24 Disaffection of the Forces

The maximum sentence for disaffection of the forces under regulation 1AA was fifteen years.  We didn’t know what to expect.

Anarchist  During the war the anarchist movement was pretty well a closed shop, as of course it had to be.  There was the overt activity – the open, public activity, and there was the underground stuff going on.  There was the whole business of having to protect deserters and people on the run.  There had to be security.  And so the Anarchist Federation, as it was then called, was something that you were only invited to join.  You couldn’t just bowl up, or write in and say “I want to join you.”

When I first went to Belsize Road, where the Freedom Press was, I was fascinated and I was interested. (1)    I felt I had come home, inasmuch I had found people of similar attitudes.  The overt activity of the Freedom group was things like public speaking at Hyde Park and publishing War Commentary, which had an uninterrupted run through the war.

All papers had an uninterrupted run through the war, with the exception of the Daily Worker that was banned for a year after 1940.  Because of the invasion of France Herbert Morrison (2) decided that freedom couldn’t be extended to the Communist Party any longer, and their paper was banned until Germany attacked Russia and the Communists changed their line overnight from opposition to support of the war.  They started publishing again and became the most outrageous patriots of the lot.  Anyone who opposed the war was denounced as an agent of Hitler and the Trotskyists. (3)   They were absolute bastards.  They used to hassle sellers at Hyde Park.  You’d be jostled and papers would be knocked out of your hands.

We sold the bulk of what we printed.  We had good sales here in London and a very, very good and active group in Glasgow at that time.  Best working class orators I’ve ever heard speaking every Sunday at Maxwell Street, in the heart of Glasgow.  In the summer outdoors, and in the winter they took St. Enoch’s Hall and had big meetings there.  It was the most influential working class group in Glasgow at the time amongst anti-war people.

Glasgroup, the one

The ILP were very strong too.  It was still the time when people talked about “The Red Clyde”, and that period of the strong ILP.  Besides us and the ILP, the SPGB was the other political group totally opposed to the war. (4)

In fact, they were one of the few organisations where you pretty well only had to go before a Conscientious Objectors Tribunal and say “I’m a member of the SPGB” and you’d get off automatically.  They had a splendid record of getting people off and a lot of it stemmed from Tony Turner, because he would go and speak for somebody.

Stepney, London Teenager   I became a socialist when I was fifteen.  I was a member of the SPGB.  My Father, who’d been a docker,  had died so there was no political influence on me at home.  I met this bloke at work who was in the SPGB, and he introduced me to them.  He took me to a meeting by a man called Tony Turner, and he’s probably the greatest speaker I’ve heard in my life.  He was fucking Moses.

Anarchist  Tony Turner was often on Christian name terms with the Chairman of the Tribunal – “Well, Tony, what you’ve got to say about this one?”  The two groups that were usually recognised were the SPGB and the Friends – the Quakers.  The Jehovah Witnesses were continually turned down.  I never quite understood that, except they’re a pretty intolerant bunch, and never really recognised as a proper religious body.  But Tony Turner was a brilliant speaker.  The story goes that on the day war broke out he spoke for about nine hours continuously in Hyde Park.  One report said there were thousands of people listening to him.

We had a problem of where to put a rather special deserter who had just come out of the army to join us

As I said earlier, one couldn’t simply bowl up and join the Anarchist Federation.  They sized you up for a long time.  I’d been selling newspapers in Hyde Park and doing drawings and sign-writing posters, for a whole year, and I’d just started writing articles for them,  before they finally decided I was a fit person to be invited to join, and then I was right in the bloody thick of it.

I had a nice little studio then, in Camden Town, in Camden Street, which was a very nice secluded place behind a church, with an alleyway leading to it.  We had a problem of where to put a rather special deserter who had just come out of the army to join us.  He was a chap called John Olday.   He was of German origins who’d been in the German anarchist movement before the war and had come over here just before the war.  He’d been drafted into the Pioneer Corps and was in it for a couple of years.  He was a cartoonist and had been sending his cartoons to War Commentary – very, very sharp, acid and funny cartoons.

Cartoon:  John Olday

Cartoon: John Olday

The time came when he decided he could no longer stand it and wanted to pull out.  So we had to give him some place to live and this little studio of mine was just right.  He came and lived with me in that studio for quite a few months.  He established a network of communication with dissident soldiers.  He started a regular monthly newsletter – soldier’s newsletter – which was duplicated.  He sent this out to a list of about two hundred soldiers.  His special knowledge of the army gave him the opportunity to talk in their terms and establish rapport with soldiers which us conches didn’t have.

Besides publishing War Commentary we also turned out an unending stream of little penny pamphlets and sixpenny booklets.

Lon group, the one

In the autumn of 1944, when the State decided to attack us, I was off on a book-selling tour.  We’d drawn up a big itinerary starting from London up to Bristol, up the west country, up to Glasgow, across to Edinburgh and right the way down, covering every major town.  I did a sort of whistle stop tour with my little bag of samples of all our pamphlets.  It was an absolute joy.  I sold £500 worth of literature in six weeks!  I was sending orders down  and they were having to get some things back on the press because they were right out.

It was at this time that John Olday got picked up.  He was carrying a typewriter home late at night and a policeman stopped him and asked him what he was doing, and where he was going, and where his card – his ID card was.  He had to go down to the station and he got nabbed.  He kept stumm for a long time – wouldn’t say who he was, but eventually they found out and it coincided with some things we were saying in the paper that they were objecting to.

They raided my studio and found all his stuff – the duplicating machine and discovered that letters had been circulating among soldiers.  As a result of this they raided Freedom Press and because I was on this book-selling tour they found my Ration Book and they said “What’s this?”  You could stay one night in a hotel without a ration book and so I was living for the six weeks without the thing and I’d left it behind for other people to pick up their rations.  They also found in my studio a lovely great big sheepskin coat which I’d bought from a soldier when I had been working on the land, and had a motorbike.  It was something left over from the Norwegian campaign.

As a result of them raiding my place and Freedom Press, as a consequence of picking up John Olday, the whole bloody balloon went up.  By the time I got back to London I had to go into hiding.  They’d nabbed three of the others.  They’d picked up Vernon Richards, who nominally was the owner of Express Printers, the movement’s printing press, and John Hewetson, who was a doctor, and he was nominally the owner of Freedom Press.  The third was Marie-Louise, Vernon Richard’s wife, and an activist in her own right.

Vernon Richards

Vernon Richards

Philip Sansom

Philip Sansom

Hew-Mar L001A short while after I got back I was jumped on at a friend’s flat.  Someone had squealed that I was staying there.  We suspected it was CPers, but we never knew for sure. (5)

When we were attacked the amount of support we got from all sorts of directions, including people like Orwell, was astonishing

So there were the four of us.  John Olday was already in nick.   The maximum sentence for disaffection of the forces under Regulation 1AA was fifteen years.  The Disaffection Act of 1934 had laid down two years maximum but the wartime regulations upped that to fifteen years.  We didn’t know what to expect.

A few months before us, four trotskyists had been done for inciting a strike in Newcastle – the famous Apprentices’ Strike, and they’d got six months, I think, just for that. (6)   And our thing seemed to be getting a hell of a lot more attention.  We were anticipating two, maybe three years.  Not so long before us a chap called T.W.Brown had got eighteen months on a similar charge.  He lived out at Kingston and he’d produced his own anti-war leaflets.  He’d actually gone around handing leaflets out to soldiers and members of the Wrens and the Women’s Airforce, and things like that.  He’d given one to a Waaf who immediately went straight to the police, had been picked up and had got eighteen months. We thought: surely we won’t get less than that.

We didn’t feel at all isolated.  For one thing, if you’re a member of a group, or a movement, you get this little cocoon around you and the rest of the world doesn’t exist.  It’s like living in London – you have your own community and the rest of London is like a desert as far as you’re concerned.  When we were attacked the amount of support we got from all sorts of directions, including people like Orwell, was astonishing.  They rallied around in an absolutely marvellous way.

Freedom Press had an enormous amount of prestige at that time and a lot of affection going for it, and a lot of respect.  It had grown out of the Spanish war, which was still not all that far behind, and so a lot people rallied round.  I’m never going to hear anything against old Herbert Read, on account of what he did at the time. (7)   He roped in all the bloody intellectuals, with his name behind us, and Ethel Manning and old pacifists with prestige like Reginald Reynolds, and a few other people like that.  And he got M.Ps on the Defence Committee – Michael Foot, Fenner Brockway, Sidney Silverman – I think.   The Left M.P’s joined up – Bevan joined us as a patron of the Freedom Press Defence Committee, and people like Orwell wrote, and the whole thing began to thunder. (8)

We set up a Defence Fund and we raised £2000 in a very short time, with the result that we were able to buy the services of top flight barristers.  We had John Maude, who afterwards became Recorder of Exeter; Derek Curtis Bennett, as he was then.  He afterwards became Sir Derek; a chap called John Burge, who seems to have sunk without trace, but was a very, very able guy.   He was my bloke and spoke very well.  We were also able to hire the services of someone called Seaton, who became a real right bastard of a Recorder later on.  He was a right wing sod and we retained him simply to stop him being used by the other side.  He just sat there looking glum and not saying a word all the time.  And as a junior – nice little twist – a chap was assigned as a junior to Curtis Bennett.  He’s now a Labour councillor and lives just up the road.  A short while ago he advised me on some rent trouble – a little battle I was having with my landlord.

We put it forward, and it was accepted as a Freedom of Speech thing.  This was Orwell’s attitude

He made it perfectly clear he didn’t agree with us about the war, but he was concerned about the freedom of speech issue.  He spoke on our platforms, both before and afterwards.  The Freedom Committee was kept going after the trial as a sort of alternative to the NCCL which at the time was heavily CP dominated. (9)

When I was arrested the police found that I hadn’t notified my last change of address on my Identity Card.  Because I didn’t seem to have an address they wanted to hold me and I was charged on two accounts, besides the Disaffection charge.  One, for not notifying my change of address and two, for being in possession of government property – the army sheepskin coat I’d bought off this soldier.  I was given a month on each account, just to keep me in while they were cooking up the main charges.

I was in nick when the first hearings began in the magistrates’ court for the general charges against Freedom Press.  There was quite a battle to get me bail.  They fixed bail at £1000.  They were prepared to accept two people at £500.  I actually had three or four people in court prepared to do that, but none of them would swear on the Bible!  The bloody old judge wouldn’t accept them!  They were prepared to affirm, but not take the oath.  There had to be an application to a Judge in chambers, who declared that it was quite illegal for the judge to have refused to accept affirmation, so I was finally let out.  I was out when the main trial started.

I had already done a little bit of prison sentence in Brixton, which was a first-timers’, remand prison then.  When we finally got weighed off at the Old Bailey and got nine months each we were highly delighted!   We’d been expecting a lot more.  After the sentencing we went in different directions.  Hewetson had been in jail before, as a conscientious objector, but that doesn’t count as a criminal offence, so he was able to go to the Scrubs, which is a first-timers’prison.  It was also Richards first time, and he went to the Scrubs.  But I, as a second-timer, I was sent to bloody Wandsworth, which was a hell of a jail.  Marie-Louise was found not guilty on a technicality.

They put me to work in the print shop.  Here was I, having been done for making propaganda to disaffect the forces, actually being taught how to print

After a few weeks at Wandsworth I applied for a transfer to the Scrubs, where the others were, but instead they sent me to Maidstone, which was a lovely little nick.  I had no complaints at Maidstone at all.  It was mid-summer by this time.  They put me to work in the print shop.  Here was I, having been done for making propaganda to disaffect the forces, actually being taught how to print.  I thought it was marvellous!   Unfortunately I was stupid enough to  write out and say this in my letters and the Special Branch were of course reading them, so after a week at Maidstone I was hurriedly sent back to Wandsworth.

I applied again for a transfer and eventually they did send me to the Scrubs.  There we had a great time.  There was this chap T.W.Brown, there were us three and there were about two others sympathetic to us.  One was an ex-Communist.

Apart from the criminals in there, who were not a great lot, most of the chaps were deserters

There wasn’t a hostile atmosphere in there.  We set ourselves up very quickly to become a kind of advisory body, and Hewetson, as a doctor, always had his ear bent to various complaints.  We became quite a nice little influence.

The Deputy Governor was a young keen Rhodes scholar from South Africa, who obviously had ideas on rehabilitation of prisoners.  He thought he was going to set up a sort of educational thing, for one thing, to show us up for the idiots we were.  First he started off discussion groups where we’d read the daily papers and he’d pick out items and say “We’ll talk about this.”  There’d be a polite discussion, but because our ideas came through it got up his nose.  So he said “Right, we’ll have debates about this.”  They set up debates on all sorts of issues and we wiped the floor.  Hewetson was a very good speaker and the ex-communist – a little round-faced man – turned out to be a great speaker.  There’d be about a hundred prisoners coming to these debates, and we won every time, hands down.  The people they were putting up against us were toffee-nosed officers who’d been cashiered out of the army for fiddling funds, and this sort of thing!  After about three of these debates the deputy Governor decided he’d had enough, and so he stopped them.

At the time of the trial the print order for War Commentary went up five and six thousand.  The comrades in Glasgow really went to town.  They had enormous meetings up there and stirred things like hell.  They took a thousand, two thousand copies and sold them at their meetings.  The trial happened at a time when the war was obviously coming to an end and the Allies obviously winning.  Had it happened in the atmosphere of 1940 it might have been quite a different story.  But by 1945 people were pissed off by the war.

1.  Belsize Road, north west London.  The anarchist Freedom Press was founded in 1886 by, amongst others, Charlotte Wilson, and the Russian Prince Kropotkin.  It remains an anarchist publishing house.

2.   Herbert Morrison, 1930s leader of the Labour controlled London County Council, and Home Secretary in the wartime Coalition Government.

3.  Trotskyists.  Followers of the theories of Leon Trotsky, prominent Bolshevik at the time of the Russian Revolution and founder and leader of the Red Army.  Ousted during internal power struggles in the 1920’s, expelled from the USSR,  and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

4.   ILP:   Independent Labour Party, a British democratic socialist party founded in 1893.   It was affiliated to the Labour Party from 1906 – 1932, and had several prominent MP’s, including Ramsay Macdonald, Manny Shinwell and James Maxton.  Its parliamentary significance declined, with its three remaining MP’s going over to the Labour Party in the 1940’s.   SPGB:  Socialist Party of Great Britain.  A Marxist party critical of Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Revolution,  and continuing to be critical since, of Trotsky, Stalin, etc.   Still in existence.

5.   CPers:  Members of the Communist Party.

6.  The Apprentices Strike of 1944 was led by the Tyneside Engineering Apprentices Guild, resisting apprentices being drafted into coal mines as part of the Bevin Boys.  Trotskyist members of the Revolutionary Communist Party were charged for aiding them.  Their role has been described as ‘advising and supporting’ the strike leaders.

7.  Herbert Read, an anarchist and writer on Art,  sullied his name among many anarchists when he accepted a Knighthood in 1953 for  “Services to Literature”.

8.  Ethel Mannin:  novelist, essayist, feminist and left libertarian;  Reginald Reynolds: Quaker, active pacifist, married Ethel Mannin in 1938;  Michael Foot: co-author of Guilty Men (1940) and Labour leader in opposition, 1980 -1983;  Fenner Brockway, active pacifist First World War, member of ILP, co-founder of War on Want and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Labour MP from 1950;  Sidney Silverman:  active pacifist First World War, Labour Party activist and MP, campaigning for the abolition of capital punishment, often in dispute with his own party;  Nye Bevan:  Labour MP from 1929 and Minister of Health 1945 – 1951 in the post-war Labour Government.

George Orwell, in 1944 was, outside of the Left, not generally  known.  He had completed Animal Farm in February, 1944.  It was rejected by his publisher Victor Gollancz, and also by publishers Jonathan Cape and Faber and Faber, on political grounds.  It was published by Secker and Warburg in August, 1945.

9.  NCCL:  National Council for Civil Liberties.  The Freedom Defence Committee continued to take up other cases until it folded in 1949.  In the summer of 1945 the Freedom Defence Committee was as below:

Free defence C

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23 D Day

When we was getting near France and I realised this was it, I was like a jelly – nerves.  I wasn’t no hero

Brodick Farmer, Isle of Arran   The commandos trained here.

His Sister, House Owner, Brodick, Isle of Arran   By jove yes, and the damage they did.  I didn’t know until afterwards that I could have claimed compensation.  Oh, they smashed everything.  Some of them were just like wild animals, wetting their beds.  The place was almost practically new and the mess they made!  Some of the hotels closed down and went away.  They cleared out.  But me –   the authorities came to me and said I had to take these commandos.  I said I couldn’t take them – I was all alone.  Oh they insisted!  I had to.  There was no escape.

Brodick Farmer, Isle of Arran  The commandos, the first time they arrived here, I think it was a January afternoon, a cold blustery afternoon it was.  There was a dozen places on Brodick beach they could have landed them quite sensibly, and the Navy were bound to know, because Brodick is probably one of the best examples of a sloping beach in Britain, and there was no difficulty in getting them to land their landing craft on Strabane beach – right up.  But of course, Commander So and So, whoever was in charge, landed them out in the damn sandbanks, and the poor fellers had to get into the water, and make a human chain and load all their stuff across, some of them standing up to their shoulders.  And believe me, that water is cold!  We were absolutely sweating, watching them.  There was a score of places on the beach they could have run the landing craft right up and landed them and run their stuff ashore.  They learnt that later on, but this was the first lot that came in.  I said “My God, look at the Navy!”  Some of the fellers must have been in a devil of a state because they were standing for a long time, and they were handing their gear from one to another, and on to the shore.

And then there were a lot of young “brilliant” officers – hard fellers – they were in it for the money, and straight away they’d take them for these fearful route marches and then walk them straight down into the sea with all their kit on.  On one occasion one fellow put them right over the end of the pier and they struggled their way ashore – to make them tough.

I remember poor old Charlie, he was the Brodick Hall keeper.  He and John MacBride were two of the greatest assets Brodick ever had.  Charlie was having a dance in the hall. It was full of the commandos.  He put down his jacket to sweep something up, and when he went to get his jacket they had rifled his pockets.  Charlie was a great philosopher.   He said “Isn’t it a terrible thing to think that anyone would be low enough to rob the pocket of a working man.”

Fusilier   During the pre-D Day landing exercises at places like Inveraray and Rothesay guys were throwing their weapons overboard.   I can assure you this was no just a matter of them larking about.  The real reason for throwing phosphorous grenades and dumping their bullets and bombs overboard was that they just didnae want to know.  They didnae want to get their faces burned or a bullet through the bloody head.  It’s as blunt as that.  The whole area must be loaded up with enough weapons and gear to start another bloody war!

Leeds Man   We had a particularly nasty bully in the ——— Infantry.  When they went abroad on D Day  I went to a holding battalion, and then on to another holding battalion and bumped  into two or three of the old ———- Infantry men there.  One night we were talking and I asked “What happened to Captain So and So?”  “He was dead before his feet reached the sand.”  “What?  They got him so quickly?”  “No, they didn’t get him.  We got him.”  His own troops shot him.  They shot him in the back as they landed on D Day.

Wanstead, East London Woman   We knew when it was going to be D Day because they were on the Flats, all the soldiers, getting ready.  My mate lived in Sydney Road.  We used to talk to them from her upstairs window.  They told us something was going to happen.  They said they didn’t know exactly when they were going.  They weren’t allowed out at all.  That’s why we talked to them from the window.  You couldn’t talk to them otherwise.

Winscombe Girl  We served the Americans in the shop and delivered papers to the Headquarters, for the Commanding Officer.  He had heard that my Father had died and came into the shop to say how sorry he was, and to cancel the papers and pay up because they were all leaving for France.  They were supply troops.  This was a week after D Day.

East London Boy  I had a marvellous experience at work.  I was supposed to have studied French at school and I had a vague knowledge of it, about enough to say Hallo to somebody.  I worked as an apprentice making radios.   I got one of these radios going and they announced the D Day landings – in French.  It hadn’t been announced in English.  The bloke I was working for had been a pilot in the Spanish Civil war, on the Republican side, and I called him down.  It kept giving out these reports, and he could understand.  I ran out into the street and I told everyone the army had landed, and nobody would believe me!  I was really upset as I knew the armies had landed.

Fusilier  At the height of the Normandy landings almost every police station and detention camp in Britain was jam-packed full.  In Glasgow alone, at places like Blythswood Police Station, deserters were twelve to a cell.  Maryhill Barracks was like the Black Hole of Calcutta – Edinburgh Castle likewise, and that story was repeated up and down the country.

Sketch:  Walter Morrison

Sketch: Walter Morrison

I was in the first wave on D Day.  It was supposed to be half past six in the morning, but we was late again!

Royal Engineer  The British Army was late again!  8 o’ clock we got there.  We went from Gosport.  We was kept up there for six weeks in the “cages” – a bit white camp, all under canvas.  You couldn’t get outside the perimeter wire.  They had guards on it – Redcaps and dogs.  We had all our last minute secret training in there, but no-one knew when it was going to be.  They was all over England, these camps.  You kept doing the same thing over and over again.

Once a week we had to all put on our battle order.  We had special assault jackets, different to the army uniform.  They put us on lorries and took us to Gosport harbour.  We embarked on tank landing craft and they took you out into the Channel.  Maybe four hours.  The next week you thought: Hallo?  What’s going on here?  We were away, so we thought.  But they brought you back.  Back to the routine.  We didn’t know when we were going out whether it was training or for real.  Of course, the last time they took us out I thought to myself:  we’re out here a fucking long time.  And the blokes are saying “What the fucking hell’s going on today?  We want to get back!”  Then the Captain who’s driving this fucking boat came round and gave you the word – that this was the real thing.  The old padre came at us, and you’re going “Cor, fucking hell!  I wish I’d known this!  They wouldn’t have got me out!”  But up to that time you were in the routine.  You was taking orders.  The preparation was so strict and intense, from the time we got to Gosport.

You was all split up into your little groups.  They split everybody up into small groups so that in  case of casualties – in case a whole lot got wiped out – you still had a unit.  There was only me and a mate of mine – us two engineers on that one boat.  Then we had anti-aircraft gun, bren carrier, few infantrymen, few ambulance men – all mixed, so that whoever got there, you had something of each.

You had your map reference when you landed, where to go.  If you were interested.  Course, some went that way, and some went the other way!  But where could you desert to?

You took a chance whatever way you went.  You didn’t know what you was going into.  When we were getting near France and I realised this was it, I was like a jelly – nerves.  I wasn’t no hero.  I don’t think nobody was.  I was a coward.  I admit that.  It’s a sensation you can’t explain.  It’s a gradual process.  It’s like indoctrination.  After a couple of days you’re getting used to it.  Someone’s slinging shells at you and it goes Bang! bang! – and you’re diving in ‘oles.  It becomes a matter of – like a rabbit – you come out to feed and do something, and every time the noise goes – you’re down your ‘ole.  I was the fastest of the lot!

You see some weird things in war.  Once you get involved in war, I don’t care who you are, if you’re up in the forward area, where there’s any action at all, I say every man turned into an animal.  The conversion was gradual.  From the time you got there you started living like an animal.  You got involved in casualties.  In dead bodies and living in ‘oles in the ground for a while and in old bombed houses.  You gradually changed.  Didn’t matter how timid or what sort of person you was, you became an animal.  You didn’t notice it.  When you first arrived after D Day and you see a couple of bodies blown to bits, it turns you up, and you’re looking to see if you could do anything. Three weeks, a month later, they’re still lying there.  You just walk past them.

John thorpe005

When you landed on the beach you was like a load of – how can I say? – a load of kids on an outing

We landed on Bénouville beach, though no one tried to tell you what your objective was.  Ours was Bénouville Bridge.  We had to meet up with the 6th Airborne who’d landed in front of us and captured the bridge.  But we didn’t know whether they had captured it or not!  We had to walk there.  Find our own way there.

When you landed you had all your colours – gold, red – and your boats went for that.  We were getting shells.  The Beachmasters landed first – blokes on the beach with flags, waving them in.  They were fucking heroes – all them blokes.  Them and the M.Ps I think.  They talk about M.Ps being bastards – the Corps of M.Ps might have been,  but your own M.Ps that was attached to your unit, they was alright.  They’d stand on point duty if they was putting an attack in, and the transport had to move up.  They’d be standing on point duty on a branch road in the country and they’d be getting knocked out right, left and centre.  About six in one day we got killed.  As soon as one got killed, they’d say to another one “You – point duty” and as they were going up there – Bang!

You got so it was your last day.  Do what you could today – it didn’t matter about tomorrow.  Anything could happen.

When you landed on the beach you was like a load of – how can I say? – a load of kids on an outing.  Everyone’s wandering around, once you got there.  As soon as they realised the first attack had gone in and it was serious they started slinging a few shells back.  Where we landed was only a narrow beach, about fifty yards wide, and the tide had started going out.  We were supposed to have got in on a full tide, but as we were late it was on its way out.  We was about fifty yards out but the Captain of the boat said “You’ll be alright, I’ll run you right up the beach”, which he did.  They was all doing that – banging them right up onto the beach.

I hung on the barrel of this anti-aircraft gun, so I wouldn’t get my arse wet.  I wasn’t going in the water for no fucker – I’d have sooner gone back.  Everybody was on the beach.  It was jammed up.  They had a casualty clearing station up one end, dug in some cliffs.  They were taking the casualties in there.  There was a little stone wall – a parapet wall along the front and we was up behind that, crouching.  All of us.  No fucker would move.  They was all piling up behind there.  No one knew how to get to where they were supposed to go.  You’d say “Where you going mate?”  You walked, run or got a lift up there.  They was all going to the same place – Bénouville.

It was everyone for himself when you got there.  There was a bit of an opening where the road came down to the beach and they was all making for that.  And the first thing I see, laying in the middle of the road was a green beret and a blown up bike.  All smoking.  Bits of rag.  He got a direct hit with a mortar, this commando.  They landed with them folding bikes.  That was the first one I saw.  I thought: Oh no.  I didn’t want to know much, so me and my mate Tosh thought:  Let’s fuck off and get out of it.  We shot up the road into a churchyard.  We sat in there for a couple of hours.  Had a fag.  Thought: fuck it, what are we going to do now?  We gradually worked our way up.  As we were going up they came over and dropped another load of airborne troops.  The 6th Airborne went in first – the old Flying Horse Pegasus.  They called it Pegasus Bridge afterwards.

I was in the forward area all the time.  It was a three mile area, which wasn’t very nice because you was getting the short distance shells, and you went up with the infantry

Some of the Infantry wouldn’t move without us, and we wouldn’t move without the Infantry – that’s how you used to argue!  It’s unbelievable.  If they had to go out on a night patrol and they came up against a minefield they’d send back for us.  “Fuck you”, we’d say “we’re not going up there to get shot” – and you’d be standing there arguing.  That’s how the army was running!  The officers would sort it out.  A sapper in the RE’s was equal to an Infantry lieutenant.  When the poor Infantry used to shake in their boots at a lieutenant, we used to tell them to fuck off.

After a couple of days at D Day the next wave landed and they went up to take over from our division, but they ran into a counter attack, and got knocked back.  Our division, our infantry had to hold on where they were.  It was six weeks before we got a break, we got a rest.  We got stuck at Bénouville Bridge, on the River Orne.  Our objective was the town of Caen.  Our infantry got there, but they got knocked back, so we were stuck where we was.  First thing we had to do was lay two thousand mines, right across our own area.  This was all night work.  Couldn’t do it by day – they’d see you.  You had no time that was your own. You lived from day to night, day to night.  Working and sleeping, working and sleeping.  By this time you was doing things automatically.

You’d be lying in your ‘ole, clothes on with your boots on.  You could never take your boots off.  You were never allowed to.  I suppose the idea was if you got caught and you tried to run with no boots on rough ground….  – Anyway, you’d be lying in your ‘ole and a Corporal or one of your mates would come and say “Come on Spot, we’ve got a job to do.”  They called me ‘Spot’ because my name was Thorpe – from the poem “Under the thorpe, there’s a little town, Half a Hundred Bridges” – Tennyson’s Brook.  “By thirty hills I hurry down, Or slip between the ridges, By twenty thorpes, a little town, And half a hundred bridges.”

They’d say “We’ve got a minefield to lay.”  You’d go and get your box of mines and put ’em on the lorry and take ’em as near as you could.  Then you’d have to hump them across fields – two thousand of them, in the middle of the night!

Months afterwards, when everything has moved forwards, you was the only ones who had a map of the mines, so you had to go back and clear ’em.  You had to leave the forward area and clear your own minefield.  We lost one once!  We lost one of our own minefields!

I was a nervous wreck on mine clearing

You had to keep your wits about you.  Our own mines were bad enough, but the conditions when you was clearing German mines…  We didn’t use the mine-detector for the simple reason that they was useless.  Once you’d put those earphones on you couldn’t hear the shells, so we slung them round our necks.  They were cumbersome and they were too big, so they issued us with a long steel knitting needle, three foot long.  That’s what we had – probes, they called them.  With an ordinary landmine it wasn’t heavy enough to set it off.  But they surrounded them with little shoe-mines – little wooden box shoe-mines.  If you touched those  – they was away.  But you could, if you was clever, get your points in ’em and throw ’em up in the air, and they’d go off!  That’s how you got – you couldn’t care – “Get out the fucking way!” – and we’d sling ’em, and Bang!, off they’d go.

They was catching quite a few, with them.  A half-track or small vehicle would pull up in a field and a bloke would jump out and step on one of these little shoe-mines.  Bang!  It used to split your bone up your shin.  They was all losing ankles, so they used to issue us out with wellies.  Wellington boots  and a three foot knitting needle to stop ’em!

All the time I was there, right through to Germany and 1945, I only came across one journalist in the forward area.  The rest were well behind.  They took the army handout.

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22 “A Relaxation of Morals”

When a lot of guys were abroad the other guys were kipping up with their wives

Enlisted Male Londoner   Of a night time we’d be in our Anderson shelter, in the back garden.  I used to get books out the library. Do you know what I was reading when I was sitting in the shelter of a night?  The Russian Revolution.  My old lady used to say “What the bloody hell do you want to read about that for?”  I was reading about where the women were left behind and the only bloke left behind was the postman, and he was raping every one of them, night after night.  A woman would be bending over her cot, looking after her baby and he’d have his hand up there – all that sort of thing.  And where they – the women –  were behind the sandbags, firing at the Royalists, the old squaddies would be up them at the same time.  I was reading all this whilst the bombs were going off.  My mind was on the fact that at any time I was going to leave, go in the forces, and this book – I wasn’t interested in what the postman was doing – it was that all the blokes were away, and it was parallel to the situation that was coming up at the time.  I thought to myself:  supposing all the blokes are away from here?  There’s my mother and my sisters, all left behind, and the same situation applies.

Fusilier   When a lot of guys were abroad the other guys were kipping up with their wives.  That’s something that’s no said much about the war, yet I think it’s something most people know about.  I done it myself.  I slept with a couple of women when their men were abroad.  They were getting their money every week, buying the booze with it – all that stuff.  There was no really a good deal of loyalty.  The other side of the coin was when I was in India, guys I knew would get “Dear John” letters.  Some of the guys took it pretty bad and shot themselves.  I got a couple of “Dear John” letters myself, but I was young and I could fend it off.

Woman Warworker   Me and my mates, we got on this pen friend thing to lads in the forces, and we put “Miss” instead of “Mrs”.  We got loads of letters back.  And then they’d write “I’m coming home on leave, looking ever so forward to meeting you.”  And we’d write back and say we’ve moved and forget to give the new address.  It was just a joke for us.

Girls in uniform were often referred to as “Officer’s Groundsheets”

Fusilier  When we were in Kalyan in India hundreds of ATS girls had just come out from the United Kingdom, and they were herded into special camps.  The first night we – the ordinary rank and file – were able to meet them was in places like the Toc H.  (1)     But after the first night the ATS were put out of bounds.  In fact, we heard, they were warned of the danger of going out with other ranks – in other words: us!  As a lot of us hadn’t seen white women for over a year and the officers and others in authority apparently felt the girls would be in some danger.  They’d get raped, or something like that.  They were told by their own officers that the male officers’ mess would be made available, and that there was plenty of facilities there for the girls, and that they should go there.  If any other ranks wanted to go out with any of the ATS girls,  he was compelled to sign his name and number, stating the time he took her out and the time he brought her back.  Bloody insulting.  No wonder the lads called the ATS “Officer’s blankets and groundsheets.”

RAF Flight Sergeant  Girls in uniform were often referred to as “Officer’s Grounsheets”. In our case I don’t think airforce men went out with Waafs particularly.  In fact, just the opposite.  They tended to shy away from women in their own uniform and to go for women in other uniforms – Wrens, Land Army.  Most stations I went to you usually got a lecture from the M.O about V.D.  The day I got my wing and my three stripes I was ushered one afternoon into a camp cinema to see a horrifying film on V.D.  God!  There were people passing out right, left and centre.  It was a camp cinema.  The idea was, in some people’s eyes, aircrew had a certain glamour – you found it easier to get girls because you had more money than other people, so now that you were a sergeant and you had a wing, this is what you could get unless you were careful.

There was this attitude about girls in uniform, that they were easy, but really speaking they weren’t

Waaf   There was this attitude about girls in uniform, that they were easy, but really speaking they weren’t.  They weren’t any different from other girls.  The girls I knew were a really good lot.  You always had a real good friend.  There was none of this backbiting and bickering.

At Torquay we had the Dutch airman.  They was ever so polite.  When we used to have dances in the Grand Hotel, in the ballroom, if they asked you for a dance they used to come up to you, click their heels and bow.  I’ll tell you what, though, our blokes in uniform…  Once I smacked one round the chops.  This was at Gloucester, at a dance.  Me and my mate, we used to put our civvies underneath our uniform, and then we’d go in the cloakroom and take our uniform off.

I’m dancing with this airman, he was a sergeant, and he didn’t know I was a Waaf.  “You’re a nice girl”,  he said “Can I see you home tonight?  ‘Cos”, he said “these Waafs”, he said “they’re nothing like you girls in civvies.”  We’re dancing around the floor and I’m kidding him on.  “Oh yeah?” I says, “Don’t you think girls in uniform aren’t nice?”  “What?  They’re the lowest of the low.”  “Oh?  Do you think so?  You know what you can do, don’t you?”  I gave him one round the chops and I walked off the floor and left him.  He came over and apologised, but I didn’t half give him a mouthful.

When we was at Torquay we used to go to Newton Abbot, to the Yankee dances.  We used to have a real good time with them, and they always used to bring us straight back.  They always treated us with respect.  A lot of that feeling against them was just jealousy.

Somerset Teenage Girl   I came home from work one day and I found all these Americans along our road.  That was very thrilling.  Very thrilling.  I was about seventeen.  The first night they were there I was at a dance when all of a sudden they all came in.  I remember dancing past one of them with somebody.  That’s where I met the one I got engaged to.  The first night he was there.

Stoke under Ham, Somerset Boy   With the Americans on Ham Hill, when they went off with their girlfriends, we used to watch!  They’d go off and have it away on the hill.  One day there was about six of us and there was an American and his girlfriend having it away in what they called the “Frying Pan” – it’s like a shallow circle where Romans were supposed to have Cock fighting.  These two were lying in that and we all sat around watching them.   He kept getting cross with us.  We were interested.  Every now and then he’d shout “Clear off!”   Must have spoilt it completely.

The thing that struck me as a young lad was the change in morality

Teeside Lad   The thing that struck me as a young boy was the change in morality. Around Middlesbrough you were poor but you were honest.  You try take a ha’penny out of your Mother’s purse and she’d chop your fingers off.  During war, when husbands started going away, everything went.  Fourteen year old lassies, fifteen year old lassies, used to have Polish seamen, Yanks, Canadians – the bloody lot.  They’d cock their legs up for a couple of bloody coppers.  (2)

I had a mate and I used to spend a lot of time at their house.  He got a sister about seventeen years old, and his Mother was a barmaid.  Her husband was in Royal Engineers and he was in Reserve.  As soon as war come he were called up, and she were having it off. They had an Aunty living with them, and this Aunty was married to a feller called —– —- He was what they called a Dems gunner on merchant ships.  They used to have a big 10,000 ton tanker and they used to shove one of these fellers on board  with a little bloody Lewis gun up front.

The feller had done about five convoys to Russia.  One time when he come back he’d bought all these Chinese dresses – silk, high collars and split down the side, and he’d bought a great big astrakhan coat.  He fetches them all and lays them before his wife, but she couldn’t care less because she was cocking her leg round at —— Hotel.  She was kipping with the Americans, Canadians, the lot.   She was living the life of luxury – all the clothes she wanted, all the cigarettes she wanted, nylons.  He lays it all before her.  “I just can’t be bothered tonight because I’m working.”  Poor cunt, he’s come back from Russia, touch of the D.Ts and God knows what, and he’s sat with all this fucking gear.  I would only be about thirteen and sat commiserating with him, smoking his cigarettes.  He was pouring his bloody heart out and I was only a young lad.  What can you do?   He only got about two days, and back he goes to sea.

RAF NCO   With the Americans there was terrible racialism.  They had separate units, depending on whether you were white or black.  White Americans would have their own pubs, and coloured Americans would have separate pubs. There was terrific animosity between them.   There was more fighting I think between white and coloured Americans, than there was against Hitler.

Somerset Farmer  They brought a lot of white Americans round Shepton Mallet and Evercreech.  There was a lot of – what you call it?  Cohibition?  Cohabitation? – that some of the authorities and some of the people were a little bit disturbed, ‘cos most of the women were married and their husbands was fighting for the country.  So they took the white Americans away and brought a lot of black Yanks around.  They thought that would stop it.  Well, these women that were cohabitating with the white Americans, they started cohabitating with black ones.  Not one of those fell pregnant until within three weeks of their going abroad.  When they men went abroad they didn’t know they were pregnant, but they knew they were pregnant after they were gone!  And none of them could claim off of them, you see, ‘cos they were gone.  And one of them was a ———-‘s wife.

Somerset Teenage Girl   There were two girls in the village who married Americans and went back with them, and they were living in terrible hovels – what we would call hill-billy.  Terrible.  I and my friend nearly did, as we were engaged, but we broke it off after a year because they were back in the States, and it took so long to get over there if you weren’t married.  You had to go on a list and I was beginning to think:  I can’t remember what he looks like.  So I sent the ring back.  There were one or two married women who had affairs with Americans.

Although you were looked down on if you went out with an American, most of the single girls who went out with them had quite steady relationships and were quite decent

A lot of it was jealousy.  And yet, the American I went out with was far more straight-laced than any English boy I’d been out with.  He was from South Carolina.  They spoke to each other as “Yanks” and “Rebels”.  They were all white.  They were supply troops. They were in the village a year.

They had their own mess – the GI mess.  A lot of the people in the village used to go down and eat in the GI mess, but I wasn’t allowed to.  People used to say “Haven’t you been there for Sunday lunch?”  It was fried chicken and ice-cream, but no, my Mother wouldn’t let me.  Most of the Americans in the village were a very well behaved lot, and I think most people in the village liked them.  Most of them were over twenty.  Mike was twenty-five.  (3)   He used to give me chewing gum and candy bars and Camel cigarettes.  I still love Camel cigarettes.  They came from a different world.  They’d talk about the “Top Ten”.  I didn’t know what they were talking about.  It was a different way of life.

As I say, they were very straight-laced, most of them.  They had old fashioned manners.  I was used to opening gates, but they used to rush to open gates before I even got there.  I couldn’t get over it.  In some ways I found it a bit irritating, and in other ways it was rather nice.  Around D-Day they were confined to their camp, and then they left nine days after D Day started.  Mike went with them, of course.  We were all out to wave the great convoy off, as they went through the village.  All the girls cried.

We wrote to each other all the time. About a year later, one day after my Mother and I had been out, there was a knock at the front door.  Mother answered it and I heard her gasp.  She called me.  It was Mike.  He’d come on leave from Germany.  We put him up and he stayed for ten days, and we got engaged in those ten days.  Then all the business started of all the forms.  He had to get permission and I had to get a reference.

You know how awful villages are for talk.  I was so hurt by this

He had to go back and report at Grosvenor Square, at the American Embassy.  They all had to congregate there.  He wanted me to go up to London so that we could have another day together.  My Mother wasn’t very keen.  My sister, who was married, said “Write to my mother-in-law, you’ll be able to stay the night there.” She lived just outside London.  My sister suggested this as my Mother didn’t like the thought of me staying the night in London.  Even though the war in Europe was over, the trains were still awful, still crowded and took ages.  We eventually arrived where my sister’s mother-in-law lived.   When we got there and looked up times of trains back to London we found Mike wouldn’t be able to get to Grosvenor Square to report at seven o’ clock next morning.  He said “I’ll have to leave you here and say goodbye.  I’ll have to go straight back to London now.”  I said “No.  I’m coming with you.  We’ll find somewhere to stay in London.”  My sister’s mother-in-law looked at me most peculiarly and said “Do you think you ought to?  What will your Mother think?”  I was eighteen.

I was determined that I was going to see him a bit more.  When we got back to London – to Liverpool Street – we met another American, a friend of his who was also going back, and had nowhere to stay.  So the three of us got into a taxi.  We went all over London in this taxi trying to find somewhere to stay the night.  By now it was about half past ten – eleven at night.  The taxi driver said “If you like, I know somewhere you can stay.”

He took us to some back-street and a woman came to the door.  We said we wanted two rooms.  “Yes”, she said, she had two rooms.  I had one upstairs and they had one downstairs.  Later, I heard her speaking to Mike and he came up, in a temper.  “Right, get your bags.  We’re not staying in this house.”  She said to him “You’re a bit daft – I thought you wanted the double room for you and your girl.”  There was no lock on the door, and it definitely was a brothel, because all night (he’d shown me how to wedge a chair under the door handle) there were men and women calling out, and going up and down the stairs.  I never told my Mother.  She would have had a fit!

We got out of this place about 6 o’ clock in the morning.  I didn’t know the Tube ran in the early morning.  We walked and walked.  It seemed to be miles.  We walked all the way to Grosvenor Square.  We said good-bye there.  I then found my way to Paddington and got a train home.

About six months later I had flu and I was away from the shop for a week.  Everybody said I was pregnant because everybody seemed to have got to known that I’d been to London – I’d been seen at the station, and coming back the next day.  I didn’t know, but everybody said I’d had a miscarriage.  You know how awful villages are for talk.

One day my friend came into the shop in an awful temper.  She was so upset she was crying, and she’d just had a row with somebody who had said something.  In the end she told me what they had been saying.   I was so hurt by this.  For weeks afterwards every time I seemed to walk down the village there seemed to be a group of women, and they would all stop talking.  Of course I was terribly sensitive.  My Mother heard, and she was terribly upset.  Someone said she should sue.  I was terribly, terribly upset about that.  Really upset.  I thought:  My God, if they’d known where I’d spent the night.

1.  Toc H was set up during the First World War, a Christian based charity offering ‘rest and recreation’, regardless of rank, and a self proclaimed alternative to any ‘debauched’ recreational facilities available elsewhere.

2.  Coppers = pennies = pence.  There were 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a £1.  A decimal one pence is approximately two and a half pennies.

3.  Mike is not his real name.

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21 Interlude: Somerset Children’s War Experiences

Pilton  Girl    I hadn’t long started school, so I must have been about five, and one of my earliest memories of the war was the horrible machine they had in the village.  This is how I first came across it.

You come out of the village and you come along the flat bit and then there’s a very steep hill that runs down by the church, and the churchyard’s on the side of the hill.  Well, sometimes for fun we used to run through the churchyard and come out the gate on the side of the hill and go off down that way.  Some older kids had gone on that way and I ran on after them but what I didn’t know was that they were taking down the railings in the churchyard, around the family graves, and they had this lorry.  The lorry was backed into the churchyard.  I was only small, only five and it was a monstrous thing, huge and black.  It had a huge cabin and an enormous trunk thing, and this terrible noise coming off it, like awful grinding noises, and there was steam coming out of it.  And I just sat there and I screamed – I was terrified by it.  That was the first time I saw it, in Pilton churchyard.  Sometimes, later, I could see this blasted thing coming up the road, and I would go into Gould’s Garage, because I was terrified to go on down the main road, and it wouldn’t be until someone told me that they’d seen it go up over Whitston Hill that I would go on, to go to school. (1)

Street Girl   The biggest effect around Street was the New Zealanders coming here.  Now they really did do something.  They were huge men.  I remember them as being enormous men.  They upset the local neighbourhood because they used to go riding calves, and throwing steers, and any horse in a field, they used to get it out and ride it for miles.  Different cows use to disappear, and they’d find them in fields somewhere else.  That caused a lot of upset.

Stoke under Ham Boy   I lived in a police station at Stoke under Ham most of the war.  My Dad was a copper.  The police station was always an open house to anybody.  So you wouldn’t take in evacuees, you couldn’t.  If a soldier or an airman needed somewhere to stay temporary, we had to put them up.  We were always putting people up. The evacuees at the school were a pretty rough bunch.  It was the evacuees who would pick a fight, but it altered after a while and we all mixed in.  The evacuees didn’t know a thing about the countryside.  They really thought milk came in bottles, and not from cows.

Street Girl   It was disturbing for the children who were evacuated from London – some were very young – and it was disturbing for local children, where there were evacuee children in their home. They had to share or give up their bedroom, and to give up their toys, and give up perhaps their clothes.  They had to share.  Perhaps they had never had to share with anyone before – especially in an insular community where it’s still – not so much now – each keeps to his own.  Each little plot of land.  Each house.  It didn’t used to be so much an open house as it was in London for a lot of these children.

Pilton Girl  I remember when some evacuee children came to Pilton school, ‘cos some of them were billeted at East and West Compton.  They used to come all the way down over Burford Hill and walk to school.  They weren’t terribly well dressed because their clothes weren’t terribly good, and certainly they were jeered a bit.

My Aunty had a super boy billeted on her called Billy Roe, from London.  And when he finally returned to London – I think the bombing was over – he used to visit her, and cycle down, all the way from London.   We thought it was incredible of him to cycle all that way, because to us London was like one hundred thousand miles away.  When Aunty would say Billy’s cycling down next week, we all thought that was fantastic and everybody would be waiting for him.  And then when he went off again, everybody would be down the bottom of the council houses to see him off.  It was like the Tour de France.  He used to knit, which was incredible too, because at that time it was a ludicrous sort of thing for a boy to do.  Aunty had two boys of hers about the same age, and he taught them to knit as well, and they all did French knitting with the reel – the cotton reel – and the  four nails bunged in the top.

Stoke under Ham Boy  Everything found was brought to the police station, whatever it was.  Once it was a big square  silver kite which the Germans dropped – they were supposed to land in the telegraph wires and put them out of action.  I used to fly that up on Ham Hill.  I used to try and direct it towards the telephone wires but it never got them.  Another time my Father brought this bren gun home one day.  It had a great big round cartridge thing round the barrel.  Looked like one of those things the gangsters used.  My Grandmother had gone to the lavatory outside, and I stood outside and waited until she came out and I had the bren gun and I went “Rat-tat-tat!”, and she passed straight out.  They got this blue bag of smelling salts to bring her round.  By the way, you were forever being told at school not to pick anything up – fountain pens, anything – because we were told the Germans could make a bomb disguised as anything.

Pilton Girl  My Uncle —– from somewhere or another got this great big supply of hand grenades.  The grey council houses were up then because we were living in them.  The red ones were not up then, and where the red brick council houses are, ’round by the side of the grey ones – that was waste ground.  In fact it was called the Waste Ground.  If you were going out to play you said you were going out to the Waste Ground to play.  There was an enormous sewer at the bottom.  The thing I remember about the council houses, growing up there, wind being in the wrong direction, this filthy smell.  You use to say “Sewer’s stinking today.”

Anyway, Uncle —— had all these hand grenades, and he had to get rid of them.  It was Sunday afternoon after tea, and he was out on the waste ground and it was in the summer and he was pulling the pins out.  I was playing outside our front door and I could see something exciting was going on up there.  But when I went up there I was terrified.  Every five minutes you’d get this explosion and my brothers ——- and ——– are also  just picking the pins out and chucking them.  And then something terrible happened.   ——– didn’t pull the pin out quick enough or he didn’t let go quick enough and he got blown up.  He got burnt.  The next thing, the ambulance was coming down.  My grandmother hauled me in the front room and was shouting abuse at my Uncle across on the waste ground, and my Mother was going mad.  And there was —— shuffling down the garden path like an old man, with burns on his arms and legs from the grenade, and there was Uncle walking ’round in a trance.

Stoke under Ham Boy  As kids we were brought up to hate Hitler, and we did.  I wanted to stick a pitchfork in him.  You absolutely hated him, but you didn’t really know why.  That’s terrible, en’t it?  One of the good things about the war was all the pictures, the films you could see.  They used to have a cinema in Stoke under Ham, in a house.  A huge room with all these chairs and they were nearly always George Formby films.  That was put on as a booster.  They used to have cinemas in vans as well.  On the back of a van.  I saw an Arthur Askey film on the back of a van.  When the Americans came they used to put on parties for all the kids in the village hall and they showed films every week.  I can remember the films as clear as could be.  For instance, Hellzapoppin’ was great. A really fantastic film with weird effects.  You’ll see the film and then a shadow of a person goes across the screen, and then the words come up on the screen ‘Will the person walking about kindly sit down.’  All that kind of stuff and I loved that.

Pilton Girl  We had a fish and chip van that came on Friday nights.  We thought that was fantastic.  We thought that progress had come!  The fish and chip van came when the Land Army girls came.  Before, we had to go to Shepton for fish and chips.  One of my earliest memories is being pushed in a grey pushchair down to the Post Office, some kids much older than me, by my side, maybe my brother, talking to my Mother about bananas and ice-cream.  I was able to speak and I said to my Mother: “What are bananas?”  And she said “Well, you might get some after the war.  You won’t get them until the war’s finished.”  I can remember the first cluster of bananas I ever saw in my life and I couldn’t believe that’s what they were. When fruit started coming into the country again, you bought them whether you needed them or not, because we were very poor and really didn’t get fruit unless it was at the week-end or had won on the horses.

Stoke under Ham Boy  When the Americans were here I think a lot of people got a lot out of the Americans, because they were poor and not well off, and they got masses of presents from the Americans.  In my case, not just me – they had Clothing Exchange shops.  There was one at Yeovil and every time I used to go to Yeovil I used to go and change my jacket for another one.  That’s how I went on right through the war like that.  But as I say, the Americans had lots of stuff and would give it to you.  They’d give girls nylons.

At Ham Hill a lot of the Americans were based there, in tents.  They had shooting ranges up there and we used to have a fantastic time.  Gangs of us kids would go up there.  I lived next door to a fish and chip shop and these Americans soldiers would always want fish and chips.  So what they would do is, if we got the fish and chips, they’d let us play up there and we could use their tents.  And do you know they left the tents with all the equipment in – machines guns, ammunition, all that was left in the tent, and we used to play in there.  Fortunately nobody loaded anything.

The Americans also gave us rides on the Jeeps.  Ham Hill was completely ripped up by tanks.  On top of that, Ham Hill is full of banks that go up and down – it used to be a Roman fortress.  They used to tell us to hop on the back of a Jeep and they’d drive as fast as they could over these hills, and this Jeep would literally take off, and there’s all of us holding on.  They didn’t seem to have no responsibility of the fact that you’d probably get killed falling off the thing.  Though you didn’t think about it, as kids.  They even shot a bazooka through the Prince of Wales Hotel in the village.  Right through a bedroom window.  That’s how irresponsible they were.

1.   There was a compulsory campaign, began in 1940, to salvage metal for the war effort, particularly railings, and gates.  The ‘lorry’ was probably either a steam wagon or a traction engine.

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20 Court Martial & AWOL

I’m on a charge of striking a superior officer

Jewish Private   I had been in a graded battalion because I only had one good eye and also because my Father was never naturalised.  Graded battalions were attached to various infantry regiments.  I went into the Glosters,  then I was transferred to the Wiltshire Regiment, back to the Glosters, from there into the Green Howards and I finally ended up in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps.  Not only was I fed up with all this shunting around but I was also frustrated at the pettiness of army life and quite honestly, I wanted to get out of the army.  I wanted to get away.

I was eventually sent to a Selection centre.  They had people from all over – from different units – for various reasons, medical, psychological, whatever.  They were sent to the Selection Centre to be sorted out and sent to more suitable units.  This was at Aberystwyth.  It was a great big unit, based on the town, with teams of psychiatrists to sort all these oddballs out.

My papers didn’t arrive with me.  They got lost, somehow.  So instead of doing the usual fourteen days of routine inspections, testings, and then being finally posted, I was there for twenty-eight days, by which time I was thoroughly pissed off.  Incidentally, about 35 to 40% of people passing through this centre were given their tickets.  They were just useless.

I was in a genuinely serious nervous condition.  In fact I was being given luminol. (1 )   At the same time, which was an expression of the same thing, I had developed piles.  This was around Christmas.  Having been told not to go sick or else I’d be charged with malingering, I asked for an interview with the Commanding Officer, and I got it.  I explained the predicament.  I want to go sick, but if I do I’m told I’ll be charged with malingering.  He arranged immediately for a special sick report to be made out.  I was told to report to the Medical Centre.

“Oh these bloody people are all the same” – so I could tell straight away he was anti-semitic

When I arrived there, there was a lance corporal – a medical orderly – and he had this little bit of paper in his hand, which was the special sick report.  I waited for the Doctor to arrive.  It was Boxing Day.  I’d been down in the dumps for a couple of days and the blokes had persuaded me to come to this bloody Christmas do.  I had probably eaten too much and the piles really came on.  I was bleeding and I was in a nervous state.  The Medical Officer on duty happened to be one of the psychiatrists who I understand, though I’m not sure, was filling in for someone else.  He came into the room and during a short conversation between him and the medical orderly I heard him say something like (because on every form there is your religion) “Oh these bloody people are all the same” – so I could tell straight away he was anti-semitic.  He turned to me and started to abuse me.  “I know you buggers, I’ll have you on a charge”, and all this.  I said “Hadn’t you better examine me before you start making all these accusations?”  He said “Yes!  I will! – Get undressed!”  And as I turned he shoved me in the back.  Well, I turned ’round and all hell was let loose.  I really went for him.

I finished up on the floor, with one bloke kneeling on my  neck, one on each of my limbs.  I’m stretched out, practically unconscious.  They even started to interrogate me, but then they decided to sit me on a chair and give me a cigarette.  They let me go, so I went for him again.  Well, that was it.  They calmed me down.  They gave me treatment for my piles, so there was no question of having been a malingerer.  That bit was dropped completely.  Next morning I’m for Company Orders – I’m on a charge of striking a superior officer.  I explained all the circumstances and they said “If your allegations are true it’s still no defence.  You complain about the misbehaviour of your superiors, you don’t strike them.”

I was charged and remanded in custody, pending a court martial, because it was a court martial charge.  I was kept in close arrest, the term being close arrest, not custody.  I was marched through the town three times a day under escort, for my meals to the cookhouse.  I had to parade every day for Company Orders, for 24 hour remands.  This went on for six weeks.  I was visited by a rabbi towards the end, who half suggested to me that if I would agree to a report to the effect that I wasn’t responsible for my actions, that I might make an easy case of it.  I said “If anybody wants to say that, they’re welcome to, but don’t expect me to agree with them.”

They sent me to see a psychiatrist.  I managed, on the way back under escort, to find out the contents of the report – which is a normal thing in the army.  You very seldom travel with documents relating to yourself that you don’t try somehow to find out the contents, which I did do.  In fact I objected to the use of the psychiatrist’s report because in all the answers to the questions, set by the convenors of the court martial, there were traps.  Like “Will this man suffer from, or benefit from punishment?”  And he said “Neither.”  And things like “How would you regard his mental state?”  And he would say “He’s a very stubborn man.  Will not be bested in an argument.”  All that sort of thing, so I wouldn’t stand a bloody chance.

This carried on for six weeks before the court martial convened because I kept refusing to have any representation.  I wanted to conduct the defence myself.  Then I discovered, through the Regimental Police Sergeant, that there was an officer in the unit who was a solicitor, and he had done some good court martials.  When I asked for him to represent me the Commandant nearly went bloody mad – “You can’t have him!  You’re not holding up this unit’s work, just to suit yourself.  You’re not running this show.”  And then he reverted to pleading with me that in my best interests I should have an officer to defend me.

Eventually they parked a bloke on me, who worked on the defence that I couldn’t get out of the charge – which I knew – and that my reaction of being pushed was one of a trained soldier – to react to violence in a violent way.  In the event I was found guilty and I was sentenced to six months.

Even the RSM of the unit wished me luck

At Aberystwyth, amongst the Regimental Police, there was one bloke who was very regimental, but the actual Regimental Police Sergeant and most of the blokes who were lance corporals or privates were very good, very sympathetic, treated me very well.  Matter of fact, on the way away, going to the Detention Barracks at Chorley, they sort of said goodbye to me, even the RSM wished me luck, and all the rest of them.  You see, once a bloke had got into trouble and providing you hadn’t done something despicable in their eyes and you defended yourself from somebody who had struck you, that was OK.  By this time some of them were a bit pleased – this was my impression – I was challenging the authority in all ways.  I’d contacted the local press, from my detention cell, I got in touch with the British Legion local branch, I tried to get publicity for it, and I did.  The whole case was reported in the South Wales Echo.  A lot of the blokes were pleased to find someone standing up to authority, who wouldn’t give in.  There were a lot there who didn’t like the Commanding Officer.  As I say, they were very good to me.  In fact, the escort, the Corporal and a Private from another unit in the command, who escorted me from Aberystwyth to Chorley did me a favour.  I’d written some letters previously that I wanted to beat the censor on – not to have them seen, that I wanted to post.  I was contemplating how to post them – passing them to a civilian on the way, if we pulled in somewhere for a cup of tea at a station, or just dropping them on the train somewhere, hoping somebody would pick them up and post them.  But I took a chance and told the Corporal.  He said “We’re not looking.”  So when we got near a post box I stuck them in.

My troubles really started when I got to the detention barracks in Chorley

Immediately I came across a Staff Sergeant on the section, on the first morning I was there, who looked at my charge sheet, where it said “Striking a superior officer.”  I was the only prisoner in the jail on such a charge.  The first thing this bloke said, on reading it, was  “Six months?  You should have got two years!”  I thought:  I’m well away with this bloke.  I immediately dived across the room, and I was grabbed and held.  I made a bit of an altercation – but that did what I wanted it to do – it got me in front of the Commandant of the detention barracks.  I explained the situation to him.  I said “The two of us can’t live in the same room.  You either put me on a different section or you take him away.”  He wasn’t a stupid man.  In the event they put me in a different section, and they noted, not for the first time, that I had been a tailor, and would I like to work in the tailors shop?  That got me through my detention in relative comfort.  Nevertheless, it was no picnic, particularly the trauma of reception and search and bathing and all the incidents that occurred.

The vast majority of cases in detention, when I was in, were what they called “non-reporters”

These were youngsters who, nine times out of ten, were illiterates – people who couldn’t either read or write – they couldn’t read their notices for call-up.  They were really backward, nervous young people.  When they were caught they had to do a short period – three months or less, I believe, before they entered the service.  The others would be people who were absent without leave, or longer than a certain period, otherwise it would be dealt with by confinement to barracks.  They were a large proportion.

Fusilier   The problem of absenteeism and desertion was so great that one of the best known slogans of the war was “You Can’t Spell Victory with an Absentee”.  To combat it they had special squads of military police and civilian police who were used in an attempt to round up men and women on the run.  In Glasgow they raided places like St Vincent Street, where there was a mobile coffee stall.  Quite regular the squads would raid such places in an attempt to pick up deserters.  Sometimes this meant quite innocent people – disabled people, wounded people, people on leave – were picked up and taken into custody to be checked.  If the Gestapo came to Britain there certainly would have been lots of candidates amongst some of the civilian cops that I met.

You never deserted without taking all your kit, and looking smart.  That was the system

I used to travel up and down the country regular for nothing.  You took your rifle and bayonet, your gas mask and your helmet.  You walked into a station.  You knew most of the time M.Ps would stop you and you wouldnae get on the platform with the ticket inspector.  So the secret was to take the bull by the horns.  Walk up to the MP and say “I’m Fusilier Morrison.  I’m with an escort.  Did you see a Corporal here in the same regiment as me go onto the train?”  And they would say “I’m no so sure, Jock.  He might have went on.  Away in and look.”  You walked in and climbed onto the train.  You’d say the same thing to the ticket inspector.  Once you were on the train, that was it.

When ever the inspector came round you said the same thing.  “We’re in an escort and the Corporal went away ahead.  We thought he was on the train but we cannae find him anywhere.  He must have gone on a train before.”  He’d say “You’re on an escort.  Fair enough.  What’s your name, anyway?”  Take your name.  And that was it, and if you were really brass necked, just tell them you were absent – bluntly.  “I’m going back to my unit.”  “Where’s your unit?”  “My unit’s in such and such a place.”  “O.K., that’s fair enough.”  And that was you.  Another one was, if you met an ATS, go into the toilet with her and when he came around, and came to the door, let her pass her ticket out underneath.  In they days they werenae as permissive in their thinking as they are today.  These were the ways we travelled all over the place.  (2) 

Jewish Private  Besides those who were in Chorley because of absent without leave, there was a strange category of people who had trained as paratroopers, but when it came to it, wouldn’t jump.  They were given 84 days as a standing thing, if they continued to refuse to jump after their training period.  The most interesting group for me were the conscientious objectors.  They were kept separate from us by the authorities.  They didn’t mix with us in the Association Rooms.  These were a large sort of room with three brick walls and one side would have a wire mesh front, and the patrol would patrol outside the wire.  There were also, of course, the isolation and punishment cells.

Thirty or forty of us would be in one of these Association Rooms but the opportunities for chats were not as you might think.  You were kept so busy doing things – your bed board were scrubbed twice a day.  They were as white as driven snow, but you still scrubbed them in the morning and in the evening.  You were constantly employed on cell tasks.  Your bog was a couple of pails in the corner, during closed periods.

When lights out came we had one Staff Sergeant who was constantly screaming his head off about “If I’ve got to stay up all night, you buggers aint going to sleep either.”  He didn’t like night duty.  We used to call him “Nosebag” because what this bastard would do, after lights out, say about half past eight, nine-ish (that’s if you’ve been privileged that evening to get your cocoa, and don’t forget, these were all young boys who were doing very heavy military training and were on a very severe diet – they were constantly hungry) – what he used to do, after lights out he used to listen and if he heard the slightest sound he’d switch the lights on.

“Right, everybody out, out of your beds!  Equipment on!  Full service marching order!”  All equipment was in little pieces, and shined and blancoed to the last degree, and then, to cap it all, he’d say “Right, gas masks on.”  That’s why we called him nosebag.  All this would take an hour to do.  He’d be around at three or four in the morning, and he’d say “Right, go to bed.”  You’ve then got to get all the bloody equipment off, and set out in a particular way for the morning set-up, on your bed, for inspection.  By the time you get all this done and ready, the bleeding bugle’s gone and it’s time to get up.

We used to put fights on for him because organising a smoke was a very difficult thing to do

On the other hand, we managed to exploit some of the eccentricities of some of the guards, in a very interesting way.  There was an old soldier, a Staff Sergeant, who’d done a lot of time in India.  He had three of these Association Rooms to patrol.  We used to laugh our heads off with him.  He used to boast about his prowess as a soldier.  He’d give us a detailed explanation of a heliograph – we pretended we didn’t know what he was talking about.  He’d explain how he’d catch the sunlight and signal back, and what he did to these natives, and all the rest of it.  One of his foibles was his ability to slope arms, up his back!   Which is unbelievable.  Incredible.  While one group was getting him at it, trying to show them how to do this, this relieved the other two cells so that they could organise a smoke.

This is a highly organised thing.  There was another character – loved a fight.  He’d do anything to provoke blokes to fight, ‘cos he loved watching a fight.  He was a sadist, no question about it.  So we used to put on fights for him because organising a smoke was a very difficult thing to do.

We had bunk beds – one up, one down.  We used to sling a blanket down one side, not the side facing the wire, and the procedure was as follows:  whoever had the tobacco, say a Woodbine, would break it into three.  That meant three cigarettes, provided you had the toilet paper to roll them.  Then you had to find a bloke who’s got a tinder, which was the way of getting a light.  Second-timers and people like that used to come in with flints that you bedded in a piece of wood.  Then, with an old razor blade and a cellulose handle of a toothbrush you’d scrape off some of the cellulose and you’d spark it and get enough glow to puff up quickly.  The other problem was that smoke would appear around the lights – so it means less than four people can’t have a smoke, often more.  You’ve got to have one with the tobacco, one with the shit paper, one whose bunk it’s on, and one or two blokes to fan around the lights.  All this was organised, but the problem was, how to get rid of the screw?  Once you got him sloping arms backwards, or you put on a fight, you had fifteen to twenty minutes to have a smoke.

I was in detention just after the Chatham manslaughter charge, in which two Staff Sergeants were sentenced and dismissed, for beating up a prisoner who had TB and killing him in the process

As a result there’d been a big switch round in staff and a new system of so-called “checks”.  (3)  One of the inmates at Chorley was a bloke who had escaped from Poland at the beginning of the war, and when he arrived here in England he volunteered.  He was in his middle-forties.  He was one of those people who had two left legs and two left arms – he just could not drill.  He was the constant butt in his unit – he was in the Pioneer Corps.  He was an intelligent, educated man.  He could speak English.  After a while life became impossible for him – he was the butt for everybody’s whatsisname.  Not only that, physically he couldn’t do a damn thing, and he’s suffering.  So he deserted from the Pioneer Corps and he got caught and court martialed.  He finished up in detention.

Course, here he was at an even bigger disadvantage.  Here there was no escaping at all.  They tried to persevere but there was no way they were going to teach him to slope arms, keep in step, whatever.  He just couldn’t do it.  So they gave him a job in the industrial part, which was to clean the baking tins and billy cans that had come back from field kitchens.  That means they were black, and I mean black – thick and crusted with burnt fat.  You had to bring them up with brick dust.  That was the only cleaning material that existed in these places.  He was in a hut kind of place which was near where I was working in the tailoring workshop.  This was a flat roofed outbuilding to the main buildings.  It was an old mill, this place in Chorley.

On the other side of this flat roofed building was a tower with a couple of hosepipes hanging down.  Instead of ascertaining whether these hoses were fixed at the top, or just hanging to dry, he decided to escape one day.  He climbed on the roof, grabbed the hosepipe and fell to the ground.  The hosepipe was simply hanging to dry.  Before anyone had any chance to see if he’d broken any bones – it wasn’t any great height – they pounced on him and they beat the shit out of him.

They were beating him all the way to the cells

An old boy who’d been on the sewing machine with me, who’d landed in the chokey for something he’d done, and another young bloke, were either side of the Pole’s cell.  They heard him being beaten up, crying and screaming, and this was the time, as I say, just after the Chatham manslaughter charge.  There was a new system in operation that meant that the inmates of the detention camp were paraded – I think it was every Friday morning – one day a week.  A Major or Field Officer would come from the surrounding command.

You’d all be paraded there, and a statement would be read out, something like “Anybody wishing to complain, double out now.”  Well, no one ever did!  Who was going to stick their neck out and complain!  But on this occasion this old boy and the young feller were so outraged by the way this bloke got beaten up that they decided to complain.  They doubled out and complained.

Of course, normal thing – “There will be a Court of Inquiry, blah, blah, blah.”  Unknown to them, though, the authorities got hold of the Pole and told him “Don’t make too much fuss and you’ll get your ticket after the Court of Inquiry.”  By this time he was medically and mentally unacceptable to the army.  When the Court of Inquiry came he said no one hit him!  And these poor two sods were on a charge of making false accusations.

This is the nature of the organisation.  This is the system that keeps everybody in order.  There is no way in which you can defeat them without drawing to yourself the direst consequences.

A lot of my troubles came about almost naturally when I met the same attitudes in the British Army as I had been learning about in fascism

Fusilier   Some of my worst experiences were in India.  A small group of us – privates and a Corporal – had been in a hill station and we all decided to go back to camp a day early and visit a place called Muttra.  We’d been there before.  It was a brothel.  I didnae want to go back and neither did some of the others.  It was old hat to us, but some did, particularly the Corporal. We got to the foot of the hills and because of a landslide the train was late.  Another train turned up and the NCO was determined to get to his brothel.

The train that came was an old tumbledown shackle thing that the Indians used to use – betel nut spit all over the floor.  The Corporal saw the RTO – the Transport Officer.  He says to him “Can I get a compartment cleared out for the lads, because we want to take this train.”  I said to the Transport Officer, a Sergeant “We’re not due back until a certain time.  If we catch the morning train we’ll be back in time.  Is that OK?”  He said “Yes.”

“Well, we’re refusing to take this train.  We want to take the next one.  Besides, we don’t fancy going into these compartments with all the betel nut and all the rest of it.”  But the Corporal was determined.  They held the train up.  There was seven of us who refused.  The Corporal gets the rations and puts them on the train with the help of some privates who decided to go.  Then he says to us “I’m asking you once: are you going to follow the rations?”  That’s one of the things that makes it an order – you’re supposed to go where the rations go.

“Are you following the rations?”  “No.”  “Two:  Are you going to follow the rations?”  “No.”  “Three: are you going to follow the rations?”  We were a wee bit hesitant.  He’d told us he was going to give us three chances.  We gave an explanation why we werenae going to go – to keep as evidence.  “Are you going to follow the rations?”  “No.”  That’s it.  They went on the train.  The train pulled away.  We went to the RTO, got our passes signed, saying why we had done it, and that if we get in on time we wouldn’t be classed as absent.

As luck may have it, we were late.  The train was late and we reported ten minutes after our passes were up.  The Corporal, apparently, hadnae got to his brothel, which meant he got back to the camp in Delhi early.  He was annoyed, so he put in a charge against us.  As soon as we came into the camp we were put into the guardroom.  Taken out in the morning, charged and put in front of the Company Commander.  The Sergeant Major who marches us in said “Where is your evidence?  Where are your passes?”  Foolishly, we handed them over, and they disappeared.

The Company Commander got our explanation, and without any further chance to explain, he told us that he was giving us seven days CB for being late – absent without leave.  (4)    We refused the punishment.  We asked to see the Commanding Officer, which we were entitled to do.  He asked us if we were prepared to accept his punishment.  We said “No.”  We were remanded for Court Martial, the charge now being “Inciting Mutiny” against me, being the oldest soldier.  I had led the other six young soldiers into refusing to obey an order.

I lay in prison for seven months, along with everybody else – without even being tried!  The padre came up regular (this is where I took a dislike to padres) and pleaded with me to give in.  Mind you, if I’d accepted seven days CB I’d have been out.  They were all saying “Give in” and making threats about never seeing our mothers again, but the principle was more important to us, and we stuck it out.

In between that time we seen things that I’d never hope to see again

We were in a compound that was surrounded by barbed wire.  At that time the First Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers had the biggest police force that I’ve seen in a unit I’ve been in.  The reason for that was as follows.  Delhi Cantonment – the camp we were in – had what they called an invisible perimeter.  The Indians used to herd their cattle around it, and sometimes into it.  From time to time the cattle would stray onto our Cantonment.  The Battalion HQ Quarter-Master Sergeant Major had a notice put up in every dining room in the camp, informing all fusiliers, which we were, that if they found these animals straying into our property it was our duty to bring them to the Quarter-Master’s stores, or to the battalion cookhouse for slaughter.  Right.  That is the situation.

When I was imprisoned in this compound I discovered that the police acted as rustlers.  They used to go outside and force the cattle in, under the authority of the Sergeant Major who was in charge of the police.  They’d collect the money for the cattle they’d rustled, and then when the cowman came looking for his cattle, into the perimeter, they whipped him into prison.  They stripped him of everything – looted all his stuff, gave him nothing, and left him there.  They wouldn’t give him a place to shit.  They done that with us too, by the way.  They done this until the poor wee guy was crying to get out – and I mean grovelling – to get out.

And then they would form themselves into a gauntlet, with their truncheons and sticks, and the man would have to run through the rank.  The rank was never under twenty and sometimes nearer thirty men.  He’d run down, getting slaughtered – slaughtered – as he went out.

Sketch:  Walter Morrison

Sketch: Walter Morrison

With us, we’d get sent out with the prisoners who had already been tried, to what they called the maidan.  It’s an open space, and the police, or whoever was in charge of you, would sit under a tree.  It was like an American chain-gang.  They used to have us cutting grass with the edge of a shovel in the height of the sun, when the Indians and everybody else were kipping it up from two o’ clock to four o’ clock.  That’s what they had us doing.  I’ve seen men with the skin literally raised off their back, and the blood’s running out of them, the blood caked up and dried.

You’ve probably heard the tales of picking the sand up, bits of sand up – that’s true – and guys sadistically standing over you.  Wouldnae even give you a drink.  Men collapsing and the guy coming along with a bucket of water and throwing it over them and dragging them in, and throwing them in a cell.  That’s a fact.  There’s no shenanigan about that.  That all happened.  They done it to me.

In the meantime my hair had grown fairly long, and the Sergeant Major decided that I was to get a haircut.  I always stuck by the rules, as I seen them.  It was only when they pushed that wee bit from the other side that I started to kick and I really kicked.  “Get a haircut.”  So I decided to get the first haircut.  They took me out of my cell.  It was an Indian.  He cut my hair.  Made quite a nice job of my hair, and that was it.

The Sergeant Major came along in the morning and said “Right, turn around Morrison, let’s see the back.”  Turned ’round – I was always regimental – everything was done military style, in drill.   “Oh, that’s nae use.  You’ll need to get more off.”  Anger creeping in.  Following morning, out again.  More off.  Without dragging the story out, it took about three days, maybe four days until I was only left with one tuft of hair on the top of my head.  One bit.  My patience is getting tried.  “That’s the end of it”, I said to myself.  I asked the Orderly Officer who came ’round the cells at night “Sir, do you think I need a haircut?”  “No.”  It was obvious I didnae.  “The Sergeant Major has said I’ve got to have a haircut.”  “In that case Morrison, if that’s what Sergeant Major says, you’ve got to get it.  Get that man out for another haircut.”  The Corporals know me and they say “The barber will not be around till tomorrow.”  Sympathy was beginning to grow up, with certain people.  The Officer says “Have him out for a haircut tomorrow.”

“What do I do now Walter?”  That’s what I said to myself.  “What do I do now?”

I searched around the cell.  I was in a cell about nine feet long and roughly about my arms width, with a wooden bed and a pail.  That was me.  I’d done a big drawing of myself on the wall, and I used to box it, shadow-box it, to keep myself fit, and to let them see there was no mug in the cell.  I happened to see on top of the cell doors, which were iron railings, an iron bar attached to the railings with screws, and on top of that was sharp rusty spikes.  Besides the cell doors were storm doors that came in to keep the sandstorms from blowing in.  When the police went off at night the military guard came on and I says to the guy “Will you shut my storm door?”

He closed the storm door and I unscrewed this iron bar and managed to get it off, which meant I was left with a gladiator-type weapon which I managed to hide.  First thing in the morning the Orderly Officer comes around again, to inspect the guard, and he comes ’round the cells to take anybody who wants to go on the sick.  I had it all planned out.  I asked to go and see the Medical Officer, which to me seemed the logical step because I was not only wanting to ask him about my hair being any shorter, but I was now being affected mentally, and I couldnae see any other way that I could have this brought out into the open.  If anything happened I wanted references back.  They took me over.

I says “Sir, I’m here to see you about my hair.”  There was a notice up in the battalion that because of the sun you’d only to get your hair cut to a certain length.  “The situation’s this, sir – I’ve been told to get another haircut.”  “If Sergeant Major says so, you’ve got to get it done.”  That’s one thing about the army – you can be the biggest villain under the sun and they just throw their  weight behind each other.  “Well, sir, if anybody comes into my cell to take me out to get another bit of hair cut off, I’ll kill them on the spot.  The reason I’ve come to you, sir, is that I’m hoping you’ll take it seriously, because if I do, then you being a medical man, you should understand people’s minds, and you’ll be held responsible.  I’m telling you – it’s going to happen.”  I went on about how I’ve been trained by the army to fight for what I think is right: that I knew how to kill people, and this seemed like a time I was going to have to do it.

Christ!  They were shitting themselves.  I had a name that if I said it, they knew I would do it.  They took me back to my cell.  Now by this time – you take it from me – the place was buzzing – “Hear Morrison’s doing this.”  “Hear Morrison’s doing that.”  Everybody in the unit knew.  It’s getting nearer and nearer for the barber to come.  Talk about High Noon!  High Noon was nothing on it.  I’m sitting there with this iron bar, getting worried and worried and worried.  I’m saying to myself “What if it’s big Jimmy that comes in?  What if it’s so and so?  I’ll have to kill them.”  Take it from me – it was there to be done.  The first person that would have come in my cell would have copped it.

Would you believe my cell door wasnae opened for – och – I was going to say seven days – I cannae remember the thing, because everything became such a “Where am I? – What have I done?” that I don’t remember.  But it wasnae that day, and it wasnae the next day, and all the food was fed through the bars to me.  The piss was running over the top of my bucket and they wouldnae let me out for a shit, but I never had another piece of hair taken off my head.

The lesson from that was, for me – Oh Christ, I don’t want to be in that position again, because I would have killed some poor bugger.  That’s what turned me to pacifism, actually.

After months and months of sitting in jail we were finally taken before the Commanding Officer

We were waiting on confirmation of the Brigadier’s report on the Court Martial.  Everybody seen me getting sent away for a good long time.  The padre came round asking, would he say a prayer for me?  The seven of us were taken up in front of the Commanding Officer and marched in.  Everybody was in front of me, then I was taken in.  I was given one hundred and fifty six days detention, as I was picked out as the ringleader.  The rest of them got, we’ll say, in the region of twenty eight days field punishment.  We’re marched out.  And then: “Prisoners and escort – caps on!”  We put our caps back on.  I said “What’s on now?”  “Quick march!”  Back in again.  The Commanding Officer: “In the case of Private Morrison, blah, blah, blah, although you have been given such and such, blah, blah, blah, the Brigadier has failed to confirm the sentence, and you will be released immediately.”  Same for all of us.  So we won, in a roundabout way.  I was released, given some leave and all my back-pay.

That night I went to the garrison theatre to see a film.  There was a big searchlight shining into the place where we all stood queuing, waiting to get into the pictures.  Big lines of all the lads, and the padre comes up on his bicycle.  He comes up to me.  “Morrison, can I speak to you.”  “Yes, what is it?”  “I want to congratulate you on your release and on your stand.”  “Away to fuck, you of little faith.  I don’t need your help, or anybody else’s.”  And all the boys are going “Whe-heyy!”  How can you have faith in people like that?  They talk about a guy called Jesus that’s no prepared to surrender certain things and yet, when it comes to the crunch, they’re pleading with me to give in.

1.    A sedative used particularly in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

2.   Similar strategies on trains are accurately described by “Coxey” (Richard Attenborough) in Private’s Progress, Boulting Brothers, 1956.

3.   1943 news cuttings from The Times, and listed on Godfrey Dyke’s website, at the bottom of his entry.  Click Here.

30 APRIL 1943

JUNE 26 1943

4.   CB = Confined to Barracks.

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19 Mutiny and The Underground

“Last night’s action was bordering on mutiny!”

RAF Electrician   The conditions in Gibraltar were really bloody horrible.  A few days after arriving they said “We want a volunteer for Station Electrician.”  I was a trained aircraft electrician but I didn’t fancy working on aircraft, so I thought: OK, I’ll do that.  One of the finest things I ever did – in a way it was.  Later on it rebounded on me.  I had a workshop of my own and instead of going on parade like the rest of them, I didn’t have to.  And there was a lot of opportunity for skiving.  Oh yes.  As station electrician I could skive.

As station electrician I could skive

As station electrician I could skive

For instance, the officers used to have their refrigerator break down and I would tell them “I can get it done if you let me go to the RASC and rewind the motor.”  They were only too pleased to let me go because they wanted their bloody refrigerator, so I used to drag the job out.  I used to go to the pictures in the afternoon – all sorts of things like that.  The other thing I did which was different to most of the others was I learnt to speak Spanish, and I began to talk to the dockers.  Mind you,  there wasn’t much you could do on Gibraltar.  There was just one cinema with hard forms.  You could go there once a week and queue and wait your turn.  It wasn’t a camp cinema.

The only thing in Gib was a main street with umpteen pubs.  Booze was dirt cheap and you could get as pissed as a newt.  Lots of them became alcoholics because of that.  To make matters worse, all the civilians – the women, children and old people – had been evacuated.  The Gibraltarians.  They had been evacuated to England.  There was no women.  They used to import Spanish labour for the shops.  They used to come in from across the border.  They didn’t work in the camps, of course.

Blokes used to try and get off with these Spanish girls, but they didn’t have the time really.  The Spanish girls used to come at 7 o’ clock in the morning, and they’d go home at 7 o’ clock at night.  Also their customs were different.  Strictly speaking, a girl who went and walked along with a bloke was considered a prostitute.  The Spanish blokes didn’t want to know her, in the same way that many English blokes wouldn’t want to know an English girl who’d been out with a Yank.  So it was very difficult to walk with, never mind go out with a Spanish girl.  There was no bloody where to go out!

So the result was: three square miles, bloody hot, in the night time, we were sleeping on petrol cans, in the day there was the levanter – a sort of steam on top of the Rock, which at night  used to come down and you got absolutely bloody soaked.  It was like being in a vapour bath.  When you woke up in the morning and the sun came out you were sweating, so you couldn’t get dry.  You got terrible dysentery, and with the flies and whatnot, it was bleeding horrible.  The result was that the M.O. wouldn’t guarantee the health of anybody who stayed more than eighteen months.  So the tour of duty was eighteen months.  Afterwards you got sent home.  All the previous draft on Gib had been sent home after eighteen months.  It was so bad there that blokes used to throw themselves off the Rock.

It started off in the Seaplane camp.  They got hold of all the Naafi furniture and they burnt the bleeding lot

As time went on they didn’t do much about the blokes’ quarters, but they gradually put concrete over the race course.  They turned it into a proper runway to take more heavier things.  As they’re laying the tannoy cables they’re concreting them in.  Being the Station Electrician it meant there was only two people who knew where these tannoy cables were – me and the Electrical Officer.

Something was in the air.  They started to import Spitfires, boxed in crates.  Blokes were assembling them, working right through.  They worked two, three days at a stretch, with hardly any sleep.  Working like the clappers.  Again I was lucky.  As Station Electrician I could skive.  Eventually it broke: The African Campaign – Montgomery’s victory.  Terrific cheers.  Everyone all pleased.  At last a breakthrough.  Everybody’s looking forward to going home – some of them only had a couple of months to go.  Then all of a sudden a notice is posted on the DROs (1)   “As a result of the African victory the tour of duty in Gibraltar has been increased to eighteen months in Gibraltar, followed by eighteen months in Africa.”  The blokes just could not believe it.  As I say, some of them were just about to go home.

It started off in the Seaplane camp.  They got hold of all the Naafi furniture (before they did they took out the sparking plug of the fire-engine) and burnt the bleeding lot.  They were saying “We’re not tolerating this.  We didn’t work our bollocks off for this.”  It was a     spontaneous reaction.   Then the lads in our camp, the Land base, they discussed it.  “What shall we do?”  “Let’s not go to work tomorrow.  Let’s have a strike.”  Most of them thought they were a bit daft at the Seaplane camp, ‘cos they were really sticking their necks out.

The officers were dead quiet.  Not a word.  This was in all camps – including the radio camp on top of the Rock as well.  They were all discussing it.  “What shall we do?  We’re certainly not going to stand for this.  This is not on.”  Nobody went to work next day.  Well, very, very few.  Eventually the officers realised it was getting out of hand.  It really was.  So they put up on the DROs “We recognise that the decision to extend the tour of duty was very unpopular, and therefore we have decided to form an Answer Back committee.  Officers will be present in the canteen and any airman who cares to come along can ask questions.  All formalities will be waived.  You can ask whatever questions you like.  There will be no disciplinary action taken.”

You’ve never seen anything like it!  A dozen WRENS and two hundred blokes, excuse me dancing all the time!

We went along to this meeting.  The CO got up.  “Look”, he said “I feel just as bad about this as you do.  I’ve made representations to the Air Ministry to tell them how bad people feel about this.  I’m waiting for a reply.  Meanwhile, whilst we’re waiting, there’s no reason why things couldn’t be made a bit easier.  If any of you have any questions or any suggestions…”  We kept on for a little while about the eighteen months tour of duty.  Is it fair, ectetera.  The CO said “I can’t reply to this one.  I’ve made my protest to the Air Ministry.  I’m waiting for a reply.  Now anything else?”

Up to that time we had been sleeping in the most uncomfortable conditions.  There was one or two huts by then.  “Why can’t we have decent conditions to live in?”  “We’ll see to that.”  “We think it disgusting that in weather like this not to have sheets or pyjamas.  Can we have some issued?”  “Yes, you can have that issued.”  And we complained also about the canteen.

Not very long before all this happened an incident occurred where the officers had had a dance.  There was no women on the Rock so they got the Wrens from the Naval base.  There were a few there, but you hardly ever saw them.  Before the officers had their dance they got the lads – who didn’t know what was going on – to put sackcloth screening all around the officers’ mess and they made it out of bounds.  The dance occurred and the Wrens came in.  And the penny dropped – “Oh boy!  What a shower of bastards!”  They were really resentful.

At the Answer Back committee one of the chaps says “I think, sir, we ought to have a dance.”  “Dance?”  “Yes!”  “Who are you going to dance with?”  “You had the Wrens here, didn’t you.  We’ll have them here, to dance with us.”  “But there’s so many of you and we’ve only got a few Wrens!”  “Alright, we’ll have excuse-me dances, all the way along.”   They postponed their decision until the next Answer Back committee, but we had our dance!  You’ve never seen anything like it!  A dozen Wrens and two hundred blokes excuse-me dancing all the time!  Mind you, I don’t know what the fuss was all about.  They were real bloody crabs.  They were a snooty, middle-class lot.

As a result of our action they compromised and cut the tour of duty down to two years.  They also built a Rest Camp on the Rock.  It was very nice to go there – in fact, it was bloody marvellous.  By the way, they held the NCO’s responsible for any further acts of mutiny.  Although a terrible amount of damage was done no one was charged, as far as I know.

Another result of the mutiny was that some of the lads were allowed to go to Tangiers, after they’d done eighteen months on the Rock.  But when it came to me – No!  The Electrical Officer had gone back to England and I’m the only bleeding one who knows where the tannoy cables are!  Every time there was a fault, I had to repair it, so they said I couldn’t go.  You couldn’t put it down on paper, when it’s under concrete.  It was something you knew instinctively.  You knew where it was.  You’d been inspecting it time and again.  I knew where it was because I made nearly all the joints in the bleeding thing!

I could speak Spanish and I got to know one or two people who claimed they were working for the Spanish Underground

One bloke in the town, he used to work in a typewriter shop and was talking about “Viva La Republica” and all the rest of it, but he wasn’t very political.  But there was a girl who worked in a tobacco shop I used to go in.  She was very political and very interested in working against Franco.  One day,  when she got to know me sufficiently well, she gave me a text.  “There’s an underground movement in Spain and we’d like to have this duplicated.  Do you know anyone who can duplicate this?”  “Let me have a look at it.”

I thought it the most bloody innocuous stuff you could imagine.  It was asking that women who were prisoners of Franco should be allowed to have milk, and that prisoners in general should be allowed to have books.  I said to her “I don’t think very much of that.”  “You’ve got to start with small things.  You’ve got to get the sympathy of the population.  We feel it would be a useful exercise.”  “You know better than me, but I still don’t see anything brilliant about it.”  “You don’t live under a Fascist Dictatorship, so you don’t bloody well know.”

So I took the text and went to the feller in the typewriter shop who was always talking about the “Republica.”  “Tell me, what do you think of this?”  He read it.  “Marvellous!  Where’d you get it from?”  “Never mind where I got it from – can you get some duplicated?”  “Certainly.  What’s it for?”  “To be taken into Spain.”  “Certainly, with the greatest of pleasure.  Come back on Tuesday, I’ll have them all ready for you.”

I went back on the Tuesday and the chap says “Here you are, here’s your duplicated leaflet.”  And standing there is a soldier.  “Hey”, I said “perhaps he can understand Spanish.”   “Yes, he can.  I’ll introduce you to him.  So and so, Corporal, member of the Security Police!”  I thought: bloody hell.  He shakes hands with me.  “Pleased to meet you.  That’s a very good leaflet you have there.”  I says “Yeah, as a matter of fact I wanted to send a few to send to my friends, who’d be interested in what’s going on in Spain.  I couldn’t tell him I wanted half a dozen, so I told him to print a few more.”   “Don’t give us a cock and bull story like that.  I know they’re going into Spain.  Who’s taking them in?”  “Nobody’s taking them in.”  “Don’t you kid me.  Don’t get me wrong – this is a good leaflet.  It’s useful.”  “How do you mean?  Useful?”  “Well, we know for an absolute fact that Franco is sending wolfram (a stuff for making steel) to Germany. (2)  If we have leaflets like this we can get to know people in the Underground and if we tell Franco who they are, we can have some bargaining power with him.  You want to see the war won, don’t you?”  I took my bloody time.  “As far as I’m concerned”, I said “if I could help you, I would.”  “Perhaps we’ll take them in?”  “You can do what you like with them.” In fact he allowed me to keep them.  I went back to the camp, got rid of the bloody things and decided not to go back to the girl.  A friend of mine, a Scots laddie, went and tipped her off.

A couple of weeks later, in the middle of the night, they suddenly woke me up.  “You’re being posted”

“What?”  “You’re being posted.  Get your things.  Pack your kit.  We’re going in two hours.”  “Where?”   “Sorry, can’t tell you.”  I packed my kit and thought: What the bloody hell.  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to anyone.  They took me out, onto a boat, right out into the Med and then they transferred me to another boat.  When I got on that boat there was a lot of RAF blokes – and they’re all yellow!  They told me they had come from Takoradi in the Gold Coast (3),  and they’d been taking Mepacrine tablets against malaria, which had made them yellow.  They also told me we were on our way home.  I thought: marvellous!

One of the band came along and said “We’re on jankers.”

On the boat were all services – navy, army and airforce.  The conditions were rotten, really rotten.  Every night an announcement used to come on the tannoy that went something like this: “The time is now twenty-one hundred hours.  All other ranks will go below decks.  Officers and first class passengers may remain on deck until twenty-two hundred hours.  Please extinguish your cigarettes.”  That was standard apparently on all troop ships, and of course it really got up blokes’ noses.

On the boat I came across a bloke who’d taught me to play the trumpet as a kid.  He’d been to the Gold Coast and was in this RAF band which was aboard.  Every evening the band used to go into a room and entertain the blokes.  One day one of the band came along and said “We’re on jankers.  The CO called us into the office and said we had to play for the officers and first class passengers, and that there wouldn’t be a concert for the lads tonight.  We told him we’re a RAF band, and don’t think it’s right.”  “Right’, he said “you’re all on jankers and they’ll be no concert at all tonight.”

The story got round – “Bleeding bastards!”  That night the blokes decided they were going to occupy this bloody room.  We were going to have our own party.  We crowded into this room and didn’t allow anyone else in,  and we started to put on a concert – singing songs like Eskimo Nell, telling dirty jokes and things like that.  The funniest thing was, I think the officers and the first class passengers must have had a better time than if the band had played, because they were all outside, looking through the windows, absolutely killing themselves with laughter – absolutely rolling up.  We had the most marvellous evening.

The CO’s walking backwards and forwards – “Last nights’ action was bordering on mutiny!”  And they pissed themselves laughing

And then, the stupid bastards, they went and did the announcement over the tannoy: “It is now twenty-one hundred hours…”  They couldn’t have been more tactless.  A howl went up and they all burst out on deck, all these yellow faces.  They’d been drinking, as well.  “The rotten sods!”  “We’ll throw the CO in the sea!”  And they started singing the Red Flag and the Internationale.  Then, through the tannoy “Will all ranks go below decks.”   “Fuck you, you rotten bastards, we’re not going below decks!” they shouted back.  It was murder!  It went on till about 1 o’ clock in the morning.  They let it fade out gradually.  Everyone drifted down.  Everybody felt really good.

Next morning all the NCOs were called in to see the CO.  One of them comes back – “Look lads”, he says “they’ve made us personally responsible for any other occurrence.  We’re all going to be on a charge.”  “We’ll stand by you, if they put you on a charge.  They won’t put you on no charge.”  The lads still wanted to carry on with it.  The NCOs were called in again.  The CO asked them to assemble all the lads below decks.  So everybody’s down below, all ranks, all services.  In fact the airforce and the navy were the most militant – the army wasn’t, funnily enough.  In walks the Adjutant.  He comes marching along.  All of a sudden there’s a snigger.  “Shut up!”  Really “SHUT UP!”   He’s pacing backwards and forwards like a bloody, bleeding rat.  Backwards and forwards.  Then suddenly the CO comes in.

There are more sniggers and the Adjutant is really screaming “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!”  The CO’s walking backwards and forwards – “Last night’s action was bordering on mutiny!”  And they pissed themselves laughing!  The Adjutant’s going mad – “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”   The CO says “I don’t understand what all the discontent is all about.  After all, you’ve all had good food.”  More guffaws of laughter.  “Isn’t the food good?  You’ve had fruit!”   The chaps were laughing.  The Adjutant’s going “SHUT UP!  SHUT UP!” and eventually quietens them down.

“Why – Haven’t you had any fruit?  Have you had any fruit?” he says to this chappie.  “Well, Sir, I’ve had one small apple.”   “And the food’s been good, hasn’t it?”   “No, sir.”  And the Adjutant says “Don’t answer back!”   “Well, all I’m saying to you is this, I can promise you any further action like this and the whole lot of you will be arrested as soon as we dock in England.”  The lads were dismissed.

The lads went on talking though, and there didn’t seem any sign that it was abating, so they stopped the boat there and then.   There where it was.  Just stopped.  Dead silence.  Nobody knew what was happening.  Nobody knew what to do.  They kept it like that for nearly a day.   Then they said “Start unloading the hold. Get your kits ready.  We’ll soon  be landing.”   We didn’t know where the hell we were.  The boat started to move and we discovered that we were off the coast of Ireland.  Eventually we came to somewhere near Morecambe and disembarked.  And that was the end of it.

1.  DROs:  Daily Routine Orders.

2. Wolfram, more commonly known as tungsten.  

3. Ghana.

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18 POWs

The guard was saying “Don’t go near that, you’ll die.  It’s electrocuted.”

Londoner   I was on Guernsey.  After about a year, or two years – I don’t quite remember – the Germans issued an ultimatum that all “non-islanders” as they called us who were of British birth, and not Channel Island birth, had to report and that we were to be sent to Germany.  Some managed to duck it, but for the rest of us it was very worrying because we had no idea what to expect.  We could not get any information as to where or why.  We’ve learnt since it was a political trick – “I’ll pay you one” – for something I’ve been told our forces did elsewhere in the world.  (1)  

They took many, many hundreds of people.  We got a week’s notice.  We were told to wear what warm clothing we had, and sturdy clothing and a pair of decent boots if we had them,  and that was about all.  The bare necessities for marching.  There were single men, women, girls, boys and complete families.  They transported us by boat to St.Malo and from St.Malo we were put on a train – not on cattle trucks, we didn’t have that unfortunate experience – but a French third class train with wooden seats.

We wound our way through France and Luxemburg.  On one occasion the RAF bombed the line in front of us and we had to be diverted by another route.  We slept in the train a couple of nights.  It was blue murder.  They issued us with sticks of German sausage.  It was German Army rations, which just about kept us going.  But we could never get enough water.  The train was packed and the driver obviously couldn’t keep giving his water up for drinking purposes.

We passed through Cologne and the train stopped.  The guards sprang out on the platform and ordered us to pull the blinds down.  It was a semi-secret job, you see.  We didn’t all do that though.  I and another feller got the window down.  The place was packed with German civilians – men and women going to work.  We rattled our dixies and asked them for water.  Some of them probably got us water without knowing what nationality we were – which they did from the fountain on the platform.   One man asked me “Who on earth are you?”  I’d learnt a bit of German and I said “We’re English.”  He seemed most surprised and smiled.  We didn’t have any animosity.  The guards, of course, came rushing up with their rifles.  They didn’t like it because it was their orders that we weren’t to do that.  They didn’t sock us, especially not in front of their own civilians.

The guard was saying “Don’t go near that, you’ll die.  It’s electrocuted

We ended up first in a camp called Dorsten, which formerly had been a military camp – Ilag Six they called it.  Our Infantry had been prisoners there sometime previously.  The diabolical thing about this camp – and we think it was done purposely – was that our camp was down below two elevated canals – the Dortmund and the Ems canals.  If the RAF had bombed the canals we would have got drowned, as we were locked in.  We didn’t fancy that but there was nothing we could do.  The German guards at least had a chance of doing a bunk.

The other intolerable thing was that we didn’t have enough food.  We lived on what the Germans called “Army Rations”, but as we pointed out to them,  in England, besides your army rations you had a few bob in your pocket and you could go out and get some unrationed chips, and so forth.  It was really miserable.  It was so bad that three or four of us went out on this small gravel exercising enclosure.  There were some sunflowers and I knew you could eat sunflower seeds, although I’d never eaten them before.  We gathered a few seeds and I stuck my hand out to get some more, because they were seemingly growing wild, all around the barbed wire, when one of the German guards up in the tower started bawling and waving.  I then realised he was talking to me, and he was saying “Don’t go near that, you’ll die.  It’s electrocuted.”  That was my first experience of electrification.   I didn’t quite comprehend it.  Even then I was as green as grass.  I passed the word around.

We were there about two months.  Somewhere in the vicinity were some English officers – prisoners – who by some chance got to hear of us and they sent some Red Cross supplies, which helped us.  This place was an assembly point for us crowd.  They took all the married people and the single girls, and the very young fellers who were about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – they took all of them to what they called a married camp.  The rest of us were shoved through Germany, right down to Bavaria.

When we got there the food situation was just as bad

There were dungeons in this camp, but we were only in those later on.   The camp was a typical old German castle, like the pictures you see of them.  In addition pill boxes had been built and you had  machine guns and searchlights and barbed wire, and dogs yowling away.  Salzburg was the nearest big town to our camp.  We were right on the Austrian border – although it was all one then.  There was a bridge over to Austria, over the River Salzach.  (2)

In the camp there were about two hundred American civilians, who had been working or were living in Europe when America entered the war.  For instance, there was the American announcer of the English programme for the Lublin radio station.  There were also a lot of Polish Jews who were nominally American citizens.  They had American passports.  They were dual-nationality.  Many of them couldn’t speak English at all.  You couldn’t really describe them as Americans.  It was a legal technicality that’s all.

When we got there the food situation was just as bad.  I’ve walked out – several of us – and gone to a garbage bin and picked out the least of the filth and eaten it.  After a time the International Red Cross got weaving and we had more or less regular supplies of Red Cross food, which frankly kept us alive.  I had T.B. and probably would have died of it, had I not had this extra food.  We also got mail, through the Red Cross.  But we got the worst of both worlds.  I sent a letter once which was not censored by the Germans, but it was censored by the English when it got over there.  One letter I sent,  there was only about three lines in the middle that was still there.  The British had censored the last half and the Germans the first half.

We were in a most peculiar position.  We weren’t officers, we weren’t other ranks.  We were something a bit apart

For instance, they couldn’t make us work.  Provided we got out and obeyed their roll-calls, we could lie on our beds all day for three years, if we wanted to.  The Germans stuck to the Geneva Convention as far as we were concerned.  But of course, if you did lie around all day you’d soon go raving mad.  Most of us did a little bit of work.  We tried to improve things.  It was the sensible thing to do.  I occupied myself in the camp as a maintenance man.  We organised our own work.  As I say, we tried to improve things.  You wanted grub – so you’d do a bit in the kitchen and peel spuds.  Then there were the market gardens outside the camp and you could volunteer, if the Germans didn’t think you were too risky.  Quite a few of them did that.

We had to elect our camp leader.  In fact we had to have two.  They were sort of figureheads, to negotiate with the Germans.  They didn’t have any real power.  It was more committee things.  You built your own parliament.  Different committees for different things, for hygiene and so on.  There was no politics, but there was the same hoo-ha you get anywhere – pettiness, back-biting.  There was class-distinction here and there, but I think there always is.

We had a gentleman from the German Foreign Office who visited the camp.  He was connected with Lord Haw Haw

An old German sergeant major came clomping along and said “You’re wanted.”  I got carted up to the office, and there’s a gentleman sitting there, wearing a beautifully cut English suit and smoking Players English cigarettes.  “Come in,” he said.  “let’s see… I’ve got your papers here.  You were born not far from Dagenham  – Leytonstone.  Not that far.  Fords at Dagenham.  We bombed it last week.”  As much as if to say “Do you know much about it?”  There was all that sort of gear going on, but I didn’t have anything to do with him.  He was offering us pretty girls, good living and a good job in Berlin if we’d go on the German radio.  We had to be very careful, of course.  I said “Very interesting.”  But I wasn’t going to Berlin.  God!  I’d have been put in the Tower when I got back.  Shot!  I had that much sense.

The only news we did get was from the German controlled radio, but after a year a boy did knock up a secret radio, which we had in the camp, so we could pick up various English broadcasts.  In fact it was so secret 90% of the inmates, including myself, didn’t know where it was.  It was a little one or two valves, which is now in the museum in Guernsey.  The Germans after a time realised there was a radio in the camp and began to make searches, without any luck.  One of the chaps on the Liaison, he told us that the German Commandant had said “Look Mr So and So, we know there’s a radio here.  If we have visitors” – he didn’t say what he meant by ‘visitors’ – “it’ll be very bad for you, and it will be very bad for me.”  He was obviously referring to the Gestapo, but these chaps wouldn’t play ball.  They more or less said that if there is a radio it’s up to him to find it.

“There are other people in Germany.  My guards may not be able to help you.”  It sounded rather funny.  He actually used the word “Help”

I got myself what they called an Ausweis – a pass.  Because I was on the hygiene and maintenance squad I had to go to the local railway station to get various bits and pieces.  When I got the pass I had to go before the Commandant.  There were swastikas and pictures of Hitler, in his office, and he was sitting there, with his Iron Cross.  He said “I want to warn you that this pass takes you from A to B.  When you get to B you do what you have to do.”  He was describing it in broken English.  “You don’t look left, you don’t look right.  You turn round and you come back here.  I’m telling you this because if you wander off these tracks, either to the left or the right, there are other people in Germany and my guards may not to be able to help you.”  It sounded funny – he actually used the word “Help”.  I didn’t actually really understand, at the time, what he was on about.

I’ve realised since that there were two Germany’s.  There was the SS and the Gestapo and the Nazis – meaning your local gauleiter,  or Lord Mayor,  and all the bumph and officialdom, who were in the Party, and there was the ordinary German plus the German Army.  What he meant was if I strayed out of his district – well, god knows.  I took care not to, I might tell you!  I also had no intention of trying to escape.  I was quite attached to the guy who was my guard and I had no intention of getting him into trouble.  It was a case of “Keep quiet while you’re lucky to be able to walk.”

They didn’t really believe it all, some of them

In the camp we were under German army discipline, more or less.  Some of the soldiers guarding us were from the Russian Front, who had been wounded.  Several of them had the Iron Cross. These were the daytime guards.  At night they went off duty, air raids permitting, and a separate detachment of German infantry guarded the camp.  Both the daytime and night-time guards were the ordinary army – Wehrmacht.  This is a totally different thing to the SS and the Nazis.  There’s just no comparison.  I spoke a bit of German and I got friendly with some of them.  In fact I had a letter a couple of months back from a girl who said “Do you recognise my husband, because he was one of the fellers who was guarding you.”  And would I pay them a visit?  Which I’m hoping to do.  A peculiar relationship sprang up between us and the guards.

They employed one or two German civilians in the camp.  They had to wear a special – a green – armband.  Although the authorities didn’t encourage fraternisation, I spoke to quite a few civilians.  They weren’t particularly Nazis.  I can only say that it was the same over here – it’s like anyone here standing up for the King.  They’re not particularly patriotic, but if I came along and sat down…  I got friendly with one or two German girls too.  There were girls, for instance, in the censor’s office, who used to censor our Red Cross letters on the German side.  The Bavarians didn’t like the Prussians.  You could tell.  For instance, Hitler had an association called the Bund Deutscher Mädel – the Association of German Girlhood – probably something like our Girl Guides.  Some of the German girls I knew used to say “It’s not the ‘Deutscher’ but the ‘Dummer’ – Dumb – Girls.”  They didn’t believe it all, some of them.

I used to secretly sneer at them

The Polish Jews either held forged or authentic American passports.  With them, there was real hatred, and I can only assume it was something that they had seen and endured that I had not.  The Germans put them in a ghetto – a room of their own.  They didn’t mix with us.  Well, they sort of mixed with us.  It was more – this is my room and that is your room, and if you want to come into my room that’s up to you.

They had a rabbi, and to this day all this religious hoo-ha turns me not on, but off.  I wasn’t too keen on them.  They all seemed to be mumbling and praying about something.  I got on alright with most of them but I didn’t have much time for the rabbi and his crowd.  As they were nominally, on paper, Americans, the guards didn’t ill treat them.  I don’t think they liked them, but quite frankly – some of them – neither did I.  I used to secretly sneer at them.  I thought it was ghastly – you see, they were so servile.

If a German officer came in, these Jews would spring up and say “Oh, won’t you sit down?”  You wouldn’t get me doing that.  I mean, our fellers would never do that.  If somebody shouted an order – “Bloody well get up!” – well, we slouched to our feet.  But I thought, perhaps I’m being a bit naughty here.  If I’d been through what they’d probably been through I might be different.  They had two wars.  They had the Russians on one side, the Germans on the other.  It seemed to me they suffered just as bad at the hands of the Russians.

My people died whilst I was in prison

I never saw them again.  It was a terrific shock when I got this message.  I was feeling pretty ribby and there was a German officer who so used to aggravate me.  I said to an under-officer, who was friendly with me “Look” I said – in fact, I lost my temper – “You tell that geezer of yours I can get hold of a gun, and anymore nonsense out of him, I’ll pop him off.  I’ve been in this place so long, I couldn’t care less.  You’d better tell him that when I say ‘Good Morning’ he says ‘Good Morning’, and doesn’t swear at me.”  I did in fact get a gun.

I never saw this officer for a couple of weeks after this, and then by chance I ran into him.  He looked pretty foul, but he did say “Good Morning.”  I thought: somebody’s been talking around this joint.  I didn’t know whether I was going to be hauled up or what.  Three days later the under-officer came up to me and I said “I saw that goddam officer.  Is he back off leave?”  He told me that he’d spoken with the officer, and he said “You know he lives in Munich?”  “No, I don’t”, I said.  “Well he does, and I thought I’d tell you that three weeks ago your airforce came over and bombed it, and he lost his wife and child.”  I told him that I’d heard at the same time that I’d lost my people.  There was a sort of understanding.  I could understand why he was mad.  He must have hated Englishmen and sub-consciously I equally hated Germans, at that point.  We were really going for each other.  It was madness, but understandable.

We had an Italian prisoner of war.  He was worse than the Land Girls

Somerset Farmer   We applied for one when our Land Girl went.  He was in his twenties.  They were free to go where they liked after they finished work.  Once a week they did go back to the camp.  He went down to the camp one evening and when he came back he told us the boys were going to mutiny down there.  Something about conditions – the conditions weren’t good enough, and they were going to mutiny – and they did!  This was at Wells.  Our people who were looking after the camp, I think they went in with their bayonets fixed on their guns.  They drawed a bit of blood on one or two of them and that quietened them down.

I billeted the prisoner in my house, and I don’t mind telling you – every night we went to bed, the door was padlocked.  I never trusted that fellow.  He could read the English newspaper.  He used to spit and go “English pigs.”  He was a bit fuddy-duddy about what he would eat.  One day I was going to have a tin of pilchards for breakfast, because they were on coupons that day.  “Me no like pilchards.  Too many pilchards in camp.”  So I cooked him an egg, fried an egg for him.  My husband and I had pilchards.  When he saw the egg he picked up his plate – he was going to fling that at me!

If I was ever in the house there was always a poker or a bottle handy

I never trusted him.  If he’d come towards me, mind, I should have hit ‘ee.  I’d have made sure I got the first blow in.  I don’t know how hard you have to hit a man to kill him, but I always had a bottle or a poker handy.  I was doing some ironing one day in the kitchen and he came in.  My husband was working in the field up by the railway line, and it was “Mrs Boyce, you afraid of me?”  “What do you think I’m afraid of you for?  Whatever gave you that idea?”  “You always seem to keep de table between us.  Down in de camp, de men that is out in farms and in billets, de English women, they like de Italians.  There is a farmer’s wife, she bought him a bicycle.  She buy him this, she buy him that.  And here there is no woman.”

I had the blinking iron hot – heating the iron on the primus stove because we never had the electricity, you see.  I had the damn thing hot, and I picked ‘un up and I held it at him and I thought:  Yeah, you come near me man, you’re going to have this across your face.  He said right out “We come out on farm for women, but out here there is no women.”  “No,” I said “and it’s no good for you to think that there’s a woman in this house for you, because there jolly well isn’t.  The best thing you can do is go on up to your room and stay there.  I mean that.  And I don’t want to see you down here until my husband comes home.”  And he turned round and he brought out a string of Italian words – God knows what they meant.

When my husband came in I told him the Italian would have to go back to the camp the next day.  I said to him “If you don’t take him away you’re going to come in here one day and I’m going to be stretched out or he is.”  In the morning, after the milking was done, he was told to pack his bags.  He was a good worker though.

His father owned a  vineyard and probably a small farm as well.  He knew a fair bit about farm work.  He used to read our English papers and if there was anything about the army he used to spit and carry on, in temper.  “Lies! Lies!” he used to go.  Then he had a letter come from his parents and he reckoned the English had confiscated his father’s tractor and his father’s horses – “English, they are thieves.”  Another time he went on about when they were in Abyssinia and how when they were raiding a village they did go in and take women and children and fling them out of the bedroom windows and smash ’em down on their heads and kill ’em.  (3)

1.    In 1942 non Islanders and those Islanders who served as officers in the First World War were deported, on direct orders from Hitler, as a reprisal for the internment, by the British,  of German nationals living in Iraq.  For every one German interned, the order was that twenty non-islanders and First World War officers were to be deported.  The majority, such as the speaker, ended up in  prisoner of war camps in southern Germany.  Approximately 1,275  were deported , including women and children

2.  This was Ilag VII.  (Ilag: Internierugslager = Internment) During the course of their internment forty of the Channel Island deportees died in the camp.  Most other Channel Island deportees were interned  in Biberach an der Riss at the Ilag V-B camp.

3.    According to one source (The Imperial War Museum online site) when Italy surrendered in 1943, 100,000 Italian POW’s imprisoned in the UK volunteered to be ‘co-operators’ which meant mostly working in the building trade and agriculture, and were given considerable freedom and mixed with local people.  However in “An Italian Prisoner of War Remembers Somerset” (BBC2 People’s War online site) the implication is that co-operators volunteered before the Italian surrender, and it is remembered that they were regarded as traitors by some of their fellow POWs.  It is also possible (the evidence is conflicting) many of these co-operators would also be in digs, prior to the Italian surrender, such as the Italian POW remembered by Mrs Boyce, the farmer.  There were two camps used to house Italian POWs near Wells in Somerset.  The main one was 107G Penleigh Camp, and the other was 666 Stoberry Camp, that only came into service June 1944, after Italy had surrendered.  Local online media report that several Italians married  Somerset women and settled in the area after the war.


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