World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Clarence Graham

From Dunkirque To Victory In Burma

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Clarence Graham & Cyril Allcock
Location of story: Leeds, The Fall Of France, Egypt And India
Unit name: 18th British General Hospital RAMC


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Clarence Graham.

On the 1 November 1939 my friend Cyril Allcock and I received our call-up papers with instructions to report to Heywood Barracks in Leeds. As a farm worker from West Breton near Wakefield I had never been to Leeds, though it was only about 10 miles away. Cyril had been there once and thought he knew where the barracks was, so off we went.

When we arrived we were all given a card to hold with a number on, mine was number eight. Several hours later, all number eight's were told to fall in and get onto trucks, we had no idea why or where we were going. Our destination wasn't far away however, as we pulled up at Beckets Park, Headingley, and our introduction to army life really started.

As we got off the truck, we were lined up and marched up to the front of Carnegie College where a big fat man wearing a Sam Brown belt and boots that shone like mirrors was standing at the top of the steps. He gave us a welcoming speech along the lines of, "You are in the Army now whether you like it or not. I am your Sergeant Major. Sergeant Majors aren't born, we are appointed by God. Anything you get from now on is through the goodwill of the government; you have no rights to anything. You are here to do as you are told and I can do whatever I like to you, except get you in the family way, and I can have damn good try at doing that!"

With that warm welcome ringing in our ears, we were marched off to Cavendish House and allocated rooms, three men to a room, with Straw palliases to sleep on. We were only given one blanket so we had to use our great coats to keep warm. Matters weren't made any better when the joiners came and removed all the bedroom doors the next day!

We also got our first taste of army food, two sardines, two slices of bread and a knob of margarine on a tin plate. Quite a contrast to the hearty meals I was used to eating on the farm.

We stayed at Beckets Park until late February 1940 doing our basic training. We did our share of square bashing under Staff Sergeant Hunter who later became our Sergeant major. Blisters from the ill fitting army boots crippled most people. At the end of it I was posted to the Royal Army Medical Corps, 18th General Hospital.

In late February 1940, with snow covering the ground, we were marched with full kit to the tram stop and thence by tram to Leeds railway station, where we boarded a train for Southampton. This was the start of a journey that seemed never ending. At Southampton docks we were given a tin of Bully Beef and some dog biscuits before boarding an ex Isle of Man steamer called the Ben Me Cree. We spent the rest of the day anchored in the Solent before sailing at midnight for France, arriving at Le Havre the next morning.


We were then put on a French train with coaches more like cattle trucks; the wooden seats were rock hard, and set out for Rouen, a journey that took 39 hours! When we finally arrived in Rouen, we halted in the station for a while, then set off back the way we had come for about three miles, where we halted for 30 minutes or so, then went back to Rouen. This shunting too and fro’ continued for several hours as we made the journey 4 or 5 times. I seem to recall there was a dogfight going on above us some of the time.

We finally arrived in Etaples, our destination, the following afternoon and were marched off towards Boulogne and a campsite almost opposite a First World War cemetery. The area of the campsite had been used in the First World War and there were well-preserved dugouts among the sand dunes. Many of these had old soldiers names on the walls and there were munitions lying around including lots of 303 bullets. It seemed quite strange to be back in the same places where the last generation had fought the Germans before.

I remember the campsite well, we had one cold water tap to serve all our needs, and the first person up in the mornings had to light a fire under it to thaw it out, so we could get washed and shaved, it was so cold! We slept in Nissen huts that had one inch gaps between the floor boards, making them draughty and cold, so unless you were huddled round the one coal fired stove in the hut, you were always cold.

I had my twenty- first birthday in February, and my mother had made me a wonderful birthday cake. She was a wonderful cook and could ice a cake like a professional. So she pooled all their rations together to make me a cake, and sent it off in a parcel. Sadly it never reached me as the ship carrying it over was sunk.

The tents for the hospital finally arrived so we became operational. In March the weather got much warmer, so warm in fact, we were able to swim in the sea at Le Touquet. Our first wounded soldiers arrived around the same time, they were French, and we began to realise that we really were at war.

Just how true that was came home to us in April when German aircraft bombed Le Touquet airport. We all ran for the slit trenches in the woods nearby and the German aircraft began to machine gun us as we ran, at times the bullets seemed to be on my heels. Luckily we all made it to the woods, where we found our Matron, a veteran of the First World War, with the medals to prove it, calmly sitting in the slit trench knitting!

Retreat to Boulogne.

As May progressed, it became clear things were going badly, and by the third week in May we learned that the Germans had taken Arras, only 40 miles away. We were ordered to evacuate the hospital and make our way to the coast as best we could. We set off to march as we had no transport and were attacked by German aircraft at regular intervals. At one point, I remember the planes coming and I managed to jump over a barbed wire fence to get into some woods, landing in a bed of nettles. I lay in those nettles for what seemed like hours and never got stung once. When the planes disappeared I had great difficulty climbing back over the fence that I had cleared so effortlessly when the planes attacked!

We finally found some transport but had to abandon it after only a mile or so, as there were so many civilians on the roads trying to escape from the Germans, it was impossible to move. There were thousands of people all trying to carry their children and what possessions they could, so they moved very slowly, and of course there was chaos every time the German planes attacked.

In the end we made it to Boulogne cross-country, and found the town ablaze, not just from the bombing but also from the piles of equipment being destroyed. It was terrible to see mountains of brand new equipment being burned and blown up. Finally, a ship came into the docks to collect us. The Irish Guards came off the ship to form the rear guard to allow us to escape; they left all their heavy equipment on board and were in action within about an hour of leaving the ship.

It was chaos at the docks with French civilians begging to be taken to safety on the ships, and troops were shooting their own fingers and toes off to get a place as wounded. All the time there were explosions from burning equipment.

We helped to load a lot of French wounded, including several high-ranking officers, then sailed for England. As we left, there were depth charges going off all around us but once we got out to sea, it was flat calm.

When we reached Dover, three of the badly wounded French Colonels sprang off their stretchers and ran off the ship! We weren't too impressed by that. In Dover the WVS were waiting and we got our first hot cup of tea in five days, we had practically lived on cigarettes during the evacuation. We looked a sorry sight, our uniforms were torn and dirty, and none of us had been washed or shaved for days. But we were home and we were safe and grateful for that.

England summer of 1940.

From Dover we went by train to the RMAC Headquarters at Tidworth to be re-kitted out, then on by train to Peterborough where we spent the long hot summer of 1940. The Army was asked to supply volunteers to help get in the harvest and most of the farm workers were delighted to do it. So for most of the summer we helped to get the harvest in and got £5 a week from the farmer for helping. It was the most money I had earned up until then.

In the autumn we moved to Pinewood’s Hospital at Crowthorne. One night we were having a drink at the Iron Duke pub when a bomb landed nearby. It had probably been jettisoned by a German plane. We all dived under the bar where we stayed for 30 minutes while a dogfight raged overhead. When we walked home we found the principal of the local Broadmoor Hospital had been impaled on some iron railings by the bomb blast.

In September we moved to Edinbrough where we stayed for three weeks, then by train to Gurrock where we boarded a ship called the Volendam, for Egypt. The voyage took eleven weeks! We stopped off in Cape Town along the way where we had 4 days leave. I remember when we left, the decks were piled high with cases of oranges. This was a real treat as they were in very short supply in England.

Egypt late 1940.

In Egypt we joined a tented hospital on the Suez Canal where we had a lot of East African soldiers as patients. After the doctors round one morning, one of the patients asked me to write a letter to his mother for him. I readily agreed, but was amazed when he told me his second wife was causing trouble at home and he wanted to ask his mother to sell her and buy a cow!

I bought some gold in Egypt for my wife's wedding ring. We could tell how the war in the desert was going by the price of gold. If the price went up the Germans were winning and if it fell we were! So I hung on until we were winning and got a good price. Sadly, the gold never reached home; it was sunk on the ship carrying my parcel home.

All was going well in Egypt when we were told to pack up again and take the train to the docks, where we boarded the SS Andes, for Singapore. Sadly Singapore fell before we got there, so we were diverted to Ceylon. The Andes was a terrific ship and was fast enough to sail un-escorted, as it was too fast for submarines to keep up. There were a lot of tough Australians on the ship and they were terrific gamblers, playing dice for huge stakes. It got so bad, the officers tried to stop their pay to prevent them gambling, and there was nearly a mutiny. Many of them were placed under arrest and as a punishment they had to wait on all the medical staff for the rest of the voyage, so we were well looked after.

In Ceylon, we transferred to a French ship seized from Vichy Prance and it was filthy, we had to scrub it from top to bottom. Even worse, the food was terrible. There were weevils in the flour, so we were eating them. We landed in Karachi and got shore leave, then set sail again and ended up back in Ceylon! We stayed there a week, and then went back to Karachi where we were anchored, and confined to the ship for 11 days! We finally repeated this process of sailing between Ceylon and Karachi four times before landing.

From Karachi, we went by train to Bombay, where we stayed for a week before going up to Puna. Our mob was split up there and I went on to Secundrabad for a year and then to Bangalore where we set up a hospital.

Once again we had some African wounded who had been fighting the Japanese, and as I was helping one of these soldiers to get undressed and into bed, I noticed a string round his neck with some wizened bits of something strung on it. I tried to get him to put it in his locker, but he got very upset and wouldn't let me. When I asked him why, he said it was his "Ju Ju" and when I asked him what the Ju Ju was, he said they were Japanese ears!

When we got leave, we often had little money to spend and sometimes we spent the leave in Barracks. On one occasion, we got hold of some Nisams rum and got roaring drunk. That wouldn't have mattered too much, but as soon as I had a drink of water or tea over the next few days, it set me off again. I seemed to be drunk for days. It was nearly three weeks before I fully recovered from it, and it put me off drinking for a long time, in fact I have never been drunk since.

A year later we went to Madras, to a 3000 bed hospital, and I finished the war there. It was a very hot and humid place, no sooner had you got dressed after a shower than you were wet through again. I was finally de mobbed in May 1945.

For someone who had never travelled the thirty miles to Leeds before being called up, I certainly made up for it in the army. In February 2005, for my 86th birthday, I got a wonderful surprise from my colleagues in the British Legion when a brown paper parcel containing my ‘missing’ 21st birthday cake was presented to me, together with a story of its travels since it left home for France 65 years earlier!

Clarence Graham.