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15 October 2014
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The Leicestershire Yeomanary goes to War.

by agecon4dor

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jack Edwards.
Location of story: 
The Midlands and Palestine.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
06 July 2005

Jack Edwards.

This story was submitted to the People’s War web site by a volunteer on behalf of Jack Edwards and has been added to the site with his permission. He fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

My name is Jack Edwards, the only son of Percy and Gwladys Edwards of Leicester. My mother and farther as I remember; she was welsh and came from Rhyl in North Wales. Farther was a bit of mixtures, part ’scots’, probably part of the Viking invasion. Otherwise he was English. His family seems to have centred round Peterborough. Both my parents came to Leicester to work; met and married and set up home there. I was born in Leicester in 1915, and brought up there. I had an older sister, Betty; and my younger sister, Myrie, was born in 1917 but died the following year. It was rather typical of wartime. I went to Wyggeston Grammar School, after leaving I went to work in a hosiery warehouse for a short time. It was a mistake as it was a typical Leicester manufacturing firm. This was before going into Local Government, and working in the City Education Department. Eventually I arrived at the Youth Employment Office; and that is what I did for the rest of my career; except for the five years of war in between.

After Munich, in a surge of patriotism. I joined the TA; the Leicestershire Yeomanry - Trooper Jack Edwards, Signals Section, Headquarters Company B Squadron. I knew the Signals Sergeant Ken Walker, through my sister’s Tennis Club. Training at the Drill Hall in the Old Magazine one evening a week learning semaphore and morse code, then ending up at the pub round the corner. We were still wearing World War 1 uniforms and gear. Riding breeches, puttees, spurs, bandoliers and ‘cheesecutters’ (peaked hats). We had to buy our own dress uniforms — red striped trousers, blue jackets with silver chain epulettes, ‘swagger’ sticks embossed with Regimental crest, the Prince of Wales’ feathers, and dress boots with elastic sides. After Annual Camp at Burleigh Park, Stamford in May 1939, I spent a golfing holiday with three friends at Felixstowe, the following August and remember that during the showing of “The Four Feathers” the screen darkened and a notice appeared ordering all TA personnel to report to Barracks forthwith. We returned to Leicester the following day and I duly reported the next morning at the Racecourse (Oadby), just in time to avoid being posted as a deserter. War had been declared and training began in earnest. Imagine in 1939 volunteers being instructed in the use of cavalry sabres. Standing astride with bent knees as though mounted on horseback, clutching imaginary reins and a heavy sword, listening to an Instructor shouting “Engage Infantry left”, Engage Infantry right”, swinging one’s sabre over the supposed horse’s head to engage the ring on the end of the Instructor’s six foot pole and then parry the other end of the “blob” stick to avoid being coshed by the loaded weight. Crouched there with sabres held outstretched became an ordeal as muscles failed to meet the strain. Semaphore signalling with flags was a less demanding activity. Incidents stand out — sleeping in Loose boxes in the stable yard, palliasses filled with straw laid over cape/ground sheets. Obtaining a twenty four hour leave permit to go home for a bit of comfort; climbing up and down the spiral staircase in a tram car, a tricky manoeuvre wearing spurs, bandolier and gas mask.

The Racecourse was soon left behind us as we assembled with the Regiment at Rufford Abbey near Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire. No mod cons here. Ablutions were performed in the open courtyard standing at rows of trestle tables using tin basins filled with cold water from standpipes. No one complained, it was fun, it was new. Even in those early days E N S A sent out concert parties for troop’s entertainment. Many of the ‘artistes’ had been eased out of retirement, to regale us with old fashioned songs and routines.

The Signals Troop received its 15cwt wireless vans and we practised our Morse sending and receiving skills ad infinitum. I volunteered to drive and was taken out under instruction for a couple of weeks. Not really long enough for the first occasion of driving with a compliment of signallers and Corporal Bernard Marriott in the cab, my hobnailed boot contacted the accelerator and brake at the same time, narrowly missing a gatepost and putting the fear of God into the Corporal. That was the end of my driving duties. B Squadron mounted its own guard and it was customary for the Duty Officer to select one with the smartest turnout to perform ‘Stick Duty’. That is to sit outside the Orderly Room and deliver messages as and when necessary. This, of course, excused that fortunate person (me) from doing guard duties.

Now we had horses we had to ride so I learnt the intricacies of grooming and riding bare backed — the horse not me. Being a novice, I was thrown and badly damaged my wrist leading to ‘excused duty’ meaning that I could not be called upon to perform guard or any other duties. This greatly annoyed Corporal Ted Tatton, one of whose jobs was to make up the Guard Roster. He regarded me as a personal insult and classed me as a shirker, of not mucking in with the rest of the Section, one to be got rid of. After a weekend leave I went back to find I had been posted to an Army Remount Depot. The Leicester Yeomanry were part of the 1st Cavalry Division. But as there were too many units we were split up and I was sent to No 1 Army Remount Squadron at Derby. We were a motley crew, I was given a stripe to look after pay and rations. We had an outstation on Derby racecourse and there I oversaw the delivery of rations. From the lorry to the cookhouse everything was in order. Back in Headquarters there were, from time to time, complaints about the inadequacies of the rations, but I knew what supplies I was issuing. It wasn’t until the Unit had settled in Palestine that I learnt that some crafty so and so’s carried the food including sides of beef through one door and straight out of another door to a waiting Contractor’s van.
I remember that we all had to receive the regulation injections from another recalled veteran, one Dr. Hollick. He injected us queing up with bare arms, hands on hips, using the same needles that came blunter and blunter as we passed through his ‘clutches’. We had another name for him. I also remember the bareback riding at Rufford Abbey. We had been earmarked for embarkation as the last flight of the Cavalry Division, bringing spare horses as remounts. I was at Rufford Abbey for three months before being sent to Palestine. We travelled down with our remounts to Dover and embarked on the Normandie Ferry and landed safely at Dunkirk. By train we crossed France to Marseilles, via Lyons, in cattle trucks labelled ’40 hommes, 8 chevaux’, with no buffers and virtually square wheels. The date was 3rd March 1940. I was not to see England again for five years.

After the long journey across France it was a relief to get to sea. We sailed with a ship full of horses on the SS RAJULA, normally used to carry pilgrims to Mecca. Our escort was an Australian destroyer that gave us some anxious moments by dropping depth charges to ward off a suspect submarine. Arriving at Haifa began a reverse process. Horses off boat and on to rail cars. The train wended its way slowly through the land thick with orange groves, giving us time to jump off, grab some juicy oranges and climb back. So Palestine here we come.

Fifty five personnel of the Army Remount Service representing No. 1 Remount Squadron set up camp and lines at Nathanya, Palestine, on the Mediterranean coast next door to No. 3 Army Convalescent Depot. The unit was made up of Cavalry Reservists who spoke with great familiarity about soldering in India, using many strange words mixed with English. To begin with we lived ‘off the fat of the land’ pre war rations, local produce and a weekly issue of a tin of 50 cigarettes. The horses we brought with us were intended as replacements for the Cavalry Units in the Middle East, at leased until they were mechanised. Unfortunately, successive shipments of tanks and equipment were lost at sea so horses continued to be used. Later on we took in the Grey’s horses. Such beautiful creatures, and later still all the animals following the Syrian Campaign. The saddest thing about it all was that the climate did not suit animals reared in England. Heat and sand colic took a heavy toll. In the early days before we acquired any familiarity with the spoken word our horses had to be watered and fed, exercised, shod and groomed. Help was obtained using local labour, ‘Syces’, who were local arabs, to do a lot of the hard work. Later, other roles were added, a livestock-fattening unit, a pig breeding establishment, training guard dogs for the Military Police and breaking in mules for the Italian winter campaign. For the troops, Palestine was a haven. The Steirn gang had gone to earth and the only shells we saw were on the seashore. It was possible to get local leave and I have photographs to prove that I swam in the Sea of Galilee. On a visit to the NAFFI at Sarafand, a veritable Selfridges, we were able to buy enough golf equipment to improvise a fourteen-hole course. In the spring the course was a riot of colour with huge swathes of wild anemones growing in the fields. Even more spectacular was the heady scent of orange blossom from the groves that boxed us in. to avoid damage to their trees the farmers would deposit in the camp everyday a cartload of oranges, grapefruit and watermelons. We started of wearing Pith helmets, a survival from the Boer war and anti-mosquito shorts. They had to be unbuttoned after dark and converted into calf length trousers. They went they way of all flesh, so did the puttees and boots except for riding. Stockings and shoes became the accepted dress and fly-whisks were common. We spent some time in Nathanya itself and got to know the shopkeepers, the café and bar owners. The town was virtually a single unpaved road, but strangely enough possessed a concert hall where to our astonishment the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performed. ‘Very nostalgic’. On another occasion in Haifa we sat in a cinema with a sliding roof and watched ‘Gone with the wind’ and believe it or not, round the corner there was ‘The London Fish and Chip Shop’.

Suddenly the war caught up with us. No. 1 Remount Squadron was to move, to embark for Crete at short notice. The night before the move I slept practically in full gear on a table top only to be told next morning, I with half a dozen others would remain behind to form a new squadron. I felt left out and bitter the others sticking together. What would you call it? Fate, Kismet, or the luck of the devil? For news eventually reached us, that the whole unit was captured and spent the rest of the war working on farms in Germany. Compensation arrived in the shape of promotion to Orderly Room Sergeant. Some people are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them. I fell into the latter category and had to learn by trial and error. Typing the War Diary using two fingers was some thing that had to be done. Gradually things made sense — a batch of new Officers, NCO’s and OR’s made up No 4 Remount Squadron, now under the ownership of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.

My immediate boss and Adjutant was a Lieutenant (QM), ex RSM of the Wiltshire Yeomanry. He took his time to settle in and was very kind and helpful, and with hindsight very crafty. He was well aware of the discrepancy in paying out ‘Syces’ and I believe it motivated his action to have me recommended for a commission in the Indian Army Service Corps. I was interviewed in Haifa and passed the test. I was told to bone up my riding skills and make a brief start to learn Urdu, the language used by Indian Troops. It all turned out to be fruitless, for having travelled through the Sinai Desert clutching a huge water melon for sustenance, getting as far as El Kantara and Egypt, and ultimately to a Staging Camp at Geniefa on the Bitter Lakes; where I languished for a couple of months, but alas the scheme was cancelled. It was said that Ghandi refused to have anymore English troops in India.

This is the end Part 1 of Jack Edwards’ WW2 Peoples War Story. It is continued under the Title of ‘ Royal Army Veterinary Corps at War’, covering the remainder of his time in Palestine, a move to Egypt, his return to England before going to Germany until the end of the War.

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