Frank Willey served during the Second World War. We met him when he was in his 80’s and he gave us an interview and some of his images in order that his story was told. On VE Day, we thought it would be appropriate to do just that. Here is Frank’s story:
My brother is many years older than I am and did not have the good fortune I had of being able to become part of the army involved in the 1939 – 1945 war. He has suggested it might be a good idea if I wrote my experiences, simple though they were, for the benefit of those young people who know nothing of what went on except what they read in history books. As much time has passed, it is perhaps as well to give some of the background to the events that took place.
As a result of an inspired combination of propaganda, threats and bluff by Adolf Hitler of Germany, in the summer of 1938 the Western democracies in Europe were paralysed with fear of him. Hitler had been afraid of the might of the British Empire, but the British failure in 1935 to defend Abyssinia, one of the last independent nations in Africa, changed his mind. In 1936 he gave orders for his army to march into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised by the Allies as part of the Treaty of Versailles. Again, Britain did nothing. In February 1938, confident that Britain and France would do nothing, he started bullying and threatening the Chancellor of Austria, obtaining concessions and then marched his army’s over the frontier and into Vienna. It was generally understood that his next move would be into Czechoslovakia.
Neville Chamberlain had succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister in 1937, and it appeared to have been an unfortunate selection for such trying times. He did not think rearmament was necessary, but believed peace was attainable by reasonable discussion rather than through military strength. On 15th of September 1938 Chamberlain flew to Berchtesgaden, where Hitler talked him into accepting the amputation of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and its incorporation with the Reich.
The second meeting between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain took place at Godesberg, in the Rhineland, from September 22nd to 24th, 1938. Hitler told Chamberlain what he had agreed was now not enough! He told the Prime Minister he wanted Czechoslovakia in toto, and the problem had to be settled before October 1st. War now seemed near. The Czech army was mobilised, the British Navy called its reserves back to the fleet and the French army began to summon its troops to action stations on the Maginot Line. The German army was assembled for an attack on Czechoslovakia.
Then came the Munich conference on 29th of September 1938, attended by Adolf Hitler (Germany), Benito Mussolini (Italy), Edouard Daladier (France) and Neville Chamberlain (Britain). Hitler, as usual, got what he wanted and war was prevented pro tem. On the first of November Chamberlain pledged the government not to introduce conscription in peacetime. On 16th March 1939 Germany discarded the pretence of regarding the Munich settlement as permanent satisfaction of her territorial ambitions and proceeded to annex Bohemia and Moravia, proclaiming them part of the German protectorate. On news film throughout the Western world audiences watched the German army marching into Prague.
22nd of March 1939 Memel, an ancient German city on the Baltic, which had been snatched from the Reich by the Treaty of Versailles and given to Lithuania was ceded to Germany by Lithuania. On March 28th an anti-Polish press campaign was begun by Germany. March 31st Neville Chamberlain announced Britain and France would stand by: in the event of action clearly threatening her independence. On April 7th Italy seized Albania. The British government introduced a system of compulsory military training on April 27th, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances. Then, on April 28th, Hitler denounced the Anglo German naval agreement and Polish non-aggression treaty. On May 22nd Italy and Germany signed a pact. Von Ribbentrop signed a German Soviet pact on August 23rd. Then, on August 31st, the British fleet was mobilised.
On September 1st German troops crossed the frontier into Poland. From September 1st to 4th the evacuation schemes were put in motion in England and Wales 1,200,000 persons were moved, because immediate air attacks were expected. On September 3rd, 1939, at 11a.m, war was declared between Britain and Germany. The next day, September 4th, the British liner ‘Athenia’ was sunk by a German submarine, with the loss of 120 lives. Neville Chamberlain handed the reins to Winston Churchill on the 10th of the 5th 1940
The events affecting me started with the government introducing a system of compulsory military training in April 1939. Under this act the government conscripted men between 20 and 41 for both military and industrial service, and women 20 to 34 industrial service. On the 2/12/1939 Winston Churchill proposed raising the age from 41 to 51 for military service and lowering the age from 20 to 18. At the same time making recruits of 19 liable for service abroad. Boys and girls of 16 to 18 years were to be registered. Unmarried women of 20 to 30 years were to be drafted to auxiliary services as well as industry.
At that time I was making a living working and lodging in Carmarthen. As a railway man I was in a reserved occupation so could not volunteer for service, but could be called up when conscription reached my age group. I was over 23 years of age then, and only those over 20 and 27 were being called up. The maximum age of conscription would increase as time went on, with the minimum going down to 18 years. The result of all this was that, if I had waited for my age group to be reached, I should have been conscripted in the spring of 1940.
Towards the end of October 1939 it was agreed that railway employees could be given permission to volunteer for the transportation section of the Royal engineers, stationed at Longmoor Hants, to which supplementary reservists, mostly railway man, went for annual training. The agreement was that railway men would be accepted in their old trades and would return to their railway posts at the end of the war. As far as I can remember, I obtained written permission to volunteer on Thursday, November 2nd and took advantage of this the same day. I was given a medical examination date of Tuesday, November 7th at Llanelli
Up to receiving advice of my medical examination date, I kept my impetuous action a secret, but decided then I’d better let someone know. In those days few houses had telephones in them, so I phoned my sister who worked in a local hairdressers and who travelled home each evening, and asked her to let the rest of the family know. I passed my medical exam, was enlisted as from that day, November 11th 1939 and left for my first camp on the morning of the following Monday, 13/11/1939. I believe I arrived in Longmoor camp at about midnight, having travelled from West Wales on the GWR via Swindon and Reading and from there to the camp on Longmoor military railway.
Longmoor camp was a peacetime base and part of it consisted of rows of houses for the soldiers and their families. During the war these houses were used as billets for as many recruits as they would hold. I remember being put into number 13 Baden Powell along with 12 other rookies, which resulted in 13 of us being in number 13 from the 13th! Very few of us remained in touch for long, but as far as I can remember most of us bore charmed lives for that period.
In three weeks we were trained in army movements from standing to attention to drilling with a .303 rifle and bayonet, firing on a rifle range, stripping, reassembling and firing a bren-gun, and attacking with a fixed bayonet. Then we were told that Docks Group was being formed and we should be part of that. Instead of being put into a railway company. This meant we should need some instruction in the type of work, clerical and otherwise, which we should be expected to carry out. Many of the recruits drafted to Longmoor at that time were dockworkers and we were to join them in the field later. The end of our training coincided nicely with Christmas, and we were sent home on leave for the festive season.
On our return we were assembled in another barracks, in boredom, ready for dispatch to France. On New Year’s Day 1940 I had a photograph taken wearing the old type of peak, which I left behind, as it was not worn in the field. I still have the photograph, which is now part of history.
On Thursday 4th, we left Bordon at 6:30pm in the evening on a special train to Waterloo, and I later caught the night train from Paddington to Swansea. I returned on the afternoon of Sunday, January 7th, arriving in Bordon at 1:15am on Monday. True to army tradition, I was up again at 6:30am, ready to draw my overseas kit.
The next four days were spent preparing for our next move and then on Saturday 13/01/1940 we left Bordon for Southampton, where we boarded the ship. This left in the afternoon, only to stay outside Southampton for 12 hours. We eventually sailed in the middle of the night, arriving in Cherbourg the next morning. We left there by train that that afternoon. I have some recollect recollection of snow falling when we slept on the docks that night. Fortunately the snow fell only intermittently for a couple of days, and this didn’t worry me very much as I was posted to the HQ docks office on the far side of the town.
Doing clerical work downstairs and sleeping on the floor upstairs was quite pleasant in the cold January weather. I think our quarters had been some firm’s large office with a warehouse on the upper floors. Anyway, we were self-contained. I think we were given half day off on Saturdays and or Sundays, according to how many could be spared at a time. We managed to see an occasional film and some shows given by touring companies, and otherwise made our own amusement.
On February 29 I started a nasty bout of influenza, not easy to cope with, as I had to stay in bed, which meant remaining on the floor, in the draft. I must have been in a poor way as some NCOs decided to send for the DMO and I wasn’t allowed to get up into the evening of March 5th. I was fit enough to start work again on the eighth, and I expect I was glad as conditions made malingering less pleasant than work. On the night of 11th March I noted there was an air raid warning from 21:50 to 20:40 hours, and this shows how peaceful life had been in until then! In fact, leave to England was started that month for the lucky few. On Saturday, 16th March, some of us were given a half day off. I went for a long walk alongside the railway, which ascended the mountainside.
On May 22nd we were sent to look for some German tanks, which had broken through our lines and were approximately half an hour away from us. We returned the next day as they’d been stopped before we could reach them. On the 25th we went for a similar move, and on the 26th we marched a long way again, but returned as we were not needed. I know that Sunday, May 25th, 1940, was declared a day of prayers for the English Forces, and I’m glad I was blissfully unaware of this at that time. The records show the Dunkirk evacuation began on Monday, May 26th, but nobody was silly enough to tell us this. We were at that time in Kleiber barracks, which had been occupied in peacetime by the French army, so it was well known to the Germans. I think it was made of stone with perhaps bricks as well worked into the design. I know the stairs were all stone and there were two floors at least in addition to the ground floor. We were nearly all in our rooms upstairs preparing for bed at about 10pm on the night of Monday, June 3rd when the barracks was dive-bombed by German planes with their horrible screaming bombs. We heard a bomb explode as it hit the far end of the building on the first run, then one hit the centre and the clock tower, and another meant for us, landed outside our window and failed to explode. Whenever I hear the song where were you on the night of June 3rd? I think of that night.
With this bit of good fortune to cheer us up, we ran down the stone steps to the ground floor and waited in the darkness, hoping the others would miss, which they did. There was a lull so we sat on the stone floor in the dark, listening for the drawing near of the next plane, when there was an awful clatter on the stone stairs making us all dive for cover. It turned out to have been caused by my friend of Bob Murchison who’d gone back up to his room for his boots and dropped them on the steps on the way down. At least we had one laugh that night. There were a few killed and many injured, particularly by the second bomb as it had hit the stairs down which the soldiers were running. The clock above stopped at 10:27pm to mark the occasion. The Germans put on a repeat performance the next night, June 4th, at the same time, but we’d all gone a few yards up the road so as to watch it. I remember lying in the roadway as one bomb flew over my head, seemingly parting my hair, and exploded at the other end of the road.
The records show that day as being the end of the Dunkirk evacuation. We found it a very moving evening too! June 7th I noted I’d attended the military funeral of five of our friends. I think they were buried in groups on different days so that the selected guard of honour could attend and fire the necessary shots over the grave on each occasion, thereby allowing a larger number of soldiers the opportunity of taking part. The same night we all boarded a goods train. In the early hours of the next morning we were on our way to somewhere. It was Saturday, June 8th, and I was 24 years of age. I can remember somebody saying we didn’t have water to drink, let alone champagne! Actually I quite enjoyed that journey. We were in closed trucks such as were used for carrying crates, boxes and suchlike on goods trains in this country, and had the usual sliding door each side. We were able to sit near the open door when it was warm, and lie on our kit, with the doors closed at night. We made some stops in marshalling yards and those give us the opportunity to get hot water from the engine and make tea of a sort.
We spent part of Sunday the ninth in a barracks in tents, and then carried on at night when it was safer for the train to move. The next day, the tenth, we arrived in Brest and marched to a camp somewhere thereabouts. Incidentally, it was rumoured that ours was the last train to cross the bridge at all and, it having been blown up by our own people afterwards to prevent the enemy advancing in that way. On June 14th German troops entered Paris, so they were not far behind us. We worked on the docks and in the camp at Brest until the 16th, and then on Monday, June 17th we marched to the docks and boarded a cargo ship. I can recall comments on the sadness of the French people’s faces being passed along the ranks as we marched. Little did we know their government had signed an armistice with the Germans that day! I learned later that on June 16th Marshall Petain broadcast to the French nation to say he had from that day, assumed the direction of the government of France, also, to say it was necessary to stop fighting.
There was a suggestion we’d sail towards Iceland in an effort to dodge the enemy, as ours was a cargo ship. On the same day as we sailed out of Brest, and at the same time I believe the SS Lancaster sailed out. It was spotted by a lone German pilot who bombed it. One of the bombs was said to have gone down the ships Funnel and exploded inside. While the crew and passengers were trying to float in the sea, the pilot returned and dropped incendiary bombs on the oily water. Many who were not drowned were, we are told burnt to death. Once again I was in the wrong place at the right time.
In Falmouth we were given field cards to send home so that our relatives could be told we were still alive. I learned later that when my advice reached home my mother, who had assumed I was dead, sent a telegram to my father who was on war work in another part of the country. After this, we marched up the hill to a piece of grassy ground. I can’t remember where or what it was except that it was in Falmouth. I know that later we were preparing to bed down on the grass for the night when we were given the order to get ready to move off. We re packed everything and marched to the railway station, where we boarded a special train, in the dark, which eventually moved off for another unknown destination.
The next day we arrived in Liverpool, so we must have covered many miles in the night. I can’t remember what time we left the train, probably because I was too tired to think. I know that we were taken to Aintree racecourse and given tents in which to live. We stayed there from Wednesday the 19th to Sunday the 23rd. It rained most of the time! Our luck was certainly good on Sunday 23rd as we were taken by train to Blackpool, leaving our train in the centre station at about noon. Word of our impending arrival had got round and a small crowd gathered outside the station to cheer and clap us as we marched out. I believe we were as embarrassed as we were pleased, because we did not feel very proud of having survived the Dunkirk debacle of which we knew nothing until we reached Liverpool. We were marched to central drive and halted there while we were allocated billets in private houses what a surprise! As we waited, the landlord of the nearest public house, and his friends, brought trays of glasses of beer along the ranks. This was not a bit like the former Army life we’d already learned to accept!
I was fortunate enough to be allocated accommodation with some close friends in 235 Central Drive, which was owned by Mr and Mrs Broadbent. In happier times it was one of Blackpool’s many small number of boarding houses. What a joy that night to sleep in a proper bed! Time passed with military drills in Stanley Park, working parties to various places, church parades and visits to the new opera house in cinemas in the evenings. On Saturday, July 6th, I was sent home to Swansea on leave, for a long weekend. On Tuesday ninth I was back in Blackpool to a similar, pleasant life of daily Army routine.
On August 26th I was sent home on a weeks leave. I returned on September 2nd to much the same routine. During this time the German air force made many day and night bombing raids on Britain, with the London Blitz taking place between September 7th and 17th, but little of this was seen in the vicinity of Blackpool.
On 9th November 1940 we were moved from our comfortable boarding houses to a church hall, and this was the sign of changes to come. November 21st I was sent on leave until the 28th. On return I was advised of arrangements being started for a further move. Friday night 29th of November 1940 we were given a present of two inoculations and one vaccination per person, who could ask for anything more?
From that time until Christmas had passed we were preparing for departure to a warmer climate, which was evident by the tropical kit being issued. 30th December I left Blackpool with an advance party from Glasgow, where we worked on the docks from the 31st, sometimes in snow. Part of the next 10 days was spent loading our ownership, the SS, Roni, and others ready for sailing in convoy. While this was going on, ships carpenters were altering the cargo passenger ships so that they could accommodate troops in the holds, which were to be our homes for the next few weeks. In the early hours of the morning of Sunday, 12th January 1947 we steamed out of Glasgow by way of Clyde, with all the hooters from the works ashore and the remaining ships sounding a farewell, as this was the biggest convoy to leave Greenock up to that time. Some of the ships in that convoy were battleships, including the destroyer Ajax, Australia and eight other destroyers of which I do not have the names.
On 21st January 1941 we changed from battledress khaki drill as the temperature was 81°, and this was at sea! Remember the snow in Glasgow. Each day the temperature rose a degree or more until the 25th January, when we arrived in Freetown in the morning, the temperature was 88°. Our ships anchored there to take on stores, but we were not allowed ashore. At that time the country of Sierra Leone was known as the white man’s grave, anyway, so we should have been unenthusiastic about taking the chance of being infected with malaria. On the 29th we sailed from Freetown, and by the next day the temperature was 86° on board. The last day of January provided some entertainment as we crossed the equator at 7:30pm with the usual ceremony. On February 8th we rounded the Cape of Africa, and we arrived in Durban around noon. On the 12th we were allowed ashore. Three or four of us were walking along when a young man asked us whether we should like to go to his home for tea. We all learned later that most of the residents were entertaining the troops while they were resting there on route to the Middle East. We accepted the invitation of course.
We met his sister Iris, and the rest of the family. I do not remember the names of the people, but I recall the father being an engine driver on the local railway. Among other things, we were given corn on the cob for the first time in our lives. They had to show us how to eat it! I note we went there for tea on the next two days and have a vague memory of being taken to a funfair. Other than that, all that remains with me is a recollection of unbearable heat, which was a shock after the snow of Glasgow just a couple of weeks earlier. Unfortunately we left Durban on the afternoon of the 15th. The temperature had then come down to 79°. On the 22nd February we crossed the equator for the second time. On the 26th we entered the Gulf of Aden. On the 27th we sailed into the red Sea. By the third of March we reached the Gulf of Suez. On the seventh of March we were taken off our ship, Roni, in the evening and put short in the port of seaways.
There we boarded a train, which got us to Alexandria by the next morning. We then started to settle down to life in tents on desert land, in a place called Max. Up to this time I was in One-Thousandth Docks Maintenance Company, but this was split up on 11th March and I found myself posted to ex-company. March 15th we were taken to Alexandria docks to prepare an office for work in the new company. We worked all day from 6am until we were taken back to camp at 6:3opm.
On Monday 17th of March 1941 (St Patrick’s Day) I went aboard the two ships to give the officers loading documents needed to enable them to sail, and to see those of my friends who had been drafted from various companies to a new company formed especially for work in Greece. They sailed that night and I was very sad about being unable to go with them, because my request for a transfer had been refused. Later, I was to be very pleased I’d been forced to stay behind.
On Wednesday, March 26th I received instructions to go to Port Said and be attached to another company, which was already there. The next day I left Alexandria by train at about 4pm, arriving Port Said about midnight and got to bed at 1:3am. I started working the docks there the next day, working I finished at 7:3pm. From then on the shift seems to have been 8am to 8pm each day, except on the occasions when I was once told to remain by the telephone all night in the docks office.
We occasionally managed to visit a cinema, in fact I noted seeing Deanna Durbin in Spring Parade on April 8th. News was worse the next day, with a report that the Germans had entered Salonika, however, life went on as usual with about 12 hours spent on the port side docks most days, and visits to shows, etc, after that. Sunday, April 13, happened to be Easter day and brought me news of another move, this time to Suez. The result was that on Tuesday 15th I left Port Said at 6pm, probably by train and arrived in Suez at 3am the next morning. I see I got to bed at 4:30am so started a period of working in Suez camp.
On May 2 I wrote in my diary, getting rather warm, little did I know of the heat that was to come! May 5th was a somewhat special day as I was lucky enough to be taken in a launch to see the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth liners, which were lying offshore. We were unable to go aboard, but I can remember the enormous height of each ship as we circled it in our tiny board. May 9th saw me back in One-Thousandth Docks Maintenance Company again. Once more I know from my diary, this time on May 11th – the highest temperatures ever recorded in May were reached on Saturday and Friday last this was a quote from a Cairo newspaper and referred of course to Egypt where the temperature was 105° in the shade.
I was given an office job on May 12th, with Egyptian working times of 6am to 12 noon and 4pm to 6:30pm. The next bit of history was recorded with the good news that the Bismarck had been sunk on the 27th. During this period things were going badly for us in Greece and the Western Desert, with the result that our seat periods in seaways were becoming slightly alarmed. It had not been our practice to carry rifles and other ammunition to and from our daily work, but we were now issued with 40 rounds of ammunition each and told to be ready to use it at any time. Then followed other preparations, such as on Friday, May 30th, I worked in an office from 6am to noon filled sandbags from 1:30pm to 3:30pm on went on camp guard at 7:15pm. I noted that various small happenings me awake most of the night, into like him off guard duty 5:15am the next morning. I was back in the office at 9am the same morning, which shows how serious the situation, was becoming.
The events of the following week June 1st to June 6th confirmed our worst fears that this was when we heard the evacuation of Crete was taking place, our troops had stopped there after having been driven out of Greece. Suddenly it’s June the raids again and I’m now 25 years of age. One of my friends Bob Murchison referred to on page 5 went to Greece and then on to Crete returned about this time and told us of the horrors of the company’s experiences in those two countries. Naturally, we were not allowed to give information in our letters to our relatives, but Bob knew his father had some idea of where he’d been, so he wrote to him and said, I could tell you things which would make your friends look at you and say yesterday you were a young man.
I said earlier on that I was to be glad later that I’d been unable to go with party to Greece. Well about 250 of them went and about 50 returned. Probably because I had nothing better to enter on 17th June 1941, I wrote in my diary 114° in the shade. I was by now getting a bit boxed with office work in a company which dealt mainly with ships cargoes by virtue of bells of loading and checkers invoices without actually seeing the ships under gods, so I asked to be transferred to another company in which I should be working nearer the ground, as the saying goes. In some ways life in seaways had its excitements, but the gypsy in me was always ready to show itself!
The news on the 22nd of the sixth 1941 was that the Germans had barged into Russia. The cinema we used the airport to thick seaways docks was in the open air, which was very pleasant in the slightly less hot evenings, but suffered from the disadvantage of being the visible from the air. The result was that cells were often stop when they were part shown, and usually long enough to make it not worthwhile continuing when the rate was over. So we often saw the same found onto, and even three, successive nights. I see on August 8 I was watching saved in French when it was stopped by an air raid near the end, so saw it again on the ninth, and this time the ending was revealed. For some, August 12th meant the beginning of the grouse-shooting season, so called the glorious 12th I believe, but for me it was far more exciting as it signalled the beginning of my first leave in Cairo. I was there by 7pm and celebrated the event they seen the film remained merrily be live. I wonder what it was all about as the name is all I can remember of it.
The rest of the week was spent visiting the Sphinx, pyramids, cabarets, etc, and viewing for the first time cameos in daily use, I’m not sure whether it was on this leave that some of us is a good cabaret and got trapped in the middle of a fight. Whenever it was, I have vague recollections of holding up small tables to protect us from flying glasses and bottles. Perhaps we should have picked up a few tips in Glasgow while you’re there! The night of August 18th saw us return to Suez and our usual abnormality. This seems to have been a period when we were very fortunate so far as entertainment was concerned as my diary lists many films and stage shows, even a visit to an Army dentist for the extraction of two remaining routes of a task which had been removed some years previously, plus the filling and cleaning of some others. Up to that time, he was the best dentist most of us had met in our lives; in fact one of my better friends said he could not afforded to visit him in Civy Street. This does not accord with a cartoon I saw in punch after the war in which one officer was asking another what did you do before the war dock?