Voices of our military heroes preserved forever

Bob Piper
Bob Piper

The words of the servicemen and women who served their country in the wars of the 20th century have been forever preserved thanks to a team of volunteers and the County Library Service.

Military Voices is a 548-page book containing edited interviews with more than 90 local veterans, who served in the Great War, Second World War or the Post-1945 conflicts.

Robert Piper, Second World War veteran received the Legion d'Honneur. Pic Steve Robards  SR1601765 SUS-160115-132506001

Robert Piper, Second World War veteran received the Legion d'Honneur. Pic Steve Robards SR1601765 SUS-160115-132506001

Conducted by a team of 45 volunteers, some of the interviews were hours long and could not fit in the book in their entirety. They are available to access in audio and text form via the Military Voices Past and Present website at arena.westsussex.gov.uk/web/arena/localstudies/militaryvoices .

The project came about thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Ministry of Defence’s Community Covenant Fund and gives a fascinating insight into the experiences and opinions of the veterans.

Dame Vera Lynn - who was known as the Forces’ Sweetheart during the Second World War - said: “Between 1914 and the 1990s, so many of our brave servicemen and women from across the country made incredible sacrifices to protect our freedom.

“I am delighted that this book memorialises the bravery, heroism and service of some truly inspirational Sussex veterans for generations to come.

“After all, it is vital that we continue to remember their service, and that we learn from history to safeguard our future.”

Military Voices was edited by Emma Worrall (née White), Amy Perry and Martin Hayes.

Martin said: “The veterans who came forward and were interviewed for the project varied greatly in age, character, outlook and opinions. The many complex influences, pressures and motivations, affecting those who volunteered, and some who were conscripted, are fully explored in their interviews.

“Some experiences turned out to be frightening, traumatic, even life-changing; others were boring and tedious; but many were enjoyable, humorous, character-building and inspiring.

“What many of the recollections reflect are the indomitable spirit of British people and particularly military people.”

Project manager Emma Worrall added: “The stories we’ve collected are amazingly varied: the general, the funny, the sad and the heroic. The thought that they might not have been collected saddened and upset me.

“It is a wonderful archive which will stand as an ever-lasting testament to 20th century veterans in West Sussex.”

One of the interviewees was Robert ‘Bob’ Piper, of Southwater, who lied about his age and joined the Royal Sussex Regiment at the age of 15.

Here are some extracts from his interview.

Robert ‘Bob’ Piper was born on June 10 1925 in Southwater to parents George and Alice. His grandfather had served in the Royal Sussex Regiment, in India, Afghanistan, and during the Nile Expedition.

Bob went to Southwater School when there was no electricity, mains water, or drainage in the village.

Aged 10 his bike enabled him to become a butcher’s boy, on Saturdays and later six days a week. By 1939 he was working as a milkman in Southwater and in 1940 began working for a local lorry driver who was delivering bricks and timber to London. Bob, although too young to join the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), Captain Irvine involved him as a messenger. Many LDV members were ex-Army, well-disciplined and turned up equipped with knives or prongs tied to broom handles so keen were they to stop the Germans.

In November 1940, Bob decided to try enlisting underage instead, successfully signing up for the Royal Sussex Regiment when the recruitment officer told him to lie about his age.

Asked about his motivation for enlisting, Bob says he enlisted for the country. By way of explanation, he discusses memories of disabled First World War veterans: “I was born seven years after the end o’ the First World War. An’ I saw blokes in Horsham, when I was goin’ to school, standin’ in the doorway, sellin’ matches, with one leg, a wooden leg.

“They’d end up with tuppence at the end o’ the day. An’ then they would go to the bakers, an’ buy a stale loaf.”

After his medical at Oddfellows Hall, Brighton, the recruits swore an oath of allegiance to crown and country and were paid half a crown, one day’s pay.

They were taken by bus to the army camp at Duxhurst farm, a former childrens’ home. Bob recalls the first night at Duxhurst: “They said, ‘Right. Go to the quartermaster’s stores.’ We went there, an’ they gave us a palliasse, which is a canvas bag. An’ they took us to a barn, an’ it had a lot o’ straw in.

“They said, ‘Stuff that, that’s your bed’. An’ there’s three blankets.’ An’ they took us to a hut, which turned out to be the mortuary. Some o’ the boards were missing, an’ there was a concrete slab on brick pillars, an’ that was our bed for the night.

“We slept there an’ the rain came through. Anyway, it was a good start.”

Bob explains how he had to grow up overnight on joining the Army: “When I went in the army, overnight I went from 15 to 18. I mean in the trainin’, boxin’, for instance.

“Well, I was 15. Nobody knew it. All the others were 18, 19, 20. So, I was boxin’, an’ bein’ knocked about but I couldn’t say anythin’. I had to grow up. An’ I grew up overnight, you know.

“It was no good me cryin’ spilt milk, ‘cause, cor, what would have happened if I’d had come back to this life here, an’ perhaps gone to work as a boy in a brickyard, an’ they say, ‘Owr, you chickened out’.”

After Duxhurst, they marched out to Heathfield where they were split into different companies, which then went to various camps. Over the weeks and months, parts of the company were sent to guard petrol stations, telephone exchanges and Balcombe tunnel.

Although no invasion was expected during the winter, there was concern about raiding parties sabotaging communications.

Eventually moving along the coast to Bognor Regis, Bob’s company was split up again: some men went to Tangmere, some to Ford, others to Appledram and the rest to Fleet Air Arm.

Bob’s went under canvas, in leaky First World War tents, at Goodwood Park.

His activities while at the airfield at Goodwood Park -RAF Westhampnett - included: gate guard on both gates, and patrols around the airfield and amongst the aircraft.

The fighter pilots there were young and mostly flew Hurricanes. At the airfield, Bob and his comrades were on duty for two hours followed by four hours rest. In their off-duty hours, they made up ammunition belts because there were not enough armourers to recharge the guns.

When the fitters ran the plane engines first thing in the morning, the soldiers on patrol used to hang over the back of the planes: “If the tail went up, she’d jump her chocks an’ tear off across the field.”

In January 1942 Bob’s company moved to Chichester barracks. There, it did a lot of drill and “spit and polish”. He was posted to Arundel to guard the castle and the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk due to kidnapping concerns.

The 70th (Youth) Battalion, Royal Sussex and Hampshires, was disbanded and everyone was given an IQ test. Depending on the results the men were sent to different units.

Bob getting the second highest grading was among those transferred to the Signals.

Next they moved to Slaithwaite, where they were accommodated in a disused woollen mill. The ground floor was for admin and contained the cookhouse and stores. The first floor was for accommodation while the second floor was partitioned into classrooms.

Because there were around 1,000 men, a fireman’s pole was used for descending between floors.

The training to become a wireless operator included: learning procedures for radio, operating the telephone service and exchanges and practicing sending messages, in both Morse and speech.

Bob was transferred to the 15th Scottish Division which was relocated in 1944, travelling in a blacked out train. Military Police (MP) on the train prevented soldiers from looking out of the windows. Bob however, recognised Partridge Green on arrival and had to explain to the MPs that he lived two stops up the road at Southwater.

In breach of orders, while stationed at Partridge Green, Bob visited home, walking up the railway as the roads were patrolled by the MPs. There was great secrecy surrounding the military’s movements at Partridge Green prior to D-Day. The soldiers were eventually allowed out of the camp at Partridge Green but within a restricted area.

“There was tanks all in the road, under the hedges, ammunition stacked in tin sheds all along the road. Petrol was stored in cans in the woods, you know.

“Obviously, everyone knew what it was. But, o’ course, they didn’t want the Germans to know, because they were puttin’ all this fake stuff over in Kent.”

In the immediate lead-up to the D-Day landings the Division moved to Knepp Castle where it was visited by Monty, who told the soldiers they would have a tough time.

They moved to Southampton where they had no communication with the outside world, made their wills, and loaded the vehicles with extra ammunition, water and petrol.

Then came the Normandy Landings.

Bob did not go in until late in the day and considers himself lucky to have had a safe job, in the Signals.

He speaks of his education as saving his life by putting him in a position where he was not up front with the other boys.

“If I’d had been a duffer, I wouldn’t have gone into Signals, I’d have been in the infantry. I’d have been under a headstone now probably like thousands o’ the other boys.

“I was on the Yankee LST - American Landin’ Ship Tank. An’ the ramp went down, and a Yankee sailor was at the top o’ the ramp; he was a dispatcher.

“And he stood there an’ he had a big tin o’ boiled sweets, an’ he chucked ‘em through the window a handful, an’ he said, ‘Good luck, Limey.’ An’ I shall always remember that. You were all together, this was the thing. Everyone says, ‘Were you fightin’ for King an’ country?’ No, you were fightin’ for the bloke next to you.”

When the war finished, Bob’s division had lost 11,774 men and, like many others, was broken up.

At the end of the war, he still had two years to serve and was sent back to Belgium, to join a newly constituted 3rd Division (Royal Signals).

He went in the advance party to Egypt and then on to Palestine.

Bob was a Lance-Corporal in Palestine, stationed at a naval depot with two other signalmen. The depot was run by local people, mainly women, both Arab and Jewish, under the authority of two naval officers and guarded by men from the Transjordan Frontier Force.

Although there was a telephone, Bob had a wireless set which “was back to brigade” in case the depot was attacked. The 3rd Division was broken up after a year; he remained in the same brigade but it became an independent brigade and was renumbered.

He was stationed at Allenby Barracks in Jerusalem and promoted to Senior Sergeant, with responsibility for looking after the men, transport and supplies.

Bob described the “sad” situation in Palestine; where British soldiers, some of whom had released Jews from European concentration camps, were now having to act as policemen to those who came looking for a new life in their homeland.

National Servicemen began coming in and he used to try to arrange for the new boys to be taken to some of the biblical places of interest in Palestine, the favourite being Bethlehem.

During one visit Bob let an Arab boy show the group round, so that the boy could do his Boy Scout good deed for the day; afterwards they were invited to have tea by the boy’s father.

Bob says of his seven years in the Army: “I had seven years in the army, an’ I’ve had ninety-one years nearly of life, but the seven years in the army is the greatest part of my life.

“When you get back to the boys, we’re all one family. It don’t matter whether they’re new boys or old boys, they’re all one family, because you all rely on each other. Yet, out in civvy life, it’s, ‘I’ll cut your throat if it gets me so an’ so.’

“But in the army it’s the opposite way round.”

Generally he believes that ex-servicemen are unappreciated once they are no longer needed, in a country that was never occupied.

Attitudes however are very different in the Netherlands where as a veteran he has experienced various nationalities wanting to have their photo taken with him.

“I was at Schiphol there once, and a man came up. He had three kids. An’ he came up an’ he said, ‘Are you goin’ to Arnhem?’ I said, ‘No, we’re goin’ to Nijmegen.’

“An’ he sat down, an’ the kids were there. We were talkin’ about it, and … suddenly I found the little boy got up an’ sat on my knee.

“An’ he was sittin’ there lookin’ at me … sort of a hero worship.” On another occasion, ordering a cup of coffee at a café in Nijmegen, Bob was told upon asking the price: “We owe you more than a cup of coffee.”

In 2016, Bob was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French Console for his services during Second World War.

Thirty-six copies of Military Voices are available for to borrow from West Sussex libraries. While stocks last, copies of the book are also available to buy for £10.

Log on to www.westsussex.gov.uk/find-my-nearest/library/, call 01243 753602 or contact West Sussex Record Office, Orchard Street, Chichester PO19 1DD for details.