WW II, a British focus



 

 

     HOMECOMING

Naturally, there was an urge on arriving in London to visit my grandparents, relations and friends there, but I continued my journey by train to Pluckley, a little village in the heart of Kent. With kit bag over shoulder I walked the remaining three miles to the cottage, where my parents lived and of which I had only visited on one previous occasion when I had been fortunate enough to draw Christmas leave from France in 1939. I crept around to the back door and in true country style, found it wide open. Being between noon and 1 o'clock I was sure my parents would be having their midday meal. Creeping on tip toe through the kitchen I peered into the living room. They had finished eating and both sat dozing either side of the fireplace. I coughed. They looked up startled, then leaped up greeting me 'Norman!'

My brother Norman was wounded in the invasion of Italy, been patched up and sent to Burma from where he was due home on leave. ‘No, No! It's me, Jack’ - they were stunned. Then came the welcome, and what a wonderful few moments it was. They explained that they really had thought they had seen the last of me because, only that same morning they had received a telegram from Moscow saying I had been 'liberated by the Red Army'. According to common consensus of all that was Russia and the Russians, once in their hands it was certain that I would never be seen again. Well, the proof of the pudding was in the eating, in my case anyway. Having made our greetings and initial explanations, I sank down in a chair suddenly overwhelmed and had a nervous breakdown trembling from head to foot helplessly.

It took several weeks to recover enough to want to go out other than to help Mum and Dad with their chickens, sheep, crops and all the other multitude of jobs around the smallholding. There was a Captain Slaughter living in a big farmhouse just up the road who was the local welfare officer. He visited regularly and we had many discussions about the war. So much of it was news to me, especially the information that my own battalion, the 2nd Hampshire's had been all but wiped out holding a position at Le Tourba in defence of Tunis. Only Lt.Col. Wilson the commander, the R.S.M. and three others survived. The regiment gained the honour of becoming the Royal Hampshire's. I felt very depressed to think that, if only I had not been so bigheaded in having a ride on dispatch rider Smith's motorbike, I may have got back with the rest of my platoon and played my part in Africa, but what would have been my fate then?

Captain Slaughter insisted that I go with him to a dance in Pluckley village hall, and we did. I was still terribly nervous, made worse by so many in uniform wearing so many decorations. One in particular attracted my attention, a very young chap looking no more than 18. I asked the Captain what he had been through whilst I had languished in prison camps. He had lance corporal stripes, good conduct stripes, a wounded stripe and several medals. 'Oh, him' said the Captain disdainfully, 'He was sent to North Africa as a cook, got dysentery as soon as he got there and was sent back, then he shot himself in the back of the head whilst boarding for D-Day - bloody fool!'

It did help my recovery and I was able to mix more freely after that outing. Best of all I loved getting up in the mornings early and going rabbit shooting. We also had a lot of fun going through the nearby woods with long poles with a wire loop on the top and snaring pheasants. By looking up through the branches, the birds could be seen asleep silhouetted against the sky. The idea was to try and get the loop over the bird’s head as it was disturbed and, with a quick jerk, it was captured.

It was not all fun and games though. This part of Kent received more than its fair share of flying bombs. I saw one sticking half out of the castellated tower of Little Chart church unexploded. I realised just how big and dangerous they were and was told that Dad would sit in the orchard and fire at them with his shot gun as they came over, although knowing he could not hit them, he felt he was 'doing something.'

{In Bob Ogleys book "Doodlebugs and Rockets" published by Froglets Publications the author lists a total of 1,444 V1s crashing on land in Kent and a further 1,000 shot down over the sea. Of these, a total of 184 landed in the Ashford area and 238 in the Tenterden area.

The village post-mistress was a young married woman whose husband was serving overseas. A rough and ready country girl who, as I recovered, took a fancy to me. Events had effected me deeply and I wanted something better than a bit on the side from an experienced woman, but that did not deter her from trying. In fact, when I lay in bed some mornings with my parents out feeding the animals, she would bring the post up to my room. I could not take the bait, perhaps because I knew of so many prisoners let down by their wives and sweethearts, and the sheer helplessness resulting from letters that ruined their hopes.

I was not so hot on principles though when 'V Day' came and a farmer laid on a cider party in a field. Everyone got drunk. Good cider is funny stuff and makes you feel on top of the world, then suddenly, whilst not stupid, your legs no longer belong to you. Maybe the live-in mistress of the widower farmer fancied a young man for a change and there were not many available then to be sure, whatever, we finished up separate from the crowd and I ceased to be a cock-virgin. The silly thing was that on leaving the field when most of the others had gone, a farm worker asked me to have a fight with him. Indeed he pleaded as he took a few useless swipes. As I remonstrated with him, and the post-mistress appeared. She had missed the party sorting post for next morning and there she was cold sober and determined to get my trousers off. I was all over the place, too drunk to defend myself, and after the earlier experience I'm afraid I let her down. Very frustrating for the poor soul but she was a good sport and saw it all as a bit of fun. No harm in trying you know.

My three month's leave was drawing to an end when Dad showed me one of the American throw-away petrol cans he kept by the fireside. He had put all the heavy flat edged threepenny pieces from his loose change into the tin throughout the war. It was not full but very heavy as we lifted it onto the table and opened it enough to tip out the contents. We counted just over £80, a lot of money then. The next day being market day in Ashford, with the money separated equally into two canvas bags, we rode into Ashford on bicycles. Having changed the coins into notes at a bank, he bought a cow at the auction. He was amazing really, after going to London and joining the Metropolitan Police in about 1908 after grandfather died and the farm was sold, he had returned in 1938 after I had enlisted and had forgotten nothing. In fact he was the only one left locally during the war that could thatch a haystack. Pushing and riding our bikes alternately, we drove the cow back home and within a few days had it serviced by a bull for five shillings. I found it all very interesting but the countryside was not for me despite farmers offering to teach me to drive tractors and other skills for quite good wages. I was still a soldier anyway.

Instructions arrived along with a travel pass and orders to proceed to a resettlement camp near Barnsley. Here the returned P.O.Ws were given a thorough going over. Taken out to a sports ground where there was a 440 yard running track, parallel bars, vaulting horse, springboard, a variety of other equipment and a number of doctors in white coats wearing stethoscopes. As we were put through a whole range of exercises so the doctors would descend with note boards taking temperatures, pulses, respiration, you name it. Nobody completed the racetrack, even at a trot. In between these sessions there were classes with I.Q. tests, assembling, coloured jigsaw patterns, taking apart items such as a bicycle pump or a simple lock and later re-assembling them again.

There was a parade for medals. What we were entitled to I cannot remember, but we were ordered to go to a hut to claim the ribbons 'to be worn at all times.' Twenty of us remained stationary. We had heard about this parade and had decided to refuse the medals. There was consternation. Nobody ever refused medals, we had to go and claim them. Ten men broke off and claimed. One by one, officers of various ranks were brought in to lecture us until there was only one and myself other left. I never did claim the medals. My reason being that, for a start, a medal should be awarded, not claimed, even if it is only pinned on by a private. Throughout the early part of the war, during my long captivity and escape, I had been led to believe that I should act according to my rank and had done so. Now I found that not only had I been demoted back to private, but was paid the whole five years back pay as a private soldier rather than the rate of Lance Corporal and, indeed, platoon leader. There was more. I did not believe I had done enough fighting to deserve a medal anyway. I should have been with the battalion at El Tourba. After all, 10 days in action firing only 50 rounds accounting for one dead sow, 3 Germans and one possible, could hardly be called a war effort?

I felt I had achieved more helping the Russian mortar platoon at Marienburg and by simply surviving. My refusal was certainly not intended as an act of disloyalty, indeed, I hoped to continue soldiering as the war was still on in the East and I was a regular. The matter was dropped and I heard no more of it. But the attitude of those officers was such that I could be liable to some kind of punishment. I would have accepted that.

Came the day when I was given documents to go to the Leeds School of Instructors. This suited me since I had gained a little experience instructing when the 'Z' reservists were called up, and there was the prospect of a minor rank with pay increments. Yes, it suited me down to the ground for the time being, although my real ambition was to be my own boss cabinet making in my own workshop in civvy street. Packed up and waiting at the gate for a bus into town, a Sergeant Major came calling out my name. Identifying myself, he asked for my papers and then, giving me a different set said, 'Sorry old boy, you can't go to Leeds, you are discharged 40% disabled, you now go to the Demobilisation Centre at York'.

Nothing could be done about that so, with two others I traveled to York and found the Centre. We must have been amongst the first to enter the place. It was like a vast Marks and Spencers, with every kind of clothing laid out on counters. We were allowed to select a suit, two shirts, sets of underwear, shoes, everything down to collar stud and cufflinks. All sizes were available but colours and quality varied. We walked out dressed as civilians, even wearing pork-pie trilbys. With passes home we traveled down to London together. Arriving in London we found we had time to kill before catching our respective trains, so we adjourned to the station bar for a drink. The place was crowded. Many of those around us were soldiers, some were families seeing off their called-up offspring's. One family was close by and the conversation, clearly intended for us, referred to big healthy fellows dressed to the 'nines' who managed to avoid doing any service and making a fortune out of the war whilst younger men were getting killed. What can I say? Well, one of my companions stood it just so long before turning to the woman doing most of the criticizing and said, 'You've got a nice lad there Mum, the war is nearly over so don't worry too much, he will be home again soon.' With that he offered to shake hands with her but as she reached out and looked down, she froze. He only had a leather covered stump. It was a cruel way of making the point, but after all, with three month's leave and double rations and our ages around 25, dressed like tailors dummies in our new clothes, we did attract attention. That is until we moved off with kit bags slung over our shoulders.