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From Mitcham Road To Mandalay - Bill Stoneman Senior


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From Mitcham Road To Mandalay - Bill Stoneman Senior

  2. 2. FROM MlTCHAM ROAD TO MANDALAY By Bill Stoneman Number 1 Batallion 81 42 Commando Royal Marine
  3. 3. CONTENTS The Early Years p 11 Bill’s Father, Bill’s Mother, Brother George (Tiddler), Brother Jack, Sister Betty, Sister Elsie, Brother Peter , Brother Brian From Beer to Maternity p 25 Paper Jack, Duppas Hill Kate From Mitcham Road to Mandalay p 43 Wartime & service years as a Royal Marine Commando Buddy Homan,Vincent Cutting, extract from the Guinness Book of Records ,official account of the Battle of Kangaw From Mandalay to Mitcham Road p 89 Return to Croydon from active war service as a Royal Marine Commando, work and the beginning of family life Old Comrades Reunited p 129 The Later Years From Father to Grandfather
  4. 4. FOREWORD Bill met Captain (now Major) Stuart Tulloch at his niece’s wedding.On learning that Bill was a Royal Marine Commando they chatted for a long time. On hearing Bill’s account of his days in active service, Stuart made clear to Bill the value of his story. That conversation provided the inspira- tion for him, at the age of 78, to enrol at a local college to learn basic com- puter skills, and then commit to documenting his account of his life from his earliest memory through to today. This is Bill’s story… His world was one where hunger, slum conditions, child and wife abuse were suffered by many. ‘The Good Old Days’ say some. The much-crit- icised National Health service, created by the late Aneurin Bevan, is still the finest in the World. This is a truth, which after 40 years of care and suffering from acute bronchitis and emphysema, caused by the bitter cold, under nourished childhood and youth, followed by the rig- ours of his service life. The building trade in which he spent a lifetime, and endured the primitive conditions. Workers were given no protec- tive clothing or facilities to dry rain-soddened clothing, or to get hot food and drink. Fatalities at the workplace equalled, and sometimes exceeded, the accidents suffered by the mining industry. Always a badly organised occupation it was always a hard battle to wring any concessions from the employers. These were won by bitter strikes and confrontation, often at a cost to the families of the men, who were placed on the mercies of the workhouse charities. It is to these men, who stood out for their rights, a debt of gratitude is owed 7
  5. 5. In those days there were no problems with racism, drugs or muggings.The old people were respected and walked the streets in comparativesafety. Immigrants were mainly white Colonials. Front doors were kepton a string pulled through the letter box; this released the catch on thedoor. The milk money along with the insurance man’s money were lefton the table in the hallway. Bill, in todays language, would be called a chauvinist pig and ahomophobe, a relic of the golden age when men were men and womenwere glad of it. Years ago homosexuality between consenting adultswas given legality, then came the lowering of the age of consent, twicein quick succession. Forgive Bill’s cynicism but how long will it be be-fore it is made compulsory? Long gone are the days when Auntie BBC banned even the mildestexpletive, like ‘bloody’. Today our television screens are saturated withporn, explicit sexual acts of gratuitous violence and foul language. A new breed of failed footballers, golfers and cricketers are usedas commentators, with accents almost unintelligble. Add to this thehours of inane commercials which occupy as much screen time as theprogrammes. To be caught lying or fiddling is an open sesame to a spot on thebox. As Arthur Daley says in the Minder series, ‘the world’s your lobster!’When John Logie Baird invented the wonders of television he cre-ated a monster, a machine so powerful that those addicted to watchingwere named ‘square eyes’. It was predicted to be ‘a licence to print yourown money’ and so it proved. Television has brought a new dimen-sion to teaching, and has opened a whole new world. Children arecomputer-wise at a very early age, but playing endless hours of gameson them must have an adverse effect on them. Calculators make mathseasy and Bill wonders how schools would cope with the old English 8
  6. 6. money. Adding and subtracting half crowns, half pence and farthings.Decimalisation has made sums so much simpler. Class room brutal-ity has now been banned, the cane, the strap; the practice of teachershurling pieces of chalk across the class room is no longer allowed. Theart of pre-recording a video is an operation way beyond Bill’s ability,yet his youngest Grandson could do it from the tender age of eight.Even this word processor Bill is using they handle with the greatestskill, even to the extent of putting their Grandfather right when hegets stuck! There is of course, a vast difference in their life styles. Notfor them rising at 5am to do a paper round; being taken to school ina car, warm clothes, hot meals at mid-day and teachers that do notbelieve in the use of the cane. Sports facilities are of the highest qual-ity, and they are taught by competent coaches in some schools. Everyyear professional footballers, cricketers, tennis players and golfers withcoaching abilities go on the dole. Why Bill asks can they not be usedto train the wealth of talent that lies untapped in our country? It is abrutal truth that it is only the rich man’s sons that can afford to buy theservices of top class coaches. From Eton, Harrow, Magdalene, Oxfordand Cambridge, to name but a few. One thing Bill is certain of, and that is ‘No government ever gavepensioners £200 to pay their fuel bill before’. Folk would do well toremember one fact. It is the Labour Party that gave people the afflu-ence to think Tory. Opinion polls are one big phoney. Now in his 84th year, Bill hasnever been approached by a National Opinion pollster. Neither in inhis wide circle of friends has one of them been questioned, and he hashad many friends and aquaintances in his long life. 9
  7. 7. THE EARLY YEARSTHE FATHER Born in London’s East End near Liverpool Street, he worked in service for gentry. He left this job to join the 17th 21st Lancers. Served in ww1 in what he called German East Africa under General Ian Smuts who was of that war zone. His job a groom. He was infected several times with malaria, and suffered recurring bouts in his later years. To lessen the effects of this fever he took large doses of quinine. He also served in France and said he was gassed at Ypres. He suffered from chronic bronchial asthma and emphysema. There were no breathing aids like nebulizers in those days, so he tried to gain relief by eating Vicks vapour rub jelly, this did no good as an expectorant. He met Bill’s Mother when she was working as a barmaid in the Red Deer public house, where she fell in love with the handsome man in the lancers uniform. According to her sisters, he brutalised her then, throwing her down stairs whilst she was pregnant with her first child. (Is this, Bill wonders, the cause of his dislike Of his Father). This act of brutality brought about a legal separation, foolishly she relented and went back to him. He had a good knowledge of horses, and dressed the animals that pulled the milk floats when they entered Regents Park horse show. He could treat horses harness sores with a fair success rate. Bill recalls see- ing him, stripped to his waist, smearing his arm from hand to shoulder with axle grease, entering the horses back side pulling out vast quanti- ties of straw mixed with coal dust thus clearing the animals bowels. Whilst performing these operations Bill held the animal by tying a twitch to it’s nose, and as an added precaution tied it’s foreleg to a post to stop it from kicking. Brother Tiddler had the job of holding the cats whilst the old man castrated them, this operation was carried out with his cut throat razor. For the female cat a red hot sewing needle was used. Had the RSPCA known, he must surely have gone to jail. He 11
  8. 8. was also proficient at puppy tail docking and turning cats into manxcats by docking their tails. He kept a large number of rabbits, thishelped the family larder but needed vast amounts of dandelion leaves,collecting them in all kinds of weather was a most hated chore. It was Bill’s first memory of a brutal Father who, when he came homein a drunken rage, would belt the boys with the buckle end of his strap,being the eldest Bill would get the biggest hiding of them all. Bill’sparents rented two rooms from a woman called Maud Coleman, andshe lived in Old Town Croydon, opposite the slum rat, lice and buginfested shanty town called Pump Pail. Unemployment was rife. Bill’sMother had to attend the relief offices called the UAB. The full namewas the Un-employment Assistance Board. Here she was given vouch-ers for coal, groceries and bedclothes. These were promptly taken tothe pawn shop where the guv’nor would assess the value of the clothes.Still his Father always found money for beer. His philosophy towardshis wages was, beer money first, what’s left is yours. He could consumevast quantities of booze! When he came home the boys fought over thestale sandwiches he had left in his pockets, but first they scraped offthe thick layer of mustard he used. The whole family had to keep deadsilence whilst he was asleep and on Sundays they were made to go toSunday school. It was a ritual that he took the News of the World tobed, their Mother would follow him upstairs and another Stonemanwas on the way. Discussing this in later years Bill’s Sister Elsie asked her Mother whyshe did this, when clearly she did not love him, the mum replied ‘I washis wife, it was my job’. He would never call Bill by name but referto him as bushel head, bacon bonce, and big head, then say ‘you ain’tgot a big head, go down the shop and get four loaves, and six poundsof taters in your hat’. Amongst his pub cronies he was noted for his 12
  9. 9. left wing politics and was known as Ramsey MacDonald, the PrimeMinister of the day. The family had an extra treat when the old manacquired a cat’s whisker wireless run on accumalator batteries This con-traption gave poor reception with much crackling The family listenedto the Tommy Farr vs Joe Louis epic which was held in New York at2am in the morning, with his usual alarm call, he would pull back thebed clothes and pour a cup of icy cold water over their privates. Thismethod was used with a doggerel, ‘Get your hands off your cocks andon with your socks’, or another favourite, ‘Rise and shine the morningsfine’. This led to Tiddler saying, ‘why do you make us go to bed whenwe are not tired, and make us get up when we are?’ He loved a bet onthe horses and on the rare occasions he had it off (won), he would lashout on new clobber for the family. This meant new hob nail boots andwhite roll neck pullovers. They were on a certain clip round the ear ifthe toes were scuffed kicking a ball. Sometimes they were allowed tostand outside the local pub The Surrey Cricketers, and when his matescame out half cut they would give the boys their odd coppers, this feltlike Christmas to the boys. One agony they had to endure was his hair cutting, not so much ahair cut, more of a plucking. The antiquated clippers used to pull theirhair out by the roots and to complain earned them a shout of ‘standbloody still’, along with a hefty whack round the ear. Most times hegave them a ‘tuppenny all off’ which made them look like convicts,this led to a lot of ‘mickey taking’ from their school mates. It hadone saving grace – the fleas and the lice did not like it, and it madeNitty Nora’s job so much easier. She was the nurse in charge of vermincontrol. This operation she carried out with a white sheet and a finetoothed comb.She also dealt with the ‘Mothers and Babies’ the cock-ney rhyming slang for Scabies. This horrible infection was caused by 13
  10. 10. insanitory conditions. This skin complaint was treated with a medica-tion known as genetian violet, it also left sufferers with ugly sores. The Father’s hatred of Bill was almost paranoid and stayed that wayuntil he died, even to go as far as banning Bill from his bed side whenhe was dying from emphysema. He always claimed his chest diseasewas caused by being gassed in the Great War, but in truth it was causedby the rank strong tobacco he smoked, and by working in the rain andbitter cold snow with no change of clothing. The old man took his ha-tred to the grave, refusing to see Bill even on his death bed. It was onlyafter tearful pleading from his Mother that he relented and attendedthe funeral. Bill never forgave nor forgot. The scars of the brutal treatment he had received from his Fatherwould live in his memory forever. The old man’s favourite joke was ‘myold woman’s a dirty cow, every time I go to piss in the sink it’s full oftea leaves’. 14
  11. 11. THE MOTHER She spent a life time of worrying, trying to find food for an ever raven- ous brood. Her finger nails were bitten down to the quick with worry and fear of her brutal husband. The boys had to carry notes to the neighbours like beggars, asking them to lend their Mum two shillings with which to buy the old man’s dinner. This meal oft times finished up being hurled into the back of the fireplace, where he would, in his drunken stupor, fall asleep snoring like a pig. In spite of this she still sang the old time ballads, these same songs had beautiful lyrics, most of them telling sad stories of lost loves. These melodies were to live in the boys memories until they were old men. After coping with her own work, which consisted of huge piles of other peoples washing and ironing, in this chore Bill would often get the gut wrenching job of turning the handle of the big iron mangle, a device that squeezed the moisture when the clothes were put in the wooden rollers. Then after black leading the stove, she hearth stoned her front door step, this was made gleaming white, her pride and joy and the envy of the neigh- bours. These jobs done, she walked four or five miles to scrub and dust in the houses of the better off ladies, she was in fact a char lady. Here at least she could find warmth, a hot meal and a cup of tea. For an added bonus there would be stale bread and cakes to take home, meat and fish that would go rotten for lack of refrigeration. Stale or not, the grub was eaten with gusto. In spite of a life time of abuse and worry she was always there with her ‘kiss it better remedy’ a cut or bruised knee, black eyes, toothaches and ear aches in the absence of pain killers and antibiotics, they found some relief in her ample bosom. When Bill started work he would bring home his wages and his Mother would give him two and sixpence pocket money. He would then take a bath in a galvanised tub in front of the fire. Spick and span he went upstairs to get his new suit bought from ‘Burtons the Fifty 15
  12. 12. Bob Tailor’ on tick, repayments were a shilling a week. To his dismaythe suit was gone, it had been pawned by his Mother, that meant noSaturday night pictures, no kiss and cuddle in the back row, no Fridaynight treat of pie and beans in Bunnie’s cafe. She never knew whata holiday was until she was widowed, never saw a show, her life wasdevoted to her family. Her first treat was when Bill took her to see theAustralian singer Frank Ifield, she sat enraptured, exclaiming ‘ain’t hebleeding luvverly’. A weeks stay with her sister in Eastbourne and a fewbob to have a bet with, must have seemed like heaven to her. Thesewere the first of many treats she enjoyed in later years. They don’t makeMums like her any more, on top of all this she was a wondefil cook.Her stews, meat and bacon puddings were the greatest in the world. Such was the poverty of Bill’s family they rarely knew the luxury ofnew clothing, they had to wear other peoples cast-offs, even to the ex-tent of the boys having to wear girls shoes. In desperation she had togo to the ‘chat’, relief or assistance board. Here she was given vouchersfor coal, groceries and bed clothes. These were promptly taken to thepawn-shop where Alf the guv’nor would assess the value of the clothes,the money from this she used to buy food and after, the old man wasgiven the best meal. She in truth took the bread from her own mouthto ensure her family did not go hungry. Often when the old man wasin his cups, he would take on the guise of a caring Dad and plead withhis off-spring with what must have been crocodile tears ‘To take careof your poor old Mum when I’m gone’, some thing he never ever didhimself. He need not have worried, her family took good care of heruntil the day she died. Starved of affection from their Father they mayhave been, but from her they had love by the bucketful. 16
  13. 13. BROTHER GEORGE (TIDDLER) Tiddler had a very cruel nature, he would pull the wings off blue bot- tles and smaller flies, and he would bury roadpeckers (pigeons) up to their neck in the back garden. Another cruel trick he used to perform was to insert a straw in a frog and blow the poor creature up. He would put the cat under his arm and say ‘listen to this I’m going to play the bag pipes’ he would then proceed to bite the cats tail until it screamed in agony. Bill had many fights with him, but it was to no avail. He used to assist his Father in castrating the cats, this was referred to in an earlier chapter. It seems he was the old man’s favourite, and his call up for service was delayed. He was detailed to work on the bomb damage of London, and worked along side his Father on this project. This meant good wages for them both, not that it did their Mother any good, the old man’s contribution was as measly as ever. Tiddler could have obtained exemption from the Armed Forces, because his work was classified as essential but to his credit he opted for call up. Tiddler was always mechanically minded, he was forever tinkering with watches and clocks, he could make an old bicycle out of a heap of spare parts. He served in the Royal Engineers in WW2, and saw serv- ice in Italy, Sicily North Africa and in Germany. It was here he met, courted and married his Wife Elsa, she was to bear him one son and two daughters. He was a workaholic and worked all the over-time he could get. The long hours must have shortened his life, for he suffered from high blood pressure and died peacefully in his bed. Later in life, when he was incapacitated, Bill would pick him up in his car and take him for a drink in the British Legion. His wife in her broken English would ask Bill, ‘Are you going down to the Foreign Legion?’ On the day of his funeral, Croydon was lashed by one of the fiercest storms in Bill’s memory. It was as if the heavens were giving him their welcome. 17
  14. 14. BROTHER JACK The best loved of the family, always good humoured, good hearted and generous, worked for years as a roof tiler and slater. Then he drove fur- niture removal van with long time mate Joe Penfold. They both had a keen eye for the items of value that were discarded by their customers. They sold the unwanted items of furniture to a second hand dealer that specialised in this type of trade. It was amazing the amount of saleable items that were left behind, this all constituted ‘beer money’ . From there Jack worked for years as driver for Croydon Corporation dust carts as a driver, here he sustained a nasty back injury, causing him to retire. He was diagnosed as having a chronic heart condition. These afflictions he bore with his usual style. Bill and his sons would rise at 4 am and play golf together, on what they termed the ‘dawn patrol’. It was so early in the morning even the birds were not awake. When they did they joined together to give Bill, Jack and the boys the music of their dawn chorus. Jack had a singing voice that could have earned him a living profes- sionally, with that went a style of comedy that could have an audience in stitches. He was in great demand in the clubs and pubs, and often performed with his son Mark in the Railway Man’s club, a terrific duo. Jack had a massive heart attack at the age of Fifty seven. This did not change his happy go lucky style. Sadly Jack died at the age of sixty seven when he succumbed to an- other massive heart attack. During his long illness he was full of praise for the care he was given by the doctors and staff of Mayday University Hospital, a view shared by his wife Jean, who said they had given them a ten year bonus on his life. It is said a man’s popularity can be measured by the number of mourners at his funeral, if that is true then Brother Jack was a well loved man. A tale about the spontaneous wit of Jack that Bill feels it is worth telling, goes like this; Jimmy Turner, who was a bit 18
  15. 15. of a wide boy told Jack ‘I was down the chat today (chat is the slang forLabour Exchange) and the geezer says to me what are you?’ Jim replied‘I’m a Cole Porter’, and quick as a flash Jack said ‘What did he say? OKthen, write me a song?’ Brother Jack, after his retirement met regularly with Brother Billat No 63 Euston Road. This was at Sister Elsie’s request. She almostpleaded with her Brothers not to leave her out. There she would sit,on her settee with her constant companion Sheba, her dog who alwayshad a friendly lick on the face for newcomers. The one thing BrotherJack and Elsie shared, was a talent for mimicry. Jack, ever a good storyteller, made every one roar with laughter with his tales, whether it wastold in a Jamaican, Spanish or Irish accent. Another talent Jack acquired was in house decorating, often re-papering a room for her. All the family were heartbroken tolose Brother Jack, he was, as the sayinggoes, ‘something else’. His son Mark hasinherited his father’s talent for singingand is often called upon to give a songin the local or in the club. Brother Jack 19
  16. 16. SISTER BETTY Sister Betty left home early, and joined the Women’s Land Army early in the war, where she met her husband Fred, and was married in Ifield near Crawley. After the war they emigrated to Australia there they raised a family. Bill had only his Sister Elsie to relay news from Sister Betty, so un- fortunately he has no contact with her. He was told by his Sister Elsie that they enjoyed a very happy life in Australia.SISTER ELSIE Sister Elsie was very timid and very close to her Mother, she was so scared of her Father she cried when he shouted at her, she would sit by the fire place, nervously twisting her hair with her fingers. This treat- ment may have led her to turn to religion. When she introduced a black Preacher to her Father he made fun of him in a sarcastic way. The preacher sounded his aitches in the wrong places and after that, the old man called him ‘Mr Honions’. This was a phase she went through and she reverted to her normal ways. In her later years she became much more sure of herself, and after the old man died she became closer than ever to her Mother. She had several men friends, but scorned offers of marriage because she would not leave her old mum. For a number of years she worked for British Rail, until she was made redundant. She then worked until her retirement at the Immigration Home Office in Croydon. 20
  17. 17. Free from the domination of her Father she blossomed into well-groomed lady with a lovely sense of fun. She had a gift for mimic-ry, and could adopt any mimic, in any dialect she chose. Very goodhearted with her money, and cared for her Mother until she died, andremained all her life a spinster. After her Mother died she was threat-ened with eviction from her council house, and Brother Bill soughtlegal advice. Croydon Council reversed its decision on the grounds offamily rights to tenancy. She eventually bought the house under the right to buy scheme,thereby ensuring her tenancy rights. She took her younger BrotherBrian under her care, but, due to his excessive drinking, this kindnessended in tears. In spite of him being out of work, she fed him, kept hisclothes washed, gave him money to buy his beer. For a while it seemedhe was changing his ways. He fitted a new bathroom suite, a newboiler and a new kitchen layout. None of this without being well paidfor his labour. He was caught driving under the influence of drink,and fined four hundred pounds. She paid his fine and gave him moneyto re-insure the car. He then was threatened with prison over unpaidtaxes, this also she paid. She felt that because he was the baby of thefamily the old Mum would have wanted her to do this. There were nothanks from him, all she got was a mouthful of abuse and told thatshe was a greedy selfish woman. Bill knew what he was because he hadworked with him. Enough was enough, in the end she told him to getout. Elsie became an ardent fan of an Irish country and western band,the Brendan Shine Group and spent many happy hours at his gigs. Hereshe was a very popular member of his fall club and, while she lay dy-ing, he was kind enough to phone her with the band to wish her well.Her bad luck continued, she met Scot from Fort William, and Elsie,forever a soft touch, fell for a hard luck story he told her and lent him 21
  18. 18. money, needless to say he never repaid her. Sadly she died from cancer, and did not live to enjoy the retirementshe so richly deserved. When she was told her illness was terminal shesobbed in Brother Bill’s arms and posed the question ‘Why me?’ Shewas in death, as in her life, a very generous person, she left her wholeestate to her nephews sons and Bill’s daughter, her niece. She was laidto rest in the same grave as her Mum. Bill is sure that is what she wouldhave wanted.BROTHER PETERBorn during the war years Peter took on the role of the elder son withBrothers Bill and George both away on active service. It was now hewho had to endure the work load on his own, i.e. cleaning out the rab-bit hutches and the hen coop, added to this he had to walk miles togather dandelion leaves for their food. These tasks performed earned him more abuse and cuffs from the oldman, and Peter was always very thin, hardly an ounce of flesh on his body. He would bravely attempt to face up to the old man and almostin tears his bottom lip would protude in a futile gesture of defiancethus earning him the nickname of ‘Stickum’. This name was given toBrother Brian later on. The treatment he endured Brother Bill couldrelate to, after all, had he not suffered the in the same way? After the war Peter married and moved to Ifield near Crawley andraised a family. Self taught, he became a valued worker, but like hisBrother George he became a workaholic. This led to his death fromheart related stress. He, like Bill, never forgave nor forgot. 22
  19. 19. BROTHER BRIAN Brian the baby of the family was thoroughly spoilt, and was a heavy smoker and drinker, which led to his premature death. He worked with his Brother Bill who taught him his trade as a plumber, and he was a very good tradesman. However, when he found out his wife had been unfaithful to him he went to pieces and became an alcoholic. His divorce was acrimonious and he never saw the three Sons, whom he idolised, ever again. He was facing a prison sentence for drunken driving and another for income tax arrears, and his soft hearted sister paid these fines for him. She got no thanks for that, instead, she was abused once more with foul language. He suffered a fatal heart attack whilst driving his car in Purley, he was just passed his fiftieth birthday. Poor Brian had inherited the same legacy of hate from their Father. 23
  20. 20. FROM BEER TO MATERNITY Bill’s first memory of childhood was sleeping three in a bed, with- out proper bed clothes, they had ex-army greatcoats and overcoats for blankets. It was a bug-infested room where the wallpaper was alive with bugs bigger than the biggest ladybird – to be bitten left huge sores on the body. Bill and his Brother George (nick-named Tiddler because he wet the bed) slept four to a bed (two at the head and two at the foot). His Mother was heavily pregnant with his sister Betty. They were burn- ing newspaper in the fireplace and the chimney caught fire. The fire Brigade came on the scene and tackled it like it was the blazing in- ferno. They made a horrendous mess putting their hoses full jet down the chimney stack, the house was flooded in over three-foot deep wa- ter, and their poor old Mum, heavily pregnant, was trying to mop it up. King Canute had better luck! It was also the first memory of their brutal Father who, when he came home in a foul rage, would belt the boys with the buckle end of his strap, being the elder Bill would get the biggest hiding of them all. Bill’s parents rented two rooms from a woman named Maud Coleman, they scrounged what money they could by scavenging in Surrey Street market for ‘specs’ – these were half-rotten fruit that had been discarded by the stall holders, or boxes they could chop up for firewood. This money went to their Mother to buy food. They were then re-housed on a new council estate in Upper Norwood, where it was a common sight to see the poor sods evicted by the bail- iffs for rent arrears. Work was scarce, so it was a common sight to see the evictee’s furniture strewn all over the green; those bailiffs were cold-hearted bastards, some thing like the present day traffic wardens. Up on the hill stood the Percy Lake Mission Hall with his banner proclaiming the words ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ or ‘God 25
  21. 21. is Love’. This was to become their compulsory Sunday school, wheretheir cards were stamped to entitle them to a days outing to the sea-side at Dymchurch. The boys rarely qualified for this, they were alwayshopping the wag i.e. playing truant. Maybe it was Percy’s brand of ‘hell fire and brimstone’ preaching thatput them off. Percy shared the view of the late General Sir WilliamBooth of the Salvation Army. ‘Why should the devil have all goodtunes!’ The boys joined in with gusto to the hymn ‘The best drink of all iswater’, a sentiment not shared by their Father for sure. The boys drankplenty of it, they had to, their Mother owed the milkman too muchmoney to afford his milk. Bill the eldest boy rose at five am to help themilkman with his round, his wages were used to pay off the big milkbill. He soon changed to another milkman. Getting up at this hourmeant he would often fall asleep in school. One of the horrors of childhood was facing the tally-man (the creditsalesman), you could buy shoes and clothes for six-pence per week;these items were promptly taken up to ‘Uncles’ i.e. the pawn-brokers.When the tallyman called they had to answer the door and tell himMum says ‘she’s sorry she’s got nothing for you this week’, but he wouldreply ‘she said that last week’. She then, would put her head round thecorner and reply ‘and to save you coming next week it will be the sameagain’! In work or out their Father was a ‘navvy’ ganger and good athis job. With the general foreman he marked out the profiles for thefootings of the houses, theodolites weren’t used then, just boning rodsand pegs, and in truth an efficient ganger man ran the site. He wastimekeeper, site clerk, drain layer, and also kept a record of the men’ssubs (this was money borrowed in advance of their wages), these werealways a week in arrears. 26
  22. 22. There were no mechanical digging machines in those days, so the small-est of sites would need half a dozen labourers, or to call them by theirproper name-navvies. Bills Father’s first stop after work would be a pubwhere he would sink half a dozen pints of beer. His Uncle Tom hadmarried a gypsy girl, who lived in a caravan that stood in the yard inNapier Road. (This site has since been taken over by London Transportand is now a bus garage). When the boy visited old Granny Dennard(she was the tribal queen) and sat in an ornate and garishly paintedcaravan, her fingers covered in gold rings and diamond bracelets; shedid not trust banks. In the yard was a huge cast iron cauldron heatedby a wood fire and in the pot was a huge stew. She offered Bill somebut he declined (having heard that Gyppo’s ate hedgehogs that hadbeen baked in clay!). When Bill left she gave him a gold sovereign, thiswas snatched by his Father for beer. Gypsies favoured Biblical namesfor their children, names such as Hannah, Eli, Jacob and Isaiah. About this time Bill lost his second younger Brother named Tommywith pneumonia, a regular killer disease of that time. His Uncle Tom and Aunt Rose succumbed to the virus; they died leav-ing their three sons orphaned. His second cousin was named Absolem,he made headlines in the local rag when he purchased a new suit anda rope and hanged himself in the Guards barracks in Caterham, wherehe was employed as a boiler room attendant. Like his Brother Henryhe suffered from epilepsy. The Coroner brought in a verdict unknownin this present time ‘suicide whilst of unsound mind’. Their poor old Mum still suffered his violence and prayed regularlyto the good Lord to take her and end her misery. Glad to say he neverlistened to her. Bill was doing quite well at school and was considered bright enoughto be scholarship material, but his Father insisted he be placed on 27
  23. 23. the labour market. He took the view that his children should workand keep him, their education and future meant nothing to him. Theschool leaving age was fourteen years, but pupils could leave at thenearest quarter, so the boy could leave at thirteen and a half. Bills firstjob was as an errand boy pushing a tricycle for a cleaning firm. Hiswages were nine shillings per week, eight shillings of which went to hisMother. This life style did not suit Bill and he was determined to carveout a better way to earn his living, and the way to do it was by learn-ing a trade. He was aware of the difficulties this posed; it had alreadybeen made known to him, the rule of the closed shop. Apprenticeshipwas not open to him, and Bill’s efforts at self-education were treatedwith scorn by his Father and he was given no encouragement at all.This drove him to try even harder to teach himself a trade, he often feltdepressed at the hard going, but persevered in his efforts. Schooldays were not happy times for the boys, Rockmount Schoolresented the influx of the re-housed slum dwellers with their handeddown clothing, and shoes, lined with cardboard which did nothing tokeep out the snow and rain. Sometimes the boys had to wear secondhand girls shoes with hook and eye lace ups, this led to more jeersand sneers and more humiliation. The head teacher, a mean featuredmartinet with a passion for dishing out punishment wielded his caneswith unholy and savage venom. He almost slavered at the mouth whenhe dished out his brutal punishment, he would have made a first rateNazi SS Officer. The cruel jibes of the other kids were hard to bear and led to fighting,most of which was done by Bill. This brought him before the much-feared head who, true to form called the wrong-doers to the stage inthe hall. The glow in his eyes made him look like a starving man seeinga full roast beef dinner. He positively drooled as he swished his cane 28
  24. 24. through the air. Things did not improve for Bill’s Mother; the old man still foundmoney for his booze and tobacco. In his local pub he was known asRamsey MacDonald, after the current Prime Minister, mainly becauseof his left wing views. He was very racist and called Irishmen turks andany one north of Watford ‘swede gnawers’. He also enjoyed the com-pany of the ladies of easy virtue that frequented the public houses. Bill’sMother called them ‘dirty old Messers’, this from Shakespeare’s Romanwife of Julius Caesar, a woman of loose morals. These accusations onlyserved to get her another vicious hiding from her brutal husband. Then came a welcome respite for Bill. He was sent to his ailing grand-Mother’s home to run errands and help in any way he could. This,with new warm clothing, clean sheets, plentiful food like meat pies,stews and bacon-puddings – to Bill it was like Shangri-la. By this time Bill was employed as a paper delivery boy by W.H.Smith& Son on Sanderstead station and was up at five am every morning,winter and summer, and after school he did an evening round, thismoney went to his Granny to help pay for his keep. Near the station was a parade of shops, into the bakers for three-pence-worth of stale bread, for this he took a small pillowcase and apenn’orth of stale cakes and he would take the biggest creamiest onefor himself. If he was lucky he would get four white loaves and onlyone brown loaf, brown bread wasn’t liked. Into the butchers for three penn’orth of breast of mutton, threepen’orth of pieces for a stew, and some pork rind and bones, this withsplit peas made delicious soup. Then to the fish-monger, for three penn’orth of wet fish and three-penn’orth of dry kippers or bloaters and, finally, to the grocers for apenny ham bone and some streaky bacon. He also took a basin for 29
  25. 25. some cracked eggs. ‘If you haven’t any cracked we’ll crack them our-selves!’ All this in the days before refrigeration, the perishable goodshad to be sold before they went rotten. Another cheap food was a pigshead, this made a delicious brawn, and for a stew they had calves andsheep heads. His maternal grandparents were hard working, kindlypeople. The GrandFather worked as plate-layer on the Railway, as didthe two eldest sons, who were both train drivers, and when they retiredthey had served over one hundred and sixty years in man and boy serv-ice. The elder son was a driver on the Brighton line and always gave ablast on his horn when he passed his Mum’s house. ‘There’s our Will’she would say. They had four sons and three daughters; the boy’s werethe second and oldest. The grand-Father kept an allotment that borea bountiful harvest of vegetables each year, potatoes, marrows onionsluscious runner beans and carrots, most of which went to the daugh-ters to feed their ever-hungry families. Their new found lodger madehis contribution by collecting horse manure in his two wheeled hand-cart, horses were used extensively in those days. He made this a dualoperation by collecting the dung on his paper round. He used to watch his grandfather in amazement, eating a kipper andnot leave a single bone on his plate! After a week he realised that Peter,a long haired mongrel off-shoot of a sheep-dog, was sitting between hislegs scoffing the bones head and tail of the kipper. Bill took the dog with him on his paper round for exercise, the dogwas too lazy to walk, he rode most of the way in the barrow but theybuilt up a great bond of affection between them. Every morning his grandFather would put a huge tea spoonful of ep-som salts in his tea to act as a laxative; the second cup would be heav-ily laced with sugar and he would then pour a big saucer-full for thedog which he would lap up noisily. Regularly his grandfather would 30
  26. 26. go into the Red Deer pub for his pint of ale then home for his dinner.Often the boy would go across to the off-licence to get him a quart ofale, there were no restrictions on serving beer to children in those days.In the kitchen come scullery stood a triplex type stove that was coal orwood fired with a kettle always on the boil and a big cast iron pot fullof bones making a delicious gravy stock for stews, and in the oven werebaked delicious steak and kidney pies and scrumptious apple pies. It had a red hot grill on which you could toast the stale bread andliberally spread it with dripping, made from the fat off the sundayjoint. With this kind of diet Bill bloomed, except for the odd bout oftonsillitis, treated by Gran by wrapping a sweaty sock round his neck.Then through a rolled newspaper tube Gran would blow vile tastingsulphur powder down Bill’s throat. Antibiotics were not discoveredthen, and most of these remedies were of gypsy origin, but still quiteeffective. An often-used remedy for a chest infection was to smotherthe patient’s chest with camphorated oils, a pungent smelling con-coction. Alternatively plaster Russian tallow on the chest then coverit with brown paper (as previously mentioned, antibiotics were notavailable at this time). Many varied cures and remedies were tried, forear-ache (chew a wad of tobacco add place in the ear – ear-ache was aninsufferable pain). A visit to the dentist was an experience to be avoided, no medievalexecutioner was as brutal as the dentists of the day. It’s small wonderpeople of Bill’s generation were dead scared of the dentist. Bill recallshis Father’s treatment of a loose tooth. His method was to tie one endof a piece of string to the tooth, then tie the other end to the handle ofthe door, which he would slam violently shut. Bill had now settled in his new school known by its new name, PurleyOaks School, it had previously been known as Bynes Road School. 31
  27. 27. They were happy days for him and he made many new friends and wasdelighted when he was selected to play for the school soccer team, gonewas the fear of bullying and snide sarcasm. He saw his Mother oncea week when she walked from Upper Norwood to South Croydonpushing a pram with two kids and Brother ‘Tiddler’ walking along sidecrying from the cold. She came to get what ‘goodies’ she could fromhis Granny, a sack of coal dust and logs for the fire, vegetables fromhis grandFather’s allotment, scrag ends of meat, margarine and flour,anything to make a meal. His Gran had a heart as big as a house. HisMum would make the long weary up-hill journey home, oft times inthe pouring rain or freezing snow. Organisations for the protectionof battered wives did not exist in those days, if the police were called,they did nothing, they described it as a domestic incident. His Father’streatment of his kids would have meant certain prison under today’schild abuse act, as would his last headmaster who, by the way was al-legedly caught fiddling the golf club funds – so much for his unctuousmoralising in the school hall. It transpired that he was found guilty ofembezzling the golf club funds and served a long prison sentence. Hisdeparture went unmourned. He was replaced by a much more tolerantheadteacher. In fact, he was the assistant Head of Purley Oaks School.Life back at Rockmount School had changed since the departure ofthe tyrannical old head, and due to the fact Purley Oaks had an ad-vanced standard of work Bill found the work load easier. The boys in view of their Fathers conduct could not understand hisinsistence on their going to Sunday school and making them say gracebefore a meal, it was to them rank hypocrisy, truth to tell there wasnever enough to eat so they were always hungry. It was after their Father’s death that Bill’s younger sister Elsiebrought to Bill’s notice the family bible, and it seems their Father had 32
  28. 28. experienced a strict upbringing from his parents, who it seemed wereardent church-goers. Bill and his siblings never knew their paternalgrandparents, and never saw a picture of them. Their Mother was still subject to the old man’s brutal behaviour, yetshe still nursed him when he suffered the severe attacks of emphysema,brought on by a bout of malaria. He would stand on the stairs beneaththe window on a freezing cold night, gasping for breath, and at thesame time eating a vapour rub called ‘vic’, this he ate by the spoon-ful in a vain attempt to clear his bronchial tubes. Linctus type coughmixtures were of no help to the breathing at all. Bill often heard hisMother say ‘The good Lord pays debts without money’. His poor Mother suffered agony from bouts of neuralgia, broughton no doubt by constant worry. Her face swelled up to a hideous size,her devotion was to be marvelled at, and this care was lavished on theold man until the day he died. Bill went to work for a cleaning firm;his wages were nine shillings a week, eight shillings of this went to hisMother. He was not happy with the type of work he was doing, evenafter several changes of employment (he hated factory work), but heenjoyed watching the skill of the plumbers when they dressed the leadto the flat roofs which formed the weathering. He could not afford topay for night school so he purchased a set of plumbing encyclopaediason the ‘never-never’. From these books he taught hirn-self to executethe many and varied tasks in plumbing. It was hard work and he feltfrustrated when things went wrong but he persevered, although manytimes he felt like giving it all up. He acquired a few tools, a blow-lampwas essential, so he took home a length of lead pipe solder and tallowto practice preparing an wiping a joint. The plumber in those days was a much-respected figure, even thegeneral foreman knocked on the door of the plumber’s shop, he was 33
  29. 29. the aristocrat of the building trade. His tools were kept spotlessly cleanand highly burnished, his tea was brewed three times a day and his eat-ing utensils were up to the same high standard of cleanliness. His over-alls had to be aired over a paraffin furnace each morning and he had tohave a supply of hot water every night to wash his hands. Time keep-ing was strict, five minutes late meant a quarter of an hour stoppedfrom the pay. Trade Union membership was not open to any one of the rank ofplumbers improver, until after the war, which had taken its full tollof tradesmen. Plumbing practices were a closed shop, only those thathad served an apprenticeship were trained in the arts of the plumbingtrade. The site on which Bill was employed was nearly completed. Thismeant cards and money (this was the sack). It was the practice of themore sadistic foreman to walk the site with a few dole cards stickingout of his pocket, this was a form of a goad, the sack was dreaded. Thecanteen was a leaking shed with a brick fireplace on which tea wasmade. Toilets consisted of an open pit with a wooden pole for a seat. Atale was told of a man seen pulling his coat out of the pit, who whenasked ‘You ain’t going to wear that coat are you?’ Replied ‘No, but megrub’s in me pocket!’ On one site Bill had the job of making the tea forthe men, no canteens were on site at that time, and Bill has to admitthat brewed as it was on a smoky wood fire it tasted vile, and he neverdrunk the stuff himself. At this time Bill had taken lodgings with his Aunt Em. This was ablow to the family finances, but Bill could bear his Fathers brutalityno longer. His Aunt was not a lot better off than his Mum, she too had a largefamily, five boys and two girls and a husband that was a darts fanaticwho kept the lion’s share of the wage packet. 34
  30. 30. Then tragedy struck, the town of Croydon was ravaged by typhoidfever outbreak. With the exception of the boy and his Uncle the wholefamily was stricken with this virulent plague and the house had to befumigated every week and placed in quarantine for six weeks. One ofhis Aunt’s twin boys died and another was left crippled from the dread-ful disease. Bill stayed with his Aunt until war was declared againstGermany. One of Bill’s pals during this time was Cocker Smith, he wasa few months younger than Bill and at seventeen years old could notsign up without his mother’s consent, not given because of her fear forhis safety. Bill at eighteen was conscripted for six months war service. Ironically poor Cocker Smith was killed in an air raid on CroydonAirport the bombs hit the factory estate where he was working. Whoknows, had they joined up together he may have survived. His deathhit Bill quite hard, they had enjoyed some good times together in spiteof the hardships they shared. Cocker had an irrepressible sense of hu-mour, tall and good-looking, he had a pleasant singing voice or, as theother fellows would say, ‘he could chant’. Women adored him, and hewas the apple of his Mother’s eye. Bill had a girl friend that was injured in the same air raid, she waslucky, the casualties in that raid were very heavy, and whole factorysites were razed to the ground. Maybe the Germans mistook CroydonAirport for Biggin Hill, a military aerodrome nearby. Croydon wasbombed heavily during WW2 and his Mother spent many hours inthe air raid shelters or, if she couldn’t make it to the shelter, she wouldduck under the table thus earning the nickname ‘Mrs Ducket’ fromthe old man. Always Sister Elsie and Brother Brian were cuddled in herarms, afraid and crying. After his Mother had been bombed out fora second time, Bill came home on leave and experienced the horrorsof the full fury of the bombing attacks of the German Luftwaffe. It is 35
  31. 31. true to say that some service men never saw a quarter of the enemyfire as heavy and sustained as that inflicted on the civilian population.Day after day, night after night, without respite, the sky was lit up bythe beams of the searchlights. Added to that was noise of the anti air-craft guns banging away with little success. Not many enemy aircraftwere shot down, the more successful was the RAF fighter planes, butat a heavy cost. To tell the truth Bill was glad to get back to camp, itseemed much safer there. On his journey back to camp, he had to step over the people that wereusing the underground railway as a bomb shelter. Some people madethe tube their second home. They even had parties and sing-songs inthe tube. Sometimes when the old man was half-cut, he would fill hisclay pipe with an evil-smelling black shag, made into a twist like thatsmoked and chewed down the mines by the coal miners. He would tellof his service in what he called German East Africa and of his Africanservant named ‘Steamer’, who was beaten quite regularly, but gave hima dog like devotion. He made his tea, shaved him, washed his laundry,cleaned his brasses and his leather equipment, all for few pence in wag-es and what scraps of food he could find, mainly from the swill bins. He told them tales of cruelties of the Germans in East Africa andhis service as groom to General Jan Smuts, Commander in Chief –German East Africa. His regiment was the 17th 21st lancers, and hekept his skull and cross bones cap badge in his family bible, this Bill’ssister Elsie kept until her death. Another feature that marked out the ‘poor’ was the recipients of thefree milk. Bill never took milk; he hated it and still does to this day.Bill’s Mum told him that he never took to her breast feeding, but wasfed on Nestles tinned milk. This gave the old man a further reason tohate him, and led him to say ‘Breast is best’ What he meant was, it 36
  32. 32. was the cheapest! When Bill grew older he marvelled at the number ofnapkins his Mother had to wash. Line after line was hung out to dry.It led the old man to say caustically that his kids could fill two napkinswhile their Mother was washing one. A task Bill hated was turning the handle of the big cast iron mangle,or wringer (as it was sometimes known). Not for his Mum the luxuryof a washing machine or spin drier. Three more tasks had to be done,first was to blacklead the kitchen stove, second to hearth stone the stepof the front door, and third tear up the old newspapers and put thepieces of paper on a string attached to a skewer, this was used as toiletpaper. The super soft luxury of the toilet rolls that the puppy dogs playwith in the television adverts were not for them. Croydon had two faces, the upper-crust area of Croham Hurst,Old Addington and Park Hill, and the poverty traps called Old TownCroydon and Banghole. Both run-down slumlands where unemploy-ment and poverty went hand-in-hand. Coppers walked the streets inpairs, such was the reputation of the people of Princess Road, FosterRoad and Wilford Road. On the street corners dice and cards wereplayed, the kids kept ‘doggo’, and would yell ‘copper,’ at the top oftheir voices as a warning the law was on their way, for this they wouldbe rewarded with a few pence from the kitty. Many times the men’sdole money would be blown on this past-time resulting in many hun-gry stomachs. Fights inevitably broke out and blood was spilled andbones were broken, some times the women would fight alongside theirhusbands, they fought like wild-cats tearing each others hair out by thehandful. Some of the men scraped a living as totters i.e. ‘rag and bone’men, some carried sacks on their backs some trundled hand-carts, themore fortunate had a horse and cart, the same types of characters were 37
  33. 33. portrayed in the television series Steptoe and Son. The street book-maker managed to make a good living between horse and dog racing,plus a spot of money lending. They used agents to collect their bets called bookies runners and paidthem commission, maybe one shilling in the pound. A ploy used bythe runners was to buy the mid-day racing paper, place a few poundson the non-runners, their commission was thereby increased. Streetbetting in those days was illegal and those caught were fined or sent toprison, one such runner when cornered by the law stuffed a handful ofbetting slips in his mouth and swallowed them. It did him no good, hewas nicked just the same, and because he had form he went to prison! One Jack the Lad up before the beaks pleaded guilty, the magistratesaid ‘Five pounds or seven days’ replied ‘I’ll take the five pounds yourhonour’ he responded cheekily. War time brought food rationing butin these bleak days poverty imposed a more severe type of rationing,and belt tightening was the order of the day. Bill’s Mother was fre-quently pregnant which resulted in him being kept away from school.Strong as she was during these times, she could not cope with theheavier household chores, such as bringing in the washing from theclothes line, chopping the fire wood, carrying heavy buckets of coaland making the beds. These enforced truancies brought sneers andtaunts from his school-mates and this led to many a fight. No hospitalbeds were made available for working class Mothers, maternity bedswere for the wealthy people. The local midwife (a much over workednurse) did the hard ante-natal and post-natal care. 38
  34. 34. ‘PAPER JACK’ A well-known character on the streets of Croydon was a hermit nick- named ‘Paper Jack’ who shunned orthodox dress, instead he wore newspapers to cover his body, except his arms which were always bare. Bill remembers seeing him when he was a boy, he would cover his feet with the thicker type papers used as placards on the newspaper bill boards. It was after some research in Croydon library’s Local Studies that Bill gained a lot more information on the life of the hermit ‘Paper Jack’. His real name was Arthur Ellis Preece, a son of a wealthy estate agent in Biggin Hill, Kent. He was sixty years of age when he died and was married to a girl named Miriam. Sadly it would seem he suffered some kind of a mental breakdown and because of his eccentric ways he became separated from his wife.He was educated at Oxford University and spoke several languages. He saw military service in ww1, where he was reported to be working on codes and ciphers for the War Office. Bill remembers he always walked in the gutter and this almost surely led to the accident that caused his death. He used a long rough wood- en staff. He was struck by a car and died in Croydon General Hospital on January 29th, 1935. He was very much respected by the people of Croydon – he was a harmless, kindly old tramp. Winter or summer his only form of dress was the newspapers, and in deepest winter he would lie over the grille where he gained benefit from the bakers ovens. From time to time people would offer him cast off items of clothing, these be politely refused. The Spartan existence he embraced he would persist with until he died 39
  35. 35. ‘DUPPAS HILL KATE’Another character who was well known on the streets of Croydon wasa lady known as ‘Duppas Hill Kate’. She was dubbed this way becauseshe spent a lot of her time on the recreation park at Duppas Hill. At this time Bill was living with his aunt in Drovers Road, Croydonand as the name implies, sheep and cattle drovers held a cattle marketthere. This had a stone water trough with a drinking fountain. In fact,a large public house called The Fountain stood at the end of the road.Quite often Bill would see her in the early morning washing her selfunder the tap in the cold water – winter and summer. She dressed a lit-tle dowdily with an old-fashioned cloche type hat, and a coat that shewore reached down to her ankles, she seemed to be talking to herselfand always had a cigarette in her mouth. She did not get the kind of af-fection that Paper Jack enjoyed, quite the reverse, they mocked her in acruel way. The homeless existence she led took its toll. She was admit-ted into the Queens Road Homes in Croydon, suffering from pneu-monia. It was here she sadly passed away. Some of Bill’s older friendsallege she was on the game. If this was true then the Police treated hervery leniently, for she was never to the best of Bill’s knowledge evercharged with that kind of offence. 40
  36. 36. 42
  37. 37. FROM MITCHAM ROAD TO MANDALAY To steal a line from the comedian Rob Wilton ‘The day war broke out’, I was walking along Wellesley Road, Croydon, where gangs of workmen were busy filling sandbags with earth.The Sirens began to wail giving every one a taste of their mournful sound. It did not seem like a real war, people seemed uninterested. There was none of the fer- vent passion of ww1. That war saw young men trying to make them- selves look old, and older men dyed their hair to make themselves look young; cripples hid their disabilities; kids barely out of school falsified their age and enlisted. Silly young girls pinned white feathers on any one wearing a civilian suit, sometimes these men were disabled; were victims of shell shock or had lungs ruined by deadly gas attacks. This led to a disabled service mans badge being issued by the British Legion. ww1 was a vicious killing machine that mowed down the flower of the world’s youth. The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ was an apt description of their leaders. History condemns these architects of death; millions were slaughtered over areas covering a few yards .Every street, every road, every village, every town had had a father, brother, son, uncle or cousin killed in action, yet this fierce patriotism prevailed. Bill was now a man and had received conscription call up, it had been decreed that lads of eighteen should serve eighteen months military service in one of the armed forces. Army, Navy or Airforce. Mitcham Road barracks was the HQ of the 4th Queens Regiment and was used as a recruiting centre, and it stood next to the old Rectory Manor School, by the side of the Croydon Municipal lodging house. This was, in fact, a doss-house for the unfortunate down and outs. A refuge incidentally never used by Paper Jack. Service in the armed forc- es in the climate of high unemployment was the last hope of getting a living, and, unlike today, they were not fussy who they used. Petty thieves were given the option of doing time or joining up. A much 43
  38. 38. higher standard is required from our service men now, it seems nowone needs five 0 levels to be an idiot. Having passed his medical, hisfirst choice was the Navy, they were taking no new recruits so he optedfor the Royal Marines. He was told how little difference there was be-tween a Royal Marine and a matelot; that Marines were sea soldiers,manning a gun turret, usually ‘X’, as well as sentry duties aboard ship.February 28, 1940 saw him on Bromley South station, where he meta townie Harry Mills, who was called up in the same group and, untilhis death, served with Bill in 1 Royal Marines. and 42 Royal MarinesCommando. Harry loved the service life and was always polishing hisboots and brasses. So on to Chatham Barracks, expecting the glam-our of the blue uniform and, after training, off to sea on one of HisMajesties big ships. What a shock, when they arrived at Melville Barracks to be told therewere to be no big ships, but they were to serve in an infantry battalion. They watched in awe as the squads drilled, in fact it was said of theMarines, that ‘They were smarter than the guards but not quite so tall’.It was to lead to many hard years, some happy, some sad and to meetsome of the finest men he ever knew. Labelled by the establishmentwith the title of hostilities only (HO’s), Bill always thought this title tobe derogatory and it is still resented by the veterans to this day. The Chatham Adjutant was a Captain Lumsden who cut an impos-ing figure on his horse, dressed in his full blues, nothing escaped hiseagle eye as he watched the drill instructors put their squads throughtheir paces, and the precision drill was faultless. They were drilled un-der a Sergeant Butcher, who instilled in them a squad and corps pridethat would stay with them forever. Once a marine, always a marinegoes the saying. He commanded quite a lot of respect from his squad,and he honed their competitive edge. Bill was a bit of a rebel in those 44
  39. 39. days, until his Sergeant told him one day that he would never beat thesystem, he knuckled down then. There was no leave for six weeks, nocoveted blue uniform, no big ships, just six weeks of long days andhard work, drilling and square bashing, and all for the princely sum ofone shilling per day. A tanner (six old pence) went to his Mum as an allotment. Bill couldnot relate to some of the Marine jargon, for example the term forgoing out was called ‘going ashore’! Weren’t they already ashore? Incharge of our barrack room was a long service corporal named Jones.He had the disgusting habit of coming in after a night on the beerand pissing in the boots of the squaddie in the next bunk to him. Hethought this a great laugh; Bill told Jone’sy he was taking liberties withthe boy. Bill then had a word with the young Marine and said to him.In future put your boots under his bed and put his boots under yourbed, that way the Corporal would be urinating in his own boots. Thishe did, that night Jones must have had a fit of conscience because thatnight he pissed in his own boots, so the lad still had wet boots. Billwondered if this is where the Naval expression ‘fill your boots’ comesfrom. Oh well you win some and you lose some. We were to lose thedoubtful leadership qualities of Corporal Jones, he was drafted to seaservice. Harry Mills was in the same squad as Bill and he had the awfulhabit of splitting his words with an expletive, he would say ab-so-effinglutely, and posit-effingly and so on. Bill and Harry were members ofthe Rectory Manor Boys Club before they joined up and Bill foundhim to be a solid and reliable character. In Harry and Bill’s group wereseveral diverse characters, some like Harry were lucky enough to bepaid by their firms and were sent food parcels and fags. Freddie Wellerjoined us wearing an immaculate new suit, his long blond hair hungover his collar, his hair was his pride and joy. Fred was a brilliant pianist 45
  40. 40. and had worked in peacetime for the Post Office, whilst his buddy, aColonel Blimp look -a-like named Neville Underwood came from theMidlands. He was forever moaning, but was amusing when he put onhis irate Blimp act. Six am, reveille sounded off and the keener sortshopped out of what served as beds, but were in fact palliasses filledwith straw, and made their way to the ablutions, which was a poshname for the wash place, then to breakfast. Most of the lads ate heart-ily but the more fastidious left their food, this was a harvest to the lessfussy and they scoffed what was known as ‘gash’! In civvy street Bill was always hungry and cold, but in the service withwarm clothes and good boots that kept his feet dry, and three squaremeals a day (and he did not mean oxo), this was a different world. Oncompletion of training at Melville Barracks the Brigade was posted toBisley for rifle training, in the bitter cold March weather under canvas. They were housed in a tented city, and slept twelve to a tent, feet to-wards the pole and this was to be their quarters for the next six weeks,There were no luxuries like hot water for washing and shaving (someused their hot tea for this purpose) the tea was not worth drinkinganyway. The officers flunkies always managed to get hot water, Billsuspects this came from the cookhouse. Whilst at Bisley there wereseveral desertions and one lad committed suicide. Life was rough butit toughened the lads up and stood them in good stead when theywere on active service in the future. The lads were not sorry to seethe back of Bisley and its austere way of life. The pay, after Bill hadgiven his Mother half his measly seven shillings per week, did not govery far, not enough to buy his beer and fags, or the odd cup of teaand a bun. Wildman Lushington, Commanding Officer of 1RM hadas his adjutant at this time Captain (now Major General (ret), TitchHoughton who was unfortunately captured during the raid on Dieppe. 46
  41. 41. His predecessor as adjutant was Evelyn Waugh, the romantic novelistwho had served as ‘D’ Company Commander. Bill’s CO was CaptainDigby Bell who wore a monocle and was a dead ringer for Cardew thecad of television fame. He was a complete professional Royal Marineofficer and a great lecturer. He had a fictional Marine ‘Bloggs’ whohe used as a role model. ‘Bloggs’ would not stand up on the skyline,would not smoke at night, he could map read, was competent with acompass, and was able to handle himself without supervision. In otherwords, a modern day Marine. Late in 1940 the Battalion was sent toLooe in Cornwall as an anti invasion force. They stood to at dawn and again at dusk each day with not enoughammo to go round. Firepower was non-existent, and had Jerry attackedthey would not have stood a dogs chance. In ‘C’ Company there werethree Sergeants, all long service Marines. 13 Platoon Herbie Addison;14 Platoon Bill Smith; and 15 Platoon Sgt Ginger Burton. They allsported luxuriant waxed moustaches and each had an imaginary dogthat they exercised before parade. They didn’t have to be barmy to be amarine but it must have helped. Addison was an ex-copper and between them they fostered a friendlyInter platoon rivalry. When they went on the dreary route marchesthey sang songs, which were a bit of a morale lifter. Some songs werefunny, some rude which caused Sgt Smith to yell out an admonitory‘Shit in it you lot’ Included in this training was practice beach assaultsand rock climbing, to prepare for roles they may have to under takewhen they were on active service. Then they travelled to Wales whereit never seemed to stop raining. In Haverford West beach landingswere practiced from ships cutters; then on to Aberystwyth Llandeilo,Lampeter and Llanelli and we were treated like kings. ‘Up’ homers were there in plenty, this meant being invited to peoples 47
  42. 42. homes for a meal and sometimes a chance to sleep in a warm bed, andif you were lucky, get your leg over as well. The top brass were looking for a role the 102 Brigade could play, whowere the only fully mobile Brigade in Britain at that time. The Brigadewas made up of numbers 1-2-3-and 5 RM Battalions, with a unit of theArgyll and Sutherland Highlanders, they were at peak fitness; ready,willing and able. Their chance finally came, they were ordered to Liverpool docks,which was now under sustained vicious attacks from the Jerry dive-bombers. They lay in dock taking victuals and troops on board, mean-while the bombers continued to lay the City to waste. One of Bill’smates Freddie Whiteman met and married his wife in the five days theship lay in dock, after a whirlwind courtship. From Liverpool they set sail to take part in Operation Menace. Theirmission was to land near the Vichy French garrison of Dakar in WestAfrica in an attempt to bring them into the war on our side. On theway they called into Gibraltar, then on to Freetown capital of SierraLeone, given the name very aptly ‘the white man’s graveyard’. Herethey carried out a programme of acclimatisation. Like the mad dogs of English men from Noel Cowards famous songthey were taken on a twelve-mile route march, where the heat and thethirst were unbearable. They could not remember being so thirsty. Theblazing sun burned through their shirts, this caused the heavy webbingequipment to rub their backs raw until they bled, and in the shipscutters on the way back aboard, thirst crazed they were scooping upthe water and drinking it. Those of fair skin were burned raw, a damnfool exercise inflicted on men who had no time to get used to tropicconditions. It was quite a while before the afflicted were able to weartheir webbing equipment. Zero hour approached but as they were 48
  43. 43. about to go into the attack the mission was aborted. The Vichyites hadscuttled some of their ships, among them the battle wagon Richilieauand had point blank refused to change sides. De Gaulle did not wantFrenchmen fighting Frenchmen even though they were German lovinglackeys of Marshal Petain, so the convoy set out for home. During thevoyage home they watched a show put on by the ships EntertainmentsOfficer Lt. Lloyd and his big show was entitled ‘It couldn’t be worsethan Ensa’, but in truth it was a bloody sight worse. The acrynommeant that it was the official body to entertain the troops. Somethinglike the TV series ‘It ain’t half hot Mum’. At least aboard ship theyhad decent grub, and a ration of the odd bottle of beer. Watches werelimited to submarine look out, and they did see the flying fishes play.With plenty of fags and chocolate, sun bathing on the upper deck lifewasn’t so bad, plus the odd game of nap and solo to pass away the time.They did not go a lot on the compulsory physical training however. During the voyage home Bill had the job of prisoner escort during aships court martial under Major ‘Titch’ Houghton RM. Two marineswere alleged to have carried out an act of gross indecency in a ham-mock. They had been caught in a compromising position by a fear-some twenty-stone provost Sergeant Darby Allen, and in his evidencehe left little to the imagination and was crude to the point of obscenity.They were found guilty and were placed in prison when we reached theRock of Gibraltar. Bill still says to this day, that had the accused beenrepresented by a brief of the Perry Mason caliber, they would have gotaway with it because nobody, but nobody, can commit a sexual act ina hammock and to do so is a physical impossibility. They landed inGourock in Scotland and Bill can still recall the beauty of those greenhills, and wherever he has travelled he has never seen grass so green.1RM moved on to Paisley and into a billet in Glebe Street School, 49
  44. 44. Renfrew. Here the statistics said there were nine women to every man,so the lads did not go short of company. Freddie Whiteman and Billgot the cooks of the mess number, and became mess hands and diningroom attendants. Their duties included cleaning the hall and dish-ing out the grub. Fred came from the East End of London, and wasbuilt like a tank, a very proficient boxer with a punch that could fell amule, were he a young man today he could have been a title contender.Having access to the school boiler meant we could draw off massesof hot water and with lashings of soap we made our mess tables andfloors gleaming white, and we reserved our best kitchen utensils forthe Colonel’s rounds. On the day of his inspection Colonel WildmanLushington was accompanied by Captain Digby Bellon on his rounds,Fred and Bill were caught in their fatigues, sweaty and unshaven, butcould not get away in time. The CO congratulated Digby Bell on the‘C’ Company mess and said, in a disdainful way, ‘Digby, I have justseen the cleanest mess in the whole of my time in the Royal Marines,and the two dirtiest Marines to go with it’! Captain Bell was so pleasedhe gave ‘C’ Company a day’s make and mend, i.e a day off. The Brigade was sent up north to Scapa Flow, it was here a GermanU boat sank the Royal Oak with a heavy loss of life, a very audaciousattack which earned the U boat skipper an iron cross and became anational hero. They went on to Inverary to board HMT Ettrick, a landing craft ves-sel to practice more landings and beach assaults, no landing craft wereavailable so they had to use ships cutters. The draught of these boatswas eight feet so the water came over their heads when they went overthe side and that water was icy cold. It was here Bill endured some ofthe bitterest cold in his life, and contributed to the sickness in his lungs. They went home on leave to Croydon, which by now was in a sorry 50
  45. 45. state, it had been ravaged by the heavy bombing. Bill’s Mother hadbeen made homeless twice, but he chose not to stay with his Mother.He had a girl friend named May, and she greeted him with a hungrypassion he found overwhelming. In truth Bill did not love her, andfound her appetite for sex a bit too much for him. May visited Billon a day trip when he was stationed at Bisley and was hurt trying toshoulder arms with his rifle, this cost her two front teeth. At the end ofhis leave he explained to her that there was no future in their relation-ship, because of the uncertainty in his fate in the war. In fact May wasinjured in the same air raid that Cocker Smith was killed in. After a spell in the Exmoor region near Dalditch Common, they car-ried out exercises consisting of long gruelling route marches. Spendingbitterly cold nights in bivouac, with only a flimsy oilskin gas cape forprotection and no other means of keeping warm. Fires were not al-lowed as they were working under simulated active service conditions,in fact Bill recalls brass monkeys balls were frozen. To those who wereused to a more cosy way of life it became very difficult, even the ladssuch as miners and building trade workers found the going tough.Those that were too fussy to wear the heavy thick woollen vests hadcause to regret it. The food was cooked in the daytime on wood fires,and served in an aluminium mess tin in two halves and if it was calledvile it was paying it a compliment. It was here Bill first heard thatuncomplimentary phrase, ‘who called the cook a prat?’ and the reply,‘who called the prat a cook?’ The man in charge of the cooking wasa Sergeant ‘Slosh’ Clayson who, with the aid of several trainee cooks,had volunteered in order to get out of picket guard duties and stunts.‘Slosh’ did his best but to tell the truth he was the only man Bill knewthat could burn water. The lads had him near to tears at times, buttruth to tell the conditions he worked under were abysmal. 51
  46. 46. The Battalion then was posted to Scotland where Bill sustained in-juries to both knees whilst boxing; this in the Marines was licensedmayhem. It seems a cartilage was torn in both knees, after diagno-sis and treatment in Mearnskirk Hospital in Glasgow, Bill was trans-ferred to Kingseat Royal Naval hospital in Aberdeen where he under-went surgery on both knees – this turned out to be very painful. Thewife of a fellow patient that bore three children had under gone thecartilage operation said rather than go through that again she wouldtake chidbirth every time. Bill unfortunately did not have that choice.Eventually he was discharged and posted to Dalditch Camp where hewas given the job of marker on the firing range. These were very harshwintery conditions. The long service Corporal in charge of the riflerange had lodgings in the village, and spent his evenings in the localpub. Bill was left in the freezing cold hut, with just an old gramophonefor company. There were just two records, one by Cab Calloway ‘There’s a Cabin inthe Cotton’ and the other, a real oldie from the Boer War called ‘Breakthe news to Mother’. Bill learned the lyrics of these songs by heart, andstill knows them to this day. After six months of this Spartan existenceBill was posted to the newly created 7th RM Battalion in Dalditch.This was a nissen hutted encampment where the Commanding Officerwas a slightly eccentric Lt Col ‘Dolly’ Dewhurst. He was reputedly ofthe family butcher business. He sported a huge bristly Moustache androde a big white horse. One day on CO’s rounds, they had their kitslaid out for inspection in a hangar they used for a drill shed. Whenthe CO saw the kit layouts were wrong, he rode up on his horse andsent them flying with a blow from his stick snarling ‘rubbish! rubbish!’He liked Bill’s layout, he did it to 1RM standards. ‘Dolly’ was chuffedwith the socks he had darned; Bill thought he was going to ask him to 52
  47. 47. darn his socks. His adjutant was a stiff-necked, ram-rod-backed MajorWaiters, and it was he that took command of the battalion when Dollywas ruled to be too old for combat duties in the Middle East. Whilstthe unit was out on Woodbury Down in Exmoor on an exercise forfour days in quite wintry conditions Bill made up his mind to re-quest a draft back to 1RM. He was coming off watch and went toshake his relief and was amazed to find only his platoon Sergeant in histrench. Everyone had taken it on their toes back to camp saying ‘It’stoo bloody cold out there’ When he appeared before Dolly to approvehis request for a transfer he was irate, because he considered Bill to beNCO material, contrary to his way of thinking. He likened Bill to arat leaving a sinking ship; the buzz was that the Battalion was goingover seas. Bill saw it in a different way, if they could not stand to beout in the cold over night, how would they perform in the real thing?In fact 7RM performed valiantly and took a hiding in the Middle Eastand won honours. Bill’s request was granted and he was drafted backto 1RM where they were stationed at Hursley near Winchester. He wasmarched in before the then Company Commander Major Tweedy,who promptly read him the riot act. It seems Bill had acquired a repu-tation. It was here for the first time Bill met Buddy Homan, a manwith a mind like a computer and possessing a prolific memory. 53
  48. 48. BUDDY HOMAN Buddy Homan had to be seen and heard to be believed. Six foot Four in his socks, solid muscle and you could tell by his face he had been in the boxing game. In the old days they used to say he had photographic memory, this description did not do him justice. He had in truth a mind like a computer. He could name every military, naval and air force commander on the Allied Forces, and the same with the enemy, The number of men each army had, their overwheming strength in numbers made the al- lies look puny by comparison. When the blitzkrieg was so successfully used by the German High Command it1 WW2 in France and the Lowlands they were given the credit for it’s sweeping success. Not so said Buddy, that method of tank war fare was first performed on Salisbury Plain was expounded by a British General Le Quesley Martell, also there was the German tank expert General Heinz Guderian, and he was the man that master minded the tank warfare known as Blitzkrieg. Also in attendance was a young French Colonel, one Charles De Gaulle. The TV script of the documentary watched by Bill in the year 2003 could have been written by Buddy himself, word for word. He was also a keen lover of the classical music and opera. He could recite the story of any known composer’s work and carried in his mind a vast and clinically accurate library of facts and figures. Buddy told Bill that he had enlisted in the Royal Marines before the war and had been granted compassionate release when his dad had died from T.B. better known in those days as consumption. According to Buddy, his father had been a superbly fit man, an expert in the sport of wrestling and was a col- league and admirer of the famous Russian wrestler Hackensmidt. Buddy was well versed in unarmed combat and to his delight was 54
  49. 49. asked by one of the instructors known as ‘the body beautiful’ (not apopular figure among the troops) to disarm him- the instructor foundhimself flat on his back, without his knife. An extremely accomplished boxer, he would have been a title con-tender had he turned Professional. He told Bill a story in later years, ofhim watching the pro’s spar at a gym near the Essex Rd, Islington. Theman in the ring had run out of sparring partners so Buddy offered togo a few rounds with him. Whereupon his trainer said grudgingly ‘allright then just two rounds’. Buddy went five rounds and hardly brokesweat. An onlooker, a big man carrying a towel and shorts under hisarm said, in an aggrieved way, ‘Bleeding good ain’t it? Bloody ‘amerch-ers’ taking the bread and butter out of our mouves!’ That man saidBuddy was the old cockney actor Arthur Mullard, our old mate ‘arfur’ It is here Bill would like to tell the story of Marine Alexander, as toldto him by his old mate Les Wood. The story begins during a visit bythe First Lord of the Admiralty A.V.Alexander when he was doing hisround of inspection. Marine Alexander was Captain of the heads (hecleaned the toilets). The First Lord stopped and Marine Alexander said to him ‘Here Guv,I’ve got the same name as you’ The First Lord gave a grin and congratu-lated him on the cleanliness of his toilets and went on his way. At thispoint a young subaltern on the end of the entourage stayed behind andsaid to Alexander, ‘there is dust up there on those lampshades’, ‘I knowguv,’ said Alexander, ‘but they don’t shit up there do they?’ Major Frank Taylor a great man with the women, replaced MajorTweedy, but still a fine Marine officer. We were ordered to travel south,to Sway in Bournemouth where we were told we were to become 42Commando. Many were excluded because of their age and physicalshortcomings. Most of us were overwhelmed by what was seen by the 55
  50. 50. glamour of the green beret. It was while we were in Sway in the New Forest that they saw the firstgrim realities of war, a yankee liberator had crash landed in the NewForest; the pilot was still sat in his cockpit where he was burned to acinder; his teeth bared in a snarl of agonised pain, it was gruesome.Another poor sod, probably a crewman, had his entrails strung highup in the treetops. Half the crew had bailed out, the pilot was a verybrave man, he had stayed with his aircraft to steer it away from the citycentre. His courageous action saved countless lives that day. The commandos were on duty, presumably to stop the ghoulishsouvenir hunters from looting. Later they were called to the heavilybombed town, to a hotel called the Queen’s that had been reduced toa heap of rubble. They had the task of digging through the devastatedruins to find the bodies, they made a weird sight, completely immersedin the tons of dust and concrete, sitting like wax-works clothed in theirdress suits and evening gowns, holding their unbroken wine glasses intheir hands. After the war, Bill read that Keith Miller the famous Aussiecricketer had stayed in that hotel at that time he must have had a luckyescape. By now all our roles had been settled, many went to landingcraft duties. Sergeant Major Bill Dennis took a commission and com-manded a landing craft unit on active service in Europe. Many of thelads were to die at Walcheren and the second front. Because of ournew role we had to take the long train journey to Achnacarry near FortWilliam in Scotland for our official commando training. We arrived bytrain at Spean Bridge railway station and in full marching order we setfor the camp and the rigours that lay ahead. Such is the severity of thelandscape at Achnacarry that almost sixty men lost their lives trainingthere, and it is no longer used by modern day Marines. We found theCamp well organised and the instructors, who were Army personnel, 56
  51. 51. very efficient, they had a keen sense of rather excitable rivalry andmade every effort to urge the unit they were training to complete thefastest speed march of 7miles, 12 miles. and 30 miles cat crawling acrossa fast flowing river on a rope. Where if you lost your hold you crashdown to the fearsome rocks below. When this happened the team instructor would offer odds on howmany times the poor sod would bounce on his way down. Then thedreaded slide of death, here you threw a looped toggle rope over athicker rope that was fixed to the tower of the castle wall, it thenspanned the fast running river, and was tied to a tree. A good heartyspit on the toggle rope helped lubricate the system, because if there wasnot enough momentum on the slide, you went in the hoggin. A great spirit existed and the stronger ones assisted those who wereflagging or perhaps had blisters, maybe muscle cramp or were tired.The carrying of heavy weapons such as machine guns or mortars wasshared during these marches and on completion those camp gates werea sight for sore eyes not to mention sore feet. It was not for the skirlof the bagpipes from the drum and pipe band to which, knackered asthey were, they had to march to attention when entering the camp, butbecause of the immense pride we felt we remembered the corps saying‘bullshit baffles brains’ The story was told of an American Ranger whowas coming to the end of a seven mile speed march receive the order‘eyes left to the sentry at the gate. Several commands rattled out. ‘eyesright eyes left’ said the dimunitive black yank quite out of breath ‘eyesleft eyes right – I’se knackered ! By the way, a drum and fife band hadbeen formed in I RM by Captain Doc Rogers and it became a showpiece in 42 RM Cdo. One fact comes to mind from this period and that was the threemock graves just inside the gates. On the mock tombstones were the 57
  52. 52. words ‘this man stood on the sky-line.’ Another was ‘this man fired hismortar under a tree, don’t make the same mistake’, these were lessonswere to be remembered, or ‘This man stood up on the sky line and hadhis balls blown off.’ We were, after passing out and winning our green berets, posted toHerne Bay in Kent and allotted civvy billets, where we were treatedlike royalty. Training carried on, learning map and compass reading.Another feature was using the pier where a section had been blownup as an anti-invasion precaution. This involved spanning the gap inthe pier with a heavy rope. Over the rope we practiced the cat crawl.Below the sea thrashed against the rocky base of the pier, hard luck tothe poor sod that lost his grip and fell in, and some did! To fall whenthe tide was in meant a soaking; if the tide was out it meant a brokenbone or two. It was accepted that the first into a new camp grabbed thebest-looking NAAFI girl, not only for company, but to ensure a goodsupply of fags and chocolate. Bill on this occasion missed out, he hadbeen detailed for rear guard at the last camp, consequently all the goodlooking birds were spoken for, and all Bill could get was Maggie, and ifyou said she was bloody ugly it was an under statement, so ugly he darenot go out with her in day light, but she did keep Bill well suppliedwith the goods and crumpet. After a spot of leave they had orders tomove on to Scotland, and lining the road out of camp were the wivesand sweethearts of the commandos, among them sobbing and wavingfrantically with tears running onto her tear stained moustache thatcovered her hair lip was Maggie, this to the derisory hoots from Bill’spals. It took him a long time to live that down still he had the satisfac-tion of having been well supplied in fags and comforts and, what thehell, she was alright in the dark! All leave over, they boarded a train for Pembroke Docks. Bill recalls 58
  53. 53. Charlie Radley pointing out his house as the train roared past BromleySouth station, he was fated never to see it again. Charlie was a regu-lar marine who came from ship duties, and hated the rigours of theBrigade work. This type of routine seemed to come hard to the sea serv-ice marines, this attitude was apparent in Charlie who always seemedmorose, his favourite saying was ‘roll on death lets go to bed with theangels’, somewhat irreverent Bill thought. He caused a laugh when hesang a parody of the funeral service. It went something like this: ‘Oh death where is thy sting a ling a ling Or grave thy victory For the bells of hell went ting a ling a ling For you but not for me’ He did not have a very good singing voice but he sang with feeling.Part right, these words were prophetic, because the bells sure enoughrang for Charlie, he died a hero’s death on Hill 170 along with manyothers. On arrival at Pembroke Docks they boarded HMT Ranchi .Itwas now 1943. Bill recalls they were half way across the Med when wewere attacked by German dive bombers, we were playing cards at thetime when the bomb struck us up for guard, it went down throughthe foxhole and out of a port hole. Two of the ships crew were killedby flying shrapnel and debris. It was weird, for three days and nightsthe sharks had followed our ship before it was bombed and they hadsingled our ship out of the whole convoy, yet after the dead had beenburied at sea the sharks left us. We arrived in Alexandria harbour toawait repairs to the ship. We were encamped in a stinking sand blastedhole called Sidi Bish, and it was from here the bone shaker trams raninto the centre of Alexandria, one Arab tram driver, who seemed to be 59
  54. 54. perpetually on duty sounded off his tiny horn, calling out Sidi Bish!Sidi Bish! In a high pitched voice. The two most popular places in Alex were the Fleet Club, noted forits beer and grub, and the Rue de la Sistere (Sister Street), a street ofbrothels organised by the naval and military authorities. Montgomerywhen he became Commander in Chief put a block on these placesof ill repute, which were highly popular with the service personneland this action did not meet with their approval. Like the heads theseplaces were labelled, Officers, SNCO’s and other ranks – now we hadclass distinction for crumpet and crapping! It was our first experienceof eastern khazies (toilets to you). They consisted of two earthenwarebowls set in the floor with two huge foot prints either side. We soonfound out especially if you had ‘gyppo tummy’, that it was better totake off your braces, better still, if you had time to take your trousersoff altogether. Quite some time was spent on exercises and route marches, and wefound it hard going in the desert sands, gruelling in truth, you tookone step forward and two back, the sand was in our weapons, filteredinto our boots, it was then we realised the terrible conditions our com-rades in the Eighth Army fought under. The temperature were wellover one hundred fahrenheit in the shade, but the nights were bitterlycold. It was strange seeing how hard-pressed the Allied forces were,that no role could be found for the 3rd Commando Brigade. Repairsto HMT Ranchi could not be completed so we were transferred toanother troop ship named HMT Cythia, in which we headed forBombay, where we did see the flying fishes play. We were dumped in aplace called Kedgowan, near Poona, now renamed and spelt with a U. Once again, like mad dogs and English men, we were drilled in theheat of the mid day sun, and apart from that we had eaten a lunch of 60
  55. 55. dog sired goat meat, and nearly every one went down with some formof food poisoning All the fit men were mustered for guard and picketduties, so I said to my oppo Buddy, ‘go down or we will be lumberedwith guard duties.’ This we did and round came the orderlies with jal-lop and hot sweet tea (jallop) was medicine. After they had gone I saidto Buddy. ‘You can stop moaning now they have gone.’ He replied, ‘Iknow you bloody fool; I really have got it now!’ This was one cookingcock up that Slosh Clayson, our cook could not be blamed for. Soon after we departed Poona for a place called Belgaum. Here weengaged in more jungle training. It was here Harry Mills and Bill builtan enormous charpoy out of bamboo trees which grew in abundancethere. It was so high we could sit under it and shelter from the heat of theblazing sun and the torrential monsoon rains. It was here too that theygained some relief from the dreadful prickly heat, that caused theirbodies to erupt in white blisters and an agonising itch, Amazingly theblisters and itching stopped when they stood naked in the pouringmonsoon rain. After a period of intensive jungle training, there fol-lowed a gruelling four day train ride on a rickety old train to Ceylon (now of course Sri Lanka). There were more natives riding on the roofand clinging to the sides of the train getting a freebie ride than therewere sitting inside. The Commando arrived in Trincomalee where theclimate was beautiful, and those lucky sods that were stationed therestill were awarded the Burma Star. Quite a number of the Royal Navy far eastern fleet was riding at an-chor in the harbour, a very impressive sight. They were no doubt soonto be on their way to support the projected landings on the Japaneseheld territories by what surely must have been spear headed by the 3rdCommando Brigade. 61