Memories of an Octogenarian
By Lionel Sole
This article was originally published in the May 2006 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Introduction: Lionel is descended from Edward Sole (1798-1890) of Woodnesborough in East Kent. He has written a very detailed set of memoirs for the benefit of his family and future generations, which regrettably have needed drastic editing for the Journal. This final part has been largely edited by Lionel himself.
The War Years: 1942-45 and after
Transfer to the Royal Army Service Corps.
Arriving in Cairo I was interviewed by a panel of officers during which I made known my qualifications and was then taken to a printing works in the 'Dead City' on the eastern side of the city. From that time on my work could be described as 'essential' to the war effort, a word used in the UK for those employed in occupations classified as 'Reserved'. Those in Reserved Occupations, e.g. engineering, munitions, mining and agriculture were exempt from military service, but for men working at GHQ Press there were major differences: we received less pay; were subject to military regulations; did not go home at the end of each day; and could not look forward to returning to the UK in the foreseeable future.
Since 1939 the British military forces in the Middle East had increased considerably and as the war progressed printing became an essential service, both for propaganda and military purposes. As a consequence GHQ Press was increased in size to provide a comprehensive local service with distinct advantages: immediate response to requirements and speedy delivery of the work produced. The alternative was to produce the work in the UK, but with exports to the Middle East by sea taking ten weeks or more, and with air transport not available, this was not a practicable alternative.
The printing works in the 'Dead City' was just one of four units which constituted GHQ Press. Adjacent to a large Muslim cemetery it was situated on high ground (by Egyptian standards) and a short distance from the Citadel Mosque, a building which dominates the skyline. The works, leased from civilian owners, had the appearance of one of the many cinemas erected in the UK before the war, being a three-storey, flat-topped building with a tower block.
Soon after my arrival at the Press there were a total of seven men from my previous unit, the 235 Battery. Among this number was my friend Reg Sampson who had preceded me by a few weeks and to this total I would add three other men from other units who, like Reg, were to become life-long friends. Sadly, all these friends are now dead but I have the pleasure of keeping in touch with their relatives. The Press operated for 24 hours, 7 days a week and the workforce, augmented by Egyptian semi-skilled and non-skilled personnel was divided in to three shifts which rotated weekly. Although most work was printed by the letterpress process, some was printed by offset litho. Any work produced at the Press which was classified as 'Secret' was produced by military personnel only.
One of the most satisfying of my occasional 'leaves' was when I formed one of a three-man escort for a barge loaded with ammunition destined for Quena near Luxor and crewed by four Egyptians. After the ammunition had been loaded at Cairo and the hatch covers replaced the space became our living quarters, so that we slept in the open. Provided with a supply of basic provisions and a quantity of fresh water by the Army, we were expected to replenish our stocks en route. For cooking we used a small Primus stove. The journey upstream proved to be very slow, for being October the water was low and the barge was often 'grounded'. We travelled by day only and shortly before sundown would 'tie up' wherever we happened to be, sometimes in the open country, when we would cook and eat our meal. The Egyptians would do likewise, when eastern smells came from the forecastle, followed later by the smell of hashish being smoked. As was expected our washing and toilet facilities were of the most primitive kind. Whenever we stopped at a town we would endeavour to contact any English-speaking person and in this way we met a number of people.
By far the most interesting of our contacts was made at Assyut when, having met a member of the British Council, we were taken to the American Mission Hospital and introduced to the staff. Situated in the centre of the town it served the needs of the poor. The Mission buildings, together with well kept gardens and manicured lawns behind a high wall contrasted sharply with the noise and squalor outside. The Mission offered accommodation, as part of their war effort, to Service personnel on leave; an offer I accepted on two later occasions.
On returning to the Press normal work was resumed until shortly before I left the Middle East. I then made two transfers, the first to a printing office situated in an area of Cairo known as Kasr-el-Aini.
The staff in the works was much smaller than the one which I had left and was more cosmopolitan. In addition to the British soldiers there were Egyptians, Maltese, an Armenian and two Yugoslavs, who composed work in Serbo-Croat, using Cyrillic characters for some of the propaganda which the Press produced.
For British Army personnel in the Middle East the autumn of 1944 marked the end of uncertainty regarding repatriation to the UK, the period of service being fixed at a maximum of 4.5 years, for previously service was 'for the duration'. In addition to fixing the period of service it was also announced that, as an interim measure, UK leave would be granted, but only on a limited scale. The scheme was a 'lottery'. To qualify only those with not less than 3.5 years and not more than 4 years were eligible for the monthly draw. The 'prize' for the lucky few was a month's leave at home. I qualified for the first draw, having then served for three years and eleven months, but my name was not drawn. Bad luck, but the end of the war seemed to be in sight - an optimism which was premature - and by May 1945 I would have served the necessary four and a half years.
Meanwhile, I was to make one final move, this time to Bab-el-Luk, one of the poorer parts of the city. The Press there was the smallest of the three that I was to work in and was staffed by a few soldiers and Egyptians.
The war in Europe ended on 8 May and shortly after VE day I was given the date of my repatriation to the UK.
I have few memories of my voyage home, except that like my outward journey the 'other ranks' were accommodated in one of several holds. However, the conditions were much improved, for there were hammocks for all and the bathroom facilities were more hygienic. Although the war had been over for a month or more the captain, knowing that there were still a few 'rogue' ships at sea - German submarines manned by fanatical Nazis - took no chances and ordered the ship to be 'blacked out' at night. Early on the following Saturday morning, six days after leaving Port Said, the ship approached the English Channel and I was on deck before sunrise to get a first glimpse of England. When, after a long wait, the coastline was seen I was probably looking at Start Point in Devon. A few hours later, when we were off the Isle of Wight, the ship gave a sudden lurch to port and looking astern I saw the reason: a sea mine. For me, and probably for most on board, it was the last 'near miss' of WWII. As the ship turned into Southampton Water the English countryside never looked better and expectations were high that we would be home for the weekend.
In the event the Army had different ideas, although at first, plans for our return were promising. Soon after the ship docked a military band arrived and played martial music. Later we were to learn that whilst the civilians on board would disembark within a few hours the troops would remain on board until the following day, and when we did it was late on Sunday afternoon and the destination was Leeds. This was the age of steam and, after six years of war, British trains and rolling stock were 'clapped out' and our engine 'huffed and puffed' before reaching Leeds at 11pm, or thereabouts. We were then transferred to Headingley Cricket Ground and below the stand I ate my first meal on English soil since 1940. A few hours later, after collecting our ration books, we were returned to Leeds Station to catch the 4am train to London, arriving there at about 9am and during the rush hour.
In London the morning sky was overcast and those hurrying to their place of work looked drawn and haggard, being mostly thin, pale-skinned and wearing drab clothing. As I made my way to Oxford Street to be reunited with Lily, my future wife, the bus passed many damaged buildings and bombsites, evidence of the Blitz. In fashionable Bond Street the shop windows, as elsewhere, were heavily boarded, some with a small aperture, which enabled a few goods to be displayed.
My meeting with Lily was as one would have expected after such a long absence. The following day, accompanied by Lily, I continued my journey home. Canterbury, like London, had suffered badly from bombing, especially during a particularly heavy raid in 1942, when a large area of the city centre was flattened, and it was sad to see that many familiar buildings had been destroyed.
On reaching home my mother came from the house to welcome us, to be joined almost immediately by my father. Both seemed to be prematurely aged, especially my father. I had been granted a month's disembarkation leave and this was spent 'looking up' old friends and enjoying virtual freedom from Army regulations. But the month soon passed and I returned to Leeds before being posted to Chelmsford to work at a Press staffed by civilian and military personnel. Soon I was to be reminded that the war was not yet over and that I could be sent to the Far East, but that did not happen, for a few weeks later the Japanese surrendered. Eight days later Lily and I were married.
Although Peace had been declared war-time conditions remained, so that plans for our wedding were fraught with difficulties caused by restrictions governing food, clothing, etc. Fortunately we had many kind friends and the problems were overcome to provide a white wedding and a reception. By today's standards the latter cannot be described as a 'feast', for our guests received little more than a ham salad and a slice of wedding cake, made possible by the use of extra food coupons available for such an occasion. The reception was held at the home of a relative in a house overlooking Peckham Rye, a large park, and the cost of travel incurred by our honeymoon was met by the Government, for I received a free warrant and my bride travelled at a third of the normal fare. To obtain maximum benefit of this concession we decided to go to Scotland, probably the furthest distance we could have travelled in the time available.
With the war at an end, and with little work to produce at the Press, I had time to prepare for my return to civilian life, for the date was predictable, the Government having previously announced their plans for the demobilisation of the armed services. Basically, ‘first in, first out’.
During my final months of service I had contacted my pre-war employers, Thanet Press, Margate, and as a result I was assured of post-war employment, and in fact there was a possibility that I would be employed in some form of supervisory role. However, I did not return to East Kent, for the managing director recommended me as manager to take charge of a firm of printers in Central London. For me this was a challenge, for I had had no previous experience of management but when I was offered the job I accepted the challenge and took up my appointment in January 1946.
When the day of my demobilisation arrived I travelled to Northampton to receive a full complement of civilian clothing. I have a few memories of that occasion; entering a large warehouse in which there were hundreds of men's suits, brown, blue and grey, and a smaller number of sports' jackets and grey flannel trousers. I chose the latter, for I had no wish to adopt a second ‘uniform’.
A few weeks later it was Christmas and at Canterbury the Sole family gathered for the first post-war celebrations. As we sat at the table for the traditional dinner each one of us could have related memories of WWII: my mother, who had miraculously escaped from our bombed home and continued to 'keep the home fires' burning; my father, who combined his full-time work with that of part-time fireman; my brother Desmond, who was in France with the 51st Highland Division shortly after the D-day landings; my younger brother, who, as a schoolboy, had been evacuated to Hampshire and stayed there until shortly before the war ended and was to experience, together with his parents, the flying bombs, i.e., the ‘doodle bugs'; and then there was Lily who, together with her relatives, was in London for the whole of the war. But the talk that Christmas Day was not about war, for we were all thankful that peace had returned.
My story of the war years has not been one of bloody battlefields or heroics but simply that of a man who, in 1938, volunteered to join the Territorial Army at a time of national crisis. In so doing he embarked on a journey, the course charted being beyond his control.
Although I was not to experience the horrors and privations that so many endured I hope that my narration will help towards a better understanding of what it was like to have lived during one of the most momentous periods of history.
Post War Britain
The immediate post-war years can only be described as a period of austerity marked by rationing and shortages affecting all British people, both in their private and working lives, for all classes of food were rationed and there was clothes rationing. In industry and commerce the affects of the war years continued to be felt, so that the early post-war years were difficult for businesses. For those engaged in manufacturing there were shortages of raw materials, e.g., in the printing industry the chief concern was the shortage of paper, and to make matters worse fuel shortages caused factories to close for two or more days each week during the severe winter of 1946-7.
It was against this background that Lily and I started our married life and for several years our major problem was accommodation, for in London, as in all towns and cities which had been heavily bombed, there was an acute shortage of housing. It was two years before we were able to rent a three-room flat – and this in a poor area – and six years before we could buy our first property at Bostal Heath (Abbey Wood).
In November 1946, after a very promising start to a post-war career in Management, I became seriously ill, an illness which was to last two years, time spent mostly in hospital. It was not until the Autumn of 1948 that I returned to work, this time as a typographer/artist, and we were able to see 'the light at the end of the tunnel'. For us, as for millions of Europeans, the ten years since the Munich crisis of 1938, had been a most difficult period.
Three years on and I was working in Fetter Lane (Fleet Street) as a typographic designer employed by Linotype and Machinery, the manufacturers of the machine on which most of the world’s newspapers were composed until quite recently. Soon I was to embark on a career in Further Education, teaching typographic design and printing technology in Art colleges, first at Camberwell, then Margate and finally Maidstone, where I retired in 1978.
Following my appointment at Margate (and later at Maidstone) the family home was at Broadstairs, an ideal location for our two sons, for they received a good education at the local grammar school which prepared them for university entrance. There, Graham read Medicine and Ian Economics.
Following my retirement Lily and I decided to seek a retirement home outside of East Kent and this we were to find in Somerset. There, we both adjusted to country life and our interests became greater with the arrival of grandchildren. Sadly, Lily was to die in 1986 and did not see Graham become a consultant urologist or Ian a senior executive of a large American company.
Other sad occasions followed in quick succession: my brother Desmond, several cousins and close friends dying within the next few months.
The following year, while touring the New England states with Ian, who had emigrated to America, I collapsed with a cardiac arrest. Fortunately I was soon resuscitated and after a month’s stay in a Boston hospital was able to return home.
As others have found, the death of one’s partner after many years of marriage, leaves a void which it is very hard to fill, and though I had the support of my family and friends my marriage to Joy, who was in a similar situation, proved the answer for us both.
Among our common interests are travelling, for we have each visited many countries, and gardening, though this has been reduced to ‘pottering’, for old age prevents us from doing more. But if we are unable to garden as we once did we can still ‘cultivate’ our friends, providing help to those less fortunate than ourselves.
Finally, in keeping with those whose parents or grandparents, left school at a very early age, our family seem to have come a long way since 1900 when my father left school to work full time and to live away from home. He was then twelve years old.
In contrast, I have seen each of my sons enter university and on leaving making a success of their career. Now, all my grandchildren show signs of being equally successful. I wish them and all young people a long, happy and interesting life.
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