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.
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 accounts came from Jack Reynolds, who was interviewed in 2016 by Pam Lyle and Steve Penticost. This extract comes from the summary written by Paul Curry.
“Jack Reynolds was born in Chichester, on 5 May 1922. His parents, Charles Guy Reynolds and Katherine Mary Reyn-olds had one other child, Arthur Charles Reynolds, born 13 June 1920.
“Jack joined the Sussex Yeomanry, Chichester Branch in March 1939, his brother having joined about a year earlier. The unit was mobilised at the outbreak of war and sent to Sussex County Cricket Ground, Hove, where Jack continued his training as a signaller. The unit was split into two regiments. The 98th was sent to France and the 144th, which included Arthur, to the Western Desert, where it remained for four and a half years.
Meantime, Jack was classed as ‘an immature’ due to his age because, like many others at the time, he had joined the Territorials by giving a false age, and was sent to various groups stationed in South East England.
He then served with several Search-Light Units in the Thames Estuary Area, reaching the rank of Bombardier, followed by a posting to Mumbles, South Wales, as a signaller/signals instructor.
While at Mumbles Jack was recommended for a commission and joined the Royal Artillery (RA) Officer Cadet Training Unit, in Plymouth for the first two out of three months training.
This period coincided with the Plymouth Blitz and he spent considerable time digging out the dead and injured.
His third month was spent in Llandudno, where he graduated on the 6 May 1941. He had to wait three days to receive his commission, as the minimum age was 19. Posted to Dover on a 12 pounder battery, on the Western Arm Pier, this was the nearest point in England to France.
The guns were manufactured in 1898 and the ammunition in 1902 and were completely inadequate to deal with the German E-Boats!
He remained at Dover over the winter period but was frustrated by the lack of action as the German long-distance guns in Calais only shelled the area occasionally.
So Jack applied for, and was eventually accepted by, the 1st Airborne Division and joined the 1st Air Landing Brigade, consisting of four regular infantry battalions which were glider borne.”
Jack served in Sicily and North Africa. The extract picks up in just before he was sent to Arnhem, in the Netherlands.
“Whilst in North Africa Jack had been given one of the two mortar platoons. His was the foot platoon, consisting of about 52 men.
The training continued until mid-September, when the battalion was sent to Manston Airfield. It was quartered under canvas and briefed for the Arnhem operation, which began on the 17 September. Jack was in the first wave of glider borne troops and landed safely. Despite being a mortar officer, the Brigadier sent him off on a reconnaissance mission, as a pillion passenger, with a motorbike despatch rider.
They encountered sniper-fire which disabled their motor-cycle, leaving the rider with the bike, Jack proceeded further down the road on foot alone.
When he reached the junction of the upper and lower roads, alongside the river, he observed German infantry and tanks; whereupon he retired and reported back to the landing field.
The battalion then assembled and marched off towards Osterbeek. They met with heavy resistance along the way and heavy tank fire from the other side of the river. Jack and his men caught up with stragglers from D Company, which had been heavily punished and found a spot safe from the German 75mm tank fire.
He left his Sergeant with the platoon and went forward alone to find out the strength of the opposition. e was cut-off by the advancing German infantry and tanks but met-up with Lt Hugh Cartwright, the battalion’s signals officer. They spent several days behind the German Lines seeking information and avoiding sniper fire. Eventually they made their way back to battalion HQ, but, on the same day, this was completely overrun by a German infantry and tank attack and they were forced to surrender.
Whilst being marched off to a prisoner-of-war-camp, Jack observed a grinning, official German army photographer, so made a famous two-fingered gesture to his SS captors!
He was sent to Oflag 79 Brunswick, together with his company commander, Captain AH Willcocks. They shared a room, along with eight other officers, during their incarceration.
Meantime, their respective mothers in England exchanged correspondence on their plight.
Jack was released in May 1944, and returned home, weighing just under six and a half stone.
On his prisoner of war leave, he met Eulalie Willcocks, youngest sister of Captain AH Willcocks. She was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force working as a plotter at nearby Tangmere.
Having served a full seven years in the army, Jack was demobbed in September 1946 and married Eulalie in May 1947.
When questioned about his ‘two-fingered’ gesture, Jack, tongue-in-cheek, replied: “It was an act of defiance but a momentary lapse of military discipline, which given the circumstance seemed totally justifiable!”
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.