His Story, His Words Part Seven
We got on the boat and sailed for Port Sudan then we got on a single track rail line to Khartoum and we were issued with shovels on account of the sand getting on the line.
First Impressions Of Khartoum (Barracks ETC)
There was a lot of sand (laughing).
The barracks were not much, they consisted of just huts (but there was a football ground) and much of Khartoum was out of bounds. A strange thing is that all the time I was at the barracks Khartoum I never actually went into Khartoum, I never saw it, I was quite happy and only had a few months left in the army and I was just quite happy to stay in the barracks. I had no interest in Khartoum but some of the lads used to go. I was still a storekeeper just the same as before, nothing really changed.
Jim Miller Khartoum 1937
Jim Miller. Far Left (Donkey Race Khartoum)
We used to call the actual Sudanese people Fuzzy Wuzzy’s, they were actually Dervishes and the men used to dress in a long gown, I have pictures of these too, they were alright, they were no trouble.
We were only there for a few more months and I was happy just to laze my time away until I got home.
A lot of the lads that were in Khartoum were shifted to Tin Sing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or around that way, they had to be clothed out when they were sent there but the older men and the ones near to the end of their service wee shipped back to England.
On The Way Home
On the return journey home we sailed up the Suez Canal and were warned if there was an Italian troop ship coming along and if they slung oranges or whatever at us we were told not to retaliate, we never saw any though.
For some reason we had to throw all of our pith helmets overboard, there was a long line of pith helmets, I wished I had of kept mine, the Egyptians must have had a right hoard of helmets. The Egyptians used to come on the troop ships and do things like juggle and sell bananas and all that bunkum, we were told not to buy anything of course.
We also stopped at Cairo on the way home. Then we came home and I went to Woking Barracks. I Believe Woking Barracks used to be a prison for women. So, I was back home on 10th of November 1937.
While we were at Woking there was Burton's fifty bob tailors, they were all there selling suits, some of the lads being soldiers just picked up anything and walked away with it, it was absolutely crowded, they were not paying for the stuff, I think all I had was a Trilby Hat, oh! yes and a pair of shoes.
I was not due for a discharge for another two or three months, at this point I had handed over the stores. I have something to add, when I was in Khartoum the Quartermaster marched me into the CO’s office to re-engage because he thought I would do but I said “no”, he had written it out for me to re-engage for another five years, he did not want me to leave, I must have been a decent chap like. He used to pinch my cigarettes, I only smoked two or three a day but the Quartermaster always helped himself to my fags, he was a nice chap.
I did not want to re-enlist because my mother was in dire straits. So I said I will come out of the army and get a job because she was in poverty due to the means test.
Back At Home
I did not stay at Woking, I went straight home, those that were due to, those due for de-mob went home. We had three months leave, we just checked in at Woking, the Quartermaster shook hands with me when I left and said “I will see you again” and he did in 1939 when the war broke out.
On the way back I was with some of my friends and we got to London, we stopped there for the night, we had a good time, riding on the trolley’s and people were saying “look at these lot”, we were back in England and it was strange. I went straight up to Sunderland to me mother’s house. The means test man came and that was terrible.
I had a cousin who lived up the road here in Walsall, he married a Walsall girl, he asked me down for a few days with him so I came down and I stopped. It was a nice town then, there were trolley buses, they used to run to Wolverhampton.
One job I was hoping to get was that of storekeeper because of my good references saying I would make a good storekeeper and I was honest and everything., a good man, it is in my discharge book.
One funny thing, I went up to the labour exchange, up in a place called Bloxwich which is part of Walsall, I went there and the manager was sitting there with his head in his hands, there was nobody else there, he came up to me and said “after work”, I said “yes”, he said “well there’s nothing doing”, I said “I will do anything, I will do any job to get me back into civvies life”. I was dressed in civvies and I was walking towards the door to go out then he called me back. He said “you did say anything” and I said “yeah”, he said “meet me tonight here at 7 o’clock”. So, I met him at seven, he had a little car, a Ford T, I jumped in and he took me down to a car park in Leamore, practically nearby to where we live now and he took me across to a cinema which had only just opened called the Rosum. I thought god he is taking me to the pictures and I got a bit worried, we went up to the managers office knocked the door and went in and he was a big fat manager (he used to be a shop walker for a big store in Leeds before he got the job at the cinema).
The Rosum was named after two men, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Summers, so it was Ro for Roberts and Sum for Summers (The Rosum) and there is three quarters of the people in Walsall don’t know that but anyway that was it. The manager said “no, he is too small, brown tanned and a young soldier you know”, then the labour exchange manager said “go on take a look at him, he is what you want” and the Rosum Manager said “OK, I will take him on for a month” and anyway I got the job. A fellow came up from Bond Street and measured me up for a green tunic and gold braids, it was like being back in the army again. I used to stand outside saying “all seats gone and standing room only upstairs” and all that bunkum, little me telling them to keep moving please.
The Rosum, Leamore (Photograph My Kind Permission Of Kevin Phelan From His Flickr Site)
I enjoyed it and I met the missus then, that is how I met her. Catch of the season I was. I chatted her up and she used to come in every Thursday and after a while she took me to meet her mother and her dad, he was an old soldier, he was in Mons, I have his medals upstairs, he was on the Mons Retreat, he was an old Territorial, he had a Long Service Medal as well. Billy (Della), he was 86 when he died and my wife found him in dead in bed, cause she used to clean up for him and that. (This was much later, after the war).
I was the doorman at The Rosum for a few months, then I worked in a factory at a place called Wood Green in Wednesbury, it is called Spear And Jackson now, it was called Elwells then, I was grinding tools, I did not like it. I used to go there on a bike, we all had bikes in them days. And the fogs, oh! the fogs, I went one morning, it was pitch black and a fellow bumped into me, I said “mate, where is Elwells”, he said “you are standing in front of the door”, it was that thick.
After that I went to work on the buses as a conductor, only on single deckers, I did not have any climbing to do. It was a bit of a dull job just punching tickets.
I got married in 1939 and there was news of war approaching. I was called up as a reservist on the 15th of June. I was called up to learn the Bren Gun and the anti tank rifle, the Boyes. I had to go back to Woking Barracks, the regiment was still there, it was great to be back with them, we were all old reservists but there were young lads there too 18 and 19 years old. Some of us were like granddads, I was 28 but to them I was old, I had seen life, I had been abroad, I had been in India for five years, I used to tell the kids about life.
I thought the Bren Gun was a good gun, I liked it, it was light, it wasn’t heavy and it was easy to handle, I don’t think there were any problems with it. I remember we were marched out into a field just outside Woking and we had gas capes (which had come out), we had to sit on the ground and put a little litmus paper in front of us, we had to put the gas capes all over our body, I think they were trying them out. There were two planes flying low spraying us and I think they were dropping mustard gas, we were told if that litmus paper changed colour to red I think, then we had to report straight away to the MO Room. Mine did not turn red but I believe some of the lads did. They were testing these capes out by spraying from the air, they were low flying, not high.
The Boise Rifle was a single load rifle, I did not think much of it, it was supposed to bash a tank up but it just used to bounce of a tank, it was a dead loss and it was heavy as well. We also had two inch and three inch mortars, I had never fired one before, I had a bit of training, not long, a couple of weeks on a three inch mortar with a great big heavy base plate.
A brigadier gave us a lecture about the German mortars, he said “they make a hell of a noise but when they explode they are nothing to be scared of”, he never told us that the Germans had six barrel mortars (laughing). These old officers and old generals they were talking about the 1914 to 1918 war in trenches, there was nothing modern about it. Our air force did not join up with the army combined, they were all separate and it was wrong.
We used to go on route marches and some of the people in Woking did not very much like us there, you could tell they did not like the soldiers there, it was a feeing, it was there, there were a few skirmishes but when the war broke out they were giving us apples and biscuits.
To pass some time I used to go to Guilford, it was lovely, all cobble stones. One night I missed the bus or the train, I was a bit late getting back but I got let off, me and another fellow walked it back from Guilford to Woking, I was still not drinking much because I was never a drinker.
We did not do much tactical training, we just did a little, it was just like square bashing again, route marches and things like that, there was nothing new for me. Down at Woking there was a thing called The Hog’s Back, it’s near Virginia Waters or somewhere around that area. (The common land also used by the army for military training during this period). We also went to a big firing range in London where they would have big shoot offs, it was called Bisley, we used to go there for shooting practice.
I was still in “D” Company, so from the start of my soldiers life in Catterick, I had been in Machine Company, “S” Company, then “D” company, my papers say I was a machine gunner all the way through. I can’t remember many officers names during this period but Metcalfe was still there. As a sergeant I suppose he was all right while I was in India and at Woking but he seemed to have something against me, it’s strange but I don’t remember doing anything wrong. I got on with the other NCO’s. At this stage I was still a private but I did get a stripe after.
I was sent back home on the 15th of August and I went back to my job as a bus conductor. When I came back I was given a kit bag and my uniform was in that kit bag, everything was in there. There was a note that said if war was not declared before a certain day in October, I can’t remember the date, then we had to send all of our stuff back to the depot in Newcastle, if hostilities occur then we have got to report to our depot barracks in Fenham in our uniform.
On Friday the 1st September 1939 I remember I had a late bus turn that night, at the time I was living with my wife’s mother, I said to Marion (my wife) “switch the wireless on” (it was called a wireless in them days not a radio) and it came over that all reservists, men on leave were to report to their barracks right away. I said to Marion “this is war, I’m sorry love, I’ve got to go”.
Next morning, Saturday morning I got dressed in my khaki, checked all my bits, housewife (for sowing) etc. I handed my bus bags in at the bus depot plus five shillings they give you to start with, I could of kept it but I was honest.
I travelled up to Newcastle by train using a rail warrant that was given to us. When I got to Newcastle on the Saturday it was absolute chaos, there were hundreds, no thousands of men, soldiers, tents were everywhere upon the Newcastle Moor. I said to myself “I can’t do anything here” so I went back to Sunderland and I stopped with my mother, it was nice to see her and I said “mom there is war on and I will have to leave you”.
On the Sunday morning I got back to Newcastle and I met up with my company, Metcalfe was there, I think he was a CSM (Company sergeant Major) then and we were billeted in a church and we switched the wireless on about half passed ten to here what news there was, then we got Chamberlain saying he had told the Germans to get out of Poland and all that within twenty four hours and that we are now at war. I have the recording of his speech.
We just sat there and thought well lads it’s war. As soon as the speech was over the sirens started, the air raid shelters were already up so we rushed out and then the all clear sounded.
The battalion was still at Woking and some were at Fenham, I don’t know how they sorted everybody out with everybody across Newcastle Moor but that same night we got on the train and we travelled to Woking. While there we got kitted out again, we hung about for a while, we did a bit more square bashing and think it was the second week we went to France but I am not sure.
When I was back with the battalion I was no longer a storekeeper, I had lost that job so I was back as an infantry man. I was not really fit enough to be an infantry man, if I had mentioned that I had a bad knee I would not have gone, even when I was on my two months training I never mentioned my knee because I loved the life. I wanted to take part in the war, it’s a funny thing to say but this is my country, it was my mother and family. I remembered the 1914 to 1918 war when I was little lad and I used to visit the wounded soldiers in Sunderland.
During the two weeks training prior to going to France my knee kept coming out but I never said anything, there was fluid there but I used to knock it back in, there was pain when it clicked out, nobody said anything about it. All I had to say was that I had a bad knee and I would not have been called up and yet I marched.
Going To France
I think it was the second week and sailed from Dover to Cherbourg, it was the 23rd of September. We carried gas masks but because of there carrying position they were a nuisance, we also had a gas cape, full kit, overcoat, the lot.