- Contributed by
- Stan Wood
- People in story:
- Stanley H Wood
- Location of story:
- Various locations in England and Asia
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 October 2004
On the 2nd of July 1942 I was sent the ‘King’s Shilling’. By then the value had risen to four shillings (today’s 20p) and I still have that original postal order. I was instructed to report to number 23 Primary Training Centre on Leicester Race Course wearing my Home Guard uniform. Formalities of enlistment were completed and I signed my Army Service and Pay Book (AB 64) for the duration of the war years with the regular army. I was five foot five inches tall, weighed eight stone four pounds with black hair and a fresh complexion. I was also number 14234473 Private Stanley Wood. After an army kit issue I was assigned to ‘A’ Company. With a group of lads of similar age, all white-faced and puny compared to a much older, sun-tanned group we saw leaving, we occupied a large, now empty, hall in Oadby. After assembling our webbing and sorting our kit, we were given two coarse blankets and told to bed down on the wooden floor. We used the spare pair of army boots as a pillow. For the next six weeks our aching muscles and bones acclimatized themselves to the hard floor.
Sessions of special tests supposed to have selected people for specific units had been farcical. My stated preference, with qualifications, for the Royal Signals had been ignored and I had to remove my prized and valued crossed flags from my battle-dress blouse sleeve.
For those six footslogging weeks we drilled in the back streets of Oadby. Weapon training was carried out in a local park and a NAAFI wagon would arrive mid-morning to give us a mug of cocoa and a rock bun. I was so hungry I could have scoffed the lot, but we were rationed to only one. On the range we fired our Lee Enfield rifles, the Bren Gun and a two inch mortar. We clambered over the assault course; did cross country runs; went through gas chambers and took our respirators off to sample the gas, then did a full morning’s training with the respirators on. When the order came to take them off I wondered what the funny smell was - it was fresh air. Sometimes we went on night manoeuvres. One evening there was an air raid. (I’d almost forgotten about them.) Whilst taking over in a slit trench, a searchlight illuminated a low-flying German bomber. Tracer bullets flashed down the searchlight’s beam and the light was extinguished.
We all suffered stiff arms with the TAB and TT inoculations. The vaccinations, which I hadn’t received as a child, gave me a dose of vaccine fever. I was not alone. Sickbay overflowed and I spent three days on the floor of our barrack’s hall with a couple of days excused duties. For the rest of my service my AB64 records six vaccinations, four more TAB, three more TT and five Cholera jabs.
When that training ended it felt as though I had served my time and should be going home. Reality brought me back to earth when I was posted to Hinkley for army stores training. Remember the special tests and my qualifications for the Royal Signals? Well, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps needed storemen at that time and, since I was a junior storeman on enlisting, choice was non-existent. All the other lads had similar stores or warehouse experience. The course lasted about three weeks. Between times we had a few drills, cross-country runs and guard duties. The barracks was enclosed within a high wall with a public road and footpath that followed the wall on the outermost side. On the path, outside the main gate, a sentry box stood. At timed intervals the sentry had to do a smart step forward, slope arms, right turn then march about thirty paces along the footpath before doing an about turn and marching back. I remember standing on guard with a rifle and fixed bayonet. I did a smart slope arms and rammed the long bayonet into the wooden top of the sentry box. I had forgotten to take the smart step forward! It took both hands to pull the bayonet clear and quite a while to get over the embarrassment of having possibly being observed.
On the 15th of September 1942 I received my first home leave. Eight glorious days, then the long, smoke-belching steam train south to Didcot in Berkshire.
“Report to ‘B’ Company”, barked a Sergeant in the Orderly Room. So, loaded down in full marching order (webbing, belt, ammo pouches, small haversack fixed to the side of the belt, water bottle, bayonet frog, big pack with steel helmet and rolled-up gas cape attached to a full kit bag), I trudged down a long road in the direction I had been given on that miserable, wet and windy day. Nobody told me ‘B’ Company was under canvas. It was eight men to a bell tent sleeping on damp duckboards with all feet pointing to the centre pole. In the middle of this field a canvas screen enclosed a tattered and primitive latrine. By this time I was bursting and ignored a faded notice that said “NCOs Only”. The angry voice of a hairy-arsed sergeant boomed out behind me. It was a ludicrous situation. Him with his khaki britches round his ankles, squatting over a hole in the ground and dishing out a tongue-lashing between loud farts whilst I was having a piddle in an old can in the corner. I finished first and beat a hasty retreat.
I hated ‘B’ Company. I hated the long, boring work duties; the bugler and his long reveille; the P.T., the parade ground with its inspections and berating for minor infringements and the unpalatable food.
A bit of luck got me posted to ‘A’ Company. Here I acquired a bed in a Nisson hut. The grub was still frugal and insipid but there was a NAFFI providing good food in the evening at reasonable prices. We got a day off a week (my day was Tuesday) but the guard duties, kit inspections, compulsory make-do-and-mend evenings, night fire picket and other duties didn’t give much time for leisure.
Relief came on the 27th of January 1943 when I was detailed to attend No 2 Battle Company at Basildon Hall. After Dunkirk the RAOC was upgraded to a fighting unit and the red flash was added to the then drab, dark stripe on the battledress blouse sleeve. Now it was to be twenty-five days of real soldiering. Out went the bullshit. The pale cream blanco of the webbing was changed to a muddy black. All the brasses were darkened. Army boot toecaps you could see your face in were dulled with black dubbin and we were even issued with a bakelite cap badge. The assault course now crackled with live ammunition. The barbed wire was shaded with the fog of smoke grenades and livened up with thunder-flashes. On the last day we marched back to Didcot with full and perhaps discordant voices but what the hell, we were feeling fit and could have taken on the world. Half a mile from the main gate we halted to fix bayonets, sloped arms and marched proudly through the gate. The sentry sloped arms and slapped his right hand to the butt of his rifle in salute as we all did a smart eyes left.
Twenty-five days passed by and I enjoyed another ten days leave in Carlisle. Brother Norman had just finished basic training with the Royal Armoured Corps. He came home on leave two days before I had to return to Didcot. My kit was on the kitchen floor and he dumped his beside it. Can you imagine the contrast? His webbing was pale sandstone. The brasses were polished to perfection. You could see your face reflected in the toecaps of his boots and to complete the bullshit the studs on the soles shone like silver buttons. They were two short but glorious days. It was the last time we would be together until demob in that cold winter of 1947. Brother was posted to the Royal Tank Regiment. He saw action in Algiers with the 21st Tank Brigade and in Italy with the First Canadian Division. Then, with his Churchill Tank he joined up with the Desert Rats and was wounded in action.
R.S.A.G.A was one of many overseas draft codes and I was on it. At the end of April 1943 I was back in Carlisle on embarkation leave.
The transit camp was at Donnington and it was here where my fellow draftees were kitted out with tropical helmets, khaki shorts and shirts so we knew we were going somewhere hot. One dark night in early May 1943, draft R.S.A.G.A. waited in full marching order kit until the stroke of midnight. The order to march out, break step to muffle the sound and no talking was given. A train of empty, third class carriages awaited us in a deserted siding. There were no corridors in those old carriages. Once each compartment was full the doors were locked on the outside. The hole-slotted leather strap could lower a window if any calls of nature were needed but the pungent, never-to-be-forgotten, aroma of the smoke mixed with steam from the engine would assail the nostrils and fill your eyes with grit if you opened up on the wrong side.
Through a hazy dawn our steam train clickerty-clacked through Carlisle station. The locomotive’s whistle shrieked its defiance as we crossed over the river Eden’s rail bridge. A few hours later the train halted on the dockside of Gourock on the Firth of Clyde.
Our draft got ferried out to an American ship, the S.S. Argentina. In one of the deep holds canvas bunks hanging on chains about a couple of foot above each other were laid out in rows about twenty bunks high. I managed a lower one and this would be my space for many weeks to come. Three days later anchors were lifted and we moved out to sea and joined a convoy of other troop and merchant ships. Our escorts consisted of an Aircraft carrier, a Cruiser and a number of destroyers and frigates. It was a big convoy.
This American ship had a dining area that served only two meals a day. You collected the food cafeteria-fashion on a compartmentalised metal tray. There was no seating so you put your tray on a chest-high narrow shelf and ate standing up. Much different to a British troop-ship which had mess-decks comprising long fixed tables and wooden forms over which, at night, hammocks would be hung; and you got three meals a day.
I spent as much time as possible on deck. Not being privy to actual locations I can only guess that we hadn’t got much further than southern Ireland when the U-boats moved in. The hoot-hooting of the destroyers as they ploughed through the sea between the ships of the convoy, then the waterspouts and the muffled explosions of the depth charges livened things up for a while.
I joined in with a voluntary church parade on an open deck at the stern. Two American church people held a service and one of them had a small portable organ. After a short prayer he said, “You all sing modern American songs but most of the hymns come from your country. What should we sing?”
“Eternal Father Strong To Save” was voiced by many, after finding the music he played but nobody sang.
“It’s the wrong tune isn’t it?” He said. “Can someone lead?”
A tall, religious looking corporal sang. He had a most tuneful voice and everybody joined in. The two Americans were deeply impressed and vowed to include it in future services.
Our course took us on the traditional zigzag of convoy sailing as we ploughed through swells of the North Atlantic. Then we were attacked. I don’t know how many planes there were. I only saw one that dropped a stick of bombs near the carrier. The guns on the warships opened up and even the Argentina, which had a six inch gun on the stern, opened up with its with its anti-aircraft guns amidships and on the bow. It reminded me of old times in the London air raids. Then the booming voice on the loudspeakers ordered all non-active personnel below.
It all passed over. Peace and tranquillity prevailed and I watched the dolphins bouncing in and out of the now much calmer ocean as I leaned on the ship’s rail. Sometimes the smaller species of porpoise would accompany the ship. Daily P.T. and parades came and went and then land appeared on the Port side. The ship dropped anchor off Freetown in Sierra Leone, fuel and supplies were taken on board. The shoreline didn’t seem very far from our anchorage. Some Freetowners came out to the ship in small boats selling fruit and things. A few dived into the murky water to claim old pennies thrown from the ship.
It was hot. The showers and washing water was warmed salt water pumped direct from the sea and we used sea-soap to get a semblance of lather. Whilst anchored here orders were given not to wash and shave because the sea water was considered too foul to be safe.
Back in the North Atlantic a token ceremony was given as we crossed over the equator. We all got a certificate of crossing the line and then the South Atlantic took over the daily monotony. Here flying fish skimmed the waves and I thought of Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River in Burma and wondered if that was to be our final destination.
Table mountain loomed up on the port side as our ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope. We anchored again off Cape Town but were still confined to ship. It seemed a never-ending voyage but at last, when the ship arrived in Durban, shore leave was given. After a short respite the troops from the ship formed up on the quayside with full kit. Then, still with shaky sea legs and after the foul berating of an irate Sergeant Major, we marched for what seemed like miles to a transit camp.
The barrack blocks consisted of large square concrete floors, brick walls, about four foot high enclosed them leaving four open gaps on each end for access. There was another six foot of empty space above the walls which sprouted wooden posts at intervals to support the roof. The days were hot, but the nights could be very cold. After claiming your own floor space, one army blanket was the only protection you had between the cold concrete floor and the chill night air. There were no beds in these barracks.
Washing facilities, or the ablutions, were a laugh. One cold water source flowed through a double line of concrete holes for washing and shaving. The outflow continued through a half-covered block similar in build to the barrack construction. These were the latrines, a double row of grey stone slabs with bum-holes cut in were raised out two feet off the concrete floor on a wall of bricks. Water from the ablutions continued to flow along beneath them. About thirty blokes could sit, side-by-side and back-to-back for the morning’s business the only paper available contained the previous day’s news. Sometimes a fluffed up newspaper would be ignited and sent down the water trough to singe the arse of the unsuspecting. (As a point of interest perhaps you have seen the remains of this same type of latrine in the ruined forts along Hadrian’s Wall.)
Durban was a clean and pleasant city. The people welcomed us and we stuffed ourselves with the plentiful fruit, a scarce commodity in war-torn Britain. Many women’s groups ran canteens for the troops. Those kind ladies in the Jewish Club excelled at providing cheap but wholesome food. The beaches were fabulous. I learned to swim here. I had to, a ten-foot wave came in from out of the blue and I was out of my depth!
A full-sized steam train, looking top-heavy on the narrow gauge railway track, could take you to quiet, peaceful coastal places with names like ‘Umbogintwini’, ‘Winklespruit’ and ‘Icipingo’. I’m not sure of the spellings but the names sounded like that. My worst experience was doing guard duty alone on the docks with a rifle and no ammunition, and then having to suffer the nasty taunts by a minority of big loud-mouthed locals.
Nothing lasts! The day came to board another troop-ship. It was the S.S. Strathmore. A regal lady stood on the end of the jetty with a megaphone and sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Evidently she did this to all the departing troop-ships. Lovely lady. The S.S. Strathmore was a British ship. I’ve already described ’mess decks’. The laughs came when some blokes couldn’t master the hammocks. Many times they climbed in one side and promptly fell out on the other. They usually finished up sleeping on the floor. When it got too hot below I joined others and slept on the open deck.
Our course now changed to a north easterly, sampling the waters of the Indian Ocean. Sometimes the sea was as calm as a duck pond. Other times it would swell to watery mountains, tossing the ship like a cork. I watched the wind blow the spewed up guts of some men across the heaving wooden decks as we stood on parade for no particular reason. Although I always retained the contents of my own belly, I wasn’t sorry to feel solid land under my feet again. This time it was Bombay, and the Gateway to India.
A troop train carried us someway out of the city, then to much displeasure, the order came to de-train. An Indian Army Pipe Band led us, in full marching order, through village after village until we reached Deolali. I think the authorities were having a little trouble with Mr Ghandi at that time.
My first introduction to India was a close-up view of the unfortunate and deformed beggars by the roadside. I was told that some were maimed deliberately in childhood for the begging profession, but I have no proof of this. Worst of all were the diseases. I saw the rotting limbs and faces of leprosy and the pitted, disfigured skins of smallpox. I watched the ugly vultures flapping ungainly over dead animal carcasses and I took my first big, breathtaking smell of India.
Deolali seemed to be a small Indian village that had played host for many years to a large military transit camp. It gained an unjustified reputation of affecting the brain. Soldiers called it ‘Deolali Tap’. In 1943 the camp had a predominance of tents, ‘Tents I.P. Private’ to be exact. The I.P. was an abbreviation for ’Indian Pattern’. It was luxury, in a funny sort of way. Each tent had six or eight beds, wood and string contraptions called ‘Charpoys’. Most were infested with bugs and the tent flaps, under which you tied your mosquito net, was a lair for scorpions. A monsoon ditch encircled each tent. Cha-Wallahs plied their trade with strong, stewed, sweet tea which they carried from tent to tent in charcoal-heated urns. If you wanted, a barber would give you a shave in the morning. He was called a ‘Nappy Wallah’. A nappy rash then wasn’t what you think of today. An infected face could last for years and Dhobi itch could result from the local washerman sloshing your clothes on a flat stone in a river.
The mess tent had the side walls rolled up and was furnished with folding wooden tables and forms. I only remember the goat-meat stews ladled into the mess-tin. This gave the answer to where the herd of goats I saw driven into the camp had gone. Most of the stew ended up in the swill bins a few yards away. Dive-bombing shite-hawks tried to grab the meat before you could get it to your mouth. Everybody got the shits, some worse than others. Dysentery affected some lads. I remember eating wild bananas with hard pips in them because someone said they would bung you up!
We drilled, did P.T swinging our Lee-Enfield rifles and, reluctantly, went on road runs. Other runs would be performed when blokes stopped and stood rigid, holding their arses before dashing to the overflowing latrines hoping to get there in time.
We had mepacrine parades, swallowing those little tablets that turned some faces yellow, but were supposed to combat malaria.
I was detailed for a number of guard duties where I stood watching the glow of the burning-ghats in the distant hills whilst listening to the night sounds of India.
My twentieth birthday arrived but wasn’t celebrated. It just came and then passed by. So, from hereon, what you now read are no longer ’Teenage Memories of World War Two’ but, as the title explains, we weren’t called teenagers then anyway.
Volunteers were being sought at this time for ‘deep penetration’. Nobody seemed to have a clue what that meant but there were some outrageous suggestions! It turned out to be for General Orde Wingate’s ‘Chindits’, (the badge of the half lion — half eagle mythical Chinthay) and some obscure reference to another mysterious force 136. The warning advice of old soldiers I had met in my service with the Home Guard “Never volunteer for anything” guided my actions and my destiny.
My first posting was to Shahjahanpur in the united provinces of Northern India. Thieves, Dacoits, Thugees and Vagabonds were supposed to have been cast out here from Dehli and Agra by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan who, as you may know, built the Taj Mahal and Pearl Mosque in Agra. The depot here was enclosed inside a walled fort.
I experienced my first monsoon here, and the joy of standing naked under the cool downpour as it soothed the red, itchy blisters of prickly heat.
Snakes, lizards and scorpions scurried to their lairs. Out would come the giant bull-frogs, large flying insects grown out of all proportion and flying beetles large enough to give you a nasty crack if they hit you. Transparent, large-winged insects would flutter in their thousands against a wall until their wings dropped off. Then, as little white grubs, they joined together, train like, to disappear through cracks in the floor. Hundreds didn’t survive the waiting lizards, frogs and ants that all enjoyed a hearty meal. At night the fireflies danced like floating fairy lights under the dark shadows of the trees.
From here, and for various reasons, I visited Lucknow, Cawnpore and the ration stores of Bareilly. I also gained promotion to Sergeant.
South East Asia Command (SEAC) was handed to Earl Mountbatten in August 1943. He wanted to attack the Japanese in Burma by combined operations along the coast but no landing craft were available.
In November I took a three-day rail journey to the North West frontier and did a specialist course in Quetta. Christmas 1943 was celebrated back in Shahjahanpur.
In April 1944 the Japanese mounted a big offensive in the Naga Hilla in Assam, crossing the Indian frontier to besiege Kohima. The defences held. On the 24th of April 1944 Kohima was relieved by the ‘Forgotten 14th Army’. Imphal was then taken by the end of August 1944.
I was fortunate enough to spend a long weekend with twenty other S/NCOs at the Khasbagh Palace of His Royal Highness The Nawab of Rampur in June 1944. Luxury bedrooms, swimming pool, billiard table and meals were enjoyed. For the last meal, seated cross-legged on the floor to a low table loaded with first class Indian food, we were joined by the Nawab himself. We were given a guided tour of the fabulous palace; were amazed by the fountains and waterfalls in the fairy-tale gardens and, after watching cloth with real gold thread being woven on a hand loom, rode up the palace steps an the backs of painted elephants.
Then it was back to reality. I was detailed to attend a weapons training course at the Command School in Jhansi, a city in Uttar Pradesh, North East India. It was back again to the assault courses, live ammunition and training done at the double with manoeuvres against an infantry platoon dressed in Japanese uniforms. Officers and senior NCOs attended this course. Rank and name were dispensed with. We just had identification numbers. Mine was 85.
Back to Shahjahanpur and then to a depot on the outskirts of Delhi called Shakbusti, or some such funny name. The C.O. there happened to be the Officer commanding our draft R.S.A.G.A. out of Gourock in May 1943.
I joined a team preparing special stores packs designed for beach landings. I later escorted a full trainload of these stores to a depot in Calcutta with a train guard of six armed men of the Gurkha Rifles.
The following year I was promoted to W.O.I and then posted to No 3 Ordnance Beach Detachment. It seemed that Earl Mountbatten had at last got his landing craft. The task force had landed at Rangoon then pulled out to reform for another beach landing. The invasion of Malaya was imminent. I was now with the 7th Indian Division. We heard that the Americans had dropped two super bombs on Japan and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been obliterated. We couldn’t believe it. In the Strait of Malacca, between Malaya and Sumatra, I saw the largest assemblage of ships I had ever seen and would never see again. The Naval Task Force held its fire and I found myself on a beach south of Port Dixon. There was no opposition. The many gun-emplacements in the cliffs along the coast road remained silent. The Japanese had surrendered. I shudder to think of the casualties if they hadn’t. Because of this, the Invasion Force now split up. Some went to Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. Number One Ordnance Beach Detachment went ashore as planned on Moreb beach north of us. Later we heard disaster reports of tanks and vehicles being lost on the beaches.
For days amphibious (DUKW), we called them ducks, ferried stores ashore. We doctored our water bottles with various tablets — some of them salt. Our detachment moved out through Seremban to a Japanese stores depot on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. I took charge of the armaments section. The buildings of Wilkinson’s Rubber Factory were commandeered and became our barracks. A stretcher, raised upon two empty five-man jungle ration boxes, provided a comfortable, if narrow, bed. The best commodities in those boxes were a round tin of fifty fags in the centre and ten sheets of olive green toilet paper. For days now columns of Japanese soldiers in full kit, some pulling handcarts marched passed under armed guard from the interior.
Kuala Lumpur was now crowded with armed soldiers. I swapped my cumbersome Sten gun for a .38 Smith and Weston revolver. The haunting strains of the Malayan song ‘Terang Bolan’ emanated from the grounds of the Hong-Koong café. Here we were shown photos and drawings of chopped off heads, people having to bow to Japanese soldiers and long spears attached to vehicles with Malay and Chinese people spitted on them.
I did my share of orderly Officer duties at the depot. Ghurkha soldiers formed the guard. Sometimes it was a problem thinking up a password. Visiting the guard-posts on dark nights could be a hair-raising experience. There were those nights when one or two intruders had been shot. Favourite entry points were across a lake where tin-dredgers operated, or down a railway track overlooked by the white cliffs of the Batu Caves, one evening a whole trainload of stores was attacked by bandits.
Japanese prisoners were employed on clearing the depot. Rifles and small arms in store from all their troops were built into huge square stacks and set on fire. The twisted metal remains were used as foundations for the new internal roads.
At first the Japanese prisoners were given balls of cooked white rice but this didn’t last. The American ‘K’ rations in their cardboard cartons were substituted, then our own packs of jungle rations. The Japs had no liking for any of these but, what the hell, I didn’t rate them much either but they kept you going. At times I have watched Japs skin, roll in a circle, skewer, roast and relish a good fat snake.
I was summoned to the CO’s office one day. Here a visiting Brigadier briefed me on the difficult situation with supplies getting through to Units on the east coast. I was appointed Brigade Ordnance Warrant Officer (BOWO) and given orders to proceed to Kuantan and establish a Forward Maintenance Section. With two Havildars (Indian Army Sergeants), two Sepoy drivers and a fifteen hundred weight army truck we set off across Malaya. We spent one night in Kuala Lipis then followed the course of the old railway. The Japanese had removed the lines and taken up country to help build the infamous death railway.
Through high jungle in Pahang, past hot, bubbling, sulphur-smelling springs we went. On lonely stretches we disturbed all manor of coloured snakes and chattering monkeys. We also met a family of Saki, the small, indigenous jungle people of Malaya who had now braved the high road. After a number of river crossings our truck was driven onto a hand-operated ferry. This was the last ferry into Kuantan.
Sometime in the middle of June 1946 I received my orders to collect a replacement from Raub to take over as BOWO Kuantan. My official posting orders quoted in the official letter of the 17th June 1946 didn’t arrive. I contacted H.Q. 7th Indian Division at Ipoh and caused a panic. I was told to get my arse down to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur immediately. I drove the truck accompanied by one of my drivers back across Malaya, sending my driver back with it to Kuantan. I handed in my .38 Smith and Weston and caught the train to Singapore. After spending a night in Changi, I boarded the Mauritania for the voyage home.
For Wingate’s Chindits, the Special Forces, The Indian, Gurkah and British Troops of the 14th Army and other Services who gave their lives in South East Asia it would be remiss of me not to end this collection of memories without quoting the inscription on the KOHIMA MEMORIAL:
“WHEN YOU GO HOME
TELL THEM OF US AND SAY
FOR YOUR TOMORROW
WE GAVE OUR TODAY.”
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.