Information for Veterans and their families
I had the privilege to meet up with Mr Harry Tapley of Horsell, Woking, Surrey on Thursday, 9th October 2003 for the first time.
Harry had written a wonderful and moving poem, featured on this site, about his time in PoW camp.
I have decided to dedicate a page to Harry and his memories of this time in our history and will be updating regularly as I chat to Harry about his memories and experiences.
I have to just mention what a wonderful gentleman Harry is. The last time I had the honour of visiting his home, he had taken the time to prepare sandwiches and a variety of tea cakes for me, as well as a good brew of tea!
Harry provided me with some tapes of his memories. I have now worked through them and put the transcript on this page.
Harry Tapley was originally with the 2/5th Queens Royal Regiment and then transferred to the 4th Btn Gordon Highlanders and was held PoW at Kriegsgfangener Lager Stalag XXB, XVIIIB and XXA (PoW No. 5532).
Chatting to Harry, he has some wonderful stories to tell.
One of the first he told me was that he used to go out on the working parties, not because he wanted to work for the Germans, but because it gave him and the others an opportunity to steal more food! When the working party got Red Cross parcels, there was a German guard who was always interested in the coffee (they used to use ground acorns for coffee). The guard asked Harry if he had any coffee and Harry said he did but would only exchange it for 3 loaves of bread and 3oz tobacco. The guard agreed and Harry gave him the coffee. However, the guard then said that he could only give Harry 1 loaf of bread and 1oz of tobacco and would pay the rest by instalment. Those instalments never came and as the guards and workers were not supposed to talk, Harry could do or say nothing about this. The next time Harry got a Red Cross parcel, the guard asked again about the coffee. Harry said he would let him have the coffee but the price had doubled to 6 loaves of bread and 6oz tobacco, all to be given in advance of him getting the coffee. The guard agreed and gave Harry what he requested in exchange for the coffee. This time, however, Harry and some of the other PoWs had been a bit sneaky. Before handing over the 'coffee', they steamed the label off the new jar, keeping the coffee for themselves. They then placed the label on an old jar filled with sawdust and gave it to the guard. The jar looked as though it had been unopened! As the guards and PoWs were not supposed to talk, the guard had no recourse on Harry although he did try a few times to get him put into solitary but was unsuccessful. One to the ingenuity of the PoWs and Harry in particular!
The PoWs were given clean clothing to wear for the photographs and, of course, they smiled as they didn't want the pictures that their loved ones were to see showing them looking depressed and sad. After the photographs were taken, the clothes were given back to the German guards. Harry is shown in the top photograph, sitting right at the front on the left next to "Ghandi" in the glasses.
Harry has kept some photocopied newspapers detailing some of the "Woking Men in the War" who have been reported missing. They include the following:
George Wenn (Queen's) of Station Approach, West Byfleet - wounded
Harry's first son was just 10 days old then and Harry feels a great deal of pain in that for the best part of his son's early years, he was not there for him or his wife, and he never could really make up for that lost time whilst he was fighting and a PoW.
I hope Harry will not mind me mentioning this but some paperwork I had left for him to peruse at his leisure was at his home when his eldest son came over to visit him. His son, Kevin, noticed the paperwork and asked his dad about it. Harry explained about our contact. Kevin said that he always assumed his dad never wanted to talk about the war and, indeed, never did. Kevin took the information to read and Harry has told me recently that he feels, for the first time, that the precious lost time he missed of Kevin's early years is beginning to be made up as they have become closer.
I hope that Kevin, if he reads this, will not mind me having mentioned it as, to be honest, it really brought a lump to my throat when Harry told me...
Woking News and Mail, Thursday, November 24, 1988
Two local couples who celebrated their golden wedding anniversaries recently were married in Woking on the same day in November, 1938 - the Doreys at Christ Church and the Tapleys at St. Dunstan's Roman Catholic Church.Mr Harry Tapley was born at [address withheld], the home that the couple have lived in all their married life. He met Beryl when he and friends went to Cranleigh Village Hall for a dance. She had come from County Durham to work locally.
Their elder son, Kevin, was born before Mr Tapley saw war time service overseas, at first with the Queen's Royal Regiment and later the Gordon Highlanders. He was captured at Dunkirk and a prisoner of war in Germany for six years.
Their sons, Roger, and Harry were born after the war, when Mr Tapley had begun working with the Forestry Commission as a mechanical engineer. His area covered south-east England.
Mrs Tapley put her training to good use when she began catering locally, and recalls that the opening of Woking Urban District Council's canteen was one of her first jobs.
For several years she was caterer for Kennedy and Donkin, before they moved to Godalming, and latterly she has served with the Women's Royal Voluntary Service at the Westgate Centre's luncheon club.
Life changed dramatically for the Tapleys in 1983 after Harry's retirement when he was invited by the Forestry Commission's head office to set up a workshop in Guyana under the auspices of the British Executive Services Overseas.
Three months living near the Amazon in South America was an experience they will never forget. They returned home only to be asked to undertake a second stint and went back to Georgetown to receive a warm welcome.
"The second time around I knew exactly what to take with me," Beryl remarked. "It made life much more comfortable for us."
Harry is still a voluntary driver in Woking, sometimes taking the wheel of the Salvation Army bus, sometimes the WAVS coach. He took time out in January to have a hip replacement at Rowley Bristow Orthopaedic Hospital, Pyrford, which has given him some positive views about the wonderful care and attention he received and his dismay at its proposed closure.
They decided to celebrate their 50 years of happy married life with a Sunday evening party for friends and neighbours, because their sons and daughters-in-law Brenda, Mary and Anne had promised to take them out for a meal on Saturday night with their five grandchildren.
Unknown to them, there had been some intense plotting behind the scenes. Kevin, who now lives at Upper Hale, Farnham, came to call for them and when they asked where Brenda was they were surprised to hear she was at church!
As they approached St. Dunstan's, Beryl caught sight of Harry standing outside the hall, but it was not until someone switched on the lights that they discovered it was a surprise party for 70 relatives and friends.
The biggest surprise of all was the sight of Beryl's 87-year-old mother, Mrs Mary Stamper, who had been driven down from her Cheshire home earlier in the week. A neighbour of the Tapleys had kept a close watch on their activities to make sure they did not pay an unexpected call at Harry's home, where she was staying.
"It was a marvellous evening" Beryl said, "and we were particularly pleased to see Mr and Mrs Christopher Mitchell, of Kennedy and Donkin, there."
They were inundated with cards, flowers and gifts - and then there were more the following night.
"We never imagined our golden wedding would be anything like it," Harry commented. "We never heard a whisper from anyone about the surprise party."
There was no lying in for a rest on Sunday morning. They were both up early getting everything ready for their party - and the 50 guests they were expecting.
"It would have been a job to get any more in the house," Beryl laughed. "They were on the stairs, in the kitchen and the two downstairs rooms. It was a memorable occasion and was a weekend we shall never ever forget."
Woking News and Mail, Thursday, November 26, 1998
A surprise party and a staircase carpeted with flowers were two of the highlights of Beryl and Harry Tapley's Diamond Wedding anniversary.
The Horsell couple, who married on November 12, 1938 at St. Dunstan's Church, Woking, live in the house where Harry, a Dunkirk Veteran, was born.
Mr and Mrs Tapley, pictured left, received many cards, some arriving from as far as Australia and America.
It was open house during the day and in the evening the pair were delighted to attend a surprise party at Horsell Cricket Pavillion.
I had a good chat to Harry the other day (and enjoyed a lovely cuppa and some cakes!) and he gave me some more gems of information for his page. Here they are:
Harry was in the TA, 2/5th Queens Royal Regiment. He was called up for national service in September 1939 after being at camp. His initial duties saw him travelling to Odiham Water Works where he was on guard on a 2-on/4-off rota for 10 days solid. Harry was then sent back to Stoughton Barracks for a week before setting off to guard Farnborough Aerodrome for 10 days on the same 2-on/4-off rota. Harry recalls that the guard duties were very much "Dad's Army" in nature - they had no guns, just pick shafts! Guns were not allowed in the aerodrome as there was so much flammable liquid around. Harry laughed and said that he was sure that the Germans, who were armed with guns, weren't worried about that! It seems a shame that Harry was told recently that he was not entitled to the Defence Medal as he was, apparently, not defending his country for 6 months...Harry was transferred to the Gordon Highlanders as they were looking for drivers and mechanics. He was with them a week when, on 20th October 1939, he was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to Bologne.
Harry got leave in March 1940 for 10 days. At the time, he was a driver for a Sergent Major in a Morris Commercial with a Bren Gun Anti-Aircraft mounting. He recalls Davey Hughs used to operate the Bren Gun and he brought down a Stuka (dive bomber) with it! Harry went on leave after just having had some vaccinations, so his arm was quite sore. He and his friend, Taffy McKnight, said that they were going to go back to Stoughton to see if they could extend their leave for compassionate reasons, ie. a sore arm. As you can imagine, that was turned down.
Harry was due to go back to France on the Saturday but there was a dance at the Labour Club and Beryl loved dancing and wanted to go. Harry decided to stay until the Sunday and took her out. Sunday came and he decided to stay another day. Therefore, he was now 2 days overdue to go back and that could mean time in jankers for him and, worse still, no pay for Beryl, which was his greatest concern.
Monday came and Harry went to London to get the 'leave train' but the boat had been cancelled. He had to go to rest camp that night (near Waterloo Station). Harry wondered if Taffy had also overstayed but he couldn't see him anywhere. Next morning, Harry was getting on the train and looking for Taffy. He was getting more and more worried about Beryl losing pay as the last man who was just one day late back got 10 days in jankers and loss of pay for his family for that time. Harry was now 3 days late! Harry caught the train and boat back to Bologne and headed back to La Madeleine where the camp was. Suddenly he sees Taffy and they have a chat. Taffy didn't get compassionate leave either so just decided to go back late too. Harry said it just felt better when there were two of you late!
When they got back to La Madeleine, the unit had changed billets (sleeping quarters) to a big chateau. Harry asked where the company office had been set up so he could hand back the leave pass (which had dates on it!). He was told where it was and said to Taffy that he'd hand his pass in two, save them both going down there.
When he got to the office, Harry noticed no-one was around and there were just two large trays marked "IN" and "OUT" full of passes. He quickly slipped his and Taffy's passes to the bottom of the "IN" tray, under the other passes and left.
It seems due to bad filing/organisation, both he and Taffy got away with their extra days leave!
Harry recalls that whilst a PoW they once stayed in a cow shed, sleeping on 'shelves' with just a blanket and your grey coat to cover you and keep you warm. Men often slept together to try and keep warm as it was bitter cold.
One incident chilled Harry to the bone. At 4am a German guard came into the shed and said to one soldier to get up and milk the cows. The soldier had worked on the farm but had not been shown how to milk cows and said he would but someone would have to show him how. The guard seemed to get irritated and shouted at him to milk the cows. The soldier said again that he would but would have to be shown as he couldn't do it yet. The guard must have misunderstood as he just turned around and shot the soldier straight through the head...
When at Market Garden, there was a river in which the PoWs could occasionally swim but the current was strong and dragged you downstream to where you could get out. Harry remembers a Polish guard and they used to always have a go at him for joining the Germans. One day the guard turned around and said that none of the PoWs knew the circumstances in which he joined the German Army. It turned out that the Germans came to his village one day and dragged his family out of their house. They said to him that he had to join the German Army or they would take each member of his family and put them in different PoW camps so they never saw eachother again. The guard felt he had no choice but to join...
Harry had a job at a sawmill where he, somewhat ironically, made the iron bars to put on the windows of the PoW quarters!
The PoWs got Red Cross parcels which they would trade. Harry had 'fixed' the bars of his quarters window so they could get in and out at night. However, on the first night, he lifted the bars up and they touched the uninsulated overhead power cable blacking out the whole camp! Suffice to say he had to amend the bars so they dropped downwards after that.
To get out and back from the room, you had to hang from the window sill and drop down to ground level. In order to get back into the room, the PoWs had to lower a blanket for their comrade to climb up.
One night, Harry was hanging off the sill and dropped down straight onto something soft. It turned out it was a Luftwafer Pilot creeping along under their windows. The two of them were totally astonished. They looked at eachother and the pilot said the he would not say anything if Harry didn't - the pilot should not have been there! It seems he was off to a civilian house to see the lady there...
One time Harry was asked by the Luftwafter pilot's 'lady' to get soap for the house and gave him a time to bring it to her. He went to the house as planned. Inside the house was a larder with a see-through grill in it. He was there when some German guards arrived. She shoved him in the larder. He heard the guards ask her if she had seen any 'Englanders' or would she have anything to do with them. It seems they had done a 'count' of the PoWs and some were missing! She looked horrified and even spat on the floor saying no, she hadn't seen any or want anything to do with them. When they were gone, she let him out and he made it back to the barracks without being caught.
Years after the war, Harry was working in a garage where they leased cars and drivers out - a kind of low level chauffeur service. A blind man came in wanting a car to take him to his wife's grave in Streatham and to pay the dues. Harry took the man to the cemetary and when they were talking to a man in the cemetary office regarding the dues, he told them that the blind man was lucky as his wife's grave had been safe although many others were blown up in the war. During the conversation, something cropped up that made Harry ask the man behind the desk if he were in the Coldstream Guards at La Madeleine. It turned out he was. Harry had been one of the people protecting them when they came back across the canal during the war. It turned out, he was just one of 10 men to make it back.
The end of the forced march was at Wittengen. The US forces gave the men 200 eggs as they had no provisions at that point. The men stayed in a local house. Oddly, the lady of the house was happy to have English ex-PoWs stay with her but hated the Americans. Harry and his friends gave the lady eggs in part-payment for staying with her and got her some milk and butter from the dairy and she made them all pancakes with blackcurrent jam. Harry remembers how great they tasted.
In Wittengen was a local baker who had refused to make any more bread as he did not want to help the Americans. This also meant that the locals did not get bread, this was especially needed at the local hospital. Harry and some of his friends spoke to the baker and asked him nicely to bake some bread. He refused. They said they would try and persuade him nicely and if they couldn't they would light the oven, get it to temperature and, if he had not made up the dough mix by then, they would put HIM in it!! He did not believe them so they did exactly as they said. When the oven was up to temperature they asked again and he refused to do anything so they picked him up and had his head in the oven door when he said he would make the bread! Funnily enough, he continued to make bread every day after that...
Harry remembers Jocky Caldwell was a butcher and they needed meat from the local butcher's shop. However, much of the meat was not good so Jocky used to make sure they got the best cuts. The butcher tried to overcharge them but Jocky would simply tell him how much they would pay for the meat and always pay no more.
Loading the Germans
The ballroom of the local hotel held German PoWs. The allies used to have to move them out but the Americans complained that they could get no more than 12 of them into the trucks as they would get in and space themselves out comfortably (unlike the way the allies were hearded into trucks when they were PoW).
Harry told the American soldiers to bring out 30 of the Germans. They said there was no point as they couldn't load them all in. Harry insisted and they did.
The first 12 got into the truck and spread themselves out as the Americans had said. Harry suggested they get ready to load some more in. He got into the truck and told the Americans that when the existing Germans in the truck moved forwards, to load some more in. The Americans said they would not move forward. Harry had other plans. He drove the truck forward a few feet very quickly and slammed the brakes on. The Germans in the back all shot forward and the Americans, laughing, quickly pushed some more in. Harry did that again until all 30 were loaded up tightly.
Here are the actual transcripts of some tapes that Harry has given me where he has recited his memories:
Six months away from home. I volunteered for the Territorial Army and commenced weekly training drills. Ex-Guardsman, namely Sergeant Grant. The whole platoon was pleased to work for him hard enough to win the small silver plated regimental badge. The Territorial Regiment that I had enlisted in was the 2nd/5th Batallion Queens Royal Regiment, 2nd Foot, affectionately known to other regiments as the Kirke’s Lambs on account of the cap badge being a ram carrying a staff.
In August 1939, we attended a training camp in Brighton, during which time Mr Chamberlain’s peace of paper which he waved declaring peace in our time was becoming more and more of a laughing stock and useless. On returning from this camp, I only just arrived at my home and greeted my wife when my calling up papers arrived and I had to report the next day to the local drill hall. So fate had decreed that my efforts to avoid being away against my will for 6 months was not to happen. I was in the deep end without even the training I would have had if I had indeed been conscripted.
I reported to the drill hall and I, along with others, was sent to guard the water reservoir at Odiham in Hampshire. After a period of two weeks we were moved to Farnborough Aerodrome doing general duties there and continued 2 hours on, 4 hours off for a further 2 week period. This does not seem to be a very pleasant way of gauging the discipline of Army life. However, after the 2 week period, during which I had learnt to make the most of Army food, it was at that time I was posted to a Regiment stationed at Aldershot, The Gordon Highlanders. This posting was due to the fact that I was a mechanic and this unit had just become mechanised and allegedly ready for action. They had Vickers 303 water-cooled relics from the previous war.
After a few days we were given leave of 48 hours. During this time a son was born to my wife and in fact just two days old when this leave was given. I had to tell my wife I was going overseas – she had been very ill at delivery. I had to leave in not particularly good spirits. I saw my son when I came home after 6 months in April 1940. I am sad to say I saw him no more until 6 years later when the war ended. I can assure anybody that this 6 years are the most crucial period of a child’s life and a long time to miss your child. I am sure that my relationship with my son was affected very much by those missing years.
Winter 1939-1940 was a particularly bad time to be in France, more snow than usual and billets that were a disgrace to humanity. Even when you were supposed to be out of action and resting, the time past slowly until May 1940 when the Germans started their Blitz Kreig and we moved into Belgium to a place called Louvain to replace the fleeing Belgiums. From there it was all rear guard action for Dunkirk.
I was amongst the unfortunate persons who was sent out to slow down the German’s advance. This allowed more of our troops to evacuate Dunkirk.
There have been films and books relating to action in Dunkirk and I am sure any member of this now are only war readers. The real hardships and yet after general fortune, surrender. [Unfortunately, next large section extremely garbled on tape]
Despite all this bad fortune, a comradeship existed which I had never experienced before. Men sharing with their comrade, crusts of bread which were a life-saver. Never given to us by the Germans but by the Polish people, who if they were caught giving food to us were punished most harshly, even to being shot. These crusts were given to those out on different working parties so until their return to the camp in the evenings, their respective ‘muckers’ were not aware that they had food and yet they always waited and shared it with their mates.
We were lucky compared to the Jews. They were made to strip off all their clothes outside of the gas chambers, in full view of anybody watching, women and children too, and gassed. We saw many gassed and burnt in the incinerators in full view of any Germans during that period. [Next section omitted for personal reasons] You could smell the burning flesh all around. We went to these places and were stripped and our clothes put into the gas chambers for de-lousing. You were then given a shower and after the shower, we came out into this open sided barn, just a roof over a concrete floor and we went to a door at the end where there were two German women and they shaved every hair off your body. The most humiliating time I have ever had in my life. But we were lucky, it was only our clothes that were in the gas chamber.
We saw Jews and Poles going into the gas chambers and then the bodies carried out and put into the incinerators and burned.
An Escape Attempt
We tried to escape 7 times. One time stands out in my mind more than any other.
We had acquired identity cards and civilian clothing to wear over our battle dress. With the few hundred Marks we had obtained also, we travelled from a small village called Lindsey on a small cage railway to Danzig and after several changes and near misses, we had got close to the Swiss frontier. By this time, I suppose, we had lost a lot of the caution that the situation deserved and got a little careless. We made the mistake of lighting an English cigarette whilst waiting on the platform of the railway station. I must say that the German officer who saw us returned shortly afterwards with 2 German Army personnel and 2 Gestapo and challenged us by simply saying “You are Englanders”. He must have been very observant. We were very foolish. We now had to walk back to the German camp.
There was one time when we Englanders were working on a state farm and we had, on this occasion, stolen two chickens from the chicken run. One of the German workers had then plucked and destroyed all parts that were not edible and we had also obtained some carrots and potatoes and had these all boiling merrily in the large jam bucket which was also used for washing our clothes, this was all happening after we had been locked up for the night, when, to our dismay, we heard the outer compound being opened up and voices exclaiming loudly that they had lost two hens and were sure that the Englanders had stolen them. The guard came into our billet, which was a disused cow shed that had been converted, but not before a quick thinking Englander had taken a towel and his shirt and stuffed it into the stew! They conducted a search and found no feathers, etc, and even looked in the washing. They went away quite satisfied that it must have been some other workers that had stolen the chickens. After their departure the towel and shirt were held over the pot whilst the ingredients were scraped back in and the food was enjoyed by all Englanders present. I fail to understand how they were so dim so as not to smell the cook pot. Our opinions of German intelligence were greatly reduced that evening.
There were numerous laughable as well as sad happenings. A pal and I had broken out of the camp with the sole purpose of going to the orchard to obtain fruit. I was first in the tree with a small bag and a long piece of string, picking apples and lowering the bag to my pal on the ground, who was emptying it and then I pulled it back up to refill. Suddenly voices were heard and my pal moved away to safety but I was stuck in the tree. As the voices came nearer, they were German soldiers and their girlfriends and they stopped to do their courting at the very next tree to the one I was stuck in. I have never had to remain so still and in such an uncomfortable position for so long as at that time, I was indeed quite envious of the soldiers!
I was at Fort 13, Polish Cavalry Barracks, Thorn, Poland. Dinner menu for Christmas Day:
One loaf was rations for 8 men per day.
This amount was to be rations for the duration except if you were unfortunate enough to be working in the coal mines where I learnt, from men who were in the pits, that they were 5 men to a loaf.
Managed to move on from this hell hole by managing to volunteer to go out on a working party around April 1941. Moved on to Gardinia, renamed by Germans to “God’s Harbour”. From this camp went daily to the beach to drag out rocks to make the promenade from the bottom half of the docks to the bottom of the short distance of cliffs. Some people dropped a few sandwiches to us as they went along to work. If they were caught doing this, the punishment was extremely harsh so I think everybody should realise what a wonderful effort these people made, especially when they were on short rations themselves.
During the time at that camp, we had the dubious pleasure of erecting the platform from which the German top-notches would speak and address the German migrants and holiday makers. Yes, I did say holiday makers as there was a definite class distinction.
Supervising us was a Sergeant PoW from the Royal Engineers who instructed us if we were clever enough and followed his instructions, on the day of the dignitaries mounting this platform to speak, we would all have a very pleasant surprise.
We at the time did not know that the main person to be present at the time was to be the Fuhrer, Adolf.
We did get a surprise – the platform collapsed and we were of course punished. Satisfaction for a job well done.
I moved on to a small village in the mountain range but it was situated 32km from Danzig and renamed by Germans as “Over Hell”. Here I was working in the village blacksmiths and as well as learning how to make horses shoes and fit them, I learnt tyre welding, making iron tyres for cart wheels. How to repair cracks and holes in cast iron pots with nuts and bolts, pieces of tin, flour water and the iron dust swept from under the smith’s anvil. It was during my time spent at the blacksmiths that I fell out of the loft onto the anvil, which was directly below the trap door to the loft, which was the iron store. In the process of falling on to the anvil, I fractured two ribs on my right hand side and to get any attention, the blacksmith took me to the next village to a doctor who was a vet. A nightmare journey of about 5 miles by horse drawn sledge over snow covered roads and a field. I was strapped up for two days, no work. That incident was the positive side to the blacksmiths.
There was also a negative such as the time he threw a sledge hammer at me with the intention of hurting me, I promptly returned the compliment but purposely to miss him. This situation arose because the rear of the blacksmiths forge was a wall which backed on to the village cemetery and one time he upset me and I told him to look out the window and he would see the only good German, a dead one. No wonder he threw the hammer!
Despite the setback, when his son, who was in the German Navy, came on leave, I had to cut down trees allocated to the family for fuel. Before saying any more I must tell you that this was in one of the loveliest spots I can ever remember seeing. It was a fertile valley in the mountains and nearby was a massive lake, the only end of which I could see was the one I was standing at. The forest came down to the edge of the lake, wild boar roamed the forest, the son suggested swimming in the lake and I said that if anybody saw us two enemies swimming together he would be in serious trouble. His answer was to put my clothes, such as they were, under his and if anyone did see two nude bathers, they would see on the bank German Marines clothes and so I enjoyed my swim. He did not think that his sister, a horrible Nazi, would take notice of his and my wet hair when we returned to the smiths. She threatened to report him for fratenising. It was only by him telling a blatant lie that I dived in to save him in what was called a ‘turf coal’ and pulling him up to the surface after he had got stuck in the mud. Call this man an enemy?
Compare his action to the French reactions to us when we were doing our 900 mile walk home, the French PoWs, some of whom had been getting British Red Cross parcels, American Red Cross parcels, and others whilst we were getting zero. They would not even give us a bit of their coffee when we were pushed into their working camps. We had to ensure that we helped ourselves to some of their goods!
One time Jockie was off to the forest to load up a cart with two horses with logs. On the way back from the forest, one of the horses slipped and went down. Jockie loosened the head collar to help but the horse rolled right over and ended up stuck in a six foot ditch. The guard took Jockie to a nearby house and the camp was called. I was brought to the phone to see if I could help by taking the tractor there. I went with another guard and we got the half frozen horse out of the ditch. It was decided that the cart should be hitched to the tractor and Jockie walk the two horses back to camp. We both cleaned the horses and decided to take advantage of the situation so we loaded our pockets up with as many of the horses oats as we could. We had no method to get rid of all the dust on them. We took the oats back to the billet and using a can with holes in, made a porridge which all our pals enjoyed. It was rather black and you could taste the dust but it was still a tremendous meal for us all. Many of the men from our billet used to then visit the stables – I wonder why…
In [name not clear] which was a German military prison, and they said if you went in there, you never came out. Well, I’m here so that proved that wrong! It’s pretty tough but nevertheless that was 2 months confined in there because I struck a German civilian. I’ll tell you how that happened.
We were working on this big farm and there was a barn which they were using as a sheep pen and the sheep were driven in there every night and each day there was fresh straw laid on the floor. The sheep were driven in through one door of the barn and the straw emptied onto the floor for the sheep to lie in, sleep in, browse in and occasionally it came that this place had to be, what we called “dunged out”, cleaned out, because you had the sheep in and out of there and just doing their business and lying there and just layer after layer of straw goes down but when you come to try and lift that straw, it’s pretty hard work and we had no knives like you see on haystacks and that, where you cut it with a knife which makes it easier to lift out but we just had to pull our guts out lifting this straw up and putting it on the wagon.
So this day, I was working in there and this same civilian (whose chicken we pinched) who was one of the bosses there and also a full health (cannot understand the word here), anyway he had a revolver and an armband and his (another word here I cannot make out) and he also had a walking stick, and we were dunging this place out and loading it into the cart and he kept on and on “gehen Sie schneller”, which means ‘hurry up, go faster’ and he kept on and on so much that eventually it gets under your skin and you’re short of food and you haven’t got the energy to work any faster or any harder even if you wanted to, and he kept on and on and on, well, this was in the Polish section of Germany, and the worst thing you could do was call a German a Pole, which the way you called them it was a “Polack”.
Well any civilian in our country who knows our bad swearwords and not so bad swearwords will know that we have a word in our language which you sometimes say to somebody which sounds very much like Polack. Well, he kept on and on and I said that word to him and he thought I’d called him a Polack so he hit me across the shoulders with his walking stick. Once with the walking stick wasn’t too bad but he hit me again with the walking stick and that was a little bit beyond intolerable and he was about to hit me the third time and I just snapped, took the walking stick away from him, and by this time he was trying to pull the revolver, and I knocked that out of his hand with the walking stick and stood between him and the revolver and give him a whack with the walking stick.
Well, the commotion it caused, the (cannot make out this word) or whatever he was comes in and I’m in trouble of course. Went back to the main camp and answered the charge, so I got two months solid which I accomplished. And the only reason you get through things like that is that you are thinking of what you have to come home to.
One of the worst things that can happen to a person in that situation is to get a “Dear John” letter, and you don’t know what “Dear John” letters are, that is where you are tied up, chained up and you can’t do anything about it and you get a letter to say that your wife is carrying on with someone else or they have gone away with a Frenchman, American or Canadian or they are carrying on with them and you don’t know quite what you can do. Well someone with a strong enough character to overcome it and say ‘well, we’ll sort that out when we get home’ which is what I think is the best thing to do but nevertheless some of them couldn’t stand it and they committed suicide. We had men who drowned themselves in water ponds, men who slashed their wrists and lay in a corner somewhere and let themselves bleed to death.
There were quite a few where that happened and it is a sad affair and I think that people who sent those “Dear John” letters should be ashamed of themselves and at least could have waited until the person came home to let them ask the questions to see if they are telling the truth or something. Some did, some were strong enough to overcome it. That is a sad thing.
When we were working on the sawmill, actually that was the second place where I had gone in and was working with these blacksmiths in the sawmill and the engineer and we were keeping the steam engines going but when we arrived there, I had the job to help this blacksmith put the bars up over the window where we were being confined, so you can imagine that I thought, well, we might want to get out of here so we’d better make these bars so we can collapse them or take them to pieces, which is what we duly did. Any rate, of course, the big nuts that were put onto these bars that went down to the solid part of these windows were not cleaned over, not a spot of weld put on the top or anything like that. They were not locked, just tightened up and I had access to the spanners in the workshop there.
So, it was a little while and Fred and I were going to go out scavenging. So, the idea was that we were on the second floor there so we had to get out of this window and drop into the garden that was at the back there. Well, the bars at the window didn’t have any wire, barbed wire, beyond the back there, they thought the bars and the brick wall was safe enough. Any rate, we were going out bartering actually, at that time we had some Red Cross parcels and cigarettes, and neither of us smoked and at that time, cigarettes which we preferred to barter for some white bread. Well, we fixed up these Poles to meet them down outside the guesthouse (German) in this tiny village which the local pub (we called it the guesthouse). So, we are going out. So, I lift the bar, or I attempt to lift the bar up and, of course, in that mill we were generating our own electricity and the cables for the electric ran across the top of this window. Being so clever, I made it so we could lift the bars up but never gave it a thought about the non-insulated wire, power line, going across the top of this window. So we take the nuts off, lift the bars up and there is such a flash and every light in the mill went out because we blew all the fuses and the houses too. We had to get the bar back in as quickly as we could and that put us off for that night. Any rate, the fuses were repaired and they never knew what blew the fuses so we thought, well, we’ll have another go the next night.
The same arrangements were made with these Polish people, so that night, instead of lifting the bars up they went downwards. To get back in, I must tell you this as you’ll be wondering, we would have to get the attention of the lads that were still in the billet and they got a couple of knotted blankets and we climbed back up into the window. Any rate, this second night everything went well until I got out of the window. I got out of the window and dropped down and I landed on somebody’s back. Oh dear I thought. I got myself together and thought what do I do, run? This bloke who’s back I dropped on was in the Luffwafe, the German airforce, and he put his fingers up to his lips and went “shhhhh”. He looked at me and said ‘What are you doing?’. I said ‘What are you doing?’ so it turns out he shouldn’t have been there either because he was creeping along under this wall to go along to the house of some women who was further down there and her husband was on the Russian front and he was making his way down there so he was just as much out of bounds as I was going out the window. Anyway, I duly dropped down and off we went. It didn’t stop either of us doing our business and I came back and that was that, nothing more said about it. He couldn’t say anything could he as he shouldn’t have been there. Just one of the laughing times now.
Swinging the Lead
I also was a malinger on this occasion. We were going from the farm down to the sawmill and the farm had supplied labour for the wood to be sawn up that had gone from the farm to be sawn into planks and they needed help to operate the machines, so I and another couple of lads were sent down to this big sawmill in the town, the farm was named “Lindsey”, I forget what the nearest town was named, but anyway, down in the sawmill I was given the job of trimming the small bits of branches that were left on the outside of the tree before it went through the machine to be sawn into planks. As I was trimming it off there, the axe struck off. Me, I wasn’t too clever with an axe then and I didn’t want to use it anyway. I was just dropping it really with no pressure, and it just swung off the side of the trunk and went into my left foot and just penetrated the leather of the boot I had on. Lucky I had some leather on there anyway as most of the boots were absolutely knackered. It did just fetch blood, so of course, that was it, I didn’t want to do anymore work for that day did I. In fact, I didn’t want to do any then anyway. So the guard came along and I made a fuss of it and he said well you’d better stop there and keep your foot up in the air and we’ll get back to the camp. We went back to the camp in a wagon and horses.
Anyway, I malingered the next day. I stayed in camp and just stuck a bit of plaster over this and it was such a tiny thing you could hardly see it. The guard never asked to look at it and I just said the next morning I couldn’t go to work and that carried on for at least a week with me swinging the lead.
What I was doing then when the lads came in at night was peeling the potatoes into a big pan which the froggy who was doing the cooking, there were a lot of French in there as well, not in our billet but on the same farm, and I was peeling the potatoes to save them from having to do it at night when they came in from work and that went on and any rate during this time, Fred, my mate, who was in the field hoeing. If you have a good hoe, you like to keep it so they were bringing the hoe in with them and keeping it underneath this bed. Well, I call it bed but what it was was a plank of wood that was put up on a shelf with some straw chucked on it and that was your bed and Fred was bringing his hoe under the bed to keep it as it was a nice sharp one. Anyway, he came down in the night and he was on the bunk above me, I was on the lower one, and that’s where his hoe was under the bunk I was sleeping in. Fred came down from there and I don’t know why or what but he left his hoe right near the edge and he put his foot right on the blade of this hoe and it cut his foot very, very badly right across the instep. Well the guards came in the next morning to get us up for work and he showed them his foot and said what did they reckon to that and “you get out to work” said the guard and there was me with my little cut. Good job the guard never asked to see it. I’m there lingering and Fred’s there really suffering with this bad cut, he had to go out to work and I sat there peeling potatoes. Anyway, eventually the guard said to me that I’d have to go to the doctors with that foot and I said I’d see what it was like in the morning and maybe I’ll be able to go to work tomorrow. The better part of valour I said to him the next morning that it seemed to be alright and I could walk on it alright so I think I’ll go to work which I did.
I got away with that. That’s just one of the ways that you conned them mainly because you didn’t have enough energy most of the time.
Our ration was 8 men to a loaf of black bread and on that farm actually, we were getting a ladle of soup which did have potatoes and carrots and a few odds and sods in but mostly the soup that you got was boiled sugar beet leaves or stinging nettles boiled or any rubbish that they chucked in but nevertheless we survived.
Two years after being taken prisoner before I got a letter from home, from Beryl and I never smoked, which is so surprising this, for some reason in this letter, I don’t know if any of you remember, woodbines were in trendy packets, 5 in a packet for tuppence. One of those packets came in the first letter I received from her after 2 years of her not knowing if she knew where I was and not knowing how she was at home or anything like that, I got this letter and in it was this packet of 5 woodbines. I don’t know how I got them because most things got pilfered from letters but you’ve never seen so many people smoke so few cigarettes!
The favourite saying amongst PoWs there was, as soon as anyone lit up a cigarette, was “two up” which meant after you and with 5 cigarettes in that packet I don’t know how many people they went round but all of us in that billet enjoyed the smokes.
I had started smoking by then and I didn’t smoke when I went away but I think I may have said before, at the first sign of action I was dead scared and a Scotsman offered me a cigarette and that was that. We smoked beech leaves, ground up in your hand, rolled up in newspaper with a bit of snuff thrown in.
I got a parcel of clothes from her and in this parcel of clothes was a lovely polar-necked grey, very fine wool pullover. I was rich when I had that and the envy of everybody. That was ruined by a fella called Norman Fowler who was a PoW but a more objectionable man you have never met. He was in this billet on the sawmill and the billet was up above a room where there was a copper and whatnot where we boiled our clothes and you had to go up stairs, no windows in there, just boards, and three wooden, three-tier bunks, 9 of us in there. There are 4 of us who got playing Solo and with what spare time you had, which wasn’t much as you were working dawn to dusk 7 days per week, on Saturday’s you were given a bit of time in the afternoon to do your washing. Anyway, the 4 of us, Kip Downall, Lee from Warwickshire, myself and Bernie Millington, who we called Fishy, from Hull, not because he came from Hull but because his eyes were like cods eyes. We always played Solo and we got to know each others play so much that you didn’t dare make a call unless you had an absolute dead cert hand with all the tricks and this particular afternoon we were about to play Solo and this Norman Fowler, he starts lying on his bed to go to sleep. I agree that Fishy did have an infectious laugh but nevertheless, we started playing Solo and Norman jumped up from the bed, saying “Let me play it”. He had allegedly been a champion of all India at boxing and goodness knows what, all a load of cobblers that he used to tell us, but anyway he jumped up when we started Fishy laughing. “Pack that up, some of us want to get some sleep” so I just said “Oh, well, we’re only playing cards so you’ll have to tolerate it” so anyway he got down on the bed again and for some reason or another we decided to pack up cards for 5 minutes. As soon as we stopped playing cards he got his home made banjo out and started strumming on it and you can imagine how he could sing. Anyway, we said to him well we might as well play cards again as we can’t do anything else with that bloody racket going on so we got back down playing cards again whereupon he put his banjo down and lie back down on the bed. Fishy laughed again and up he got, “Pack that laughing up or I’ll square you lot up” just like that. I just said “You and who else” and laughed. I was sitting at the table with a handful of cards and he smartly got up and aimed a blow at me and you’ve never seen a table and stools, no chairs, long stools, you’ve never seen them move so quickly in all your life. The room just cleared and he started. I had no choice but to protect myself. I’ve never had it so easy in all my life. Champion of all India? All he did was flail his arms and leave his face and chest all open. I just had to give it a punch and step back, give it a punch and step back. Anyway, eventually his eyes were filled and his nose was bleeding and he started walking around looking for his towel, saying “Where is it? Where is it?” so every time he said “Where is it?” I gave him a hit and one of the blokes said “There it is Norman” and he couldn’t see so he just had to stop and the funny point was the bloke he was mucking in with, Alf Saunders, he was a boxer in civi street and he boxed under the name of Jack Birmingham and his father was a good boxer and he boxed under the name of Tiger Len Hood. He was downstairs doing his washing when most of this happened but he heard the commotion and he came tearing up the stairs wondering what it was there. When he saw his mate there he said “Ah, who’s done that to you?” just like that “as they are going to have to do that to me now”, so he being a boxer I thought I’m in for a hiding here but you can’t back down so I said “I did, Alf” and I said “But he asked for it”. So Alf said “Well, now you’ll both take me on”. Fishy picked up one of these stools and he said “Alf, as soon as you start I’ll hit you across the *!^%* head with this stool. He asked for all he got and if you start you’ll get the same and a belt with the stool”. Alf, better part of valour he didn’t persue the subject. But at the time we had there some boxing gloves and before this incident I had sparred with Alf and he was good and could have put me away any time he wanted really. I just knew that. He tried after that every day “Shall we spar then?” and I said I would not as I said to him he just wanted revenge and to pulverise me but he said no but I knew. It went on so long that one day I said yes, so if he gave me a punch now then he’d be satisfied. I thought that so put the gloves on one day and we’re down in the yard of the sawmill sparring and I can see him gradually working up to get the punch in and he went for the punch and I gave him a beauty and he went down on his backside. I said “I’ve had enough now Alf” and took the gloves off. He said “So have I”, so I asked if that had finished it now and he said yes, so that was that. Norman Fowler, champion of all India…oh dear, dear.
Next instalment of the tapes from Harry:
The boss of the sawmill we used to call Chester. He looked just like Chester Conklin. He took some chances because he had a DKW motorbike and it wasn’t running and he obtained from somewhere some fuel for it which was scarce and he wanted to use it and he found out somehow that I was a mechanic and he got me to get this bike running. I did get it running and had a few rides with him – up and down the long lane that lead from the sawmill down to the river. I rode up and down. There was no point me wandering off as there was nowhere to go. Anyway, once the fuel had run out on it it would have been a dead loss anyhow. Chester asked how much he owed me. I laughed and said “what could I spend it on if you give me any money? If I spend any official money, I’ll be in trouble and you will be in trouble too as you’re not supposed to fraternise with me.” He did bring me some white bread so that was alright.
Laughter Amongst the Pain
There are some funny things that happen with your enemy.There aren’t many people that can say they’ve played football for England and Scotland but I can say that because before Dunkirk and the real war started, we had some inter-regimental football matches and I played for the regimental team. So when we were taken into the main camp, the Red Cross sent footballs (no boots, just footballs) and the Germans let us have it and we organised some games. First of all, England played the French. The football pitch was on sand and sometimes the sand was over your ankles so what with lack of food and the sand, it was a damned hard job to play football on it. Nevertheless, I loved football always so I played football for England against France and then because the Scots were there and I was in a Scottish Regiment, I played for them too. I have also played for England against Scotland and vice versa. When we played the Scots, we had a set of bagpipes which they acquired somewhere, maybe the Red Cross or YMCA or those organisations. When Scotland played any of the others, the Scottish team were piped on to the field with these bagpipes. That was some light entertainment in amongst all the stuff that happened.
One of the things we failed in was trying to get mangles. Mangles that the cattle food have. We were trying to boil them soft enough to eat ourselves but that we found didn’t happen. We boiled them for hours and hours and hours and they still didn’t get soft and we still couldn’t eat the darn things. Sugar beet, yes, we got them to go soft and eat them. Stinger nettles, yes, and things like that. Amazing what you’ll eat when you are hungry.
We had done this 900 mile march and eventually got liberated, I remember vividly the date, Friday, April 13th 1945. That was the day I got back to American lines. I think I told you this before but we gave ourselves up to them and they freed us. Well, a better way to put it, we walked to them any rate but nevertheless, whatever it was, we were freed. An American Officer gave us 200 eggs. He said ‘I don’t know what you blokes are going to do, there is nothing laid on for you, you’ll just have to go and find somewhere to stay. Knock on every house and say you want lodgings or whatever you want to say.’
First we went to this hotel which the Americans were using as their headquarters and also held the German PoWs.
(story about eggs told above)
Three of us went to find lodgings in what had been a radio shop. There were four of us but the fourth one got shot when we made a break for it. I don’t know whether I told you how we made a break for it but anyway, we had, and we were going through this plantation and one of them got pinned against this tree by the dog and he got shot. That was Giddy from Warwick.
During that time, after we made our break, one of the German guards shot one of our lads in the leg. It had gone up to his thigh, into his stomach and eventually killed him, just a couple of hours before they were released. When the Yanks caught up with the column, they told them what this bloke had done and what a bad so-and-so he was so they chased him with a tank. They chased him and chased him and chased him, let him think he was getting away and then chased him a bit further until eventually he couldn’t run any further and, they tell me, I didn’t see this but they tell me, the people who did see it and I quite well believe them, that the Yanks then drove the tank tracks onto him and then just screwed it round on him and that was that. So justice for the lad but not only that but the German guard had been a bit of a pig on the march anyway.
(story about meat from butchers, the baker and loading the Germans into trucks above)
Going Home at Last
The Americans said they hadn’t got anything laid on and nobody had contacted them to let them know what to do with us blokes. Anyway, after two days, he said that we had to go to Hanover, so we could go home from there. So we went by truck for that bit from Bitterfeld to Hanover and there we waited for the aircraft that was returning from Russia. Dakotas that were going to Russia. Some were coming from England and stopping in Germany and then going on to Russia. Some were flying straight to Russia. Some were coming back via there and refuelling and then some from there were coming straight to Blighty and some were going to the channel ports. Whatever luck you had as to which one you got on when you go in groups of 25 and you waited until the aircraft was coming in and walked down to the take-off point and got on the plane. I was fortunate in my group of 25 that was coming straight to Wing in Buckinghamshire. I didn’t want to go to any French Channel Port, I wanted to get home. So, we lined up in our 25 and this plane came in, touched down, went into this part of the airport had a cup of tea and snack, then came and said “right ho lads” and we piled on board.
There were no concrete runways there, all grass. As we were taxi-ing down, the tail skid of the Dakota slipped and went into a rut, well almost a ditch, on the side of the runway there and we had to get out and lift the tail of the Dakota back on to the runway. Eventually we took off and we’d been in the air 10 minutes and suddenly it dropped, just like a stone and I know my thoughts were “oh no, not after all this time, we’re not going to crash” and the crew on the plane by that time could see the consternation and they said “it’s all right mates, it’s just an air pocket”, we just levelled off again and carried on. Then the pilot came through and said “I’ll fly you over the white cliffs of Dover so you really know you’re on the way home” and that’s what they did. The white cliffs of Dover, my god what a sight.
We landed at Wing in Buckinghamshire and there were a couple of WRAFS waiting as you came off the aircraft and they went each side of you and took an arm and escorted you off the plane and across the airfield and any little tiny rut or ditch they moved you round and, oh yes, they looked after you. You went into this big hanger and as you went inside the door, there was an X-ray machine, a medical officer, a dentist and stretchers. And when you went in, they puffed delousing power all over up, up your arms, down your trousers, and then the medical officer said “how do you feel” and if you hesitated he said “there’s a stretcher, get on that” and you didn’t get any further.
Most of us were waiting to get home so most said “Fine, thanks”, you were half dead but said you were fine. They gave you a quick medical, the dentist looked at your teeth, you stood by the X-ray machine, and if they thought you passed then you went out the door where the same two, well not same ones, but two WRAFS waiting to take you from there and then in this next hanger was all small tables with white table cloths on and in centre of each table was a tin of 50 gold flakes opened and a tin of 50 gold flakes on the chairs of each table for each person. Then they came and said “What would you like?” I jokingly said “Strawberries and cream” and the WRAFS said to me, not yet you can’t have strawberries and cream, you need to have a normal meal of bangers and mash or something like that and I said I’d have bangers and mash then. I had bangers and mash and when you’d had that you had a little bit of an interrogation.
At the end of the hanger were three tables, each with a number on, 90, 91 and 92 right. Outside of there was a truck with the same number on it. Whichever number table you had to go to, your Regimental number, your PoW number, what springs you’ve had stolen, during the interrogation you then went out to that truck that was outside and soon as that was full, off you went to that number camp. I went to 91 Reception Camp. I really wasn’t believing I was home until we were going between where we landed at Wing to Amersham Station, to this Reception Camp, I didn’t think I was home until we past a subdued lighting public house, with subdued lighting in the doorway, and there was a village copper with his helmet standing there and I thought “God, I’m home”.
We went into the camp at Amersham and as you went in there was a bloke standing there with a pile of telegrams, already written out “Arrived in England, see you soon” on it, and you gave them the name and address of who it should be sent to and your name was put on the bottom of the telegram and it was sent off then. My Beryl got that sometime around 4 o’clock in the morning.
We went to this hut and they said to go in there and wait until they call you for what else you have to do and so we went to this hut still with your old clothes on that you arrived home in and they were lousy and you were lousy and dirty, needed a bath and anyway, next thing is a shower. Back from the shower but you still had the dirty clothes and they came and asked what you wanted to eat. We’d already had bangers and mash but they said you can’t refuse this now we have got it ready for you, come on, you have to eat, so you had to make an effort. There was so much food wasted there and to waste food was criminal because we’d been without it for so long. Anyway, when we finished that meal, they said right, off we’d go then and we walked from there off to the top of the camp and then into a couple of bell tents and then there were these huts, clothing store, goodness knows what but anyway, you went in to where these bell tents were and you stripped off and slung all your clothes in these bell tents. Then you went and got underclothes, shirt, vest, pants, then you moved on and got tunic, socks, boots, moved on again until you were completely kitted out, even to the extent of rucksack and pack and even to the extent that the last thing was your armaments. I was excused rifles and showed him my finger with the top off and he said you’d better have this then and tossed me a fender. So I was no better off with that. Then we went back to the hut and had been in there a few minutes and then taken to the company office and given £10 and a pay book and a six week leave pass. If you wanted any more money whilst you were on leave you had to go the priority paymaster. Anyway, we are now ready to go to Amersham Station. We went by truck and there we got on the train to London Marylebone. You get there and there are trucks waiting to take you to your respective stations or your home town. If you prefer, you could get the underground, if there was any underground running. Anyway, it was all laid on, wonderful organisation, to get you to your respective stations and the final journey homewards.I went by truck from Marylebone to Waterloo station and caught one of the last trains down to Woking, my home town. Nearly got out of the train at West Byfleet station as it’s still semi-blackout.
Arrived at Woking station, full pack, hat I was wearing as I was in the Gordon Highlanders, Scots Regiment and I got out of the train to walk out of the front of the station at Woking to see how I was going to get from there to Horsell, to home, and I took my hat off because I was sweating. I was sweating mainly because I was almost home. Wonderful excitement. Anyway, as I walked out the front of the station there were two people there; one was a taxi driver who I had known before I went away who immediately greeted me and said “Oh god Harry, glad to see you back, I’ve got my cab, I’ll go and fetch my cab and take you home.” Actually his name was Green so of course he was called Dodger, he was a 1914-18 War man. He went to get his taxi cab and brought it to the front of the station and as he was about to move away, and the RP says to me, “put your hat on John”. I looked at him and thought “No”. I’ve had five years where I’ve had to do what I was told to do at the end of the point of a bayonet and in my own country and am not going to do what I am bloody well told like that, especially under the circumstances. I just looked at him and thought no more. He just said “if you don’t put your hat on, we have a little truck round the corner there, just right to take you people away” whereupon I got even a bit more stroppy. I said “well, where I have just come from, we had thousands of bloody trucks but they weren’t any use to us” and he looked at me and by that time Dodger Green had come there and intervened and said “if you have a go at this man, you’ll have me to deal with as well. I don’t think you want to upset the civilians who have been so damn good to you do you?” and he just looked and Dodger said “there’s my cab anyway Harry” and we got into his cab and drove off and left the RP standing there. That was my home coming to Woking town.
Arrived home and those days in the house where my wife was with the lady I called gran.
Always, after this, if I refer to gran, this was the lady who brought me up. A wonderful dear. She was over 80 then. She had six children in the WWI, two of which she lost and she was part of the reason, her and my wife, that I came home for.
I endured lots of embarrassments, I didn’t lose my rag when I could have done as I wanted to come home.
The two main people were my wife and old gran. She suffered enough in WWI and she was getting on in years and I didn’t want to put her through any.
Any rate, arrived at the door of [address quoted here but left out for privacy purposes] and went in and not much had changed since I went away. Still as old fashioned were two gas bracket lamps, one in the front room and one in the living room. Two gas bracket lamps on the walls. My Beryl was there, I produced matches, lit the gas lamps and was, well, home.
It was strange, very strange, and it was strange for a lot of months after that but nevertheless, we loved each other and that’s all that kept us going.
A Little Background
Before I go any further, I should have given you a brief outline of the lady I call gran but I will forever mention gran in anything more I say on any of these tapes. She was a wonderful dear. She had a big family herself and at the time of my birth, my mother (I call her mother here and it’s the last time I will call her mother), if she was still alive now, I wouldn’t cross the road to meet her, but nevertheless, she was here living at the time of my birth. I believe, I don’t know for sure, but I believe working in the munitions factory. I was born. At the time I was born my gran’s daughter, who was married to a South African, was about to give birth to a child. The child died and Lilly, the daughter, also died of peritonitis. But before she died, my mother had conned her into looking after me whilst she, allegedly, went to Australia to visit her sister and she was then coming back for me. It was a con she had with gran’s daughter. Well, of course, when she was dying, she said to gran, don’t put him in a home mother, I promised I would look after him. And gran promised to look after me and she kept that promise to the extent that after I came back from the war, Beryl was back living here and we still lived here, and unfortunately gran became ill but fortunately we were here to look after her in the last years of her life to repay some of the wonderful things she did for me.
I had a wonderful childhood, really wonderful. I collected and delivered the washing which my gran did and had to do because she got nothing from anyone else for me so she had to do that to be able to keep me. I am thinking now of an amusing incident. I collected the washing from a certain so-called lady in The Grove in Woking and I used to collect and deliver. If I delivered it back and there was a crease on the collar, she wouldn’t accept it and I’d have to take it back for gran to do again and gran was getting a penny for washing, starching and ironing a shirt, a penny, from that lady, so-called lady. Any rate, she was so terrible not only the way she treated me with fetching and carrying, but also my gran in sending back things because I had probably creased it on the way, the collar or something, carrying it back, either in the parcel my gran had put it in or in the truck, I had a four wheel truck, jack-of-all-trades that truck, but anyway I started work, I started and did a paper round when I was 10 and then they stopped us and I started again when I was 11, the law and everything, anyway from 11, I was doing a paper round, 3 different paper rounds, morning, evening and Sunday paper rounds. The three of them together brought in the princely sum in those days of 10 shillings which did help to keep me. It only helped, it didn’t keep me, it only helped. It cost a lot more than 10 shillings to clothe and feed me.
Any rate, I was still doing that and then I left school and got a job and they asked at school if I could go and get a job to be a mechanic somewhere. There wasn’t any hope as I would become an apprentice and you had to pay for apprenticeships in those days. Any rate, the mechanical job that this school master got me, I must add this was not my original school master, this was the school master from Goldsworth School which was the last 12 months of schooling I had to go to and I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as the school I had attended, Horsell Church of England School for the other years of my schooling and we had a wonderful headmaster and, in fact, all the teachers were wonderful. That’s getting away from the subject.
When I started work I vowed that my gran was going to stop doing a lot of this washing and the first one she was going to stop doing was the one from The Grove who made me walk to and from to bring back a creased collar to make my gran do again and I thought that’s the first one to stop so the first week’s wages I got, I was delivering her washing back and I tell you I dropped it in the curb the moment I got out of the sight of my gran’s house, I dropped it in the curb and I kicked that parcel from there to the ladies house, somewhere about just over half a mile, I kicked it on the gravel footpath and in the gutter and as you can imagine when I got to the house it was in a bit of a tatters and I picked it up and took it in and she came to the door and I said “your washing” and she said “I’m not accepting that” and I said “You can please yourself, you can take it like it is or you can take it not at all, there it is and that’s it”, “I’ll go and see your gran about this” she said and I said “I’m not taking it back and she’s not doing it anymore and that’s all there is to it” “We’ll see about that” she said and she had standing outside her house a Morris Minor £110 car in competition with Ford’s £100 car. Of course she’s out in the car and away down to grans, by the time I got home back there she was at the door harassing my gran and she was trying to make my gran take this parcel back and good job I arrived back when I did and I said “you’re not taking it gran, you’re not doing it anymore and if there is any comeback on that, it’s me, I did that, nothing to do with you, you did the washing as normal, I did that and I’m prepared to accept any problem there is about it so she can please herself gran, you’re not doing it any more and that’s that”. Oh dear. She went away saying what she was going to do and what she wasn’t going to do but we never heard any more about it. I thought I did the right thing.
My childhood with gran, I played in the dog kennel with the dog and no one could touch me where that dog was anymore than anyone could touch me where gran was. Two pairs of coppers high she was but if anyone touched anyone in her family and I don’t know why, but especially me, they were in for a rough time I’ll tell you. She wasn’t any bigger, as I say, than two coppers stood on edge.
I remember an amusing incident there. A man that lived almost opposite had a couple of daughters, all older than me, and two sons, all older than me, and as you can imagine, if you didn’t have any father and mother to take you out, life was pretty tough and it would have been a lot tougher for me if it hadn’t been for my gran. But any rate, near to us there was what was called a ditch wall where all of us kids used to accumulate and play and at the time this happened, gran’s youngest son and his wife and their young child about 2 at the time, and I used to look after her, but I was a few years old, not many, but a few and I used to carry her out to where all the lads and all the girls were playing by this ditch wall and I could sit on the ditch wall holding her in my arms and we watched them playing and sometimes I joined in when someone else held the baby for me. Any rate, I don’t know why but this evening I was standing up holding Joyce, that was her name, in my arms and this Dorfu, this person opposite came and for some unknown reason, and it was for some unknown reason, she just slapped my face and you know kids, when someone slaps your face, I immediately brought the child, Joyce, back indoors and just put her down indoors and went across the road to where she’d run into her garden and she was down the garden and her father was down the garden and I just stood at the gate and said “you come here” and shook my fist at her and said “you come here and I’ll give you this fist” and the father came and he said “don’t you dare talk to my wife like that” and I said “your wife’s not there, it’s your daughter she just slapped my face and I’ll tell you what I’ll do to her, if she comes out here I’ll slap her face” “Oh, you’re insulting my wife” he said and I said “your wife’s not here and I wouldn’t dream of doing it to your wife” and he comes over the gate and of course I ran indoors which was right opposite. Gran was looking and she said what are you running for and I said the name of the person was chasing me. “Oh, what’s he chasing you for?” and I said “Well, his daughter slapped my face when I was holding Joyce so when I brought Joyce in I went out there and she was down the garden and I said you come out here and I’ll give you one back” and I said “he said I was insulting to his wife but his wife wasn’t there gran”. “You’re sure?” she said and I said yes and with that she said if he comes anywhere near, and he came to the back door and he was banging on the back door creating hell of a baloo, so gran says and indoors round the fire, big black kitchen range thing, was what they called a guard, it was a stainless steel rod, which had been made into a guard and a stainless steel fender and inside the guard was a companion set, with double tongs, a poker, tall tongs 2-3 foot tall to reach the fire with and on the top of these tongs was a massive stainless steel knob, a really big knob and I remember the words to this day, my gran said “if he isn’t gone by the time I get there, I’ll undress my fireplace to him” and I wondered what it meant at the time but it quickly came to me, the penny dropped, actually she was saying as she picked up the tongs out of there and turned them up so she was holding the foot of the tongs there and the knobs up the top there. She came to the door and she said “yes, what do you want? My boy was not rude to anybody at all. I believe him. He’s told me what happened. I believe him” she said “and if you aren’t soon gone” and you’ve never seen a man move so quickly in all your life when he saw those tongs in my gran’s hand. Needless to say he wasn’t a good friend of mine for the rest of his life.
There wasn’t anything that I had to have for schooling or anything that somehow or other my gran, if she did extra washing or anything, she found the method of getting whatever there was needed for me. I’ll tell you another thing. I’m going on just to try and show you how lovely and wonderful my gran was.
I was in the country dance team at school and there was another boy, a few months older than me, in the country dance team and we went down to Guildford and we won the year before. All the different schools went to the country dancing competition. Sometimes you won a cup or certificate for the best school. Anyway, we won it the year before and this year we just moved up into long trousers, the dress was grey shirt and grey trousers and I suppose we’d grown at bit. It was at Guildford but if you were in the team you had to pay your own fare which at the time was four-pence hap’ny, which at the time was very difficult to get. Having to pay your own fare, two things happened this particular year. Opposite to me also in another household was another lad who was six months older than me who I still had contact with and he had an aunt who lived in Guildford but that’s deviating from what I’m going to tell you. This morning we were going to Guildford, we got to school before it was open as we had to get to the station to catch the train. Anyway, my gran had gone and bought grey trousers which was what was asked for and they were supposed to be plain grey flannel I suppose but anyway, they were grey. My gran could not find long plain grey ones for me in the town and she wasn’t in a position to go any further than Woking town so she bought me a pair and I would call them herringbone, they weren’t plain but had a stripe in them. I was rather proud of them and rather pleased with them but I was waiting at the school door and this other lad, I won’t sully his good name by saying who he was, he knows if he is still alive, he came to school at said “ooo, you’re not going in those are you? They’re bloody awful. Should have got the proper ones. Not going in those are you?” and my gran had gone to a lot of work to get them and it was a proper insult and I was a bit hurt with him talking about these trousers like that and I gave him fair warning and said they were what I was going in and “if you don’t like it you’ll have to lump it and if you don’t shut up I’ll make you lump it.” So he didn’t shut up. He had a lot more to say about these trousers but I assure you he didn’t attend the country dancing that day because I just flattened him and gave him a bloody good hiding. He didn’t attend the country dancing and I did and we actually won the shield.
I blotted my copybook again that day, because when we were in Guildford and that lad who’s aunt lived in Guildford there, he said we pay our own fare there so why are we coming back on the train that they tell us to come back on. Which we should have had more sense and known that’s what we should do but he said he’d like to go to see his aunt who lived in Guildford there and he said “would you like to come with me?” and I said “Sure”, so any rate, we were in two minds, but we got back to the station and we were in time to get the train but we decided to go see his aunt and we watched the train go out and that was that. Well, of course, we went to school together the next morning and when we were going up the hill to the back gate of the school there, there’s the gent leaning over the wall “ooo, you’re narf gonna cop it, you’re narf gonna cop it” well, anyway, at the time I was captain of the school football team and this other lad had won and he was red hot and won a science prize at school. We did cop it, we went up to the headmaster’s study and we first of all I got barred from football for the rest of the term and the captaincy taken away from me, I got it back the next season but anyway it was taken away for the rest of that season and the other lad lost his science prize. I think he lost more than I did because I did go and play football somewhere else but he didn’t get a science prize somewhere else.
I learnt quite a bit about gardening from gran’s husband while he was alive. He died when I was quite young. I can’t say anything about gran, just she was a wonderful, wonderful woman. My childhood days, apart from those things, was just full of love. I’m only sorry that for my boys, she wasn’t about long enough for them to get to know her like I did. She was 88 when she died. My Kevin, I’m going on a bit and I don’t know for what reason, I can’t get him to even talk about that. In fact, I can’t get him to talk about much at all because I was absent for the first 6 years of his life in the forces and then in the PoW camp and all-in-all I was away for the first 6 years of his life and he was 10 days old when I left here and he was 6 when I came back. So, that gap, I don’t think, it’s too late now anyway, I don’t think that will ever be filled. I don’t know the reason why, I don’t know why I can’t get him to talk. It’s probably my fault as well as it’s difficult for me to make conversation with Kevin. It’s very difficult, that’s all I can say. I’m not blaming him but I’m just pointing out the facts of life. I wish I could get closer to him but there you are. The other two were two young, the youngest wasn’t born when gran died but the middle one, Roger, was. Roger can just about remember her but not anything specific or anything like that because Roger was about 3 or 4 when she died. My memories not good for ages but I think 3 or 4. Kevin was about 12. He did know gran. He used to take her to the town to draw her pension and walk with her to the chemist shop and things like that. From the time he was about 2 or 3 years old. It was him who accompanied gran or she accompanied him, whichever way, but I can understand he was a wonderful companion to her and he really looked after her. That’s enough of that or I shall be in tears if I keep on.
I tried to pick up the threads of life after I came home. Very difficult time. Hardships and difficulty and no assistance whatsoever from your country, none. Made you wonder what the heck you’d been fighting for, as I do today. Because, it’s a sad state of affairs but any of us that remember the hard times we had and thought we could alleviate that for our children and our works and tried hard not to go boozing or whatever it was with your money but to put it into a pension or saving so that you at least weren’t destitute, you suffer. You’re far better off going and spending your money and wasting it so that as and when something happens to either one of you, the other one has nothing or even long before that, if it comes to your retiring time and you’ve got nothing because you haven’t saved anything or paid pensions or anything, you’ve got nothing, you’re better off because the State seems to think more of you than they do of those people who have tried hard to make a go of life. I shouldn’t be bitter like that but I’m afraid I am. [Rest of this removed for privacy reasons]
When I came home, my wife was living with my gran which was fortunate for both of them and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but when I came home, Beryl thought we should get a place of our own and we tried from the Council and the only thing they offered us, with a long wait for anyway, was a nessun hut on Chobham Common. I know people who had to resort to going and living in those but, as I say, I was fortunate and had my old gran who came up trumps as she always did.I missed lots of things, which, when I recap on these tapes, I will think that I have missed this or that, I will put on the final tape. Nothing is in sequence, just as it comes to my mind.
I came back, I had 6 weeks leave. I had another 12 months in the Army to do. During that time I was stationed in an area looking after two ambulances and driving one virtually every other day as I was a mechanic. At Weybridge, not far from home so I got home occasionally. Well, then, the lads…not sure if I said this before….I’ll reiterate it as it’s something that sticks in my mind all the time, the lads from Japan PoW camp started to come home and because I was driving this ambulance I was ferrying them from the docks and the airport and from wherever to places like Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot, Hammersmith Hospital, East Grinstead, the skin grafting place there and what was his name, Fleming, had just got that going and we were transporting the lads coming home there and I thought I’d had a pretty rough time in the PoW camp until I saw the condition of them. I couldn’t say I’d been a PoW because compared to them, I was in a wonderful state. Oh my god, I didn’t dare say I’d been a PoW, really, we did suffer yes, but nothing to the extent to what those lads suffered and it’s only really recently they managed to get a meagre pittance from the Army or from the Government for their time in that hell hole and that’s all you could call it, a hell hole. I’m not bitter about that at all, they deserved that. We got nothing and Germany got nothing although Germany did pay money for us to be paid out but what’s happened to it I don’t know. That doesn’t worry me now.
Picked up the shreds of life and when I got demobbed, went back to work for the boss I left to go in the forces. Did 5 years there with him. He got worse and worse and a bit mean with me and if I wanted to get nuts and bolts for a repair job I had to go out and purchase them, in his name of course, and any decent garage had a store of nuts and bolts but he wouldn’t keep them. Things went from bad to worse. A couple of military vehicles were kept in our garage and I started to do the servicing and maintenance on them for my boss and one of the drivers was crippled and they wanted one of their cars modified as he couldn’t use a footbrake so handbrake had to be as efficient as the footbrake, so the engineer was just getting the mechanical side going as up to then they had horses, and the commissioner, he came in and said could I do anything to this car and I said I’d modified a few Austin 7’s as you couldn’t get a handbrake at all unless you modified the system to extend the lever to get more leverage on, so I did a modification on this Austin A40 Devon or Devon or Dorset whatever, I did a modification connecting the handbrake linkage into the footbrake linkage and extending the leverage and it was satisfactory and he was very satisfied with it and he brought two more in for me to do, different types but any rate. After a while he said he was opening a workshop at Blackbushe Aerodrome and would I like to come and work for him. I said not really as I didn’t want the hassle of going in front of some of you people and answering a lot of questions when I needed a good job and I needed it but couldn’t get the apprenticeship as I couldn’t afford it and if I came up for an interview for that job and you say no and I’m out I won’t be very happy. “No, no, no” he said “you apply for it and you’ve got the job. I can see what your work is like and the job you’ve done for us, highly satisfactory” so I said “well, right then” so a few weeks after that I got asked to go in front of them and I said that I’d told him I didn’t want this and he said that was alright and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. There was another man there and he had been through phone workshops and some other workshops and had an apprenticeship and I thought that was me out but the conservator, who was taking the interview, said no, my engineer tells me what you’re work is like and he had an apprenticeship but is there anyone else who can give you a reference as I’d given him my Army reference, as he didn’t want to go to my boss and nor did I as I knew he wouldn’t be complimentary as he didn’t want me to leave so I said there was my old school master, “that’ll do” he said, “where does he live?” so I told him and “That’s quite close” he said “do you think he’ll be there if I went across” and I didn’t know, so he looked him up in the telephone directory and called him and the school master said yes to send over whatever he wanted filled in and he’d be only too pleased. The courier went down to the house and waited whilst he wrote out this reference and came back and based on that reference I got the job.
I did 33 years on the Forestry Commission. I started as a mobile mechanic and ended up a PSG01, Professional and Technological Officer and I ended up the Workshop Manager at Blackbushe Aerodrome, workshop for South East England and I had under my charge there all the vehicles for the South East England which was a considerable amount but I had a very, very good crew working for me, simply because I never told anyone what to do, I always asked them to do something and I found that was a much better way of getting work done and the respect of the workers.
To this day, the are 24 of us at the moment, gradually dwindling, including some of the wives, we have a meeting every 3 months roughly and the man that was my store man, he organises that, because he was a wonderful store man and organiser he was top class, he rings me up and says “boss, how about a do on” whatever time and then between us we contact the rest of the lads and then we meet. They were and still are a darn good crew.
I’ve been retired now for 20 years. God that times gone quick.
I was going to a forest in Kent where there was an old dome hut with an office and two forester’s houses, one was a workers and one was an officers. I had to go there occasionally to do inspections and repairs on the vehicles, they had a Ford tractor, Bedford lorry, Ford van and a couple of motorbikes so I serviced in the yard in the open air in the winter or snow whatever, a pretty horrible place to work, made worse by the fact that this forester would come from his house to the office with a tray of tea, tea cosy over the teapot and everything and he’d take it across into the office for him and his couple of office workers and he would pass me and he would never, ever say to me would you like a cup of tea. There was nowhere to get warm or anything. Towards summer time, the forester used to have to go to the local brewery, about 8 or 9 miles away, to collect the hops to put on the beds they had there and they had to collect them daily. I go there this day and the lorry has broken down so I’m under the vehicle doing that and this forester comes out and sits on a box by the side of where I’m working and I thought, “hello, he wants something” as he’d never done that before, hardly spoken to me, so I assumed it was something about work or what was wrong with the lorry. He said did I fancy a cup of tea so I said yes that would be very nice. He went away and came back with this tray with not only tea but it was strawberry time and he had strawberries and bread and butter and I thought what can he want. Any rate, I stopped and had this tea and general conversation. I get toward the end of the strawberries and cream and he says he’s been having a bit of trouble with his car, the wheel bearings are turning in the housing and he said was there anything he could do about it, and I said of course there is and he said what thinking he was on a good thing then I said “buy a new one”. He quickly packed up and I never got offered a cup of tea again.
was far happier working on stuff and being up against it than when I got
a promotion and was in the office more and allocating work for other people.
I could not get established for a pension because of the PoW days, vertebrae
shattered, etc, I did have an X-ray and an operation. For 20 years I suffered
it as I did need my pay. The commission did pay half pay for so many weeks.
I had 5 weeks off in those 20 years and came out and they did have to establish
me. I think I earned my pension. You had to take a promotion to get a decent