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15 October 2014
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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Ernest Barkaway
Location of story: 
Derby, Derbyshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 November 2005

Prior to 1939, I had qualified as a watchmaker and ran my own business in the South of England. Aged 29, I was called for active service and joined the REME as a watchmaker. Subsequent training achieved high standards and army discipline was both new and intimidating. An orderly pattern gradually appeared, and after learning military ways I was posted to a unit in Derby to contribute in a way for which I was equipped. We had all kinds of small military mechanical devices to repair, test, and return to our fighting men. By the instruments received, those men were working hard on our behalf.

A draft of Japanese prisoners arrived in our unit for an unknown duration of the conflict. They soon settled into routine and we gradually became acquainted, communicative, and to some degree overcame the language barrier. Of course with much activity going on towards the war effort, it was unthinkable that idleness could be permitted and work had to be found for them. From the workshop, where instrument repairs were executed, we saw the prisoners going about their daily routine around the camp. Surprisingly, we found them very friendly and even immensely grateful for the care and kindness they received. Occasionally, in order to keep in touch with our families at home, we obtained leave for short visits. To make travelling easier, I had bought an Austin Seven which was kept at the camp. One day the steering went wrong and needed repair. At that time my knowledge of motorcar mechanisms was minimal, but I had discovered one of the prisoners to be a highly skilled motor mechanic and decided to approach him. "Oh no problem," he replied in broken English. “Just leave it with me". What indeed I had let myself in for I knew not, and occasionally enquired about progress. The replies in Japanese were not easy to understand, and I thought patience was appropriate.

One day, upon glancing through the window, I was astonished to see a motorcar similar to mine, going around the parade ground. What was to be done? On checking the registration I went to make contact with the driver, still in a hurry. Seeing me he stopped nearby. Immediately with a broad smile he called out in broken English, “All done zir, all done". I was lost for words. He had indeed rectified the fault and was proving the repairs. Since our relationship with prisoners was very restricted, how could I convey my gratitude? I thought a packet of Woodbine Cigarettes might be acceptable, and offered them. He would have none of it insisting that the prisoners were quite overwhelmed with the kindness shown by the Englishmen. An invitation to repair one of their cars was a wonderful opportunity to display that appreciation. I was relieved to have my car back on the road, facilitating leave again. The car was fine, and I learnt much from the experience.

This story was entered on The People's War Website by Stuart Ross on behalf of Ernest Barkaway. Ernest fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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