World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            H Priestley 

For a Better World

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: H Priestley
Location of story: France Belgium and India
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted by a volunteer from Radio Sheffield Actiondesk Sheffield on behalf of Mr H Priestley.

In 1938, I found myself registering for the armed forces as one of Britain’s first ever batch of peace time conscripts. They called us “Militiamen”; it sounded much better than conscripts. I had rather looked forward to doing 6 months in the Army, a nice break from the humdrum job as a shop assistant. In November 1939 I joined several more Militiamen from Sheffield being drafted into the C.C.S. Territorial unit. In early January we were leaving for France, only 2 months in the Army, not fully trained, and in a war. The phoney war is a bitter, frozen landscape in Northern France. I remember being billeted in barns with damaged roofs, and waking up at times with snow on our bedding. We had to wash and shave after breaking the ice on a small stream, water freezing on our faces. Early May, the German attack was launched and we moved to the Belgium frontier. Then began a series of pitching tents, attending to the wounded and constantly being on the move. We were dive-bombed and machine-gunned by Stuka dive-bombers. By the end of May, we were in Hondschoote on the Belgium France border. With many wounded we were warned that we would soon be P.O.W’s. However a Hospital ship pulled into a pier at Dunkirk, the wounded part of our unit left 5 to an ambulance, the walking wounded went in 3-ton trucks. The rest of us were left to march the 18 of so miles to Dunkirk. We spent 2 nights on the beaches with no food or water. After wading out till the water was waist deep, we were rowed out to HMS Vivacious a Destroyer where we were bombed again.

We landed at Dover on the 1st of June and were sent to Leeds to rejoin the lucky ones from our unit. I took the opportunity to dash to Sheffield to let my people know I was okay. I got back to Leeds later that day to find the unit had moved down to Plymouth ready for the invasion. I was put on a southbound train by the Red Caps, arriving at Plymouth where I was put on a charge for desertion. As a punishment I was put in a Pillbox about 6 yards from the sea, along with a platoon of Infantrymen, no wires or mines, a very poor position.

Eighteen months later we left the Clyde part of the 5th Division sailing for the Far East. We had 3 days shore leave in Cape Town and after a month at sea we landed at Bombay, then on to Saugar in Central India. As part of the Division had taken over in Madagascar (then part of France's empire), we soon had to “open shop” to help with casualties. The Division moved hurriedly to Iraq, as at that time, the Germans were well on their way to the oil wells of the Ukraine, and the fear was of co-operation from Iraq. We were left behind, moving to Chittagong to become attached to the 14th Indian Division who were attacking in the Arakan. They gave us Beekeeper's nets to fit over our helmets and long cotton elbow length gloves as anti-mosquito equipment. These were soon ditched, and inevitably, large numbers got Malaria. Dysentery, Jungle sores and Tropical ulcers also soon overwhelmed us. The Japanese counter-attacked, and again we had to pull out of our station at Maungdaw, the wounded being evacuated on small coastal vessels. The Japanese bombing was different from the Germans, around 20 or so appeared in formation and the lead plane fired a short burst of machinegun fire, and the whole formation released their bombs. They looked like a heavy shower of rain glinting in the sunshine. We were on the Front for almost a year before the Division was withdrawn, deemed that we were worn out. This was the start of the monsoon season and I had a period in hospital with Malaria, and both my arms swelled up with insect bites.

We drifted around India and finished up in September, being medical help in a prison camp at Bikaneer ( Sind Desert). We worked behind the wire with the prisoners, who were a shifty lot, and you expected trouble all the time. We had been in the Far East for 3½ years and left after the bombs were dropped, arriving at Southampton in late November 1945. After disembarkation leave, I was posted to Lincoln Military Hospital to await demob. After over 6 years in the forces I was demobbed at York with £70 and 4 medals, wondering what was in store for us. It took a long time to adjust to being a civilian again.