- Contributed by
- The Stratford upon Avon Society
- People in story:
- Jack Hall
- Location of story:
- Stratford, France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 February 2005
4 — Jack Hall, a former railway clerk, recalls his war years:
“I think it was the day before the outbreak of war, all territorial units were called up, and I heard around four o’clock in the afternoon, just as I was starting my shift, so I downed tools and reported.
We had our money made up; I was nineteen years and one month, I think I had my money made up to two pounds a week by the railway, which was quite generous, and it was made up throughout the war years to the salary that I would have had had I stayed, and we enjoyed our free travel allocation throughout the war years.
I should think that the women took over; they had women porters, women in the office and even women in the loco maintenance shed. Then really I lost track of the railways for nearly seven years — I was in the forces seven years all but one week, including my leave at the end of the period.
Well, we formed the company, D Company, Stratford upon Avon Company, in the May, so that we were called up as a company, and we went down to Elmhurst (now the Methodist church). We ate at the Old Red Lion in Bridge Street. We were about 119 or 120; we had about 114 Stratfordians plus an intake of officers from other units to kind of give a nucleus of administration. We marched through the town every day of course to eat at the Old Red Lion, Cyril Kemp’s pub, and we had route marches — but the route marches were usually via a pub in those days! Someone was sent on ahead to probably order fifty pints of beer to be laid out.
After two or three weeks the battalion as a whole, with the companies from Warwick, Leamington and Coventry, went down to Swindon, and that’s where we did our main training, and Ralph Reader (you remember Ralph Reader?) he came down and gave us concerts every weekend in Swindon, and then in November everyone who was nineteen years or more on a particular day, went to France — all the others stayed. Some went for officer training as well, and a friend of mine, Colin Hughes, was nineteen on that day, he kept his hand down, and another friend said ‘Colin, you’re nineteen, put your hand up’, so he had to put his hand up and came to France with us. He ended up in — what do you call it, in Warwick? The Archives.
We went to France on January 10th 1940, and came out, through Dunkirk, and the Warwicks. were the last British troops inside the Dunkirk perimeter, and as we got inside the perimeter we left the French to hold the fort — it’s something, really, I can always remember. We came out of Dunkirk, were shelled and bombed, and they set the oil tanks on fire and the smoke drifted over us which protected us to a certain extent. The night was dark and the mackerel were coming in — I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen the sea when the mackerel come in, but there’s a kind of luminous light on top, so that when the boats came in you couldn’t see the boats but you could see the V shape of the boats in this luminosity as they came in, and the last night we got on to the mole there, and my pal, Will Troughton (I don’t know whether you know him) he said to one chappy, ‘Move over,’ he had got a blanket. What had happened was, as the people died they dropped them over with a blanket and he had had to sleep with a dead man for the night, and then we got on the SS Malcolm, which was a very old destroyer, it was almost round, with a little point, and I can remember they put us in the magazine, and I can remember them bringing some pint mugs of tea and I went to sleep in between getting off my seat and reaching for the tea, and they actually bombed us on the way to Dover, and the only thing they damaged was a toilet — I didn’t hear the bombing.
Did we lose many friends? Casualties in Stratford 'D' Coy were lighter than those in A,D and C Coys but records show that of the 800 in the battalion, only 15 officers and 220 other ranks were evacuated from Dunkirk. The others were killed in action, wounded and taken prisoner or just taken prisoner.
We didn’t realise what was happening until near the end. You keep moving and you don’t really know whether you’re moving sideways, forward or backwards, because of course the Germans were both sides of us, so we didn’t realise. I remember hearing on the radio one day, Duff Cooper saying that we were in a plight; I didn’t know, no idea at all. I know on the way back to Dunkirk I was in the front of a lorry with the driver, the convoy stopped and we went to sleep, and it wasn’t until one of the officers came along and had a go at us that we realised that the convoy had left, and of course outside Dunkirk we had to dump every lorry.
I think we assembled on the beach together, and spent either one or two nights there, and I believe we came off on June 1st which was about the last day, and when we got to Dover they put us in trains, and the train stopped at Swindon, and we thought, oh, they’re sending us back to our original billets, but then they told us that each person could send a telegram home to say that we were OK, and so we got out, and then they sent us down to Pembroke, and then we were there for a little while until they started re-forming all the battalions.
We moved about every three months, until — many of us of course went over to North Africa, the Far East, but I was always missed off, and we went back to France in 1944, to Normandy.
The battalion lost 26 killed in action in the first battle and by late August, of the approximate strength of 800, 9 officers and 74 other ranks were killed, 28 officers and 424 other ranks wounded and one officer and 15 other ranks missing. I think there was only one officer who wasn’t wounded or killed, and that was because he was sent back into the back echelon, so that the company then ceased to exist, they just fed us as reinforcements into two other units.
D Company from Stratford had lost a lot in any case through transfers to other units, and some going as officers, some to the Far East, so that D Company was still there, and quite a few of them Stratfordians in Normandy in 1944, but we weren’t a real Stratford company in 1944.
(Looking back) in 1940 when we went over to a small village the French people were very good to us, it was near the Belgian border, and this Wilf Troughton I am telling you about and Doug Holmes, a school pal, we used to go to a little café and have egg and chips and beer and wine and all that, and we got quite friendly with the girl there, she would be about seventeen. Two years ago, I wrote to the mayor of this little village, and told him the names of three people I knew: one was this girl, one was a young hairdresser who was in ill health and couldn’t go in the French forces, and another one was the son of the hotel (manager) where we were billeted, one platoon of D Company.
The Mayor wrote back and he gave me the addresses — different addresses to those in 1940, of the two males, and told me the married name of the girl and where she lived, about thirty miles away. Well, I wrote to the hairdresser and his wife answered; he was, as I say, in ill health in 1940, and she said that he was too ill to reply, but they had just had their fiftieth wedding anniversary, so he must have been just married before we got there in 1940. The son of the hotelier didn’t reply, but the girl replied, and I had sent her photographs of herself which she had given to me in 1940, and photographs of the three of us in Raches (this little village) and the photographs of the three of us, taken at this reunion in the same order in 1985, and she said she was most surprised to open a letter, fifty years later, to get a letter from me with her photo and our photos, and she said she well remembered us, every night at the end of the bar, drinking beer, keeping her busy with all types of drinks, eggs and chips, and trying to teach her English — it was quite nice.
I have invited her over here; she said she might, but I might go over there to see her, because I go over three times a year, because I have a daughter who lives in France. Unfortunately, we go by train, and she’s a little off the route.”
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