A guest post from Kate Monro, our Writer-in-Residence - featuring Arthur Ellis
During my first week in residence at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, I spent time in the grand and very beautiful old Long Wards chatting with Chelsea Pensioners. On one such visit, I encountered Arthur Ellis, tucked into a chair outside his room in the half-light of the long halls. ‘I found my heaven in my hell’ he told me of his time in the army. I was intrigued by this comment. I wanted to find out more. A few weeks later, I went back to see him.
Arthur was born in 1918. He left school as a young teenager and went to work at Smiths Clocks but he was soon lured by the glamour of a burgeoning motor industry. Mr Bradley, the owner of the local garage, offered to train Arthur as a motor mechanic. To put this into context, the motor industry was in its infancy and there was simply not the volume of cars on the road that you see today. This was the equivalent of going to work for a dot.com start up in the nineties. It was completely unchartered territory. But it was better than that because it involved driving cars. Manna from heaven for a young chap like Arthur.
It wasn’t that long though, before a blot appeared on Arthur’s landscape. As a result of the deteriorating international situation and the rise of Nazi Germany, the Secretary of State for War introduced a limited form of conscription in April 1939. Arthur’s fate was sealed. Mr Bradley managed to delay his young employee’s starting date by six months but the inevitable moment soon came.
Have you ever heard the expression, ‘going to hell in a hand cart'? How about going to war in an ice cream wagon? Believe it or not, this is Arthur’s story.
‘My memory takes me back to 1924. We lived in Paddington. It was a pretty rough place back then. You didn’t leave your dog out a night or it was in the soup pot…honestly. We were a family, my mum, dad and three boys in a basement flat, 2 rooms, scullery with a cold-water tap, bath hanging up on the wall. We never went to school without shoes like some children but it was a near thing. Life was rough in the early 30’s but about 1933 suddenly people started having more money and things were better. Mr Bradley lived opposite. He owned two local garages and he was taking on workers because people were beginning to buy cars and business was looking up.
Think of the excitement. You were learning something in a very pleasant atmosphere. It was convivial. You could go out now and again. If you were a bit late, it didn’t matter because you knew the next night you probably wouldn’t finish until 8:00pm so I stayed with Mr Bradley until I was called up in 1939. He managed to delay my call up for about 6 months but the motor industry wasn’t important in the way that farming or mining was. Before I left, he let me take the Hillman Minx for a weeks touring holiday.
I felt awful about going to war because I wasn’t a soldier. I was a lay about. I used to smoke and drink and I had no military ambitions so I went in to the Army with the wrong attitude. I didn’t like being told to shave every morning and clean my shoes and say ‘sir’ and stand to attention. Of course if you’d been up before the magistrate for stealing or generally raising hell, you would often be given the alternative of joining up instead of jail so there were some stupid people in the army. The sort of people who clashed with people like me. My first month was just about hell and I almost got in to nasty trouble.
After a month, I began to realise what a stupid idiot I was. At which point they said ‘right. Fifty people are going to a Welsh Regiment ready to go to France’. So I and 50 other bods who had only been in the Army a month, I mean we could hardly tie our laces and we’d joined this TA unit which was mostly Welsh miners so it was like moving to a different Army in a different country.
They decided that I would be signaller. So of course I said ‘why can’t I be a motor mechanic?’ Eventually I got to the Colonel, at around Christmas 1939. I told him that I wanted to repair vehicles and he said (affecting plummy accent), ‘Yes. I suppose you had a petrol pump’. I said ‘excuse me sir. I have never served or sold a pint of petrol in my life and I don’t intend to start now’. But eventually they said ‘OK. We’ll send you to the technical people’. The officer who was doing the testing said ‘I am going to recommend you pass out as a 2nd class tradesmen’. I had gone to be tested as 3rd class tradesmen so I was delighted.
That January we were preparing to go France. You don’t remember it but if you read the books the whole world was in turmoil when the Germans were advancing. We were going to be one of the artilleries regiments because it was quite obvious that the Germans were going to get through Holland and Belgium. It was only the time that it was taking them. The Germans in 1939 had very few tanks and military vehicles but they had lots and lots of horses. Because of this, when we went back to our unit, I was more or less put in charge of our little section of transport. I was as proud as anything because I’d proved myself and not only had I proved myself but somewhere along the line, this chap who was in charge of the workshops was quite glowing. ‘When you go back to your unit’, he said, ‘don’t sit still. You’ve got to apply to be a 1st class tradesman.’
Eventually, about February 1940, I qualified as first class vehicle mechanic. I had my two VM’s that worked under me and I was left on my own because we didn’t have military vehicles. We had ice cream carts & coal carts. Oh yes. We were preparing to go to France to fight the best Army in the world. We had 18lb and 60lb guns in the regiment and they were towed by a coal cart or an ice cream wagon. The vehicles were not there. It was a TA Regiment in South Wales. The main people were miners and if they went to camp they either borrowed vehicles or put up without them. So when we joined they had very few military vehicles and the only place they could get them was by going out on to the street and commandeering anything that wasn’t being used’.
But Arthur’s destiny was not France bound. At least for the foreseeable future. As his unit were about to board the boat to France, it came to light that they were even more ill equipped than they thought. They had guns. They even had ice cream vans to travel in, but no ammunition. The unit was sent to Ballymoney in Ireland instead. ‘It took us nearly a week to get there because all these awful old vehicles kept breaking down’. They spent time guarding the border and training and around the middle of 1940 they were issued with new vehicles. By the end of 1940 they were ready for battle. But wherever they were going, ‘I forget now’, it fell. ‘So we fiddled and messed about until 1944, training and giving demonstrations and such. About that time, I reached the rank of Sergeant, which was my pinnacle because if you were a tradesman you could only go to a certain level. But as a Sergeant vehicle mechanic, I was quite an important person. I thought anyway. Honestly!
Eventually the invasion came and we worked our way up to France and into Holland. I was up on the front line one day, and one of the drivers had been wounded. You had an Observation Post as far forward as possible watching the enemy, sending orders back. Every now and again, each section had a driver who drove a little armoured carrier which could travel between the two points and in our particular troop, the driver of this vehicle was wounded. They wanted another driver. Who was there? Arthur. I was told to take the signaller’s motorbike and go and find out what was happening. So off I go. And all of sudden there was a bang. And I’m lying in the road. I look up and there is a German soldier standing over me.
I said ‘what do you think this is? It's English’, you know. ‘This is ours’.
‘Nooooo it's Deutsch’ came back the German and ‘I am a guard’.
I said ‘it doesn’t matter. I should be catching you, not you shooting at me.’ And what had happened, he had shot at me but he had hit the front wheel and it went sideways and I came off.
He was going to take me as his prisoner and we were argy-bargying about this, just the two of us when suddenly a lorry came round the corner loaded with British troops. They tossed him in the back of the truck and went off leaving me with my broken down motorbike. I don’t even think I was armed. That could have been my undoing right then and there. The German soldier was lucky really because he was out of it and that’s that.
I was in the passenger seat of a truck once with 3 chaps. The driver got out and I said something or other, and he said ‘I’ll speak to you round the front’. So I got out and just as we got to the front of the vehicle a mortar came over and hit him. The two chaps in the back of the truck jumped out and said ‘what’s happened to Bill?’ And there was just his boot. We couldn’t even find his helmet. He’d gone completely, from there upwards.
It wasn’t the first time for me. I’d already seen enough in Normandy. Normandy was dicey for us. We were squeezed up in a very tight area. When the Germans shelled or bombed they were almost certain to hit something. You can’t imagine what that’s like. I often used to think back and think ‘oh crikey’. But generally speaking, things happened so quickly that there was never any time to feel scared. We were always on the move. The vehicles had to be serviced and cleaned and filled with petrol. We had to go and get ammunition and help unload. You’re so busily occupied. The idea was to find somewhere like an old bunker that you could dive into if it got too much’.
At which point, Arthur starts miming bombs flying overhead and diving. ‘Ah, that’s alright. Whistle…yep, that’s OK. If it whistled, it was alright: it was either going or coming. If it didn’t, then it was right there. Touch wood. I came out the other side. And so did thousands of others.’
At the end of the war, Arthur could also have left his ‘hell’ right there and then. Mr Bradley had offered him his old job back, and the opportunity to move with the business to a new life in South Africa. But after some deliberation, Arthur made a choice that perhaps still surprises him. ‘If someone had told me years later that I would end up in the army for the full twenty-two years, I wouldn’t have believed it. Of course not. For the first 6 months, I was the awkward-est soldier you could have ever met. I did not want to be signaller and that was it. I was completely frustrated. It was terrible. I can’t say that ‘something happened’. But ultimately, I got a bit of sense in and I quietened down and I became the blue-eyed boy. I realised that everything I was doing was wrong. If they said I should go to signalling classes, I should go to signal classes and if they said get up in the morning; I should get up in the morning. More or less over-night, from an idiot and perhaps one of the most useless soldiers in the unit, I think I became a good soldier. I tried to make the best of myself in the army and I think I did’.
Shortly after Arthur decided to stay in Germany and become an occupational troop, he met his wife who had been in the WAF (Women [in the] Airforce) and they started their married life together in Germany. In a strange confluence of geography and time, his wife was of course, Welsh.
|This blog was written by Kate Monro|