- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Fred Verlander
- Location of story:
- UK, Tiensin and Peking in China
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 June 2005
Excerpt from Fred's Autobiography
When I decided to write my autobiography for my family I had not really considered the involvement that was necessary to record incidents of my life experiences. Over a long period of time I eventually mapped out my experiences which I am now handwriting one copy at a time for each of my 5 boys as a reminder of their dad’s life. At nearly 90 years of age I am proud of my life and hope that this summary of some of the incidents I experienced during my time in the war are an interesting read for you.
I was always destined to be in the armed forces because I attended a military school (Queen Victoria School, Dunblane, Scotland) from the age of 9 years old. I was boarded out for about 5 years which was over 100 miles from home and my family — what a tough start! I moved from there into the army at the tender age of 14 and served for 4 years as a boy soldier in the Royal Corp of Signals. I attained a fairly high standard of education and became a Class One Signals Operator.
During my time in the services I served in France, Peking, and India (Rawalpini and Secumderabad) but my first overseas posting was to Tientsin, North China and I can honestly say I was flabbergasted when I was given my orders! At just 19 years of age I was being whisked away with all my worldly belongings tucked somewhere amongst my equipment — my kit bag was like a walking ‘pickfords’ removal van!! My biggest sadness was leaving the love of my life, Doris which made leaving difficult and the feeling of homesickness and emptiness soon took hold as I left on the train to Southampton. I was travelling on the SS Dorsetshire and my accommodation was down 4 stairways to deck D which was well below the water line. With just a hammock slung between 2 hooks I had to guard my small bit of space with my life as this was going to be home for the next 6 weeks! The trip was very eventful with high seas; especially around the Bay of Biscay, a memorable trip down the Suez Canal and stops at various ports around the world. When I reached Tientsin it took me quite a while to regain my ‘land legs’, but what a luxury to be back on dry land. Standing on the roadside in a foreign country, surrounded by Chinese was somewhat bewildering and I derived a sense of uncertainty about the immediate situation. It was like being thrown in the deep end and I felt a slight panic until help arrived — a rickshaw coolie! He was quite cheerful but wreaked of garlic which was a good lesson for the future — don’t choose coolies who eat garlic!!!
It was mid winter when I arrived in Tientsin, so I was experiencing the extreme cold for the first time and I knew it. After a few weeks of settling in my reputation as a sportsman had come to light and I was selected to play football for the staff team. The pitches where not grass covered, but ‘mutty’; a hard gravel, which made playing difficult and in fact after each game we had to attend hospital for a tetanus injection to avoid infection on any grazes we received. At the end of the season I felt like a pin cushion!
I established myself in my job as a signalman working direct to Hong Kong and Aldershot; this was radio using Morse Code, and directly with Peking and Shan-Hai-Kuan (this was a place on the east coast of china). I worked consistently whilst on duty without taking rest periods and lunch breaks which increased the speed I could read the Morse Code. There was often poor reception and heavy interference but we had to be accurate and receive the messages properly. One couldn’t afford to guess the message - it had to be absolutely correct.
In late 1935 I was posted to Peking to the British Legation (that’s now an Embassy). By this time things were starting to warm up between china and Japan and I have no doubt that a lot of our coded messages were indicating this impending war to the powers that be in England. The shift work consisted of two types of work; one was looking after the transmitters during transmission and the other was reception of radio messages particularly from London. There was another important and secretive duty and that was interception.
It was whilst I was in Peking that my elder brother Jim arrived in Tientsin in late 1936 where he joined me at the Embassy. He was a good sportsman and a very good wireless operator, so as things were deteriorating between China and Japan they assigned us both to a very special interception job, which meant us providing cover of the Japanese fleet 24 hours a day. We were commended by the Ambassador for an excellent job well done.
Shortly after, war was declared, and we in the services were alerted to the dangers involved. In Tientsin we were within the line of fire and whilst they bombed Tientsin and bombarded it with gun-fire we were open to it all and had to carry on with our job, which was to maintain contact with Hong Kong and England by radio. Movement in the area was always subjected to, and exposed to gunfire from Japanese planes!
My brother and I experienced some interesting events such as when we found ourselves face to face with Japanese troops while riding into Manchuria on hired hacks (horses). The troops who were also on horse back and appeared quite threatening and looked like they would apprehend us for being on foreign soil. We were pretty shocked but when we saw an opening for escape we quietly suggested that we make a dash for it and managed to get back on China soil — but only just!
In Peking I accidentally stood on the shaft of a rickshaw which consequently broke. It was an accident but we were immediately surrounded by a dozen or more coolies! I persuaded my brother to jump into the nearest rickshaw and we both headed off towards the cinema, but trouble was in pursuit. Behind us were all the coolies, including the one with a grievance! We reached a cross road and then found ourselves surrounded, so I tried to seek help from a policeman who instead drew a revolver and beckoned me back into the rickshaw. We managed to make a dash between two coolies, nearly knocking them both over and took cover in the cinema — another close shave!!
I witnessed 20 Chinese with handcuffs with weights chained to their ankles, being escorted to the outside walls of Peking only to be beheaded for some crime they had committed. Gruesome!
After 2 years in China I was promoted to Lance Corporal and I become much more involved with the football team who were now in the second division. I also took part in an international boxing tournament in Tientsen representing the British Army against the Italians, French and Americans. It was a charity Abyssinia show held at the Hai Ali Centre in the city and took place during the time that Italy had declared war on A. It was almost like a professional show and it was quoted in the local paper that ‘Verlander’s left was a dangerous weapon’. That differed slightly from my view, but then I’m biased! This was in my bout with an Italian which I won on points.
Time was progressing and it was now the summer of 1937 and I was just beginning to get the feeling that my time was nearly up in Tientsin. The Japanese were on the move and each day I used to stand on the steps of the British HQ and watch thousands — yes thousands of troops in full war kit passing through the British concession to consolidate at some points outside the city. Then it happened war was declared between Japan and China and the whole place went into overdrive. We were put on a state of emergency and the Chinese people started to panic because they were being invaded. Then suddenly without warning about 10am one morning I witnessed the first ‘blitz’ on Tientsen railway station. The Japs without warning sent in a number of planes and bombed the area, despite the fact that there were a large number of women and children there. They killed and maimed hundreds of people and animals and from my position at HQ I saw many bodies and pieces of material flying everywhere.
As a result of this emergency my return to the UK was delayed and I wondered if I would ever get away from Tientsen. Eventually, about 4 weeks later a troopship that had been delayed in Hong Kong managed to get through. Funnily enough it was the same ship that had taken me to china 3 years previous, but on this trip I was allocated a space on B deck; a little higher in the ship compared to the outward journey. I bid a somewhat sad farewell to Tientsin with a tinge of relief that I was getting out but a little sadness at the devastation and the fact I had to leave a little dog behind called ‘Yanto’. I assured myself that I’d left him in good hands because my brother Jim was looking after him! I waved goodbye to a place that had been my home for 3 years and looked forward to returning home.
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