God of our fathers, known of old
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine-
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart;
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
Far-called our navies melt away
;On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard-
All valiant dust that builds on dust
,And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Recessional, by Rudyard Kipling.
Europe was in chaos in May 1945.
Most of Germany’s major towns were ruins. Millions of displaced people, including survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps, were trying to get home. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war had been released. Hundreds of thousands were being driven from their homes in what is now called ethnic cleansing. In a storm of vengeance in Bohemia, Sudeten Germans were murdered and most were expelled. Silesian Germans were hounded from what had been allocated to Poland by the victorious Allies. In Yugoslavia, old hatreds were acted out among the national groups that make up the country.Ted had a glimpse of the human consequences of the conflict as the London Irish took up peacetime duties in Carinthia in southern Austria close to the Yugoslav border.
“We were transported to Klagenfurt, where we met Nick Mosley, who was in charge of the advance party. We placed all the personnel in their allocated billets and separate accommodation was given to Sergeants. I was quite happy about the arrangements but RSM Doug Meighan asked: ‘What about the Colour Sergeant and I? We are entitled to separate quarters.’ This was true for Warrant Officers. But I was only a Staff Sergeant. Nick blushed and stammered an apology. He then knocked at an auberge. A top window was opened by a woman. Nick, when he was excited, had a terrible stammer.”
“He said: ‘Ha..Haben sie eine einne ssschlaaaafe ziiimmmer fur zwei zwei Oooberfeldwebels.(Haben zie ein schlaffe zimmer fur zwei Oberfeldwebel?).’ The lady replied: ‘Bitte?.’ Nick, who had a good command of German, repeated his request but with an even worse stammer. Once again the lady said: ‘Bitte?’ I looked up and said: ‘Have you a bedroom for two Oberfeldwebels, please Madam?’ ‘Certainly. How long will you be needing it for? I am English and I married my Austrian husband before the war. It is years since I spoke it, so I did not understand.’ She had not realised that we were British because of our strange headdress and thought that Nick was speaking in another language.”
“Doug and I went for our kit but were stopped by E Company Commander Major Hood. ‘It’s all changed. We have to move to a POW camp at a place called Wolfsberg.’ ‘What, Germans?’ asked Doug. ‘No. British, French and Russians and some others,’ Hood replied.”
“The company repacked their kit and not too happily paraded for the same transport they had vacated a couple of hours before. Before we left, Hood, normally a very tolerant man, gave them a lecture about their appearance. He told them that, as soon as they had been settled into their new quarters, they would have to look like a victorious army. ‘You will not be allowed out until you have cleaned up yourselves and your equipment,’ he said. We arrived at Wolfsberg and were allocated billets which were less spacious than at Klagenfurt. One platoon was put in charge of the camp. Their quarters were large but spartan. The camp had been very short of food until two days before when the RAF had literally bombed them with food parcels. There were damaged tins of every type of food everywhere. The RAF did not use parachutes as these could have drifted into the town, then held by an enemy still at war. Low-flying aircraft tipped the food out over the camp. I don’t know if a warning had been given. If not, some people would have been injured.”
“That evening, the men spent their time cleaning uniforms and polishing boots. The next day E Company paraded and were inspected by Hood who was impressed. He told them that they would be allowed out that evening but they were not to fraternise with the population. They of course had never heard the term before. Hood explained what it meant. That evening, they walked out looking like conquering heroes but soon drifted back. Wolfsberg was small, there was nothing to do, nothing to buy and they could not talk to anyone.”
“That morning, I had driven to the POW camp to issue rations. The Sergeant told me he had put the former Camp Commander under guard. He asked me to inspect his quarters and to be strictly regimental. I entered the room and the unfortunate man was ordered to stand rigidly to attention. The Sergeant treated the prisoner harshly as he had a bad report about the Commander from the former inmates. To my disgust, he had given the German a tin of bully beef but no opener. I thought, ‘Are our people any better than they in dealing with helpless victims?’ I often said, after hearing about Belsen and other concentration camps, that one could find staff for such a place from my own home town.”
“The English prisoners were allowed relative freedom until they could be transported back to England as were the French and others. The Russian POWs were kept under close guard. They would remain so until an exchange could be effected for the many thousands of British and Commonwealth prisoners in Russian hands. A Russian Commission turned up and were negotiating conditions for the swap. It was said that the Russian Officers behaved abominably.”
The Irish Brigade found themselves in charge of one of the loveliest places in Europe. Carinthia straddles high mountains and unspoiled woods. Crystal clear lakes that are still popular holiday resorts glittered in early summer sunshine. The main landmark in the region the Irish Brigade held was the Ossiachersee, a large Alpine lake. The main town was Villach. an important railway centre with a huge marshalling yard that had served the German supply lines into Italy and had been heavily bombed. But most of the area’s charming villages had been untouched by the war though many of the local men had either been killed in the war or taken prisoner. Austria, which had merged with the German Reich in 1938, was to be treated more kindly than Germany. The Allies decided that it had not been a belligerent like Germany but an occupied territory. De-Nazification, which was initially thorough-going in Germany, was applied more lightly in Austria. The legacy includes complicated feelings among many Austrians about their country’s role in the Second World War when their countrymen were prominent figures in the SS. But there could be few better places for the warriors of the Irish Brigade to recover from the rigours of total war in the spring and summer of 1945.
“We were moved from Wolfsberg as the battalion was located close to Villach. E Company was billetted in a group of villages on the Ossiachersee and in the hills beyond. BHQ and HQ Company were at Annenheim. S Company was at Bohdensdorf. Annenheim and Bohdensdorf were very pretty places. E Company had the prize billet: a railway children’s Convalescent Home on the lake between the two. The large house and its smaller staff house occupied extensive grounds backing on to the Ossiachersee. The children were already being moved away and the staff were given notice to quit the smaller building.”
“The home provided ample accommodation for the company. It had five members of staff. The Principal was a gracious lady in her fifties. Her assistant, whom we called, the ‘Adjutant’, spoke perfect English with a slight accent. The Adjutant thought that Rosie was a nickname for my rank and called me ‘Der Rossy’. At first, we dealt with them very correctly but soon spotted that the five ladies had a small cottage in the grounds. The house, which had about half a dozen rooms, became the Sergeants’ Mess and Quarters.”
“I received notification that my gong had come through, but it wasn’t a medal, merely a ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ for distinguished conduct in Italy. I was pleased but at the same time disappointed. I expected more. It meant I could wear four medal ribbons with an oak leaf on a strip of khaki in the place the Victory Medal ribbon, which had not been issued, would be pinned. But five strips of cloth seemed a paltry reward for six years in the infantry. The same medals were issued to anyone who had been at Base Headquarters. The Defence Medal could be earned for just six months service there. RSM Meighan missed his by just a couple of months because he had not served in England for three years, as I had done, and served only in the front line when abroad.”
Ted had been out of the UK for more than two-and-a-half years and was overdue family leave. Returning to London would involve another epic journey, this time across war-shattered Europe. It would take more than three days.
“We had barely time to settle into our new quarters when I was told that I had 28 days leave in England. I should have gone months before but had been prevented by my illness and, latterly, by my rank. I had about two days to pack and hand over to a young Sergeant from another company who had some clerical experience. The job was no longer arduous and was confined to feeding, clothing, quartering and paying the men.”
“I reported to Villach transit camp. It was run by an artillery unit and reminded me of the army saying: ‘If it moves salute it, if it doesn’t, paint it.’ Whitewash had been lavishly used and it was a credit to the army. The 25-pounder guns had thick freshly-painted white ropes surrounding them. As we were not leaving until the next morning, Jimmy Barrett and I went to the Sergeant’s Mess at Annenheim the evening before. Here, Jimmy overindulged and was driven back to the Villach Transit Camp. He was a little noisy as I put him to bed.”
“Early the next morning, we embussed in TCVs and were conveyed via Salzburg to the city of Ulm. Our route followed a magnificent autobahn which occasionally had breaks due to bomb damage and destroyed bridges. We passed right through the city of Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, which was relatively undamaged.”
Ted’s route passed through an Alpine valley through which the main road between Bavaria and Austria runs. Not long after entering Germany, Ted passed unknowingly through Berchtesgarden, above which stands Hitler’s Alpine retreat. Ted’s memories are mainly about destruction wrought on Germany by Allied bombers. More than 10 million Germans died during the water, about 1 million of them as a result of air raids which were often designed mainly to kill people and break Germany’s will to resist. But by destroying Germany’s cities and industries, the Allies were creating a massive post-war reconstruction challenge. In the winter of 1945, millions of Germans faced starvation and had to be saved by Allied aid, often at the expense of their own people. The Allied bombing campaign, particularly the destruction of the Saxon capital Dresden, continues to be controversial.
“After entering Germany, we passed the worst ruins I had ever seen. It was a large city and it appeared that nothing was taller than the height of a man. It was a scene of complete and utter destruction. We wondered where we were. I saw a sign that said Muenchen. This was Munich, capital of Bavaria and the birthplace of Nazism.”
“Ulm in northern Bavaria was another scene of chaos. The town was completely destroyed but, standing relatively undamaged, was the magnificent Protestant Cathedral which had the tallest spire in Europe. As soon as we arrived at a Transit Camp, I was called to the CO’s office. I was told that the Transit Camp at Villach had signalled that I was suspected of causing damage to installations: ropes around the guns had been cut. I, of course, denied any responsibility. The CO asked if I could deny that Sergeant Barrett and I returned there in a drunken condition. I said that it was true that Barrett had overindulged because of his leave but that I remained sober and had put him to bed. I added that I would have been foolish to mar my reputation and endanger my overdue leave by such an escapade. I gave him brief details of my service. He believed me and told me to go home and enjoy my leave.”
“Next morning, we resumed our long journey across Europe with two overnight stays in army camps. I was thrilled to pass through towns made famous in the First World War and saw the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres close by the Passchendaele battlefields of 1915 and 1917. I was saddened to pass Allied war cemeteries from three eras: the enormous cemeteries of 1914-18, the graves for the dead of 1940 and, finally, the cemeteries for soldiers killed in the European campaign of 1944-45. We arrived at Calais and sailed for Folkestone in a very stormy sea. I lay down on some foam for the whole of the short voyage and managed to control my queasiness. At an army installation on the sea front, I was issued with my Railway Warrants and a truck took us to the station. I arrived in London not much more than an hour later and made my journey to Brixton, for the first time in more than three-and-a-half years. My family did not know of my leave and my mother was overcome when she opened the door for me.”
“I had arrived on a Saturday. Next morning, I went to Mass and met many people that I knew, mostly elderly civilians but a few servicemen on leave. My brother Danny, who had been flying in India and Burma, had been sent home to train with new planes. But as the European war was finished and he had but a short time to serve, he had been retained at Croydon as Warrant Officer in charge of the Officers’ Mess. It was a well-deserved cushy number after hazardous service in the Far East.”
“My sister Lilian had become a young lady. She was working in the Civil Service. Bernard was in Newquay in west Wales completing his final year at the Rotherhithe Nautical School. Luckily, he was not old enough to have been engaged in the dreadful war at sea. Tom was with the RAF somewhere in Europe. Bill was in the Mediterranean. Ellen was living in Morden with her husband Laurie. She was very ill but managing to live almost a normal life.”
“Many of my cousins, both Hanlons and O’Sullivans, had served in the various services. All had survived, though Percy Thurston had lost a leg at Arnhem with the Parachute Regiment. His father, Percy senior, had found a niche in the Army and commanded a depot with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Miraculously, most of the club had survived, despite a service record of almost 100 per cent. The sole exceptions were Raymond Tuff, Nelson Smallbone and Jack Thornton. I visited Hawkes and discovered that the sole civilian fatality was Lester W Kato, a cutter who was deferred from service but killed in an air-raid. Leonard Panario, a shirt cutter and Territorial, was killed in Egypt with his tank unit. Edward White, son of Wilfred White, had died in north Italy.”
“One of my father’s colleagues at South Lambeth depot had served with the London Irish Rifles during the First World War. He had asked if he could meet me, so I went to the Depot on the second day of my leave on Monday morning and chatted with him. I felt a little unwell and called in at the local doctor. He told me that he could not treat me but gave me a chit for the military wing of King’s College Hospital at Denmark Hill. I was examined and told that I was probably suffering another attack of malaria. This was confirmed and I was in bed for a week. I was discharged but collapsed as I reached the door to the ward and was put to bed for another week. I was sent to a barracks at Aldershot and given a 14-day extension to my leave. I returned home with 26 days of unexpired leave in front of me. The first days were occupied visiting relatives and meeting Joan Wyatt, the lady who had written to me regularly. This friendship was not to blossom. Somehow, the news of my leave had become known to officers now in England. Major Costello, who had been E Company Commander during the German attack in Bou Arada in February 1943, asked me to call on him at the offices of the English Speaking Union. He was just out of the Army and greeted me effusively. He said that he had an appointment but had arranged for Major Diarmid Conroy, who had been seriously wounded in the same battle, to take me out to lunch. Johnny Young, a Sergeant from F Company who had been with me at Barker’s in 1939, appeared. Together, we went to Overton’s at Victoria where we were regaled with a sumptuous meal. Major Conroy was to become a QC, a judge and a knight. Costello kept in touch through Hawkes, now his tailors.”
“On Sunday morning, I went to Mass and afterwards saw a smartly-dressed young lady whom I recognised as Pat Webb, a member of Corpus Christi club. We chatted and I walked her home. I found that she was in the ATS and worked at the War Office in Whitehall. We had a lot in common. She had been at school with me at Corpus Christi and in the Oratory Girls’ School. As a civilian, she had worked as a clerk at the South Lambeth depot of the GWR. Her brother Denis had joined the Royal Navy with my brother Bill in 1941 and they had previously served together in the Home Guard. During lunch, I told my mother of the encounter with Pat and said that I should have asked her to go to the cinema.
She said: ‘Why don’t you go round now and ask her?’
This I did and that evening we went to the Astoria. We arranged a few more dates and one was with her mother and her uncle Richard Halligan at the London Palladium where we saw ‘The Night and the Music’ starring Vic Oliver. Pat’s leave expired but she kept me company in the evenings. We met at a restaurant in Sloane Square near to her billets on several occasions. Pat made my leave and I was very attached to her. When it expired, I said goodbye and promised to write.”
“I returned to Austria across Europe, but by a different route. When I arrived, I was informed that I had been absent without leave for 14 days. I showed my papers issued by Aldershot which explained my extended absence was due to sickness. Returning to E Company, I took over as before and settled down to finish my service. I discovered that I had extra duties and was responsible as Duty Officer for mounting the Company Guard. I wrote often to Pat Webb and kept her replies in a little tin.”
British politics were about to be turned upside down. Winston Churchill resigned as prime minister on 23 May to fulfill his promise of parliamentary elections as soon as the war in Europe ended. On 5 July, the British people went to the polls in the first national elections since November 1935. Ted voted for the first time and, for the last time in his life, chose the Conservative Party. Firmly anti-Communist, he had disliked what he had seen of the Red Army and Tito’s partisans in Italy and Austria. He also believed that Churchill deserved his vote because of his inspiring role as war leader. Ted was shocked to discover how many of his London Irish comrades were violently anti-Churchill. Pat Webb voted Labour. The results of the election were announced on 26 July 1945. Labour had won 393 parliamentary seats compared with 213 for Churchill’s Conservatives and 12 for the Liberals. Winston Churchill resigned as prime minister and Clement Atlee, deputy prime minister during the war and leader of the Labour Party, accepted the queen’s commission to form a new government at 730pm of the day that the results were announced. Ted was mainly concerned with his work in the occupation of southern Austria.
“Something of a fitness fanatic, I would rise early, dress in PE kit and embark on a long run which was particularly needed after a mess night. On occasions, I would hear the clip-clop of a trotting horse on the same path and a voice would cheerily greet me, ‘Good morning Colour Sergeant.’ I would gasp a reply. It was the 2nd Battalion’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Horsfall who has returned to the London Irish Rifles in May, and he often would send to the central mess fish, game and stag that he had killed.”
“The fraternising rules had been relaxed and we had become very friendly with the German ladies who could not return to their homes in different parts of their homeland. I was considered something of an enigma and was asked by the Adjutant why I was not an officer. She said: ‘Your name, O’Sullivan. The ‘O’ is similar to ‘Von’ and it means of.’ I explained the name and the clan system of Ireland. We held a dinner and invited the officers and the ladies to the Company Sergeants’ Mess. The ladies invited the sergeants to their cottage. I arranged a swimming test for the company and was surprised to discover how few were able to swim as much as 100 yards. Yet our company, now reinforced, comprised about 100 fit, young soldiers.”
“After about a month, I was promoted to Warrant Officer II and was posted as CSM of HQ Company. I could not believe it. George Charnick gave me my symbols of rank: a green caubeen and blue hackle with the large chromium badge and a fine, black walking stick. HQ Company Commander Rodney Cockburn greeted me warmly and told me he wanted me to smarten up the company which totalled about 250 men. This I did, focussing my attention on the billets, which were dirty and untidy. I next came down on the drivers as they were walking about with collars open and their hands in their pockets. I was not popular. I had never been this sort of person before. Rodney called me the ‘Atomic Sergeant Major’ because I obtained the results that were needed at that time.”
“Horsfall wanted us to look like a conquering army of occupation. HQ Company was letting the rest down. They had been slack under an easy CSM. At the same time, I tried to improve social conditions for the men and arranged a company dance in the local auberge. It was a success but men were getting drunk and I ordered the bar to be closed. The Transport Sergeant refused to leave, so I put him under open arrest and sent him to his billet. I was assisted by Hugh Danbury, who was my Colour Sergeant, Sergeant Dickie Smith and Corporal Charlie McCombe. The latter two were members of the battalion boxing team. I closed the dance down and was invited back to the private quarters of the landlord where his family thanked me for bringing the evening to a peaceful close.”
“Danbury and the others remained outside to encourage the lads to go home and were surprised to see the Transport Platoon minus their Sergeant approaching.
‘Where’s the little bastard?,’ they shouted, ‘We want to do him. He put our Sergeant under arrest.’
Most were the worse for drink.
Danbury lined up with the boxers and said: ‘All right. As he is only a little bloke and there are a lot of you, do us first, then you can have a go at him.’
They dispersed without a murmur. Next morning, I summoned the Transport Sergeant and told him that he deserved to be charged for his conduct and for inciting his men to assault me, but I was taking no action. If I did, he would have his demobilisation date put back. My words had immediate effect. Transport was a changed platoon. But I suspect that they still thought their name for me that night was a perfect description.”
“I was summoned to see Colonel Horsfall who asked if I would like a career in the Army. He wished to recommend me for an immediate commission with the rank of Lieutenant Quartermaster, if, when asked, I would sign up for an extra year. I was flattered. As I loved soldiering, I agreed. He said it might take a little time to sort out. It was a great opportunity. I was only 26, roughly 10 years younger than an average Regimental Quartermaster.”
“A few days later, the RSM and the RQMS both went home for demobilisation. George Charnick was promoted to RSM and I to RQMS.”
Ted heard that some Quartermasters in the army managed to make considerable sums during the war by selling equipment and pocketing the proceeds. The idea horrified Ted who felt his duty above all was to the long-suffering men on the front line who were often under- equipped. He felt that the bad behaviour of some tarnished the reputation of Colour Sergeants in general. Not all colour sergeants were rogues.
“I soon settled down in my new position which made me responsible for the clothing, food, equipment, quartering and arms of the battalion. Delegation was the key and helping me were NCOs and men who were specialists in their skilled jobs. George Charnick also delegated many tasks to me and I started to act as RSM at Battalion Orders and in the HQ Guard Mounting. Inspecting the meticulously-turned out guard as the Pipers’ wonderful tunes were being played and again as they marched off was the thrill of my life. I loved the battalion and the London Irish Rifles. My pride in its achievements and courage has never faded.”
The final horror of the Second World War was acted out on 6 August when the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A second was detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August. Five days later, Japan surrendered. There was a second day of celebration called Victory in Japan (VJ) Day. In Austria, Ted was enjoying his final months as a soldier. Life in Austria had become very comfortable.
“I lived in a large room in a nearby hotel which was a short walk from the Sergeants’ and WO’s mess. CSM Byrne was now its President. We employed a Hungarian band from among the thousands of their troops that had surrendered to us. They gave their services free and we provided food, drink and transport. I had a Hungarian Lieutenant as a German interpreter while I was at HQ Company. My duties at the time included commandeering woodland which was felled and dispatched to Vienna as fuel. One day, the Pioneers blew down a large tree instead of felling it. I considered it was too dangerous and forbade the practice. Another day, a party felled a tree which rolled down the side of the mountain, across two roads and the railway track and plunged into the lake. It was a miracle that neither trains nor vehicles were passing.”
“Just before Christmas 1945, I was given instructions to arrange to feed hundreds of Polish soldiers returning to their homeland as they stopped each night at Villach Station. It was a logistical nightmare. I was given my first notice of a train’s arrival time only when it passed through the Tarvisio pass which gave us less than 15 minutes to get ready. Its halt at Villach was timed for 15 minutes before it proceeded to the Czech border. I had a party of cooks from regiments in the brigade and we were all under the Staff Captain. They agreed with my idea that to open food, when one was not sure it would be consumed, would be a waste. I suggested a bank of soyer stoves in which we could have unopened meat and vegetable stew. We would lay out loaves of bread which would be cut during the short notice and some tinned pudding sweets.”
“The first night, the train was signalled after midnight and we were all prepared. Every Polish soldier was served with a hot meal and mugs of tea. They were very grateful. They were being conveyed in cattle trucks and snow lay on the ground. I was complimented by the Staff Captain for an excellent arrangement. That week, an article was written about me in the Brigade newspaper entitled ‘Villach Vapours’. It was going so well, I asked permission to be excused after losing sleep for about four nights. My duties during the day were particularly onerous as we were preparing for disbandment. That night, General Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Division, turned up and, I understand, handed out decorations.”
“The handing in of battalion stores was crucial to David Aitkenhead, the Captain Quartermaster. No regiment had its stores absolutely correct as printed in the G1098 booklet. Many items had mysterious names and nobody knew what they actually were. I suggested that he write out a list each day and I would get the storemen to assemble what they had. I would take them to the RASC and Ordnance Depots and obtain a signature to certify goods had been properly returned. It worked easily. The storemen could not care less at the Depots and, each day, I would report back to Aitkenhead with the pages all signed up. He thought I had worked a complicated confidence trick. I wondered afterwards how much of the army’s equipment actually went back to Britain and how much was dumped or sold.”
“Aitkenhead asked me join him as his WO1 clerk when the battalion was disbanded and he was transferred to the RASC. I refused and also asked Horsfall to release me from my undertaking to re-engage. I told him I had fallen in love and wished to go home to get married. In her letters, Pat had told me how glad she would be to get away from the Army and I realised it was the Army or her.”
“Charnick, however, was not ready to go home. He should have left in January and was also a year older than me. Charnick asked Horsfall if he could stay and close down the Regiment with me at the end of March. This meant that I performed for a period the duties of RQMS and RSM. One day, Brigadier Scott visited the stores. He greeted me with a broad smile, put his arm round my shoulder and said: ‘Hello Rosie. Can you help me to find a good Batman?’ I was amazed. He must have known my nickname from when he was Battalion Commander.”
“The respect shown to me by all the officers was apparent when we met. I would throw up a salute which they returned smartly. Majors and above would say: ‘Morning Rosie’. Junior officers called me RQ. The name Rosie that I had originally hated had become a badge of honour. Bugle Major Chubb later said the regiment gave two nicknames which stuck and were respected: ‘Rosie’ for me and ‘Guvnor’ for Sergeant Major Fraser of the Pioneer Platoon.”
“In early March, Charnick and I said goodbye to those who remained in the battalion. Most of them were to be transferred to Trieste and the 1st Battalion of the London Irish. That night we went back to the Sergeants’ Mess. We left by train early the next morning. Our route was across the north of Italy, through the Brenner Pass and Austria and into Germany and France. From there, we speedily progressed to Calais. A fast crossing landed us at Dover. From there, we proceeded directly to Aldershot where we were accommodated for the night. The next morning, we were issued with our civvies, our warrants, accumulated pay and our bounty (a gratuity for soldiers being demobilised).”
“I was still a soldier but released on leave until the end of August 1946. By that time, I would have spent six years and ten months in the Army instead of the six months which I was originally called up to serve in October 1939. When I joined, I had ideas of being a Commissioned Officer and probably could have been one. I stayed in the ranks, however, achieving a status beyond my dreams. I had been a ‘Quarter Bloke’ in size and rank. But I became a ‘King’s Warrant Officer’ and the second most senior non-commissioned rank in a battalion of 800 men. For quite a lot of the time in Austria, I acted as number one and was treated as such. Rodney Cockburn was to argue later that the two best Colour Sergeants in the Army were Rosie and Roy Prudhoe and that there was little to choose between us. It was my crowning hour of glorious life and I had been lucky to survive.”
London in the spring of 1946 was a place of mixed emotions. There was peace, but the city still bore the scars of war. Tens of thousands of buildings had been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged. There was a shortage of housing for the returning troops. Some lived in tents in parks. Due to Britain’s precarious finances, rationing was even more strict than it had been during the war. The Labour government had promised sweeping improvements in the lives of ordinary people, but Britain was almost bankrupt.
Loans provided by the US to finance the war were being repaid. Hundreds of thousands of British troops were still serving in Europe, Africa and the Far East. Civil war had erupted in Greece between Communist partisans and the restored Greek government. Palestine was wracked by violence as Jewish guerrillas attacked British troops and fought their Arab rivals in a campaign to end British rule and force the creation of a Jewish state. The demand for independence in the Indian sub-continent had become irresistible and would be granted in 1947. British soldiers continued to die violently across the world. A social revolution was taking place in Britain. The government introduced weekly allowances for every child after the first-born in March 1946. The National Health Service Bill establishing the National Health Service (NHS), which provided healthcare free at the point of use, was approved by the houses of parliament the same month. It started operating in 1948. An emergency house-building programme was launched.
The millions returning from war were determined to restore normality to their lives. That year was to see a record number of marriages that would produce in 1947 a record number of births in Britain’s post-war baby boom: more than 1 million, a figure was only matched once in British history when more than 1 million were born in 1964. Ted’s thoughts were beginning to turn to the future.
“Although now a civilian, I was unwilling to discard my uniform at once so took a fortnight’s leave of the three or four months owed to me. Dressed as a WO, I enjoyed myself and walked out with Pat. I visited people who had not seen me for many years. I negotiated my return to Hawkes. During the last months in Austria, I had received a letter from Mr Whitfield telling me that my position was open for me upon my discharge. In it, he mentioned that he would be retiring shortly. Quite mistakenly, I thought that the job might involve a position like an accountant or an administrator with some authority connected with my army experience.”
“I was surprised, therefore, when he told me that I would take up the position which I had left in 1939. Whitfield’s post had been filled by Eric Fletcher who had been released from the RAF in which he had been a Bomber Pilot with commissioned rank. My pay would be £5 per week, far less than I received as RQMS.”
“I had, though, burnt my boats and could not go back. I should have negotiated position and salary before leaving the Army. Members of the staff who had been called up after me and had lower age and service group numbers were already back in key positions.”
The demobilisation of the British Army was completed faster than expected. The release of conscripts began on 18 June 1945. By Christmas, one-third of the 4 million Britons in the armed forces and working in war industries had been demobilised. By the time Pat and Ted returned to ‘Civvie Street’, more than 2 million people had returned to the British labour force.
“I thought that I was showing originality when I chose my civilian clothes at Aldershot. I discovered that the grey, single-breasted suit I wore put a vast number of ex-soldiers into another sort of uniform. I immediately set about getting a Savile Row suit for as little as possible. I obtained a length of a brown stripe worsted cloth and Jimmie Collie and Cochrane made a suit for me. The beautifully-cut suit I had made for me in 1939 had been given away to Ernie Rizley who had been killed by a bomb on Vining Street during the Blitz.”
“Pat, after a short leave, went back to South Lambeth depot where she worked as a GWR clerk. Her wages had been topped up by the railway during her service. Like me, she was amazed at the low pay on offer. Friends and relatives who were returning service personnel were appalled by the abysmal salaries in what, before the war, were considered first-class positions in banks, insurance companies and railway offices. Army wages had been poor, but housing was provided and you were paid for skills and for rising in the ranks. Pat and I and come out of the army too late, yet too soon, together with the majority who had served the most.”
“Pat and I were now engaged and I spent about £40 on a gold ring with three diamonds. We obtained it through a relative and hoped that it was good value. We started to make arrangements for a wedding later in the year. After a short holiday, I reported to Hawkes which was overrun with staff. Their busy days had been when we were away. The Army was shrinking. I was back running the ‘Ready-to-Wear’ department. Provided one could get over the shortage of clothing coupons, sales were easily effected.”
“A fly in the ointment was Jimmy Spencer who had been made a kind of shop manager. He treated me and every returned serviceman abominably. Several of us had been senior NCOs and were unused to such behaviour. I never spoke to my soldiers in such a fashion. Civilian discipline, I discovered, was far worse than that in the Army. I had two £1 a week increases in pay. I liked my work but I was dissatisfied. Many of my old officers called in to buy clothes and to inquire about my welfare. Several suggested that I should have a better job. Mr Campbell, the All-England agent for William Hird, the woollen manufacturer, took Tom and me out to lunch and suggested we should start our own business. We had little capital but proposed joining Danny in his building business. He turned us down as we were not skilled craftsmen.”
“Pat and I were courting seriously but kept our old friendships. One of them was with Pat Newbery. Father Kelly asked him to be the church organist and we would spend evenings manually pumping the old organ while he converted his skills as a pianist for the instrument.”
“Pat and I were married at Corpus Christi Church in a nuptial Mass on Saturday, 19 October 1946, a day over seven years after I joined the London Irish. Pat Newbery played the organ. Danny led the choir and sang a solo: ‘Ave Maria’. At a reception at 31 Arodene Road, about 40 people sat down to a magnificent meal despite the post-war shortages. This was mainly thanks to my mother, a wonderful cook and incredible organiser, who was helped by members of the Phipps family. The evening was a great success. Pat Newbery played the piano and there was a repertoire of operatic arias from Charlie Phipps and other choir members. Uninvited guests joined the party, including Gerry Teague, the former London Irish G Company Sergeant.”
Pat and Ted’s wedding was a new beginning. They were both only 27, but had lived a lifetime in the previous seven years. You can see the day more than 70 years ago in black-and-white photographs from the family album.
The bride and groom and their closest family members gathered for the cameraman beside Corpus Christi church in Brixton. Ted wears an immaculate Hawkes’ jacket and trousers. Pat, looking stunningly lovely in a flowing gown she hired for the day, holds a magnificent bouquet.
To Ted’s far right is his Best Man and brother Danny, the Gunner from Bomber Command.
The three glow with more than happiness in the pale sunshine of an autumn afternoon in London’s first full year of peace.
It is pride you can see.
They had been put to the test and passed.
They had won.
On Ted’s right are his father Mick and his mother Lizzie. To Pat’s left are her mother Lily Ann and her uncle Richard Halligan wearing the uniform of the US armed forces to which he was attached at the end of the war. Ted’s sister Lilian, a pretty 19-year-old, has flowers in her hair. All had lived through the worst of the Blitz and the final terror of the V-bombs.
They too have a victor’s smile.
You have to imagine the others there on that day. They included Ted’s brother Tom and sister Nellie, recovered from tuberculosis, with her husband Laurie. There was Ted’s cousin Frank O’Sullivan, the Air Force Spotter. Mick’s father Daniel and his three brothers and their families were among the guests. Some of the Hanlon clan had come.
And you can conjure up the O’Sullivan brothers that were not there: William in the Royal Navy and Bernard at sea with the Merchant Fleet. But look harder with your mind’s eye and you can see more faces. There are Mick and Lizzie’s many lost brothers and sisters and Lizzie’s parents, John and Mary. And there is Daniel O’Sullivan who fled the Irish famine almost 100 years earlier to found a London Irish family.
Then more and more appear: dockers, union organisers, cab drivers, teachers, priests, nuns, soldiers, policemen, fire fighters, nurses, clerks, and shopkeepers.
Perhaps you can see the Republicans, the Fenians, the starving refugees of the great famine, the Young Ireland campaigners, the followers of Daniel O’Connell, the pikemen of 1798, the convicts sent to Botany Bay and Tasmania, the scattered fighters of the Wild Geese, the doomed defenders of Drogheda and Wexford, the desperate marching O’Sullivans, the lost clan chiefs and the monks, the missionaries who converted large parts of Europe to Christianity, the fiddlers, the harpists, the dancers, the singers and the poets of old Ireland.
They have come from many places and times.
For they have won as well, at last.
Suddenly, hundreds more join the celebrations.
There are Ian Brooks, George Rock, Denis Griffin, Andy Gardiner, Harry McRory and all the men left in the mountains and wadis of Tunisia.
Also, there are Colonel Ion Goff, Major Arthur O’Connor, Sergeant Gerald Keegan, Corporal Edward O’Reilly, Rifleman Swift and the others who rest eternally in Italy.
Ted had cared for them, fed them and loved them. This is their day too. They had paid for it with their lives.
A tall young man works his way to the front of the crowd. He stands behind the groom and places an affectionate, brotherly hand on Ted’s shoulder.
He leans forward and whispers: “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
It is Eddie Mayo.
Yes, he is there.
They are all there.
They will always be there.