My father, also Verdun Luck, but always know as Vic, started writing his story in an old exercise book, but his dementia forced him to stop that before the story was half done. I have kept it in the words as written, which very much illustrates his speaking style when telling a story, but I have put the odd explanatory note in [Square Brackets]. There are a few notes from me at the end, also in italics. So, Dads words:-
As I remember it all started in late 1918, being hoisted on my father’s shoulders to go to the workshop to open up after 1st World War. I was about 2½ years old and I seemed to be sitting on top of the World. I remember it was my Dad because my Mum told me.
There were three workshops, ground floor where all the carts were made, next to it the paint shop and yard with a large pit where logs were cut up and sized for timber by hand and large cross cut saw. Then there was first floor workshop where coffins were made.
This was a very interesting place, as when he got an order for a coffin it had to be made very quickly, so all hands to the pump, no electric, candles. My job was to hold the candle stuck to a piece of wood. We worked very late and I was only a tot. My eldest brother, Eric, was seven years older than me and very skilled with the tools, I think he did most of the work.
The years went by, but my dear father never got over the war and used to spend a lot of time in the pub and the men he employed had quite an easy time, hence the business went downhill and, in the end, bankrupt.
I had three brothers and a sister. Eric, the eldest, then sister Molly, Stafford (known as Tim) and Bob.
When I was five Eric made a wheelbarrow, a great secret hidden in the top shop, but I liked nosing about up there and found it. I put it back in the hide out and thought that’s for my birthday and said nothing. But Eric could not keep quiet and had me guessing. I
played along, “Fishing Rod”, “Bow and arrows”. After a bit I said “Wheelbarrow”. Eric said “He’s found it, I won’t give it too him, chop it up”.
But I got it!
When I were six he made me a “Go Cart” with seats, steering wheel brakes etc., but the steering was too stiff for me, so I had to push Eric. Years after he told me “That’s why I made it stiff, so as you would do the pushing”.
After the business went bust we moved to Thorney Island, a private estate. Dad got a job as estate carpenter. We stopped there two and a half years; the best time of our lives [for] brother Bob and me. Horses, carts, tractors, steam engines, seaside, boats and marshlands with wild fowl. We had all sorts of eggs for tea.
But good things come to an end.
The chauffeur’s little girl died from tetanus. Three months after, I knew I had the same thing. I kept it to myself for two days, went to school. The last day I somehow had to walk home, what a struggle. I managed with the help of a nice little girl called Betty Blackmore.
The Doctor was called, he came the next day about 11am and said
“Get him off to Hospital”.
I was taken to hospital by the chauffeur; the father of the little girl that died.
I think I was given up by all, but I fooled them with the help of two REAL nurses, Nurse Hartley and Nurse Featherstonehall (both from very well-off families who came to see them in the Rolls)
Six weeks I was in hospital, then came the day to go home. I was collected from hospital by the estate owner’s daughter and received in the village like a long lost hero, but I was not allowed to go to school for six months owing to the risk of infection.
The farm, the seaside and no school! About a week later I palled up with a lad of about 17. He drove one of the lorries, a model T Ford. I was made! I drove the lorry and he threw on the loads. I was 10, we needed no licence on all the private roads and he was the brother of Eric’s first girlfriend
I drove past the school every day and they all used to come out and wave. Every night Bob used to ask me if I could open my mouth OK
As I said before, all good things come to an end.
Dear Dad fell out with the boss and, of course, told him what to do with his job. We had two weeks to leave to island and all that went with that. Even old Joey the pony never bit out bottoms as he always did when your back was turned.
Well, Mother said “Enough of this Sussex”. Her sister, Ada, who lived in Uxbridge was detailed to find us a house. She found one in Eastcote and we moved with a few hours to spare
What a comedown, Bob never laughed for months.
By the way, Eric and Molly had already moved up to Uxbridge, Molly into [domestic] service [live in]. Eric moved in with us.
Well, we weren’t in love with the place, but we did have a toilet and a bath. Before we had been there a year mother was taken ill and died.
[Dad told me that he had known that his mother was ill before they left Thorney Island. He had found her lying on the floor in great pain, but she had sworn him to secrecy]
She was the family rock and things went wrong quite soon. Father decided he would like another wife, a boy of 12 and a girl of10. She [the new wife] liked a pub life; he had no money and could not hold a job for long.
Me being the youngest at 13, soon to leave school. Eric decided to get married at 20, Molly went back into service and Tim went into lodgings near to his job leaving me and Bob who had just started work; a seven year apprenticeship arranged by Dad. He received next to nothing in wages
So Dad’s [new] wife and 2 children moved in. Within a few weeks she decided that the house did not suit, so [she] had a word with the landlord who lived 3 doors away. He did not agree, so she stopped the rent (and spent it)
The next thing we were doing a moonlight flit and moved to South Harrow. Both Bob and I were beginning to miss our mum.
I was the only one still at school, apart from the two new kids; Gordon and Vera all went to Roxeth Hill School. Gordon got into trouble there, so his mum took them both back to Ruislip school; went on the train every day
I got on quite well at Roxeth Hill. I played in the football team, played Ruislip and beat them.
Dear New Mum sold bits of the home to keep the gin going, let my room to four taffies, let another to a prostitute and her boyfriend. What a happy family we were!
I had a job at the local ironmonger [in the] evenings, so I had to hurry home from school. In those days backdoors were always left unlocked, when I got home one night the door was locked. I looked through the back room window. There was [sic] three men, dear step mum and [unreadable] having the time of their lives. They let me in telling me they were insurance men. I wasn’t that daft at 14, so I went to work.
[Dad told me about this once. He is a little restrained here, I gathered that there was more than one prostitute living in the house!]
When I got home at about 8:30, there was dear Dad and [unreadable]’s boyfriend. Dear Dad said, “Have you seen your mum?”. I said that she died 18 months ago. He got rather cross and said, “You know who I mean”, I said “Well, both of the ladies were here at 4pm with three insurance men, she was taking out a policy on the [unreadable, possibly house] for £10,000.” That stopped dear Dad
Well, I left school about two weeks after; Bob and I packed our bags and went off into the World
By the way, the landlord when we did a moonlighter had always promised me a job when I left school. He gave me a job, but indirectly I paid it all back. By the way, his name was [Mr.] Money.
I worked for him for about 18 months. I learned a lot about building; things were bad, so I was stood off.
An old friend of mine had a boot repair business. As no-one could afford new boots, he had opened another shop. He said to me could I build him a workshop, I said “Yes, I’ll start tomorrow”. He never had much money to spare, so it had to be cheap.
Workshop, plus toilet, took about 6 weeks. I knew a chap with a lorry who had a contract to keep the railsiding clear of bricks. I could buy bricks off of him at 10/- [10 shillings, or 50p] a thousand before 7 o’clock in the morning. I was fifteen and a half and the Boss!
After I had finished he called me in one day. He said could I do a little job for him on the next Wednesday evening (yes). “Go into Ruislip Cycle Shop, there’s a bike for Mr Cook, bring it back to the shop here” he said “You can ride it back, I hope you’re like Mr. Cook” he said “Is it OK?”, “Yes”.
“Well, it’s yours for doing a good job [for] me”
A brand new bike! I thought I was a millionaire.
Job finished, then Ted Money, Old man Money’s son said he was going to build a bungalow, would I come and help? Yes. I think I built it. Young Ted never wanted to do a lot. We built three bungalows and a house.
Then George Morrow’s Dad offered me a job at a lot more money. I went and built a house at Aston Clinton overlooking the RAF airfield [at Halton]. I was sweet seventeen. A church hall at Ilford.
There was quite a lot of building starting around Eastcote and Pinner; big estates. Things were looking up, crying out for bricklayers. The more you did, the more you got paid. I got a job with the Hassy [might be Hussy] Brothers. My first job was putting up breeze partitions which I was very good at. I got a raise, 2d over the rate, they took a fancy to me because I could work. 18, and money in my pocket!
I must not forget dear Dad, he would pop up every now and then for a sub. [this is a building term for payment before payday or a loan, in this case I suspect no-one was expecting repayment to be made!], so we started a sinker fund. We put so much a week by to pay him off, that fund went on until the war started.
I was then nearly 18, so I thought I would get a motorbike, the best thing I ever did (and I still had the push bike).
I got the motorbike in 1934 [and] got caught up with two lads who were running a small business. I joined them; motorcycles, I learned every bit about them. Rode in trials, races, scrambles, hill climbs. I did quite well, nearly broke my neck at times.
Nothing I liked better than off to Devon on the bike of the day, tent, stove, sleeping bag, it was lovely in those days.
Then trouble again. George and his brother had a rather bad motorcycle accident, a job building in Devon and one in North Wales. Well, what can you do? Pack up a good job
Off to Devon, find a local labourer, built a house on the edge of the cliff for an old sea captain.
By the way, the lads I started [employed] in Devon came into the story later on.
On to North Wales, winter, frozen out for five weeks. George had then joined me so I handed over to him, came home and packed the job up “broke”.
Went back to my old job with “Any chance of a start?”.
“Just carry on where you left off.”
I had seven houses in front of me “pointing and fireplaces”, but I managed to get a bit of money in the bank.
Carry on with my motorcycle life. The motorcycle business packed up, both the others got married, so I moved to Uxbridge [and] hired a garage in a builders yard. An old friend Les Bodmin came in with me. We never did a lot, but it was a headquarters
War was in the air. “”There will be no war in our time” proved wrong. Then [on] the 4th September all jobs stopped, all work changed. On that day I made my great statement in the local pub with Frank. All the old 14-18 war lads were there talking about trenches; digging in.
I had a couple [of pints], got up and said this war will be mobile, passing the hard spots, clearing them up after the supplies were used up.
Well, I got laughed at. I walked in that pub [The Crown & Treaty House at Uxbridge] about three weeks after Dunkirk; an old chap came up to me with a pint. He said “You told us and we could not see it”.
I had spent too much time in the race meetings, scrambles etc, [cross country racing on motorcycles] I could see it would be a war of cutting lines of communications.
Well, I made a good start, three days after [the] outbreak of war I was in hospital with a badly broken wrist. No money again, could not work, but I had been working for two weeks for a firm where you paid into a sick club. One shilling a week and they paid out 12/6 [62½p] if you were sick, limit ten weeks. Not Bad! The chap that ran it was named Charity. Bless him!
[The wrist break was very bad, Dad was given the option of it being re-set to look normal, but be weak, or a less normal set that was strong; he chose the latter which meant his hand turned at different angles to normal, he always said it made using a spanned in a tight spot much easier.]
I then went on the dole. They gave me a job to take a gang down to Wales to build an airfield. I did not go; went and joined the army, got the Kings shilling. I told them I was a chauffeur.
Went to the Royal Berkshires at Reading. Then the winter came, it was completely frozen out there, no water, no heat, no nothing. I was there for five weeks, we were less soldiers when we left than when we came.
We left at 4:30 one morning, 300 of us marched to the station, on to the platform, stood “At Ease”
No trains at 4:30 pm and still standing. Marched out at 5 pm, 4 miles to an old wreck of a large house, spent the night on the damp floor, groundsheet and one blanket. Tea by the good old Salvation Army. We were becoming soldiers.
Marched back to the station at 5am, got on a train at11:30 am. To Ramsgate, got there at 11:30 pm.
Into boarding houses, What luck! Catering by landladies, real beds (had to share).
The next day the MO [Medical Officer] and his team called, 3 jabs each. Within 3 hours not one of us had the strength to get upstairs to the lovely beds. God bless our landlady, she was a good mum, we all lived
After a few days the snow cleared a bit. We were all lined up [in ] three ranks [and marched] down the High Street, Ramsgate.
A Cpl [Corporal] and a very old officer.
We thought he was inspecting us. No! He was making NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers]
“You, be a sergeant”
“You, a corporal”
The corporal giving out stripes with a “Get them on by the morning”
That’s how to make an army, we were now getting the hang of things.
Then I find myself on a detail, 3 drivers and a Cpl., go to Slough, pick up 3 lorries. They were all army type, 6 wheels.
Left Slough for Ramsgate, it starts to snow again. We struggle through [and] get down into Kent. Thick snow, come to a stop. The corporal, our cat would have been more use. After a bit I said to him “Don’t these trucks have chains which fit round the back wheels?”
“Don’t know” he said.
I found the tracks on all 3 trucks [and] after lots of struggles, got them fitted. On to Ramsgate. Our Corporal [had] never got out of the cab; the next day he was highly commended for his organising of the job. I was learning a lot about the army.
The next day I was posted, this was the third time so I went to see the Sergeant-Major. He said “This is an A1 unit and you are B7” [medical categories].
I said “It’s wrong, can I see the MO”
I went to see the MO. “Well” I said “I am B7”
He looked as if he could eat me.
“But I want to be upgraded to A1”
He started to smile “Of course you can, son. Give me your pay book”
Well, we moved to Poole, Dorset (and) spent some weeks collecting lorries,equipment and everything a soldier needs except leave.
Off to France as the 1st Amoured Unit (Div). Landed, marched up from the docks at Dieppe. I thought “What the hell have you got yourself into now”. We moved out about ten miles [and] collected all our equipment. We looked like soldiers, that was all, still had not fired a shot, but we looked better than the French.
Then Jerry made a move and we were in the thick of it. What a shambles
Well, it was as I had said in the pub on the 4th Sept, he [Jerry, the Germans] hit supply lines, isolated fighting troops, hence retreat to Dunkirk. We had tons of supplies but Jerry was between us an P.B.I [Poor Bloody Infantry, a derogatory army term], and, what we didn’t know at the time, between our platoon and the rest of our Company.
I was in Calais with a load of 40mm ammo [which] was not wanted by anyone, so what do I do? On my own, not a very nice spot. I thought this is no place for me, when a Scotch (sic) Sgt came up to me and said “Would you no like to come along with us and take a chance?”
I said “Yes, but you will have to sign for this load of ammo”
He walked away, so I headed west with my load of ammo. After a few miles I met up with [my] platoon.
Pulled off the road under some trees. It was just getting dusk. I could hear the bombers coming. I said “I think it is about time to hop into that ditch”. I grabbed my rifle and in[to] the ditch, followed by the Sgt and about twenty others. The first stick of bombs fell in the ditch the other side of the road. Me being the first in, I was next to a small road going into a field. I said “If they come any closer I will be up this pipe” (a drain pipe under the bridge).
I got put on a charge for talking during an air raid, but I was the only one who had his rifle with him. I was becoming a soldier
We lost the canopies of three lorries, one to the cookhouse. We stopped there. After a bit our officer came along, I had taken my boots off by then and [was] half asleep in the cab. A proper gent knocked on the door, and said “Do you want to stop here?”
“Where is the cookhouse going?”
“That remains here.”
“Good enough for me, sir.”
“Thank you, sir”
Early next morning we moved about 15 miles to a Chateau Nurf (sic). The Div was going to stop there to reform (“A Real Show Force”). I was up front just behind the officer. Quite happy, a nice long straight road past the front of the castle, when round the corner comes a Jerry convoy. We both turned tail and went opposite ways and scattered.
Head west again, loaded my rifle, things were getting too close.
Low flying aircraft, machine guns, had to have a go with the old rifle, it got quite hot. A real soldier, scared stiff!
Getting dark, road blocked, took to the fields, done quite well. We could see the road in the distance full of refugees.
At first light Jerry bombed the road. It was terrible, all he wanted to do was block it, he did.
We stopped in the field till it was getting dark, then moved on. I was the first first lorry, it was heavy going over ditches [and] through hedges for hours. Just before dawn we got back to the road only to find I had no brakes. Done about 25 miles on the hand brake, nearly run over a D.R. [Dispatch Rider]. Hid in a large wood. Found the rest of the platoon and officer.
Brakes fixed, going west, first wagon after officer. After lots of turning around set off. Nice road, no traffic.
I had a spare driver. After about 20 minutes I thought “We are going east, not west”, spare driver has no ideas, so the distance between me and the officer got more and more, till I could see him in the distance. Then his head came through the hatch with a map and looked at, then turned round. I was turning the wagon round and on my way back plus all the others. He drove past looking straight in front. (by the way, in those days a lorry was called a wagon).
[The officer was a Captain Budgen. Apparently a man with great enthusiasm, but not much ability as an army officer. He was posthumously decorated in North Africa after leading a bayonet charge against most of the Africa Korps]
We keep together for a bit, but after several half hearted air attacks we got split up, I finished with 6 others “Somewhere in France”, not a map, nothing. Kept going west. Got to a village empty and [already] looted, went into the cafe, not a soul, cut the road map off the wall, a brewers delivery map. Got going west, hiding at times, travelling at night.
Got to Le Mans. There was a large NAAFI there. They had thrown everything into the streets and fled, we just drove through it. Stopped at the store [and] had a look round. Nothing, but one chap found something, money and a lot of it, enough to fill his small pack. He carried it everywhere and got it home and away when he went on leave.
Late one evening I had to pick up a detachment of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, 24 of them and a very small sergeant . [I] had to take them about 25 miles. I was very tired, job to keep my eyes open. I knew what might happen. I suddenly woke up with a large heap of shingle about three yards in front. Over the top and back on the road. A lot of shouting from the back, then all was quiet. A little while later we stopped [and] the sergeant came storming round and said “If you are not more careful over these hump back bridges, I will report you!”
After that I took up D.R [Dispatch Rider] work. Our DR’s eyes had turned septic with the dust.
We headed south of Brest. We seemed to get less in numbers, we seemed to be a little party of our own, always hiding. As a DR I could get about more and find people [and] built up our little gang to about 40. [I] heard there might be a boat just south of Brest, also another DR.
Got near the sea and started smashing up the wagons, workshops, everything. Us two DRs went looking for stragglers [and] found quite a few who were lost. We were the last back, the boat cast off, we dropped the bikes into the dock and jumped for it, slipped over the rail and onto the deck complete with rifles ect.
Remainder Written by Verdun
This is where Vic’s memoirs end. Increasing dementia prevented him from writing more. I have attempted to continue the story from what I know. The ship Vic escaped on was TS Lady of Mann, A steamer that operated to the Isle of Mann before the war. Vic always said that the skipper was acting on his own initiative, cruising the French coast looking for British troops, but she appears to have been part of Operation Aeriel. They (just) survived an air attack just after leaving Brest.
On return to the UK aboard the Maid of Mann, he spent a few months in a disorganised British army (the remains of the 1st Armoured Div had only one tank that didn’t work). He went back to the Treaty House pub where he was bought a pint on the strength of his predictions of a mobile war.
The German bombing of English cities left a lot of buildings that could be temporarily repaired and used, so Vic was transferred to the Ministry of Works. He repaired buildings in Eland in Yorkshire and Mutley in Plymouth.
In 1942 he was sent to the Royal Army Service Corps and sent to North Africa (not the 8th Army, the 1st Army to the west of the disintegrating Africa Corps). Bedford 3 ton lorries and motorcycles featured a great deal in his life. He crossed to Sicily and then to Italy and was there as a sergeant running a fuel pipeline station when the war ended.
He met his Brother Tim, a sergeant in the Guards, several times and attended a lecture given by Tim about mines; it was very good apparently, good enough to get Dad and his unit out of a mine field some months later.
One dark night in Italy he was the first on the scene of an accident involving two lorries, one loaded with troops most of whom had been killed. This incident clearly had a profound effect on him and he spoke of it many times in his last years.
After the war Vic went back to building, spending most of his working life with Fassnidge, Son & Norris of Uxbridge, initially as a bricklayer, but rising eventually to become a site manager. Most of the work was large buildings such as factories and a great deal for the electrical giant EMI at Hayes.
Vic married Ethel Kybett in 1948 and they initially lived “in rooms” in Cippenham near Slough. They had a son, me, in 1950 and soon after moved to 58 Heath Road, Hillingdon. The house was the middle of a terrace of 4 houses, but the end one was subsiding and all four had a closing order on them. The next step would be demolition. Vic took a big gamble and bought the house for £100. With the help of his boss he got the closing order suspended and then removed by underpinning both houses in evenings and weekends. The houses all still stand.
Christmases at Heath Road always included Vic’s Aunt Ada, a formidable lady who had remained a spinster and was very religious. We would pick her up from her bungalow in Uxbridge in the car while Ethel cooked Christmas dinner. Ethel’s mother, Jane Kybett lived with us, so she was there as well. A lot of people in a small room in what is known as an “Artisan’s Cottage”.
Summer holidays were often camping holidays in the UK, but after a fortnight in the New Forrest when it rained all week, Ethel said “no more!”. The next year we went camping in France. This was a great adventure as very few people went abroad in those days. Vic then decided that what was needed was a motor caravan and, as funds didn’t stretch to buying one, he decided to build his own. The base vehicle was a new Ford 400E 15cwt van which he converted (including fitting windows) at home. The “Van” took us on many holidays to France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. We were joined on the later holidays by Ethel’s sister Frances.
As I grew up and left home, Vic and Ethel, now retired, bought a caravan and joined the trailer caravan club. They spent many happy weekends and holidays touring.
In 1961 Vic Ethel and I moved to 8 Charnwood Road, Hillingdon. Another house in need of a lot of work, but at least this one wasn’t threatening to fall down. It was a 1930s semi-detached house and was all Ethel had ever dreamed of. It was also very close to my school.
The winter of 1961/2 was very severe with snow on the ground from January until March. We were living in the upstairs rooms while Vic, this time assisted by me, worked on the downstairs. At one point the temperature in the downstairs back room was so low that a heap of builders sand froze completely and work was suspended for a few days.
Ethel had a part time job at a local private school assisting in the kitchen; yes, she was a dinner lady! Probably much better trained than most as she had joined the WAAF (Womens Auxiliary Air Force) during the war and had trained as a cook.
In their declining years Vic and Ethel moved first to Seer Green in Bucks and then to Piddington. In both cases this was to be near their son (me) and his family. Ethel died in 2002 at age 89 of a lung problem that had made her last few years very uncomfortable.
Vic, having looked after Ethel with great devotion for many years had a well earned rest and had supper with us most nights. After just over two years Vic’s memory started to slowly fail, this was not helped by him having to go into hospital to have a second cataract operation. However the reduction in his sight gave me the opportunity to stop him driving by the simple expedient of selling his car. He never really forgave me for that!
Eventually Vic’s grip on reality had slipped enough that he was unable to live on his own any more and he moved to a nursing home. Vic died in 2006, also aged 89. He had gradually slid into profound dementia in his last few months and was very confused towards the end.