North Walsham & District Community Archive

Chapter 2 - Leaving home

The story of a Methodist Yorkshireman's journey through life.

Chapter 2
Leaving home

Leaving school at the age of 14 and going out to work was in a way like leaving home. My first job was with the Heckmondwike Co-operative Society. I remember that first Monday morning when I was sent to one of the small local grocery shops. My first job that day was helping to weigh out the flour into one-stone and half-stone bags ready for customers orders. Later when we had cleaned ourselves up from the flour, we continued with weighing sugar, butter, lard, cheese and margarine etc. All had to be weighed in the same way. It is amazing how everything has changed over the years. My first week's wage was eleven shillings and sixpence - equivalent to about 57 pence today. I gave mother the eleven shillings. That first day at work seemed to me to be a long day. I believe I shed a few tears leaving home that Jmorning. It was like going out into a big new world. I moved to several shops in the area. Then, in 1939, some of the young men in the Territorial Army were being called up for the forces. I found myself being transferred to the milk department. I was quite happy in my work. Then I recall the day war broke out. I was delivering milk on a trade barrow, a lady said to me "How old are you John?" I said "I am only 17" and she said, "Oh, it will all be over before you have to go".

The months passed by quickly and young men kept leaving us. Then before I knew where I was, my age group was coming up for call-up. One Sunday night I was out for a long walk with young people from the Church. This was something we always did after evening service. We were talking about those friends of ours who had been called up. At that time I had my own distinct views of what I thought about it all and one of the young men turned to me and said "You ought to be turned out to grass and water". It was also about that time that I had filled in the necessary forms to apply to go to Cliff College. It was a great disappointment for me because I always had that calling to do full time work within the Church, instead I had to make my way over to Huddersfield to enlist.

My leaving home on the 14tn January 1941 changed the whole course of my life.

I remember that my father walked to the station with me, where I joined another young man who I had been to school with. My father placed a small Bible into my hands. He had written the following words inside, 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee': Isaiah 26,v3 and 'Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart': Psalm31, v24 There was sadness at our parting. Maybe my father was thinking of the day he left home in the first world war. In the railway carriage as we travelled to Bridlington there was not a word spoken. I eventually parted company with the young man who I had been to school with. He finished up in the Middle East and later lost a leg in the battle of Salerno, Italy. Over the years, when I have been back to Yorkshire, I have always tried to go and see him.

My destination that morning was Hunmanby near Bridlington. We were picked up in army lorries at Bridlington railway station and taken to the Methodist Girls School at Hunmanby. It had been taken over by the War Department. We were all lined
up and eventually my name was called out, "Naylor, you are in the 11ln Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, No. 4758420". Later we were all given two blankets and a palliasse which we had to fill with straw. That first night it was terrible, there was a lot of swearing and men worse for drink. Late that night many of the men who were worse for drink were urinating on the floor near where I was and the water flowed into my cubicle. Can you imagine how I felt on my first night away from home? Some of the older soldiers had been serving in India. They did not treat us young men very well.

Japan was now in the war. When we were having bayonet practice the Sergeant would shout out, "Put more into it man, if you get out there the Japs will have you". How frightening it all was. When our early training was finished we moved to Bridlington for a little while. Then on to Otley where it was easy to get a pass to go home for a few hours. Lots of the men came from Doncaster and Sheffield. From Otley we moved up to a place called Yarm near Middlesborough. I have very vivid memories of Yarm. My parents visited me while I was there. I soon made friends with the people at the small Methodist Chapel. We did a lot of training and manoeuvres while in that area. I remember how the local people used to come out with tea and something to eat, if they saw us stop outside their houses. It was while at Yarm that the Germans dropped a   bomb on Middlesborough Railway Station. There was a train standing there at the time but fortunately it escaped any damage. We were called out to help clear the wreckage and the debris which had been caused by the bomb. Years later I spoke to a man from Middlesborough and he said he remembered that day well.

I had many moves around the country. During this time I had taken a course as a driver mechanic at Kettering and became a Bren-gun carrier driver. The day we arrived from the south of England in North Walsham, I wondered where we had come to. I unloaded my Bren-gun carrier off the train and together with two or three more we set off, making for Bacton. We got lost and finished up in Paston, but eventually we found our way to Bacton. I spent the first night at Eden Hall, which has since been demolished. The following day I was moved down to Walcott, into a large chalet type house, which is still standing, not far from the Post Office. When I take a ride down to Walcott, memories come back to me of the time I spent living there. I was there for about 18 months. In 1943, men were getting four weeks intensive training before being posted to the Middle East. At night the skies used to be full of bombers going out to the continent. When they came back early in the morning, the German fighter aircraft often used to try to make a hit and run attack on the coast line. We used to play football on the field near the Post Office, where the caravans are now. We would also use the cafe at Helen Stores which has since been lost to the sea. I soon found my way to Bacton Baptist Church. When it was Church parade on a Sunday, most of the men marched to the Parish Church, while two or three of us made our way to Bacton Baptist. It was there that I was to meet the late Jim Pike and his wife Rosie. Jim was the gardener for many years at the North Walsham Hospital. We still visit Rosie even today. They were the first people I became friendly with in Norfolk.

For a brief period I was moved to North Walsham. I was billeted in the old Congregational Hall which is where the Eastern Carpet Company car park is now. Whilst in North Walsham, my job was to help give Bren-gun carrier training to men stationed in the town. All the Bren-gun carriers used to be lined up on the Old Yarmouth Road near the park. We used to do our training in Witton Woods which is now called Bacton Woods. We also trained on Felmingham Heath. Many a time I have driven the Bren-gun carrier through past the Black Swan into the town centre. One Sunday morning quite early, I was going down the town centre a little too quickly when I hit the pavement outside what used to be Loades. I had a track come off, worse still I thought I was going through Loades window!. What a fearless young man I was. It was while at North Walsham I had two duties to do at Westwick Hall, not realising that eventually I was to spend nearly forty six years there. In North Walsham I soon made friends at the Methodist Church. One of the first homes I went into was Joyce Featherstone's. Most of the young people went there after evening service on a Sunday. On a Tuesday I would go to the Christian Endeavour. It was there I first met Catherine who was later to become my wife. To me it seemed that I had met the most beautiful girl in North Walsham. She had long fair hair just like our daughter, Caroline, today. Catherine worked at Loades in the town and whenever I was driving through town in the Bren-gun carrier I would always gaze up at Loades window to see if I could see her. Catherine's mother and father came from Foulsham and used to farm at Guestwick. She also had an aunt, who was not married, living in North Walsham who ran a Temperance Hotel in the 1930's. Many of the older generation in North Walsham still remember the Hotel. This stood where the Trustees Bank is today. Catherine also had an uncle who was living with her aunt. He was a retired Master Baker and a wonderful local preacher. He was a man who knew his Bible. Let me say this; on a Sunday, Catherine, her mother and father and her aunt and uncle, like many others, were always at worship both morning and evening. They were all there whatever the weather was like or whoever was preaching.

Later I moved back to Walcott. Many men had gone out to the Middle East. There were not many of us left. We were a skeleton Battalion by now. Every opportunity I got I would make my way back to North Walsham to see Catherine and I have memories of Catherine and her friend cycling down to see me while at Walcott. Returning one night from North Walsham to Walcott I missed the transport and found myself walking back to Walcott. I got on the wrong road and finished up on the Happisburgh Road. I was frightened of being caught by the Military Police in the Bacton area but I finally got back without any problems.

I remember quite well one morning being told to prepare ourselves for going lifting sugar beet on the other side of Norwich. As we drove up Crow Road in North Walsham, we found Mundesley road sealed off because of an unexploded bomb. When we arrived at the farm where we were going to work, the farmer had dozens of small forks which he expected us to lift the beet with. I remember well about thirty of us lining up across the field. The day before he had had the RAF helping and they had not been good enough for him. I do not think we were much better. The farmer had sent us packing before lunch time.

I really loved Walcott and now, after more than fifty years, Walcott is very special to me. I am still able to say to different people that is where I used to be billeted. Even going to Stalham and parking in the old station yard, I am reminded of unloading coal on several occasions and taking it back to Bacton. Also going on the West Runton road, when I pass under the railway bridge. It was there where we had our rifle range. Marvellous how it all comes back.

The day eventually came for the York and Lancashire Regiment to move. The destination this time was Redcar in North Yorkshire. We all assembled on St. Peters Court in Bacton, then we marched to North Walsham in sections of about twelve men. One section would be on the right of the road and one on the left. I recall stopping at the pill box over Royston Bridge to have a rest, before finally marching on to North Walsham railway station. Catherine knew I was leaving town that morning. She was at the railway station along with several others to say their goodbyes. Letter writing then had to begin. I do not know what happened to my Bren-gun carrier at Walcott. It was no doubt taken over by the new regiment that moved in.

At Redcar our job was training other older soldiers from India, in the new and more modern weapons. These men had many years service and did not think much to it. It was whilst at Redcar that I met up with Catherine's cousin, Eric Stroulger, who was later to be my best man at my wedding. I remember walking down the streets in Redcar with Eric. We were singing 'Guide me O thou great Jehovah'. He may have forgotten, but I still remember. On 6m June 1944 we heard over the radio that there had been a landing on the beaches of Normandy. My stay at Redcar was coming to an end. I had met several people at Redcar Methodist Church, in particular Mr. and Mrs. Corner whom Catherine and I stayed with for a few days after we got married.

So again many of us were on the move. Surprisingly, back to Bacton in Norfolk, but not for any training. On arrival we received various inoculations, and were given fourteen days embarkation leave. I got in touch with Catherine in North Walsham and we decided to go north to Yorkshire to see my parents. While up in Yorkshire we decided to get engaged and that happened on the 1st of July 1944. After my fourteen days leave, Catherine made her way back home to North Walsham. I made my way down south, where I eventually joined up with thousands of other troops in a great big holding camp near Southampton. We were all waiting to cross over to Normandy. I remember there were to be no more letters home. After about forty eight hours we were driven down to Southampton docks. As we travelled down, men were throwing all their loose change into the road for the children to pick up. I wonder what was going through their minds? At the docks we boarded a big American liberty ship and that night we sailed for Normandy. About half a mile from the shore the ship came to a stop and the anchor was lowered. Landing craft came alongside, and we went down the rope ladders into the landing craft with our kit bags and rifles. 1 can't explain how I did feel now. On the boat I did not feel too good but on the small landing craft I was even worse !

We went ashore at Bayuex. The Germans were still holding out several miles to our left. It was all very frightening. Most of us had to report to the reinforcement unit. I then became a reinforcement for the 10m Battalion Highland Light Infantry and was to join their Bren-gun carrier platoon. I was no longer a Yorkshire and Lancashire soldier. The sad thing was that the 15tn Scottish Division, of which the Highland Light Infantry was a part, had suffered so many casualties, there were not many Scottish soldiers left. I remember my first night. I was placed on guard duty not knowing who was about. The next morning the men were having a wash and shave, using water from a large tarpaulin cover which was staked out at each corner. A Highlander played his bagpipes in the distance. I made my way into a derelict house and found an old harmonium. I sat down at the organ and played the tune Crimon. I tried to sing The Lord Is My Shepherd.

The battle for Caen was taking place and it was not long before the big allied break through came. As we made our advance, it was terrible to see so much carnage. There were dead German soldiers laying all over the place, and hundreds of dead horse's which they must have been using. There were burnt out lorries and tanks. As we entered Valise there was a big red notice put there by the military police, 'Looting -Penalty Death'. I was amongst the troops that liberated Tilburg. The local partisans were rounding up all the collaborators. While we were there our photo was taken by the British Press. Our regiment arrived on the River Maas near Eindhoven where we were through Christmas 1944. Later in the Spring of 1945, I was amongst thousands of men who were to cross the River Rhine. The preparation for that crossing was like another D-Day. A few hours before it took place, all those involved in the crossing were gathered in a large field. Field Marshall Montgomery spoke to us all. He told us that the Americans were going to cross the Rhine at about two in the morning, followed by the British about six hours later. This would all be preceded by a 2,000 bomber raid. I remember that day going across quite vividly. We spent about twelve hours in a farm house. There were dead German Soldiers laying about. Our Sergeant ordered the civilians to bury them. Down at the bottom of the farm yard was a pig running about loose. This same Sergeant suggested about killing it. He laughingly spoke about pork chops - he was a butcher by trade. I recall how he said to me, "You try and get some boiling water, and when I have had ten minutes sleep I will deal with it". I created a fire with petrol and eventually got some water boiling. I got a little impatient waiting for the Sergeant and tried to have a go at the pig myself. I got wrong with him, but many of us were eating pork before the end of the day!

Throughout all these weeks and months, I was always pleased when mail got through. As you might realise we did not get it every day. When it did come I was so happy to hear from Catherine and every opportunity I got I would be writing back to her. Writing about our future together when the war was all over. We must have written an enormous amount of letters to one another. Many of mine had to be censored by our Officers before posting. In the middle of April 1945 our Division got orders from Montgomery to push on regardless of any slight resistance. I remember that day very well. At one time the movement of troops going forward in one long column were being held up by the German snipers, which it was said were in a Church tower. They were eventually dealt with. At that time we were moving on towards a town called Calles, which was deserted and empty. Looking back it makes me wonder where all the civilians had gone. In the town itself there was a lot of looting taking place, even by Officers. We had to be very careful because we were very worried about booby traps. I vaguely remember finding some blankets to make myself comfortable for the night in a bomb shelter or a trench dug out, I have forgotten what it was. I remember the following day moving on towards the Reichswald Forest and meeting up with a lot of Canadians. I think they were the ones who went in front of us and were involved in bitter fighting. We had a flame thrower fitted on to our Bren-gun carrier for going through the forest but I do not remember it being used. All I do remember was a big chicken farm we over-ran and how the men cleared all the eggs up. I don't think the chickens had been fed for days. As we moved on I remember seeing displaced groups of refugees coming towards us and asking for food. I believe someone said we were not very far away from Belsen concentration camp. We had never heard of the place. We were almost to the River Elbe. It was the 14th April 1945; all our armoured vehicles and lorries were lined up on the road. The Germans came out of the woods and surprised us on our right, firing their machine guns. At the time it was a very serious situation. The Infantry had gone forward and we were caught on the hop. Many of the lorries had been hit. Down the road there were hundreds of German soldiers who had been captured. They were being guarded by about three or four British soldiers. You may smile, but when all this happened we were going to try and make a mug of tea. The Germans were about fifty yards away. That morning I had not been able to find my rifle. All I had was two hand grenades. I got underneath a tank transporter, - silly thing to do. I was so visible all the way round. I received bullet wounds to the left arm. In all the time I was in the army I had never fired a shot in anger. The next thing I remember was getting into the ambulance to be taken to a field dressing station. Germans were also being treated at the same place. I recall how a medical orderly asked me if I wanted my great coat. He wanted it to put round a German boy soldier, aged about sixteen, who was wounded and shaking with fear. Finally I was flown out in an RAF Dakota to the 101 Military Hospital in Brussels. I was rather pleased to get out of it that morning. The only sad thing was that I had lost all my personal possessions; different things I had picked up while moving through Germany. Also my Bible which my father had given to me when I left home was left behind. But it was wonderful, because several weeks later it was found and returned to me at my home address. The sad thing was I never was able to contact the person responsible and let him know I was still alive.
Eventually I left hospital and was moved somewhere near Brussels for convalescing. It was while I was there I remember the news going round that the war was all over in Europe. It was a lovely day. We were all sitting and laying about on the grass and I believe we all gathered somewhere to hear Winston Churchill speak over the radio. Naturally many things went through my mind. I thought about all my pals I had left in Germany and wondered if anything had happened to them. I also wondered how long it would be before I got home leave. The records in my Army Book show that I had a 14 day disembarkation leave on the 3r^ of July 1945. This was to be 14 days leave before going to the far east. I made my way straight to North Walsham to Catherine's home and we made plans at once to get married. There was so much to do before the lO"1 July. We had to get a special licence from Bell's, the Solicitors in Grammar School Road. There also had to be a visit to Yorkshire to see my family. Thankfully Catherine had been making lots of arrangements before I came home, knowing that the wedding was to take place! We were married at 11 o'clock on Tuesday 10tn July by the Rev. Jacobs. After the wedding we had a small family reception at Catherine's aunt Bessie's home. She lived at 15, Station Road, North Walsham. Later that day we made our way by train to Redcar where we spent a few days with some friends I had already met a year earlier. On the 17tn July Catherine made her way home to Norfolk and I made my way south near to Southampton to join a new unit which was preparing to go to the far east. While I was there I received all the necessary injections, new battle dress, rifle and the shorter type bayonet and it was only a matter of days before we went. Then one day about lunch time, as I was washing up in the kitchen, someone came running in shouting, "It is all over. An atom bomb has been dropped". We did not know what an atom bomb was. It put an end to going to the Far East for thousands of men. I was given another leave of fourteen days and then posted back to Brussels where I joined a Royal Artillery Regiment. It was while I was in Brussels that I met a Methodist padre called Norman Taylor who, when the war was over, was on a circuit near East Dereham. We had some good times meeting together for fellowship. I even remember joining in an open air service with a Salvation Army Band. Eventually I returned to Minden in Germany as part of the occupation until I returned to England to be demobilised at York. Looking back after all these years and reading books and watching various films on television on the second world war, many a time I think I was one of the fortunate ones that came home.