14618303 Sergeant Stanley Albert Philip THOMSON, ex-Devonshire Regiment, ex I.A.C.C. (Indian Army Corps of Clerks), ex-R.A.S.C. (Royal Army Service Corps).
On September 3rd 1939 my parents and I sat around the wireless waiting to hear the Prime Minister tell us whether or not we were at war with Germany. My two brothers had already been evacuated to the country some weeks before. At 11.15am we knew that war had been declared; Mother cried and Dad swore. He had been in France in the First War as a lad of 16.
I was one month shy of my 15th birthday at the time and had been working since Nov. 1938, shortly after my 14th birthday. My father had got me an interview for a job with the Associated Newspapers Ltd., (Daily Mail, Evening News etc) just off Fleet Street in London. I started as a Tape Room 'Boy' which kept you running all day long. to increase my education I took night school for two years. Night School ended with the Blitz. Once the air raids started I became a fire watcher (aged 16) for my company which entailed patrolling the roofs armed with a truncheon, police whistle and steel helmet. The truncheon was to beat off any German parachutist I might come up against!!!
One building I used to patrol (New Carmlite House) was built on a square with a hollow center. Below this center were the printing machines and to protect them, large sheets of metal 1/2 inch thick were placed at the top of this large air shaft. One night when I was off duty, a bomb hit square on this shaft which detonated and blew out all the windows but did not harm the machines.
During the daylight raids we had to go to the sub basement from our 5th floor office and the lifts were not to be used. As time wore on, we only went down when the raids were approaching our actual area. On one occasion we were able to look out of the office window overlooking the Thames Embankment to see many bombers coming up the Thames from the east, appearing to be heading for the West End, when from above them, 3 fighters attacked them. They promptly turned and dropped their bombs elsewhere.
The day following my 17th birthday (Oct 26th 1941) I joined the 56th County of London (Balham) Battalion Home Guard at the Drill Hall in Balham High Road. We would drill 2 or 3 nights a week and every Sunday. Guards were mounted on the door and during a raid someone was on the roof as a spotter for aircraft and to see if there were any neighborhood lights showing. One night I was the Corporal of the guard when a raid took place and I became the spotter. All was normal (?) when all of a sudden there was a vivid flash and many lines of flames seemed to be shooting towards me (I was 5 floors up). It was the first time a battery of what was called Z guns (rockets) had been fired from Tooting Bec Common.
In mid 1942 I took a course in unarmed combat conducted by Victor Benson who at one time had been an amateur champion. Shortly after I got my third stripe and I believe I was one of the youngest Home Guard sergeants in London. My platoon put on may weapons exhibitions including a, what we referred to as, a suicide weapon - a spigot gun. This was for anti-tank fighting but entailed being out in the open without any protection. Thank goodness we were not put to the test.
Sometime in April 1943 I was called up for a medical and asked which branch of the services I wished to join. Some time later we all had a good laugh over that as it was obvious that our future had already been determined by the War Office. As my father had been a gunner in the First War, I opted for the Royal Artillery or tanks. We were also asked where we would like to serve (laugh) and for some reason I said "anywhere except India". The Army being perverse put me in the P.B.I. (poor bloody infantry) and sent me to India!!!
I got my Call-up on June 3rd 1943 at which time I was 18 years and 7 months. Six weeks basic training was done at Beverley Minster, near Hull, sorting our left feet from our right. My Home Guard training stood me in good stead - at least I knew how to handle a rifle. The very first day everyone had to have inoculations and some so-called tough guys fainted. At the end of the six weeks we were told where we were destined for, and I with a few others were sent to the Infantry Training Centre of the Devonshire Regiment in Colchester, Essex.
Colchester is an old garrison town dating back to Roman times. While we were there, many units of Allied Forces were nearby in addition to other British infantry regiments such as the Dorset's and the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry.
Much of our training was done on a golf course outside of town and we had to march there. As we marched down hill in the town, we came to the River Coln when our sergeant decided we needed cooling off. We had to wade through it but it was only waist high to me at 5ft 10½ins, but some of the chaps were much shorter. Every time we went to that golf course, we had to go through that river. On one exercise on the course, we had put mud on our faces as camouflage. We were put in attacks and had been issued blank cartridges which a pal and I promptly loaded. For safety sake I pressed the top cartridge down and slid the rifle bolt over it and pulled the trigger to release the 'cock'. My pal standing to my right with his rifle at the 'port arms' position (diagonal across the body) did the same except he had not pushed the top cartridge down, so when he pulled the trigger, the cartridge was fired and I got the blast in my right eye. Fortunately the wad in the end of the cartridge split up, otherwise it would have gone through my eye, possibly into the brain. As it was, the right side of my face was peppered. I was hauled off to a nearby house by the corporal who washed my face with the water from a rain barrel (sergeant was more concerned about who had fired the shot). The corporal said that with the mud and blood on my face I would frighten anyone. The lady of the house helped to patch my up before I was put on a local bus to take me to hospital. I was there for 10 days and luckily my sight was not damaged. The chap who fired got 7 days 'Confined to Barracks!!'
During our time in Colchester, all British units finished their training late on Saturdays and by the time we got into the town, al the bars on the main street were full of American or Canadian troops. Our section usually ended up in a milk bar and then on to the Sally Ann (Salvation Army) where one of our chaps played the piano and we were able to have a dance.
On completion of our 2½ month infantry training, we were split up. All men over 18 years and 10 months (me included) were to go to the 8th Battalion (regular infantry) and the younger chaps were to go to the 12th which were Airborne. I and a few others volunteered for the 12th but were turned down.
The 8th Btn was a training battalion and was scattered around villages in the Durham area, a company to each village. Everyone had to take their turn at fatigues, cookhouse etc., and one day I got the job of slicing bread. This was done by using a guillotine type slicer and the first slice came off the fleshy part at the base of my left thumb! I was taken to the Regimental Aid Post for treatment and ended up missing a lot of training owing to not being able to handle a rifle.
When the intake I was with went overseas, I and 5 others were put back to the next draft owing to have missed so much training. The next Company had a 'Mad Major' as a commander and the first thing he did was to wheel the 6 of us before the Medical Officer to see if any of us were swinging the lead. We weren't! Of all the NCOs or W.O.'s I came across, this company had the worst in a sergeant and a company sergeant major. You know that when they swore at you, they meant it! There were murmurs that should they have the misfortune to go overseas with us, they better not walk the open decks at night!
There was one bully in this company who was eventually brought down a peg. One exercise had us running up an earthen ramp about 6 foot high and leaping far out to dodge coils of barbed wire. The drop in the far side was over 8 feet. This bully balked every time so two NCOs took him by the arms and ran him over. That took the starch out of him.
At this time we were using an old cotton mill about 2 miles outside Whalley in Lancashire. The local pub was the Whalley Arms for us and there was a dance hall a short distance from it.
We were given Embarkation Leave in December 1943 which expired on the 31st (New Year's Eve!) and to the best of my knowledge everyone came back. Our draft was split in two and surprisingly we were allowed out on the night before departure. I was in the second group and had to stand guard while the first lot went into town. Everyone had a pass timed for 23.59 hrs but men were straggling in at all hours with officers riding their bikes up and down guiding them back..
Before we had our night out, our Corporal, McNamarra, Henry Griffiths and Fred... were detailed to escort a prisoner to the ship. apparently he was constantly deserting. Henry Griffiths was interesting in that he was a German Jew who had changed his name and had volunteered to fight rather that go in the Pioneer Corps with other aliens.
The people of Whalley had got to know that we were off overseas and treated us royally. I have never been so drunk before or since. We found that Henry did not drink so our section vowed to get him drunk but fortunately did not succeed. I wanted to escort at ATS girl who had been the girl friend of a pal of mine from the previous draft, back to her camp, but after reaching the top of a hill, I found that I was in no condition to go on. thankfully Henry had come along but I have no memory of retracing our steps but I do remember saluting the Whalley Arms in passing. Henry got me back to the barracks. Fred was to be brought back to camp by truck which the RSM got to hear about. He was taken off the escort and I was put on. Thank goodness Henry was in good shape as McNamarra and I could not have watched the prisoner.
We sailed from Liverpool on January 13th, I believe, on the SS Malloja. She was a P and O liner and fairly well armed with two six inch guns mounted in the stern and many machine guns.
Guards are mounted on the ship and I was posted to a companionway which led to the quarters of Indian troops who had been in Britain for some time. As we rounded the north of Ireland, a storm developed and we were pitched and tossed about. That was bad enough but I got the smell of the Indian cooking which I was not used to at the time. I did not feel too bad until I returned to my own mess deck which was a shambles.
We headed out into the Atlantic in a zigzag manner before turning south. Somewhere outside Gibraltar there was a submarine alarm and we were below decks when some depth charges went off. It gave you a nasty feeling knowing that you were already below the waterline.
'Gib' was passed in the night so we did not see the Rock but Tangiers was a shock as it was all lit up in a manner we had not seen for 4 years. In the Med we were attacked again by a sub that was between us and the North African shoreline. Everyone was on deck at one time and cheered the Navy as they came dashing through the convoy in Corvettes that took waves right over their bridges. We heard gun fire and were later told that a U-boat had been blown to the surface.
As we approached Crete a big storm blew up. We were on 'Stand to' for 48 hours as torpedo bombers were expected which had hit a previous convoy. We got through safely thanks to that storm and as most of us had our sea legs by them, few were sick.
A day was spent in Port Said but we were not allowed ashore, and then it was off down the Canal to Port Suez. On the way down we passed a lonely Anti Aircraft unit. One of their chaps shouted out "Anyone see the film '5 Graves to Cairo' ". When someone said 'Yes' the gunner said "this is one of those bastards"!
On arrival at Prot Suez we picked up some lascars from a ship that had been sunk and they cowered below deck when our ship tried out all it's guns - no-one told them it was a practice!
About February 13th we arrived in Bombay and I was put on the baggage handling party whose main job was to see that none of it got pinched!
In no time we were on a train headed for Deolali, a large transit camp. The word 'Deolali' came into the language as meaning 'going round the bend' or 'off your rocker' (somewhat unstable). Along the way we were hounded by beggars or sellers of everything from tea (char) to their sisters! At one station, four of us wanted tea from a young boy who filled two mugs and ran out of tea. I had given him a 5 rupee note (about a days pay I think). The boy said that he would get more tea and my change...he was never seen again!!!
On arrival at Deolali we were put into tents and had to sleep on the sandy floor as there were not enough beds to go round. We then had to combat sand fleas. The staff at this camp were still on peacetime basis as we had now to go through with a lot of bull, which included trying to put a polish on our boots which up to then had dubbin rubbed into them to make them supple and to a certain extent, waterproof. For guard mounting, an extra man would come out onto the parade ground to dust off your boots before inspection! At times it was maddening to the extent that the word 'Deolali' came into the language to mean 'going round the bend'.
About the end of March 1944 we were off again by train to the Central Province for jungle training. While we were at Deolali, we had lost Henry Griffiths. We were told that he had dysentery from eating too much fruit (which we had not seen for years). He never caught us up and I have no idea what happened to him.
Our training was hard as we had to combat the hot climate on one water bottle per day. After a while, it was noticed that there was a big increase in the cases of dysentery - we were going down like nine pins. My turn came and I was put in the Aid Post for three days on beef broth and a slice of bread. After the three days, as I had not improved, I was shipped off by hospital train with many others, to a military hospital on Bhopal where I stayed for a further five days. Part of the cure was a dose of salts each day. The cause of the dysentery was put down to a soya link sausage from the U.S. and all the stocks in the India Command were ordered to be destroyed.
Our training was shortened owing to heavy casualties in our 1st Battalion although many of them were due to sickness rather than enemy action. We were taken across India by train and then a boat on the Brahmaputra River at night. No one gave us any information and the rumor went around that we were going into action from the boat! Anyhow we ended up at a transit camp at Comilla for a few days. One day we boarded a US transport plane to be flown to Imphal. We could not go by road as Imphal was surrounded at that time.
After being in the air for a short while, we landed at the Americans' airfield as they had not had any breakfast! On takeoff we were told to keep an eye out for any other planes as it was possible that there would be Japs and as we did not have any escort we would have to take evasive action by diving to tree top height. This did happen and it was scary. We saw the wreckage of a transport plane which had been shot down the previous day which had been carrying supply. I noticed that our plane had four parachutes...and a crew of four!!
We arrived at Imphal and landed on the airfield at Palel which was often shelled at mealtimes but we were left alone. We were taken to an area where we were given a meal and a bucket of water to wash in - all twenty of us! There was a shout of "Tommy" and a scruffy soldier came running down the hill. It was Ted Martin of Fulham who was in my unit in England but came on the draft before me. Ted told me that he was tired of footslogging and had become a mule leader. I never saw Ted after that and I believe he did not make it back. From that assembly point we went by truck some distance on winding roads until we eventually arrived at Rear Battalion HQ where we were greeted by another scruffy soldier who turned out to be Lt. Col. de Harvest, the Commanding Officer. Everyone was scruffy and no badges of rank were visible. The CO was armed with a rifle, bayonet and 'Kukrie' (Gurkha knife) and looked like any ordinary soldier except for his age.
From this point we had to walk to the forward position on 'Scraggy' along a road that was under observation by the Japs. We had to walk in open order, one man every hundred yards. The thinking was that although the distance was too great for a rifle shot, it might not be worth the Japs' while to fire a shell to hit a solitary man. Fortunately it worked that day at least.
After, we were split up and allocated to our respective platoons and we were able to take stock. We were dug in on a hill overlooking a road and it was possible to see a disabled tank at a bend in the road. While we were looking, a shell came overhead and landed on the bottom of the adjacent hill. I remarked to one of the other men, that the Japs had missed us and he said 'no', that was one of ours and that the Japs are on that hill.
We were so short of men that everyone had to take a turn of guard duty - NCOs and even some Officers. We were told that as we were new, we would not get the bad hours of 1am to 3am. Each new man was put with an experienced soldier in a weapon pit with a bren gun. I got 1am to 3am! Beforehand we had slept 4 men together in a small bunker which kept you warn but when called for my turn at guard, I shivered. Those hills were anywhere from 3000 to 8000 feet high. It was an eerie feeling only having one man for company and it being very quiet except for some jungle noises. At one point a flare was shot up some distance away and as it came down, I felt sure that I saw Japs moving in the trees. A half hour before dawn there was a 'Stand To' and you shivered waiting for the sun to come up.
A little later in the morning, my Sgt. told me to report to Rear Btn but could not give me a reason why; I certainly felt that I was in trouble. On arrival at the Rear Btn I reported to the Adjutant who in turn told me to report to the Intelligence Officer at Brigade HQ. I was really puzzled. On arrival at Brigade I saw the I.O. and he said that I was to report to the Camp Commandant of the 20th Indian Infantry Division HQ. When I finally arrived at the HQ it was dug in on a hill top and bristling with barbed wire and machine guns. I asked someone why all the security when I had travelled back so far. I was told "See that next hill - the Japs are on that"! There never was such a thing as a 'Front Line' in Burma.
I found that I was wanted for clerical work in G Branch (General Staff) which deals with operations and intelligence. The lowest British rank in an Indian Division is Sergeant so I became 'Acting Local Unpaid Sergeant'. Even on active service, there was still an Officers' Mess and a Sergeants' Mess. Ours was a dugout with a tarp over the top. My sleeping quarters was a bunker with my bunk carved out of the wall. This became very important when the monsoon started. Although a trench had been dug around the bunker, when the monsoon started is it usually did in May, it quickly washed away the trench and poured into the bunker. In no time everything was damp and your blankets smelt musty and smokers could not have a cigarette as the heads usually fell off the matches.
Some time in July 1944, The Devon's were pulled out of action to rest and recoup. I was able to get a ride and went to visit them. The first person I met was my old Corporal McNamarra who had been promoted and was now the Btn Provost Sergeant. There was a total look of surprise when he saw me as he said "where the hell have you come from?" I told him that I was with Div HQ and asked him why he was so surprised. He said that I was supposed to be dead! It turned out that two days after I had left the unit, my company took over a position on a hill which had two 'pimples'. One was occupied by the Japs and the other by one of our companies for two days at a time. Apparently a shell hit a trench and as a body was pulled out, someone who knew me asked who it was. He was told it was a new ginger haired chap. As all platoons and sections were wired in, it was impossible to go backwards and forwards so the men who knew me, assumed that it was me that had caught it. Thank goodness my parents were never told.
While we were still in the Imphal area, we received notice that we could expect an air-raid the FOLLOWING day. Our intelligence units were really on the ball. By this time we had air supremacy and the Japs could not keep their planes on the forward airstrips for very long for fear of getting straffed. Four small planes did come over the following day and dropped some small anti-personnel bombs but the only casualty I heard of was a cow. I don't believe any of their planes got back.
A Jap prisoner was brought in badly in need of medical attention. He was not wounded but had many diseases which included malaria and beri-beri and he was starving. Some time later, a Psychological Warfare Unit was formed and this prisoner was back to broadcast to Jap units in the area. The change in him was amazing as he was back to health and looking robust. He was dressed in our jungle green and wearing a steel helmet - he looked like one of our Ghurka troopers. The experiment was worth while apparently.
We found parts of a giant mortar shell of the Japs' which had not been fired (thank goodness) and it was determined that a battalion was necessary to transport and operate this weapon.
The Division moved into Burma via the Tamu trail and the Kabaw Valley. Kabaw Valley was named by a newspaper as 'The Green Hell' as it was thick jungle and malaria was rife. This was cleared by one of the African divisions of which there were 3 East and West African Divs.
While in this area I came across a Jap skeleton. His clothes were in tatters and he still had his helmet on. I left him alone as the Japs sometimes booby-trapped the bodies of their own men if they could not remove them.
After crossing the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers, we swung south and trapped many units of the Jap forces between us and the rivers. Finding that they could not push through, many tried to escape by coming down the river in country boats in an effort to get past us. There was a sandbar at one point on which we had put a listening post. One night there was the pop of a flare going off and we all ran outside to see a fair sized boat loaded with Japs trying to run the gauntlet. Our riverbank was lines with heavy machine guns and some anti-tank guns which too great toll of the Japs and I believe that none survived. By this time, the Japs were so desperate that they even tried this in the day time with the same result.
Our division HQ was in the town of Prome for a while. The town was badly knocked about and the only habitable houses were wooden structures set a little aside from the rest of the town. After we took possession it was found that these buildings had been used as a comfort station (brothel)! The whole area was filthy and all undergrowth for yards around had to be cut back for fear of scrub typhus. Our G.O.C. (general officer commanding) was not amused. We had a Jap interpreter with us who read all the signs on the walls. There was an actual tariff and only officers could stay all night. We captured four of the comfort girls, all Korean, in the town.
My Division pushed on to the town of Tharrwaddy where we were halted and started to plan for the invasion of Malaya. First we were to go by air and then that was changed as we were to go by boat. All our spare equipment was taken from us and never seen again! At this time we lost our British battalions and became all Indian. The 20th Div came under 4 Corps and was commanded by Major General D.D. Gracey who was knighted after the war. The div was composed of 32, 80 and 100 Brigades. The 1st Devon's were in 80 Bde with the 3/1st Ghurkas and the 9/12th Frontier Force Rifles.
We had no regrets when the atom bomb stopped the war!!
There was a V.J. parade in Rangoon and I hitch-hiked to see it. The parade was taken by Lord Mountbatten as head of South East Asia Command. It was a great parade and not dampened off by the rain. The sun came out later and dried everyone off. By the time it was all over, I was tired with all the standing around but could only get a lift part of the way back. I stood by the road trying to thumb another ride when I saw a car coming with flags on it's fenders, denoting that it was a general's staff car. I stood aside but it stopped a little further on and the driver beckoned me over. I was surprised when I found my own general sitting beside the driver and he told me to hop in. I sat between his two tommy-gun toting Ghurka bodyguards and promptly went to sleep! I awoke with a start when we arrived back at camp but the Old Man did not say a word, just told the driver to take me back to my hut.
In October 1945 we were sent to Saigon in Indo-China (now Laos) to round up the Japs and ship them back to Japan. They were concentrated at Cap St. Jacques. Owing to the upheaval with the local population wanting their freedom from the French, they were often shot at and killed our men in the belief that we were holding the fort until the French forces arrived. It got so bad at one point that we actually armed some of the Japs!!! I got a funny feeling when I saw a Jap sentry practicing bayonet drill when he thought he was not observed. I did not see any of our own POW's but we did have some Japs who were considered to be war criminals. I don't know what happened to them but they were in the care of our Ghurkas, who had no cause to love them.
We returned to India in February 1946 and the div was disbanded. By this time I had been a full sergeant in the Indian Army Corps of Clerks which is the same as the Royal Army Service Corps. The Div HQ dwindled down to a major, warrant officer and myself. I was able to find my personal file and received a shock when I found that I was only supposed to have been with HQ for two months and then returned to the battalion!!. I cannot say I'm sorry.....
On arrival in Calcutta about the end of February 1946, we were involved in riots the very first night back. Everyone was called out to patrol the streets.
After the 20th Division was disbanded I was posted to the 5th Indian Infantry Division which had just returned from Indonesia and was a permanent division as opposed to a war time only unit. Our main task was Internal Security and at one time, the entire division was deployed in Bihar Province protecting one group or another.
I returned to England by way of Liverpool in January 1947 and as I had some months to go before demob, I was posted as Orderly Room Sergeant to a POW camp for Germans at Thankerton, Lanarkshire. February 1947 was a bad winter and there was very little in the way of coal for heating purposes although the POW's appeared to fare better than the British troops. I felt it badly having just returned from the Far East.
I left the Army in June 1947 and returned to my old job with Associated Newspapers. They had been sending 10/- (now about 50p English money - $0.80US - $1.07 Canadian) a week to my parents to make up my pay until I became a sergeant and then it ceased.