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Soldier or Sailor

by Neal Wreford

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Neal Wreford
People in story: 
Joseph Harold Whitfield
Location of story: 
UK, France, South Africa, India, Burma.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 March 2005

Although the Oxford Union may have voted not to fight in the event of war, a huge number of the 18 and 19 year olds like me took the advice of Mr. Hore-Belisha (he of the traffic beacons, who had been made Minister of War) to “Join the Territorials and Defend Your Heritage!” For me this meant a 20 mile weekly return bike ride between Stratford-on-Avon and Leamington Spa for drills in the latter town’s T.A. Royal Artillery Drill Hall where we later slept on the floor during the first weeks after mobilisation on 1st September, 1939. Lack of proper transport was our main problem at T.A. week-end exercises that summer; for vans and lorries had to be borrowed from local firms. When the 68th Field Regt. (T.A) sought extra drivers when we started serious training at the outbreak of war, the men sent from the depot at Woolwich were reservists, all wearing their old uniforms including breeches and spurs. Very few could drive a car or truck, but all had been experienced horse drivers!

I had an unusual war-time career, which really started from a re-mustering exercise in advance of our going to France, in which I became a Bren Gunner / Anti-Tank Rifleman. We joined the B.E.F. on 12th January, 1940 and were stationed in the mining village of Anhiers near Douai before the advance into Belgium and after three days and two nights at Dunkirk, I returned to England on 1st June.

In August, 1940, I volunteered for service with the D.E.M.S. (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) operating out of the Clyde and Loch Ewe. The soldiers in D.E.M.S. subsequently became part of the 1st Maritime A.A. Regiment, R.A.

By March 1942, I had reached the rank of Bombardier and after a succession of interviews at a War Office Selection Board in Edinburgh, I was accepted as a candidate for Officer Cadet Training for the Indian Army. On the way out to India my Draft had orders to disembark at Durban and during the three weeks stay in South Africa while waiting re-embarkation, I was in a Guard of Honour for my boyhood hero, General Smuts, and had the good fortune to meet the lovely young lady who was to become my wife after the War ended. We have now been happily married for 58 years!

My Officer Cadet training in India was in Bangalore and in November, 1942 I was commissioned first in the 8th Gurkha Rifles and then, in February 1943, was suddenly notified of my selection for transfer to the Royal Indian Navy as a Sub-Lieutenant, R.I.N.V.R. in its newly formed Landing Craft Wing. Was it by chance, or did they know I actually had sea experience?!?

I took part in the Arakan landings in Burma during 1944-45 and after returning to India held a staff appointment at Naval Headquarters in New Delhi. My repatriation to England and final release, in the rank of Lieutenant R.I.N.V.R., took place in April and July , 1946 respectively.

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