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From Hendon to Hiroshima

by Judy Stevens

Contributed by 
Judy Stevens
People in story: 
Reg Pobjoy - now Berthold
Location of story: 
Hendon, Maidstone, India and Japan
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 July 2004

From Hendon to Hiroshima


In many ways I was fortunate in the war. Although I did a lot of things which were, with the benefit of hindsight, stupid, I came off lightly and unscathed.

Instead of taking a year as a reserved occupation at London Transport, I
decided all my mates were going in the Forces and I didn¹t really want
to beleft behind. The other stupid thing that I did as well was to volunteer
tothe reconnaissance, which is the most dangerous unit apart from commandos
you could find. But fortunately, although I didn¹t realise it at the time,
they decided to put me in the Royal Army Service Corps and that¹s where I
stayed for four and a half years.

I was fortunate in other ways as well. When I returned from embarkation
leave to Aylesford, I and four others discovered that Unit 902 of the
RoyalArmy Service Corps had left while we were on leave. We were allocated
toEight Unit and went to Banstead before being posted to India and then
Japan.I did hear afterwards, though I don¹t know if it was true, that 902
Unit had gone to France where they became involved in the Battle at Caen and
very few of them survived.

People say that the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
was a war crime, but as far as I was concerned if they hadn¹t dropped that
bomb then I had a good chance of not being here. We were told by our
officers after the Japanese surrender that they had been expecting 75% casualties in
the first two days of our landing and I would¹ve been going in on the third
day, I remember some wag saying ³Would that day have made a lot of difference?² and the officer replied; ³It might have made a difference by about one in every thousand.² In other words it wouldn¹t have made a
lot of difference at all. So from my point of view I¹ve always looked upon the
dropping of the atom bomb as saving my life. Far more Japanese were
killed in the bombing raids of Colonel Curtis Le May, Commander of the
American Airforce, whose idea was to bomb Japan into submission. There was an
area of sixteen and a half square miles in Tokyo, which I went to, where
everything was burnt and destroyed, where there was nothing higher than knee level
and over 360,000 Japanese died in seven days. That¹s far more than died in
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

1941 ­ 1943

A little group of us, 14,15.16 year olds used to go around together and
one of the boys had a father who became an officer and said to us ³Right
you lotyou can join the Home Guard that I¹m in charge of.² So we all went
along to the hall in Hendon Technical College three nights a week and weekends,
Sundays cause you used to work Saturdays half day ­you were working a 48-hour week. Occasionally we used to go to Mill Hill Barracks where they had a rifle range. You had youngsters firing standard army issue rifle with the idea of actually killing somebody. A lot of people think of Dads
Army as a joke but at that time it wasn¹t a case of if the Germans were going
to invade, it was when, so at the time it wasn¹t a joke it was dead serious.

We did guard duty at the college because in the basement there was the
control for the fire brigade for the north west sector of London. Although
we were guarding it, we didn¹t really know what we guarding, we were just
young kids and it was all a big game. We had a rota and did a Guard duty
once maybe twice a week depending on how many people were off sick or if
there had been a rush on and people had to work overtime, there were a lot
of armament factories all the way along the Edgware Road. The commander was
a little fat man, I think he was about 4¹6² which was a bit of a joke because on parade you had all these great big blokes, well over 50% of them had seen First World War service and you had this little fella coming along,I don¹t think he¹d ever seen a gun fired in anger, but because he was a
Director of a tobacco company, he was automatically the commanding

The first drink I ever had was when I was 16 and we¹d been up to Boreham
Wood on an exercise. Three units were competing to capture an empty
house and retrieve a lantern from it. I can¹t remember if we won but I do
remember that an old coach that should have been on the scrap heap years before
brought us all back to Hendon and we went into the Chequers. A lot of the
older blokes went home but we went in this pub for a drink. The fella who
owned the pub was called Taylor and he was a real stickler for the law and
had no time for the Home Guard. So when he saw us all in there and the Major
had ordered drinks for about ten or fifteen of us, he said, ³I am not
serving them because they¹re not old enough² so the Major turned round
and said ³If they¹re old enough to wear a uniform they¹re old enough to
have a drink. Now give them a bloody drink or we¹ll break the place up.² With
that he promptly decided to serve us. It was more bravado than anything
else. But he did serve us and that was the first pint of beer I ever had.

Home Guard

Anthony Eden made an appeal on the radio for people to join local defence
units and so many people turned up that they just couldn¹t handle them. You
had this enormous army of men volunteers, it was the biggest force of
the three, the Navy, the RAF and the Army. And then they introduced conscription
into the Home Guard. Troops were out in the desert taking a pasting, France
had collapsed and you had all the soldiers there and they were out in India.
But at home you had all these blokes on reserved occupations and a lot of
them, let¹s face it, had managed to con their way out of the forces one
way or another. It was not unknown for a little bit of bribery to go on and
all they were interested in was how much money they could make. A lot of
them would get coaches or big vans and put seats in them, especially around
the East End of London where the raids and the blitzes took place, they
used to take anybody, mostly women and children who could afford a shilling or
two out into the country for the night. They would only go out to the other
side of Romford or just into Essex and they would pull up alongside the road
out in the country and they¹d all have blankets and flasks of tea and the
coach driver and the people who supplied the coaches who were collecting the
money didn¹t want to know about the army did they? So when they brought this
conscription in the idea was to make the actual soldiers feel a bit better
that these people were having to spend two or three nights a week away from
home in the cold up on Hampstead Heath or wherever, doing guard duties.
Because we were in the original Home Guard in an infantry unit we were
asked to go up to Hampstead on anti aircraft guns. Really the officers conned
us into doing it saying what good fellas we were and we were made up to
corporals. There I was, 17 or 18 ordering these blokes about who were
twice my age, if not more, except they had been conscripted in to the Home
Guard and they didn¹t like it. You know, they were a real handful, they used
to disappear and go down the pub, it was horrendous really.


We were billeted at Flask Walk in big old 4 storey Victorian houses and
we used to sleep there at night on palliasses, sacks filled with straw.
Because of the war you would have a bath once a week but you always had a good
wash but conscripts¹ standards of hygiene were well below ours, it was a bit
disconcerting and when you had breakfast in the morning you¹d think knives
and forks had never been invented, you know, they would literally use a
piece of bread to eat with.

Although there were quite a few air raids while I was there we only
fired the anti-aircraft guns once. They were very easy to fire, you put
rockets on two long rails. You had one man on either side, one responsible for the
elevation and the other for the direction of it. But both men had to do
something to make it fire, the bloke on the right stood on a pedal, the
fella on the left pulled the leaver towards him and then they fired on a
little electric circuit and these two rockets shot off. We were trained
to do it, they were very heavy those blimming things.

On this particular night we fired them, the direction was given so all the
guns were rotated round and they were elevated and all pointing in the
same direction and you waited for ³Fire!² And they shouted, ³Fire!² so you
did and it was absolutely miraculous because everybody¹s fired at the same
time,there was a terrific whoosh, flames, the place was lit up. There were
54 of these rockets each one with two rockets, so 108 rockets fired and they
all exploded in a big square in the sky. The idea was that it covered an
area half the size of a football pitch, exploding, shooting shrapnel all
over the place, if there was an aeroplane anywhere near then it had to be badly
damaged. All of a sudden as it died down, two rockets went off in the
opposite direction and only missed the top of a block of flats by about
ten feet. Nobody could figure out where these two rockets came from but
they had a rough idea, there was a couple of old boys, talk about Godfrey in
Dads Army it was nowhere near it. One of them must have been about seventy
and the other one must have been about the same age but he hadn¹t really
got all his marbles, he shouldn¹t have ever been there in the first place, and
they had got it completely wrong. They thought everybody else has fired, so
we¹d better.

1943 ­ 1945

Lanark, Aylesford & Southend
I decided not to take the opportunity of an automatically reserved
occupation for a year at London Transport where I was a trainee mechanic
and, like my mates, I joined up when I was eighteen in 1943.

I did eight weeks primary training in the barracks at Lanark where I was
interviewed. Being young with delusions of grandeur, I volunteered to
be in the reconnaissance. Fortunately, although I didn¹t realise it at the
time, they decided to put me in the Royal Army Service Corps and that¹s where
I stayed for over four years.

Initially I went to Aylesford where I was a learner artificer for six
months and then I got made up to a third class mechanic, I came out a first
class mechanic. I got posted to a company in Wembley High Street to do a
trade test to get up to a third class mechanic. I had a job on a Humber staff
car, great big thick tyres, a sloping back, an enormous great thing. I had
another couple of blokes with me in the car and we switched the engine
off and let it run down a hill in gear for something like a hundred and
fifty yards and then we switched the ignition on and it made an enormous bang
and people ran in all different directions. We thought it was funny but of
course it wasn¹t very funny, it was a stupid thing to do.

On the days leading up to D Day our Camp was like a great big café for
the convoys going through to the coast, they would stop for fuel,
sandwiches that sort of thing. I was mending lorries at the time. We thought it
was funny; there were no drivers for the lorries, we were just fixing them
and lining them up. After the landings of course we realised that they were
going to be used to move ammunition around for the anti aircraft guns
shooting down the doodlebugs.
One night we had been to party for one of the chap¹s birthdays. Beer
was rationed but, being Kent, there was plenty of strong scrumpy cider and
you could get drunk on it quickly. We¹d had a good time and got back to
camp late. Round about two o¹clock one of the fellas got up and shouted out,
²There¹s an aeroplane over there on fire². This plane sounded like a
very loud motorbike popping but no one took any notice of him. About 20 minutes
later he shouted out ³For God¹s sake come and have a look there¹s another
one on fire.² By this time one or two people got up and, sure enough,
there was this thing flying through the air with flames coming out the back
of it, making this odd sound. Nobody realised at that time it was a flying
bomb.Of course, after the anti aircraft guns were mobilised and a balloon
barrage was mounted, there were thousands of them. A balloon was bigger than a
double decker bus with cables hanging down, the idea was that the doodle
bugs would fly into them causing them to crash. The draw-back was that occasionally the balloons would drift away, I remember one day we had onedrifting over the Camp and a couple of Typhoon Fighter Planes came over to shoot it down, but they were concentrating so hard on shooting the
balloon down they didn¹t take into account the bullets hitting the camp. There
were blokes rushing all over the place trying to get out of the way of these
machine gun bullets!

Before I was posted to India, I got nine days embarkation leave, actually it
was seven days, but you said you were going to the Lizard lighthouse or
somewhere so you got an extra two days travelling time. When I got back
to Southend we were issued with new overseas kit and we got paid and they
stopped everybody nine pence barrack room damages. I don¹t know what
happened to the money but obviously somebody was making a lot. We were
all in this cookhouse with all our gear packed because we were going on the
train that night, so we ate our meal on china plates for once.
Everybody said the same thing, ³Now I¹m going to get my barrack room damages
back², and we all promptly smashed the cup and the plate.

We boarded a train packed with troops, God knows how many carriages.
Mum came and said goodbye. Later, in the pitch dark the train stopped on a
bridge over a road with back-to-back houses, with outside loos. You
could almost lean out the window and shake hands with the bloke in the
bedroom. We was hanging out the window all hollering about 2.30 in the morning. So
the people in the houses leant out their windows in their pyjamas or with
nothing on at all, telling us to shut up. You can imagine the ribald remarks
that were being made ­ well it was hilarious! You know, blokes were
piling into the various carriages to join in the fun so you were being crushed
out the window with everybody shouting at these people. I often wonder how
many times that happened.

1945 ­ 1946

We got to the ship, the Almanzora, it was on its way to the breakers
yard when the war started, brought back into service as a troop ship and
coincidently took Uncle George to Italy a year or so before. In the Bay of
Biscay, one of the engines broke down and it was going very slowly and
everybody was so seasick. It was my turn to go and get the meals, you had a
long table with six blokes either side and the two at the top went down into
the galley to collect the food. I collected the composite salad, diced carrots and swede and haricot beans and all that sort of thing, it was revolting, but it was either that or nothing. I had a bowl of rice in one hand and composite salad in the other and as I came down the iron
stairway, the ship rolled, the front lifted and I let go of these two cans, and
everyone got their meals spread all over the place. I crawled back up onto
the deck and stayed there for about three days. The engines kept breaking
down and the lights kept fading and one of the merchant seamen used to come
and unscrew a little plug in the deck and lower down a piece of string with
a weight on the end and knots tied in it all the way up to see how much
water there was still in the boat.

When we got to India we got into troop trains, the seats were wooden and you
could turn up the back of the seat into bunks with six blokes sleeping in
each carriage. The train went through Bombay, through the Ghats, mountain
passes and then we got to a big holding camp. In peacetime Deolali was
a hostelry where soldiers from the Indian Army or who gone out to India
between the wars and were suffering from any mental disorder went.
Hence the expression ³He¹s doolally.²After a few days I met a fella there who was
an orderly corporal I¹d known when I was at Maidstone. He¹d been in India
for a few months and he told me they wanted a tactical guard corporal doing
twenty four hours on and two days off. He said ³Don¹t forget if you¹re on this
and they make you a corporal you¹ll get grade I artificer¹s pay, about five
shillings extra a week² ­ normally a corporal¹s rank was unpaid but if
you were an artificer, a tradesman, then you got paid for it. Someone
cleaned our kit when we went on this parade, it was right in the middle of the
camp with buglers and the gear had to be spotlessly clean and you were
inspected by the officer. Once he went then it was just standing, walking up and
down in this big guardroom, where there were cells with soldiers who had
committed various offences, deserting, insulting or hitting officers,
all sorts of crimes like that and they were locked up in the cells in the
guardroom awaiting trial or being sent to glasshouses. A glasshouse is
a military prison, the original one at Aldershot had a glass roof and
looked like a giant glasshouse. That¹s how that name came about.
It was quite good, for three days you were walking around the camp, swimming, staying in bed till late with a note tucked in the end of your bed saying Œtactical guard¹ so if you were asleep and the camp guards came
round they left you alone. The cinema was a big old shed run by Indians. We
saw Casablanca every night for seven days, in the end we knew the blimming
words by heart.

I was posted to eight company Royal Army Service Corps which was going
to Japan. The Americans had lost twenty odd thousand men in the battle of
Okinawa, mind you the Japanese had lost nearly a hundred thousand both
civilians and soldiers. It was a very, very bloody battle - the Japanese
literally did fight to the last man. Now the next stop was mainland
Japan. Although we didn¹t know this at the time the military assessment was
that there would be at least a 75% casualty rate on the first couple of days
that we landed on Honshu, the mainland. The American Government knew that
their people wouldn¹t stand for all these casualties, if the allies weren¹t
involved but the American army wanted to make this solely an American
operation to equal the score over Pearl Harbour. But when they
confronted the figures and realised the political implications they decided to
invite the British, Canadians and especially the Australians who had played a
big part in the Pacific. We were issued with special equipment and a Jungle
Mark 1V, which was a rather deluxe version of a sten gun, much more
accurate, and we were issued khaki colour clothes with big tubs to tie dye them in a
darker green. So we spent days doing this and training for all sorts of things, beach landings and all that but, of course, there weren¹t any beaches where we were because we were miles inland.

One night there was a whole lot of us sitting in the Naafi having a
drink and all of a sudden a bloke came running in, jumped up on the table and
shouted, ³Listen everybody, listen everybody², and everybody started
shouting, ³Oh shut up² you know, ³No, No listen, listen the war¹s over!²
And of course having shouted that several times, everybody went quiet
and said, ³What do you mean the war¹s over?² And he said, ³They¹ve dropped
a bloody great bomb on Tokyo, the war¹s over and the Japanese have packed
it in.² And that¹s the first we knew that the war was over. The following
morning we were on parade and one of the officers, a Captain, explained
to us that two cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed and
consequently the Emperor of Japan had made a complete unconditional surrender to the Americans.

Then we sat kicking our heels in India, parades, marches, various
exercises, anything to try and keep us busy. Months later we were told that we
were going to Japan with the army of occupation. At the time that we were
packing up to go to Japan, the Indian Navy mutinied because they wanted
independence and there were riots in Bombay so when we went by train from Deolali to
the docks in Bombay we were all issued with our arms, rifles, sten guns and
ammunition as well. The position was very serious and a lot of people
thought that if they attacked the train with a load of troops on it
especially in the Ghats a lot of us would have got hurt. The rioters tried
to break in the gates of the docks but they kept them up and by the morning
it was quiet and so we got on the boat, I think it was called the Empress of
Australia, and left for Japan. Much bigger than the Almanzora, it was
more reliable and luxurious.

1946 ­ 1947

A Japanese pilot took the ship down the narrow channel into Kure
Harbour, at one point it looked as if you were at a dead end but he got this big
ship through, like they had all those battleships and aircraft carriers that
they had built there. We stayed on the ship for about two days until a
temporary billet was found at a Japanese Naval Camp. We had no idea whether the
Japanese were going to be hostile or what so we were walking around
with sten guns or pistols or bayonets. The first night we went out it was
dark and through the high street an enormous great train came along,
bringing in
food for the civilian population. I had never seen anything like this
American type of train with a cow catcher on it and about a hundred
carriages, the rails were like tram rails, they were sunk into the road.

Actually, I must admit I was never very keen on the dark and the four
of us that had gone out for a walk had got split up. So I was on my own
walking down a narrow street with low-lying two storey and one storey wooden
houses either side, totally different to anything I knew and I heard this
shoo..shoo.shoo noise behind me. Quite honestly, I was frightened to
look round, and where there was a little gap between two of these houses I
stepped out of the way and looked round and there was a little old man
in a black kimono with his arms tucked inside big sleeves and he had what we
called hubba hubba shoes, a piece of wood with a piece down at a right angle
and where he was shuffling along it was that that made the shoo..shoo
He had a long wispy beard, he must have been about a hundred years old
and there was me being this soldier, all brave, but frightened because of
this funny little man coming down the road.

The people were perfectly polite; they walked off the pavement into the
gutter and bowed to us as they went by. We asked the American Military
Police, commonly known as Snowdrops because of their white helmets and
gloves, why this was and they explained, ³Well we¹re the victors, we
won the war and they didn¹t, they lost, so they walk in the road, you know.²
Eventually they did stop because the idea was it was making the Japanese
feel down-trodden and that is what the Americans didn¹t want.

They lived in small wooden houses built around a little square garden
in the middle, some of them were only about four foot square it was amazing.
It had a little pond in it with probably a few carp, and bonsai trees and
indoor plants and they were spotlessly clean, oh you¹d never see cleanliness
like it. They used to have barges for carting coal, wheat, rice, anything,
and after every voyage you¹d see them in the little docks in the towns
being scrubbed down. The girls wore sort of balloon type trousers that came
in tight at the ankle and were rather big around the hips like ill-fitting
pyjamas and quilted jackets with a blouse or pullover underneath and
the men wore a sort of assortment of bits of army uniform and more or less sort
of Westernised clothes. A lot of Japanese, more women than men, wore
kimonos so it was quite colourful. The Ashanti News was written in English and it
was the largest selling newspaper in Japan, you could find people that
could read in English but couldn¹t speak it but you were never far from
somebody who could speak English in Japan.

The Americans had taken over this completely dysfunctional country, the
economy had collapsed overnight and the only thing they wanted was to get it
all back on an even keel. So they employed as many Japanese as they could.
We had a camp out at a place called Warashima which was a big aerodrome
that had been used for training the pilots that bombed Pearl Harbour. We
employed so many Japanese, I think there were about one hundred and fifty ­ two
hundred soldiers in the camp, and I think we employed about five hundred
Japanese labourers. We had them doing everything, sweeping up the runway: we
got a load of witch¹s brooms and a line of about one hundred and fifty of
them swept the runway. It was a complete waste of time, but we had to find
something for them to do. They worked in the cookhouse, repairing the
trucks, they knew as much about them as we did because their lorries
had a standard engine which they used in landing craft, motor boats and in
lorries which were an exact copy of a six cylinder Bedford engine, which we
built here, this was also the same as a General Motors Chevrolet in America
so even the spare parts were no problem You know, they¹re still benefiting
by it today and my personal view is that General Macarthur should have a
statue in the middle of Tokyo, because he did more for that country, liberated
that country from their various oppressive laws, like the bonding of women
and boys, ill treatment in the coal mines, all that was stamped out. So
were the land laws where absentee landlords were supplied so many sacks of rice
as rent first and then if there wasn¹t enough the people starved.
Progressive parties in Japan had been trying to do this for thirty years but when
General Macarthur came along and took over the Dalhachi Building, the
biggest building in Tokyo for his Headquarters, he called all these
Japanese ministers in and said that¹s what he wanted to do and that¹s what he

Every village had a big well from four foot across the top to maybe ten to
twelve foot deep with water in and all the household and toilet waste went
in there and it was left to ferment. This was then put into barrels about
four foot high, and about eighteen inches round with a tapered top which
were a stained yellow colour with tight fitting lids. Between ten and
fifteen barrels were put on carts about ten-twelve foot long and a couple of
feet wide with rubber wheels, we called them honey carts. Between the paddy
fields there were narrow dykes and these carts were pulled by hacking horses
to the top of each field.
A foot operated pump system like a small water wheel took the water
from the dyke onto the paddy because the rice always grew on about eight to ten
inches of water so, they would tip these barrels on their side with the
lids partially removed so that it just trickled out into the water and then
they used to pedal pump the water into the dyke and the stuff used to flow
in with the water so it fertilised the whole of the paddy field. This was
essential because if they didn¹t do that they wouldn¹t have enough rice
to feed the population. So although it sounds disgusting it was a necessity.
The stench of these pumps was terrible, it had another effect, but you could
be on guard or sitting at a table just talking and you just closed your
eyes and you nodded off. This disease was known as encephalitis type B which
is sleeping sickness, but it comes out of these blimming wells and the
paddy fields. The Americans didn¹t want the Japanese to know there was any
weaknesses in the forces, so immediately the camp was confined to barracks.
But all these labourers were still coming in and they could see what was
happening. We were all given two injections of broth of mouse brain in
little phials. For a month or so though it was very bad, some people were
very ill and had to be flown home to England. The food was terrible, I
think it came from Hong Kong or Singapore because by the time it got to us it
was rotten. Everything was tinned, tinned bacon, Soya links, they were
supposed to be a sausage - they were about six inches long and were packed
inside tins triangular shaped, long ways and there was a lot of grease. We had
Pacific rations, a packet that was greaseproof on the outside and on
the inside biscuits, cheese, composite which was a squashed bar of dried
fruit and raisins, nuts, hard tack biscuits, four tablets to give you energy,
and five cigarettes.
Now these cigarettes caused a big problem because these rations were
about two years old which we got from the Americans, they were so dry and
they had mould on them The blokes didn¹t know about this and so they were
smoking them and of course they were getting sore throats and they were making
people ill. So what they did was open all these blimming packets, take
all the cigarettes out, Camels, Lucky Strikes, Marlborough, various makes
of American cigarette. The only thing that you had in tins that you could
really eat was corned beef and we had porridge, and fruit we bought
from the Japanese, which we weren¹t supposed to do because they said you might
get dysentery. Little barrows at stations sold hard boiled eggs, boiled
squid, sticks with steak on - probably horsemeat but anyway it was edible and
it was better than the food they were supplying us. When the Americans
found out that we were all suffering from scurvy, there was a big row between
our Officers and the American Medical Officers and after that we got our
food supplied from Australia. That was the first time I ever had pineapple
juice for breakfast, it used to come in tins, I used to get a lot of mince
meat, that was good because they used to buy local onions and we used to make
up boiled up mince meat and vegetables, you even used to get fried eggs but
they were tinned, I think they came from China probably.

When we left, more shops had opened, selling kimonos, cloth, clothes.
The majority of shops were very small, cause in Tokyo they had big shops.
But when I was in India, I went to Bombay several times, and I would say
that the Japanese were better off with the war than the Indians were
without,because of the weight of population and the economy.

Published by

Words: Reg Berthold
Research: Judy Stevens
Design: Gary Curtis
Printed: AbbeyPrint Ltd
Cartoons: Derek Abel
Photographs: Reg Berthold,
Memories of Hendon
National Maritime Museum

First published 2004

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