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- Len (Snowie) Baynes
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- 19 July 2004
Home at Last
(This chapter is part of Len Baynes' book '
The Will to Live
', an account of his wartime experiences with the Cambridgeshire Regiment, his capture in Singapore, and the four years he spent as a prisoner of the Japanese.)
How blest are they for whom, I trow
'Home' is the sweetest word they know.
Where, children on their mothers' knee
They learned to love and lovéd be;
Whereon they also learned to say
Their first and simple words, to pray.
'Tis where their fathers tried their best
The bitter outside world to wrest
From harming tender spirits where
All ills and fears lie waiting there.
Where evil's waiting there to snare
The simple soul that's unaware.
Thrice blest are they to whom is given
In God's good time a mate to find,
Whose love shall prove was made in Heaven
To share all ills of frame and mind.
To found themselves a home from home
Where happy children are their own.
At Rangoon Airport we were welcomed, not only by a leaflet from Their Majesties the King and Queen, but also by one from the Indian Red Cross and the St. John War Organisation, before being bussed to Rangoon General Hospital, through the carnage that had once been a fine city.
There, we were each given a good medical examination, and sorted into those fit to travel and the ones who would need to be disappointed, left behind to recuperate before being sent on their way.
From this point on my memory is almost a blank, but a few points do remain. Although I can't remember the ship's name, or our embarkation on it, I remember the song (new to us) coming over the ship's tannoy system again and again. 'I'll be with you, in apple blossom time…'
We called at Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but I don't recall how long we stayed there. We passed through the Suez Canal for the first time. On our way out we had to go round the Cape, as enemy action had made the canal too vulnerable.
We must have disembarked at some point on the south coast, as the next thing I remember was being fitted out with a uniform at, I seem to recall, Brighton.
Then we caught the train home. We had been told that a public welcome awaited us in Cambridge, but I do remember that I could not face it, so got off the train at Shelford Station, and walked the half mile or so home, carrying my kit, what little there was of it. My family was not expecting me just yet, as they had been told we were de-training at Cambridge first, so I believe I knocked at the front door.
I don't remember my reception, but my sister told me afterwards that they hardly knew me. I had left home a fresh-faced young man, and now I looked (to them), like an old man. I'm sure she was exaggerating. At some point we must have gathered on the front doorstep, where my elder brother took our photo. My younger brother was missing from the group, as he was a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps, and still stationed in Borneo hunting erstwhile fifth columnists.
My next memory is of sometime later being sent to a special Resettlement Course for returned prisoners of war, to make sure we were fit to be let loose on the public! I think it took place somewhere near Wymondham in Norfolk, and was run, I seem to recall, by the editor of Punch magazine.
I also remember being given an attractive Irish ATS redhead partner for a dance they held for us. We finished the course with an intelligence test, which I do remember well, as I was congratulated by the Punch man for having achieved the best result they had had in the course thus far.
A fresh start
As was to be expected, the unfortunate results of our time spent away did not end with our release. We were a family of builders; not long before the war broke out, my father had purchased a piece of building land in the nearby village of Hauxton, opposite the parish church. I had drawn the plans for a row of houses there, and obtained detailed planning approval to start the building work. The war had prevented us from doing that.
As my family had thought I was dead (since they had received no notification of my survival, nor heard from me, for the first two years after my capture), father had retired from building and got rid of all the plant. He presented me with the Hauxton land to enable me to start up the building business again.
If, after receiving planning approval work is not started within two years, one has to apply for further authority to start building. I applied, but was turned down. No reason was given, just that the planners had altered their minds. The planned use for the land was returned agriculture. Since it was too long and narrow to be economical for that purpose, the land had, at a stroke of the pen, been made worthless.
My next move was to approach the architect of our Local Authority, to ask if there was any possibility of my obtaining a contract for constructing council housing (there was a great dearth of affordable houses at that time, owing to the huge number of dwellings the enemy action had destroyed).
I was offered four contracts in outlying villages, for just one or two pairs of dwellings on each site. The nearest was about 15 miles away, and the furthest was over 20. The big boys had all turned the opportunity to tender down, as transport costs and the small sites made the proposed contracts uneconomical. I took the contracts on.
Before the war father had only paid me half a crown a week of 48 hours, but I had managed to save a total of over £400, partly because I had done a bit of 'trading' as a schoolboy. Incidentally, I had left school at the age of fourteen.
On mobilisation, I had made an allotment of three-quarters of my army pay to my mother to save for me. Then there were nearly four years of back pay from the army, which made up my starting capital. This was enough money to enable me to buy sufficient scaffolding and plant to get the business restarted.
The next problem to solve was finding the building workers, as there were none seeking work in this area. The big builders had remained in business throughout the war, and many of their workers had been classified as excused war service. Moreover, as their other workers were demobilised, their previous employers were able to snap them up again. So what was I to do?
The answer was to gather half a dozen unskilled young men from my own village, and train them myself as the first contract progressed. It was slow work for a start, doing all the skilled work myself, as I gradually passed the less skilled jobs to my men. Eventually they would all become skilled, and when I was forced to give up building after being injured in an accident, (see below), all carried on their trades for the remainder of their working lives, as far as I know.
The 'people carrier'
The problem of transporting the men was overcome with the purchase of an old 30hp car, which I converted to carry nine men (the first 'people carrier'?)
Petrol was on coupons, and my next problem was that I was only allocated about half enough of them for my long journeys taking the men to and from the distant sites. So I designed a vaporiser, which my engineer friend, Charles Fletcher, made and fitted for me.
Tractor Vaporising Oil was less than a shilling a gallon (20 shillings to the pound), and not on coupons; I bought it in 40 gallon drums. I had to start the car on petrol, (controlled by a two-way cock under the dash), and then switch over to my cheap fuel after a couple of minutes.
I ran that car on TVO for about four years, until my accident eventually put paid to my building career. I conclude my story with an account of the accident which involved that same car, and left me with an above left knee amputation.
The year, 1948; the date, 21st November; the time, 7.45am; the weather, freezing fog; the place, the (then) winding Balsham road, half a mile or so out of Fulbourn, Cambridge.
At the time I was building houses for Chesterton RDC at Fulbourn and Abington. The Fulbourn contract was well under way; I had just dropped half a dozen workmen on that site, and was on my way to Abington, where I was setting out the foundations for our next contract.
My car was the big old pre-war 30hp Ford V8, running on TVO (Tractor Vaporising oil, it is like paraffin). Alone in it now, I was following a lorry piled high with large bags of chaff, and resigned to staying behind, since visibility was too poor to attempt passing.
Suddenly I saw one of those huge bags fall off and roll under my car; it got jammed under the steering, and slewed me off the road onto the opposite (right-hand) grass verge. Only a couple of feet of the car remained on the tarmac, and the car still faced Balsham. The lorry driver carried on, unaware of his loss. I was about to take out my pocket knife to cut the bag open and let its contents out, in order to be able to drive off, when I heard a car approaching from the direction of Balsham.
Looking up, I saw a Hillman Minx approaching rather fast for the conditions. As it got closer, with the driver apparently making no effort to give me a wide berth, I took my eyes off it at the last moment, to see if it was going to scrape the side of my Ford.
The next thing I remember was finding myself lying on the ground in front of my car; but when I attempted to get on my feet, I fell straight down again. It was only then that I saw the spikes of splintered bone sticking out through both legs of my trousers. All I could do then was to lie down on the road and wait for help.
As I was to discover days later, the Hillman was being driven by a seventeen-year-old youth, accompanied by several younger passengers. Having no windscreen defroster, he had lowered his side window, and was steering by judging his distance from the grass verge. The first he knew of my car being in front of him was when he hit it (and me).
Twenty minutes later, two young men from Balsham drove up in an old Austin 7, and found the youngsters from the Hillman still being ill in an adjacent hedge; it was assumed they were unable to recover from the shock of the accident, and then seeing the gory mess that was me.
Neither of the newcomers (one of whose surname was Plumb), knew anything of first aid, so they lifted me onto the narrow back seat of their tiny car just as I was. There I remained propped up for the two hours it took them to get me to the old Addenbrookes Hospital in Trumpington Street, arriving there some time after 10am. It had taken them so long, because, having no windscreen defroster on their car either, they had to stop and scrape their windscreen every 100 yards or so.
I never lost consciousness, but my whole world from then on consisted of trying to breathe, knowing that once I gave up it would be the end. As I strove for air, my throat kept closing up with a snort.
Having arrived at the hospital, I was placed on a stretcher in the emergency/accident department, which was in a single storey addition in front of the main hospital then.
I seemed to lie there for hours, fighting for breath, unexamined and unattended; except that every now and then the 'battle axe' of a sister would come to me and yell in my ear to stop making that noise, as it would only make me worse, and I was disturbing the others. This episode remains one of my most vivid memories of that awful day.
Eventually I was moved into a ward, and after a brief examination, when they detected neither blood pressure nor pulse, a wire cage was put over the lower half of my body, and a blanket laid over it to conceal the mess.
All this time I could see and hear, but make no other sound than my continuous fight for breath. I distinctly recall two young nurses walking by the foot of my bed; one of them lifted the corner of my blanket for them to peep inside. I saw their shocked expressions, heard the 'Ughs'.
So much for my own recollections of those first few hours; what follows, was mostly gathered from others.
In the meantime the police had found the two cars, the Minx, a write-off, having bounced off and slithered to rest forty or so yards further along the road. They found the blood and bits of bone on the road in front of the slightly damaged Ford.
Eventually, although unable to make out what had happened, they tied the accident up with the person under the cage in hospital. After identifying me, the hospital called up my mother, father and sister (my brothers being out of the area then). They arrived at my bedside during the late morning, and were given to understand there was no hope; they decided to remain at my side until the end.
So my family were still there waiting for me to die some hour or so into the afternoon. Then another young doctor, who may just have come on duty, stopped to examine me. I was still lying there with my one object in life, the fight for breath, but having no intention of dying.
It was probably being so fit that had kept me alive me until then. (In addition to working a 12-hour day, I was in full training, rising at 5am, going for a five mile run followed by a cold bath. Moreover, I had played rugger for my county only a few days before).
Until this time, remember, I'd had no oxygen, saline, wound dressing - absolutely no attention whatsoever. They had not even bothered to ascertain my blood group.
Then, I understand things began to happen under the fresh doctor; remonstrations, nurses running around rigging up equipment to give me an interim four-pint plasma transfusion. Perhaps a couple of hours later, with my blood group identified, I was switched over to whole blood, and soon there came the greatest blessing of all; I could breathe in freely as much beautiful air as I liked.
As I began to be able to talk to my family, a policeman with the inevitable pencil and notebook appeared at the bedside; he must have been waiting in the wings somewhere, awaiting permission to interview me.
I remember how surprised he seemed to be when he heard what had actually happened that morning. It seemed that the police must have been under the impression that both cars had been moving at the time of the crash, with mine on its wrong side.
Later they found the driver who had dropped the chaff, and charged him; he was fined £5. The lad who had been driving the Minx was also eventually charged, and fined, I believe, £50. As for me, while I was still not fully recovered from the shock, and therefore unable to judge the justice of it, the insurance companies agreed my compensation at £2,000. It was to cost me much more than that during the first year.
The doctor told my family I was going to live after all, and they must have left late that afternoon. I carried on taking in blood until round about midnight, when I was moved into the operating theatre.
I learned afterwards, that because of the shock my heart had suffered through the sudden loss of all that blood, they had decided that it might not withstand a general anaesthetic. So they had to do a rush job as a temporary measure, taking my left leg off where it had been crushed, suturing and setting in plaster the compound fracture of my right leg; all needing to be carried out within as little time as possible.
It seems that when I had tried to stand after the accident, I had managed to get the wounds contaminated with horse-muck (lots of horses still about on the farms then), so I had to stay in hospital for another fortnight, having four penicillin injections a day.
Then I was sent home for three months to recover, which meant that I went back into hospital on my 30th birthday, the 6th of February, 1949, to have a proper amputation job done on my left leg, in order to enable me to wear an artificial one.
Until then I'd never had the spare time to seek a girlfriend. It was during my convalescence that I met my future wife and mother of our three children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Betty is over ten years younger than me, we are still together, in a village near Cambridge.
My first, and only other girlfriend, had been Doreen Valor. We would sit on her doorstep in Chestnut Road, and eat the slice bread and jam her mother would give each of us. We were two or three years old, and living in Tottenham at the time; it was a year or so before we removed to East Barnet.
There my father and his brother Jim took over the premises of the retiring builders WC Leak and Sons, but not their inappropriate name!
Account for it how you will, but in the course of my life, I have suffered far too many near fatal events and accidents (only a few of which have been recorded here), for my survival to be a coincidence. In some marvellous way, and having done nothing to deserve it, I have been protected.
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