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- Bob Yuill
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- 04 May 2004
Leaving school at the age of fourteen I took a four year apprenticeship as a landscape gardener in a nursery on the outskirts of Bridport, Dorset. On completion I was extremely lucky to get a job straight away as second gardener on a large estate overlooking Bridport. It was a beautiful place set amongst trees, with extensive lawns and flower beds, a large kitchen garden and greenhouses for grapes, peaches, nectarines and figs etc. Also a large orchid house and camellia glass house.
The lady of the house was a Mrs. Holden, a widow in her nineties. There were three gardeners and five indoor staff including a nurse, housekeeper and personal nurse to attend the needs of the lodge. Mrs. Holden was a tall, and fairly resilient person - old fashioned and in full command of all her faculties.
At that time I was in lodgings with a family (husband, wife and two sons) as mother was being cared for in a nursing home in Bristol. She was recuperating from tuberculosis treatment. Fred Edwards, (my landlord) was a member of the part time territorial army and somehow inveigled me to 'join up'. We were paid a 'bounty' if we completed so many 'drills' in a year and also attended a week (or fortnight's) summer drill camp.
Gardeners don't need holidays
The year is 1938. I approach the head gardener - a Mr. Alf Eveliegh - to arrange a week's holiday so that I could attend the training camp.
'That's awkward', he says. Gardeners here don't have holidays. 'I've worked here 17 years without a holiday. You will have to ask Mrs. Holden.'
One of my jobs on some afternoons was to go indoors, remove my boots, put on soft shoes and proceed upstairs to 'Madam's' bedroom to assist in pushing Mrs. Holden downstairs in her wheel chair to the drawing room for her to take afternoon tea. A good opportunity for me to ask about a holiday.
'A holiday,' she says. 'Outdoor staff don't have holidays. You have all the glasshouses to constantly attend. Why do you want a holiday? '
'Two reasons,' I say. 'Firstly, I work hard and think I deserve a holiday and, secondly, I am a member of the territorial army and am required to attend summer camp.'
On my saying the word army she visibly brightened.
'Oh, I see,' she says, 'My son in law, Bernard, is in the army. Of course you can have a week off - arrange it with Mr. Eveliegh.'
So there I have the awkward job of telling Mr. Eveleigh that I had persuaded Mrs. Holden to give me a week off.
'I think her son in law Bernard swung it for me,' I say. 'Who is Bernard?'
Mr. Eveleigh pulls a photo from his wallet.
'This is Bernard.' he says. 'Bernard Montgomery. He is a general in the army. He visits here occasionally and loves to putter around the garden and greenhouses.'
So I get my holiday and secretly thank General Montgomery.
A meeting with Bernard
Then in September 1939 war breaks out between England and Germany and I am called up for active service. I discover that General Montgomery is my Corps Commander. (An army corps consists of well over 10,000 troops.) I first meet 'Bernard' face to face in Kent. We are digging a defensive position in the coastal town of Sandwich. Suddenly, this slight wiry looking officer (top brass) appears with an entourage of high ranking officers. He looks at our attempt at camouflaging the gun position.
'Are any of you gardeners?' he asks.
'Yes sir,' I say, and brazenly I suppose, I say: 'I used to work for your mother in law in Bridport.' He was immediately interested.
'Oh, you were with Mr. Eveleigh'. And then, disregarding all his attendant officers he proceeded to ask me how Mr. Eveleigh was getting on.
I saw Bernard on lots of occasions after this, as he was a conscientious commander and drove all his units hard. A non smoker and fitness fanatic he ordered all his troops (everyone officers included) to do a ten mile route march every week. My last encounter with him was in August 1944. He is now a Field Marshal, no longer corps commander. He has served in North Africa against the German General Rommel. He now generally wears a black tank brigade beret, sporting two badges - his own Field Marshall badge and also the tank brigade badge.
I am travelling in an armoured column pushing our way up through Holland. Owing to the masses of small dykes in north Holland we are mostly confined to the roads. Many of them are cobbled which plays havoc with the tracks of light armoured vehicles. Suddenly on a narrow bridge, a pin on one of the tracks of my armoured carrier, snaps, and the track is thrown off. This holds up all following vehicles so my crew hastily start to repair the broken track. A jeep full of military police appear, ordering all vehicles to the side of the road to allow a staff car through. My carrier cannot move as yet and the staff car comes to a halt. A head pokes out.
'What's the delay?' a voice asks and then out steps Field Marshal Montgomery. He is the officer in command of the entire advancing army as in his usual thoroughness was going as near as possible to the front line to assess the situation. He approaches my vehicle.
'Oh! It's you again Sergeant', he says.
He has remembered one of all the hundreds he comes in contact with. He doesn't seem too concerned and going back to his car he reappears with a large box of cigarettes which he proceeds to dole out to all and sundry. Even though he didn't smoke himself he realised how vitally important it was to the troops to calm their nerves with a 'fag'. This was my last encounter with Bernard.
I first met Winston Churchill - the British Prime Minister - in October 1940. I am a corporal and my unit is stationed in Dover Castle over looking Dover town in Kent.
The harbour and town is ringed by barrage balloons tethered to winches on trucks. These are designed to prevent low level attacks by enemy planes and can be lowered or highered accordingly. My section is manning a light anti aircraft gun. There is an intense dogfight overhead between British 'Spitfire' planes and German 'Messerschmitts'. The empty cannon fire cartridge cases from the planes overhead are raining down. They are quite large and made of brass and if they hit an unprotected head they can quite easily kill. We are warned never to look up if the planes are immediately overhead.
Suddenly a figure emerges from a building just below my position and looks skywards. 'Oh, the fool I think,' and then to my horror, I recognise the Prime Minister Winston Churchill who quite often visits coastal defence positions. I hastily run forward and throwing up a salute (should I salute a Prime Minister?) I respectfully suggest that he should take cover from the falling cartridge cases.
'Yes, yes of course corporal. Thank you', and with that he disappears back into the building.
He always seemed so interested in everything that went on and seldom wore a steel helmet. He had a large variety of hats - a homburg for formal occasions, a beret, a trilby, and a straw hat and always with a large cigar in his mouth. (He only ever seemed to smoke the first half of each cigar).
He struck me as being a lonely figure, preferring his own company and shunning any sycophantic (if that's the right word) followers. I've watched him standing on the battlements in Dover Castle intently watching the shells from the huge cross channel German guns near Calais landing in the harbour and Dover town.
At night you could see the flashes as the guns fired - then a pause of 35 seconds, the time it took for the huge one cwt. Shells to cross the channel and then the massive explosions as they landed. We also had two large cannon on tracks near St. Margaret's Bay just outside Dover and when they fired we were warned to open all windows of buildings in their vicinity as the huge percussion would shatter the glass of closed windows.
I was leading my section to a gun emplacement one day during an exchange of cross channel firing when a German shell landed 100 yards behind us. It throws off large jagged fragments of shrapnel up to a foot or more in length. My rear soldier catches a piece. It severs his right foot. We put a hasty tourniquet to stop him bleeding to death and then commandeer a sheep hurdle to act as a stretcher to get him to the nearest road to be picked up by an army ambulance.
Another meeting with Churchill
I now move on to May 1944. We are stationed in Bexhill on Sea, on the South Coast and we are preparing for an imminent invasion of France (no dates known). The pioneer platoon my battalion has been ordered to put on a special demonstration of explosives and booby traps to some important visiting dignitaries. They must be important, we thought. They were using a small hall to the rear of the home I am billeted in (occupants long evacuated!) We have to sweep the road, pick up every single scrap of paper, cigarette end or match. Fresh gravel is laid along the path to the hall and a rope barricade erected across the lawn to keep the small group of welcoming troops a few yards from the gravel path.
They arrive. A convoy of military police jeeps and three staff cars. (VIPs always travelled alone for security reasons). Stepping from the first car a figure I knew - Winston Churchill. Then from the second car a lean sunburned figure with a small pointed beard. Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts the South African Prime Minister. The third car disgorged the Rt. Hon. W.S. Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister. What a security risk to congregate three Prime Ministers in one small building.
First Churchill ignored our fresh gravel and strode across the lawn to shake hands and talk with us. Naturally, Smuts and Mackenzie King followed shaking hands and chatting. The belligerence of the Boer upbringing of Smuts was apparent (he fought in the Boer War).
'Good luck, lads,' he said. 'I know you are dying to get at the horrid Hun. It won't be long now.'
I wish I could have said we were NOT looking forward to the prospect of meeting the Germans in battle, and the expression 'dying' was most inappropriate. The majority of soldiers present on that day were either killed or taken prisoner with six months.
Mackenzie King was quieter - a slightly rotund shortish figure, he just wished us luck. I expect he would have been more outspoken if he had been visiting a Canadian unit.
The Canadians fought on our flank through France. Very brave men.
I never met Churchill in the flesh after that day.
Just as a footnote. Mrs. Holden died at the age of 99, Mr. Eveleigh died at the age of 98.
The estate I worked as gardener was first commandeered by the American Military as Officers Quarters. Then taken over by the Council as Local Council Offices. The grounds had housing built on them.
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