From Normandy to India

We go back a few years for this interview with a few veterans from World War Two.


John Heald and Edward Armitage are both in their eighties and live at Woodview Sheltered Housing Complex in Whinmoor. They and a few friends got in touch with me to have a natter about war their experiences. I expected to go to their homes but they were more keen in sitting me down with a rather nice bacon butty and a cup of coffee in the excellent cafe contained in Woodview. Here I was also introduced to Billy Gale, Roland Winn and Mary Barrend.

Edward Armitage who didn’t look much over sixty volunteered in July 1943. He ended up in Portsmouth, where he used to man Landing Ship Tanks (LST’s.) Basically these were boats that crossed the channel with tanks and supplies and came back with the wounded and the dead. He went to Normandy at D Day as a stretcher bearer.

“I suppose it was something like the gates of hell, the blood the guts, the carnage, it was war close up and it wasn’t glamorous. I must have carried hundreds of soldiers back to the LST’s, I’ll never know how many lived or died. It didn’t matter whose side they were on, we lifted British, American, Poles, Canadian, Germans and Ukrainian. Some of the Germans were only sixteen years old, not even adults – placed on the front line, you could see the sheer terror in their faces, they’d had it drummed into them what would happen if they were taken alive. The Nazi’s judging us by their own standards. We treat everyone the same, they all ended up in some form of military hospital. Granted they will have become prisoners of war once they were well but a high number opted to stay in Britain after the war so it can’t have been so bad for them.”

After D Day Edward went to Campbeltown Argyllshire where he trained on ASTICs which were submarine detectors. He set sail on the Highland Monarch in December 1944. Using Malta as a base, they sailed to Taranto on the heel of Italy and round to Bari and then all round the Adriatic, minesweeping and looking out for enemy submarines. As much as he saw some beautiful and interesting places one of Edward’s undying memories was in Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia where local women were trying to sell their wedding rings to put a meal on the table. Edward was de-mobbed in April 1947.

John Heald was in a reserved occupation until he was called up in September 1944. He trained at Fort George, Inverness for six weeks and joined the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He was trained on Bren Gun Carriers. These were a light weight tank, usually used to move arms, with a crew of three. He was in India in 1945, where he was a reinforcement for his battalion who had suffered heavy losses to the Japanese in Burma. John saw first hand some of the victims of the Japanese cruel treatment of prisoners of war. Although he has little respect for the Japanese and their methods employed at the time, he was glowing about the Indian troops, wondering if the Allies would have won the war without their contribution -” they were the unsung heroes of the war in Burma, North Africa and Europe.”

Towards the end of the war John was allowed a compassionate leave back to England as his mother was extremely ill. At the time, flights had stopped from Bombay so he had to catch a train to Karachi. This was approaching the time of the partition of India and Pakistan and the trains were full with both denominations seeking sanctuary on different sides. It was a five day journey unfortunately John only had rations for two days. The kindness of his fellow travellers stays with him today.

“The other travellers had very little, they were leaving their homes to start again but once they realised I had no food or water, they made sure I didn’t go hungry, sharing everything they had with me, I developed quite a taste for chapattis.”

The war for John ended a little later than for the troops in Europe. The Allies were still at war with Japan and were training for Operation Zippa, to invade Malaysia. Given the heavy casualties already inflicted in the region, John quite openly admitted Hiroshima probably saved his life.

Billy Gale volunteered for the navy and ended up in REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) he ended up based in Fareham, near Portsmouth, where he covered the South of England keeping roads clear for the forces. People like Billy were the unsung heroes of the war, he might not have seen combat, indeed he said “I’ve nothing much to tell really… apart from the bombings.”

The same can be said for Mary Barrand who was in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) for two years, based at Bristol hospital, driving wagons with medical supplies to help the sick and wounded. Her husband was in the navy and they married at the end of the war.

It was interesting just to hear the stories of every day life during that time. Nobody in uniform was asked to pay on public transport, many public places had cups of cigarettes which people used to donate. Due to shortages many cups and glasses were made by cutting the neck from a beer bottle by heating it and yanking it off with a piece of string, creating a smooth finish to drink from. John reminisced how he got fifteen shillings pay and they sent fifteen shillings to his mother (this was always the case for single men) how he spent his 21st birthday in Portsmouth, too skint to go out for a pint. How much time they spent travelling down to Kings Cross and joining the thousands of other service men and women having to walk to the next station as the tubes were used as air raid shelters.The sheer terror when the air raid sirens sounded. The luxury of the occasional fresh fruit or bread, the dark, dark winter nights and the nights spent sleeping on Kings Cross or Waterloo station. The Battle of Cosham, a famous fight between American Servicemen which covered about two miles and went on for hours. Most of all, the comradeship, not just between the British but the many different nationalities, cultures and religions joining together to fight the common enemy. They critised as one voice the snobbery and class system of the military, the officers only clubs and the stories of good soldiers refused promotions because they came from the wrong side of the tracks.

John summed it up nicely at the end, “the problem with war is it’s always another country’s everyday blokes you’re fighting with. It’s a different era now. You’re more likely to have a drink together.”

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