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My Army Life by Betty Brotherston

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Betty Brotherston reminisced about her time as a cook in the Army Barracks and with her husband in Japan just after the War. This is her story, in her own words:

My name is Betty Brotherston, nee Isley. I was born in June 1921, that’s a long time ago. I have heard people say “oh, the good old days”, but I don’t think they were. We had a decent upbringing, we didn’t suffer in that respect, everybody was in the same boat. I left school at fourteen and had two or three dead-end jobs. There wasn’t much work around and the work you had you got very little pocket money. I think it was a shilling a week, so I didn’t know whether to go to the dance or go to the pictures with it. There was no youth clubs, nothing. Anyway, there was three or four of us and we thought “what shall we do?” we couldn’t stay in every night. So we joined the Territorial Army, of all things. In Avenue Road, that’s where it was then. I enjoyed it. Just once a week. At that stage we didn’t do any outside activities, roughing it or going on manoeuvres, but we were took round the stores and the office and given an outline of what went on there. And we took turns on the typewriters and there was somebody teaching us, the men Territorials. I got very interested in the store work.

Then we were at the dance at the Queen’s Rink on Saturday night, September 2nd 1939 and when I came home, here’s me mother sat wringing her hands and there was this envelope “On His Majesty’s Service”. When I opened it, it was calling up papers. I had to report for duty the next day. It was at 11 o’clock that day, September 3rd, that war broke out. So we were down in the armoury for a couple of days. I remember me dad coming down and looking through the gates to see what we were doing. Then we were posted to Norton and put into a lovely house opposite a cinema. So we were having a whale of a time. We had a little bit more pocket money and during the day we just used to walk to the armoury, just a few yards from where we were billeted. Soon as we got settled in we were asked what we wanted to do. Naturally you say what you want to do, but if there’s a shortage of any particular thing they say “you can’t volunteer, it’s you, you and you!” So there was a shortage of cooks and they asked me would I go? So I said yes. I’d never done any cooking in me life, for all I was eighteen, because my mother was always there. So I’d been there a few weeks then I was called into the office and they told me I had to go down to Aldershot on a six-weeks course. Decent barracks. We had three weeks in the field kitchens and three weeks in the modern kitchens. So we got the dirty work over first, the field kitchens, because you used to come back to your billets black as coal with all the smoke and that. So I was glad that three weeks was over. Then we were put into the modern kitchens and I really enjoyed it. They were all London chefs that were teaching us so I learned quite a lot. There was three hundred men that we were cooking for.

After that they put me into the sergeants’ mess. They were horrible. The lads were all right and the officers were smashing but the sergeants! Nothing satisfied them. Once or twice a week there’d be a dance in the NAAFI. We used to work shifts; early morning till two, then two till ten, and it was my turn for the late shift and I had to make the soup. There was one particular sergeant that nobody liked – there’s always one. I said to him “look, the soup’s on and cooked. Can I leave it and go up to the dance for the last hour?” And he wouldn’t let me, he went right by the book. I was that mad about it I put too much salt in the soup for spite! They were all coming in the NAAFI ordering pints after! After that I was put into the officers’ mess and they were so nice. Once a fortnight all the officers from all the surrounding areas would come into the Headquarters and they had a seven-course dinner. I was really dreading it but the Catering Officer was Captain Carson and he was lovely, very helpful. He knew that I was new and hadn’t done it before on my own. He said “don’t worry about it, I’ll help you”. After each course he came back to see I was all right. Every time I see a banana it reminds me of him, because the sweet was fried banana with sugar on. You never saw bananas except in the army. Oh, I was glad when that night was over.

During that time in Aldershot, that’s when I met me husband, Tom. He was in the Military Police. I’d got friendly with a Scots girl, May, and we were going to the NAAFI. When we got up the bank there was these two Redcaps. One of them pulled me up and said “where’s your gasmask?” I said “well, is it necessary? We’re just going for our supper in the NAAFI round the corner. And anyway, what’s it got to do with you?”  I could feel the Scots girl nudging me but I was green as grass. So he said “well, we could report you for this” and I thought “ooh, I’ve dropped a clanger, here” so I tried to be nice to them. They said they finished at nine o’clock and they would come to the NAAFI to see us. I said “please yourself” and forgot about it. Then these two chaps came in after nine o’clock and sat down with us. They didn’t have their caps on so I didn’t recognise them and thought they were being a bit pally, sitting down without being asked. It was May who told me they were the Military Police I had been cheeky to. So the few weeks that was left there we went to the pictures and we’d go for walks and that’s how it came about. I wouldn’t care, Tom was a sergeant – he knew how I felt about sergeants! So when my time finished I came back to Hutton Gate. That was a huge camp and I got a good grounding in different styles of food. The officers had not so much stodgy food as the young soldiers, you couldn’t fill them. But they got lovely steaks and everything. We were well fed, I was a tubby little thing. When I used to come home and see me mother with her bit of rations, scratting on…

Tom was posted overseas. He came back but he said “it won’t be for long, it’s on the cards that we’re off somewhere”. So we decided we’d get married. It was a quick wedding, both in uniform. I suppose if the war hadn’t have been on you would have prepared a wedding and set a date for the next year, but a lot of people just took the chance and got on with it. I came out of the army in 1941, but I enjoyed my two years in the army better than I did my civilian life, because I was doing something I liked and I was getting a bit more pay. Tom was posted to the Middle East, the Far East and he ended up in India in the finish. In the meantime I was pregnant with Olwyn – she didn’t see her dad till she was nearly three. I lived with my mother and Olwyn thought my dad was her dad. My sister was home as well, with her little one, so we were overcrowded. Tom came home in January 1945. The war finished in Japan in the August, and that’s when he went out to Japan. I got a letter to say they were letting the wives come out and they were building a little village for us. We got the papers with all this bumph, what we had to do and what we hadn’t to do, what we could take and what we couldn’t take, and that’s when I started to get a stomach ache! Oh dear, Japan! Me mother didn’t want us to go and Olwyn didn’t want to leave her nana.

Anyway, we made it. Me father took us down to King’s Cross and then we had to go to Waterloo to get the boat train, but the families weren’t allowed to go with us, so he couldn’t stand at the dock to wave us off. We were on the boat for six weeks. It was like a lovely holiday! I enjoyed it. We stopped at different ports, Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong. There was a young man and woman. They had no family but he was going out to Shanghai to manage this factory and they took us under their wing and we went ashore with them. I don’t think I would have gone without somebody escorting me. Anyway, we got to Japan and we docked, but we couldn’t land because we were flying the Yellow Flag. It was that year that infantile paralysis was rife, 1947, and this little girl had got it. So they took her off to the nearest military hospital and we reckoned we were going to stay there in the docks for forty-eight hours. Then the next thing, I could see a police launch coming out. Somebody loaned me a pair of binoculars and I could see my husband on it. It came up to the ship and they got on, so I said “we can’t get off yet”. “Don’t I know it,” he said. “But I’m getting you off.” He went to see the Captain, and he said we could go. So we got off two days before the ship actually docked.

Our house was lovely. Two bedrooms. We had two girls, servants you know. I could have had three but I liked to do my own cooking and things. They could speak bits of English and I could pick up bits of Japanese. One of them was a war widow with a little boy. One day she had nobody to mind the little boy, so I said “bring him here”. Well what people said! They called me the soft Englishwoman. But I said “he wasn’t responsible for the war, that little boy! His father’s dead.” But apart from these two girls we didn’t mix with the local people. We had our own village with a shop we got our food from and we had BAFS (British Allied Forces) paper money. We made our own entertainment and invited people over for dinner and got the grog out. At the weekend Tom would borrow a jeep and he would take us for runs out and picnics. That was the only time we got out of the village. We were there coming up to a year and Olwyn was six and I fell pregnant. I booked into the Military hospital over there. Then we got a fortnights notice that the British wives had to go home. By then Tom had got promotion to the S.I.B., that’s the Special Investigation Branch, dealing with drugs. He was the chief witness in a case and it was proceeding when I was due to go home, so I wasn’t looking forward to coming back on my own. But it had to be done and they promised him as soon as the case finished they would fly him to the next port where the ship was, and this is what they did. So the last part of the journey we came back together.


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