Twice Lost, a personal memoir
by Harry Milner Howard
Chapter One – Manchester
I can’t recall my father living at home before he left us all to live with another woman. We lived in a council house in Bowden Avenue, Princess Road, Manchester. We had decided as a family that we were going to emigrate to Canada, though we children were too young to make any decisions, so I presume it must have been my father or my mother and father. There were four children; my twin sisters Betty and Joan, who were about eight years old, myself, aged five, and my young sister Doreen, who was six months old. When the decision was made to emigrate, we all had our inoculations, got all our passports and all arrangements were made to go. The hardest part for my mother and for us children was leaving my grandma and grandpa. There didn’t seem to be anybody else too upsetting to leave, except a few friends who lived on the estate.
I was born on April 16th 1923. My father told my mother that he had two very good business customers and he would like to name me after them. One was called Harry and the other Milner. So that was me, Harry Milner Howard. It wasn’t until years later that my mother found out that I had actually been named after the landlord of the Alexandra Hotel that my father used to frequent. His name was Harry Milner Kennedy. Coincidentally, years later my sister Betty and her husband George became managers of the same hotel.
We had no contact with my father’s parents. In those days it was the old problem of religion. My father was a Catholic, and my mother a Protestant. My father, Sam Howard, had two sisters, who we had a very stormy relationship with. Aunty Polly was very nice but was completely dominated by her elder sister Fanny. Fanny was a terrible person. Though she did not do anybody any physical harm, she used foul language and didn’t care what harmful things she said. My mother’s parents were called Joseph and Phoebe Sophia Hall (nee Leicester – as my Grandmother always said, “spelt like the town”). They had two children, Jack, and my Mother. When my mother was born, Grandma had to stay in bed for a few months, so when they had to register her name she asked her husband, Joe, to do it. He was very partial to a glass of beer or two, so on the way to Manchester to the Registrar’s office he called at the Red Lion, his favourite pub. My grandma had told him that she wanted their daughter to be called Ada, but after a few drinks he forgot the name. He saw the Registrar and said “ah well, owd Phoebe, young Phoebe “, and that’s how my mother was called Phoebe and not Ada.
There is another story about my grandpa, whom I loved very much and the Red Lion pub. Many years after my grandpa died my grandma told me this story. Every Saturday night when my grandpa went to the pub, he always bought my grandma a quarter of Liquorice Allsorts. She thought this was marvellous. It wasn’t until many years later that she found out that he always bought the barmaid a box of Milk Tray chocolates!
When we were about to emigrate to Canada, just before the departure date it was all called off. I’m not sure why, but we were told it was something to do with my father’s war pension. Be that as it may, but it was at this time that my father decided to leave us. Five is a terrible age for a boy to lose his father, more so when he is left as the only male in the family. It was a very sad time for me. I can remember attempting to be brave in front of my mother and sisters, but crying when I was on my own, and many nights I cried myself to sleep. We had no furniture and no money. We were dirt poor. I recall my mother putting a newspaper on the floor and we children would sit around, cross-legged, to eat our meals. We didn’t know where our father was and he didn’t send any money. Fortunately my grandparents came to the rescue. They came to live with us, and looked after us when my mother went to work. She learnt ladies hairdressing – cutting and Marcel waving, then knocked on doors on the council estate off Mauldeth Road, Withington. I can see her now, out in all weathers, her leather coat down to her ankles and her Cloche hat. “Can I do your hair?”, “No thanks”; move on, try next door, knock knock, “Can I do your hair?” and on and on until somebody would say “Come on in” or “Come back tomorrow”. Cold canvassing, the hardest game in the world, but she did it. My mother was a lovely lady, good looking and smart, but she was tough. She went on and on until she had a clientele. My grandmother fed us and looked after us; dumplings, Lancashire hot pot, spotted dick, all good filling food. Our lavatory was just outside the back door – just a lavatory, no washbasin, with brick whitewashed walls. My Grandpa cut up the newspaper into 9″ squares, put a hole in the corner, hung it on a nail, and hey presto, toilet paper.
Grandpa was my favourite person. We had great times together. He taught me how to do many things. He made me wooden rifles and revolvers and taught me how to ride a bike. I loved him very much. He was on my side – two males in a house of women! Most Sundays I was sent off to Sunday school with a penny for the collection. On the odd occasion I would go to Plattfields and spend the penny instead. One Sunday I fell in the lake, so my little escapade was uncovered. I was dried off and told to go to bed, with a promise from my mother that she would be up to deal out the punishment. My Grandpa said he’d deal with this, and walked upstairs behind me, taking off his belt. However when we got into my bedroom and the door was closed, his belt was back on and a couple of apples appeared from out of his pocket. A discussion followed about not doing it again, and I didn’t. My Grandpa was the wisest, cleverest person in the world and I loved him. When I was seven he died; my second loss. Grandpa had a dreadful illness, he died of throat cancer. He was fed through his belly button and I took my turn in feeding him through a tube. I spent a lot of time sitting with him in his bedroom when he was ill, but worst of all I was not allowed to go to his funeral. They thought I was too young. I can vividly remember running by the hearse, wanting to be with him as long as I could. I kept running after the hearse until it was going too fast for my young legs. Two tragedies in two years. I thought my world had come to an end.
My Grandpa and I used to hold hands and go everywhere together. I remember how he used to make herb beer, and he would let Harry Milliard (my pal) and me have a few drinks. He had a big chest in the back garden, like a sea chest, full of tools. He could make everything. I have only one photograph of him, but can remember him as if it were yesterday. My grandma told me that he was a very handsome man in his younger days. He had a big moustache with waxed twirls at each end. No wonder the barmaid at the Red Lion admired him. When I was maybe three years old my grandparents had a farm and a pub in Turton near Bolton, called the Dog and Grouse. I have a few memories of this and stories told to me by my grandma and mother. I’ve also seen photographs of me walking hand in hand with my Grandpa going to feed the chickens and ride the horse and trap. The horse was called Kitty and my mother told me how I used to copy the farm workers when I was riding the trap and say “Pick your bloody hooves up Kitty”. She also told me that when the pub closed and the customers had gone home, I would go round the tables finishing off any beer that was left in the pint pots. I really used to think that my Grandpa and I ran the farm. After the pub closed, men from the village would let Kitty out of the field, knock on the door and say that she had escaped and that they had found her down the road., hoping for a drink as a reward. After it happened too many times Grandma tumbled to it and no more free drinks were given.
My mother had a brother, Uncle Jack who was married to Aunty Rose. They had four children, all younger than our family. They had two daughters and for some strange reason they called them Joan and Betty, the same as my twin sisters. We never knew why. The two boys were called Jack and Frank. Sadly, Frank died in a road accident when he was thirty five. The two families didn’t mix, I think that there was some kind of feud. When I got married and left the family home I made contact with them and I found them to be a very nice family. I was the only one from our side of the family to go to Uncle Jack and Aunty Roses’ funerals. I keep in contact with Joan, the eldest daughter to this day. Unfortunately, none of my children know any of their children.
I was now seven and still in Bowden Avenue. After the death of my grandpa I put a shell around myself. I didn’t want to be hurt so much again.
As a young boy, Bowden Avenue was a happy time. We had a gang, we knocked at doors and ran away, challenging the household to chase us, we played many innocent tricks on people, we collected wood for bonfire night, we raided rival gangs for their wood, they raided ours which we guarded as if it were gold. We played football, we played games, we rode our bikes and played polo on them, we skated round the avenue. When I was about nine or ten my father sent me a bicycle for my birthday. It was obvious he hadn’t seen me for years because it was a 21” racing cycle for a grown man! Fortunately we knew Jack Sibbert the famous racing cyclist who also sold bikes and he exchanged it for one my size. It was my pride and joy. Games had their seasons, Whip and Top, Piggy, Cigarette cards, marbles. Those were good days with good friends. It was also very exciting. All the boys followed Manchester City. They had won the Cup in 1934, but to make it special for us, quite a few of the players lived in our avenue. Matt Busby, Alex Hurd, Eric Toseland, Eric Brookes, Sam Cowan, Len Longford, the Goalkeeper before Frank Swift. Thinking about those times brings back memories of some of the gang members – Richard Benson (the leader), Trevor Smith (special friend), Harry Milliard (special friend), Teddy Walsh (a hero in Africa during the war), Vincent Pegg and Eric Rain – happy memories.
That was at home. At school it was a different story. I went to Princess Road Elementary School, in Moss side. I was the only boy in our gang who went to this school. I can’t remember learning very much. It was a brutal school, each teacher had his own special way of punishing the boys (it was a boy’s only school). I only remember one teacher who seemed to be fair and tried to teach, but it was fairly hopeless with the type of boys who went to this school. Some came from homes for delinquents. They fought each other and they fought the teachers (the weaker ones). I always tried to stay out of trouble, but wasn’t always successful. I remember one occasion when I was about seven or eight, I got into a fight and had my front teeth knocked out. My second teeth grew with a black line across them which I had for quite a number of years. Because of this, I started to get bullied. There was one certain boy, Feilding by name, red hair and bigger than me. One day I was playing marbles in the playground, when Fielding came up and started kicking my marbles and being generally aggressive, so I challenged him to a fight, after school behind the cinema. The news spread and after school half the pupils had gathered behind the cinema to see me get my head knocked off. Well at the end of the fight I hadn’t won but I put up a good show. Fielding didn’t look as bad as me, but strangely enough, nobody ever bullied me again.
Mr Waller was our chemistry teacher, not that I remember doing much chemistry. But I remember one occasion he was making some kind of explosive and something went wrong. There was an explosion all right, but it blew off two of his fingers. The boys all cheered, some sort of revenge for all the times he had belted us with a piece of tyre. When I was eleven, by some fluke I passed my scholarship, but unfortunately I was unable to go to the High School as I had to leave school at fourteen to earn money for the family. The only other thing I remember about school was getting knocked down by a car. I had to travel by tramcar number 44 along Princess Road to Moss Side, and I ran behind a greengrocer’s horse and cart to get to the tram without looking to see if anything was coming. I was hit by a car and the next thing I remember was my mother and Grandma sitting on me with the doctor giving me chloroform. It was an awful experience. When I was under, they stitched up the wound in my leg and I stayed at home until I was fit enough to go back to school. Can you imagine that happening now? I would have been put in an ambulance and taken to hospital, into the operating theatre and back to the ward to be looked after by the nurses until I had recovered!
About this time (1934/35) my twin sisters were in a dancing troupe and were appearing at all the main theatres. My younger sister Doreen joined the troupe but she didn’t like being away from home, so she came back and that was the end of her stage career. I was quite proud of my sisters when they told me about the big stars they worked with. I remember one was Paul Robeson, the famous black bass singer. My sisters told me that every night after the show poor black people would gather outside the stage door, and he would give them some money. Betty and Joan always had great birthday parties, with lots of friends and entertainments. I cannot remember myself or Doreen having parties. I think that at that time, Betty and Joan were favourites as they were older and used to go out with my mother. They all three smoked and drank and swore a bit whereas Doreen and I never did at home. During the war my mother and twin sisters were in a concert party. Mother played the piano and Betty and Joan sang and tap danced. The concert party did over 100 concerts for the troops, mainly at anti-aircraft gun sights around Manchester. Frank Swift, a famous goalkeeper for Manchester City was a special policeman during the war. He was always a showman, and on one occasion he saw my sisters, dressed very smartly and exactly alike waiting to cross the road. He stopped all the traffic, and gallantly escorted them across. Frank died in the Munich air crash with the ‘Busby Babes’, where he had been reporting for a newspaper.
I left school at fourteen and my first job was at a travel agents which lasted a few weeks. I didn’t like it so I left and as my mother always insisted I get an office job I got work at a textile firm, ‘Henry Bronnert and Co.’ on Princess Street. Later this move made a complete change to my life, for the better. About this time my father (Sam) was making occasional visits to us. He had three brothers, and two sisters. The brothers were Bill, Jim and Tom. They all lived in Canada, though they came back for occasional visits, staying at our house. One night the four of them went off in a taxi for a few drinks. Drink was the big problem with the Howard brothers. I was in bed when they came back. They all came into the house, but in a very short time they all tumbled out again, all fighting each other in the avenue. Í don’t know what the neighbours thought but in those days on our estate a bit of tussle was not unexpected. No wonder my father and his brothers were known as the Fighting Howards. One time one of my father’s brothers came back to start a business with my father in London. They were starting a security business, burglar alarms etc. My father travelled all over the country selling, whilst my uncle looked after the office, the administration and was cashier. My father got back after being away for a week and found the office bare of furniture, no money in the bank and his brother missing – back in Canada with all the money! I was told that Uncle Bill and Uncle Tom had a particularly bad relationship. They had a fight and Tom was put in hospital for a few days. When he came out, Bill was waiting for him on the hospital steps, not to apologise but to put him straight back in hospital! With four brothers like that and the two sisters I’ve already mentioned – what a family! I never knew my father’s parents and only know that they came from County Cork, Ireland.
When I was in my teens, about sixteen, we moved into a beautiful big house on Wilbraham Road. My father was in business in Newhaven in Sussex (living with the ‘other woman’, Vera), and must have been doing well for himself because he helped pay for the new house. Betty and Joan at that time were courting Fred and Jack Fosbrook. They were twin brothers, both over six feet tall with fair wavy hair. However Betty fell for and later married one of his friends, George Smith, who during the war rose to the rank of Colonel via Sandhurst and spent the war in India and Burma with the Punjab Regiment. I was now working at Bronnerts in the buying department. My job was making tea for the other four people in the department and keeping the office clean – sweeping the floor with sawdust every night. The desks were high and we sat on tall stools or stood at our desks. We didn’t post local letters, the office boy (ie. me) took them round to local firms in the town centre. I was paid ten shillings a week, which I took home to my mother. She gave me back one shilling for my ‘spends’ or pocket money.
When World War 2 started I was sixteen years old, and my mother, much to my disappointment, said that I would not be able to go into the army as the war would not last that much longer. Everybody was issued with gas masks as we were convinced that the Germans would drop poison gas on us. Air raid shelters were built – we had an Anderson shelter in our garden. We expected to be bombed and gassed but for twelve months nothing happened. Then the air raids started. They were usually at night, and during the winter people would rush home from work, get something to eat, wait for the sirens then go to the shelter. If I’d gone to bed, I would not want to get up and I’d say that I’d take my chance, but my mother or Grandma would insist. On one occasion my sister Doreen was singing ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ when a bomb dropped near our house, breaking a few windows. Ever since I can’t hear the song or even hear someone saying Berkeley Square without ducking! I must say that I was not really frightened, and in fact found it quite exciting. I wanted to get away from this boring office life and get into the army to fight for my country. At that age I’d obviously got a lot to learn. Most of my friends wanted the glamorous life in the Air Force – the ‘Brylcream boys’ as they were known – not my style at all. My idea was to go into the army, the Infantry. I didn’t know that there was anything else, but soon enough learnt why they were known as “the poor bloody infantry”. During the time of the air raids we had ‘blackouts’. Every window had to be blacked out and not a light to be shown anywhere. There were air raid wardens to check on this and the cry “turn that bloody light out” was regularly heard after dark. Motor car lights were shaded and covered with just a fine slit showing – not that there were many in those days, especially since petrol was rationed to people with priority.
The worst time was the Manchester blitz. It was a Sunday night in December 1940, and I was at the Odeon in the City with some friends watching a show. One of my friends was Dougie Fidler. I had met him at work. He was one or two years older than me but we became very good friends. Although I was under age, we could both sink a good few pints. Our favourite Pub was the Horse and Jockey on Chorlton Green, where I had had my first pint. Maybe I had good training at the Dog and Grouse when I was four! Dougie was very unhappy living at home with his step-mother, so I asked my mother if he could live with us and she agreed. He moved in and stayed just like one of the family. Anyway, we were watching the show when the sirens went off. As usual it was announced that the show would carry on so we decided to stay. Quite a lot of people left and the bombing and noise from the anti-aircraft guns got louder and louder. Eventually the show was stopped and an announcement informed us that it was very bad outside and that they were closing. We went out onto Oxford Street and couldn’t believe our eyes. Practically every building except the Odeon was either bombed or was burning, and the air raid was still in progress. Dougie and I decided to try to get home. Some people headed for the shelters. There were no tramcars or anything so we decided to run the 4 or 5 miles back home. Off we went through bomb craters, skirting around burning buildings. Many people had been caught in the raid, and dead and injured people were lying around with ambulances and fire engines trying to get through. Eventually we arrived at Bowden Avenue and dived into the shelter at the bottom of the garden. The family were pleased to see us. They knew where we had gone, and in those days you prepared yourself for the worst. The next day Dougie and I went to work. What a terrible mess. Bombed buildings all around, some still on fire. The rescue people were digging dead and injured people out of the ruins – children and adults. Glass was everywhere. When we started bombing their cities, people wanted revenge. You hear now about how bad it was to bomb Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden, but then you thought ‘What you sow, so shall you reap’, and I’m sure the people of Poland who were the first to get bombed in the War felt no sympathy for the Germans. When I was eighteen, I joined the Army.
I went for my medical and passed A1, and when they asked what service I wanted to join I said the Army, Infantry. At the medical I met another young man, Ken Holmer, who we will hear more of later. I was called up to the East Lancashire regiment at Squires Gate holiday camp, Blackpool. Believe me, it was no holiday. It was February 1942, and I was sweet eighteen with only one experience with the opposite sex. This was with a young lady who was a few years older than me and for once she went for me instead of Dougie. All the girls fell for Dougie. He was like Paul Newman and could turn a girl’s heart just by looking at her. I can’t even remember the name of the young lady who went for me, but she called for me one evening wearing a fur coat. It caused quite a stir in the family because in those days the saying was “fur coat and no knickers”. I’ll always remember her as the girl in the fur coat! She was my first real experience with the opposite sex. I’d played ‘truth and dare’ with the local girls, all very innocent – “I dare you to go behind the hedge with Rita or “Tell the truth about what happened with you and Laura”, but the girl with the fur coat was something different.
So here I was in the army in February 1942. We were billeted in chalets, no heat and the winter of ’42 was a very bad one. When I arrived at Squires Gate station there were other boys waiting too, and we were met by a soldier who turned out to be a Sergeant Major. We wondered what had hit us when he started bellowing and shouting orders, “Stand to attention, form up in fours” we didn’t have a clue what he meant, and somehow shambled into the camp. We were allocated our chalets and told to get on parade. Every order was shouted at us, and we were constantly told what a terrible shower we were. I was allocated to the 136 platoon where I met Alan Knowles, who became known as Stoney, because he was always broke. He came from Cumbria and we became good friends. Our Platoon sergeant was Sergeant Archer. He was big, rough and horrible. He was a regular soldier who’d been at Dunkirk. It was his job to put us through our basic training and teach us how to kill. If he told us to jump off a cliff, we’d be expected to do it. It was terrible at the time, but I expect it was necessary. Iron discipline made good soldiers. At that time I was about 5’6″ and eight and a half stone wet through. Most of the seventeen and eighteen year olds in my platoon were similar. Sergeant Archer was about thirty, over six feet tall and about three feet wide! I remember him once saying that if any of us had a personal grudge against him, he would be quite happy to meet us in the gym and go a few rounds in the ring. No one took him up on it.
I was lucky that I was well coordinated. I could march well and do army drill, but some of the boys couldn’t even get their arms right. Some tried to move their right arm forward at the same time as the right leg and so on. The problem was that everyone was kept drilling until everybody got it correct. God help the boy who dropped his rifle or threw it over his shoulder when he sloped arms. Many times I was so tired and at the end my tether that I thought that if it went on any longer I’d have to drop out, but somehow I always made it. We used to have runs on the beach and up and down the sand hills, wearing only shorts and plimsolls during the coldest winter for years. On one run my penis was that cold that I think it had frost bite. It was excruciating. I remember holding it as I was running along to try to warm it up. It took a long time to get right, and I just remember wishing that I had the ‘girl in the fur coat’ waiting for me in my chalet!
For the first few weeks we were confined to camp, then we were allowed to go into Blackpool at certain times. Blackpool was mainly an airforce town. We were the only squaddies or ”brown jobs’ as the air force called us, outside Squires Gate camp. On the Blackpool side there was a large pub, I think it’s still there. During the war it was a Billet for the WAAFS – we referred to it as the Waffery. Well when we were allowed to go out we made a beeline for the Waffery. I think we had an advantage over the Airforce boys as we were in the minority. The first weekend I was allowed out to Blackpool I decided that I would risk hitch-hiking to Manchester. Strictly this is classified as going ‘AWOL’ or ‘Absent Without Leave’ quite a serious offence but I thought that if you don’t take a chance you never get anywhere. I was never really frightened or nervous about anything, maybe it was this shell that I’d put around me when I was seven. Anyway, I walked nearly to Preston without getting a lift. I was working out whether I could afford to get a train or bus from Preston – we were paid fourteen shillings a week and I sent seven home to Mother, and another shilling was taken out for barrack room damages leaving me with six. As I was thinking about this a car appeared on the horizon, so I desperately wagged my thumb and the car pulled to a stop. “Get in” said a voice from inside and to my horror as I climbed in the car I saw that it was none other than Sergeant Archer! He talked to me as if he’d never seen me before, asking me where I wanted dropping and so on. I just sat there petrified. Eventually he dropped me off without a word. I certainly didn’t enjoy my weekend much worrying about what would happen to me. I got back to camp on Sunday evening and waited for the fateful Monday Reveille. When it came I got up, shaved especially well, sorted my equipment, and did everything better than ever. I paraded to the mess room for breakfast then back to the chalet and waited to go on parade. I thought about what might happen to me, such as being sent to the ‘glasshouse’ or army prison where soldiers had been known to die. I went on Parade and waited. Sergeant Archers’s voice seemed louder and harsher than ever, but he said nothing except just before he dismissed us for P.T. he said “I don’t want any of you fucking off home for the weekend, because if you get caught it can have some very serious consequences”. He didn’t look at me once, but for the next week I got more reprimands for my drills and marching than ever before, and I got more mess room fatigues than usual!
I was beginning to realise that the Infantry was a mistake, but I certainly didn’t want to go through the war without seeing action, so I decided to follow up a notice asking for volunteers to become glider pilots. I thought “that’s for me”, put my name down and got an interview. I passed my fitness test with flying colours but unfortunately my education (or lack of it) let me down, and I was sent back to the regiment. From there I was quickly transferred to the Royal Sussex Regiment in Chichester. More training followed, target practice, making us tough and teaching us how to kill. I was very proud to earn my cross rifles on my sleeve. This meant I had passed my target practice as a marksman and would be able to become a sniper. I’m happy I never took this on as the life expectancy of a sniper is very short. One day I was called off parade and told to report to the Colonel’s office. This was very unusual. As I approached the office I noticed an Alvis open tourer parked outside. I knocked on the door.
I stepped smartly in, and threw up a salute, standing smartly to attention,
“Stand at ease Howard, I expect you are wondering why you are here”,
“Yes Sir”, I said in firm voice wondering what was going on. Then out of the next office came my father!
“Well, what do you think of your son Sam, we took a boy and made a man”.
I was still only eighteen. I noticed that my father called the Colonel by his first name.
“You’ve got a couple of days leave” said the Colonel, “I’ll inform your Platoon Sergeant, now off you go”. It was only much later that I learnt that my father and the Colonel were fellow masons and had met at my father’s lodge in London. He held quite a high rank in the Free Masons and I spent the next two days living like a millionaire. My father was in the money at this time. He was really an entrepreneur, besides trying the security business, he had a very successful hotel in Newhaven. He organised and ran in the early 1940s fruit machines in pubs all along the south coast. He also had a restaurant in Brighton. When he was in Newhaven he had a 20ft inboard motor boat and I was very proud when I found out that his was one of the small boats that went across to Dunkirk to rescue British soldiers from the beaches.
From Chichester I put in an application to join the Royal Corps of Signals as a wireless operator. I was successful and transferred to the Royal Signals training centre in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. This was a complete change from all my previous experience in the army. It was so civilised. Our Sergeant Duffy said to us that he was more like a teacher, but it was a concentrated course. In six months we had to be qualified wireless operators able to send and receive Morse code at a very high speed. We had to be qualified in repairing wireless sets and have a theory of electricity and magnetism. When you passed you got tradesman’s pay which would make life much more pleasant, although most of the ATS girls went Dutch! Also Huddersfield was full of lovely girls and no men except us soldiers. All the Huddersfield men were away in the services, like we were, so there was a great choice between ATS girls and Civvy girls. I was very friendly with an ATS girl called Penny, who came from Nottingham. She worked in the cookhouse, on the food line, so I often got extra food and the best bits. At this stage Stoney Knowles came back into my life. He had opted for the Signals and was in Huddersfield learning to be a lineman. We had great times together, it was one of the good times in my army career. There was one girl, I think she was called Betty, who I was very fond of and she took me home to meet her parents. When I left Huddersfield we said we would write. I thought it was serious, however when I met Stoney after the war, he told me that he had also been taking Betty out and he didn’t know about me. He wrote regularly to her, as I did, then she stopped writing to me and I found out later that this was about the time that Stoney wrote and asked her to marry him. The marriage never came off and when Stoney and I met after the war we had a good laugh about it.
When I finished and passed my course I was sent on a weeks leave. Towards the end of that week I received a telegram – “take another week as embarkation leave”. Remember, I was living in a house of women and after nine months away I wasn’t too comfortable with this as I’d lived with only men for nine months. The day that my embarkation leave ended was a Wednesday. At the time I had to leave I had no idea how long I would be gone for, maybe forever. My sisters went off to work in the morning. “Goodbye Harry!”. Doreen went to school “Goodbye Harry!”. I was due to get the tram about noon to catch the train. Wednesday was my mother’s day out, so she got ready, and just said “Goodbye Harry!” and left. That was it. I was just left at home. When it was time for me to go, I went up to my Grandma’s room, said goodbye to her, and left. The next time I saw my mother was five years later. This time I really did leave as a boy and return a man.
Chapter Two – World War 2
I reported back to Huddersfield and we were sent to Kirkburton, a small town nearby. That night we were put on a train, locked in, and got out the next morning at Greenock, near Glasgow. We went straight to the docks, onto a tender and out to a ship in the harbour, the S.S.Samuel Chase, an American ship with American crew. We were on our way to Africa as reinforcements for the 1st Army. We joined the convoy the next day. It was quite an exciting journey, with many warnings of U boats. One troop ship was sunk when we were a day out from Algiers, where we landed and made our way inland. For the first couple of months we were doing odd jobs in Algiers. The most telling story was the time we were train guards. The goods train went from Algiers to the front with food and ammunition for the troops. During the journey, as the train went round corners in the hills it had to slow down and the Arabs would jump up and throw off the boxes. Our job was to stop them before they could throw anything so we were told to shoot them. We went from carriage to carriage, and if they were lying in the train we would kick them off. When I look back I feel terrible. This however was very tame when I think of some of the other troops that were on the allies side. The Moroccans called Gouma, were soldiers of fortune. They were paid so much money for every prisoner they brought in and less for every enemy soldier they killed. They couldn’t bring in dead men so they got paid for every right ear, which they carried in a pouch. The other fierce soldiers were the Gurkas, with their war cries and the kukri, a knife; they were absolutely fearless. The joke going round was one day they raided a German camp, and one German said to another, “They never touched me”. Then his head fell off. When I got back from one of the guard duties I was posted to the 46 infantry division of the 128 Hampshire Brigade Signals, at Beja. This was my initiation, the real way.
At Beja I met a friend of mine from Huddersfield, Phil Dodd. The last time we had been together we were eighteen years old, dating girls, learning to dance, Sundays in the park, clicking, not a care in the world. And here we were not twelve months later, nineteen years old, in our first battle, scared out of our wits with death all around us. As we arrived at Brigade Headquarters, we were getting bombed by Stuka bombers, so I dived into a slit trench. Then we were shelled and mortared, and it was obvious with all the dead and injured that we were going to need a lot more reinforcements. Just then the Germans counter attacked and we were forced to retreat, so my first action was going backwards, not forwards. As we were retreating, Phil got hit in the stomach. I crawled over to his slit trench, to try and dress his wound, but it was terrible. His guts were spilling out. Thank goodness he died quickly. Nineteen years old – what life had he had. At least he died with someone he knew. After withdrawing a short way, we held our ground, regrouped and stood firm until we could get some reinforcements. Eventually we were able to advance again. I learnt after the war that a friend of mine from the Bowden Avenue gang, Teddy Walsh, had sent the last message before the ‘Glorious 155th’ Division as they became known were overrun by the Germans. He was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in prison camps. Unfortunately he contracted some disease, from which he never really recovered, and died a few years later.
It was now January 1943, and it was a continual slog up the Djebels (Arabic for mountains). We had enough coping with the terrain and the weather without having to fight the Germans. However, we fought relentlessly until we met the Eighth Army at Tunis and finally defeated both the Germans and the Italians. I was with the Hampshires on Cap Bon when the Germans surrendered. It was an incredible sight. They drove in trucks and marched in their thousands in orderly ranks to give themselves up to any British soldier. The whole performance was carried out with complete discipline. It was a very hot day, and a quarter of a million prisoners came in who all had to be guarded and fed. There was a marked difference between the Germans and the Italians. The Germans, I’m sure, thought they would only be prisoners for a short time until they won the war. They still sang their marching songs like the ‘Lily Marlene’. The Italians were a disorganised rabble.
There was much celebrating in Tunis. The wine flowed and there were many drunk soldiers around, me included. However it was all very different on May 20th, when we held the victory parade in Tunis. In the hot sun, the national contingents marched past with General Eisenhower and General Graud (French). The citizens of Tunis went wild with excitement, we had our best uniforms on, and all that drill we learnt with Sergeant Archer proved worthwhile. He would have been proud of us.
They called it the ‘Avalanche’. All summer we trained with sweat and tears; the blood was to come later. We had our moments however in the bars of Tunis and Bizerta. Mostly though, we practised – beach landings. We didn’t know where we were going, and obviously didn’t know about ‘H’ hour, and ‘D’ Day. Many people think there was only one ‘D’ Day, in France, but there were many. We had already had one ‘D’ Day in north Africa and had travelled two thousand miles to get there. Our second was to be Salerno, on the Mediterranean side of Italy, just below Naples. The 46th Division was originally going with the Eighth Army to land on the toe of Italy, but we joined General Mark Clark’s American Fifth Army as an assault Division. That meant we went in first. We’d been given extensive training in combined operations, working very closely with the 2nd Commandos. Combined operations was a very intricate form of warfare which was still in its experimental stage. Dieppe had been the first costly experiment which had failed with many dead and wounded. The North African landings had been practically unopposed, but some experience had been gained. Sicily had been the first landing with large scale airborne troops. This had been successful and Salerno followed, a landing at the very extreme limit of fighter range. We carried out further training in landing craft and trained in the heat of the hills to grow hard again. We were sailing from Bizerta and as the landing craft were gradually gathering the enemy obviously knew something because the air raids were very heavy and continual bombs crashed in around the town. The convoy was largely untouched.
At dawn on 7th September we set sail. It was not a calm blue Mediterranean sea that first day out and everyone seemed to be sea sick. We made an unscheduled stop in a remote part of Sicily which was very welcome. It had been cleared of inhabitants and early the next morning we got under way again. As we went we were joined by ships as far as the eye could see, all moving towards Italy. That afternoon German planes flew over the convoy and later bombers appeared. Attacks continued throughout the night and one ship was hit. It made a terrific glow in the sky already alive with lines of tracer bombs. In the evening an amazing announcement came over the speakers “Italy has surrendered”. We all relaxed and thought that we would walk in and be greeted with Vino and beautiful Italian girls. I was going in with the first wave at about 4am with the 2nd Hampshire Battalion. We were stood off in the bay at Salerno and the rope ladders went over the side. I wrote my last letters and a had a drop of rum and climbed onto the rope ladder with my wireless on my back, thinking if I let go and fell I’d break my neck before I touched land. With my gun and wireless set on my back, over I went into the assault craft. We approached the beach, code named Green Beach, and as the ramp went down we poured out, up to our waists in water. All hell was breaking loose, mortars, shells, tracers, everything. Men were falling even before they got out of the sea. As soon as we got to the beach we pretended to be moles and waited for the next order, and it soon came, “Come on forward”, mixed with some choice language. Who will ever forget the password ‘Mailed Fist:Hearts of Oak’ . The boats landed us on the wrong side of Green Beach, which was raked by machine-gun fire from the hills in front of us. The shells and mines tore up the sand, and the dead and injured lay around me. The first wave dashed forward across the open beach and by the time the 5th Hampshire landed fifty minutes later there was only one German gun firing. When daylight came up, I saw the mess. Stoney Knowles landed about 9 or 10am with the 138 Brigade. He knew I had gone in with the Hampshires, and had seen some wounded being carried back to the ships. He asked if they knew me and they told him I’d been killed.
A little later that morning the KOYLI had gone through us and were preparing to attack when the counter attack started. Tanks came down the narrow stone walled track, later called Hampshire Lane because of the terrible casualties. We had been stuck in Hampshire Lane and I had been slightly wounded; a piece of shrapnel had torn into my thumb. Somebody put a field dressing on, but when I was hit I’d left my wireless set in the middle of the lane. Every part of the lane was covered by snipers and a tiger tank was pumping 88mm shells at us. I was behind a wall feeling sorry for myself when suddenly I heard my call sign on the wireless. What to do, do I go and get it and risk not getting back, or ignore it. Then an officer came up behind me and said “Is that your set?”, “Yes Sir”, “Well bloody well go and get it”. So I went and grabbed my set and got back behind the wall. The officer stayed behind the wall! However, because we had the radio and could keep in touch, he decided to take some men and put the Tiger tank that was causing so much trouble out of action. “You you, and you, get that Piat mortar and follow me.” We crept forward and couldn’t see the tank until it came out of this railway tunnel, fired a few rounds then went back out of sight. We were ready when it came out the next time, and knocked it out and made our way back. Then a young friend of mine was brought back. He had been hit in the face, and was in a mess. All the time before he died he was calling for his mother. We were on that beach for ten days and we took a terrible battering, but gradually we advanced, yard by yard, until we had established the beach head. Then I could get my wound looked after and we knew that we weren’t going to be pushed back into the sea.
Salerno was just the beginning of the war in Italy and we had to fight for every yard. We couldn’t have been further from the truth when we thought it would be easy because the Italians had capitulated. We fought in all weathers, in the heat, in snow, with mud up to your ankles in pouring rain, you mention it, we had it. The Germans disarmed the Italians so we were just fighting them, but knew the Divisions we were up against from the African campaign, and they were the elite of the German army. We gradually took Naples, and then were relieved for a short spell and managed a few days leave in the city. The Italians were in a terrible state. Every town and village had been completely wrecked, and they were very short of food. They would sell their wives and daughters for a tin of bully beef. The British troops helped as much as they could by sharing their rations and we would always save our chocolate ration for the children. Italy was criss crossed by rivers and hills and the first obstacle that held us up and caused many casualties was the river Volturno. The Germans had two good Divisions along the river opposite us, the 15th Panzer Grenadiers, and the Herman Goring Division. The river banks were steep and wooded and the river itself was broad and unfordable. All the bridges had been completely demolished and we were short of bridging equipment. We went across in DUKWs (amphibious vehicles) and were under heavy fire all the time. We also had assault boats that we had to carry along the muddy banks until we got to the water. It was exhausting. We got across but were then driven all the way back. Two officers and six men with Bren machine guns covered the withdrawal. We had about fifty casualties, but after a further attempt we stayed on the other side. The Sherwood Foresters on our right lost about two hundred men in the eighteen hour battle. By the 12th or 13th of October 1943 we had secured the other side, but the fighting over the next four days was confused, in fact very confused and difficult. The weather broke and it rained. I thought Manchester had a name for raining but it was just a drizzle compared to here. The vehicles were totally bogged down, but fortunately so were the German’s. So on we went at two speeds, ‘dead slow’ and ‘stop’. In November we came to the River Garigliano. We were still in the American 5th Army who had five divisions. The Germans brought two more Divisions down from the north, making them up to seven. I don’t want to go into the details of the crossing, but suffice to say it was a re-run of the Volturno but much worse. Time after time we attempted to cross but were forced back. No battle that I fought in impressed itself so indelibly on my memory as the crossing of the Garigliano.
Winter had settled in and it was cold, with snow on the hills. The Germans were installed on the commanding heights and our plan was to capture Mount Camino, with its two narrow ridges known as ‘Razor Back’ and ‘Bare Arse’ leading up to a white monastery. The route was known as ‘Monastery Hill’. This area was known as the gateway to Rome, which was our objective. There was a strange eeriness about those days. It was not unusual for German patrols to ambush a Jeep and its occupants and take them prisoner. There was a road below Rocca d’Evangro known as the ghost road where many soldiers vanished. We occupied the castle and went up the mountain with the equipment carried by mules from the Italian Alpine troops. It was quite an arduous climb and after we had been there a couple of days I got a pain in my side. The medical orderly thought it might be appendicitis so I had to go back to base on a stretcher Jeep which went along the Ghost Road. The Jeep always went in the dark but we made it and I was transferred to a hospital where they decided that it wasn’t appendicitis so back I went up the mountain again. The route was heavily mined and many of the orange groves were booby trapped. Sometimes the enemy went as far as to booby trap their own dead. One of my friends was foolish enough to go into an orange grove for oranges and trod on a land mine. He lost a foot and off he went to hospital. As usual, if they didn’t get posted back to the unit we never heard from them again.
Around this time I caught Malaria. I felt as if I was dying. I was taken to hospital and the nurses kept sponging me down to keep me cool. I was flown to an American hospital in Sicily where I got the best treatment. The nurses had not had a ‘Limey’ (as they called me) under their care before, so I got special attention. They loved to come and sit on my bed just to listen to me speak. Most of them had never seen or heard an Englishman before. Everything was great until I then caught Yellow Jaundice in the hospital. I was shipped back to Naples and put in a transit camp. It was dreadful, no organisation, bad food, the tent let water in and the worst thing I heard was that we were not going back to our own units. The plan was that we were to be used as reinforcements elsewhere, so I decided to leave and make my own way back up to my own unit at the front. It took two or three days to reach them and when I got there and reported in I was told that I had been reported A.W.O.L . (Absent without leave). In a war zone this was a court Marshall offence, quite a shock, but fortunately as the unit was at the front my officer said he would square it. As I never heard any more about it I presume he did.
We were looking forward to being the first in Rome, but General Mark Clark, the American General C.O. of the 5th army changed all the plans so that American troops would be the first to enter the city (the fool). So off we went again clawing our way yard by yard up Italy until we came to the next obstacle, Cassino. The battle of Monte Cassino has been well documented many times so I will just say that there were many tough battles and the monastery was bombed out of existence before General Ander’s Poles took Casino and what was left of the monastery and opened the way to Rome.
The Division was certainly in need of a rest. Since the landing at Salerno nearly six months passed and there had been little respite. The last three months had been in the snow and rain of a bitter Italian winter with often only a slit trench or Sanger for shelter on the bleak hillsides (a Sanger was a shelter built of stone when it was impossible to dig a slit trench). Our endurance had been tested to the limit, and even the periods out of the line entailed long marches, burdened with kit, to reach the cheerless haven of a battered village or small town, where after a few days rest of doubtful comfort we were faced with a long march back. Casualties had been heavy. Most units had been reduced to half their strength and reinforcements had been thrust straight into battle and the barrels of the field guns had been worn smooth with their constant firing and their accuracy impaired. So ‘Pitchfork’ was the code for the most popular operation.
We had a few days in Naples which had become the chief supply base for the 5th Army. The Via Roma was full of chattering people and a vicious black market had sprung up. Touts and beggars were constantly following the soldiers and theft had been brought to a fine art so that to leave anything anywhere was to lose it. The touts would show you photographs of a young girl “Nice sister 20 lira”. We set sail from Naples for a rest period in Cairo and the Middle East. The voyage was pleasant and uneventful and at Alexandria and Port Said the people of the mysterious East made everything so exciting. So here we were, straight out of battle and at that moment not a care in the world. You put aside the thought “Will I make it next time when we go back?”
We arrived at Quassas in camp where there was a NAAFI and a dirty old cinema. We got our leave passes for Cairo, and were given credit to draw money from the bank. We had plenty as there hadn’t been much opportunity to spend money in the mountains of Italy! It was indeed wonderful to see how much money could be spent in a few days in a town like Cairo. Spend, spend, spend was the name of the game, because who could tell if you would ever need money again? Cairo had been set up with shops, night clubs and cabarets. For the soldiers coming from the battlefields of Africa and now Italy, a must was to escape to the ancient pyramids and the Sphinx at Mena. There again we were besieged by camel owners, photographers, postcard sellers, beggars, hawkers, and fortune tellers who drew mysterious figures in the sand in the shadow of the Sphinx. Not many of us wanted to know about our futures. Mena House and Gezena Sporting Club offered an endless variety of entertainments. The alcohol flowed and consequently lots of trouble followed. Fights broke out in nightclubs and much damage was done. I remember seeing a tram car turned over and shop windows broken. At one point we all lost a week’s pay but we all felt at the time that it was worth it and in one way or another our Division left its mark on Cairo.
After the break we had a five hundred mile journey to Palestine, across the Suez Canal and through the blazing bareness of the Sinai Desert. In this boundless waste it was surprising to see small encampments of Arabs. They had a lifetimes job of clearing the road of sand, and they all turned out to see our convoy pass, shouting “Cigarette Tommy!” As we approached Palestine, its patches of glimmering green were a joy to behold. No wonder the Israelites thought it was the promised land. It was not all rest here and we sweated, training amongst the sand dunes. It reminded me of Squires Gate sand hills, but instead of being below freezing point it was over 1000F. Here the Division was brought up to strength and we went through strenuous courses with a final test of fitness, exercises and aggression. We also had good times here. Tel Aviv and Haifa were not too far away and offered every sort of attraction. Tel Aviv seemed a beautiful seaside resort and was well organised. It was mainly occupied by Jews, and no-one needed to be without a party or a house to go to. Both were clean modern cities, and it was also possible to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Palestine was a scene of ill feeling between the Arabs and the Jews and at one time we had the job of patrolling the streets. However no clashes occurred and considerable hospitality was offered to the patrols. So, we had a very pleasant time lazing on the beach and swimming in the Dead Sea where it was impossible to sink.
From Palestine we moved to Syria and I caught Sand fly fever and had a spell in hospital. In Syria a final polish was put to our training; “Djebel training” was a daily performance. Damascus and Beirut were the two main cities and this was a most memorable part of our rest in the Middle East. We had a long glorious journey through the Lebanon where even in the heat the mountains were capped with snow and colour ran riot on the hillsides. Beirut was a fantastic city, so different from the Beirut we now know. Damascus was a real mix between old and new and it had been the richest trading centre in the Middle East. Even now the Baz was ablaze with golden ornaments, rich carpets and pure silk. We could have stayed here for ever but the long arm of war was reaching out for us and the long trek back to Egypt began.
The news was good. Rome had fallen and there would be no more battles in the well-known eerie hills of the Garigliano. The invasion of France had a firm footing off the Normandy coast and there were high hopes that we were destined for home and then to France, anywhere but Italy. But when the boat sailed, it headed for Italy.
The Division landed in Italy and moved north through the rubble of Cassino over which the smell of death still lingered, through Rome and northwards. This time we joined the British Eighth Army and we moved forward on August 15th 1944 to take up our position on the Gothic line. At this time I changed my job. From being attached to the Hampshire Battalions I was promoted and made Brigadier Douglas Kendrew’s personal wireless operator. A friend of mine, Les Dukes was made his personal driver. The Brigadier, or Joe to us, had just been promoted from Colonel of the Yorks and Lancs Battalion, so we were a unit. Good move, I thought, a bit more cushy – wrong! Joe was a man who had no fear. He made a point of being out with the infantry battalions, visiting their headquarters in all the forward positions. He carried a revolver at his side and could shoot an orange off a tree. He had been a famous rugby player, playing for England before the war. His code name was ‘Sunray’, so we would get a message on the wireless, “Sunray, enemy counter attacking in such an area” so off we would go. We always had a few tins of Irish stew and a tin opener in the Jeep and all three would eat it cold, nice and greasy. Joe taught me how to be satisfied with three hours sleep a night. He said that as long as you’re lying down and resting your body, you didn’t need to sleep because it is your body more than your mind that needs the rest. We had many exciting times together. I remember on one occasion the three of us were in the Jeep going to a forward position. We were travelling down this road. I was map reading and as we approached a crossroad we could see mortars were straddling the road up ahead and coming in our direction. On our right was a burnt out tank and Les and I had the same thought. Les brought the Jeep to a stop and we both leapt out and dived behind the tank. “Come back here” we heard Joe yell, so we came out from behind the tank to see him sitting there completely unperturbed. We went back feeling a bit ashamed of ourselves and got back in the Jeep. Fortunately the shelling stopped and on we went. Joe said nothing about it apart from turning round after we set off and said “Exciting isn’t it?”. There were many such occasions and many near misses. There were very sad times too. One time we went in after an early morning attack by the infantry. Dead bodies were scattered in the field. Sometimes their clothes had been blasted off by the shells, and dead British and German soldiers were lying together where there had been close quarter fighting. The worst memories were coming across soldiers who’d been through terrible experiences. They’d be huddled together in a state of shock unable to speak properly. There would also be groups of young German prisoners in the same state. The Brigadier would always get the bodies moved first. There was nothing worse than troops going into battle and seeing dead bodies around. Even now, fifty years afterwards, I still see snapshots of these scenes in my mind.
So on the Division went fighting every yard of the way towards northern Italy until the beginning of October 1944. The next big attack we were to make was the crossing of the Frimicino. This area of Italy was a mass of rivers and mountains. The 5th Hampshires were about to cross the River Uso when we found that it had changed from a narrow stream to a raging torrent fifty yards across. We had to remain on the near bank all night, and the next morning managed to wade across it chest deep. Two days later as we dug in the river fell as quickly as it had risen. The attack went on and we took a small village, Montalbano. This was the first time we encountered papier mache mines. All its fittings were made of glass so that mine detectors were useless. The 2nd Hampshires were set to capture a village called Montilgallo which was very well defended and held us up for six days. The weather was terrible with the rivers flooded and vehicles bogged down. Many of the guns were up to their axles in mud and it was impossible to use tanks. Constant patrolling built up an accurate picture of the enemy positions on the Montilgallo spur. Opposite the Hampshires was the German 278 Division. They were well known and tested, and commanded by the energetic and eccentric General Hoppe, who was reputed to be willing to sacrifice any number of men to win oak leaves towards his Knights Cross. The original plan had been to assault the steep sides of the spur, but unfortunately, two of our officers had been captured with marked maps and orders in their possession, and all the plans had to be altered. The date of the attack was constantly being put back but eventually under a deafening storm of artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, the leading Companies began to move down to the river. The 2nd Hampshires had the impressive task of capturing the spur and the 5th Hampshires were held up just over the river. Shortly before midday an enemy wireless message was intercepted which disclosed an impending counter attack, heralded by very heavy shelling. The Commanding Officer of the 14th Hampshires was severely wounded. I’d taken the message and we were heading for their headquarters when I got another message for ‘Sunray’. Lt.Colonel Rotherham’s headquarters had been reduced to himself and his Battery Commander and they were expecting a counter attack. The message also said that the shelling and mortaring were overwhelming them. The Brigadier immediately said we must go to see if they needed help, so off we went. The Headquarters of the 2nd Hampshires was in a farmhouse. When we arrived the sight was unbelievable, and I find I can hardly put it down on paper. I had seen many terrible sights since entering the war but this was beyond them all. As we were getting near the farm we could see two hayricks on fire. The farmyard was littered with dead bodies, with shattered legs and arms blown off them. The Germans had also been using phosphorus bombs, and there were half charred bodies absolutely unrecognisable. The medics were methodically going round to see if they could help anyone. The Brigadier leapt out of the Jeep and went into the shattered farmhouse. Les and I got out and I was behind the Jeep with my headphones on listening for messages when a shell landed and blew us off our feet. I was hit in the leg and the hand, and Les in the legs. Eventually we were taken out by jeeps, and I became separated from Les. I had my wounds dressed and was taken to hospital, and a couple of weeks later I found out that Les had died on the way to hospital. It was the end of an era. The Brigadier went back to run the Brigade, Les was dead, and I was in hospital for quite a while. A good team was finished.
The battle for Montilgallo spur had been a hard one, remarkable more for the enemy shelling and appalling weather conditions than for close quarter fighting. There was seven days torrential rain, but when I got wounded it was the end for me. I was away for about three months, and when I re-joined my unit they were out of the line, resting. 128 Brigade were in a small seaside resort called Cupramarittima. It was December 1944 and we were to spend Christmas there; we were hoping that this would be the last wartime Christmas. A Vermouth factory that had been captured had yielded a good supply and it was amazing how many chickens and the odd pig had been reared in the rear areas. It grew much colder and there was snow on the hills. When I arrived back from hospital the unit had settled in rooms in houses that had been allocated to some of the troops. I was put in a room with two others but within a few days they were transferred to another unit. The mother of the house, who I called Mama came in my room, which was empty apart from my kit and a bedroll, and moved me into a better bedroom. She put a warmer in my bed every night and looked after me. She knew that I’d just come out of hospital, and her husband had been in Italian Libya before the war and had not come back to Italy – she didn’t know what had happened to him. She had a son aged about twenty five and a daughter who was eighteen. The daughter’s name was Ortensia, and in a very short time we fell for each other. We spent a lot of time together if we were in the house, but if we went out we had a chaperone, Mama or her brother. If we went to the pictures Mama would come and sit in between us. I wrote home to my mother and told her I might be bringing an Italian girl home with me and received a telegraph back saying “Don’t bring any Italian girl here”! I was pleased I had not said too much to Ortensia because I was in quite a quandary, but in the end everything was decided by the army. We were told just after Christmas that training would start again, and we were ordered to get our kit together and be on parade by 5.30am the next morning for three days exercise. Before I went to bed I said goodbye to the family and said that I would see them in three days. I never saw any of them again. Instead of training we were put on a boat and went to Greece which had just been freed from the German army. Unfortunately the different political factions were fighting and we were sent to keep the peace. The Communists were strong and had all the weapons that the Allies had dropped for the partisans during the German occupation and their army, ELAS had been trained by British Officers. However, they fought like terrorists, and would shoot a soldier from behind a wall then vanish. There was also hostility between ELAS and the Greek police who were accused of association with the Germans. On January 25th we were occupying a small village. The date is very important to the Greeks because on that date in 1925 after twenty five years of occupation by the Turks they gained their independence, driving the Turks out. So on this day in 1945 all the ELAS and partisans came down from the mountains, (where there had been a lot of fighting) and danced Greek dances with us and the villagers until the early hours of the morning. We slept where we fell and the next day when we got up there wasn’t a bandit in sight, they’d gone back to the hills to carry on fighting us! Eventually a truce was drawn up and we left Greece to go back to Italy.
When we were back in Italy I saw the Brigadier again for the first time since leaving hospital. The war in Italy was coming to an end and we were getting ready to go into action. He said “I hope we can get into action and be in at the end” and I agreed with him. Then in April came the news of an immense German surrender in Northern Italy. This was followed in May by the final surrender in Europe. In some ways it was a relief that we had been too late to take part in the final battle for Italy. We had suffered so much in the hard slogging battles that had made the eventual triumph possible. We’d had the thrill of the headlong pursuit and victory in North Africa, followed by the near failure at Salerno, which led to the Volturno and the Garigliano, and the triumph of the Gothic Line and the three months of bitter fighting on the Lomone. And so, in the blazing sunshine of May, we celebrated Victory in Europe. For many of us, however, our feelings were summed up in a poem I found in a book about the 46 Infantry Division:
“My dreams are of a field afar,
And blood and smoke and shot,
There in their graves my comrades are,
In my grave I am not.”
Chapter Three – Salerno
At the end of my writing about the war I feel that I should write about one scenario and what it was really like and how soldiers really were. In most of my writing the real war has been glossed over. It could have been one of many events but I have chosen to write about the landing at Salerno.
I will begin when we were just out of Salerno harbour at about 0100hrs. It was dark. We already knew that the Italians had capitulated and we were expecting a fairly easy landing. The Navy were pounding the land with heavy shells, a fearful barrage and you would not have thought that anyone could live under it. Normal civilised people would have felt sorry for anybody at the end of such a terrible shelling, but soldiers are not normal civilised people. They are part scared, part wild animal, so all around as the shells landed you heard “Kill the fucking bastards”. You didn’t care who or how they were killed or maimed as long as there would be no-one left to kill you. Some were sitting quietly writing what might be their last letters home. An officer came and spoke to us and said that the Navy were going to obliterate the place. We knew that ‘H’ hour was 0300 hrs. The American Rangers had gone in earlier to check the landing area and depth of the water and we were to be the first Infantry on the beach. It was known as ‘suckers first’. At 0200 hrs we were told to get our kit on and get ready. This was a quiet time, everyone thinking their own thoughts about what was happening at home, what was I doing here, would this be my last few hours on earth, and if I was going to be hit please God let me not be terribly maimed. There were no atheists going into battle. Then the order came to assemble on deck in full kit. This broke the silence as some weren’t quite ready, “What’s all the fucking rush, we’ll bleeding well get killed soon enough”. Then the Platoon Sergeant yelled “Come on you lazy fucking bastards get your fingers out of your arses and get up on deck”. With my wireless on my back I was carrying about 80 lbs and I knew I had to go over the side, climb down the cargo ropes and into the assault boats. My one thought was that I had done it in training but this was very different. As we got on deck we got a drop of Navy rum, and then the order came “Over you bloody well go”. At the bottom of the ropes you had to time your jump into the boat so that it had bobbed up towards you and there was lots of swearing and cursing as people timed it wrong and banged themselves on the boat. It was rather daunting when we saw the medical orderlies coming down with their stretchers – a reminder that bad things could happen. We all got in the boat and set off for a rendezvous in the bay, and then headed towards the beach. We knew that there was a three foot sea wall about forty yards up the beach, and were told to remember this in case we needed it for shelter. As we were getting nearer the beach they started throwing everything at us. Somebody shouted, “What the bloody hell is happening, I thought those fucking big guns had cleared everything, what a load of bullshit” and somebody said “You’re fucking well dreaming if you think we’re going to walk in, get ready for everything”. Some else shouted “I thought they softened the bastards up”. All you could think of was what would happen when the ramp went down. Shells were sending up spouts of water and tracer bullets were flying everywhere. Tracers always seemed to go in slow motion, and it seemed as if you could just reach out and catch them. As we got near the beach the platoon sergeant stood on the ramp and shouted “Come on you bastards, kill as many fucking Germans as you can, when the ramp goes down follow me”. As he said that he was caught by raking machine gun fire and fell back into the boat, dead. All we could do was carry him to the back of the boat as we were hitting shallow water. Then we stopped and the ramp went down. We went into the water which was shallow at first and then I saw the troops in front of me suddenly go chest deep, so I struggled to get my wireless off my back and held it above my head until we got to the beach. As we waded forward the lad next to me was shouting and swearing “I feel like shitting myself, who are these people that make war, the fucking arseholes, the fucking shitheads, it ain’t right” and on he went. As we hit the beach the man in front of me was hit in the face and went down, and the man next to him was hit. All I could think was “keep going, remember the wall”. Bullets were whipping past from every direction, shells were blasting the sand all over the place, and shrapnel was flying all around. An officer coming up behind us was screaming “Keep going” because by this time a lot of us were flat on our stomachs trying to get away from it all. I just thought about getting to the wall so I could get the wireless working and find out what the fuck was happening. I got about ten yards up the beach, another twenty to go. I looked round and saw someone hit by a shell that blew his leg off. He just lay there and bled to death. There was dead and wounded bodies all around me. The medics were doing their best to help but were getting hit themselves. As I looked back bodies were rolling in the surf. I thought that it was impossible for us to make it. Too much was happening and things were too desperate to be scared. I couldn’t see any Germans and wanted to kill the bastards but there weren’t any in sight despite them knocking hell out of us. The shore line was taking on a pinky shade, somebody lay down beside me. It was an officer and he said “Let’s go and get that wireless somewhere we can get it working”. The next moment his knee was shot away. I pulled his field dressing from his pocket and wrapped his wound until a medic took over. I thought “I’d better move or I’ll be here for ever”. It was daylight now and we’d been here for hours. It was a shambles, nobody knew what to do, we couldn’t get off the beach but finally got to the sea wall. We were just stuck there, hundreds of us, and many dead civilians who’d been killed by the bombardment from our warships. I tried not to listen as the wounded men moaned and groaned. Other than put a dressing on we could not do anything. Then a sergeant appeared from the other side of the wall. God knows where he came from and how he got there, no steel helmet and he was actually smoking a cigarette. He just stood there and said “Get over that wall you shithouses, we can’t stop here forever, get going or I’ll kick you in the balls” and he turned round and off he went. He got about ten yards and was shot down dead. At long last a few armoured cars and tanks came off the boats. As the sun came up and we were getting hot and sticky we got organised and about two hundred off us went over the wall. We were met by a hail of machine gun fire and mortars but gained a few more yards. This was when I got a wound in my hand. After ten days we secured the beach, and at last we knew that we weren’t going to be pushed back into the sea.
Now the war had finished and we were moving to Austria. Peace at last. Maybe now we could learn to be decent Human Beings again.
Chapter Four – Austria
When the Division was split up, I was not posted to the Far East as expected. Maybe it was the blessing. Instead I was posted to a small Austrian town called Judenburg to join the signal section of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars. These were ” the good times”. Horse riding, skiing, sport skating, girls – they were more like English girls and went out with soldiers without a chaperone! I was in charge of the local telephone exchange, a dozen Austrian girls and one soldier on the military switchboard, and a good time was had by all. We had the job of escorting the White Russian Cossacks, who fought on the German side, back to Russia. There were quite a lot of Cossack horses left behind and we took about a dozen. Signalman Tucker, who knew about horses, was put in charge and gave me my own horse which I had for the rest of my time in Austria. I called him “Kiade”. We had skiing instruction but the five others in my group gave up so I had my own personal tutor, an Austrian ski instructor. So I spent most of my time skiing and horse riding. There was a skiing competition in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Dolamites between us, the Americans and the Poles. I didn’t win anything but it was a great experience. We did downhill, slalom and cross country skiing. After five years of fighting and training I was pretty fit and we did thirty mile route marches, slept in the open and then thirty back with ease. Most of the work duties were done by the German prisoners so we had plenty of spare time. The Hussars would do musical rides and it was great to go with them to different towns in Austria giving exhibitions.
After twelve months I was due to leave for England, the first leave for five years. We went by road to Calais, across the channel then on a train to Manchester. I arrived at London Road station (now Piccadilly) about 1700hrs, 5pm to the civilians, and it seemed so long since I had left. I was feeling really nervous about going home, and really felt that I had been a boy when I left and was now a man. I solved the problem by staying the night in Manchester at the St. George’s club. When I had been wounded in hospital there was a Canadian in the next bed to me who looked after me, and as I stood queuing in the restaurant I looked up and there he was, right next to me.! The next morning I headed for home. I can’t remember much about arriving home but do recall being told to go and meet my sister Doreen at the C&A department store in Manchester. She was a little girl of ten or eleven when I left. I walked past a young lady at the top of the stairs, it was Doreen and I hadn’t recognised her. She was now sixteen and had changed so much. It was quite traumatic for her. Her soldier brother had returned after five years and walked straight past her, not a good start. I can’t remember how long my leave was for but I was very unsettled and was glad to get back to my normal life in the army back in Austria. Life went on until it was time for my de-mob. I handed Kiade (my horse) over to Signalman Tucker and was assured he would be well looked after, gave my ski equipment away, said goodbye to the girls on the switchboard “Aufwiedersehen Fräulines” and left. I arrived at Aldershot to collect my ‘civvies’ and a train pass to Manchester and went home.
Chapter Five – Back Home
When I first came home, I’m sure I had a chip on my shoulder. It was mainly civilians I couldn’t get on with. I would remember the times that my friends were getting killed or maimed and back in England workers were going on strike for more money. I remember particularly the miners going on strike, which was very upsetting for us on the front line who would have been shot if we’d gone on strike! It seemed like everything had altered. It was difficult to explain but people seemed foolish and trivial. I had seen brains spilt out of someone’s head, gaping open wounds, stomachs ripped open, and all this normality seemed ridiculous. People irritated me. All through the war, in and out of action I had been fine. Many times I’d enjoyed the excitement of it, but now I was home I was full of tension and nerves. There were many times when I felt I couldn’t breathe and would jump at the slightest sound. I was afraid of going on the top deck of a bus, convinced that it would topple over when it went round a corner. I smoked sixty cigarettes a day. They were in short supply and shops would serve regular customers only. How could I be a regular customer when I’d been overseas for five years? I got to the stage of pleading for cigarettes. I felt degraded, but hadn’t I been away prepared to give up my life for my country while these regular customers had been sitting pretty earning good money?
I started working back at the textile firm, Bronnert’s and something happened that would change my life, for it was here that I met my wife, Irene. She changed me from being a cynical ex soldier, she even changed me from the type of person I had been before I went into the army into a fairly normal happy person. She made me realise that all the problems I had were of my own making. When I was convinced that I had T.B. she insisted we go to the hospital for tests to prove that it wasn’t and she started me on the road to a normal life.
When I first went back to Bronnert’s, as I was one of the last back from the services all the best jobs had gone so I was put in the warehouse doing odd jobs. Eventually I worked my way up to be in charge of one of the warehouses. I gave up smoking – from sixty a day to nothing. It was hard but I did it. At first I was a confirmed bachelor. I spent my time drinking with the boys mainly at the Royal Oak in Chorlton-cum Hardy, and I could sink quite a few pints in those days I dated a few girls though I never got serious – mainly just taking them for a drink. Then this young lady called Irene Sibbles came to work at Bronnert’s. One of the office girls introduced me to her. We used to have one and a half hours for lunch, enough time for me to go home, and I would wait at the bus stop and watch Irene pass on the other side of the road. I remember one outfit she wore, a long tweed coat with a brown band at the bottom she wore with short yellow boots. It was called ‘the new look’. She was a beauty. I was attracted to her but kept my distance, just a passing glance and a greeting. After work I used to walk to Piccadilly to get the bus home and would often walk with Irvine, one of the boys who I worked with. (I say boy, but he’d actually been in the Air Force during the war). After a while Irene started to accompany us, as she got a bus from Stevenson Square to Blackley on the other side of Manchester. We gradually became more friendly and Irene used to like to link arms as we walked along. This was difficult with her umbrella and handbag so she asked if one of us would carry them. I refused to carry either, but Irvine had fewer inhibitions than me and volunteered, so the three of us would walk along chatting away. On Saturdays we only worked half a day, so afterwards on our way home a crowd of us would go to a milk bar on Mosely Street. This is where I found out that Irene was more lady like than the rest of the girls. We were in the milk bar and a few smutty jokes were being exchanged when Irene suddenly got up, announced that she didn’t listen to this kind of thing and marched out! The following Saturday no more rude jokes were told and everything was O.K. Irene was in the Operatic Society, and Irvine, George (another friend) and I went to see a show she was in. The show was ‘Gypsy Love’ . I think that seeing her on stage was the real turning point for me. I had been very fond of her, but looking at her on stage was when I fell deeply in love with her, a love that hasn’t diminished to this day.
Shortly after this Irene had her 21st birthday (December 13th 1948). Unfortunately I was unable to go to her party because we had a party at home and it was important that I was there. However I bought her a magnificent box of Max Factor Make Up. The time had come to make a decision so I asked her for our first serious date. It was on December 23rd and we went to see the carol singers in Albert Square and afterwards we went for a meal.
In the following January (1949) we got news that my father had died suddenly, so I went to Brighton to see if I could help. Irene was very sorry but also very sad because she thought that there was a chance that I might stay in Brighton. As you know I didn’t but many other things happened when I was there. My mother wouldn’t divorce my father, so Vera changed her surname to Howard. I went to my father’s funeral and the route was lined with his brother Masons and across the hillside was his name in flowers. My mother came down for the funeral and so it was discovered that Vera was not my father’s wife. He’d been taking her to the ladies evenings as his wife so from then on she was ignored and my father’s name was put on the Mason’s blacklist.
I returned to Irene and Manchester and we had our first holiday together the following Easter weekend when we went to Blackpool. It was a lovely weekend. The next holiday together was two weeks in the Isle of Man. Here something quite unusual happened; we met a couple called Mr and Mrs Howard (Charlie and Enid), yes, the same name as me, and the same names we were going to be! We had decided to get engaged and planned to do it on 23rd December, the anniversary of our first date. While we were on holiday Irene saw an engagement ring she liked but unfortunately we didn’t have enough money for the ring. We were telling our new friends when we got back to the hotel when Charlie said “Go and get it, we’ll lend you the money”. We must have had honest faces, well on second thoughts I think it must have been Irene he trusted! Anyway, we didn’t take up the offer, but bought a ring from Hancock’s jewellers in Manchester when we got back. Irene had childhood illnesses in her twenties, and on the 23rd December when we got engaged she was ill in bed with Scarlet Fever. I sat with her most of the time, and put the ring on her finger in bed! When she recovered we did it properly. I took her out to dinner and she wore a lovely black hat with red flowers and a long black fitted coat. She looked gorgeous and I’m sure every man in the restaurant was envious of me. The next twelve months were spent enjoying whatever we did; we went to the theatre, dancing, sitting with my Grandma every Wednesday night, visiting friends and playing cards. Then on 23rd December 1950, on a beautiful bright cold day, we got married. We had a lovely church service, a wedding breakfast then off we went on our honeymoon. We went for four days over Christmas to a private hotel in Llandudno. All the other guests were regulars who stayed every Christmas so on our first night we joined in playing games and singing round the piano. On the second evening I entered into the games with such gusto and had a few drinks, and what was the result? Can you imagine it, on the second night of our honeymoon I was up most of the night being sick! I must have been making so much noise that eventually there was a tap at the door and a lady guest was there offering me a small bottle of brandy to make me feel better! The next morning everybody in the hotel must have known about it and the manager came and told us to stay in bed and had our breakfast sent up to us. Many of the guests came and knocked at the door to see how the honeymoon couple were feeling after being up all night – sick!
When we came back from our honeymoon we lived in two rooms in Irene’s mother’s house, just a small living room and bedroom, and shared the kitchen and bathroom. We paid a rent, and had many happy evenings in our living room on our own or with friends. We got on so well with Irene’s mum and dad, and always respected one another’s privacy. We had a small knocker on our living room doors and we always knocked and waited to be asked in and they would do the same. Early one Sunday morning after we had been married some eighteen months there was a knock on the front door. We were still in bed and I put on my dressing gown and opened the door to find a policeman standing there. He said “Have you got a sister called Joan Fidler?” In a daze I just said yes and he said that she had died and would I go round immediately. I just couldn’t comprehend it I was in such a shocked state. I went upstairs to tell Irene who calmed us down and we left. Sister Betty and her husband George managed a large pub, the Alexandra, and Joan and her husband Doug lived with them. Betty and Joan had never been separated and being twins were extremely close. We travelled two bus rides across Manchester to get there and when we arrived we found out that Joan had gone to bed as usual but woke up at three in the morning feeling very unwell. Doug had called the Doctor who came immediately, checked her, put her in his car and took her to hospital. I think she was dead on arrival. It was found out that she had cancer of the heart which is very rare. She was thirty two years old. Neither Betty nor Joan had any children at the time, so Irene and I stayed with Betty, George and Doug for two weeks to help them. Irene was a great comfort to them and helped as much as she could. My mother was a great strength to us all, though she must have been suffering terribly. Irene remembers us all sat at the table for a meal with none of us eating anything, and my mother saying quite firmly “Come on, we must now eat or we’ll all be ill”, she was a strong minded person all right. Betty was absolutely distraught, she and Joan had been like one person they were so close. As the weeks passed naturally we all began to accept that Joan was dead except Betty who gradually got worse. I think she was actually dying of a broken heart and was having visions of Joan coming to her in the middle of the night. Then a miracle happened – she became pregnant. I believe that this saved her life. She gave birth to a baby girl and called her Joan and from that day to this she idolised her.
Chapter Six – Work
During our first few years we had a good time but managed to save enough money to apply for a licence to have a house built. Eventually we moved into our house in Worcester Rd, Alkrington, Middleton, and we stayed there for fifteen years. At work we were both concerned that the textile industry was faltering and the number of staff was getting smaller. It was 1957 and you could buy plain calico from India cheaper than we could make it in our own mills thirty miles away and gradually mills started to close down. With the two of us in the same failing business we decided one of us should get another job and Irene soon got one with the National Coal Board. Twelve months later things were getting pretty bad at Bronnert’s so I decided that now was the time to move. The problem was what could I do? I’d only been in the textile business and the army since leaving school, but decided to go into the television business. I enrolled at a technical college three nights a week for T.V. Engineering which comprised of T.V. Maintenance, Electricity and Magnetism, Maths, and for some reason, English. It was a City and Guilds course and I passed my first year exams. However I found that I couldn’t get into the trade unless I was in the Union, and I couldn’t get into the Union unless I’d done an apprenticeship, so I left. At that time we had Pam and Jack Warner as neighbours. I was talking to Pam about my job problem and she said “You should be a salesman”. I was rather taken aback by this suggestion and didn’t think I was a sales type of person. Inside I was quite shy and reserved though I could put on a front when necessary, but not all the time. However there was nothing else and things were getting worse at Bronnert’s. I wrote for dozens and dozens of jobs and I either got no reply or a reply saying they were looking for experienced salesmen (in those days there was no such thing as a salesperson!). At long last I got one reply that invited me for an interview. I ended up having four interviews, the last with the company chairman, J.B.Collins, known as JB. He was a man and a half, not only in size but in his attitude and how he dealt with people. He offered me the job, which I accepted and I started on £8 per week with a small commission and good incentives known as ‘spiffs’.
The firm was A.T.Moffat Ltd. I was so naive about the confectionery business that I started looking out for Moffat sweets. It turned out to be a wholesaler owned by Trebor Sweets Ltd that had recently been set up by JB. My first job was teaching a saleslady to drive. She had been walking and using the bus so this was my chance to learn the trade. The driving was O.K. but the selling was a shambles. I knew nothing about selling but my own intuition told me that this was not the way to sell or the way for me to learn so I stored this away in my memory for future use. One week into the job and was already planning the future for me and the company! I soon got a feeling that I was going to like the job and the firm and I also made up my mind that at thirty five I had wasted twenty years of my life in the wrong business and fighting a war, so if I was going to make anything of myself I had to do it quickly. On the Thursday before Easter 1957 I very nearly changed my mind about a selling career. I arrived at the office just before 8am. JB was already there. He always arrived very early, something I always remembered and did during my career. I hadn’t been out on my own yet and JB said “There’s a car for you outside”. I went out to see the car and it was crammed tight with Easter eggs. They were mainly Terry’s, quite expensive and not the easiest to sell. They gave me my calls for the day and off I went. The last words I heard from JB were “Don’t bring any of those eggs back”. I would have loved to have gone home to show Irene my new car but no, I had a job to do. I had every confidence. By 4.30pm I hadn’t sold a single egg. I had one more call to make, a Mrs Warsop in Cadishead near Warrington. I went into her shop and must have looked pretty depressed. She said “Who are you and what do you want?”. I explained that I had come for her order and that it was my first day out. She said “Don’t look so depressed, you should always smile when you approach a customer”. I told her about the Easter eggs situation, she gave me a knowing smile and said “Bring them all in love”. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was thirty five and she must have been sixty, but I fell in love with her and will never forget her. When I got back to the office they were all waiting for me. I found out later that the calls I had been given which would also make up half my new round, had been given to me by all the other salesmen under instructions from JB So they gave me their worst calls, small orders and late payers, in today’s parlance, the pits. So when I returned I’m sure they thought I would still have a car full of eggs. JB said “Well, what happened, have you sold all the eggs?”, and I replied casually “Of course”! I learnt a lot that day, particularly to never give up.
After Easter I started on my own with half a journey of lousy calls which I gradually built up. I was shy naturally so I would sit in the car before I went into a shop and would put on an act and become Harry the Salesman. After a while it became easier and easier until eventually I became that person. I realised from the start that I would not get noticed or make enough money on commission because the calls were poor and the target figure was too high, so I concentrated on getting noticed and making money on Incentives. These were special lines that were being pushed and you made money every time you sold them. There was a list put up every week saying how much each salesman had made on Incentives and my goal was to be top of the list, not only to make money but to be noticed. It was not long before I was at the top most weeks. Now it can be told how I did it. If I was being given a Shilling (12d) for every jar of a certain line sold I would offer the retailer out of my own pocket, so instead of selling one or two and earning two shillings I might sell twelve and earn twelve shillings, six for me and six for the customer. This would also help my overall turnover and commission. Another example is when we had a new line, jars of Choc Stix. For every jar we sold we earned a Shilling. So what I did was every customer who hadn’t ordered a jar I put one on the order anyway. It was known as ‘sticking on’ I sold about one hundred and stuck another hundred on so I made about ten pounds. Only three customers sent them back. When I went round the next time if a customer said they’d had one but hadn’t ordered it I would smile and apologise and say I’d been in trouble from my last customer because he’d ordered one but not received it and I must have put it on the wrong order! All would be forgiven and as it turned out they were very popular and I got repeat orders for most of the two hundred I’d ‘sold”. So this helped keep me on top of the incentive list and helped to keep me in the limelight when JB visited the branch. After about twelve months I was top salesman, but unfortunately my immediate boss was not too keen on my ambitious attitude. I think he thought I was after his job, which I was! There was a vacancy for a sales supervisor and he promoted someone else instead of me. I and other people thought he was the wrong man for the job so I asked to speak to my boss and told him what I thought. He asked me who I thought the right person for the job was and I said “Me”! I got nowhere and that evening I said to Irene that I thought I had made a mistake and hadn’t done myself any good. However the next time JB visited, some six weeks later, he told my boss to make me his second in command. So I was promoted to Sales Supervisor. The hardest thing had been done, now I must make a success of it. I had been working long and hard as a salesman, but now I was going to work harder. I had made a decision that now I’d made the first step into management I would never try to be liked, that didn’t matter, but I was going to do my damnedest to be respected. I considered my boss weak and worried about his job so fairly soon I started looking for other opportunities within the company. This came when a new managing director was appointed who believed in training. I felt the same and had been talking about training for a while but it had fallen on deaf ears. So I contacted the new M.D. and said I was interested. He sent me on a few outside courses and gave me permission to buy the training materials I needed then asked me to write the training manual for our group. I did this and he agreed with it apart from a few minor alterations and then he made me Group Sales Training Manager. I was responsible for training sales- managers and salesmen in all our twenty four branches all over the country including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For the next eighteen months my life was spent travelling and training everyone in the organisation to use the same techniques so that they could move from branch to branch and slot into the system. I developed my own catch phrases like ‘Stickability’ – never giving up, ‘Beans up the nose’ – setting up objections, and ‘Let the balloon go down’ – overcoming objections, and I became known as ‘Stickability Howard’ . There were many more, ‘Water flows downhill’, ‘You can’t nail jelly to the wall’, all old sayings, but when I first said them they caused quite a stir.
One day I was in the Swinton district of Manchester and went into a bank during lunchtime. I turned to leave when in came Stoney Knowles. He was a policemen and had recently moved from Cumbria to Manchester. When he looked at me I could see the shock on his face, in fact he went white as if I was a ghost. All he could say was “Is it Harry Howard?” All these years he believed I had been killed at Salerno. After assuring him that I wasn’t a ghost and that I had only been wounded we had so much to talk about. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and made an arrangement to meet in a pub to reminisce. However the bank manager had been listening to our conversation and was quite impressed by this story and he phoned the Manchester Evening News and told them what had happened. They said they would like to print our story and so Stoney, the reporter and I met. When I’d met up with Stoney in Africa I’d been queuing up for Christmas dinner. As you got to the cook he would give you some Hardtack (biscuits) and a tin of Bully Beef and say “You and the man behind you”. I turned round and it was Stoney. Well after living in Manchester for a few years he moved back to Cumbria. He phoned me every Christmas eve, slightly inebriated, and would reminisce about the war and especially the Christmas dinner of Hardtack and Bully Beef. He always said that if he didn’t phone he would be dead. He had been phoning me for about ten years when his wife phoned me to say that Stoney had been taken to hospital and that it was serious. I got in my car and drove to Cumberland and on the way I bought some hard biscuits and a tin of Bully Beef. I was allowed in the hospital out of visiting hours. I went to see him, handed him the ‘Christmas Dinner’ and said “You and the man behind you”. He was very ill but you should have seen his smile. He tried to tell the story to every nurse or doctor that passed by. A short time later Stoney died.
After two years I had had my fill of training so I trained another person to take over and looked for more experience elsewhere. The new Managing Director actually wanted me to take over all the training for the whole group – not only for sales, but also for admin, office , warehouse staff, everything. I turned it down, he always said a good trainer was worth three branch managers but my ambition had always been to manage a branch. There was many times when I thought about setting up my own wholesale business, but that would have meant starting again, and I was doing all right now. A new opportunity came when there was a vacancy for an assistant to a regional manager who covered the northern part of the country including Ireland. I took the job and although I was an assistant I had all the authority of the regional manager behind me. It was mainly a trouble shooting job. If there were problems anywhere in the region I was sent out to sort it out. For example if there were problems with managers or staff straying off the straight and narrow I went to find out what was going on and offer advice on how to overcome the problem. Many times I had to suggest that someone be dismissed, managers as well as staff, and on more than one occasion I had to bring the police in. Court proceedings would follow and often included customers who were working hand in glove with our staff. This made things very difficult and I had to get the big bosses involved such as JB. During this period I managed different branches all over the northern region and eventually I was appointed to manage the Yorkshire company. I hesitated at first as I really wanted the Manchester branch, however that was not possible and the Chairman, JB, explained to me that the person running the Yorkshire company was an old friend of mine, he’d been my supervisor when I first joined the firm, and that the pressure was getting too much for him. In fact he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and in the M.D.’s words the business was going down the Swanee. I went over several times to have a look at the company and meet the staff and took Irene over, and eventually we decided to move. This was a marvellous decision.
…..Back at work I settled into my new position. The branch was in a terrible state. The sales team were at rock bottom without an ounce of enthusiasm, and they’d been leading the manager a dance which I think was part of the cause of his breakdown. Can you imagine a Lancashire man running a sales team of Yorkshire men! My managing Director suggested I gave the man I’d taken over from some time off, then put him out on the road as a salesman. I felt that this would be a difficult thing for him to take, to have to face the salesmen, office girls and warehouse staff. I also thought he would make a very good second in command. There is quite a large margin between the boss and second in command, (as Harry Truman said, “The Buck stops here”) so against the M.D.’s wishes I made him my assistant. It turned out to be a very successful partnership. The next thing to sort out was the sales force. The top salesman was convinced he was going to be made manager. When he didn’t and I appeared on the scene he made it clear in many devious ways that he was going to make things very difficult for me. He was a spoiler; he would influence the other salesmen, demotivating them but always making sure he came top. Most of the team couldn’t see through him, I say team but there was no such thing, it was a shambles. I bided my time, it was not easy to dismiss people and there was no redundancy. I brought another young man into the firm to be trained for another company. I told the spoiler to take him out and train him. He thought this person was joining as a junior manager and was furious. He refused to take him out and all his bitterness came spilling out. He completely lost his temper and told me what he thought of me so I sacked him on the spot, gave him a month’s salary, and never saw him again. After he had gone I could work on the rest of the team. I gradually sorted out the wheat from the chaff. The ones who were never going to be salesmen I gave different jobs or suggested that sales wasn’t the type of job for them. Most of them agreed but needed a push so I gave them time to find another job. Gradually I got my own men around me and we became one of the top teams in the Group, and quite often the best team.
There was one occasion when we were the top team a reporter from Head Office wrote a very glowing article about us and finished by saying “Having a Lancashire lad in charge of a team of Yorkshire men must be a good thing”. He was obviously a Southerner and didn’t understand the situation between Yorkshire and Lancashire. The article was written in the Groups newspaper. Everyone normally got a copy, but not that month; I destroyed all our copies. As the saying goes, ‘What the eyes don’t see the heart doesn’t grieve about’!
I’ve said earlier that my paternal grandfather came from Ireland and was a Catholic, but since we were brought up by my Mother whose family were Protestants I cannot remember ever meeting him. I knew that he came from County Cork and came to England where I presume he met my grandmother. It’s possible that her Christian name was Memory; my grandfather’s name was William Henry Howard, and that’s all I knew. In 1994 Irene and I went to Ireland with a few friends for a holiday. We were touring and had stopped in County Cork and were having a few drinks in the back room of a pub. Also in the room were three young Irish couples and we spent the afternoon singing and telling stories. I asked them if they had heard of the name Howard and one of the boys said yes he had, and that they were well known, the ‘Howards of Banteer’. The next day we set off after breakfast and we were travelling with Bob and Kath Bentley. Bob noticed a sign ‘Banteer’ one mile ahead so we decided to go and see if we could find the Howards. I went into a local store and asked in there and they directed me to the farm of Joseph Howard, just a short way up the road. We went a few miles up this country road and thought we were lost so asked a labourer who explained the way in great detail and gave quite a long monologue. Unfortunately we couldn’t understand a word he said! Further on we asked an old lady in a cottage, she must have been a hundred years old and she said “Are you foreigners?” She then told us where the Howard’s farm was and we arrived at the door of a nice house opened by a young lady. I said I was looking for the Howard’s of Banteer and she said “You’ve found them”. She invited us in and told me she’d just finished a degree in archaeology and was going to start a law degree. She introduced us to her mother but her father Joseph and her brother were out on the farm and were not expected back until the evening. I told her I was searching for my grandfather’s family and it turned out she was studying her family’s history quite seriously. She said that the Howards had originally come over from England just after Cromwell brought his English armies to Ireland. The Howards were Catholics and came over as workers for one of the titled families that were given land. I told her my grandfather’s name and guessed at his date of birth and she concluded that we were probably related. She said that she and her family considered themselves to be Anglo/Irish and her Mother who was pure Irish said it was quite daunting when she first married Joseph because it was quite something belonging to an Anglo/Irish family. The daughter was called Nora though she liked to be called Noni, and she hopes to come to England for her Law degree. I said that if she did she would be made very welcome if she came to visit us….
I’m finishing this journal on my seventy third birthday – April 16th 1996. Tonight we are going out to dinner with our very good friends Brendan and Betty. Irene and I are surrounded, although at a distance, by our children and grandchildren, and are so very happy in our life together. All the family are gathering in Wetherby at the weekend, with the newest member, Asa Harry Clough-Howard who will be eighteen days old.
This journal is for my family, but especially for Irene my wife, with whom I have been in love since we first met.”
Harry Milner Howard 16.4.23 – 23.11.96