- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Wright
- Location of story:
- London, France and the Far East
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 October 2004
John Wright. The reluctant conscript himself!
This story was submitted to the People's War website by Hertfordshire Libraries working in partnership with Dacorm Heritage Trust, on behalf of the author, John Wright. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The reluctant conscript
I was certainly no volunteer, or no hero...
I was living in Chingford, London when I was called up in 1941 and sent up to the South Lancs Fusiliers base in Warrington. Prior to this I had been employed by Mowlem carrying out war work for the Ministry of Defence — digging trenches in London to stop the gliders landing. My girlfriend, later to become my dear wife of more than fifty years, was then working for the Pearl Life Insurance Company in Euston Square, before being evacuated to Eastbourne to avoid the Blitz.
Fortunately for me, I was also sent down to Tilbury Docks to help carry out similar earth-moving works. Because of this, I was given a special written warrant to say I was engaged on important war work to guarantee I would have free passage. The truth was I used that letter of authority far more to be able to skip along the coast to see my girl than I ever did to get to my work in Tilbury! During this period we were also frequently used to repair damaged water mains in London, following the terrible bombing raids.
Born in England, raised and schooled in Scotland, I was thrown into what I would term slavery at a bakery aged 13 — although I shouldn't grumble! For all I know it was probably this act of fate that saved my life and spared me from being an infantryman, involved in hand to hand fighting. You see, all conscripts had to fill in a long written form in giving all your personal details, amongst which was your trade or profession. So from that day on, the die was cast — I was to serve in the Catering Corps or "Joe Lyons Light Infantry", as it was then called, attached to the 75th Unit (Electrical & Mechanical) of the Royal Engineers.
Quite early on, I was sent up to cook at the large Engineers Base at Ripon. After the privations and suffering I had witnessed first hand in London, I was disgusted at what I found. Food here was ridiculously plentiful — whatever you wanted, with the officers swanning around, living like lords!
With D Day now fast approaching, we were part of the 21st Hundred Army Group and we were sent down to Wimbledon Common to practise, ready for the invasion. From there, we were sent down to a big house in Dorset for further training, before being sent back to the transit camp in Wanstead Flats, Because this was close to Chingford, I was able to sneak out the might before we left and say goodbye to my girl.
On the journey across the Channel, each boat had a barrage balloon tethered to it to discourage enemy aircraft and we were all crammed into the hold of an old cargo boat, with very limited toilet facilities. To solve this problem boards were put out on the starboard side of the boat, from where men could sit and do their business, ten and a time! Our group was credited with 'D Day plus Three' which meant the worst was very much over by the time we arrived, with the German troops pushed back inland. That's not to say there weren't some scary moments. Although it was calm during the day, as we waited to land, the German bombers soon arrived under cover of darkness, which meant that suddenly the improvised toilets suddenly got very much busier!
Landing was a trauma in itself, with none of us having been trained to clamber down nets on the side of the old boat in full kit. However there were troops down below, with fixed bayonets, to make sure you didn't hang about and we all managed to make it down in one piece. Once on the beach, you had to stick to safe walkways that were marked by white tape to avoid the German mines that were being cleared by our own Pioneer Group. I was one of four cooks in a sixty strong group heading inland, led by a dozy sergeant who soon got us lost. We were actually heading in entirely the wrong direction, before a passing jeep driver put us right.
One of the big jobs our unit took on was installing showers at a Rest Camp built for the 2nd Army in Normandy. We also had German prisoners of war helping us — there was little animosity, most of these were just ordinary blokes like us, just following orders. Some chap from the Luftwaffe actually gave me quite a nice haircut!
One night, I can remember getting drunk and taking the mickey out of some royal engineers, who were playing bingo. I ended up getting beaten up (although I took a few of them with me!) and was sent to a cookery school in Normandy as a punishment. It was winter and very cold there, so when they asked for volunteers to be pastry chef, I stepped forward, thinking this would help to keep me nice and warm! This turned out to be a smart move, because one day I was asked to prepare a special buffet and the powers that be were so delighted with my efforts they awarded me a B1 grade — almost unheard of in the army — so my punishment ended up doing me no harm at all!
I can also remember the thousand bomber raid on Villiers Bocage — we were actually sent in there afterwards to restore services for the local people. We were stationed at a big house in the outskirts with local people who looked afterwards very well. However I can remember one day a Captain in the Royal Engineers arrived with his gang and proceeded to loot stuff from the house's cellar (items like fancy crockery etc.) I told him straight I wasn't happy with what he was doing and he threatened to put me on a charge. I snapped back: "I didn't care, I'd be in the clink and he'd be shot for looting! So it was his choice." But nothing came of it. Another visitor to the house was a lone American soldier, who ended up staying for a week! When his mates eventually came to pick him up, they were so grateful we had looked after him so well that they left us lots of food and other goodies from their truck.
Eventually we ended up near the Rhine at the front line, and it was here that I got the news that our family home in Chingford had been hit by a V1 rocket. I was given one week's leave to go home — although by the time I got home the house had been patched up and everyone was safe. On my return, I only got as far as Calais before I was re-united with my mates, who were now stationed in the town and it's here that we had our narrowest escape.
As our troops had invaded France and pushed the Germans back, they had pressed on and left a significant body of enemy troops trapped and encircled at Dunkirk and now the time had come to soften them up and clear them out. Four bombers were sent in to begin this process, but unfortunately only three of them knew what they were doing! The fourth dropped some of his load on Calais, demolishing the milliner's shop, right next to where we were stationed. Walls came down literally only feet from where me and my mates were standing. There were four of us, all Scots: myself — being John, I was always the one known as "Jock", Charlie Thompson from Preston Pans, George Logan from Paisley and Smithy, a butcher from Aberdeen. Thankfully, we all survived. Being used to the Blitz in London, I was quick to dive for cover, but Charlie, who was a big bloke, did get caught on the head by some flying debris. Miraculously, lying on top of an adjacent mountain of rubble, I found my watch — still working! Outside it was devastation — truly terrible, people with their legs blown off and worse. They reckon over 150 people lost their lives, though this is one story of the war that isn't told very often…
The end of the war with Germany came soon after that and we were given 28 days leave, before being sent out to the Far East, stationed just outside Madras. Again, not many people will know this — but just after the first Atom bomb was dropped, Mountbatten had us all being made ready to invade, it was only after the second bomb fell that this plan was called off.
When everything was finally over and ironically, as a direct result of my drunken escapades in France, being one of the very few soldiers in the British Army graded B1, consequently I was asked to stay on for another six months to teach others. It didn't take me more than a moment to tell them I wouldn't be doing that — they'd had six years of my life and that was more than enough! As a serving soldier, you had to apply for your medals when you were finished, but I wasn't interested. I was just glad I had survived and that it was all over...
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