CHAPTER 2 – QUEEN AND COUNTRY
Because of the shortage of jobs many young men at that time joined the armed forces. When I was 16, I went with a friend called Mick Daley and we decided to join the navy. Unfortunately my mother refused to lend me the necessary bus fare. The one-penny I had only took me as far as the Army Recruitment Office, so I joined the army. Looking back, it’s amazing how a shortage of a few pennies determined the whole course of my life. The army happily accepted my claim that I was 18. As I was a couple of pounds under the minimum weight limit for joining, the recruiting sergeant advised me to go out and buy a loaf of bread and soak it in water before eating it. I dunked the bread in a stone horse trough before returning and being signed up. The army must have been desperate for recruits. Mick had the full fare and joined the navy. We both survived the 2nd World War.
So at the age of 17, I found myself in Palestine protecting Jewish settlers from angry Arabs -the same bitter acrimony between the Jews and the Arabs which unfortunately still exists nearly 65 years later. From there I went to Egypt and eventually in 1937, to India, where I spent 8 years. I happened to find myself in the same barracks in Lucknow as Saunders and we quickly rekindled our sibling rivalry by having a drinking match. I ended up in detention. Saunders made representations to my Sergeant Major on the basis that we were brothers who had not seen each other for a number of years. Due to his intervention I was released without charge. Saunders had by then become a regimental boxer and I saw him box in a thrilling contest. For the sake of his memory, I will not mention the outcome.
I was in the Royal Corps of Signals and was subsequently on duty in a place called Naini Tal, a high altitude town (over 12,000 feet) in the Himalayan foothills, when I received the signal from Army HQ that war with Germany had been declared. As a result, at the next parade a number of transfers were made. One of my mates, Jock Wringe, was posted to Singapore and ended up being imprisoned by the Japanese soon after his arrival. Such is the lottery of war.
After a series of postings, including Dehra Dun, I was promoted to Sergeant, and sent to Kharagpur, a railway town where I was responsible for running the wireless station. Signals were by Morse code. I was in charge of about 30 Indian soldiers and 6 British soldiers. I had a fearless Manchester terrier dog called “Taps” that had a talent for expertly killing snakes. At one time he had a very bad case of mange. I was advised by my bearer (my Indian servant) to bath the dog in neem leaves for two weeks. It brought about a miraculous recovery. A derivative has emerged in recent years as a widely used herbal treatment.
Kharagpur was a railway town populated and run by Anglo Indians, who prided themselves on their colourful rose gardens, which rivalled anything seen in England. There was a cinema and a sports ground for football and cricket, and an outdoor pavilion where a band often played in the evenings. There was also an impressive building called “The Institute” for meetings, dance nights and other social events. This was the first time that I had any real social life and it was at The Institute where I met Beryl Hill, the beautiful young Anglo Indian lady who later became my wife. Beryl was the personal Secretary to Mr Cross, an Englishman from Dartmoor, who was the head of the Bengal & Nagpur Railway – he travelled in his own private railway carriage.
Like me, Beryl also came from a large family in her case with several brothers and sisters. The brothers were all tall, athletic and had film star looks. Douglas had a display cupboard full of boxing trophies. Melville played tennis to a high standard. Allan was a Captain in the Indian Army. I also got on well with Maurice (who bore a striking resemblance to the Hollywood actor Raymond Massey), and with Colin, a true gentle giant. All of the Hill family had a great sense of humour. Their father, John, had worked many years for the Bengal & Nagpur Railway. Beryl’s older sisters, Blanche and Barbara were already married – Blanch to an English Forest Warden named Jack Hilton. Barbara was married to Henry Hamilton, an Anglo Indian gentleman. A younger sister, Joan, was married to an Englishman, Desmond Caine, who was in the RAF. They were all highly educated, cultured and Christian, by nature and religion.
The mother, Elizabeth, was a pleasant calm lady who made all visitors very welcome. The Hill’s had several servants including a cook and a gardener and their families, who all lived in or near the house. The overall lifestyle was as far removed from my “cockney” upbringing as the Earth is from Mars.
Whether at his own instigation or at the bidding of someone else, Jack Hilton arranged to meet me at the bar in the Institute and to my surprise offered me money to give up the relationship on the grounds that it would be best for Beryl. My “cheery cockney” character self-evidently did not meet with everyone’s approval. I knew that Beryl’s boss, Mr Cross had also warned her against marrying a common soldier. An even more multi-layered class system existed in India than at home in Great Britain and someone obviously felt that I was not good enough for Beryl, who was a very well educated individual who had spent several years at St Xavier’s, a Convent boarding school in Ranchi. My mother also had misgivings about the relationship, which she set out in a letter, which caused some distress. I have never responded well to pressure or threats – they only make me more determined.
When we did decide to get married in April 1943, I had to obtain permission from the General Officer Commanding (General Wyatt if I recall correctly), which was a normal procedure. Captain Skates representing the Indian Army attended the wedding. My best man was Jud Meyer, a Corporal in my platoon. The Army generously requisitioned a local house for our home.
I was subsequently posted to a hill station in Ranchi (in the Himalayan foothills) where we were fortunate to be given a magistrate’s house and servants. We lived in grand style. On 12th March 1944 we had our first daughter Lynne. She was born in Kharagpur where my wife had returned to for that purpose. I was at that time on my way to Dacca with two Ghurkha assistants to deliver the new Hallicrafter radio transmitter/receiver which was an essential part of the equipment needed to open a new radio station for South East Asian Command.
Beryl returned to Ranchi with Lynne. Beryl had no clue whatsoever about cooking having always relied on Indian servant/cooks. One day I invited two British Lieutenants, Mr Holmes and Mr Noah to tea, which Beryl made. Unfortunately Beryl put salt into the tea instead of sugar. The officers were such gentlemen that one of them actually drank it all without saying a word. The other lost interest in his tea. One of the officer's eventually said, “Mrs Donovan, I think something is wrong with this tea…” - it was the first and last time that they visited us.
Shortly thereafter, by coincidence or otherwise, I was posted to Burma. This was less than welcome news given the fact that the Japanese were invading Burma. I was sent to an advanced position called Maungdaw (if I recollect the town name correctly) to deliver new equipment for an advanced unit. We completed the journey by a flat-bottomed barge. It was common gossip that the Japanese had left some crates of beer bottles with a chilling note that said that they would be returning for the empties. I handed over a sealed instruction from Lieutenant Noah only to discover that it contained orders for me to stay at Maungdaw despite the fact that he knew my wife was expecting another baby. I managed to manoeuvre the situation so that I could get back to Ranchi where I found to my consternation that Beryl had returned to Kharagpur. Fortunately a sympathetic officer supplied me with travel documents, rupees, and 28 days leave, to go to Kharagpur to find that my second daughter, Jessie, named after my mother, had been born on 12th April 1945. It soon became apparent that it could have been disastrous for Beryl to give birth without proper aid because Jessie had been born with the umbilical cord around her neck.
I was in the attacking force sent to repel the Japanese assault on Burma, which if it succeeded, could have led to an invasion of India. We suffered heavy losses in savage fighting but halted the Japanese advance. Over 71,000 British and Commonwealth troops were killed or wounded in Burma during this period. I also fought alongside American soldiers and admired their fortitude and courage, and most of all, their k-rations.
The memories are so indelibly engraved in my mind that I still cannot bring myself to speak or write about my experiences. I lost many of my friends and got a bad dose of malaria before eventually ending up in Imphal military hospital with severe dysentery. I was posted back to Ranchi, where the then General Officer Commanding gave priority to the longest serving soldiers for repatriation to Britain, which meant that I was at the front of the queue.
Beryl was pleased at my safe return but was naturally apprehensive about travelling to a new land. The apprehension gave way to outright panic when she found out that she would have to be inoculated. The Doctor who was to give her the injection had to chase her twice around a table. When out of sheer frustration he gave her an ultimatum of either having the injection or staying in India without me, she opted for the latter. After a lot of persuasion by me, she eventually relented. The four of us, Beryl, Lynne, Jessie and I, made the long voyage back to England in the troopship Multan. As Britain was still at war with Japan we were part of a well protected convoy that docked in Greenock, Scotland on 28 June 1945.
Beryl and the infants went to stay with my mother at “Studlands”, her farm near Colchester. Despite the misgivings that my mother had previously expressed about the marriage, she made Beryl and the infants very welcome and over the years came to be very fond of Beryl.
I had been posted to Catterick Camp in the north of England. Within a few days I discovered that my brother Bob was also there. I found him asleep in an upper story bunk. At first he did not believe that I was his long lost brother who he had not seen for eight years. I had left home as a youth and was now a 26 year old seasoned Sergeant. We had a long enjoyable chat once he had got over the shock.
Instead of the hot dry weather that I had been used to for over a decade, I was dressed in shorts and a vest teaching unarmed combat at Catterick Camp to new recruits in a wet and much colder climate. It was a sure fire recipe for disaster and I soon became very ill. Because the doctors were mystified about the cause and mindful of the fact that I had come from a tropical climate, they put me in quarantine and ordered that all of my bedding be burned every day. They eventually diagnosed my illness as Cystic Bronchiectasis, apparently triggered by my war service. I convalesced at a hospital in Newmarket and on one occasion went to the Newmarket Races where I was seated close to the then teenage Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II. I was discharged from the regular Army on 17th March 1946 having served my Country for over 12 years. The final assessment printed on my Certificate of Service stated as follows: -
Military Conduct: Exemplary
Testimonial: This NCO is thoroughly honest, sober and reliable. During his 12 years service he has shown great keenness and is accurate in his work. Has excellent control of men placed in his charge and possesses initiative.
My family and I moved into the top floor of Mortimer Road, which had become vacant. My mother and father, plus Saunders and his family already lived in the house. My fathers comment on meeting Beryl for the first time was “Blimey, she speaks better English than what I do”. Beryl was not at all what they had expected. Goodness knows what they had in mind. Beryl must also have suffered from culture shock. Instead of having servants to cater for her every whim, she was now faced with learning to cook and do all kinds of housework including the laundry. She also had to put up with the infamous British climate but responded magnificently to the challenge.
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