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World War II Wednesday, 1 September, 1999, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
Chelsea pensioners remember
Army veterans remember when war was announced
September 3 is the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II. Over the next week BBC News Online looks back to this historic day with a series of features and interviews.

Retired soldiers who fought in world war II reflect on the outbreak of the war.

The day the war began
Geordie Martin McLane, aged 87, was a career soldier - a sergeant when war was declared. While his wife was seriously ill he was sent to France as part of an advance party in the first week of war..


Martin McLane: "Everybody knew war was going to come"
We had a very well trained army. We had reservists in at the time and we had national servicemen - conscripts coming in. Everyone was training hard for war. We'd had a year's grace, as you know, and had done a lot of work in getting the army up to date.

On this and prior to this day, everybody knew war was going to come. When war was declared everything seemed to stop in the barracks while everyone digested the news. There was no fear about going away from anyone at all in the barracks - they were prepared - and a soldier was trained that way - if you had to go to war, you went.

The war was declared on the 3rd and on the 5th my wife had a baby up in Newcastle. I was given special leave to go up and see her and I was the only one in the division that got leave because she was dying. I went up to see her and I got 24 hours with her and then I had to return.

I was in such a state that they sent an escort from the depot to see me on the train. When I got back on the 6th or 7th of September I found I was in the key party - that means I was in the advance party to go overseas for our battalion. I was in married quarters and we were told we could stay in married quarters, but then all of a sudden the War Office changed its mind. We were told we all had to get out.

I was sent for by my company commander. He said 'Sorry Sergeant, you've got to get out of your married quarters - there's 5, get your house stuff out in four hours because you are away tonight to Bristol.'

We had to get kit boxes to take our stuff down to the railway. Prior to this the officers and others had been clearing their quarters and they got covered wagons. I got an open one - I wanted to insure it but they wouldn't insure it for us. Well, it arrived up in Newscastle and lay in the yard for a fortnight or more and everything was robbed. So I lost the entire contents of me house.

That night the advance party set off on their motorbikes and vehicles down to Bristol. We waited there for a night and the next morning we were sent off to Saint Lazaire in France.


Archibald Percy Harrington, aged 93, has had a long military career. Lieutenant-Colonel Harrington, who has been awarded both an OBE and a CBE, was mentioned in dispatches three times during the war. He was a Battery Sergeant Major serving in India when war was declared.


'Archie Harrington: " It meant a fulfilment of all my training"
I was on leave on a houseboat on the Dal lake in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, with my family when war broke out.

They had radios out there and there was an English speaking radio station so we were pretty well in touch. We were watching events fairly closely because as time serving professional soldiers we would all be involved.

I was recalled the following day of course - so bang went my holiday. Very mortifying to me because I couldn't make much contribution to the war at that particular stage. Instead of going as I thought home to England - I was due to go home - I went to Africa to war. I was commissioned and posted to an Indian division which subsequently in October 1940 was moved out to the Sudan for the Eritrean campaign.

We expected it, of course we did. It was pending. It stuck out a mile to right-thinking people. Not for the last few months, for couple of years we knew that war had been pending. In 1938 it was quite on the cards. We were preparing for it - in quite a leisurely fashion - but we were preparing for it.

A professional soldier has a different point of view to the ordinary person, I mean it's their job. To me it meant a fulfilment of all my training within my career.

My wife stayed in India. She joined the services in India and stayed there throughout the war. We linked up together after the war. She was a soldier's wife. We had been separated before, so this was nothing new to her at all.


Alan "Windy" Gale was 20 in 1939. He had joined the regular army two years before and was at an army bridging camp in Kent at the outbreak of war. He was part of the Ninth Field Company which later became the Ninth Airborne Division - one of the most famous squadrons in the war.


We were at bridging camp then we orders to mobilise - that was a few days before the war was actually declared. And of course everything was at panic stations as you can imagine.

We were packing up camp and loading it on the lorries. We were still working when the Sergeant Major shouted to listen to the radio.

We all went in and listened to it and we heard Chamberlain say 'a state of war exists'. The air raid sirens went and we all had to stand to - but nothing happened.

You can imagine ourselves. We knew we were ill-equipped. In our squadron there were 28 blokes - there should have been 600. Mind you, we had reservists that started coming in that made it up to 600, but we didn't have enough rifles so we had to make wooden ones...

I tried to communicate with my foster family - but I wasn't all that worried because I went in the army to get away from them

My feelings about it - I was concerned, I thought 'Well, this is it.' We were told we were going to go straight to France - there was no leave or anything. We went to France a few days after war broke out.

We had no communication with the civilian side of life. They knew I could drive so I drove one of the trucks. We loaded everything on lorries. You've never seen a camp cleared so quick.

I saw some terrible things during the war but my memories of the actual day are of chaos. There was a handful of men doing what normally a load of men would do.

I never thought I would see the end of the war. I was amazed that I survived - because I never saw home again until 1947.


William Hibbert from Oldham in Lancashire was a young man of 15 when war was declared. His elder brother joined up immediately and William became an infantryman in 1943.


William Hibbert:
It was something that had been building up and I think everybody realised it had to come. I think we was ill-prepared for it even though we had a standing army. The amount of troops what we had compared to Germany - well it was rubbish really in this country.

I went through the war as an infantryman in France. You got the same impression with them - they were so ill-prepared for it that Germany just over-ran everything before Dunkirk.

I went in the Home Guard in 1941 and was called to the colours in 1943. I was sent to France until September. All I'll say is the Germans didn't like me - and I didn't like them, of course.

There was more friendship during the war.. It was a bringing together of everybody. Even the bank managers and the mill managers and people like that seemed to come in with the workers. There was a breakdown in the social classes - not a big breakdown - but everyone was more friendly.


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"I was the only one who got leave"
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"The Sergeant Major said 'Go in and listen the the radio'"
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