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15 October 2014
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"MY WAR WITH THE FORGOTTEN ARMY" (Part 1)

by shropshirelibraries

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Contributed by 
shropshirelibraries
People in story: 
Leslie JAMES; Hilda RATCLIFFE (future wife)
Location of story: 
Tipton, Staffordshire; Chesterfield, Derbyshire; Margham Castle, Wales; Mingaladon, Burma
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5382696
Contributed on: 
30 August 2005

Private Leslie James 1941

At the age of 17 I decided to enlist in the Army instead of waiting until I was 18 when I would have been called up anyway. My mother was not very pleased as my brother was already in the Army. My enlistment papers arrived in the morning post informing me to report for training to the barracks in Chesterfield. I had no idea where this place was or what to expect. Needless to say, when I arrived I soon found out. Arriving at the barracks I was told to report to the Orderly Room which I did and found five more lads waiting there.

We got talking about what we thought would happen to us next. Little did we know that the six of us were to be known as the "Advance Party". Our job was to collect a pile of sacks from the stores and take them to a big shed which was full of straw and proceed to fill them until they looked like mattresses. Having done this we then had to report to the corporal again, who then showed us the barrack room which was up 4 flights of stairs. He then told us to carry the 36 palliasses (sacks full of straw) up and place one on each bed and report back to him.

Next we were taken to the stores to draw our kit, uniform and rifle, then upstairs again to deposit part of the kit on the bed and take the webbing and the gaiters downstairs to be blancoed.

What happened next gave me an idea of what to expect in my next 6 weeks of training. I was shown how to put the Blanco on my kit by some lads who had already done 2 weeks training. This procedure involved wetting the block of Blanco until it became a paste on top, then with a brush or sponge, to cover the kit with it then wait for it to dry. I was doing this when a corporal came up and said "Follow me". We crossed the parade ground until we reached a set of steps. Standing on these was a man, he must have well over 6' 3", he wore a peaked cap and had a silver-topped cane under his arm. He glowered at me and shouted in a voice like thunder, "What's your name lad?" I replied "James", he said "Where do you come from?", I answered "Tipton". He said "Tipton what?" and stuck his arm out on which was a crown of some description. The look on his face when I said "Staffordshire" - it went RED and then PURPLE! He then said "Do not let me ever see your face again"; then he stormed off. I later found out that he was the Regimental Sergeant Major and that the answer he expected was "TIPTON, SIR". After my first day in the Army things could only get better or so I thought.

One thing I would like to point out is the fact that you can never win in the Army. What was then the King's Rules and Regulations, or what they called KRR can be adapted to suit any situation, no matter what it is. A typical; example, which I have seen, is if a soldier back-answered an officer or NCO he could be charged with insolence. If he said nothing but looked at the officer in a glowering or insolent manner he could still be charged with dumb insolence ..... you just couldn't win.

Training was very tiring. Learning to march, rifle drill, PT and learning to shoot on the range with your rifle plus Bren-gun and grenade throwing. At the end of the day, after tea, your kit had to be cleaned and polished ready for morning inspection. Every single thing had to be spotless, even the back of your cap badge and buttons, also your bed had to be set out at all time, except at night. In addition you were expected to do Guard duty and Cookhouse fatigues - washing pans and peeling sack after sack of spuds. After 6 weeks we had a passing out parade and were now deemed to be trained soldiers.

My first posting was to Norwich and then Bedford. I think one of the worst places I was sent to was the Orkney Isles. Situated right off the top of Scotland it is one of the coldest and bleakest places I have ever seen. From there I was posted to a holding battalion in Leeds, then from there to Margham Castle in Wales for jungle training.

On one of my very few leaves I plucked up courage to ask Hilda to go to the cinema with me. I had known her from childhood and had sat behind her at school. She agreed and then we started writing to each other.

My next leave was to be my last leave for quite some time as this was my embarkation leave; which one only got before going overseas. We decided to get engaged before I returned to my unit. She came to the station to see me catch my train, it was a very traumatic and sad parting as we said "Goodbye". Little did we know that the parting would last for three years. She was a brave girl and we wrote as often as we could. We were not alone as many couples suffered the same parting.

Although our officers assured us we were going to Iceland (Ha-Ha!!), we were moved to a Miners' Welfare Camp at Gileston and were issued with Khaki Drill (KD) a thin cloth used mainly in the Tropics and mosquito nets. The normal issue per man is one pair of shorts, one pair of long trousers and two bush shirts. We had lectures about malaria and lots of others diseases which could be caught in the Tropics; we also had quite a few injections. We were now put on standby to move out.

One of the events that sticks in my memory during this standby was our daily march to the station in full marching order. All of the local people would be out shouting "Good luck lads and take care". We stayed at the station for about an hour then marched back to camp. This routine happened everyday for 5 days until in the end the people took no notice of us at all. We chatted about which pub we would go to that night if we could find enough cash, but alas on the 6th day we marched as usual to the station to find there was a train waiting, we were packed into it and it did not stop again until we reached the docks where a very large troopship waited. We then marched up the gangway and within hours we sailed non-stop until we reached Port Said which is the start point of the Suez Canal in Egypt. We had just a few hours there, waiting for a pilot to take us through the Canal.

Our next stop was supposed to be Bombay but as we entered the Red Sea there was a problem with the rudder and the Captain had to make a decision to either go on to Bombay through the monsoon season or return to Port Teufic and disembark to wait for another ship. He decided on the latter so back to Egypt we went. I cannot remember how long we waited for another ship but I think it was only a few days. I do remember the second ship was a lot smaller and so we had to take turns to go up on deck for fresh air, but we managed.

The next stop was Bombay in India and from there we had a 5 day journey to Calcutta. This may sound like heaven, but, after 5 days of sitting and sleeping on a wooden bench it was more like hell! We spent 2 weeks in Calcutta getting used to the heat, we then moved up country to a place called Barrackpore, spent a few days there and then boarded a cattle boat which took us part of the way to Burma.

My platoon moved to several places, many of which I have forgotten how to spell, so I shall leave them out. We moved onwards to Mingaladon, here I suffered my first bout of malaria. Even though I had taken my daily dose of quinine without fail, I still managed to get it. I should mention that the heat and short rations did nothing to help. Rations consisited of American K Rations, the contents of which were 2 very small tins ( 2 inches wide & 1 inch deep) of cheese, Spam or another type of meat; 2 biscuits; 4 boiled sweets; 1 raisin bar; 2 cigarettes and 2 sheets of toilet paper. The cartons were approximately 9 inches by 4 inches by one-and-a-half inches - this was 24 hours ration for one man. Water was also in short supply and had to be sterilised with special tablets before drinking; the daily ration was roughly 1 pint per man.

Most of the men that served in this terrain found it hard to explain just what the conditions were like. At times we were up to the waist in mud; then we were choked with mud and water. Most, if not all the men went down with malaria or suffered from prickly heat, ringworms or other diseases. My weight was down to less than 8 stones along with a lot of the other lads.

Mingaladon was a small airfield used manily by the old workhorse,the Dakota, which was used to drop supplies of food, ammo and just about everything else possible, but more about that later.

We were now heading towards Rangoon. This was to be we hoped the last Japanese stronghold but, before we reached it, news came that the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. We still moved out to Rangoon only to find that the Japs had retreated which was a surprize to everyone. We stayed in Rangoon for a couple of weeks to recoup and replace some of the lost and worn out kit from a very meagre supply. It was good to rest but it wasn't for long.

At 3 a.m. one morning we told to return to Mingaladon. As we were boarded the Dakota one of the lads asked if we were being issued with parachutes; the Sgt Major's answer was "No son, we have the names of your next of kin".

The Dakota had no seats so we just sat on top of our our kit and ammo. I recall there was only about 1 foot between our heads and the fuselage when we lay down. Owing to the weight of our kit and 38 men the pilot had a few problems taking off. Four times in all he tried but it had to be towed back to try again. On the last attempt we made it, taking a little bit of the hedge with us. It was not long before we were shivering with cold as the aircraft gained height, we were still in jungle greens! We had no idea where we might finish our journey but it turned out to be Ceylon, or as it is called now Sri Lanka. This was to be just a short stop to refuel. Our final destination was to be Singapore.

Continued at A5476782 "My War with the Forgotten Army" (Part 2)

Note: This story has been extracted from "The Life and Times of Les James" written by his daughter in 1999.

Story: This story has been submitted to the People's War site by Shropshire Library Service on behalf of Leslie JAMES (author) and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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