For Five Shillings a Day: Personal Histories of World War II
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Dedicated to those who served but did not live to tell the tale
byVincent Orange BA, PhD, MRAeSReader in History, University of CanterburyChristchurch, New Zealand
How often have we heard someone say, ‘Oh, how I wish Uncle Bob was still alive. He used to tell us kids such tales of his life and when he was in the war, but I can’t remember details now, and, to be honest, in those days I wasn’t really interested about his life – I was more interested in my own!’ As for Bob’s letters and papers: ‘Well, they used to be in an old cardboard box in the garage roof, but after he died the house was sold, we had a grand clear-out and I’m afraid they went to the dump.’
Fortunately, Peter Liddle has devoted the best part of his life to catching the numerous Uncle Bobs in many parts of the world while they are still with us.He and his associates have recorded their memories and collected their various letters and memorabilia, which are now stored in the Liddle Collection at Leeds University and at the Second World War Experience Centre, also in Leeds. There they are available as a permanent and lasting record of personal service and experience in both world wars for the benefit of this and future generations.
The impressions of those at the ‘sharp end’ of great events are an essential part of history, just as salt and pepper are to a boiled egg. How pleased we would be if, for example, one of Peter’s ancestors had acquired for us an account of all the hassles involved in getting Hannibal’s elephants over the Alps, or if a later ancestor had left us an interview with one of Henry V’s archers at Agincourt. Peter, of course, set his sights on all those who survived the crucible of world war experience: on all services, all ranks, civilian and pacifist experience, and indeed on those who served in opposing forces or endured enemy occupation. Until now his books have had the First World War as their focus. This book marks an advance into what is for him, in published work, new terrain.
Like his namesake, Peter is a fisherman and has thrown out many lines during the last umpteen years. In Richard Campbell Begg he caught a whopper! Richard is a New Zealand-born doctor, now retired, who also had a lively time of it in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, as you will read within. In 1993 Richard visited Peter Liddle in Leeds and, being most impressed with what he was doing, presented him with his memoirs, letters, etc, and was duly taped. Then, quite forgetting the immortal words known to all servicemen in all ages – ‘never volunteer’ -Richard did just that and, inevitably, found himself hard at work. Peter asked him to tape Commander Hickley. One interview led to another and Richard ended up with well over 50 personal accounts of experiences of war on land, at sea and in the air. Enough for a book – as Harper Collins readily agreed.
But this book is not merely a written record of what appears on the tapes. It is a history of the Second World War from the beginning to the end, covering many theatres of conflict and seen from the personal perspective of individuals who took part, using the relevant extracts from their accounts. Its 18 chapters are supported by illustrations of the contributors and the events described, and in each there is a short introduction by the editors giving background details of that particular campaign or operation. Biographical notes on the contributors appear in the Appendix. The language, grammar and idiom used by the contributors in talking of their experiences are largely reproduced in the written account in the book. All this tends to give the reader the feeling of being right alongside the raconteur as he or she relives the experiences of long ago.
For the general reader with an interest in the Second World War, I can think of no better starting point from which to grasp the huge scale of the conflict and yet its dimension in terms of the individual. For the specialist reader there are countless personal insights into what will, of course, be a more familiar story.
Sadly, at least five of the contributors will never read this book: they are gone. But thanks to the endeavours of Peter and Richard their experiences will not be forgotten. I am sure that all the contributors would say, ‘What I did was nothing special. Better men than I did much more. Some were killed before anyone could record what they did and others did not get my opportunities to make a mark.’ On the other hand, each one of these survivors can be seen as representing dozens of their less fortunate comrades.
As for me, and countless men and women of my generation, we will ever be in their debt. At 64 I have never heard a shot fired in anger, never seen anyone killed or grievously wounded, never been frightened by anything more lethal than a cricket ball, hardly ever been in any physical distress, and my only real worries have been over such unavoidable subjects as women, money and promotion. The contributors to this book have been far more fundamentally tested. I am deeply grateful to them for helping to spare me their experiences.
The wonderful words inscribed on a memorial stone near the entrance to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission War Cemetery at Kohima, Assam, India, can never be quoted too often:
‘When you go home
Tell them of us and say,
For their tomorrow
We gave our today.’
It is the sheer scale of the Second World War that most of us, however keen to grasp its course in outline and the interrelation of its geographically and sometimes time-separated parts, find daunting. In terms of its time-span, its land masses and oceans that were the scene of prolonged conflict, its nations, races and peoples committed to or drawn into the conflict, its human and material cost, the statistics of the Second World War challenge the capacity to comprehend.
At one and the same time, the link between the Eastern Front and its Stalingrad, North Africa and its El Alamein, the Arctic, Atlantic and Mediterranean with their sea-lines, the aerial bombing offensives, Home Front war materials production and civilian morale, is clear, and yet it is only retained in a collective sense by the most self-disciplined mind. As we write this we can almost hear the protests of readers, ‘Have they not heard of the Pacific War too?’ To which we make response that indeed we have, and this book will certainly not fail by under-representation in that respect.
While the editors of this book have no grand ambition to succeed where few have attempted and success is rare – achievement in conveying a worldwide vista of warfare – they believe that in reducing the unmanageable scale to one of individual participants recalling the part they played in key events, general or special circumstances, major campaigns or battles, they bring the reader as near as he may wish to be to living through the challenge of World War from September 1939 to August 1945.
This book had its roots in the first meeting of the editors in Leeds in 1993. The rescue of the evidence of wartime experience was the main subject on the agenda. Retired New Zealand doctor and public health specialist Richard Campbell Begg, a naval officer in the Second World War, had responded to a New Zealand newspaper appeal by British historian Peter Liddle, keen to draw attention to his work in rescuing the evidence of wartime experience. At that stage Peter was the Keeper of the Liddle Collection, a world-renowned archive of personal experience in the First World War, based at Leeds University. Over some years he has been turning his attention to the Second World War, and has already achieved a substantial collection of material of personal involvement in that war, so much so that since the original meeting with Richard it has been necessary to set up a separate collection, which is also housed in the city of Leeds as a Second World War Experience Centre with charitable status and its own Trustees, staff, Patrons and Association of Friends. Peter has left the University and feels highly privileged to have been appointed the Director of the Centre, which continues to grow and flourish.
The New Zealand doctor had travelled to Leeds, his recollections had been recorded on tape by interview and, with personal accord quickly established, the possibility of association in the rescue work was discussed. It was not long before Richard, in his responsibilities growing younger by the day, was recording men and women resident in New Zealand. The friendship between Richard and Peter developed, with the doctor travelling not only through much of New Zealand in the work but returning to Leeds on three further occasions fuelled by an increasing awareness of the importance, urgency and fascination of the work. He had found that there were few areas of British and New Zealand service experience in the war not covered by one or more of the people he was meeting. So graphic were many of the tapes, and so wide their representation of air, sea and land service, that it was clear the material invited being shared with a wider audience than that of researchers in an archive.
This book grew as a result of a decision to draw together, as appropriate, the most striking of the testimony. It contains extended recall of the experiences of 53 men and one woman. Most theatres of war are represented from beginning to end of the conflict. This is the story of the war by those who were in it, given spontaneously without rehearsal 53 or so years after the event. For most, it was the first time anyone had asked them to relate their experience and had then been prepared to sit and listen, sometimes for hours on end. With remarkable lucidity and recall, with humour, sometimes with emotion, even distress, thoughts and descriptions of events long ago were vividly expressed.
With most theatres of war covered, and with the three Services and the Merchant Navy represented in many ranks, from those quite senior to those very junior, it has been possible to present a chronological story but also one from differing perspectives. In the book, as the war progresses, we sometimes meet for a second time those whose story in a different theatre and from a more junior rank has already been presented, and this may bring the reader to a still closer identification with the memories of some of those whose story is told here.
Each chapter has a contextual introduction so that the wider scene from which the particular vignette is chosen is properly made clear. The book is largely the written expression of oral testimony. As such there has been a little editing to clear away ambiguity, any lack of clarity through imprecision in the words as spoken. In the main, grammar has been left as expressed.
In the first chapter, what the ‘Phoney War’ was like for the ordinary soldier is made clear, and just as clear, the drama, confusion and swirling events from the German attack that would leave him evacuated from Dunkirk or St Nazaire or captured. Naval operations in the North Sea, including the first battle between battlecruisers, when HMS Renown engaged the German ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are next in line for recall. For the Battle of Britain and related developments there is graphic record; vivid descriptions of London burning, Coventry blitzed, aerial dogfights, crash landings and parachute descents, and a wealth of detail including men recalling their treatment after serious burns.
The story now moves to North Africa and the great campaigns fought there. There are two chapters devoted to this, separated by those dealing with the operations in Greece and Crete, both ending in defeat and evacuation. The parachute and aerial landings in Crete, in which the Germans suffered heavy losses, are dramatically recalled. We then move to the Italian campaign, with the first successful Allied landings on the Continent, at Sicily, documented by many men who were present on land, at sea and in the air, then the dearly bought and narrowly achieved landings at Salerno and Anzio and the battles around Cassino, the hard slog to the north and eventual victory. Events in the Mediterranean, including the epic convoy ‘Operation Pedestal’, are covered, as are other naval engagements, bombardments and action by British forces operating from the island of Vis in support of Marshal Tito’s partisans and, not least, the valiant defence of Malta and air and sea operations from that island.
With Japan entering the war, there is experience of the military defeats in Malaya to relate, the surrender at Singapore and, not least, a vivid account by a destroyer officer of the sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse by Japanese air attack. That officer’s ship was sunk shortly afterwards at the second battle of the Java Sea. There follows a remarkable account of the brave determination of a nurse escaping from Singapore as the Japanese entered the city. She experienced the bombing, then the sinking of her ship. She swam to an island, caring for wounded there, then, one step ahead of the Japanese, she travelled all the way across Sumatra, where the Japanese finally caught up with her. There is coverage of subsequent events in South East Asia at sea and in the air, and eventually the recapture of Burma, including a graphic account of Chindit operations in that country.
Meanwhile, in the Arctic, there were the Russian convoys, including the disastrous PQ17, with which three of the contributors were involved, and later the sinking of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst. There is material on naval events in the English Channel and the Atlantic and the increasing air attacks on German-occupied Europe. D-Day itself, then the advance through Northern France into Belgium, Holland and across the Rhine into Germany, have many contributions from all three services.
Returning to the war in Asia, where the tide was running against the Japanese and the British Pacific fleet was in action, there are accounts of this and what it was like having a kamikaze aircraft attack and crash on your flight deck. The New Zealand Air Force was now in action in force in the South Pacific and there is an interesting story to tell here.
Finally the prisoners of war, both in the Japanese theatre and in Europe, tell of their experiences in captivity, hardships and lighter moments. The sinking by an American submarine of a Japanese freighter with 800 prisoners under the hatches, and the frightful ‘death march’ back into Germany from Poland, provide sombre reading. Those in Japanese hands were perhaps saved from imminent execution by the dropping of the atom bombs. The comment of one of these men, ‘forgive but never forget’, provides a fitting finale to this chapter and a book written with respect for all the men and the woman mentioned, and the generation which they represent.
Richard Campbell BeggNelson, New Zealand
Peter H. LiddleThe Second World War Experience Centre,Leeds, UK
Britain had pledged support for Poland in the event of a German invasion, and when this occurred on 1 September 1939, Britain and France were soon at war with Germany. By prior agreement with Germany, Russian troops entered Poland on 17 September, and by 5 October Polish resistance was largely at an end. Hitler, his peace overtures to the West spurned, wished to make an early attack on France, but the weather, the hesitancy of his Generals and finally the loss to the Allies of the initial plans for the attack, resulted in delays.
William Seeney, an apprentice printer from Ealing, London, was quite convinced a war was coming, so, in 1937 at the age of 17, he joined the Territorial Army:
‘I became a member of the 158 Battery of the 53rd Brigade, Royal Artillery. We were at training camp in Devon somewhere in 1939, must have been the beginning of September, when war was declared. As Territorials we were now fully involved. We didn’t get home, we went direct from training camp to a place, Abbeyfield outside of Reading, where we were inoculated, etc. It was evident that the authorities had decided to get people overseas as quickly as they possibly could, so we were among the first to go.
On the morning parade, it must have been maybe one day, two days, after war had been declared, those who could drive a car were told to declare themselves. Not too many people drove in those days, but a dozen or so did and we ended up by driving a whole lot of rather antiquated and requisitioned vehicles, with the members of the Battery on board, to Southampton, where we eventually boarded a transport which took us to Cherbourg.
We arrived in Cherbourg and there was a lot of confusion – we were hungry but no food had been laid on. The officers in charge were told to march us out of town and they obviously had a destination – we knew that eventually – and as it so happens it was a farm and we marched for about 8 to 10 miles, still nothing to eat – we’d had nothing to eat since the night before and this was well into the following day.
William Lewis Seeney
We eventually arrived at the farm and they’d obviously just kicked out the pigs and the sheep and the cows and tossed in a few bales of hay, and we were told to make ourselves comfortable, but still no food. We were told to organise ourselves into small units and half a dozen blokes would get together and that was their mess. Well, we had money – after all, we’d still been working, or had been a couple of days ago – and we did just as we were asked to do, and we chipped in, in these little groups, and we made a list of the things we’d like people to buy for us for food – then the truck took off for Cherbourg. So we had a sort of meal eventually and it was the same the next day until they got things organised. One thing that tickled me, on our march to our farm – we passed some blackberry bushes and the British Army broke ranks and picked blackberries.
However, the time arrived to leave. We were only there for a couple of nights, which was just as well, because the rats, you see, they’d never been so happy in their lives with all these bits and pieces around and we were quite happy to get out of the place. We marched down to the siding by a railway and there we got on to a train, and the train – you may not believe it – they’d obviously got these carriages out from the sheds, had them parked away from the last world war and they were still marked with 40 men and 8 horses – it was marked on the side of the bally trucks. They just had sliding doors and they tossed on a couple of bales of hay and we were told to get on board and the train took off.
Eventually, after many delays because we were being constantly shunted off the main line to let regular trains through, we arrived at Epernay, which is about 30 or 40 kilometres west of Rheims. There we disembarked. We had no weapons at that time but we camped alongside the station, just for the night – not so much camped as bivouacked – we just had to get our heads down. Then another train came along and there, lo and behold, were our guns and our transport.
We had difficulty in getting them off the trains but time passed, and eventually we got everything off the train and we moved off once again going east towards the Ardennes. Eventually we were to the right of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] and up against the French on our right in the Ardennes The nearest village was Aguilcourt, and there was another village called Guinecourt, and there we were told to prepare. You’ve got to remember we were there for battle and there we were running around in circles, digging in, waiting for things to happen, and there was infantry floating around and nothing happened.
Of course in the Battery itself, things had to happen. First of all we had no cooks, so it was a case of saying, “You, you and you, you’re the cooks.” It’s hard to believe this, isn’t it, and we’re supposed to be at war! The interesting thing about all this really is, we’d been trained to fire a gun. Now, basically, that’s a very simple operation, but the important job – and I learned this and it took a long time to learn it – we’d never been taught to be soldiers. This was very important. Well, obviously to be a soldier you’ve got to be trained to be a soldier, not just to fire a gun. In my view that’s the simplest thing in the world, and all the things that go to make a soldier we just didn’t have – we’d never been trained to do it. We’d never been trained to kill people. I mean just think, we were soldiers – we’d never heard of a killing ground, and as for being killed yourself, blimey, that was the last thing you thought about.
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