggering and stumbling like a drunken camel. Two lovely girls rescued me and supported me to the barrier and guided me round the rink and teased me for having said I liked skating and I was even more smitten by Charlotte and I liked her cousin Ann, but it was Charlotte, Charlotte I wanted.
This was the beginning and from then on, I was able to date Charlotte as often as my duties permitted. I remember the first date was to a cinema to see “The three Stooges”, an outrageous slapstick comedy trio, something after the style of the Marks brothers, and we agreed that we thought they were great fun and that we must meet again soon.
I asked her if I could take her to a café for afternoon tea and she said yes but she knew a very good place if I would trust her. Would I?!! This place was at 18 Newton street Charing Cross and was in fact her home, where I met her mother, two ender sisters Margaret and Jane and subsequently, brother Andrew.
From that time on every spare moment I would see Charlotte and when I was drafted to Inveraray , way down the west coast on Loch Fyne, I schemed and plotted to get a lift to Glasgow, about 60 miles away over the mountains whenever I could make it and on one occasion Charlotte made the journey by MC Brains bus to meet me in Inveraray.
Whilst stationed in Inveraray we were part of Combined Operations troops and spent most of our , we, as the nearest body of men, were invited. We learned many of the traditional Scottish dances and I enjoyed them thoroughly, especially the “Dashing White Sergeant” where each man had two lady partners and if a man did not move in quickly he would find himself left out for two girls to a man left partners thin on the ground.
This very enjoyable series of entertainments stopped very suddenly after a tragic accident. We had gone as usual to the Asylum on the back of a 3 ton truck and were on our way “home” when the truck left the road, struck a wall and turned over on a lonely stretch of road, at about 2am a few miles north of Minard. I was the only uninjured man and Syd Young, who had been siting beside me was killed. Being the only person able to go for help I left the rest of the gang to sort themselves out as best they could and set off to get help. When I got to the village I hammered on cottage doors and got no response. Presumably the villagers thought I was some wild outlaw and they were taking no chances. I was getting desperate! Eventually I found the Minister’s house and managed to rouse him and explain what had happened and arranged for him to telephone for help.
After some time ambulances and army vehicles arrived and transported us to the camp at Inveraray . Naturally there were days of Enquiry both by the Army and the Civil Authorities. I think that the Civil Authorities thought that our driver had been drunk, he probably was, but none of us felt that any good would be served by saying so, even if we had known it was so.
I was interviewed by the Commanding Officer as a friend of Syd Young, for he had a fiancée in Hull and a girl friend in Inveraray, both of whom wanted to come for his funeral and the C.O. did not wish to have an embarrassing scene between two distraught ladies and I was surprisingly asked what should be done. I cannot remember any advice or whether it was taken.
We had another tragedy when an man who had been returning from leave thumbed a lift in a lorry from Glasgow and in negotiating a hairpin bend at the foot of the mountain the lorry dived into the river, killing our colleague. It was then I experienced an interesting and rather moving custom. The dead man’s kit was auctioned amongst us and of course inflated prices were paid so that the money collected could be given to his widow. The poor chap did not have much and I have no idea how much was raised at the auction.
Another interesting experience in Largs was an approach by a very small very red headed #sergeant whom I didn’t know except by sight, I think he was a mess orderly. He asked me to write a letter to his wife and I confess to being surprised:- he could not read or write. It was a strange letter, very formal, with no endearments, just a list of banalities and ending “yours faithfully Jock”. I remember telling Charlotte with some amusement of his letter ending and she rebuked me by saying that she thought it was moving and sincere.
I was next transferred to Largs where we set up a Combined Operations H.Q. I was able to go fairly frequently (weekly) to Glasgow to meet Charlotte. At first I used the bus service and it worked very well. I would go up on Saturday and return on Monday very early and since I was officially AWOL (absent without leave) it became a little dicey on occasions. For example one winters night the bus returning got stuck in the snow and whilst other passengers were content to wait it out I was desperate to get back before I was missed. We (i.e. the driver, me and one or two of the passengers) eventually dug the bus out and I got back before being missed.
When I went home on leave I bought a motorcycle (via my brother in Leeds) and I took it up to Glasgow where it became quite useful in commuting between Largs and Glasgow. Eventually I had to cease using it for petrol was virtually if not entirely unavailable. Eventually when I was posted to London (the War Office) I had the problem of getting rid of the motor cycle but no one wanted to buy it because no petrol was available. I had nowhere to store it pending my return – Charlotte lived in a flat in the centre of Glasgow. I remember using up the last dregs of petrol (I don’t remember how I had obtained the petrol) going from garage to garage and being rebuffed at each one until I persuaded one place to take it off my hands for a ludicrous price.
When I reported to the War Office I was surprised when they told me to find my own accommodation and report for duty at some office in Central London. Getting accommodation was tricky and I got in at the Union Jack Club where one could rent a bunk for one night at a time only so that if you forgot to book up for the night as you left in the morning you would find yourself homeless for that night. You only made that mistake once!
We were kept busy on the planning for “Torch” , the landing in North Africa, in which we were to participate. In between times we had to do work for the Dieppe raid in which thankfully in retrospect we were not to take part for it was a disaster , an exercise by Canadian troops in which most were captured or killed, and I remember the feeling of shock in our office when the first news came back to us.
On the lighter side we enjoyed our stay in London – many opportunities for enjoyment if you could afford it. Some shows offered cheap seats for troops but one had to be smart to get tickets. The Windmill “the show that never closed” and another Whitehall theatre where Phyllis Dixie was the chief attraction. In those days girls could not appear nude or nearly nude unless they posed motionless and all in good taste. I remember the show I saw was called “The show the Lord Chamberlain banned” .
My main concern was how to get a day or two in Glasgow and I went to great lengths to get time off and to get railway tickets. I used many wiles to get journeys without (legal) tickets. On one occasion Charlotte came to London to meet me and I remember lying on the grass in St James Park in the blazing sun and thinking how lucky I was.
Very shortly afterwards Charlotte was called up to the WAAF and was posted for initial training to Morecambe, so I arranged to visit her there and she got a pass to be with me. She was amused that they had given her a sleeping out pass and in those days one would not take advantage of it , or anyway she wouldn’t. I was at that time a Corporal in the Royal Engineers and as we walked along arm in arm we were accosted by an RAF policeman who addressed me as the Senior Service person there to remind me that Service personnel were not permitted to walk arm in arm. I remember Charlotte was furious that all comments were addressed to me and she, as a lower rank, was ignored.
We knew at that time that we should not be seeing each other for some time for I would be sailing for an unknown destination the following day.
I had tried to persuade Charlotte to get married before I went overseas again, and argued that the marriage allowance would be a fine financial start for when I returned. She would have none of it. “I don’t want my children’s father to be just a photograph on the mantlepiece. Wait until you comer home and then we’ll see!”.
We sailed from Greenock and I have few memories of the trip.. The ship was packed and it was difficult to find adequate sleeping space. I was in a hammock suspended below steam pipes and breathing was difficult. We shared the ship with a lot of American soldiers who seemed to spend all their time playing “craps” (a dice gambling game). We were invited to join in but the stakes were too high for us “Limeys”.
I remember being fascinated by the sight of street lights and the headlights of cars on the Spanish coast as we went through the Straits of Gibraltar, for we had not seen street lights or car headlights for some time in the Blackout.
I recall one particularly sad incident. A friend , a young married man accidentally killed himself in the toilets playing around with a grenade. I never heard the full story but that was the bones of it.
Naturally the ship was blacked out and smoking on deck strictly forbidden for even a cigarette could alert a prowling submarine.
In fact the journey was uneventful but we arrived at Algiers to a horrendous welcome from dive bombers and as we stood off the port we could see burning ships and aeroplanes and flak flying , quite like the cinema stories of brave American troops landing in the Philippines (although this had not yet taken place). We had a radio which announced that American troops were landing in North Africa and we were slightly irritated that no mention of British troops was made. The reason was that the British were most unpopular with the French in North Africa largely because of the sinking by us of the French fleet to avoid it being taken over by the Germans. We landed in the Harbour on the Mole Passengers and camped there for several days. Meanwhile the fighting around us had died down. Eventually we marched into town and took up accommodation in the Ecole de Jeunes Filles Louis Pasteur. There was still fighting going on up and down the coast and even after several landings we still had many violent air raids during one of which I remember I was walking “home” from a visit to another unit. I was alone and an air raid started, but the real danger for me was from falling shrapnel, falling like hail all around me and I was glad of my helmet. During this raid I later learned that a friend from the Unit I had just left was killed by a bomb.
Life fairly soon fell into a steady routine. We in the Sergeants mess soon started to get organised. Being the only French speaker I had to do most of the organising vis a vis the French. I attended an auction run by an Arab and bought an electric cooker which served us well. I advertised in the local press for a refrigerator to rent , and got one which also served us well. I signed the agreement and arranged the payments but regrettably when I was posted to Italy no one took over the responsibility , as I later learned , and the French renter had to make strong representations to get his money or his fridge back.
Now began an interesting period of my entering the realms of business.
It became the custom in our mess for any caller to be referred to me as the one who could communicate. One day a short unimpressive man was brought to my office and he made me a proposition. If I could provide transport he would guarantee to obtain eggs for our Mess. Since eggs were unobtainable I agreed , thinking that a short ride in a Utility van and a reward of say two or three dozen eggs was a reasonable arrangement.
Yordamlis Stavros had different ideas!
I obtained the use of a Utility truck and arranged to drive it to collect the eggs. It was no short trip , it was miles and miles through the parched scrub until eventually we arrived at what seemed to be an Arab village, with a few Arabs standing about. I remember my shock when, stepping out of the van, I stood on a snake – fortunately dead – but I didn’t know that.
Two or three tall hampers 3 foot high and filled with eggs were offered to me, some two or three thousand eggs, at 1 franc each. I was astounded and of course I had not got enough money to buy them. Yordamlis then made me an offer. He would pay and I would sell all the eggs at a profit and we would share the profit. I was unhappy about this but having come so far accepted on a “one off” occasion. On the return journey Yordamlis suggested that I ring around to various messes and offer them eggs. I accepted the suggestion for I was embarrassed to have so many eggs, but I insisted that I would sell at cost price, and Yordamlis was vey unhappy about it.
He was right, for after taking into account breakages I was out of pocket so I decided to increase the price on future consignments to 1 Franc 10 cents, and so we started the “Egg Marketing Board”. Word got around and I was inundated with requests from all kinds of messes and establishments and willy nilly I found I was making a lot of money and using a lot of army time and petrol. I finally built up an organisation with a driver and my Corporal being accountant for a regular weekly egg run.
Yordamlis suggested we expand the business by purchasing chickens, boar, turkey etc. but I refused to expand except for my own mess who were delighted with the special extras I could provide at no cost to them – it all came out of the profits. Even the French Navy officers mess approached me and were so delighted to get my eggs that they invited me as a guest to their mess.
Yordamlis offered to negotiate with his contacts for anything else I might want and I said I wanted to buy a couple of watches, one for myself and one for my girlfriend (Charlotte) which I duly obtained and they were superior watches. They were later stolen by an Arab in the following manner. I went swimming at Sidi Farrouch a little way up the coast and left my clothes with a girlfriend. On my return the watch had gone and Mercedes (for that was her name) explained that although she had sat beside my belongings, no one had touched them, but she did recall an Arab stopping close by and asking a question, then moving off. She was convinced that he must have taken the watch and she explained that they (the Arabs) were adept at picking things up with their toes with barely a pause. I had absolute trust in her and no other explanation was possible.
I can relate many tales of Arabs stealing from seemingly impregnable places. One example is as follows:- one of my drivers parked his car just outside our gates, with a sentry on duty just opposite. The driver went into the barracks for a moment just, as he said, for bladder relief and getting onto the car afterwards observed that his tunic and wallet and pay book had disappeared. The sentry had seen nothing.
A few days later the French (Algerian) police delivered his pay book and tunic to our barracks. They were apparently of n o interest to the thief, who would have in any case been taking a risk by keeping identifiable items.
I also was anxious if possible to obtain an engagement ring for Charlotte and Yordamlis obliged by taking me to some of his contacts where I was shown many samples of gold, in different colours and including gold coins. I was also shown many diamonds and was offered the service of having a ring made up to my specification. I finally decided not to proceed for several reasons. Firstly I had not got Charlotte’s agreement to engagement and if I bought a ring of only guessed size I would not be able to get it safely to her in Scotland (although I did manage to get her watch home). In any case, rich as I was by Army Staff Sergeant standards I did not feel able to afford the ring as offered.
My egg business continued to flourish and I was becoming anxious for I felt probably quite rightly that I was breaking Military Law by trading, using Army transport and accommodation. I was pleased therefore when a notice appeared in Army Orders that it was prohibited to trade privately with the French or Arab civilians and so I ceased to trade and felt relieved that I had no longer anything to worry about. Representatives continued to come to me for eggs and I explained this Order had been issued forbidding trading. One Sergeant was however quite upset and said “The General looks forward to his eggs for breakfast and I cannot get them anywhere else.” I shrugged my shoulders and said “Hard lines for the General”.
I was astounded when within a week a new Order stated that the previous order restricting local trading was rescinded and people started ringing up to know when they could collect their eggs. I was quite apprehensive about starting again for although I felt I was acting honourably I had a suspicion that someone somewhere would find a regulation I was breaking.
At this time I had met two French girls, sisters, and I visited them fairly frequently. The older sister had a little girl and her husband whom I never met was I believe a soldier in the French forces, but this was never clear to me. I found I became quite involved in their family and through friendly contacts amongst the British nurses I was able to obtain a thermometer and tablets for influenza. I forget the name of the tablets but they were unobtainable for French civilians and they did cure both the little girl and Mercedes who had been quite ill.
These sisters lived right across town and to reach their home I had to walk not quite through the Casbah but right alongside it. In fact the road I had to take skirted the dreaded Casbah and I was never very happy walking this road late at night. One heard at intervals of the murder of British and American soldiers who had ventured into the Casbah and whilst these were only rumours as far as I was concerned I believe there was some foundation for them.
The crunch came when late one night I was walking along Rue Michelet , my usual route and behind me I could hear the booted footsteps of another British soldier, in fact it was quite a comfort to me to hear the footsteps of someone who was, at it were, protecting my rear. Suddenly it dawned on me that I could no longer hear these footsteps and looking somewhat apprehensively around, I could discover no sign of my “protector”. I learned that the following morning the body of a British soldier was recovered from the Casbah, and this decided me to try to find another route to the girls. In fact I made arrangements with duty taxi drivers , whom we employed for official transport to collect me at ten or eleven o’clock on the evenings I was out. A money present from my egg profits was easily afforded for the security. I received post cards for several years from one of them (Mercedes) for several years after I had quit Algiers.
Yorlamlis surprised and embarrassed me when he told me of a rich Jewish young lady who wished to make the acquaintance of a British Sergeant. I was at that time a Staff Sergeant. Would I be interested? I declined but said I would ask in the Sergeant’s mess whether any of my colleagues were interested. I did in the event pass on a contact who seemed thereafter to have a fulfilling social life.
Algiers was full of interest and I remember one day walking with friends when we came across a long queue of Allied soldiers and we innocently wondered for what were they queuing? We went to the head of the queue to discover that they were queuing for a brothel “Le chat Noir” and at the turnstile girls would be seen walking along the balconies , down to the turnstile, pick up another client and then lead him up the stairs around the balcony , disappear and vey shortly reappear, return to the gate, take another customer and repeat the process. I found the procedure a little distasteful and I wondered how desperate on e must be to join the queue. Perhaps the fact that I had recently left my new girl friend – proposed fiancée – gave me a different perspective.
One of our drivers, a young Irish lad, begged me to take him to the Black Cat (a local brothel), for he spoke no French and was anxious to find out for himself what was involved. He was very persuasive and a little pathetic so I acceded and found the experience enlightening. I introduced him and explained what he required and then sat in the bar with one or two “ladies” who were very pleasant to me and made no overtures , whilst the young Irishman enjoyed himself upstairs. It was not long, but I was impressed by the courtesy of the young ladies , who I think found it a novel experience to sit and chat with a noon client.
One day the Colonel sent for me and instructed me to prepare kit for a departure the next day by car to visit our other ports further along the coast. I suppose I was chosen because I had been in daily communication with them to receive reports of unloading progress from the cargo ships carrying supplies for the Front line. It proved to be a most interesting trip to Bougie, Bone, Sousse, Spax and Tunis and we camped our in the Desert which was full of the detritus of war , burned out vehicles and whatever the Arabs had been unable to scavenge. The war had moved on just a short while before we arrived.
Returning through the Atlas mountains I was interested to see the cork trees and I had a few nervous moments when our vehicle on a narrow road with a steep cliff on our left and a long drop on our right , had to make a three point turn in the narrow road to get round the acute bends. I was glad I was not driving.
It was on this journey that I had the chance to meet Juliette for the first time, Juliette being the fiancée of Andrew, Charlotte’s brother. She had fled France and was living in Constantine with her mother. The Colonel very kindly agreed to allow me to call on her and he and the Major and the driver sat in the car whilst I made my social call. It was only a short visit for I did not feel I could keep the Colonel waiting too long. It was a most interesting experience especially since I was the first of Andrew’s family (well almost) to meet her.
It also paved the way for me to make an approach on her behalf to the Authorities in Algiers to expedite her transition to Britain. I never did discover whether my intercession helped at all but it certainly stood me well with Charlotte and her family.
It was intriguing to be able to buy items unobtainable in Britain and I gained “brownie points” by sending a parcel of lemons to Glasgow. I also managed to buy some nylon stockings, unobtainable in Britain but this became a source of friction when I learned that Charlotte had given them to her friend Margaret Malcolm. Generous and quixotic though it was it was not my intention to provide “goodies “ for Charlotte’s friends, especially since I could only obtain them by the good offices of my contacts in Algiers.
On another occasion I had a treat through the good offices of yet another Colonel who sent for me one day and said “How would you loke to go to sea on a Destroyer for a few days?”. I jumped at the chance and went out on the Destroyer as a guest whist it did firing exercises in the Mediterranean. I was treated quite royally by the Petty Officers on board and I was grateful to my Colonel for arranging the trip. I gathered that over drinks in some Officers Club he had been chatting to the Captain of the Destroyer and had been offered this chance and had passed it on to me.
There were many interesting small anecdotal incidents , unrelated to anything else. For instance I remember we had a delivery of kidneys for our Mess and we were delighted for this was the first time we had received such luxury food, but in the heat of Algiers and the delay in delivering them they were bad by the time we got them so I took them to the Details Issue Depot to ask for a replacement. It was interesting but irritating that I could not quickly get hold of the Sergeant responsible for issuing rations. After some delay I learned from his staff (who were reluctant to tell me) that he would be with his girl friend in the local brothel and did not like being disturbed. However I prevailed and he was routed out and we were given corned beef instead!! Not a successful piece of negotiation.
At this time the Army Authorities in Algiers decided that there must be a smartening up process to show the flag as it were. This affected me in two ways. First I was detailed to take all the Other Ranks to the Main Square each day and give them practice in marching and counter- marching. It became a popular source of entertainment for the locals who would turn up to watch our performance. This of course made us determined to put on a good show and I felt we did quite well.
The other way in which I was affected was more irritating and I felt unnecessary. To get a bath we had to go to the local Sauna which entailed a walk of about a mile each way. I was walking there one day with towel and clean underwear under my arm when I passed a young captain and as was the rule when you cannot salute (I had my towel under my right arm) one should give an “eyes right” in lieu. I was immediately apprehended by two Sergeants in the Military Police who were following him at a discrete distance and he, the Captain, took my details and said I would be on a charge for conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline for failing to salute an officer. I was eventually (some time later) summoned before my Commanding Officer and given a reprimand, the only black mark on my record.
Once in a while with a few fellow members of the Sergeant’s and Warrant Officer’s mess we went to a beach some miles west of Algiers, Sidi beach. It had a magnificent bay, a rocky island about a mile off shore and of course wonderful sunshine. It was a pity that only very occasionally could we obtain transport but it was great whilst it lasted.
Somehow I became chief supplier to the Mess and I had a pass entitling me to shop in the local market, mainly for fruit and vegetables. The main interest was in being able to shop in the market and being so far as I could see, the only British Soldier able to do so. (I have this pass in his records)
The time came when Allied troops invaded Sicily and later Salerno on the Italian mainland. We had representatives on these landings and although I was not among the action I was in a situation where I read at first hand the despatches from there and realised how hard the fighting was.
After a little while we established a Headquarters in Naples, firstly in a combined British /American unit but quite quickly we separated from the Americans. It had been a useful association in one respect for the American PI (Something like our NAAFI) was able to supply all manner of goodies which were not available to British troops such as first class pens and other goods at very much reduced prices. The Americans on the other hand could not get Whisky and Brandy so we did a bit of bartering to our mutual satisfaction.
Our “lodgings” in Naples were in a block of flats , furnished sparsely but with superior furniture which might even have been antique. The sad thing about it was that the weather was at this time bitterly cold and we had no fuel for the open fireplaces and at least on one occasion furniture was broken up and used to heat the billet. I remember being intrigued to watch Italian urchins playing football in the adjoining square. The fact that impressed me was the skill with which these youngsters juggled the ball. They could keep it in the air using head, foot, chest, shoulder, with complete control. Perhaps that is why much later in life I was not surprised to find that the Italian teams shone brightly in the International football world.
At this time the Italians were having a hard time, having just deserted the Germans and having surrendered to the Allies. There was a typhus epidemic and the Italians had to submit to being de-loused with some powder – DDT I think. Besides this there was real poverty and girls would literally do anything for a can of corned beef. Many times we were accosted by young lads saying “you fuck my sister, only 12, 13, 14 and it was no unusual sight to see a little lad leading a British or American soldier up some quiet alley to contribute to the family income.
It was at this time that I became officially engaged to Charlotte and I threw a boozy party in the Mess. I think I have the photograph somewhere.
We explored Naples and the surrounding countryside, Vesuvius, Pompeii and suchlike. We at that time employed as an interpreter Colonel Improta . For some reason our officers took little to do with him and we used his good offices to learn about the most interesting explorations and to make useful contacts. We on one occasion hired a yacht and sailed in the bay, diving overboard and being picked up later when the yacht made another tack.
When Vesuvius erupted it was a wonderful sight to see the cone all fiery red. We did travel up the mountain to come as close as we dare to the lava. It was impressive and frightening to see the remains of villages, churches and houses first surrounded by the lava flow and then bursting into flames and then engulfed as the lava flowed ponderously and inexorably on.
We found some very clever Italian crooks and many anecdotes were bandied around, one in particular I remember concerned an army utility vehicle parked in a courtyard with offices and sleeping accommodation all around. In the morning there was the utility van with no wheels and no-one had any idea how or when they had been taken.
Shortly after this I had first hand experience of clever rogues.
My unit had been directed to proceed north to Rome and I was left to clear things up and then follow them to Rome. I was left with a motor cycle and all the furniture and equipment from our billets. A lorry was detailed to take the furniture and equipment to a depot and then I was to proceed north to re-join my unit. The lorry duly arrived with a working party of civilians to load it and then accompany it to the depot. I was to ride behind on the motor cycle and keep an eye on things. I failed miserably to protect the property. AS the lorry drove through the crowded streets of Naples I saw items of furniture being handed out to accomplices on the pavement and there was nothing I could do. It was so skilfully executed and whilst I did consider passing the lorry and stopping it I could not recover what had gone, and if I could find it I could not identify the items ,they were after all Italian civilian furniture items. I did not know and could not identify the workers on the lorry so I had to put up with it and on arrival at the depot I reported the problem and was told that this was not novel and since no check was to be taken of the furniture all I could do was to get a signature for “a load of furniture”. I was glad to do this and then set off for Rome, to the Ministry of Railways where I was to live for the rest of my time in Italy.
These were wonderful billets and offices and the life was pretty good for most of the time. It was a privilege to live in the centre of Rome within a short distance from the Vatican and St Peter’s Square, the Forum and all the other wonders of Rome. One particularly pleasant duty I had was to escort visiting dignitaries and show them the sights, especially St Peters. I became quite an authority on it and learned a great deal about it. The little secret stairs by the Dome, and the Sistine Chapel. I got to know some of the Swiss Guards who looked so magnificent in their uniforms with pikes. I was surprised to find that one with whom I made acquaintance was a Glaswegian with Swiss relations. I never did find out how he came to be there in this function. I believe he was basically a Swiss who had lived in Glasgow but kept his Swiss nationality.
I attended many services in St Peters at Easter and Christmas. It was a great experience to be in the huge crowd who swarmed everywhere, even clinging on to the statues to get a good vantage point. The Pope was carried on high in a sort of sedan chair through the congregation at one point and I was privileged to be in position close to his route.
Arrangements were made for Allied troops to have an audience with the Pope and I do not remember how I managed it but I was on one of these Audiences and actually exchanged a few (a very few) words with him.
We had a very comfortable mess in the Ministry and were waited upon by a very friendly Italian who went to great lengths to keep us comfortable. His daughter Andrena worked in the Ministry as a typist cum secretary and she would join us for lunch each day. She became very fond of my friend Mark Latimer and indeed I think became besotted with him. This was later to lead to problems, of which more anon.
We had some wonderful parties in the Mess and mixed very well with the locals, who of course had left the German side and allied themselves to the British and American forces.
One experience I will not forget was attendance at the Opera , in the open air, a magnificent setting on a balmy summers night listening to Scheherazade, brilliant costumes and brilliant singing and the only time I ever attended and opera. (It was too difficult and expensive in England).
I did attend a cabaret show in which there appeared a very attractive stripper who sang well but the whole performance was ruined for me when showers of inflated condoms floated from a crowd of American soldiers on the balcony onto the Stalls and the stage. Not at all romantic.
We used fairly frequently to go to the beach at Ostia I think, but it was not much fun and a difficult journey along the Appian way. Transport for we lesser mortals was hard to come by.
I do not know why but I was directed to take an armed escort to I think Ancona to collect a British officer (one of our own I think) who was under arrest for the crime of requisitioning Italian flats and houses and then selling them to wealthy Italians. I was directed to keep him under surveillance and deliver him to the Military Police in Rome. It was an uneventful journey but I had been warned to keep a loaded revolver at my side in case he attempted to escape. In fact but for the apprehension that he might “try something on” it was a vey pleasant trip and he, my prisoner, was a very pleasant man who was remarkably cheerful under the circumstances.
Eventually the war in Europe was over and I remember my fury when we were not allowed out (confined to quarters) on the day the war in Europe was declared over. Then demobilisation commenced and we all had demob groups, numbers dependant on age and length of service. I was in the lowest group 26 that it was possible for a man of my age, having served since two days before war was declared. Older men naturally had lower “demob” numbers and my friend Mark, being several years older than me had a lower number and was demobbed fairly quickly. I was sad to see him go. Andrena was even sadder and begged me to get a letter to him for she had no way to do so. Foolishly I agreed and lived to regret it for Mark’s wife worked in the Post Office in Newcastle and intercepted the letter, which no doubt was full of endearments. When later I went home on leave to get married she and Mark turned up at the Reception and she created quite a scene, threatening to ruin my marriage as I had, she said, ruined hers. I told her emphatically that I was sure no infidelity had taken place and that whatever Andrena said was no doubt exaggerated expressions of affection in a language she did not fully appreciate. I don’t think Jenny (Mark’s wife) ever forgave me.
As I mentioned at this time long service soldiers overseas were granted leave in a priority list depending on how long one had been overseas and I was well up the list. My journey home to get married was quite interesting. Since my Headquarters controlled the Railways as well as the Shipping I with three other companions was shipped North in a special train. (No doubt it was performing another function, perhaps going north to collect some high ranking people). I confess I enjoyed the luxury of our glass coach but felt sorry for the crowds of Italians on the platforms as we passed through, all waiting forlornly for transport.
We were disembarked (de-trained) at Milan and collected by Army truck to be transported to a camp for “processing”. Our truck unfortunately on turning a corner struck a girl cyclist (about 18 years old) and knocked her to the ground. Being desperate not to be delayed I rushed out of the vehicle and having quickly made sure she was uninjured I carried her up to her Flat, deposited her on her bed and fled. She was most grateful for my assistance and I was most grateful that she did not make a fuss and delay us.
The journey home was interesting in that we were entrained in Italy with strict injunction that under no circumstance were we to leave the train until it arrived at our destination, for we were to travel through Switzerland, a “neutral” during the War and with whom there was some agreement that we would not violate Swiss neutrality.
I remember little of the journey thereafter and recall only that on arrival in Glasgow (I had elected to go straight to Glasgow and visit my home after the honeymoon) I met my bride to be and family and was told of the arrangements for the following day, 14th September 1945. I was to spend the night at the home of Margaret Malcolm and report from there to the Church, St Patricks, in the morning. Charlotte had had to make all the arrangements for the wedding and since it was war time this was not easy. Firstly because of rationing Hotels could only accept a limited number of guests for the Reception so she had to arrange for two parties in different hotels and this did not please some who felt that they were being treated as second class guests and indeed my Aunt Dollie created a scene and refused to go to the hotel to which she was allocated.
The wedding cake was a centre of attention for it was a luxury rarely seen in war time. Margaret Malcolm’s mother made it and Charlotte and some of her family had saved up their egg ration for some months to make it. This accounts for the fact that Andrew, Charlotte’s brother, made a point of photographing it and in the excitement forgot to take photographs of the Bride and Groom and guests. He had offered to be official photographer to save money I suppose , or because official photographers were difficult to find.
We returned to Charlotte’s home for drinks and final farewells , remember I had not seen my parents for four years, but although my mother was disappointed we promised that we would after the honeymoon go straight home to Scarborough and spend the rest of my leave with my parents.
Because hotel accommodation was not readily available Charlotte had been unable to book us in to the North Sea Hotel Arbroath until the following day so we had to deceive our guests who wanted to see us off form the Station. We departed for the Station in an taxi and then took a tram car back to a sleazy bed and breakfast back near Charlotte’s home. The following day we went by tramcar to the Station to catch our train to Arbroath and for the first time in my life I had bought First Class tickets , we were going to travel in style!
As it was war time the train was packed and many passengers were standing in the corridor, but we were alright we had reserved First Class seats!! Charlotte nudged me and drew my attention to a young woman, obviously pregnant, standing in the corridor. Soon she wasn’t standing in the corridor but I was.
At the North Sea Hotel in Arbroath we were comfortable and the Hotel manageress was most considerate. The hotel had a dance, a regular function and of course we attended. There were two fat girls in long white dresses who danced with each other and no -one else seemed to ask them. Charlotte quite forcefully suggested that I should do the gentlemanly thing and ask them in turn to dance. I stubbornly refused and so began our first married tiff, a marvellous start to our honeymoon!
At the end of the week we returned by train , third class, to Scarborough and on the last part of the journey from York to Scarborough we shared a compartment with a Mrs Stockdale and her daughter in law. The Stockdales had been friends and neighbours from my earliest days but there had been some sort of rift between the families and I had not seen them since I was about eleven years old. It was an embarrassing meeting because the sone of the older Mrs Stockdale and husband of the younger had been killed in the War and they were grieving.
I arrived in Scarborough to bring my bride home at last. There was a lovely smell of baking and cakes and new baked loaves were cooling in the kitchen. When we went into the dining room we found my mother lying as though sleeping on the settee and making a snoring noise, but it quickly became apparent that she was gravely ill. What to do? We did not have a telephone and if we had I would not have known the name of the Doctor. I did not know the telephone number of my father’s work place.. I left Charlotte to cope with the assistance of our neighbour and taking Mother’s cycle went off in search of a telephone box with hopefully a Directory in it. I found a box but no directory so to save time I cycled down to my father’s work place and managed to contact him very quickly. He phoned the Doctor from work and then we both hurried home.
Mother was dead and poor Charlotte who had little experience of running a home , or at least our home in Scarborough, had to take over as best she could. Meanwhile I had the task of arranging the funeral. My father had always had home baked bread so Charlotte and I decided to do a baking. I remembered that when the dough was made and placed in baking tins the tin loaves were placed in front of the fire to rise, so since we had nothing else to go by we did this and the bread rose wonderfully but when it reached the top of the loaf tins it did not stop but continued to rise and pour over the sides. We cut off the overflow and placed it in a fresh tin and it continued to rise and overflow, a situation somewhat akin to “The sorcerer’s apprentice”. We were getting desperate so finally decided to put the loaves in the oven and bake them.
They came out beautifully brown and crisp and when Dad came home to tea we proudly offered home baked bread. Alas as we sliced it we discovered that the lovely loaves were hollow. We should have kipped the yeast earlier by putting the loaves in the oven much sooner.
Dad was not amused. Charlotte was devastated especially as she realised that she was to be left when I returned to Italy to act as housekeeper to a rather demanding man who had been used to an expert cook housekeeper and now widowed, was to miss my mother doubly.
My time at home was limited and within a few days I had to return to the Army. Strangely I have no recollection of my journey back to Rome. Presumably I went by rail as I had travelled to England.
When I got back to Rome expecting to spend a relaxing time awaiting my demobilization, I was quite distressed to learn that I had been posted to the Allied Commission for Austria in Vienna, and although this involved promotion to Warrant Officer Class One I we less than enthusiastic. It appeared that a Colonel under whom I had served in Scotland and later in Algiers had sent for me. I was flattered but again I was sad to leave my old friends.
I arrived in Vienna and reported to the Schonbrun Barracks where I was allotted a very comfortable room , double glazed against the bitter cold. I put up my new badges of rank and reported for duty to the Transportation offices where I was less than welcome. The existing staff had been expected to be promoted to the vacancy I was to fill and each member to move up accordingly.
I had a staff of several men ranging in rank from sapper to Staff Sergeant and three ATS including one Corporal and two Privates, of whom one was to give me some trouble, being resentful and insubordinate from the start. I also had the task of recruiting two civilian girl typists and this added to the problems for the insubordinate ATS private resented the two Austrian girls and treated them badly and resented my intervention. The Corporal on the other hand was a mature likeable girl who co-operated fully.
The messing arrangements in the Warrant Officers Mess were excellent. I found it embarrassing to leave the Mess and pass quite cultured civilian adults and children begging for any left overs on our plates. I was saddened to see some people refuse and take a perverse pleasure in dumping their left overs in a bin rather than let the beggars have them. These people were obviously very hungry and as we came to the end of a War, that had left them depressed and starving. The children in particular were pitiable.
Social life was minimal and I did not seek it for I expected to return home soon. I did however go with the Corporal ATS to a show in town. It was a strange experience. A strange old man came and sat at our table and behaved in a most peculiar fashion, almost as though he wanted us to mock him and his strange manners. We didn’t oblige and were glad when he left us. Soon he appeared on the stage as a popular comedian who had hoped to make us the butt of his humour. We couldn’t understand his jokes but felt we had escaped a humiliating experience.
At one time during the evening the waiter came and offered us a large glass of vodka , courtesy of some Russian soldiers at another table. We raised our glasses and gestured a “thankyou” and a toast to them when they rose from their seats and moved towards up in what appeared to be a threatening manner which we didn’t understand but the waiter came to our rescue by warning us that if we did not swallow the drink in one gulp it would be considered an insult. We hastily did swallow the drink which was a brave gesture for it made our eyes water. This mollified the Russians who acknowledged out toasts and returned to their table, much to our relief!
The Russian troops were a source of constant apprehension. Vienna was divided into three sectors, British, American and Russian, and we were advised not to stray into the Russian sector for they were liable to arrest British and American troops who did so. Presumably we would eventually be released, but I for one was not willing to chance it!
I did periodically have to send a despatch rider with a message to our Russian counterparts and I remember on one occasion I told a Despatch ride to go with an urgent message to the Russian HQ at about 6 o clock in the evening and he begged me not to send him for he had a date later that night and knew from experience that the Russians would probably detain him until the following day or even longer. I was not in a position to acquiesce and I do not know whether his fears were justified on this occasion.
There were a couple of interpreters on our staff who translated English to German and one or two who translated Russian to German and thence to English. One lady of about forty years of age told hair raising stories of the treatment some Austrian women endured at the hands of the Russian troops when they first arrived. My two Austrian girl typists confirmed the stories and were pleased to be under British protection by being in our staff.
The weather in Vienna during my stay there was bitterly cold and I was glad of the heating and the double glazing in my room in Schonbrun barracks. I had not made any special friends during my short stay in Vienna and truthfully I did not make much effort beyond casual greetings and passing the time of day.
I discovered a method of telephoning Charlotte through Army channels and late at night I would adjourn to my office and posing as a senior RAF officer would get a call to Frankfurt switch , where an operator endeavoured to make sure I was genuine then put me through to London where again I was quizzed and put through to WAAF HQ (Charlotte’s house in Glasgow). I remember only one call when I found Charlotte to be in the middle of a party and I envied her and her friends there.
It was during this time that I made my first and last and only attempt at riding a horse. We were granted the privilege of hiring a horse free of charge – I am not sure whether this was a privilege of rank or anyone could do it. At crack of dawn on New Year’s Day 1946 I duly went to the stables and requested a horse. I felt that the Sergeant in charge was not happy about this for I was obviously a novice. I don’t remember how I did it by I mounted the enormous horse and it seemed a very long way to the ground. I wondered how I would get on if the horse turned awkward. I set off through the grounds of Schonbrun palace and looked forward to an interesting tour of exploration . The horse however had its own programme and firmly refused to go my route or to trot, but just ambled on its own way until it had had enough and headed for home, just as I was getting acquainted with the exercise. I felt I had not acquitted myself very well and decided not to repeat the experiment.
It was interesting to explore Vienna Woods and to attend the concert by the Vienna Boys Choir which was a delightful experience. I tried out the Autobahn and studied the notices telling me in German not to talk to the driver and not to lean out of the train when in motion and effectively these were the only words of German that I learned.
The Allied authorities organised a Christmas (or was it New Year?) party for the local children and because I was Senior Warrant Officer in Transportation I was allocated the job of Reception. It was entirely inappropriate for my knowledge of Transportation did not have anything remotely connected with coaches and with hordes of young and sometimes very young Austrian children. I was allocated an interpreter but as it transpired he was useless to me, he could not shout to command attention or issue directions and I did not know the words!! It was a frightening experience when hundreds of children, many hundreds, full of excitement at the prospect of German food which sadly they had not enjoyed for many years , in fact, most of their lives, descended from the lorries and charged towards me, anxious to be guided to the Reception Hall. I exercised my voice of command and the only word I knew and bellowed “Stillstehen” which I believed meant halt and stand still. It was miraculous. All this mob of seemingly demented children stopped at once and waited for my next order, but I didn’t know what words to use and more lorry loads of children were pouring in. I told my interpreter to tell them to line up and follow the guides to the Dining Hall. His voice did not carry and I have no idea what he said but suddenly all the mad mob of children broke into a run and headed for the dining room and I was glad to see the back of them. I don’t ever remember feeling so out of control when dealing with a crowd of people – troops, civilians, adults – it is still a nightmare memory!
I feel I did not make the most of my time in Vienna but I was obsessed with the thought of demob and basically I was just passing the time until I could get home and be a civilian after over six and a half years of being a soldier.
The time came when my number came up. I was instructed to report to the Railway Station with all my documents and when I did so I was taken aback by being informed that as Senior Soldier on the train I was Officer IN Charge of the train until I would hand over on arrival in the UK.
I had one final adventure when I was comfortably ensconced in my compartment with all the documents and a feeling of apprehension at the change in my status and fortune. Suddenly the compartment door burst open and I was confronted by a group of Guardsmen looking wild and threatening. They reminded me that I was in charge of the train and they hoped I would understand it would be wise to keep myself to myself and in general terms not notice if some soldiers were to celebrate a little enthusiastically their imminent release. I took the hint and fortunately there was no occasion for me to exert my authority. I kept to my compartment and was delighted when we arrived at the Channel Port and I handed over the documents and my responsibility. Strangely I remember nothing else of the journey and the Channel crossing or the journey to Aldershot to the Demob centre.
Like all the rest of the de-mobilization troops I was impatient to get out of uniform and into civilian clothes so that when the choice was limited and I was offered the opportunity of waiting to receive my “civvies” to obtain a better choice I refused and took anything that was approximately suitable (“suit” able). I felt I looked a sight with my navy blue pin striped suit that almost fitted me. My trilby hat and I don’t recall shirt, tie and shoes I received, but they were probably just as grotesque.
I hugged my documentation to myself and made my way to Glasgow, pleased to be a civilian again but apprehensive about the future for I had already made up my mind that I would not return to the London and North Eastern Railway permanently but would seek a more rewarding career.
I had made application for teacher training and also for employment in the Immigration service, but these were applications in the pipe line. I had a demobilization leave of three weeks and planned to spend some of it at St Abbs Head ,a small seaside village on the East Coast where charlotte had spent a happy holiday in her late teens or early twenties. It was a very enjoyable holiday and in one sense significant for the two old lady owners of a hotel in the village took a shine to us and told us they were selling up and particularly wanted the hotel /guest house to be taken on by a couple of whom they approved and if we were interested they would let us have it at a knock down price. It really was a genuine offer and had we had the money we would have taken it on.
Charlotte had a close friend from the Women’s Air force whose husband like me had just been de mobbed and who like me had not as yet settled on what he would do for a career. We told them (by telephone) of the offer and suggested that they might like to come in with us and they were thrilled by the suggestion so we immediately contacted solicitors in Glasgow with a view to obtaining mortgage and starting finance. They assured us that it was feasible and would go ahead on our word. The couple who were to be partners suddenly got cold feet and opted out, so we had also to withdraw. I often wonder how well the venture might have prospered if we had gone ahead. But again this was only a dream!
At this time I received an approach from a well spoken man who offered to go into partnership with me in a book-makers business. All we needed was capital and I had my demobilization gratuity which would furnish my share of the starting capital. He invited me out for a meal and explained his plans for our mutual fortune. Although he sounded vey smooth and convincing I was unsure, not to say suspicious but it sounded an attractive offer. Charlotte had some contact with a reputable firm of solicitors in Glasgow and we asked their advice. “Don’t touch it with a barge pole” said they, “this man is a well known confidence trickster and you would be well advised to steer clear!” So our nest egg , one hundred and fifty pounds, was saved. It is not much these days but then it was worth much more.
I had to return to work and I applied to the London and North Eastern Railway Co for a transfer from the York area to the Glasgow area and they agreed and I was duly transferred to Glasgow Queen Street telegraph office and started work there until I was transferred to Cou??? Station a busy junction en route to Edinburgh. There I was in sole charge on my shift of a very busy little office. The nights were particularly interesting for the railway guards would ask to share the warmth of my office in between trips. In addition the Railway policeman would drop in for a coffee and warm , in between patrolling the sidings to catch thieves who would raid the whisky wagons by all means apparently. He told of gangs who would drill through from the underside of wagons into whisky casks and collect the spoils to be bottled and sold later.
ENDS: Submitted by Mark Atkinson in 2021. Photos and more details available in SMHC.