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A Territorial's Tale

Henry Phillips Wartime Experiences

From Aberdeen to Cairo Via Dunkirk

As an active member of the Territorial Army in Aberdeen, I was one of the 1st to be called up when war was declared against Germany on the 3rd September 1939. We knew something big was about to happen and heard the announcement on the radio by Neville Chamberlain after we came home from Church Parade with the TA.  I remember heading up Union Street in Aberdeen to the TA Barracks in the old fashioned tram car. The lights of the tram car were already painted blue to dim the light as the blackout restrictions started at once. We spent some weeks at the Fonthill Barracks in Aberdeen doing basic drills whilst waiting for postings.

Old Machar operated a poorhouse, location unknown, from around 1849, with accommodation for 47 inmates. A new poorhouse, capable of housing up to 200, was erected in 1853 at the north side Fonthill Road, Aberdeen.

The building was designed by William Henderson.
The new poorhouse's location and layout are shown on the 1890s map inset.

Following the opening of Oldmill Poorhouse in 1908, the buildings were acquired by the Territorial Force Association and converted into Barracks. The site has now since been cleared and redeveloped for housing.

I volunteered to join the Royal Corps of Signals and along with scores of other recruits was sent by train to Yorkshire and on to Catterick training camp where we were to be turned from raw recruits into soldiers in a period of weeks rather than months. We were then move to Aldershot near London, to form part of the 9th Scottish Signals.  The Major in charge of our Section was a soldier of the old school. He insisted that we should drill getting into and out of trucks very quickly and we did this time and again until we were able to do it to his partial satisfaction.  Little did we realise then that it would shortly prove life-saving.  We were excited but scared at the prospect of action abroad.  There were constant rumours that we were to be moving out. The most accurate information however came not from the Army, but from the ladies who were waitresses at a nearby café, who assured us that we weren’t moving out yet - and who told us we were going to France before we heard officially!

We were sent to France eventually as part of the British Expeditionary Force on the 1st April 1940. Our job was to establish lines of communication by laying down telephone lines so that companies in the field could communicate with their own HQ, and the various regiments could communicate with each other and receive reports on German movements.  We were based in a camp near Arras in France.  The facilities were very basic. There were no tents or bunks for us and we slept on straw in pig-sty's. Our pay was the princely sum of 7/6 per week (around 60p), which we soon spent in the local villages on a Saturday night on a haircut, something to eat and a couple of drinks.  We knew there was much telephone and Morse code activity, and were told eventually that the German advance of April 1940 meant the BEF had to pull back towards Dunkirk. We were loaded onto trucks and started our journey north through France. French civilians were also on the move and we saw cars and every conceivable form of transport abandoned by the side of the road as they broke down or ran out of petrol.  Columns of refugees were trying to escape the German advance on foot and north of Armentiers we were constantly bombed and strafed by the German air-force. The constant drilling the Major had insisted on to get us to jump in and out of trucks quickly now proved its worth in full and saved many lives as we had to dive for cover quickly in the ditches which lined the road on both sides.  As we passed through small villages the streets were running red - not with blood as was our first horrified thought, but with wine flowing from small vineyards, which the villagers were determined, would not pass into German hands.

We had the uniform we stood up in, spare vest, pants, shirt and 2 pairs of socks. We had the World War 1 standard issue Lee-Enfield rifle, with 5 bullets loaded and 5 spare in our belts. I always laugh when I see episodes of Dad’s Army on TV - we were like that fighting for our country against the might of the German army in France. We were told not to engage the enemy with our rifles, though we did our best to block roads to advancing troops by pushing carts and broken down lorries into the roads to cause obstructions. Our job was to concentrate on getting through to Dunkirk, get home and regroup.

We eventually ditched the lorry, having made sure the engine was disabled so it wouldn’t prove useful to the advancing German forces, and we continued on foot towards Dunkirk under near constant aerial bombardment.  I don’t know how long we marched; I lost track of time and one day merged into the next but we eventually arrived in Dunkirk and were directed towards the beach to await evacuation. By this time the Germans were bombing Dunkirk and machine-gunning the beaches and we took shelter as best we could, under an ornamental fountain.

We formed up on the beaches at Dunkirk in lines and waited for rescue. We were there for a few days, under constant bombardment as we waited confidently for the Royal Navy to arrive to take us home. We could see the white cliffs of Dover from the beach and I remember at the time lying in the sand wondering if I would ever see my home and family again, and if I would see my 25th birthday in November of that year. I had no idea where by brothers were and hoped they were safe somewhere else.  At the height of one of the bombing raids when nerves were frayed and men pushed almost beyond endurance waiting for rescue something very strange happened.  Out of the clouds of dust on the beach there appeared from nowhere a small, nattily dressed man, wearing a suit, bowler hat and carrying an umbrella and a briefcase. He walked smartly along the beach as if he were on a parade ground and urged the men to remember they were British soldiers and to behave accordingly.  His appearance and his words had the desired effect and were enough to check the rising panic and settle us. I never knew who he was or where he came from or went to, but I would guess he was a retired regular soldier or civil servant from his natural air of authority. We saw boats of all descriptions coming in, loading up with soldiers and heading back out to bigger vessels to transfer them. The bombing was quite fierce and a minesweeper suffered a direct hit when a bomb went down the funnel and blew the ship up. I saw a young lad I had grown friendly with on the march to Dunkirk disappear in the water and never found out whether he made it out to one of the waiting small boats nearby.

We settled down again to await rescue and moved forward into the water as our queue diminished, wading out into water chest deep. I was eventually pulled into a small boat and taken out to a waiting destroyer. I still had my helmet, my rifle and my pack with spare vest, socks, pants and shirt and my 5 extra bullets. The first thing that happened was that my rifle was thrown overboard, so they had maximum room to accommodate the men still waiting for rescue. We were ushered below and the Cook appeared with a big enamel tub filled to the brim with boiled eggs and we were urged to help ourselves.  Up until then I hadn’t really realised that I was hungry, though I knew vaguely I hadn’t been eating but had been too busy surviving to worry about food. Every member of every crew of these ships and the small boats were heroes during those days - without them the BEF would have been wiped out at Dunkirk.

We very relieved when we landed at Dover to be back safely on British soil. There were ladies from the WVS on the quayside with sandwiches, cups of tea and cigarettes and I’ll never forget their kindness.  We were put on trains to go back to our bases and as the trains passed through villages in England local people would come out to cheer us and the ladies provided sandwiches for us.  It was as though Dunkirk was a shared experience for those at home too.  I was at the camp in Aldershot for about 4 weeks before I was told I would be granted a 7-day leave to go home and see my family. I tried to explain to them something of what happened at Dunkirk, but I think it could only be fully discussed and understood with mates who had been there and gone through the experience.  For reasons of national security I was unable to tell my family at the time where I was, so they didn’t know I was at Dunkirk until I arrived home. When we wrote letters home they were subject to strict censorship, in terms of where we were and what we were doing.  My father sometimes wrote and said that you for your letter but there were some bits heavily scored out and he was unable to read them fully. For the same reasons of national security when we were on a home leave, we were warned not to tell the people at home where we had come from or what conditions were like.  If I had done, I could have been on a charge when I returned to Camp. It feels strange even now, to be asked to write this down for the as although I kept a Journal, I would have been in real trouble if it had been discovered on a routine inspection. 

My next posting was a 4-year one to Egypt. We got there in a convoy, and had to take the long route round Africa for security reasons. The British battleships “Rodney” and “The Hood” escorted our convoy, zigzagging across the convoy constantly to monitor for submarines.  We stopped briefly at Cape Town and were allowed ashore there briefly. I remember the beauty of Table Mountain and in particular the wonderful singing of a local operatic lady who sang us out of port and on our way.

Our job in Egypt was to set up telephone lines and relay stations and to keep the phone lines to Malta open at all times. We had to put up telephone poles and lines and repair them at any time, day or night, if they were blown down in sandstorms or as the result of accidents. I worked with a patrol of Basutu tribesmen, who were very good workmen.  We even had our own Witch-doctor who came along and made sure there were no evil spirits attacking our lines. They were beautiful singers and I used to love listening to them sing “Abide With Me” on the lorry coming home in the evening.  Sandstorms were a real problem.  They blew up sometimes out of nowhere and caused static electricity. If you were at the top of a telegraph pole when tell-tale signs of dust were spotted in the distance, you had to get down from there as quickly as possible. Usually we slid down the guide-ropes and suffered burns on our hands, but an electric shock could have been fatal.  If the wires at the repeater stations fell down during one of these storms we had to go out and repair or replace them, and replace the telegraph pole too if necessary. You could see blue flashes in the sand from the static electricity and hear snatches of conversation, which was an odd feeling in the middle of the desert with nobody else around for miles. I remember once just having sat down to Christmas Dinner when an Officer came in and told me the line was down and I would have to repair it immediately, and never mind complaining about missing the Christmas Dinner!

I made some great mates there too. I remember being issued with a BSA motorcycle, a nice little bike, and learning to drive it there over the desert. I learned to drive a car in the same way in Egypt too. I remember games of football and hockey against other regiments and other nationalities - sometimes playing alongside men who had been professional sportsmen before being called up. We met Sikhs, Australians, Americans, South Africans, and all kinds of people. I went up to Cairo and saw some of the great museums, the Sphinx and I climbed to the top of one of the pyramids, when it was still possible to do so.

I was eventually repatriated and demobbed in 1946 and came home to Aberdeen to rejoin my Father working at the Aberdeen Meat Market Company. My brothers and I were very fortunate in that all 4 of us came home unscathed. Our Mother though had died whilst we were away on active service, partly we think of a broken heart at losing 4 sons to wars in countries she never knew.

There are many memories of my war service, but I will never forget the Royal Navy and the heroism of those men who rescued us from Dunkirk.  Nor, in our turn, have the people of Malta forgotten those who helped in her darkest days of Word War 2.  I was on my first Mediterranean cruise in 2002, having promised myself a proper sea-voyage on that prolonged trip to Egypt so many years earlier, though I had not intended to wait until I was 86 before realising this ambition. Our last port of call was Malta and I did an organised tour with a local guide to see the usual sights, including the Mosta dome where a German bomb fell through the church roof but by a miracle no-one was hurt. At the end of the tour my daughter mentioned to the guide that I had a connection with Malta through being a serviceman in Egypt. The guide came over and took my hand and told me “the people of Malta will never forget you”. It was a very special, emotional moment for me. To think that we were still remembered all these years later, even those of us who were back-room boys, not front-line troops, made me feel very proud but also humble. - Henry Phillips

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Last modified: 01/09/2013