75th VE Day 8th May 2020 – Remembering our ancestors in WW2

In recognition of the 75th VE Day anniversary I decided to look further into the roles my grandfathers, and great Uncles played in the war. The information I have to date is simply a starting point as I have not a yet applied for any of their service records from the MOD, thus much of the information is from oral family history, casualty records available online and papers held by family members.

My Paternal Family

My paternal Grandfather, Claude Richardson, was one of two children of Thomas and Sarah, his older brother being Wilfred (known as Wilf). Claude was born 1917 and Wilf in 1912 so at the start of WW2 they were 22 and 27 years of age respectively. Wilf was described in the 1939 Register as a Butcher and thus exempt from conscription and he married in 1940. Claude was unmarried and is not found in the 1939 Register. His occupation at the start of the war is unclear due to lack of records at this stage.

As yet have I have found little information on Claude’s WW2 service other than what my Dad and Aunts have been able to tell me. I should really request his service record from the Ministry of Defence. Those should provide me with details of his service number and regiment and I should then able able to carry out further research at the National Archives (TNA) when they reopen.

Whet we do know is that he was in a Driver in the Royal Engineers and based in the desert in the Middle East where his time in service came to an abrupt end (more about this below)! His service record and war dairies (available at TNA) for his regiment may help confirm exactly where he was.

One story my Aunt remembers being told by her father is that he was once driving somewhere in the desert and offered a chap a lift. After dropping the chap off, when Claude arrived at his destination he realised the chap had left a little box behind. When Claude opened it there was a set of electric hair clipper inside. He was unable to return them to the chap and brought them home where they were put to good use by my Grandmother, Claude’s wife, Annie, in her post war hairdressing business which she ran out of the Railway Tavern in Hensall, Yorkshire, where they lived.

Another story he told was that one day whilst he was taking a ride out into the desert (possibly on a motorbike) he came across some Nomads and ended up having tea with them! He thought they were of some notable standing because of the riches around them. He recalled this as “some experience!”.

I suspect he was a popular man in his regiment. Claude wasn’t a smoker but still got his ration of cigarettes to hand out to his friends!

Claude’s service in WW2 came to an abrupt sometime in late 1941 to early 1942. No one can recall the exact dates/year although again no doubt this would be evident from his service record when it is obtained! How? Well, one night he and another Royal Engineer, Claude Didcot, set off (not sure where they were going) having being told to be careful because there was a road roller parked on the road without any lights on. Well, they weren’t that careful because they crashed, ending up in hospital!

Claude (my grandfather) had two broken legs and I believe he was in hospital for about a year bother out in the field and then back home in England. He had both legs in plaster and my Aunt recalls him telling her that when the plaster came off it was ripped off taking all the hairs that had grown underneath with it! Claude was not amused and wouldn’t let them take the second plaster off, instead sitting there himself with a razor blade cutting at the hair for a good few hours!!!!

I can estimate the time when this accident took place as on his return home, he wrote a letter to a friend, Gordon, who at the time had been missing for 19 months – in fact he was a Japanese prisoner of war. I have a copy of the letter and whilst it is not dated he refers to his impending marriage to Annie (they married 2 August 1943). He also describes his accident

“…I had a very bad motor accident, Run into a Road Roller at night time, had seven fractures in all. So I was sent home, and now I have been given my discharge.”

It gets me quite emotional reading the letter. I never actually knew Claude as he unfortunately died 13 months before I was born, but I did know his friend, Gordon, who was also a friend of my maternal Grandfather.

It is believed that Claude returned home on the Queen Mary. The Queen Mary had her maiden voyage on 27 May 1936 as a passenger liner, however with the outbreak of the WW2 she was converted into a troopship and was used to ferry Allied soldiers during the conflict.

My great uncles on my paternal grandmothers’ side, George Robert Sayner (known as Bob), Samuel Sayner and Francis Sayner (known as Frank) (3 of 9 children!) were all described as builders in the 1939 Register and nothing appears to be known within the family of any them being involved in WW2 in the forces. Given their occupations, they may have been exempt from service.

Maternal Family

My Maternal Granddad, Horace Huddlestone, (we called min Grandpa) was the youngest of four children of Arthur and Annie, 3 boys and 1 girl! Horace was born in 1914, his two brothers Claude and William were born in 1903 and 1909 respectively.

Out of the three of boys, Grandpa was the only one to be conscripted and serve in WW2.

My Nannie and Grandpa were married on 27th February 1937 and their first daughter (my maternal aunt) was born just over 4 months later giving birth to my maternal aunt on 9th June 1937 that being just less than three months before the outbreak of World War 2. The 1939 Register which was essentially a population count ‘census’ carried out on 29th September 1939 to help with recruitment to the armed forces, shows grandpa as a Coal Merchant Haulage Contractor and nannie an ‘unpaid domestic duties’. Grandpa was age 25 at the start of the war and was subject to conscription under The National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 which was enacted by Parliament on 3 September 1939, the day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany at the start of the Second World War. 

There were exemptions to conscription and a man could apply to defer being called up, which is exactly what grandpa did on the grounds of his self-employment as a coal merchant. In a letter to grandpa from the Ministry of Transport dated 9th November 1940 (after the start of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940), which states 

“the Minister has recommended that enlistment should be deferred in your case in order to afford you an opportunity of finding a substitute or otherwise of meeting the position which would result from immediate calling up”

His official notice from the Minister of Labour and National Service dated 18th September 1941 states that he would not be called-up before 15th March 1942. It was probably hoped that the war would have ended by this time! However it was shortly after this, on 7 December 1941 that Japan invaded Pearl Harbour with Britain and America declaring was on Japan the following day.

In the meantime he took his turn at incendiary duty during local air raids. There is one story that on one of his duties on Eggborough Hill with another local man, he had taken his rifle with him to shoot some rabbits. The local policeman turned up, who although he knew grandpa well, insisted on seeing his gun licence which of course grandpa did not have on him. The policeman escorted grandpa home, in the middle of his incendiary duty, to see his licence. When they got home, I’m not quite sure what happened but the story goes that grandpa offered the policeman a drink (alcohol of course!) and started chatting, but the time they had finished the policeman had forgotten all about the gun licence and never did see it…I’m sure grandpa had one though!

Grandpa was called-up on 16th July 1942 into the Royal Engineers as a ‘Sapper’. He completed his military training on 15th September 1942 and Military Transport Training on 12th November 1942. Grandpa was due to be posted to Japan but as he was boarding the ship to leave England he collapsed with nerves and was admitted to hospital in Glasgow for a number of months before he was well enough to continue his service. As a result he was then posted to Gairloch in Northern Scotland serving in the 910 Stevedore Company where he worked as a driver loading and unloading ships in secret locations. He was extremely lucky as he had friends and acquaintances that were posted to Japan and ended up in Japanese prisoner of war camps, which would no doubt have been my grandpa’s fate had he boarded that ship. I doubt he would then have been the same man I knew and loved. Victory in Japan took place on 2 August 1945 after the invention of the atomic bomb earlier that year which was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

He had many stories of his time in Scotland which he would tell with fond memories. I know of one sapper he became good friends with, George (I don’t know his surname unfortunately so I cannot trace his family) who was from Sheffield and with whom grandpa kept in contact with for some time after the war. We found one letter from George amongst grandpa’s papers.

I’m sure they would get up to all sorts of tricks although I know grandpa was ‘as straight as a die’; the soldiers and sailors he would meet off the ships in port would bring all kinds of goods (contraband!) to shore and ask grandpa to send on to their families, items such as fur coats, chocolates, nylon stockings etc. Usually items which were in short supply in the war. My aunt remembers being sent some fancy chocolates and nannie receiving stockings but she knows there could have been much more. No one would have ever known or been able to say anything had he kept goods and sent them home, on the other hand I am proud that he was an honourable man and made sure anything he was asked to send was sent to who it was meant for.

Grandpa remained in Scotland until the end of the war being transferred to the Army Reserve on 26th January 1946. During his service, grandpa’s Service Record Book shows he had a number of periods of leave but most notably he was granted 9 days compassionate leave at the end of July 1944; the beginning of November 1944 and the end of January 1945. These periods were likely due to his mother being poorly and died at the end of January 1945, being buried on 30th January 1945. 

My great Uncles on Nannie’s side were Fred Oldfield, William Oldfield, Tom Oldfield and Earnest Oldfield (4 of 10 children)! Earnest was the youngest of the nine children having been born in 1935 thus he was only 4 at the start of WW2. Fred and William were the two eldest having been born in 1911 and 1913 respectively. My grandmother, Mary, was next (born in 1915) then Tom was the fourth eldest being born in 1918. So, Fred, William and Tom were 28, 26 and 21 respectively at the start of WW2.

Both Fred and William are found in the 1939 Register: Fred was married and described as a Farm Horseman Heavy (he was a heavy labourer) and William was living with his parents and described as a Maltster Labourer. Fred and William did not serve in WW2 as their occupations (farmer and butcher respectively) exempted them.

Tom, however is not found in the 1939 Register and my mum knows that he did serve in WW2. Little is known about his service without obtaining his service records and researching the war dairies at TNA for his regiment. However, we do know he was in the Royal Army Service Corp and was evacuated from Dunkirk following the Battle of Dunkirk which took place from 26 May to 4 June 1940.

The Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) was a corps of the British Army responsible for land, coastal and lake transport; air despatch; supply of food, water, fuel, and general domestic stores such as clothing, furniture and stationery (but not ammunition, military and technical equipment, which were the responsibility of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps); administration of barracks; the Army Fire Service; and provision of staff clerks to headquarters units.

My Great Uncle Tom is on the third (full) row, ninth man from the left

Tom never spoke of his experience in Dunkirk but my mum is aware that he was significantly affected by this experience. However, he continued in service and was later posted to the far east. Nothing further is known. Again, it is hoped his service record may shed some light on this, at least provide his service number and regiment details to be able to research the appropriate war diaries with the TNA reopens.

I must say I am a little surprised that out of eleven of my male ancestors who would have been eligible to serve in WW2, it appears only three actually did and only one of those served on the front line but all survived, never, as like most who served and witnessed the atrocities, to really speak about their experiences.

My Husbands’ ancestors

On my Husband’s side of our family, not much is known about their efforts in WW2 although many of the ancestors would have been too old to serve in WW2 being older than my grandparents.

His paternal grandfather, Harold, who was the oldest of ten children (including eight boys) was a printer and aged 46 at the start of WW2. Conscription only applied to males aged between 18 and 41 years. He in fact died after been hit by a car in the blackout on 23 December 1940 living in Poole, Dorset.

Although I have not conducted details research into the 7 brothers, they all appear in the 1939 register and all work in the transport industry in one way or another, and whilst there would of five out the either brothers were of conscription age we have found no evidence any of them served in the forces in WW2 and it is likely they were all employed in exempt occupations.

His maternal Grandfather, Bertie Laming, was the younger brother of two children and sadly his older brother died shortly before the start of WW2 at the age of 37. Bertie was aged 29 at the start of WW2 and in the 1939 register is described as a Clerk. It is said that during WW2 he was a mechanic on Lancaster bombers (land based), a far cry from being a clerk!

We have found him on the Forces War Records website which tells us his service number and that he enlisted at either Uxbridge, Gloucester or Penarth. In Bertie’s case it is likely he enlisted at Uxbridge as he was living Willesden, Middlesex, according to the 1939 register.

The record also tells us that he joined after May 1940 servicing in the Royal Air Force. This is certainly likely to be the case. Bertie married Helen Duell in 1939 and gave birth to their only child, my mother-in-law July 1940.

The Forces War Records website also states “militia”. The militia were essentially the special reserve, suggesting Bertie had previously received some military training. I think to find anything more out about him, we will need to apply for his service record! This is definitely a bit of a mystery!

Bertie survived to the grand old age of 82 dying in November 1992 in Weybridge, Surrey.

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