- Contributed by
- Percy Bowpitt
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 November 2004
Browsing the Internet recently I came across The Burma Star Association’s site, trawling through this I found a lot of enquiries from people looking for information about parents and grandparents. In many cases the person they were looking for had died and this started me thinking that I ought to place on record my experiences during my time in the Army so that anyone interested would have all the facts available to them.
In May 1942 the war was going badly for our country, Germany occupied the whole of Europe, Japan had conquered most of Asia and although the Americans had entered the war in Dec 1941 their fleet had been badly mauled at Pearl Harbour and were not yet in a position to help much. What was to become known, as The Battle of the Atlantic was still raging?
U-Boats were sinking ships faster than they could be built and the whole situation was very much touch and go.
At the time I was just 16 and working long hours in a factory making electric motors and generators for the Navy. This was exhausting work on the meagre rations we had at the time. Although the work I was doing was contributing to the war effort it was very boring and monotonous and I felt that It was time to look for something with more excitement and adventurous. At the time there were lots of propaganda news stories about The Commandos and other Special Forces and it all sounded very exciting to a 16 yr old so I decided to join the Army.
The minimum age for Army service was 18, which meant that if my ambition were to be fulfilled I would have to lie about my age. When I presented myself to the Office in Bexleyheath the Recruiting Sergeant asked my age, to which I replied “ 18 sir”, he laughed and said have you got your birth certificate, on my reply of “no sir” he told me that I would require either my birth certificate or a letter from my Father confirming my age. Neither of these options was available to me. I slept on the problem for a few days and then hit on a wonderful idea, write my own letter, as I knew perfectly well that my father would never agree to provide me with one. In due course I produced what I thought was a passable resemblance of my fathers signature and wrote the confirmation myself. When I presented this to the Recruiting Sergeant he looked at it, looked at me and said “ are you sure your father wrote this”, when I replied “yes sir” he laughed again and said “I believe you but thousands wouldn’t upon which I signed up, took the Kings Shilling and went home to await my call up orders.
Father was absolutely livid when I told him what I had done and said that I would be begging him to buy me out in six weeks, this of course made it impossible for me to ask him if and when the going got too tough. My mother was quite upset but she could see that I was determined and gave me her reluctant blessing.
In due course my papers came through telling me to report to Chatham for a medical which to say the least was rudimentary. Shirt off, sound the chest, test the eyes, cough, you will do. Move to the next room, together with the other new recruits, hold up your right hand and repeat after me etc. I was now
No 6355308 Private Bowpitt. P. of the Royal West Kent Regiment, given a Railway Pass to report to Maidstone East Railway station at 11.00 hrs 14th May and don’t be late.
Arriving at the station on time I found a crowd of lost souls milling about waiting for somebody to bring order from the chaos. This someone duly arrived in the person of a smartly turned out corporal who promptly bellowed out,”get fell in”. This of course was meaningless to us but he soon had us herded outside. Formed us into some sort of order and marched us through the town and out to Invicta Lines which was to be our home for the next twelve weeks.
After being broken up into groups of 30 we were shown into our barrack room where we found our beds consisted of three boards resting on two small trestles about 9 inches high. These looked decidedly uncomfortable. However we were then marched across to a huge barn in which were a pile of canvas palliasses and bales of straw. Each man had to pick up a palliass, fill it with straw and carry it back to the barrack room. This procedure was to be repeated every week throughout our time at Invicta Lines.
Our next introduction to Army life was a visit to the Quartermasters store to be kitted out with uniform, boots, webbing equipment, blankets and all the other bits and pieces that form part of soldier’s belongings. The general rule for fitting uniforms seemed to be if you can get it on it would do, this resulted in some very sorry looking soldiers. In time we learnt to exchange and alter trousers, tunics etc until we had some semblance of a uniform that looked reasonable.
Next came the introduction to Army medical care. In the medical room stood the MO and his orderly, the orderly with a list of names, a swab, a dish of spirit, and a tool that we later found out was for inoculating us. Next to him stood the MO with a huge syringe that contained a cocktail of vaccines against Tetanus, Typhoid, and probably all the diseases known to man.
The procedure was quick and efficient but hardly hygienic. First the orderly would give each man a quick wipe on the arm with his swab then a smart dab with his inoculating tool that looked like a miniature branding iron. Then quickly onto the MO. Again a quick dab with the swab, this huge syringe was then inserted into the arm, a squeeze, another dab with the swab and you were sent on your way. The same syringe and needle would be used on every man with the occasional wipe with a swab dipped in spirit.
For the next 48 hrs or so we were all quite ill with swollen arms, fever and feeling like death warmed up. How anyone survived is a miracle. In fact one or two did not. They were taken to hospital suffering from what was called vaccine fever and we heard of at least one case were the man died.
Our first parade was taken by Regimental Sergeant Major Tasker who introduced himself by saying “forget everything you were taught at Sunday School, in this mans army I am GOD,” and he meant it. (Subsequently I discovered that my father had been in the same unit as RSM Tasker during the 1st World War). Lectures followed on the history of the regiment, its battle honours, its VC’s etc. At the time this seems to be a bit over the top but in due course the spirit of the regiment was instilled into us and became part of our life.
There existed a long rivalry between The Royal West Kent’s and The Queens Regt. These rivalries were encouraged by the Army in order to foster the regimental spirit. This even extended to a regular Saturday night scuffle between members of each regiment resulting in a few bloody noses and cut lips as proud tokens of willingness to uphold the honour of the regiment. (I wonder if this exists in today’s army?)
Members of the platoon were drawn from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. Some characters emerged as the weeks went by and we began to get to know each other. Three that spring to mind are Gus Harris and one we called ”The Colonel”. Gus was from the East End and had been a barrow boy. His wit and ability to think quickly on his feet made him the platoon joker and he soon had everyone in fits of laughter. However the guy we called The Colonel was from the other end of the social world. A public school boy who spoke with a very upper class accent and in that company he stood out like a sore thumb. We learnt to respect him over the weeks to come in that he joined in all the pranks and jokes even at his own expense. In the course of training he played his part in helping others who were struggling and became one of the boys. I learnt later that he had indeed become an officer and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in The Royal Tank Corp.
The third of these characters was a Scotsman from the Highlands. How he came to be in the West Kent’s was always a mystery. Our Jock was a problem because he could barely speak English; his accent was so strong that he could not make himself understood. In addition he was one of life’s unfortunates who however he tried, he could not keep himself tidy. His equipment would be falling off him, his boots would never shine and his bed was always a disaster area. This of course brought him to the attention of the platoon sergeant who nagged him unmercifully without making the slightest difference.
The last we saw of him was on an exercise-involving running up a hill in our gasmasks. Jock unfortunately could not make it and was made to go back and do it all again. This he could not do and throwing his gas mask and equipment off he disappeared never to be seen again.
For the next ten weeks we learnt to march, fire assorted lethal weapons, throw hand grenades, and generally become soldiers. Discipline and good order were drummed into us from morn till night, although at the time we moaned and groaned I must say that it stood us in good stead in the years that were to follow. At the end of the ten weeks we were tested to the limit over a week when we were required to march 25 miles in full battle order then next day a test of our ability in the use of rifle and Bren gun. This was followed by the dreaded Assault course in which encouragement was sometimes physical as well as verbal. Finally a forced march of 10 miles in 2 hrs carrying full battle order of pack, rifle and 60 rounds of ammunition.
Amazingly when the passing out parade was held on the final day the sense of pride in the regiment and ourselves was tremendous. Marching past the Colonel as he stood on the saluting base we felt 10 ft tall and fit as fiddles.
Our reward for all these efforts was a week’s home leave. I can recall walking down the street at home and feeling that I had confounded all the doubts expressed by my father and it always irked with me that he never once said he was proud of me, but that was my father.
A standing joke amongst troops at the time was the fact that every time one went on leave almost the first thing anyone said was “ how long have you got, when are you going back?” This seemed to happen to everyone.
Following more training our platoon was posted to the 60th battalion at Milton Barracks Gravesend. My home being in Sidcup at the time it was fairly easy to go over the wall and spend a few hours at home. This of course was strictly out of order and it required a good deal of guile and street craft to avoid the dreaded Red Caps and get back without being seen.
Pay Parade took place every Friday at 16.00hrs; this coincided with the finish of the weekly cross-country run. Anyone who failed to complete the run or was late back did not get paid until Saturday that meant missing the Friday night session at the local pub. The run usually involved running round the perimeter track of Gravesend Aerodrome. Often men would take their life in their hands by taking a short cut across the airfield hoping a plane would not be taking off or landing at the time! On one occasion we were pursued by RAF Police dogs, which scared us more than any aircraft.
Part of our duties whilst stationed at Gravesend was to supply a detachment for defensive duty at Dover. This involved manning a machine gun and observation post overlooking Dover Harbour. We arrived one morning to find the harbour walls lined with around six or seven destroyers, normally in daylight there would be none. At about 11.o’clock six German Stuka dive-bombers appeared, circled over the harbour and began their dives to bomb the warships. All hell broke loose from the destroyers, putting up a wall of anti-aircraft fire through which the bombers had to fly. One after one they all flew through the barrage straight into the sea, it was a terrifying sight. I am sure that the Navy must have had advance warning of the raid because immediately the raid was over all the ships put to sea at high speed.
Barrack rooms at Gravesend held a platoon of approx. 30 men, in the centre of the room stood a large pot bellied stove. This would be stoked up until it glowed red then we would all gather round toasting slices of bread scrounged from the cookhouse. One evening all was peaceful with every one munching their toast when there was series of loud explosions from the stove, the lid flew off, showers of sparks all over the place. The speed with which the room emptied was a sight to behold; I have never seen men move so fast. A few minutes later who should walk in but Gus Harris and a couple of his chums all grinning from ear to ear. They thought it would be good idea to liven up the evening by tossing a few rounds of 9mm ammunition down the chimney! Words were exchanged because by the time we had cleared up the mess the toast was spoiled in addition to which the Regimental Police turned up to see what was going on. Of course everyone denied knowing anything so they went away none the wiser.
Notices pinned to the Battalion Notice board were required reading so that avoiding action could be taken if nasty surprises were in the offing such as route marches, exercises etc. One notice asked for volunteers for the Armoured Corps. Normally it was a golden rule never to volunteer for anything but on this occasion it seemed it might be a good idea as tank crews never had to march on their own two feet. A number of us including Gus Harris decided it was worth a try and a few weeks later found us heading for Catterick in Yorkshire, the home of The Royal Tank Regiment.Our arrival there coincided with the beginning of winter and having never been further north than North London we had no idea how cold Yorkshire could be. Most of our waking hours were spent trying to keep warm whilst taking in what was being taught in the lecture rooms. The Army method of choosing men for various duties being what it was for no better reason than my interest in things mechanical it was decided that my future lay in becoming a Driver/Wireless Operator.
Training in wireless procedure, Morse code, wireless nets etc. began in the classroom. On occasion this proved to be hilarious when signalling to someone across the room by Morse code the receiver could hear the sender spelling out the message whilst trying to tap the words on the Morse key and would call out send it again I can’t hear you. This would bring gales of laughter from all except the poor instructor who was trying to instill the seriousness of proper procedures.
Following the wireless instruction it was my turn among others to start the driving course commencing with a small van type vehicle based on a normal car. In those days car heaters were unheard of and driving around the country roads of North Yorkshire in an unheated car was mind and body numbing, passing on to 3-ton trucks was even worse. Each truck carried 5 trainees and the instructor so that whilst one trainee was undergoing instruction in the front of the truck the remainder sat huddled in the back freezing, each session taking about 6 hours to complete. I have never been so cold before or since.
Three weeks after commencing instruction came the driving test consisting of half hour over a route we had driven many times, and then a short cross country route and that was that, as far as I know no one ever failed!
Driving tracked vehicles began with a couple of days on a Bren Gun Carrier then moving on to tanks. This training took place across the moors; we were under strict instructions that whenever we stopped for a break we were required to camouflage the tanks with the net. This was a very cold and laborious business so to avoid this we would try to find a group of trees but on the moors these are few and far between. On one occasion whilst exercising with three tanks, finding a small group of trees we carefully maneuvered two of them under the trees. I was driving the 3rd one and approaching the rear of the 2nd tank I inadvertently pressed the wrong pedal and immediately mounted the tank in front, this was greeted with curses from the instructors and gales of laughter from my mates. The laughter soon turned to moans and groans when it was found that the collision had resulted in damage to both tanks requiring tracks to be changed. This is not easy at the best of times, on the moors in the middle of winter with cold hands and feet it was murder. I was not allowed to forget this incident for months.
In addition to that I was charged with damaging MOD property and was sentenced to 14 days “jankers”. This meant having to report to the Guard Room every hour after evening meal in a different order of dress. If the Guard Commander was not satisfied with the standard of dress you would be ordered to run round the barrack square so that time to prepare for the next hourly visit to the Guard Room became shorter than ever. People helping by getting every thing ready for the next visit was testimony to the comradeship among the platoon. Weekends were spent doing fatigues such as cleaning showers and toilets, scrubbing floors, sweeping the parade ground etc.
Passing out at the end of the training period found us posted to 2nd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment stationed at Charing in Kent. This proved to be a good posting as most of my comrades came from South London or Kent. Weekend passes were very rare so other means had to be adopted to get home.
This involved various methods of dodging Military Police, including climbing station fences, running along the track, waiting until their backs were turned and generally using the field craft the Army had so usefully taught us. A major problem was returning to barracks without being caught.
One method was to persuade someone who had a pass to lead the way to the exit from the station and while his pass was being inspected to make a dash for it using every possible exit, over the barrier, along the track etc. Usually most would get away with it but those that did get caught were on a charge next day and lost any hope of getting a genuine pass.
At this stage of the war equipment was in short supply so that the battalion was desperately short of tanks. Training was curtailed by this shortage and a lot of time was spent doing useless tasks just to keep us busy and out of mischief. This became increasingly boring as the weeks went by so that when a notice appeared on the notice board asking for volunteers for Commando’s it seemed a good idea to get away from our tedious existence.
After 7 days home leave those of us that had been foolish enough to volunteer found ourselves at the Northamptonshire Regiment. This turned out to be yet another training camp at which we had to undergo a refresher course in infantry skills and tactics. On enquiring about our transfer to the Commando’s we were told that they knew nothing of this and that for better or worse we were now proud members of the Northamptonshire Regiment.
Once again we had to endure the weekly cross-country run beloved of the Army PT Instructors. Our route took us out of town, through farms and fields and back through the town. This had the advantage that when the edge of town was reached it was possible to hop on a bus. This of course greatly angered the bus conductor since we would have been wearing only shorts and vests with no money on us for the fare. Given that the conductor was faced with a crowd of sweaty, unruly but fit young men there was little that he could do about it except curse and swear which we were rather good at too. Provided the bus stopped some way from the barracks all was well but often the conductor would deliberately pass the stop we needed and then stop nearer to the barracks where would be standing Regimental Police waiting to catch anyone too slow off the mark.
Horncastle, a small country town in Lincolnshire was home to the 2nd Infantry Battle School to which we were next sent. Training here consisted of forced marches, assault courses, night exercises all overseen by a Major Watson. He was commonly known as the Mad Major; he accompanied every training session to ensure that no one skived off. On one night assault course in pouring rain having slid off the swing rope into the river he ordered me to go back and do it again with the same result. My steel helmet had fallen off at my feet, bending down to retrieve it I deposited the contents of my back pack, which had filled with water, all down the Majors trousers who happened to be standing immediately in front of me. He was not best pleased but revenge was sweet.
Street fighting was an integral part of the course and took place in Hull that had been extensively destroyed by the German air force. Great fun was to be had here because most of the time it was like playing Cowboys and Indians, with blank ammunition being fired all over the place, great fireworks known as Thunder flashes taking the roll of hand grenades. On one occasion my section, skiving behind the walls of a burnt out building having a quick smoke, were abruptly disturbed by a thunder flash dropped over the wall by the platoon sergeant. Apart from there being no injuries it was quite realistic, we shot out of the there like startled rabbits.
Departure from the Battle School took place in trucks that were to take us to the railway station. Our Mad Major was there to see us off. As each truck drove off torrents of abuse were hurled at him, as it was the last we would see of him, or so we thought. Arriving at the station to our dismay, there he was standing on the platform with a huge grin on his face. He addressed us by saying that although we all hated him we would be grateful for the training we had received when the going got rough, wishing us well he marched out of the station and left us a little subdued.
Back at Northampton it was announced that we would be sent on embarkation leave and that on our return would be sent somewhere overseas. Amid much conjecture as to our eventual destination we departed for home.
At that stage of the war things were beginning to look a little brighter. The Germans had been beaten in North Africa, American troops were arriving in numbers and the RAF was bombing Germany almost on a nightly basis. In the Far East things were not too good however. We had lost two of our biggest battleships, Singapore had surrendered and the Japanese had overrun Malaya. It seemed that the Far East would be our likely destination.
Leaving Northampton at dead of night our draft traveled to Greenock on the west coast of Scotland to embark on RMS Andes. The ship had been built in 1939 for service on the South American routes but had never been used as such, being converted to a troopship on the outbreak of war. Accommodation on board was severely cramped, sleeping in hammocks swung from the ceiling in row upon row. On board in addition to Army personnel were numerous other service people including girls in The Woman’s Royal Air Force. Unfortunately for them in order to reach their mess deck they had to pass through ours. This meant that they had to endure a barrage of ribald remarks and various suggestions that embarrassed some but others gave as good as they got causing much merriment among the troops.
Because of U-Boat activity in the Bay of Biscay the convoy sailed west into the Atlantic before turning south and then east to make for Gibraltar. For three days the convoy battled storms of force 8 — 10 with mountainous seas and strong winds. When one looked out from the deck at the escorting vessels they would appear at the top of huge waves and then disappear from sight in the trough between the waves. Our ship was a 28000-ton vessel and was being tossed about like a cork so what it must have been like on board the corvettes and destroyers is beyond imagination. On board virtually everyone was seasick for days; the only relief was to stay on deck as long as possible. Down in the Galley stood a large barrel labeled, “Ships Biscuits for Sea-Sick Soldiers”. This barrel contained large square biscuits rather like dog biscuits, hard as rocks but if they could be stomached certainly helped overcome the perpetual feeling of wanted to vomit at every lurch of the ship.
Eventually the convoy turned south and then east, storms abated and the temperature rose to more comfortable levels. Gibraltar was a very welcome sight after the torments of the previous two weeks and although we were not allowed ashore it was possible to purchase fruit from dockside vendors that made a very pleasant change as oranges, grapes etc had not been available in the UK since 1939.
One thing I should mention about life on board a troopship is the bread. This was baked fresh on board each day and was far and away the best bread I think I have ever tasted. Trying to feed about 4000 hungry soldiers must have been a mammoth task and although we had to scramble for anything going we never actually went hungry.
Sailing the length of the Mediterranean was a rather anxious time because the German Air Force was still active from Italy and on several occasions evasive action had to be taken by the convoy. Fortunately the RAF had established airfields in North Africa and was able to provide cover when required.
Our next port of call was Suez at the head of the Suez Canal. Most of us had never been out of the country before so the sights and sounds of Suez were amazing. Bumboats by the hundreds came alongside selling everything, fruit, leather goods, watches and sometimes their daughters. Each vendor would throw two lines on board, one to haul the goods up, and the other to lower the money down. If anybody tried to cheat by hauling the money back at the same time as hauling the goods back a tug of war would take place with much shouting and swearing on both sides. Usually the matter would be settled amicably, on occasion however the lines would be cut, the goods returned to the bumboat and the money returned to the ship with comments being made about the parentage of the participants. Another interesting activity was that of the children aged anything from 7 or 8 upwards diving for coins thrown overboard from the ship. The clear water enabled the kids to be seen diving after the coins, coming up with a big smile and asking for more. Since we only had UK coins they probably passed them on to a moneylender at about a tenth of their value.
A passage along the Suez Canal must be one of the highlights of a modern cruise but I am afraid it bored me to tears, nothing but desert for mile upon mile. It has always been a regret of mine that I did not have enough knowledge and awareness of history to appreciate fully the experience of traveling one of the world’s most exciting engineering projects. My time during this journey was taken up almost entirely with sleeping, eating and playing cards!
Port Said seemed to be the most god-forsaken spot on earth. Just a watering and fuelling depot, hot dry and dusty with nothing going for it as far as I could see, we were glad to set forth again across the Indian Ocean, destination Bombay.
As the ship made progress across the Indian Ocean the temperature rose but more significantly so did the humidity. It soon became unbearable to sleep below in the mess deck so many of us took to sleeping on the open deck at night under the stars. Cleaning the open decks was the province of the Lascar seamen who took great delight in hosing down the decks on which we slept at 5’o’clock in the morning, soaking everyone who was not quick enough on his feet to pick up the bedding and make a run for it!
Among our number were old soldiers who had served in India before the war. They warned us about the perils that awaited the unwary, particularly as regards women and the terrible consequences of dallying with the local prostitutes. A little ditty to this effect ran as follows: - “Torah Chenie, Torah Char, Bombay bibi carab Walla” which translates as “A little sugar, a little tea, Bombay woman bad person”.
Our first intimation that we were about to arrive at Bombay was the stench. This was apparent even before the city came in to view! It seemed to be a mixture of rotting vegetation, open sewers and curry that said welcome to India!
Once docked we began to experience the noise and chaos that we would come to know as typical of India. Looking down from the deck of the ship the dockside teemed with people, seemingly all shouting instructions to each other with no noticeable effect.
After another night on board disembarkation began, the women of the WAAF going off first, accompanied by good-natured shouts from the men on deck, which were returned with interest. At last our turn came to step ashore and a strange feeling it was. It was some six weeks since we last walked on dry land and the throb and motion of the ship was suddenly missing so that the march to the railway station was a sight to behold. Laden down as we were with equipment and kitbags it became an organized stagger through the Gateway of India rather than a smart military march.
Bombay station was a magnificent Victorian structure, more like a cathedral than a railway station. Trains in India did not have the luxury of upholstered seating. Crammed in as we were with all our kit the sweat poured out of every pore but when the char Walla’s came along it was a mad scramble to sample their wares. As this was forbidden by the powers that be all hell broke loose, I am afraid that good order and military discipline vanished and our superiors were none to politely told what to do if they did not like it. Everyone in India seemed to be selling something, tea, sweets, fruit, and watches of dubious origin. The old soldiers among our number who had served in India before the war demonstrated the appropriate technique for dealing with all these vendors by swearing at them in Urdu, the universal language of India. On the surface they seemed to accept these insults as part and parcel of dealing with British soldiers but I suspect that underneath they were seething.
Before the war there had been a campaign by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party to obtain independence from Britain but the war had put a stop to this. All political activity had been banned. Whenever any local political activity occurred, the police and army quite ruthlessly squashed it. Large units of the Army were stationed in areas of unrest on what was termed assistance to the civil powers.
Our destination at the end of a hot and dusty train journey was Deohlali, probably the largest and one of the oldest army bases in India. This vast camp was the base from which troops were dispatched to all parts of the country and to Burma. At that time it was quite common to hear someone say, “He has gone Deohlali” meaning he has gone mad; such was the reputation of this dreadful place. For those of us just passing through it was bad enough but for those poor souls stationed there it must have been murder.
Accommodation was in large Bell Tents about 18 ft in diameter with a central pole around which men slept with their feet towards the pole and head against the outer wall of the tent. Each tent contained 12 men and all their equipment
Daytime temperatures were in the region of 85 degrees but inside the tents temperatures soared so that sweat poured from the skin in torrents. Soon almost everyone in our unit was suffering from prickly heat. This is a rash of tiny little pimples all over the body that itched and burned like hot needles. No treatments for this condition existed at the time except to shower as often as possible and await the coming of the monsoon rains.
Soldiers are not allowed to be idle in the British Army so our days consisted of endless parades that brought gales of laughter to the on looking old soldiers who comprised the permanent staff. As yet we had not been issued with jungle green uniforms and bush hats; instead we wore pre war khaki drill shorts, shirts and pith helmets. The shorts were long and wide legged and with our lily-white legs we looked an awful sight very much like the characters in “It Ain’t Half Hot Mom”. By-standers would yell out “get your xxxxxxx knees brown” much to our embarrassment. However in due course our jungle greens arrived, our knees became less lily like and it became our turn to mock the new arrivals.
Before being drafted to our battalion that at the time was engaged in the fighting withdrawal from Burma the draft had to undergo jungle training, this was carried out at the 14th Army Jungle Training Depot in Bhopal. Military train journeys in India were long and painful affairs; this one took 4 days and nights with many stops and starts. Tea to the British Soldier amounts to his lifeblood so that whenever the train stopped for any length of time a brew up was called for. Unfortunately the only source of hot water was the boiler of the engine so that there would be a mad rush to the front of the train to drain from the engine a supply of hot water, for the engineers on the train this could be disaster for without sufficient water for the boilers the train would not run.
Curses rained down on the scores of soldiers brewing up with the boiler water but we would not be denied our brew. Another feature of military train journeys was the constant badgering by beggars and various traders at every stop. All kinds of produce were for sale, fruit, sweets, cakes curry all of which were guaranteed to give you dysentery or cholera or both so were best avoided. On one occasion a trader came aboard the train selling watches. They looked genuine enough and they took in some people. His patter was to demonstrate the quality of his wares by opening a watch to show the movement. One of our number was taken in by this and bought a watch from him. Remember that this was in the days before battery power and automatic winding. Winding his new watch seem to take for ever, after a while it dawned on him that he had been sold a fake. The whole platoon went in search of the watch dealer and found him trying to sell to another soldier further along the train. He was set upon by the victim and his mates, his stock of watches hurled out of the train window and he was kept captive until the train had traveled a further 100 miles or so when he was dumped out of the moving train when it slowed to take on water. I have often wondered how long it took him to get home.
14th Army Jungle Training School consisted of a tented barracks with a section of nine men to a tent. This was to be our home for the next ten weeks or so. The objective of the training was to accustom us to living and fighting in the kind of warfare we would find in Burma. Most of the training staff were survivors from the retreat from Burma in 1942. They regaled us with lurid tales of what it was like to fight the Japanese in jungle conditions and how we had better pay attention if we wanted to survive. Our first experience of patrolling at night really shook us up. Although we were wearing rubber shoes and had tied all our equipment up so that it would not rattle our first excursion sounded like a herd of elephants having a ball. It was some time before we acquired the skills required to stay alive in the jungle.
One training scheme involved a river crossing using whatever materials we had to hand. For those who could not swim a method was devised that involved removing trousers, button the fly, knot each leg and holding them by the waist band, fling them over the head bringing them down on the water to trap the air inside, this was the theory anyway. It worked so long as the waistband could be kept under water, however if this could not be done the air escaped with a big bubble and left the poor soul floundering until someone could come to help. The site for this particular exercise was a river about 300 yds wide and flowing at a fairly fast pace. On the opposite side was a cliff sloping at about 30 degrees and about 100 feet high with a beach at the foot wide enough to concentrate a platoon on. The plan was to cross the river at night and at first light assault the cliff on which the Japanese were supposed to be dug in. Having achieved the crossing successfully the assault began at first light. What we were completely unaware of was that the cliff was home to a tribe of baboons. They did not take kindly to being disturbed at such an early hour and promptly descended on us with all kinds of threatening gestures, jumping up and down, waving arms and shrieking there heads off. It was expressly forbidden to shoot at wild animals without specific instructions so a hasty retreat was in order back down to the beach. The more daring of the baboons came right down to within a few yards of the beach and stayed glaring at us until we had reached the other side.
At the camp every group of tents would have the services of a Char Walla. These gentlemen would be waiting for the troops to return from whatever activity they had been engaged in. Each Char Walla served a small group of tents, regarding them as his exclusive territory, and would defend it to the death. On one occasion our man was bitten by a snake and was off sick for a few days, his place being taken by another Char Walla. When our original man returned they both set about each other with the result that one of the tea urns got toppled over spilling the precious brew all over the place. In an instant Private Cartwright picked up a Sub Machine gun and threatened in no uncertain terms to kill the pair of them, with that they both ran for their lives leaving us tea less, for a soldier this was purgatory. Eventually order was restored, tea was served and all was forgiven.
Completing our training we were transported to the front line in Burma by train, riverboat and by truck. Firstly our mode of transport was the normal type of train used for ferrying troops around but the track only ran as far as the Brahmaputra River. Our journey continued aboard a small river steamer that took us as far as the next railhead and then by narrow gauge railway to Dimapur, the main base for the Burma front. When I think back on this trip all I remember of it was the heat, humidity, boredom and lack of food and water. It is the kind of journey that modern day tourists would be paying thousands of pounds for but for us it was a nightmare. Finally a fleet of trucks took us to the battalion at Moreh preparing to defend Imphal and Kohima.
During the retreat from Burma the battalion had suffered a number of casualties and we were the replacements for those killed and wounded in the withdrawal. As a result of this we were distributed among the various companies’ so that friendships that had grown over the previous months were split up. Joining a new unit is a bit like joining a new school, everyone is a stranger, the units’ customs and routines are all new. In addition these men had been through a very rough time, having held up the Japanese advance into India.
1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment formed part of 32 Brigade of 20 Indian Division; the other battalions in the brigade were 3/8th Ghurkhas and 9/14th Punjabi Regiment. My assignment was to No 3 Section of 3 Company dug in at Moreh in preparation for the Japanese assault on Imphal and Kohima. Each section at full strength consisted of 9 men with a Corporal in command. As a newcomer it was my misfortune to be allocated as No 1 on the Bren gun. At the time my weight was little more than 8 stone and as the Bren weighed 20 pounds plus the ammunition it was not the best assignment I could have had. Under the circumstances that existed it was imperative that all members of the section bonded together as a unit and learnt to depend on each other when the going got rough. My No 2 on the Bren was Bill Cartwright; he had been a farm labourer before the war and was as tough as old boots, I think he could have carried the Bren and me if required.
It was a week or more before the Japanese appeared so we had time to strengthen our positions with barbed wire and trenches filled with Punjis. These were slices of bamboo, one end sharpened to a point and hardened by burning. These were then planted in the bottom of a trench, the pointed end angled towards the direction the Japs would likely to come from and very effective they were. Japanese assaults usually began with night patrols probing our defences to find where our machine guns and mortars were so the important thing is not to open fire until it was absolutely necessary. This can be very nerve racking to say the least, especially when one is new to it. Eventually they came in numbers, yelling and screaming “Banzai” and talking in English saying “over here Johnny” or “look behind you” trying to sow confusion amongst us. I think the most frightening thing was not knowing how everyone else was faring. In the noise and the darkness it was difficult to see what was going on round you. After about an hour they backed off leaving us to sort ourselves out.
Luckily there were only a few wounded but nobody killed. This was the first of many similar incidents over the next few weeks. Although we suffered more casualties than that first engagement with a number of our comrades dead we became quite used to the almost nightly raids on our positions and it was less frightening as time went by.
One incident that sticks in my mind concerns our water supply. Our only source of this precious commodity was a small stream that ran along a gully between the Japanese and us. Each night a patrol was sent down to the stream to collect water. The patrol consisted of 4 or 5 water carriers accompanied by a section providing cover in case of interference from the Japs. One evening as we were returning with our water we noticed a Jap sitting in a tree watching us. Normally this would have meant a quick burst from a Bren Gun to bring him down but on this occasion he waved a white cloth and then disappeared. As we watched, from the Japanese side of the stream a small group emerged from the hillside carrying water containers. Slowly they moved down to the waterside and began filling them, given the hatred each side had for the other this was extraordinary. We decided that discretion was called for and crept away back to our positions. This procedure went on for the remainder of our stay in the area; it is the only occasion I can recall were humanity overcame the urge to open fire on each other.
Our artillery had been pounding the Japanese positions for three days when they made one final effort to throw us off the ridge we were occupying. It began with a very strong mortar barrage followed by a charge bigger than anything we had previously encountered. It was touch and go for a while but our own mortar teams and guns put down a barrage on our own wire that stopped them in their tracks. When daylight came there were dozens of bodies on what remained of our wire that had to be cleared and repaired, not something I would want to do again. Patrols were sent out to recce the Japs positions and found that they had gone. Moving up to the ridge that had been occupied by the Japs we found more bodies including some that had apparently killed themselves with hand grenades. This was our last action in the battle for Imphal; we were withdrawn back to a rest area and allowed to sleep for 24 hrs, and to be fed a more substantial diet than had been our lot for the past few weeks.
We learnt that while we had been fighting at Moreh the Japs had managed to infiltrate into Imphal and occupied the local hospital where they bayoneted every body there including nurses, doctors and patients. Such savage attacks only served to increase our hatred and loathing of everything Japanese. It was some years after the war before I could bear to entertain anything to do with the Japanese.
Bill Slim the 14th Army commander came to pay us a visit during our rest period and thanked us for our part in stopping the Japanese from taking Imphal and Kohima. He then went on to say that the hardest part was yet to come which cheered us up no end! Although we had stopped the Japs they still occupied the whole of Burma and Malaya and it would be our job to drive them out and he was sure that whatever task given to us would be carried out with the same spirit that had seen us defeat the enemy at the gates of Imphal. A stirring speech it was but left us in no doubt that the next few months were not going to be easy.
Replacements for those we had lost in the battle for Imphal arrived and we began training for what was to come in driving the Japs out of Burma. By this time our motley crew had become hardened battle ready soldiers. We were proud of what we had achieved and we were not slow to let other units know we were around. This arrogant behaviour was the cause of many a punch up in the canteens, many of us nursed cuts and bruises as a result. I think that the powers that be decided we would be more use fighting the enemy than each other and decided it was time we moved on.
Before I continue with my story I should explain how the Army organised itself. The basic unit of the Army is the Division; this is made up of 3 Brigades, which in turn is made up of 3 Battalions. In our case we were part of 32 Brigade of 20 Indian Division. 32 Brigade order of battle was 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regt.,3/8th Ghurkhas and 9/14thm Rajput Regt. Our Commanding Officer was Lt .Col. Taunton, the Brigade was commanded by Brigadier Mackenzie and the Divisional Commander was Lieutenant General Douglas Gracey.
The plan for the invasion of Burma was that among other Divisions 20 Div would advance along the Tiddim Road towards Kalewa, a village on the Chindwin River, a distance of some 120 miles. However 32 Brigade would be detached to march North and then East to cross the Chindwin at a place called Mawlaik. Leading the march would be 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regt. Once again we had drawn the short straw.
Topography in this part of Burma consisted mainly of lines of hills running north to south, some of them up to 6000ft. We would therefore be marching across the grain of the country in dense jungle with no roads or tracks. Supplies would be provided by airdrop but as the start of the march coincided with the end of the monsoon season the going would be very difficult. Heavy equipment would be carried on mules, everything else on our backs. Not a very pleasant prospect.
We had no idea at the time of the distance involved only that it was a long, long way.
Firstly we were bussed into the Kabaw Valley, otherwise known as the Valley of Death due to the humidity, which bred millions of malaria carrying mosquitos. In addition Scrub Typhus was prevalent as well as outbreaks of Cholera. Fortunately our stay was short and within a couple of days we were on our way. At first the going was not too bad, the monsoon had begun to break, the sun was not too hot and the ground underfoot made easy marching. However after receiving our first airdrop the going got much tougher with thick bamboo and steeper hills to climb. As the hills became higher the rain became more persistent making the marching more difficult and tiring, particularly for the mules and their handlers. Quite a number of mule loads were lost by mules falling over the edge of the track. To recover the loads men had to climb down the hillside to cut the mules free. Some mules would scramble back up to the track while others injured in the fall would have to be shot. Many of the Indian muleteers would be in tears at the demise of their charges.
Overnight stops required the digging of defensive positions that often filled with water making sleep impossible. Our cooks performed miracles in feeding us with hot food and most of all our beloved “Char”.
Some five weeks after leaving the Kabaw Valley we emerged onto the plain through which the Chindwin flowed but as it was unknown if the Japanese were still holding Mawlaik caution was still required. However after sending out patrols and with reconnaissance from the RAF it became clear that the enemy had retreated across the river much to our relief for we were hardly in a fit state to fight a major battle. Nearing the village it became clear that the Japanese had suffered terrible hardships in the flight from Imphal and Kohima. Skeletons lay around everywhere, some had obviously been wounded but many others must have died from starvation and disease. Many of them still had boots and equipment straps on; these were made of rubber and had resisted the ravages of ants and termites unlike the human flesh that once filled them. Orders were given to search all the bamboo huts for survivors. In one hut which may have been used as a first aid post we found about 20 skeletons all sitting around the walls looking as if they were waiting for a meal with empty rice bowls at their feet. It says much for our own state of mind, as I am ashamed to say we found this quite funny, calling our fiends to come and look.
Because of the risk from disease we left the village quickly and made our way down to the river about a mile away to begin the task of crossing with all our equipment. The problem was that so many pieces of equipment had to be offloaded from from the mules and manhandled down to the river where they were loaded on to rafts that had been assembled by the Royal Engineers. These were mainly constructed from bamboo that was plentiful in the area. Each raft was fitted with a small outboard motor; however the river was running quite fast. Getting the raft across the river was comparatively easy but getting them back against the current was much more difficult. The only solution was to have a one embarkation point and then further down the Rover a landing point. Then crossing back to the other side further down river, and then dragging the rafts back up to the original embarkation point. This was of very backbreaking work in the heat and many men collapsed with heat exhaustion.
Eventually with all the heavy equipment across came the most difficult task of all getting the men and mules across. The strongest swimmers among the men were sent across with ropes to set up lines to enable the poor and none swimmers to haul themselves across. Generally this went quite well although some men were unable to pull themselves across and had to be rescued by the strong swimmers. Getting the mules across was altogether much more of a problem. Driving them into the water did not work as most of them promptly swam back again. Tying them together in groups of 3 or 4 then hauling them across was partially successful. Some however broke away and were last seen swimming with the current downstream never to be seen again. Eventually after much cursing and swearing the job was done, apart from the loss of some of the mules we were ready to resume the march.
Our objective was the river town of Monywa about 150 miles away. As we were following the line of the Chindwin the terrain was substantially flat and relatively easy going.
Unknown to us the enemy had withdrawn to defend the Irrawady River at its junction with the Chindwin so we were free of enemy interference with our march south. Each night defensive positions had to be dug to guard against the possibility of surprise Japanese attacks. Two men, with one asleep, the other keeping watch, would man each slit trench. One particular night when I was on watch I heard a clanking noise coming closer; my first thought was that somehow the Japs had managed to get tanks up the river. Our anti-tank weapons had been left behind as being too heavy and intelligence indicated that the enemy had withdrawn all their tanks to the Irrawady. With a feeling bordering on panic I kicked my partner awake and stood everyone to, fearing the worst. After some twenty to thirty minutes the sound of what seemed like tank tracks came from across the river. As the noise got closer we could hear what can only be described as heavy breathing, then to everyone’s relief and amid much merriment appeared two elephants chained together. They must have either been let loose to keep them out of Japanese hands or had broken loose from the timber forest further north. We watched them go down to the river to drink and bathe but quite soon they got wind that we were there and quickly made off the way they had come. For sometime afterwards I was referred to as “Percy the Elephant Man”.
During the march from the Kabaw valley we had been supplied by airdrops every 3-4 days. The drill was for the RAF Radio Operator to radio our position and the supplies needed back to the supply base in India. Ground was cleared as far as possible. When the aircraft arrived troops would be waiting at the edge of the clearing with the mules ready to pick up whatever had been dropped. Food, ammunition, etc. would come down by parachute. Bulk supplies such as flour, potatoes, sugar would be dead dropped, that is without parachutes. Most would land in the clearing; some however would land off target among the troops waiting at the edge of the clearing. This could be very dangerous, in some instances people and mules were hit, causing injuries and sometimes death.
Resuming our march towards Monywa we learnt that the Japanese were digging in at a village called Budalin that was on the road to our destination. Three weeks or so after the elephant incident we approached Budalin with care until coming under fire from the village. Patrols were sent out to recce the area finding that the Japs were dug in at the rifle butts at the far end of the old rifle range. To attack them would require approaching the full length of the range, (about 300 yards). This would have meant a lot of casualties so it was decided to wait until air strikes could be organised, meanwhile we would keep them busy with mortar fire.
It took three days to organise the air strikes that were to be carried out by Lightning’s of the US Air Force. On the morning of the attack we formed up at the end of the range and awaited the air strike. When the aircraft arrived they circled overhead for a while and then to our consternation came in from the wrong end! Instead of coming in over our heads towards the butts they flew in from the butts firing cannon at us. It says much for the American pilot’s ability that they missed everyone except for a couple of mules. Fortunately the RAF wireless operator with us was able to call up the pilots and correct their mistake. Only to be told that they were now out of ammunition and would return later! Someone somewhere in the chain of command must have heard about this and ordered the RAF to do the job. This time Hurricanes came and did the job properly, destroying the Jap positions with bombs and cannon fire. Advancing over the open rifle range was to say the least a worrying time.
As we reached the 50 yd firing position firing commenced from the butts, we hit the deck promptly, calling for mortar fire to cover us for the last fifty yards. Rushing the Jap positions we found that apart from a few dead bodies the place was empty, much to our relief.
Searching the village uncovered a nest of bunkers that would have cost many casualties to overcome; luckily for us the Japanese had fallen back onto Monywa. A few days rest followed which was very welcome after the long march relying on airdrops for food and clothing. Our boots were completely worn out and our jungle greens were in tatters. During the next few days the Royal Engineers built an airstrip capable of taking Dakota’s bringing fresh uniforms, boots and fresh food that we had not tasted since leaving Imphal almost 10 weeks earlier. The only drawback to having new uniforms was that it meant a return to parades and orders that had been absent on the march.
Having rested for 10 days we began the approach to Monywa. Patrols were sent out to test the enemy defences. One night patrol by our section came under fire from Japanese positions in a plantation of bamboo. It is impossible to move through this type of terrain without making a hell of a racket. While we were debating our next move a section of Ghurkhas appeared and as is the way with these men they told us to wait while they had a look. After about 20 minutes we heard a short burst of fire then silence. Suddenly a voice said “tikhi sahib”; it was the Ghurkha Havildar to say that it was now safe to move on, they had dealt with the Japanese in complete silence except for the burst of fire.
During our advance toward Monywa 2nd Division had been moving through Kalewa to approach from the East along a motorable road so were able to bring heavy equipment including a battery of 25 pounder field guns that were able to pound the enemy dug in defending the town. The final assault went in under a creeping barrage from the guns that enabled us to get in among the Japs without sustaining many casualties. Unlike fighting in Europe where attacks were carried out by large numbers of infantry the actions here were mostly small groups of maybe 20 to 30 men. Japanese were extremely skilled at preparing defensive positions. Bunkers covered with earth and logs sometimes 4 or 5 ft thick would be sited so that each would provide covering fire for the others. This made overcoming them hazardous in the extreme.
Over time we had developed a method that gave us more chance of success. A barrage of artillery and mortar fire would be put down on the bunkers; they would be raked by machine gun fire. This enabled the infantry to get close enough to push a Bangalore Torpedo through the firing slit of the bunker. Bangalore Torpedo’s consisted of a bamboo pole about 8 to 10 feet long on the end of which was bound an explosive charge triggered by the man placing it in position. He would be given covering fire by the rest of the attacking force who would then rush the bunker when the explosive charge was detonated. If all went well the occupants of the bunker would be dead or wounded and incapable of offering much resistance.
Given the fanatical nature of the Japanese soldier it was not always possible to take the bunker at the first attempt. It would then become necessary to repeat the procedure until all inside were dead or unable to offer further resistance.
The Battalion lost a number of men killed and many more wounded in taking these bunkers so that it was a great relief to hear that Monywa had fallen and that the remaining Japanese had retreated to the Irrawaddy.
It was always thought by the men that we would be withdrawn back to India when we reached Monywa; but with the unexpected withdrawal of the Japanese coupled with the success of 36 Division in taking Mandalay; the powers that be decided we should press on to the Irrawaddy so that the enemy would not have the opportunity to create a strong defensive position on its banks.
Because we had been marching and fighting for over 3 months and were pretty well exhausted 100 Brigade took over the pursuit of the Japanese and we were sent back to a rest area. For the first time in 3 months we were able to shower, and be issued with clean clothes. All of this time our rations had consisted in the main of dehydrated meat, dehydrated potatoes, Soya links, (sausages made from Soya Beans) and Army biscuits. These biscuits were often used to make what was called “biscuit burgoo”, burgoo being the Urdu word for Porridge. Crumbled biscuits would be mixed with boiling water, stirred to porridge like consistency then laced with a liberal dollop of condensed milk. On a cold morning this was wonderful!
Fresh hot food 3 times a day worked wonders for morale so that after 10 days we were fit and ready to go. Before moving down to the Irrawaddy we were given an outline of what was intended and what was required of us. The plan was that 17 Division would be the main attack, 20 Division would take part in diversionary attack across the river to draw the enemy away from 17 Divisions position.
Installing ourselves about a mile from Irrawaddy we prepared for the assault across the river. At this point the river was about half a mile across. The plan was to cross under cover of darkness using collapsible assault boats. Each boat carried 20 men and was to be powered by outboard a motor. Under strict instructions regarding noise we crept down to the embarkation point ready to embark. There was some artillery fire from the opposite bank that fell behind us without causing any damage.
At the signal given to embark we scrambled aboard the assault boats only to find that with twenty men on board the boats were barely afloat. Some men were disembarked but this left in tatters the plan for the assault, as men were not with the units they belonged to. As the boat I was in made its way across it began to drift down river because the engine was not powerful enough to make headway against the current. Many other boats were in the same situation; some had lost power and were drifting helplessly down river. Fire was coming at us from the opposite bank hitting some boats and leaving men helpless in the water.
Eventually our boat grounded on the beach about 400 yards from where we should have been. The beach was about 50 yards wide leading up to a vertical bank some 15 feet high. Hurriedly digging in we awaited the arrival of the rest of the company. As daylight broke we could see the shambles we had become. There were boats still drifting about with dead and wounded in them, some had returned to the other side and some boats were floating upside down. Fortunately for us all our officers had survived and soon began to organise us into units.
Next day was spent improving our position and sending out patrols find where the enemy were dug in. Our trenches were under periodic fire from a machine gun that made life very uncomfortable. On top of the bank above us grew elephant grass some six feet high that prevented us from seeing where the fire was coming from. A Ghurkha patrol was sent out to try to find the machine gun post and with their usual cheerfulness and a cry of “tikhi sahib” they disappeared up a nearby dry creek bed. After about 30 minutes they reappeared, one of them carrying a Japanese head that disgusted us but caused no end of amusement to the Ghurkha’s.
With the demise of the machine gun that had kept us on the beach we were able to move up onto the bank and dig in properly. It was just as well that we did because the first night in our new positions we were attacked strongly by the enemy with the usual whistles, bugles and shouts of banzai. After about an hour the attack was repulsed and all was quiet for the rest of the night
The following morning as daylight broke I poked my head above the slit trench to see how the rest of the lads had fared. Seeing a mate of mine a few yards away I foolishly waived to him when there was the crack of a rifle, my arm was jerked back and I fell back into the trench with a bullet hole in my arm that was bleeding quite badly. Bill Cartwright, my No 2 patched me up with a field dressing and accompanied me to the first aid post. Shortly after I was taken back across the river to Divisional Field Ambulance. Here a Doctor removed the bullet that luckily for me had not broken any bones. I must have looked the worse for wear as he decided I should be evacuated to the base hospital at Commilla.
My recollection of the journey to Commilla is a bit vague. Quite how I got there is a mystery to me. When I woke up in hospital I was suffering from Malaria and Dysentery as well as the arm wound. Army Hospital Matrons are not renowned
for being too sympathetic so when I was having a moan about how ill I felt she told me to look at the man in the next bed and think how lucky I was. He had lost his arm and was blinded in one eye! I felt very humble.
After about 3 weeks I was discharged to a convalescent base that was very pleasant after the rigours of the previous few months. My only regret was that I never saw Bill Cartwright again. He was wounded some time after me but he never turned up at Commilla or the convalescent base so I don’t know what happened to him.
Another function of the convalescent base was to act as a holding company for men to be returned to their units and in due course it became my turn. Since my leaving, the Battalion had been involved in considerable number of actions in the advance towards Meiktila. Since then 20 Division had been broken up and its units transferred to other divisions. 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regt. was now part of 2 Division and was stationed at Vizapore not far from Poona that had been a major British Army Base since the Victorian era.
When I rejoined my unit it had become a motorized infantry battalion and was in the process of receiving its vehicles. Typical of the Army we had trucks of all shapes and sizes with very few drivers to drive them. Fortunately for me my experiences from my stay at Catterick stood me in good stead and I was transferred to the Motor Transport section.
A number of us were loaned to an Indian Army battalion stationed close by to teach some of the men to drive. It was hair raising at times, as most of them had no conception of gearboxes or even left and right. After a couple of days of this I decided to remove the passenger’s side door to enable me to leap out if it got too hairy.
By this time the war was drawing to a close and the Japanese had surrendered. Everyone with more than 2 years service in the Far East had his name entered into a ballot for a months leave to the UK. To my delight and astonishment my number came up. Shortly afterwards we were on our way to Bombay where we boarded H.M.T.S. Strathmore for the journey home.
The voyage home was uneventful and we finally arrived at Southampton at 2.00 p.m. with a cold, wet afternoon to welcome us home. As the ship moved into its berth everyone on board rushed to one side to see the lights of home thus causing it to list to one side. Orders from the ships officers to get back were completely ignored, resulting in the ship tying up listing about 10 degrees to one side.
Arriving home I was greeted with the same old question, “when do you go back”. However it was great to see everyone but after a week or so I found myself missing the camaraderie of my army pals. I had arranged to meet some of them in London during our leave. We stayed at the Union Jack Club in Leicester Square were our bush hats and dark tans caused a great deal of interest. I don’t think we paid for a drink or food for the whole of the time we were there.
One evening at a loose end I decided to go to the cinema at Blackfen. Waiting at the bus stop with me was a young lady who took my fancy, however when the bus reached Blackfen the young lady walked off in the opposite direction to the cinema. Watching the film I became aware of female voices behind me, turning round I discovered the young lady from the bus with her best friend Beryl. That is how your mother and I met and as they say the rest is history.
Our return to the unit was to be by air. Never having flown before it was with some trepidation that I arrived at Membury for the first leg of the journey.
Boarding the Dakota for the flight we found that no seats were provided, the whole journey would be spent sitting and lying on the floor with only our kitbags and packs for comfort! Leaving Membury about 10 a.m. the aircraft touched down at Bordeaux some 3 hrs later.
After a meal it was decided that we should venture into the city. Public transport consisted of a dilapidated old tram that wheezed and rattled it’s way into town. One of our number was delegated to buy the tickets. One ticket was issued for every stage along the way (about 10 or 12 stages) so with 25 or more of us on board the conductor spent nearly all the time churning out some 250 or more tickets from a very ancient roll machine. It was hilarious watching him turning the handle for all he was worth before we got into town.
Next morning we took off for what was to be a very wearisome, long-winded flight, via Elmos in Sardinia where we stayed overnight. Leaving Elmos at 05.30 we refuelled at Catania in Sicily refuelled again at El Adam in Libya finally arriving at Tel Aviv at 18.30 absolutely shattered.
After spending the day in Tel Aviv and a nights rest we were on our way again at midday, this time to Baghdad. At midnight we took off for Karachi via Bahrain. By this time we were heartily sick of being cooped up in a noisy, smelly aircraft. Arrived at Karachi about 4:30 then took off again 2 days later for Poona. After a brief stop, off again to Arkonam, then on to Madras where we stayed for 2 months. Most of the time was spent in the swimming pool or just loafing about. It was the only time that the Army could not find us some useless thing to do!
Eventually orders came to move. This time by a 2-day train journey to Vizagapatan where we found the most dilapidated ship called City of Canterbury. 6 Days later after a rough passage we docked at Singapore.
Rejoining the battalion we found that a lot of the old NCOs had left, to be replaced with a lot of new faces. It was 4 years to the day since I joined up!
I managed to regain my old job on the MT Section, it was surprising how it all came back so quickly after 6 months away. Most of the remaining time in Singapore was spent transporting Japanese prisoners backwards and forwards from Changi to the War Criminal Trials held at the Municipal Court House.
Because of the damage caused to the railway system during the war the civilian population in the north of Malaya were very short of food. Every week each unit had to supply drivers to a transport pool carrying supplies north. This was quite exciting, as one never knew what kind of vehicle one would be required to drive.
On one occasion I found myself in charge of a huge Tank Transporter that I had never experienced before. Driving this thing 600 miles up country was quite an adventure!
Eventually my de-mob number came up and I was off again back to England on the RMS Andes, the same ship that I sailed out on more than 3 years before.
I hope that this brief story is of interest and that it gives some idea of life in the Forgotten Army.
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