Estimated reading time:13 minutes, 24 seconds
Everyone has a story. David Hammond has shared his memories growing up at 212 Liverpool Road in the 1950s on Islington Faces. Now he’s collected his father John’s war memories. John Hammond (1913-1994) was born and bred Islington. He won medals for bravery but the experience of WW2 turned him into a lifelong pacifist. Guest post by David Hammond with edits by Nicola Baird.
Intro from David Hammond, John’s son
Films like Testament of Youth bring home the horrors of war. I remember Dad telling me that when he was called up aged 27 in 1940 to serve in WW2 his father told him not to go – because he had experienced the carnage of the Flanders battlefields. My father said that he had no choice, as refusing would mean a prison sentence. Grandfather said, ‘then go to prison. I will visit you.’ Dad paid no attention.
I still have his medals including a metallic Oak Leaf, which he received for bravery. He was “Mentioned in Dispatches” for his bravery. But Dad told me that it was not bravery, it was fear.
That conversation with his father, my Grandfather, came full circle as having witnessed the horrors of war when Dad arrived home he became a lifelong pacifist. He said on many occasions that if world leaders wanted their country to go to war then it’s them that should do the fighting.
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I managed to capture some of Dad’s memories prior to his death at the request of my brother’s grandson who was doing a primary school project on WW2 and wanted to know what his great grandfather did in the war. Dad hardly spoke about his experiences until very late on in his life. I think he felt somewhat guilty that he was still around in the 1990s, whereas so many of his war comrades died on the battlefield in the 1940s, when they were all so young.
I well remember when we were living in Islington in the 1950s that he would purchase a modest box of fireworks for me to let off in the back yard at 212 Liverpool Road on the 5 November for Guy Fawkes Night. However he never joined in the firework celebrations. He shut himself away in the living room. However he did like to go to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where he was always drawn to the talks on pacifism and CND.
John Hammond’s war
My father, John Hammond, was called up in 1940 into the Royal Norfolk Regiment. He did most of his training on the North Norfolk coast. The regiment was then summoned to go to Singapore to fight the Japanese. However he was detailed to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which formed part of the 51st Highland Division. He was in the 7th Battalion.
The Argyll’s took a heavy beating on the retreat through Belgium and France to Dunkirk (for the evacuation 26 May-4 June 1940). A large number were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Thus they were very short of men.
But it was fortunate that he joined the Argyll’s as many of the Norfolk’s were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner by the Japanese, when trying to defend Singapore. Of those taken prisoner more than 30 per cent died in Japanese prison camps.
North Africa Desert Campaign
Dad sailed on a troop ship to join his Regiment in North Africa. He disembarked at Alexandria. His first major desert action was at the battle of Alamein in October 1942.
All the Allied troops had to move forward to the starting line during the day and dig trenches which they laid in for a number of hours under the blazing desert sun.
Food came up, but no one was hungry, as they were very scared about what they were to face. When nightfall came a tremendous barrage of Allied artillery fire went off, aimed at the enemy lines (German and Italian troops).
Then on the sound of whistles they had to start to march forward accompanied by pipers, playing the regimental song. They were told to march at a steady pace. However because of the adrenalin rush and fear they all walked too quickly. This meant that after a couple of hours they began to be shelled by Allied guns. Dad said it was chaos. As well as the “friendly fire” they were also shelled by the enemy. Although their route was supposed to have been cleared of land mines many of the troops were stepping on them and being blown up.
Various companies were getting mixed up with other companies. He said there was the strong smell of cordite from the ordinance going off, shouts of help from the lads who had been wounded, many of course were to die. However they were under strict orders not to stop to help the wounded. He said that the lads who were wounded and dying would be crying out for their mum to help them.
After a couple of hours Dad was wounded by flying shrapnel in his neck. A colleague dug a shallow slit trench and rolled him into it. He saw the sister company the Black Watch go over him and shouted out his best wishes as they proceeded forward.
The Red Cross came along the next morning and collected him and other casualties (Allied and Enemy troops) and they were taken to a makeshift field hospital in the desert. They were laid on stretchers under canvas, whist their wounds were temporarily dealt with. Dad found himself lying next to a German private who explained in broken English that he had no choice but to fight and dad said exactly the same. They exchanged cigarettes and rations. Only hours before this they were both endeavouring to kill each other.
He was taken to a military hospital at Alexandria and when he recovered he rejoined his Company. The next big battle was the battle of Wadi Akerit (6-7 April 1943).
The Germans were well established here. Despite being located in the Libyan Desert this wadi was elevated, which meant that the Germans could see for miles around and thus knew the positions of the Allied troops: so it had to be taken.
During the attack the Allies were under heavy fire from mortars, machine gun fire and artillery fire. Dad said that a number of guys just gave up and laid down on the sand, whilst being fired on.
Dad was an acting Sergeant and was receiving orders from his commanding officer to pass on to his company. His CO, Captain Lorne Campbell was seriously wounded in the battle, but still led his troops on. In recognition of his bravery Captain Campbell was awarded the VC. He survived the battle and indeed the war, ending up as a brigadier.
They took the objective. However the Germans tried to get it back .So again his company and the other regiments came under heavy German fire. However they managed to hold on and the Germans retreated. It was during this time that dad was mentioned in dispatches, which was published in the London Daily News.
The German Africa Corp then retreated and withdrew from North Africa.
Dad hated the heat of the desert, the poor nourishment (liquid bully beef being the staple diet) the lack of clean water and the flies. He did however admire the German soldier for their discipline and professionalism.
Before each battle, which normally took place at night, they were told who they were going up against. It was always a night battle. The Padre would also come up to see if anyone needed his help. If they were going up against a Panzer division then they would be extremely worried, as they knew that the enemy would resist them and they could end up in hand-to-hand fighting, with bayonets drawn etc. However if they were told that it was an Italian Division then they would relax a bit, as they knew that as soon as they ran towards the Italian trenches that they would come out with their hands up.
Churchill then reviewed the victorious troops at Tripoli. The troops were woken very early to prepare for the parade. They were issued with new kit. After the parade they were given their old kit back (so much for the men’s morale). I have seen some old footage of the 51st Highland Division being paraded past Churchill in their tartan kilts, along with a pipe band.
I think it was at this time that he went down with malaria (from mosquito bites). He was shipped home to recover and to convalesce at Hatfield House, Hatfield, the country house of Lord Salisbury. During his stay there Dad and the other military patients were visited by the late Princess Marina, who had a brief chat with him.
The invasion of Sicily
After the North African campaign his battalion was involved in the invasion of Sicily. First they had to land in the south of the country. There was firing from the cliffs so the amphibian landing craft pilots were anxious to leave. They dropped Dad and the troops in deep water, so it took them, in their heavy battle gear some time before they reached the shore.
As they reached the beach the guy next to him was shot dead. Dad was then a heavy smoker. Despite being under fire he opened the guy’s tunic and took his Woodbines.
When dad was terminally ill and in a hospice he told me this story with tears running down his cheeks. Although he had nothing to feel guilty about he was very upset, and this was some 40 years after the event. I tried to comfort and reassure him as I did not want him to pass away feeling that he was carrying a burden of guilt.
During this campaign he took part in the battle of Gerbini (18-20 July 1943). His battalion took a heavy pounding from German panzer tanks and suffered heavy casualties
But Sicily was secured and so the battalion were shipped off to Italy, where they stayed for just two days. They were then posted back to the UK to undertake training, in preparation for the Normandy landings.
Invasion of Northern Europe
Dad landed at Gold beach, Normandy on 10 June 1944. There was no initial enemy resistance as by this time (D Day plus 4) the bridge head had been secured.
However the battalion was heavily involved in the battle to take the city of Caen. The Allied plan was to take it almost immediately, following the first Allied landings, but it took several weeks, as the German resistance was extremely strong. The American air force eventually bombed the city until Caen was just a giant heap of brick. This proved useful to the Germans as it was ideal terrain to mount a defensive cordon.
Dad then proceeded through France, Belgium and Holland and into Germany, where he crossed the Rhine.
The Germans mounted a last ditch effort to break through a weak American line at the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945), and they succeeded, at least for a couple of weeks. The 51st Highland Division had to be diverted to help out the Americans. Dad was upset as they had no winter camouflage white clothing. So their uniforms stood out in the snow and they took many casualties.
During the final phase of the war he and his colleagues increasingly came up against the Hitler Youth (boys aged 15-17). They were fanatics and willing to die for the Fatherland, but as you can imagine having to fight against boys of this age was distressing to say the least.
He ended up in Bremen in northern Germany.
Just before the end of the war a number of his very few original mates, who, like himself had survived (there were hardly any of them left from the 1942 intake) decided to desert. This sounds cowardly. But these guys had been excellent soldiers. They figured that their luck must run out by the end of the war. Dad and some others wished them well and gave them some rations. They then went AWOL in a stolen jeep. After a few weeks they were picked up by the Military Police and subsequently court marshalled. Dad never blamed them for their actions.
Before being demobbed he was in what was called the Army of Occupation.
His discharge warrant book stated that his service amounted to 5.5 years, during which his conduct was exemplary, and that he was a hardworking and conscientious soldier. This was despite the fact that he demanded that he be reverted back from being a Sergeant to a Private again, which was reluctantly agreed by his CO. He was uncomfortable about having to command a group of lads, a number of whom had for some years been his friends. As a sergeant you had to eat and drink with the commissioned officers, which he hated. He wanted to be with his mates.
During the final few months of the war, Dad was asked to withdraw from the front line in order to put his printing skills to use. Evidently the Allies wanted to drop leaflets on to German towns and cities in an effort to accelerate an Armistice. Dad was tempted, as he knew that by taking up the offer he would survive the war. But he refused and carried on fighting.
Dad did not believe in, or recognise bravery. He hated all that the war entailed. He said that just like thousands of other he had to do what was asked of him, there was just no choice. From the end of the war until his death in 1994 he was a pacifist. I am very proud of him.
- Find out more about what it was like growing up in Islington with the interview about David Hammond on Islington Faces here.
- Also see instagram @islingtonfaces #a2zmemorylane as every post in February 2017 was dedicated to David’s memories of life in Islington with up-to-date pictures of what’s still the same in modern Islington.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you so much to David Hammond for sharing so many important Islington memories on Islington Faces.