Cyril Askew joined the 1st King's Liverpool Regiment in 1935 and was based for six months at the Barracks in Sandy Road, Waterloo, Liverpool for basic training.
“I was 18 years old and had signed up for 7 years. Army training was quite a shock to the system; we were always up at 0500, given tea and a piece of seed cake, then a run along the length of Seaforth Front. They would bang an ink stamp on the back of our hands at the far end to make sure we did the full run. Some of the lads would take turns to stop along the way to press hands together to transfer the ink stamp. We tried all these tricks, but discipline was very tough and we were trained well.”
Upon completion of training, Cyril was transferred into the 2nd Regiment in order to go overseas. Posted to the North West Frontier, the troop ship took the battalion out from Liverpool, across the Irish Sea, the Bay of Biscay, East across the full length of the Mediterranean Sea, out through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea & Indian Ocean to Bombay. Finally, the Battalion traveled by rail up to the Afghan border.
“We were delayed as we entered the Mediterranean; this was due to the Spanish Civil War which was raging at the time. Otherwise the voyage was without incident and I don’t remember much about it. Once we arrived into the border area there was lots of ribbing about us new arrivals having “white knees”… plenty of banter but good comradeship, typical Liverpool lads!
It was 1937 by the time I arrived on station. This was still in the days of Empire the British Raj, and we were a policing force really, keeping order amongst the warring tribes. There were such different religions and cultures with extreme separations of language, religion which strictly governed tribal relationships. This border region was known as the North West Frontier, being a belt of territory between 20 and 200 miles separating Afghanistan and north West India (now Pakistan). It was a tangle of mountainous and thoroughly inhospitable country without communications hardly any roads to speak of, just tracks which were only passable by camels or mules.
Our presence was all about the demonstration of power; to show India that British Forces were capable of keeping order amongst the constantly warring tribes. The local tribesmen were Pathans, a Muslim people speaking Pushtu. However, there were tribes and sub-tribes with deadly rivalry; there were Mohmands, Afridis, Mahsuds, Wazirs and Orakzais. Since there was no agreed and defined border, battles raged from disputed territorial ownership and rights of passage. They were all united in Islam, totally lawless and unhappily fine marksmen.
As we became more accustomed to our new surroundings and way of life, just as the locals learned many English words so they could ply their trade with us, we learned to speak Urdu and of course many of these words and expressions became quite commonplace. We quickly found the most important person to know was the “Char-Wallah”; happily these little fellows were everywhere and of course very popular; every time the train stopped each Char-Wallah would choose his carriage and walk up and down the aisles chanting: “Char-Wallah Sahib, Char-Wallah”. After that we learned to eat; the favourite was usually supplied by the Char-Wallah or his assistant, so his call would be: “Char-Wallah Sahib… Egg banjo Sahib”. We quickly discovered “Egg-Banjo” was a sort of fried egg roll, the quality of which was highly dependant upon the skill of the Char-Wallah. Happily there was no need to haggle as the price was nationally set at 4 annas.
Another useful chap to know was the “Nappi-Wallah” – the barber who would give you a haircut and shave for a tiny sum of money. Sometimes he would be standing there when you wake up, with cut-throat razor at the ready! I remember another odd sight of a “Fruit Wallah” this was a chap sitting under a tree selling fresh fruit, but he had a very well-trained monkey which had a habit of recovering the fruit back after it had been purchased!
The climate was deadly, stinking hot in the lowlands yet much cooler in the mountains. We would go out on patrol or tour for at least a month, looking for the forts along the Kyber Pass border country.
More than anything the Pathan tribesmen were after weapons, so we had to take great care of our rifles. When sleeping, the rifle was tied or chained to my chest… the tribesmen would creep up in the dark and swipe whatever they could. Even at Church Parade, we would go inside and leave rifles in the porch, swapping rifle for a bible, but there had to be armed guards at the door with bayonets fixed. We called these thieves “Swipe Wallahs” or “Loose Wallahs”. Although it’s a daft name now, it suited them well enough but of course the punishments were severe when we caught them.
In every way the British Army was the highest authority in the North West Frontier, but quite often the “Loose Wallahs” we caught were handed over to the local Tribal Authority who would publicly hang them.
Landikotal was one of the main places on the border where we stayed, but we would patrol all the way up to the farthest, northernmost border high up in the mountains; this was at Landikarna. I was in ‘Signals’ and we would use heliograph and semaphore sets to communicate from the hills. Although this was hardly modern technology it was light equipment to carry and ideal for the geography & climate. With heliograph especially, just mirrors on tripods, we could send morse signals efficiently. Our officers liked to climb up into the hills to get out of the intense heat, but this put them in danger from tribesmen so platoons of troops were detached to look after the officers when they went off on these comfort jaunts.
We would go out for a tour usually for about a month at a time. The terrain was very tough but it was the nights which were the dangerous time, so we were under orders to be off the road by 7pm. There were Forts and Blockhouses scattered all around the Kyber Pass, but to get in we had to give a password. Most of the time the entrances were guarded by Gurkhas who would simply shove a kukri up to your throat until you gave the password. It’s not easy to negotiate with a Gurkha kukri! The Ghurkas were all little fellows, happy as the day is long, yet they were tough as old boots; I’m certainly glad they were on our side! We might stay in a Blockhouse Fort for three or four days before moving on with the patrol.
There was a lot of rabies about; that was a horrible death. One of my comrades went this way and we were under strict orders not to let any dogs get close. For all the tough terrain and difficult geography, it was also an area for earthquakes. That was a whole new experience!
We were kept busy all the time. During those first couple of years the situation steadily deteriorated with all the unrest in that part of India. I remember the Fakir of Ippi was the local ringleader, causing all kinds of trouble. Added to that was Mahatma Ghandi who was stirring up resistance against established British rule. Normally 150 of us would be called out to put down a local uprising.
I do recall the time when the officers were getting really excited and we were called to arms to be sent out to deal with 350,000 rioters… all 150 of us! I’m afraid when facing odds like that, there wasn’t any place for politeness. We were ordered to open fire and that’s what we did.
When the War started in 1939, Russia was on the side of Germany in a Pact which had been secretly negotiated before the outbreak of hostilities. Of course the Russians had serious ambitions to cross into Afghanistan & India for the oil fields. We were stationed right up at the frontier in the mountains. This was part of the Himalaya range and we were about 16,000 feet up, digging in with picks & shovels; it was quite ridiculous really.
I had originally joined for 7 years so I was here for the duration. I suppose the situation became so serious trying to defend against the Japanese advance across Burma that many of us were transferred to the Arakan Front. By this time in 1941 increases in manpower were becoming very clear as men were being landed from troop ships sent from home, so the defensive front was just about holding. We were up against the Japanese Imperial Army which had developed quite a reputation; they’d taken Singapore and driven us out of Malaysia all in just a few months.
I was in the 13th King’s Regiment of the 14th Army. Some of us were selected for the Chindit Brigade, to go into the jungle in order to disrupt enemy communications and transport. It was an idea put forward by Major General Orde Wingate who was quite a character. He came to address the troops and explained what the campaign was going to be about. We would be under the command of Mike Calvert who was to become known as “Mad Mike”. We were to be dropped into the jungle by glider, deep behind enemy lines. The landing strips had been prepared, but were really just clearings in the jungle. Secrecy was always critical because whenever the Japs thought a landing strip was being prepared, they would lay logs and debris across the area to prevent landing. The ‘strips’ we were to be aimed at were called Piccadilly and Broadway.
Just as we were about to go in, six of us were called in front of the C.O. He explained that we had by then done 7 years service so we were going home. You could have knocked me over with a feather I really didn’t expect these rules to be applied given the circumstances. None of us was inclined to argue so we were immediately off by rail to Karachi. I stayed there for a short while waiting for arrangements to be put together, then went down to Bombay where we boarded ship for Blighty.
I embarked onto the ‘Reina del Pacifico’ which was a luxury liner converted to troop ship duty. This was in early 1944 and our convoy was the first to cross to Aden taking the route through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean which had just been declared clear of enemy submarines. We had an accompanying Battleship and some heavy escorts as it gathered to become a large convoy bringing much of the 8th Army home from North Africa. We called in at Gibraltar where the convoy re-formed; from there we crossed the eastern Atlantic home into Liverpool.
It was hard to believe that so much had happened during the years I’d been away. When we passed through the Straights of Gibraltar seven years earlier, the Spanish Civil War was full on. We had an uneventful cruise back home and I found myself standing outside Exchange Station waiting to be mustered onto a troop train off towards Southport. Standing there in uniform and bush hat, leaning on my rifle, a passer-by stopped and asked, “Are you going abroad, son?” He would have been amazed to know half my story of the last seven years!
Once on the train we were quickly out of Liverpool centre. Of course I recognised it all, despite the bomb damage and the long period away. I could see our house from the train and that was all that I could think of. I had left home in 1936, yet here we were in 1944 and I was passing by so close, yet not allowed home. In the circumstances it was just too much to bear.
We were heading for Harrington Barracks in Formby. It was an amazing coincidence that the RSM on the train had been my Instructor at the Depot in 1935. Apart from him, I hadn’t seen anyone around here in more than seven years. It was fantastic to be home, yet I needed to be home, not teased by glancing at our house from an enclosed and sealed railway carriage.
We stopped at the Station and lined up ready for the march to the nearby Barracks. There were police on the station platform, both military and civilian, and nobody was allowed on or off whilst we assembled. After years fighting the crafty Pathans and jungle warfare, slipping away from that station platform was comparatively easy. I was soon home but, oddly, I was frightened to knock on the door. Looking through the window I saw my mother for the first time in so many years. When I had left she had black hair; now it was white. Finally, I plucked up the courage to knock… ‘It’s me mother, don’t faint!”
I stayed only the one night and then had to get back to Harrington. I went by train. Amazingly, a few seats away was the RSM!
I think I was judged to be something of a trouble maker. I was sent to Ireland with the 9th King’s Regiment. We were based around the Mountains of Mourne, and acted as a sort of holding battalion training on vehicles, bren carriers and from time to time sending troops to various regiments. I found out that my brother was dying, yet they wouldn’t allow me any leave to go and see him. I have always been loyal to my Country, just as my father was before me, and this attitude really upset me.
In the spring of 1944, along with 50 others, they sent me to southern England, through Aldershot, in readiness for the invasion. I was attached to the Lincolnshire Regiment. It was all very secretive and none of us had any real idea what was going on; all we heard were rumours and counter-rumours. We appeared to be selected to go in first as part of Montgomery’s favourite 3rd Division, with the 9th Brigade Lincolnshire Regiment, along with Scottish and Irish Regiments. I landed on Sword Beach and we were directed to proceed towards the city of Caen which was Monty’s primary target.
I think we were aware of the American difficulties west of us on Omaha; of course we realised this was the big event and everyone was concerned to know the landings were a success and that we were generally moving inland. I’m sure there was a much higher casualty expectation amongst the top brass.
Christ – we were under heavy fire all the time. Once we were off the beach we had to quickly dig a slit trench just to stay alive! Then once we were clear of the beach there was an effort to re-group, to re-organise out of the disruptive mess of the landings. I saw six men coming off the beach towards my group and we all got together. We tried to get something to eat whilst there was an opportunity.
The ration packs we had were American, much better than ours and we could just pour hot water onto prepared dried and compressed food for a warm meal. The first one to come over announced: “We’re supposed to be with the Lincolns.” I replied, “Just grab a bite of breakfast whilst we gather everyone.” This chap was dead keen to get off; we found an officer and were directed forward. The road was under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. There was also heavy artillery and air bursts. We called in incoming and outgoing mail; our shells were coming over from the ships in the Channel and the Jerry shells coming at us from in front. We came across a Tiger Tank which had just been put out of action and the crew with support troops, what was left of them, were being taken away as prisoners. It was constant battle, with the enemy making good use of the bocage countryside, using it as perfect cover for resistance and counter attack.
The enemy held a chateau in the hinterland of the landing beach so they had good command of the terrain. We took it off them but it was hard fighting all the way. As darkness fell there was confusion and I found myself on my own entering the building, or what was left of it. After some poking about I came across a young officer who directed me forward, saying: “We’re under mortar fire but we’ve taken a German trench over there where you can get your head down for the night.” Well, I had been soldiering long enough to know it was risky to occupy an enemy trench as they would have its co-ordinates exactly ranged. It seemed alright and I was tired out so I took his advice. It was a very neat trench with duckboards laid in an orderly fashion. Sheltered from ground fire, given that it had been a long day, I nodded off straight away, although people were walking over me throughout the night!
The chateau and all around remained under fire pretty much all night but it didn’t stop me getting at least some sleep. When I awakened properly around dawn, all our troops had moved on. I couldn’t work out what was going on, and so still on my own I went back to the chateau to see if I could find that officer or at least someone who could put me in the picture. Everything had changed; the chateau was now a First Aid Hospital or Dressing Station with wounded being carried in. I noticed a wagon pull up and saw that it was unloading Compo Ration Packs which were packed for 15 men. Naturally I managed to get hold of one of these, so at least the day’s provisions were sorted out.
I think it made a difference being a seasoned and trained soldier certainly in the beginning as the new men found their way. I was treated as a Class 1 soldier, fit and highly trained.
I don’t remember the details now, but we re-grouped and had several bren carriers as we moved forward. Before long we were ahead of our lines and it was impossible to know where the boundaries were what was ours and what was theirs. One of the carriers had a 2″ mortar on board, another had a bren gun and another had a PIAT. We had plenty of grenades which we carried loose and more stored in the carriers. After heavy aerial bombardment we took Caen, although the city was in ruins by that time. After that we moved on to what became known as the Falaise Gap where the enemy became trapped between British and American advances, with their escape routes very restricted.
After about two months ashore we were sent back for 3 days rest. This was at an airfield into a designated ‘rest area’. I remember we saw a Jimmy Gleason film and I relished the idea of having a bath!
Our rest period didn’t last long and we were soon back in the line and into combat. German defences re-organised quickly after the surprise of D-Day. Soon after our landings they brought heavy armour up and fighting was hard. We came up against the Herman Goering Paratroop Division which included many snipers hidden in trees and abandoned buildings. They were well trained and camouflaged. I was alongside one of our officers as we moved forward slowly in a leopard crawl, surrounded on three sides.
“Askew, you are heading the leading section, we’re attacking!”
We lost three men immediately as we came under heavy fire. We managed to take the objective which was really just another hedge line in this treacherous bocage countryside. We had one prisoner and I was ordered to take him back to our main lines for interrogation. I made him walk slowly in front of me; there was no point trying to dodge around trying to remain completely out of sight, but I looked for cover wherever possible. I fixed my bayonet and held it firmly and close against the middle of his back. My belief was that I might be safe if the snipers believed I could run this chap through with my last breath. He told me he was Polish, although I’m not sure I believed him.
It was obviously important to get him back to our lines for interrogation, but I was keen to stay alive at the same time! Happily it wasn’t that far and as soon as I got him back, they took him away.
I immediately set off back to join my brigade. Aside from the snipers, there was heavy calibre machine gun fire raking the area from time to time and often accompanied by mortar fire which was pretty accurate. The slightest movement set it all off. On my way back I was caught in the open and had to dive into the nearest trench. Everyone did the same and I soon had four or five men on top of me. I could hardly breath and passed out for a while. I could see my bren carrier withdrawing and they were shouting my name. I ran like hell and managed to jump onto the back of the carrier.
There was a factory nearby with a tall chimney. It was clear the enemy was using this as a lookout point. This explained their accuracy and command of the immediate area. We had to find the best ways to screen ourselves from view and used old doors to form cover. As dawn broke we managed to prepare some sort of a breakfast before we faced the day. The ground was all red clay which was sticky to dig but one can manage under consistent sniper fire; the bullets were hitting the ground around us as we were digging in. One of our tanks came along, all covered in camo netting. You would think we’d be pleased to see that but actually it attracted heavy mortar and artillery fire. One of the men cursed loudly with me, “Now we’ve had it, with that f****** thing here!”
Suddenly the sky was filled with shellfire and we scattered as best we could just to stay alive! We were on the edge on an orchard and I dived for cover, whatever I could find. My tin hat fell off as I lay down trying to scramble into the earth. I managed to find my way into a trench. Before long I had to move as it became full of blood and shrapnel it was a right old mess. The fighting was hard and continued throughout the day. It was horrific.
Later on I found my way into an abandoned enemy trench. This was always a real problem, whatever the circumstance. Most of the time the Germans left us ‘presents’ in their trenches when they were forced to fall back. I had to jab a bayonet around at arm’s length. By this time the light was fading and it wasn’t much fun feeling around for booby traps in the dark.
Cyril and fellow veteran Frank Allen return to Normandy with D-Day Revisited for the 65th Anniversary in 2009.
At best I might get a blighty’ such as blowing my hand off. With it being an enemy trench they had the exact position and targeted us with artillery and mortar fire. Oddly, they kept missing us. The shelling was consistent but just as consistently they kept falling long with everything landing in a field about 50 yards behind us. We realised after a while there was a truck there attracting all the fire. I felt sorry for the boys there, but it certainly did us a favour.
Shortly after this we got a three day rest. I was in quite a state by then; I had my share of superficial wounds but more than anything I was worn out, malnourished and just completely spent. I was sent to the field hospital where the Doctor instructed for me to be sent back. I was taken back to the beach with all the wounded; we boarded one of the Dukw vehicles and were taken out to one of the small ships anchored offshore. There was a mechanism to strap stretchers onto the side for lifting wounded on board.
Once I landed back in Portsmouth I was sent up to Scotland where I was hospitalised for a several weeks. When I was discharged I made a point of visiting my brother, Dougie, who was in RAF Bomber Command at a base in Norfolk. When I arrived I was told he was out on a raid over Essen; it was the last sortie of his last tour. I stayed there a few days and spent some time with his crew and his squadron.
Then that was it… Dougie and I had come through it all. It was over.”
Having served for 4 years prior to the war starting in 1939, Cyril landed in Normandy as a highly experienced soldier. In this respect he was quite different to many younger veterans who found their first experience of war on the Normandy beaches. Nw 92, Cyril looks back on his years of service with hindsight…
Cyril is now the oldest Kingsman in the country, having celebrated his 95th birthday at Liverpool Town Hall in August 2012
“When I look back now, it was of course such a long time ago. I see our lads over in Afghanistan now and I realise that not much has changed. My family was always so fiercely proud of this country and so loyal. My father fought at Mons. Some of the military unfairness was hard to bear as it didn’t seem to be fair payback for our loyalty. I know it was wartime and we were all in it together, but some things could have been done better. It was a particularly long war for me nearly ten years.“