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War Time Experiences

by derbycsv

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
derbycsv
People in story: 
Robert Arthur Freeman, and his wife.
Location of story: 
Portsmouth, London
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A4186028
Contributed on: 
13 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Nikki Aaron of the Derby Action Desk Team on behalf of Robert Arthur Freeman and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

In 1938 I worked for NAAFI (Suppliers to the armed Forces) and joined the Territorial Army - a Searchlight Unit at their depot in Streatham, South London. I was called up for the 1938 Munich Crisis - the detachment of 9 men and a Sergeant. I joined them with a searchlight, generator and cable for a month in Egham, Surrey.

At the end of the crisis, I returned to work and training at the depot. In August 1939, the Unit went away for the annual camp at Rowlands Castle, Portsmouth. The site was on a Common, and we did not hear that war had been declared unitl someone walking their dog told us at about 5.30pm.

We stayed on the Common for another ten days, and then moved with a Lewis Gun to a roundabout in Gosport. Ten men with two tents, and the Lewis gun spent another month there until the whole of 304 Company had moved to the Leighton Buzzard area, as part of the defence of London. My detachment was in a field in the village of Pitchcott, on top of a hill. Apart from Sentry duties, we slept during the day and were on duty every night until daybreak, although at that time there was no enemy action, and the nights were spent training with the use of RAF planes.

My detachment was moved to a field at the end of a long lane in Mursley, and I spent the coldest winter that I had experienced in many years under canvas. We were about a mile from the village, and each week we took it in turns to go to a house for a bath and tea with the house owners, which made a welcome break for all of us.

As there was no enemy activity, after a while we were allowed to have a day off each week. We took it in turns, and would go to the local town of Bletchley - which is now part of Milton Keynes, where there was two cinemas. We would go to one in the afternoon, and then another in the evening, as the Managers of the cinemas would let us in for free and would reserve us seats.

In 1941, the Company moved to Fleetwood for Infantry training, and I was billeted in a house owned by an elderly couple who looked after me very well. I would spend the days on the Promenade, drilling and training, and the evenings would go into Blackpool, and go the the cinema or the theatre.

While we were based in Fleetwood I met the woman who would become my wife. She was working in a tobacconists, and I would go there for my cigarettes. We would spent happy hours together in the local cinemas, or would go into Blackpool.

In late 1924, I was re-called to the NAFFI and sent with three other men to open a new office in Belfast taking on local staff. I was in charge of a section of the office that dealt with equipment used in the NAAFI canteens.

I was billeted into another house there, where four elderly sisters lived. One of whom was a nurse in the local hospital. They looked after me by cooking me decent meals, washing my clothes and would let me do anything I pleased. They really did look after me very well indeed.

In 1942, I was sent from Ireland back to the NAAFI depot in Norwood, South London, put back into uniform and promoted to Sergeant in the RASC/EFI, which was the Expeditionery Forces Institute - the NAAFI part of the RASC. After a couple of weeks training I was put on a draft to Egypt.

We boarded a ship at Avonmouth Docks, Bristol, and sailed in October across the Atlantic to New York, and then down the coast of America, stopping at Bahia in Brazil. Although we were not allowed to disembark, and only stayed two days to take on supplies. We then crossed the Atlantic to Durban in South Africa, where we stayed for ten days.

We lived on the ship, but were allowed off every day, so we could see Durban. We met some very nice people, including a couple from Bromley, Kent, who lived very near to my parents, who were living in Orpington and would often go to Bromley shopping.

While in Durban, I was picked to be the Sergeant in charge of the sentries, guarding the ship for 24 hours. The men who were selected to do the sentry duty were from the Grenadier Guards, and had done duty at Buckingham Palace. They helped me a lot with getting through the 24 hours.

We left Durban and travelled up the Red Sea on Christmas day. Needless to say, it was very hot! We had our Christmas dinner served by the Officers, and in the evening we were invited into the Officer's Mess for drinks.

The ship finally docked at Geniefa, at the southern end of the Suez canal. We stayed overnight in a tented cam, and the next day we were taken to Cairo by coach, where I went into the Sergeants accomodation, which was a very large house.

While in Cairo, I joined the Cairo Amateur Musical & Dramatic Society, and performed with them mainly in Gilbert & Sullivan Operas every night, and twice on Saturdays and Sundays. While performing every evening, I was also working during the day in charge of a section in the offices.

In 1943, two of the well known stars of the West End Stage, Cyril Richard and Madge Elliot, brought the musical "The Merry Widow", to the Opera House. As they only brought the main actors, our Society provided the Chorus. We performed for a month, and although it was very hard work, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

In 1945, there was a lottery called the LIAP, in the Middle East. I got leave in advance of Patriation, and I was lucky enough to obtain a place. I returned to England to get married in a village near Blackpool, and after a month returned to Cairo. I remained there until 1946, and then returned for demob in London.

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