He stood there stiff, face blank, his eyes unfocused, the warm afternoon rain pouring down his face.
With an unemployment rate of over 25%, there were few options for a young boy growing up in Stanley, a small village outside Sunderland, to go down into the ‘pit’ or leave. The West Stanley pit was considered the most dangerous coal mine in the UK. Joe had gone into the pit when he was fourteen, he was determined that his young brother Frank would never work there.
Joe was the oldest of four boys, each born a year apart, Frank was the youngest. More than any of the other boys, Joe would be Frank’s protector. Their father liked nothing more than to set one boy against the other. Having two brothers ‘get it on’ was his way of keeping control. But none of them picked on Frank. Pick on Frank and you answered to Joe.
Joe left home when he was nineteen heading for Blackpool. There was always work for a strong lad that didn’t mind working a hustle. Most of the time he was working the ‘Three Card Monte’ - sometimes the shill, sometimes the look out and occasionally, when a punter complained, an enforcer. Frank stayed in school until he was sixteen joining Joe in Blackpool at the end of the school year.
By 1938 the law was cracking down on street hustles. There was talk of war, as Joe put it “Better to sign up now than get conscripted later.” They both signed up for the “King's Regiment (Liverpool)” and were assigned to the 13th battalion.
Joe had trouble adjusting to the army. Growing up in a family where your fists were your authority, he had trouble taking orders. With one trip to the ‘Glasshouse’ (military prison) and numerous barracks detentions, his prospects of promotion from private were slim. Frank, on the other hand, thrived. Taking as much extra training as he could he quickly rose to the rank of corporal. By the spring of 1941 he would be training new conscripts in hand-to-hand combat.
Life, for the brothers, away from barracks was little more than drinking and parties. That changed when they met Jane and Janet.
Jane and Janet were serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as spotters on one of the 'Mixed' Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) batteries stationed around Liverpool. The men in the battery referred to them as the twins. However, except for height, hair colour and ‘certain other attributes’ they were completely different.
Janet, the older of the two, was from Wallsend, Tyneside. She had one older brother, three younger brothers and a younger sister. Her father had died in the explosion in the colliery in 1935. She was tasked with helping to raise the family. She joined the ATS when her eldest brother failed to make it back from Dunkirk.
Jane was from Glasgow. Raised in an overcrowded tenement with a drunken and abusive father, all she ever wanted was to get out. She joined the ATS as soon as she turned 17, the minimum age for joining.
Having the same time off from their shifts on the HAA, Jane and Janet usually went together to the dances at the Grafton Rooms. They were there when Joe and Frank came over and asked them to dance. One dance led to another, at the end of the evening, they arranged to meet the following weekend.
Janet took to Joe almost right away. He reminded her of her dead brother, quick with his fists, but no bully. It was nice to not have to tone down her accent to be understood. Charming with a quick wit, she could see herself having a future with him.
Jane didn’t warm up to Frank at first. To her he was just another ‘Tommy’, good for nothing but ‘cannon fodder’. Frank was just as unimpressed with her, at times, he couldn’t understand a word she said. (It never occurred to him that she might have the same problem with him.) They only went out because Joe and Janet were going out.
That slowly changed. They both learned to tone down the accents and the slang. They found they had something in common - both were determined that their roots wouldn’t define them. They wanted something better. While Jane could barely read and write, she had a thirst for knowledge. Together they would talk about the things they wanted to see and do. Slowly, words like “after the war” and “when this is over” crept into their conversations.
By January of 1942 the war was going badly on all fronts. Rommel was pushing back the 8th Army in North Africa, the Russians had been pushed back to Moscow and the Japs had taken Singapore.
Rumours of deployment swept through the 13th battalion - no one was sure when or where they were going. The rumours started focusing on being sent to support the Russians when a list of men who spoke Russian was quietly put together. They were sure they would be heading for Murmansk, Russia’s northernmost ice free port. After that - who knows.
Early in February men in the 13th were given a four day pass and clearance to travel back to their homes. Jane and Janet were able to get a two day pass the two couples went to Blackpool.
Returning to camp, everyone was outfitted with arctic kit. On Feb. 9th, along with battalions from the Territorial Army (TA), they started boarding the Queen Mary.
The Queen Mary, along with her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth, had been turned into a troop ship. Nicknamed the ‘Grey Ghost’ she had ferried troops across the Atlantic and as far away as Australia.
It took another three days to complete loading. On the evening of Feb. 12th, under a waning moon, they left Liverpool sailing north. Three escorts, two destroyers and a light cruiser, joined them just north of the Isle of Mann. The escorts were much slower than the Queen Mary, slowing her to half speed. By the morning of the 15th they were south of Islay heading out to the North Atlantic.
That evening, they would lose air support.
Around 6:00pm on the 15th, with a new moon and heavy overcast, the sound of the engines picked up. Word quickly spread throughout the ranks she was making a ‘run for it’. Trying to get past the U-boat ‘Wolf Packs’ that preyed on the ships making the Murmansk run. Every man onboard felt a tightening in the pit of his stomach. They would have been more anxious had they known that the German Navy, with reports that the Queen Mary was heading for Murmansk, had moved even more U-boats from the North Atlantic to form a super ‘Wolf Pack’ covering the Murmansk corridor.
However, if you had been on deck that night and if you could have seen the sky, you would have noticed the Queen Mary was heading south. By the morning of the 16th they were off the coast of Ireland, five days later they were taking on supplies at Cape Town and by the 24rd they were docking in Bombay.
After two weeks, finally getting the appropriate kit and having ‘shots’ for a variety of tropical diseases, they were given passes to visit Bombay. Many found the city overwhelming, preferring to ‘stay with their own’. Others, like Joe and Frank, loved it. They had thought Liverpool was a big city - nothing prepared them for Bombay. Map in hand, they began exploring the city every chance they got.
After his first trip to the city, Frank had written a long letter to Jane telling her of all the wonderful things he had seen. Jane just laughed when she read it, the censors had blacked out everything except “Dear Jane:” and “Wish you were here. Love Frank”. From then on Joe and Frank’s letters home were little more than “I’m OK. How are you?”. Frank would include a few paragraphs he knew the censors would black out. It was his and Jane’s private joke.
By June the men in the Territorial Army had been transferred north to join the 8th Army in North Africa. The King’s Own 13th battalion had been moved to Jhansi in central India. They were joining the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 2nd Gurkha Rifles to form the Long Range Penetration Groups - better known as the ‘Chindits’.
At Jhansi training began for jungle operations. Training includes everything from hand-to-hand combat to jungle survival, learning what you could eat and what could eat you. There was additional training in the use of explosives and a variety of weapons from the Vickers Machine Gun to the 2 inch mortar. Each man was required to know the operation and repair of two weapons in addition to their personal weapon.
The barracks for the various units were separated. There was no attempt to integrate the various forces. That didn’t stop Joe and Frank from trying to make friends in the other units. While the Indian troops were friendly enough, they were able to strike up real friendships with some of the Gurkha troops. Joe thought they were a lot like him. “They may slit your throat, but there wasn’t any animosity. It was just their job”. He couldn’t believe that these friendly people were considered India’s most fearsome fighters.
Frank was fascinated by their stories of growing up in the mountains of Nepal - they were equally fascinated by their tales of growing in a mining town. They were particularly interested in Joe’s stories of going down into the pits.
On the the 13th of February 1943 the 3,000 Chindits crossed the Chindwin River as part of ‘Operation Longcloth’. They were grouped into 7 columns, each column having separate objectives. Two columns were to march south as a diversion before going east to disable the main north-south rail line. Two of the columns would head north to destroy the rail lines in that area. The remaining force would cross the Irrawaddy River - however their objective, once there, wasn't clear.
Joe and Frank were in the force crossing the Irrawaddy.
With no clear objectives, by the end of March, the columns were in disarray. Casualties were mounting and supplies were running low. The Japanese were moving in a brigade to ‘box’ them in. Orders were given to fall back to the Chindwin River by any means possible.
Columns were broken down into groups of 30 to 35. Each man was given a week's rations and as much ammunition as they could carry. Each group was given a BREN light machine gun. They would travel by night and hide by day.
Getting back across the Irrawaddy was the biggest challenge. The Japanese were patrolling the river and guards were posted at every crossing point. Frank and Joe’s group decided to go north and cross near Shein Ma Kar. It wasn't a regular crossing point, but the river was shallow and there was jungle on either side where they could hide.
Ten days after crossing the Irrawaddy they were only ten miles from the Chindwin. Of the 30 men that started there were 23 left. Two had drowned in the river crossing and five were killed in a chance encounter with a Japanese patrol two days earlier.
They had stopped for the day near a small clearing. In spite of being tired and their clothes in tatters they were in relatively good spirits. They had killed a python in the morning. While it didn’t fill their bellies, it did take away some of the hunger pangs. Joe was sitting under a tree trying to get out of the rain and chewing on his last bit of snake when Frank got up.
“Christ man - don’t piss here, I’m eating. At least go behind that tree over there.”
Frank was just returning when the ground erupted throwing him off his feet.
The Japanese patrol was back. It wasn’t an all out assault, they were too few for that. Just a couple of grenades and a burst of rifle fire, and they disappeared back into the jungle. It was over in a few minutes.
Frank got up and started looking around - he could see four dead, maybe some more in the bush. He looked over toward Joe, or where Joe used to be. The grenade had landed almost on top of him - there was little of him left.
He stood there stiff, face blank, his eyes unfocused, the warm afternoon rain pouring down his face.