Men whom I respected and counted as real friends included the Weatherburn brothers from North Northumberland, Jack, Harry and Mossop. Jack and Mossop, the elder and younger were extremely good, clean living men and nothing was a bother to either, they would help anyone through a difficulty and I never once heard either use a swear word. Harry was a different type altogether and he didn’t appear to give a damn about anything, he was far more vociferous than his brothers, liked a pint and indulged in the usual barrack-room misdemeanours, but he was a very good soldier.
Bob Steele was a fellow corporal, gruff, blunt and straight as a die, his ginger hair was synonymous with his character, fiery at times, but a good honest pal, and he and I had many hair-raising escapades at home and abroad. We were on more charges than the majority of the Company N.C.O.'s and I well remember one of the stupidest when we were at Neston-on-the-Dee in Cheshire.
We heard there was a good tea-dance at a place in Liverpool one Saturday afternoon, with Joe Loss and his orchestra, so we decided to go, and putting on our best battle-dress, and light shoes instead of our army boots, off we went.
We got off the bus and asked our way to the dance hall, and having been given the direction we walked along the streets to our destination. All of a sudden an army jeep raced along after us and with the screeching of the brakes, four red-cap military police jumped out and surrounded us. Well, we hadn't a clue what it was all about, but here was the law in the shape of four persons each well over six foot tall confronting us in the middle of a busy street, with hundreds of civilians gazing at the confrontation, they must have thought something serious was happening. Bob then said “Well what’s this all about?” and the reply was “We are arresting you,” “What for?” said Bob, and believe it or not we were being arrested for being improperly dressed because we were wearing civilian shoes and not our regulation army boots.
I said to the military police-sergeant, “But you’re kidding aren't you?” and his comment is unprintable, however, we had got the message over and instead of arresting us, he took our names, numbers, regiment etc., and informed us we would be reported to our unit. We enjoyed the dance!
Ray Rutherford was one of my Lance Corporals and he was one of those dry-wits, we always had a good laugh with Ray in our Company, and he was a rood pianist, but I hove a sadder tale to tell about him later. Ray came from Sunnyside, near Whickham in Durham.
Jim White always called James from Ray, hailed from Byker, and he was one of those types it is good to have in a crisis. Jim was as cool as a cucumber, and very, very rarely showed his emotions, and was just the type of person to have as a machine gunner. He was the result of me often skinning three of our Company police, Vasher, Kearton, and big Thompson, when we partook in that noble card game of brag, as Jim could read the cards to absolute perfection, and he would sit down behind me as my adviser, “Have a look Tom” he would say before I put too much in the kitty, and sure enough they would be no good, however, when he said carry on blinding, in nine times out of ten I won the game and more often than not puzzled these opponents. They used to examine the cards before any game I played with them, but I had Jim, yet he would never gamble himself.
Another episode worth recording was created by another great friend called Matty Nixon from Sunderland. He came back from leave one time and did actually bring a marked pack of cards. The design on the back of the cards showed a large circle in the middle with small circles in each corner, and the markings were on the right-hand top circle whichever way you looked at the cards. The design in those circles consisted of very small single lined circles, like a clock face from one to twelve, but eleven was the Jack and twelve o'clock was the queen. In the centre of this main circle was shown a diamond shape made up of a single line circle at each corner and they represented hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, starting at the top and working clock-wise, and in the middle of that lot was a single line circle, plumb in the centre.
The whole circle with its markings, were about a quarter of an inch in diameter, so it was virtually impossible to detect, and the markings were as follows: -
Where the small circle on the clock face was filled in black, was the number with, as mentioned before eleven o'clock being the Jack and twelve o'clock being the Queen, and the absolute centre circle filled in was the King. The suit was the cycles forming the diamond shape and if the bottom circle was filled in it was diamonds, nine o'clock was spades, twelve o’clock hearts and three o'clock clubs.
We had been sure some of the brag players had previously used marked cards, as they always finished the game well in pocket, until Matt and I started with his marked cards, we never lost after that and our opponents although suspecting us, often examined the cards very carefully but never found the clues. I didn't need Jim White anymore.
Some used to borrow the pack when Matt and I had something else to do, and we often said what a waste of good knowledge it was with people playing away like hell with those cards and not knowing the clues to success.
Matty Nixon was a wonderful boogie type pianist, and we had had lots of fun whilst we moved around the British Isles at such places as Launceston in Devon, Cromer in Norfolk, Neston in Cheshire, and Etterick in Scotland.
Hubert Buckland was a character who had had a fairly rough life as a boxer in a travelling booth before the war. He had a swarthy pugilistic face but was as good as gold. He really liked the women, but he could neither read nor write, and that is where he used me.
After getting to know a girl, he would like to correspond with her when he left the area, and he would either dictate a letter, and I would write it or he would say the main items to me, and ask me to enlarge with lots of sloppy sentimental stuff. The sloppier the material the more Buck would like it.
When mail arrived for him he would make a bee-line for me, and we would sit in a corner, and I would read it out to him emphasising the spicy bits, and then tease him a little about things he had done or failed to do.
He boxed for the Battalion team, and never lost a fight whilst in the British Isles, and as a matter of interest we had a very good team, made up of lads called Thompson, Want, Punton and Buckland, and these were the lads who gave the Yanks something to remember on the Orizaba.
We had an exceptionally good and understanding Company Commander, Captain Thornhill, who although I understand had been a Sergeant Major in the regular army, never to my knowledge overdid the “bull”, and when you were on a charge, and he took the case he always seemed fair with his decision. We sort of treated him more like a father then the Company Commander, and one could always go to him for advice end never be turned away,
The second-in-command was a jovial Company Commander, Captain Henry McCreath from Berwick, and as he knew a lot of the men in “Civvy Street” it always appeared hard for him to exercise discipline, but really, our Company were a good crowd, and there was little need for too much “bull”.
Our Platoon Commander was a huge man by the name of Lieut. Ward, and he relished army life, it was he who made things tick, and kept us all on our toes in training. He often boasted he had the best Platoon in ‘Z’ Company, and of course he had.
Sergeants George Bailey and Bob Tait were the Platoon Sergeants, and were both very decent blokes. George Bailey was a regular soldier and was a capper, rather self-conscious type whilst Bob was a territorial soldier and was one of those referred to as “too good to live,” a tea-totaller, I think religious, and as honest as the day is long.
Corporals who come readily to mind in the Company were Bob Steele from near Rothbury, about whom I have said a little earlier on was a good pal, and we worked well together, Jackie Weatherburn from near Berwick, Peter Davidson, a farmers boy if ever there was one, always a deep thinker, and although several used to try to take the micky, he more often than not came out on top, he was very religious.
There were many characters in the Company not least being Dougy Nockels from Heaton, Fusiliers McKenzie, Mitchison, Macintosh, Blyth (whose brother Bob was a Corporal), Napier, Straker, Patterson, Billy Walker who is now a bookie at Morpeth, the Brown Brothers, and others too numerous to mention at this stage.
The average age of the Company when we left the British Isles would be less than twenty-five, and they were as fit a bunch of men as you could wish to see, but how many would live to return?
I have nearly forgotten to mention the biggest character of all in “Z” Company, and he was none other than the Sergeant-Major, who in civvy street was a postman at Ashington, fancy forgetting Jimmy Wood he had a voice like a bull, two bulls in fact, he was a little small for a military man but he made up for that by his width and ability to shout his ruddy head off, so to speak. However, as usual these blokes bark is usually worse than their bite, and Jim was no exception. He was a great asset when we were playing football as he could shout and make more noise than fifty thousand supporters at St. James’s Park.
Well, here we were bedding down under the rubber trees for our first night in Singapore, preparing ourselves for the action to come, and the first action we had to defend ourselves against was a torrential rain-storm, that broke out just as we got under our blankets, and it was rain; the like of which we had never experienced before, the heavens opened, what a baptism!