WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DAD?
Walter Smith, my Dad, was born and bred at Croston: a somewhat smaller village then than it is now. In other words he was a ’woolly back’ from the West Lancashire Plain who’d probably never been any further afield than Southport or (on one occasion) Blackpool!
His Soldier’s Service & Pay Book indicates that he was enlisted at Preston on 19th January, 1943. His basic training was done first of all in Northern Ireland and then at Luss, on the banks of Loch Lomond. Foreign travel or what?!
Then followed a long train journey to Aldershot in Hampshire. As the train chugged down the West Coast Line, what thoughts he must have had passing through Leyland, Balshaw Lane (Euxton) and Coppull stations: his home territory.
At Aldershot it was decided that he was to become a Sapper in the Royal Engineers. Soon he was on the move to various satellite camps such as Liss, Bordon and Longmoor for a variety of specialist trainings. At Longmoor the Army had its own railway and there, for instance, he learnt the niceties of laying railway track. I still have the exercise book containing his appropriate notes and diagrams.
He was next moved to London Docks to become, in effect, a sailor in a soldier’s uniform, learning how to handle tugboats. This was a very specialised skill, restricted to just two companies of the Engineers, and was obviously part of the forward planning for D-Day, although they didn’t know it at the time.
Dad and his pals were accommodated in the Bermondsey area and the local public baths was where they not only washed and bathed regularly but – in many cases – learnt to swim by the age-old Forces method of simply being thrown into the water at the deep end!
This skill of handling tugboats was to be used in the days following D-Day when sections of the two artificial Mulberry Harbours were to be towed across the Channel to St Laurent (Omaha Beach) and Arromanches (Gold Beach). Some of the sections were huge, ungainly, six thousand ton concrete caissons and, even in fine weather, took some handling. As it happened, the D-Day landings took place in weather conditions only just about good enough and they quickly deteriorated over the following days. Little wonder that some of the sections sank in transit!
Naturally, several thousand tons of concrete and steel could go down very quickly – and so could the attached tugboat! This is what happened to Dad and some of his pals on one of their trips, but fortunately they were rescued by a Canadian destroyer. As this ship had its own programme to keep to, Dad and his pals charged about the Channel for the next few days until they could be dropped off at some convenient point.
I have very little information as to what happened next, apart from knowing that he landed in Normandy and was based in the Arromanches area for some while: I assume working on the Mulberry Harbour. Certainly he was also witness to some horrendous sights in the aftermath of the Battle of the Falaise Gap – although he never went into any detail - and got wildly drunk on calvados, the spirit distilled from cider by wily Norman farmers.He was then moved on to Belgium, as proved by the postcards he sent home, including the soldiers’ favourite of the little boy in the Brussels fountain!!
It was a busy time and he was next being inoculated against typhus, cholera, TAB and TT (see below *) before setting sail on a huge tank landing craft: destination the Far East in preparation for the invasion of Japan.
I was never told anything about the first part of the journey but he clearly recalled sailing around the coasts of India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Malaya (Malaysia) and on to Singapore. He had some fascinating memories of these countries and their peoples and, best of all, by the time they reached Singapore the war had ended.
The problem then was how to get back home to England for the authorities were totally overwhelmed by the numbers of Services personnel concentrated in that area. However, Dad discovered that he could achieve this quicker by volunteering to act as a steward on board a Europe-bound ship, rather than waiting for the wheels of officialdom to churn. Without hesitation he signed up to serve on a Dutch liner bringing back some of their people who’d been caught up in the conflict in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
I don’t recall seeing him very often during his time in the Army. When he did arrive home on leave it was usually at dead of night; he always brought a brown tin box crammed with chocolate and sweets, saved from his ration. I also remember him bringing home large packs of leaf tea and a number of leather articles from India. These were grand in their way but the biggest prize of all was a leather football – totally unobtainable in this country at the time – and what a lot of friends I suddenly had!!
For a country boy he’d certainly become an international traveller in a very short time – and one other point to note: the Second World War may have ceased in the summer of 1945, but Dad was only discharged on 1st May, 1946.
* TAB vaccine. A combined vaccine used to produce immunity against the diseases typhoid, paratyphoid A, and paratyphoid B. TT vaccine for Tetanus.
We hope that YOU will now help us continue this series. No matter how brief the memories may be, they would be very welcome.