World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                      Margaret Freeman 

From Cornwall to Calcutta

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: William Thomas SILLIFANT, DOROTHY MARY COTTON, Margaret Freeman, General Orde Wingate, Brigadier Mike Calvert (“Mad Mike”), Brigadier W P Scott, Lt. Col. J. C. White
Location of story: Cornwall, Newhaven, Spalding, Cape Town, Bombay, Dehli, RANCHI, Burma, Imphal, Karachi
Unit name: Devon & Cornwall Light Infantry, Recce Corps, RAC (Royal Armoured Corps), King’s Regiment
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Margaret Freeman.

From Cornwall to Calcutta
Margaret Freeman

Sgt William Thomas SILLIFANT (No 5615371)
Born: July 14,1909 Died: December 19, 1994

Infantry record shows service in:-
Devon Regiment from May 16, 1928 to April 30,1935
Devon & Cornwall Light Infantry from May 01, 1935 to January 21, 1941
Recce Corps from January 22, 1941 to December 31, 1943
RAC (Royal Armoured Corps) from January 01, 1944 to November 16, 1944
King’s Regiment from November 17, 1944 to January 18, 1946

My father, a Cornishman, became a member of the Territorial Army in 1928. During this time he won medals for Rifle Shooting. On September 2nd 1939 when he joined up he was 29 and was therefore always an “old” soldier. On September 16th 1939, he married DOROTHY MARY COTTON at 8 o’clock in the morning by special licence. My mother had no new clothes apart from a pair of gloves! They decided to marry in haste because dad was going to be sent “up country”. Mum lived with her parents on a poultry and pig farm and worked for her father during the war years. She always felt sick at the time of the postman’s arrival in case he brought dreadful news about dad. For three years she heard nothing apart from receiving a monthly communication from the war office telling her that dad was OK. Mum was a member of the local fireguard. Her armband is still in pristine condition because her group never had to put out any fires. They practised every week, mostly squirting water at each other in fun!! An evacuee (aged7) from Plymouth stayed with her family. Originally he had been placed in the care of an elderly lady. He escaped from her house and started to walk home to Plymouth. He sought directions from a local policeman. This lad loved living on the poultry farm. He disliked having to write the weekly letter to his mum and when the time came to return to Plymouth, he was very upset! Because Mum was in Cornwall for the whole of the war, her life was not affected too greatly. Her family had plenty of food because they grew vegetables and fruit, to supplement their rations. Grandma used to make “war cake” using liquid paraffin instead of margarine! Occasionally they heard planes overhead. That was a signal to seek shelter under the rainwater tank!!! A few stray bombs were dropped on Bude but no one was hurt. During the bombardment of Plymouth the family could see the reflection of the fires, a distance of approximately 45 miles.

Dad had a much more eventful war! He travelled all over England, returning to Cornwall on normal leave and “harvest” leave to help on local farms. The following anecdotes are not in chronological order.

During the Battle of Britain, dad was stationed in Newhaven and saw all the action in the air.

One Christmas, he was stationed in Lincolnshire. It was customary for the lower ranks to be served their Christmas dinner by the superiors! Dad and his colleagues were happy to oblige. As dad did not drink much alcohol, he stayed sober. Unfortunately his comrades were inebriated and so dad did all the washing up for the whole platoon on his own!!

Dad had two brothers serving in the armed forces. Once, all three were in a railway station in London at the same time. Unfortunately none of them knew of their brothers’ whereabouts, so they did not meet.

In 1941, the 45th Reconnaissance Regiment was formed and the first official parade was at Spalding when they wore their green and yellow hats. Many fellow West Country men were in this regiment and in 1942 they set sail from Liverpool aboard the ship “Dominion March”. The soldiers had no idea of their destination. When they eventually docked in Cape Town, they knew then that they were obviously heading for the Far East. During this shore leave, dad and other lads were given hospitality by a British government official and his family. Dad asked the wife if she would write to my mum. Obviously he was not allowed to tell mum where he was, but in this way, he made sure that mum had an idea where he was. Mum was always grateful for that letter. Dad took the opportunity to tour Cape Town including a visit to the top of Table Mountain. The ship eventually docked in Bombay. On the 13th of the month they left Bombay and took the following route: -
Kalyan 15th, NASIK 16th, DHULIA 17th, Kalghat 19th, Mhow 20th, Biaora 21st, Shirpur 22nd, JHANSI 23rd, CRAWNPORE 24/25th, ALLAHABAD 26th, BENARES 27th, Sherghati 29/30th and finally RANCHI (date unknown). {Capitalisation as per the original itinerary}

In early 1943, the regiment went to Bangalore. General Orde Wingate reviewed the men and a regime of jungle training began. The men dressed in jungle greens and learned how to live out doors night and day. They began to work with mules and in October 1943, dad attended a course on animal management. He wrote course notes in a music manuscript exercise book, which he had bought in Dehli. At the front of the book, as an added typed page, I found the following:
1. There is no mystery about your animals. Look after them as you look after yourself. They maintain you and you must maintain them.
2. Harden your animals as you would yourself – gradually
3. The jungle is full of food on which animals can live. Teach your men to find and use it.
4. “A stitch in time saves nine”. A casualty to your animal is a load left behind.

During this time, while practising wading through rivers, dad sneezed and his false teeth fell out into the water. As he could not swim, he could not rescue his teeth. The army dentist swiftly made him a new set.

In 1944, the regiment went to Burma. The men knew that they would eventually be behind the Japanese lines in the Burmese jungle. At this time, they were known as Wingate’s Chindits although the name was not made public until after the campaign of 1944. They had been trained in commando methods to infiltrate behind the enemy lines. Some men were taken in by Dakota aircraft or gliders but dad walked into the jungle. Before their journey started, all the men had to write Christmas cards and Birthday cards for their families. Dad worried that if he was killed, mum would still receive these greetings cards. I believe that he walked approximately 1,000 miles, carrying everything he needed at all times. Supplies were dropped by parachute, including letters from home. The men struggled up mountainous jungle tracks, crossed turbulent water often grasping their animals’ tails and halters, always weighed down by their monstrous packs. I remember two anecdotes about dad’s jungle experience.
1. The men sometimes used to put all their rations (including jam and cheese) into the stew pot to make one meal!
2. Dad and his friend bought a chicken from a Burmese villager. They decided not to kill it, but to keep it until it was mealtime. They made a “cage” for the chicken. Unfortunately during the night, an animal, probably a tiger came into the camp and pinched the chicken. That was the end of their tasty meal.

Dad was almost shot by a Japanese soldier. He just managed to dive for cover! When asked how he could maintain his deeply religious beliefs in a war situation, he announced that he would have no hesitation in killing someone before that person killed him!!

In early February the men reached the River Chinwin and there was much fighting. The 45th Recce, was then commanded by Brigadier Mike Calvert (known as “Mad Mike”). Eventually dad and his mates were flown out of the jungle. They were hoping for a rest. Mad Mike had different ideas, so back they went, this time to Imphal. In a letter sent to one of dad’s friends in 1978, Mad Mike Calvert wrote:-

“I can honestly say that as far as I am concerned, a commander is only a projection of the troops under his command, and if he has the right communication system up and down to them, he only does what they want him to do and does what they are capable of doing. That particular battle was the culmination of a series of operations around White City and the culmination of Wingate’s plans in that we finally defeated all the forces sent against us, and it was the first time that the Japanese infantry retreated in confusion when fighting British Forces. I think that historians will consider that this was a turning point in the whole Burma campaign. Yet it was a soldier’s battle. I merely showed you where the Japanese were and in your several ways you went after them, killed them and defeated them, coupled, one must not forget with the operations of the five Gurka companies.”

After coming out of the jungle dad like many others, spent some time in hospital. He had malaria and for the rest of his life, he would sometimes have a high fever. In 1986 he contracted skin cancer like many fellow Chindits. We believe that it was a form of cancer that lay dormant for 40 years and that there may have been some connection with the substance sprayed from planes on the jungle to kill mosquitoes. The men stayed in India for a while. Dad went sightseeing including a visit to the Taj Mahal. I believe that it was at this time he saw Vera Lynn and Lord Mountbatten. In January 1945 he was in Karachi and collected two prisoners from the military police. I have the receipt for the handover. I also have dad’s copy of the service of thanksgiving and rededication on the occasion of the return of the 16th Infantry Brigade from active operations. This took place on Whitsunday 1944.

Among his other artefacts, I found press cuttings including one describing the Reconnaissance Corps. It reads:
“Theirs is a story of countless skirmishes, of long hard marches “spying out” the land. They were mainly West Country men who had never before operated without vehicles. With them always went their mascot “Oscar”, the bullock. Even when hungry, they refused to eat him!!”

Dad’s Release Leave Certificate reads:
Military Conduct: Exemplary
Testimonial: A reliable and hardworking NCO. Has good command of his men and tactful in his dealings with them. Is intelligent and of sober habit.
He received five medals, four of the more common ones and the efficiency medal (Territorial) awarded on March 5th 1947. He then received a clasp for the above medal, awarded on 24th April 1947, 17 days after my birth!

During my father’s lifetime, the Chindit saga was discussed on numerous occasions. Once, during a Cornish holiday, one of the senior Chindit officers, I believe it was Brigadier W P Scott, called to see my parents. Out came the box of Chindit artefacts, including an orange silk map of Burma, which dad had carried through out all the campaign. Dad gave this map to this senior officer. I was not pleased!! However I am very proud to be the daughter of a Chindit, especially one who was described as being “one of the best soldiers I ever met”. My mother, husband and I had the pleasure of hearing this remark during a conversation with Lt. Col. J. C. White, dad’s former Chindit column officer, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the last campaign in Burma 1944, attended by the Prince of Wales.