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By Jean Perraton, his daughter, 2011
George Henry Warner
George & Maud in 1932 George at Ripley
Above, George at Ripley

Left - George & Maud in 1932 at Bognor Regis


My father George Henry Warner was born in Rushden, the youngest of three boys, in 1908. By the time I first remember them, his parents, Frank and Annie Warner, were living at 27 Cromwell Road. Both Frank and Annie had worked in a shoe factory but by then Frank was retired and spending his days mending and making shoes in a little lean-to shed behind the outdoor lavatory in the back yard. My grandmother, Annie, was still doing some cleaning for the taxi driver's wife who lived across the road.

Their youngest son, George, left school at 14 to become a shop assistant. In many respects an ordinary working-class young man, he was unusual in being a fine, self-taught violinist. How he came to love classical music and to play the violin so well is one of those mysteries that began to puzzle me when, after his death, it was too late to find out. His father had a good singing voice but no one else in his family played a musical instrument and there was no radio at home when he was growing up, nor, I imagine, much chance to listen to orchestral concerts in Rushden.

When the war broke out in 1939 George’s two elder brothers were living locally and working in reserved occupations. Bob worked an ammunition factory, and Dick was a monumental mason. George was living in his wife’s home town, Eastbourne, with their two small children. His wife, Maud, had first met her future husband one summer night, some nine years before, playing his violin on a swimming raft on the wet sands. The two violinists were exploring the way music sounded when played over water. At the outbreak of war the coast was barricaded off and, when in 1940 the bombs began to fall on the town, Maud and her two young daughters went to live with her in-laws in Rushden. George stayed behind as, now working as an insurance agent, he was anxious collect the weekly premiums as long as possible. But, with the bombs destroying buildings and disrupting services and his clients leaving the town, this became a hopeless task.

When conscription was first introduced in 1939 George, at 31, was too old to be called up. In May 1940, however, the government was empowered to conscript men aged 20 to 41 for military or industrial work. Not all eligible men were called up immediately and George volunteered for military service as, moved by the retreat from Dunkirk, he felt that he should not leave it to the younger men. So, in January 1941, he enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps and was posted to Alfreton in Derbyshire, where he and his new friend Bill – who would remain with him throughout their service abroad – were trained to become dispatch riders.

In January 1941 George and Bill left Glasgow in a convoy to sail round the Cape to Egypt. It was then that the first of George’s letters began giving Maud an almost daily account of the nitty-gritty of Army life; letters which usually managed to be up-beat and cheerful.

We soon ran into fairly high seas which have continued since, and in fact seem to get worse. Most of the lads in our quarters have been sea sick, some of them have had it very badly. Bill and I are OK so far but it has been touch and go sometimes. We three are on the Bren gun team for defence against hostile aircraft but so far we have had a very quiet time ... We are being very well fed. Sometimes we get eggs and bacon for breakfast — I say eggs — we only get one each, but because some of the lads are unable to eat them it usually leaves two or three each for the rest of us, and so far I belong to the rest of us.

Maud and the two children lived with their grandparents for the remainder of the war. Jean recalls winter evenings in the flickering gas light of the living room where Grandma cooked on the big black range and they ate their meals on top of the Morrison shelter, which took up much of the room and under which they crouched when the air raid sirens sounded. Here, on Friday nights, Jean and Julie were washed in the zinc bath in front of the fire. After being bathed in turn their grandfather would lift them on to his lap to rub them dry and cuddle them. Then, in the warm firelight, he and the children would sing his favourite Edwardian songs: ‘Just a Song at Twilight’ and ‘I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls’. Meanwhile Maud would be writing a letter to George or, despite his protestations, wrapping up yet another parcel of things that were expensive or rationed at home. George would repeatedly urge her not to send more things but, with unstoppable generosity, she went on doing so. In one of his letters he joked:

I’ve got so much ointment, bandages and stuff now that I’m thinking of opening a chemists shop. It all started from me asking for one tin of Germolene. I’ve a good mind to ask you for a bottle of beer, then I bet you would send me a brewery.

My sister and I would spend most of our time playing in the streets outside the house, bouncing a ball against the walls of the shoe factory or skipping with the bouncy bits of twisted metal discarded in heaps outside the munitions factory. But our favourite summer treat was walking across the fields to Ditchford where we paddled in the shallow water below while our mother sought deeper water for a swim. This was the spot where George had learnt to swim, and where Frank had tried, unsuccessfully to teach Annie to swim many years before.

Frank and Annie Warner at Ditchford
Frank and Annie Warner at Ditchford

In Egypt George was stationed at a petrol supply depot about 20 miles west of Alexandria – strategically located between the fuel supplies coming in from the east and the troops that needed fuel to the west. Occasionally he and Bill would manage to escape the dust and the flies of the desert to swim in the warm, clear waters of the Mediterranean at near Alex. Swimming was a major consolation to the troops. Even Churchill seized the opportunity on his visit to see Montgomery in August 1942. Churchill recalled seeing thousands of sunburnt men bathing while Montgomery recalled how anxious he was to keep the press away from the Prime Minister as he walked down to the sea dressed only in a shirt. George was even able enjoy a week’s leave in Alex only a month before the battle of El Alamein when, according to official memoirs, all leave had been stopped.

George on his motor bike
When, after El Alamein, the Allies began to press steadily westward, George’s unit moved briefly to Benghazi, to be nearer the front where petrol supplies were needed, and then back to the Suez region to take part in the invasion of Sicily. There for a while, with their smuggled gramophone and records, George and Bill had a welcome break from the desert – enjoying the fruits of the Sicilian summer and swimming in the sea. Indeed, his letters suggest that they were enjoying better and more plentiful food than his family back in Rushden. But, come the winter of 1944, they were driving north through Italy in snow and sleet to camp in the mud at a petrol depot outside Naples which would supply the troops in their slow, bloody battle northwards.

Meanwhile back at home George’s daughters were fast growing up into school children. We would love to chat to our grandfather as he worked in his shed where, among lasts and bags of leather, there would always be an eyelet tin containing toffees. Sometimes we would walk with him to Higham Ferrers to buy leather off-cuts at the market and, of course, he kept us supplied with well-fitting shoes for our growing feet. In late summer each year, after the wheat harvest, we would go with grandma and neighbours to glean in the fields. This was a tedious and dusty task, and for days afterwards their ankles would be sore from the razor-sharp ends of the stubble. The gleanings went to feed the chickens kept by one of grandma’s friends and resulted in the fresh eggs that, from time to time, would make a welcome change from reconstituted dried eggs.

George spent the rest of the war just outside Naples from where he made long journeys to other parts of Italy. If he had a free evening he would go to the opera, but most evenings were spent playing in the unit’s dance band. When the war in Europe ended the men were transferred to Castellammare where, though longing to get home, they managed to enjoy an enforced holiday by the sea. George finally flew back to England, crouching with other men in the hold of a bomber, in September 1945 – although he wasn’t demobbed I until the following spring. When at last he was reunited with Maud, one evening in the dark railway station, she hardly recognised him and nearly threw her arms around the wrong man.

One Musician’s War: Riding from Egypt to Italy with the RASC, 1941-1945 by Jean Perraton is published by Amberley at £14.99, ISBN 978-1-4456-0404-6, www.amberleybooks.com.


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