As part of the Halifax One Hundred Melville came over from Canada to join the regiment in 1938
My Army Years
By Melville Coppell
I was born November 28th, 1918 in Melville Cove, Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1938 I was living in Armdale, NS with my parents and my two younger sisters, Eileen and Doreen. My brother Fred was working on the Lady Boats which traveled from Halifax to the West Indies and my other older brother Jimmy was in the British Merchant Navy.
Dad had served with Lieutenant Colonel Willis in the RCR’s in Halifax. Colonel Willis had previously been in the Manchester Regiment in England. He told Dad he was looking for young men to recruit for the Manchester’s. Dad asked if I wanted to go and I said yes because I wasn’t making much money – very little future in Nova Scotia during the Depression – thought I might have a future in the British Army.
In retrospect, World War II was already in the making but I never gave it any thought at the time. Just thought it might be exciting.
Colonel Willis phoned Dad one day and setup a date for me to go on a ship. There were also two other boys with me – Dannie Serrick and George Lampier – Dannie and I were friends but I only knew George casually – his parents were friends of my parents.
We left Halifax one sunny Saturday afternoon early in September 1938 and our friends and families came to see us off on, I believe, The Manchester United, which was carrying apples to England. We all helped in the engine room as cleaners, wiping up oil spills etc. I think the trip took about ten days – normal fall weather and none of us got seasick.
On arrival in Liverpool, England as we had no passports, we were met by an army recruiting sergeant who took us ashore. He gave us tickets and put us on the train to Manchester where we were met by a sergeant from the Manchester Regiment – very strict type. He took us in an army truck outside the city to a town called Ashton-under-Lyne where the Manchester Recruit Depot was.
We all signed on for seven years and meant to do four hitches (twenty eight years) and then retire on pension. We spent six months on recruit training at the depot – they only do ten weeks now!
The training was very hard, coming straight from civvy street as we did – it was a machine gun regiment so we had to learn all about that, rifle training, PT, parade ground and cross country marches. Every Saturday at 8 a.m. all recruits from the four squads (thirty-odd in each) had to go on a ten mile cross-country run. If you didn’t make it back in a good time your sergeant would not issue a Saturday night pass. By this time Dannie’s older brother Ric was there too and neither he nor Dannie were ever issued one. With a pass one could go to pubs etc in Ashton-under-Lyne.
In April 1939, at the end of the six months we went to Battalion at Aldershot, England where we were assigned to ‘B’ Company. Ric, who had arrived later than us in England, went to ‘C’ Company along with Bill Backman from Melville Cove. Battalion life was much easier than recruit camp, as you had received your training and were supposed to know what you were doing.
Hitler of course was active in Europe at the time and there were rumours of England going to war. Neville Chamberlain made a trip to Berlin to see Hitler and came back saying there would be no war. However, it was noticeable that the army immediately began quietly preparing – gas mask training, shiny objects we normally kept spotlessly clean (bayonets for example) were deliberately darkened so they wouldn’t gleam. We weren’t told anything but were kept more or less on alert basis so we were not surprised when on September 3rd, 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. Canada followed one week later on September 10th. This was the same date when the Manchester Regiment and other units departed for France on ferry boats – they carried trucks, cars etc.
I can’t remember where we landed but we remained there in trenches that we had dug, waiting for the Germans who were on their way to France. We didn’t lack for anything really at that time. George Lampier was there with me but Dannie had been kept in England as a Sergeant Instructor though he did join us later.
We stayed in France preparing for the German attack which came in May 1940. They were numerically much too powerful for us and we were forced to retreat. We were ordered to destroy all arms, supplies, forms of transport etc so they wouldn’t fall into German hands. We then set out on foot for Dunkirk, Belgium – there was no particular order in this; we were just told in which direction to head to get to the beach.
En route we saw no German ground forces but were repeatedly strafed by Stuka dive bombers. It took us three days and three nights to arrive at the beach late that third night. I met up with a few from the Manchester’s including the Colonel who had some soup kitchens setup – it was like Heaven, big pieces of bread! All we had on the way to Dunkirk was taken from empty houses – no food but plenty of wine and some of the boys were pretty boozed up.
The beaches were loaded with troops. While waiting for transport, we were constantly strafed by the Germans. I was there approximately thirty six hours before being able to get on a small fishing boat manned by the Royal Navy and then a few hours later landed in Kent, England - unwashed, ragged, unshaved and very hungry.
There were buses waiting there to take us to various centers as well as ladies from the Ladies Auxiliary who were giving everyone a mug of tea to take on the bus. I ended up just outside of Sheffield with six or seven other soldiers billeted in of all places, a pub. I got washed and headed into Sheffield for a haircut. The local people saw the condition of our uniforms – mud and blood all over them and knew we had just come from Dunkirk. The barbers wouldn’t accept our money. The first day in Sheffield a group from the Army Pay Corps came to pay us, as you carry your paybook with you in the British Army – so we had money. We went into a pub and ordered some beer. The publican looked at me and said “You’re the boys who just came back, so there’s no charge for the beer.” We caught on quickly and started going from pub to pub and got the same treatment. It made us feel appreciated.
We were there approximately three days and were notified that transportation would soon be arriving to take us to our units. My Regiment was under canvas in the Devonshire Moors – we could see Dartmoor Prison. Devonshire is a beautiful place. We stayed until we got new recruits – approximately three hundred to replace the dead, wounded and prisoners of war from our unit.
Many thanks to Dave Gilhen for sending me the story and special thanks to Melville, wishing him all the best from Manchester for his 88th birthday this month