Bill Knight

Bill Knight recently won a 'Volunteer of the Year award for his work at Bedford Museum, and was interviewed by the Ouse Valley Living Magazine.  They have kindly allowed us to reproduce the photograph and article here, and Bill has provided some additional information about his life.  Read the full story below.


Bill Knight

Volunteer, Oakley, age 87 


I started at four, at the Convent School in Bromham Road.  I used to walk there.  My mother took me the first time and after that I did it on my own.  We were expected to leave at the age of eight as from then on it became a Girls’ School only.


I was at Bedford Modern School then, where my father, uncles and grandfather had gone before me.  You had to steer clear of trouble as punishment was of a ferocious sort that would not be allowed today.  For the slightest little thing you got the cane.  It seemed that the ordained clergy were the most brutal.  There’s a bit in the scriptures which says “spare the rod and spoil the child.”  I think that was their motto.


Today £5 seems nothing to the young folk, but to us a shilling a week was big pocket money.  You were at school for six days a week and a Milky Way cost a penny and a Mars Bar twopence in the tuck shop, so if you had Mars Bars, by the end of the week you had nothing left.  I used to get by on Milky Ways.


In the 1930’s going after girls did not come into our lifestyles.  We were not interested.  They were another race.  If in school uniform you were not allowed to speak to a girl in the street.  On one occasion a boy was beaten for speaking to his own sister.


I was seventeen when I left school.  I had been offered a place at Cambridge University but as my father still had three younger children at fee paying schools. I felt I should not be financially dependent on him any more.  In any case, it was the time of Munich and war looked imminent.  I was reminded of a sentence frequently used in films of the Wild West, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” not that you are much of a man at 17, but it seemed appropriate.


Most of our generation joined the Territorial Army.  My choice was the local artillery unit of the Bedfordshire Yeomanry.  I was able to take a job with the London Brick Company at Stewartby which offered good prospects, but all came to an end on Friday September 1st 1939 when we heard that the Germans had invaded Poland and General Mobilisation had been ordered.  This required an immediate motor cycle ride home, a change into uniform and a report to 417 Battery Headquarters in Ashburnham Road.


I was commissioned in 1940, and in 1941 volunteered for training as a Forward Observer for Naval Gunfire in Combined Operations Command.  In early 1942, news was received that Japanese submarines were refuelling in Madagascar and sinking our ships supplying the army in Egypt.  The situation was serious and negotiations began with the French government in Vichy, but which failed to produce any satisfaction.  The only solution seemed to be that we must occupy the island ourselves for the duration.


That was the reason for our first major Combined Operation of W.W.II.  The harbour entrance of Diego Suarez was heavily defended and a frontal attack would have been hazardous in the extreme, but about twenty miles away, on the other side of the island was a small bay which offered possibilities.  Even so there were problems.  The bay was protected by a string of rocky outcrops and small islands but there was one deep water channel which gave access to the shore.  However, that one channel was protected by a minefield and covered by one coastal battery.  The plan was for R.N. minesweepers to clear a passage through the minefield and No. 5 Commando to follow in assault craft, get to the beach and capture the coast battery, all to be done under cover of darkness, after which the main landing could proceed in relative safety.  On the way through, one of the minesweepers hit a mine and it seemed certain that the explosion would be heard from the shore, but nothing happened.

We landed on the beach in silence and walked up to the gun position which was completely unattended.  This was strange indeed, bordering on the incomprehensible.  When dawn began to break we saw a building nearby and went to investigate.  This proved to be the living quarters of the Coast gunners who were all in bed.  Then we were to experience the first casualty of the whole Madagascar campaign, when one of the gunners leapt out of bed, completely naked, grabbed a bayonet and rushed at Lieutenant “Dopey” Rose of No. 5 Commando, so called on account of his facial resemblance to one of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs of that name.  Dopey levelled his automatic and at short range pulled the trigger.  His would be assailant went down in a heap with a gaping hole in his back and no sign of further life.  Someone said, “Why did you do that, Dopey?”  The answer was, “If I hadn’t got him he would have got me,” which was undeniable.  Many years later I found out the reason for the unmanned gun position.  They had received a Memoire Militaire, or Order, which when translated from the French read, “Night firing is not envisaged.  Access to the Bay is considered impossible at night.”  Lucky for us it was.


Further events:  In the course of 1942 there were to be two further landings for us, one at Majunga on the west coast and another at Tamatave on the east.  In 1943 the bulk of the troops involved in the landings moved on to India, leaving garrisons of South African and East African troops in the island.  Combined Operations training was started in India but priority use of landing craft for North Africa, Sicily, Italy and finally Normandy in June 1944 meant that none were available for Burma until 1945, when we were able to make full use of them.  I remember participating in five separate landings and I know there were a good many more as well, ending at Rangoon in May.  There was one further landing in September on the west coast of Malaya but the atom bombs had been dropped and the fighting was over to everyone’s great relief.  Repatriation, considering the numbers involved, was a slow business but eventually one’s turn came.  I was back in Bedford for New Year 1946 and after serving some months with a Medium Artillery Regiment in Norfolk was demobilised in June 1946.  It seemed refreshingly strange to be a civilian again after nearly seven years. 


My father was a partner in a local firm of Corn and Seed Merchants, T H Smith & Sons.  I consulted him about job prospects in post war England and he mentioned that his partner was approaching retirement and if I liked to join them now and learn the trade, the opening would be there in a year or two.  I felt the offer had much in its favour and decided, without any hesitation, to accept.


Middle Farm, Oakley belonged to my maternal grandfather, Edward Newell.  He had come here in 1886 as a tenant of the Duke of Bedford when it served as the village bakery.  The duke decided to sell much of his vast properties at the end of World War One and the Oakley Estate was sold by Auction in November 1918.  Tenants were encouraged to purchase their place of residence if financially possible, and grandfather was one that did.  I can first remember bread being made here in the late 1920’s but it ceased to be a viable proposition before 1930, and grandfather changed to farming.  He had already inherited land from his father in Milton Ernest and by purchasing and renting more in Oakley, he made a start, with a small dairy herd and arable.


My grandmother was always welcoming and I liked to come over here as often as I could, spending time on the farm, milking cows, harvesting and doing all sorts of jobs.  I always liked this old place.


I married in 1948 and was able to raise a family of four sons and one daughter.  It was a challenge but I enjoyed it.  I had met my wife when on a six month course at the West of Scotland Agricultural College in Glasgow.  Three of us on the course had bought tickets for a concert to be given by the Hallé orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli, but a few days before the concert date our third friend had to return home for some domestic reason.  I seem to remember a premature childbirth.  It seemed a pity to waste one ticket and my other friend suggested that as I was a member of the Episcopal Cathedral Choir I might find a suitable recipient among the young ladies present at the Friday night choir practice.  In the practice I made a mental short list of three possibles, one large, one medium and one small, but the middle one left early and I had the choice of two.  I decided to settle the matter by the toss of a coin.  Heads the big one, tails the small.  It came down heads and I asked the big one.  She said she would be delighted to come and we enjoyed an excellent concert.  It is interesting to think that from that chance introduction our relationship developed over the months eventually entering into matrimony which lasted for 26 years.  Sadly Maureen was diagnosed to have breast cancer in 1973.  At first it seemed the operation was completely successful but it was not to be. 


Maureen died of breast cancer in 1974.   On a number of occasions she had said, “If this cancer proves fatal I do hope you will marry again.”  I could only reply, “you are well on the mend so the occasion will not arise”, but now it had.  My eldest son had married and was living in Northampton.  My daughter had qualified as a teacher and had entered into a contract of teaching the children of service personnel in Singapore, for three years.  She wished to cancel the arrangement to look after me, but she had her own life to lead and I insisted that she should go and I assured her that I would manage.  In the course of the months ahead I began to see the sense of what Maureen had said about a second marriage.  She had a close friend Deirdre Edwards whom she used to meet every Monday at the rehearsals of the Bedford Musical Society (now Choral Society).  Deirdre’s marriage, too, had ended, and we found we had much in common.  So that eventually we felt that marriage would be the way forward.  That union added two stepsons, Paul and Nicholas, to the family. 


Sadly my daughter Elizabeth went the same way as her mother.

  She was only 47 years old.  She had been to Australia with her husband and came back with a slight cough.  This cough persisted and in the autumn her G.P. diagnosed pleurisy and treated it accordingly but without success.  Then in December it got rapidly very much worse and she was rushed to Northampton General Hospital where it was found she had an advanced stage of a little known form of Lung Cancer, nothing to do with tobacco because she had never smoked in her life.  She was to have a 47th birthday on December 21st.  Christmas was the least joyous I have ever known.  On Boxing Day it was obvious that the end was near.  Her husband Michael Latham and her brother Patrick were both with her throughout the night but she died early on the morning of the 27th.


Losing a child is probably the worst thing that can happen to anyone.  To lose a wife is bad enough, but to lose a daughter is even worse.  Time dulls the rough edges but you never forget it.  We were very close.


I retired from business in my 65th year and did a B.A. degree at Polhill College, Bedford.  It was a three subject degree, one for two years only, then the time spent on that put on to your major subject, in my case History, with the minor one Ecology.  After that I took a part time M.A. course at Leicester University.  It was for mature students but most of them were forty or so years younger than me.  We had one History tutor, Professor Aubrey Newman, a venerable gentleman, bald on top with a fringe of white hair lower down.  I remember once when he was talking about this country’s coinage he said, “I suppose you lot don’t remember pounds shillings and pence”.  I looked him up in the Academic Biography and he was nine years younger than me. 


Oakley is totally different now.  When I was a boy we looked out on acres of fields.  It was a small farming community of about 300 folk. Now the population is nearer 3000 and the village has become a virtual suburb of Bedford.  There is much more to do in the village now with sports clubs, scouts, R.A.F. Cadets, Carnival and Open Gardens in alternate years et alia, enough for everyone to find something of interest if they wish to do so.  Today (2008) it Is very different from, say, 1948 when I came here as a young married man.  I’m not saying “better” or “worse”, but different.


I felt somewhat embarrassed winning my award for Volunteer of the Year.  I did not feel I had done anything special.  I was grateful to the Council for paying my tuition fees for the B.A. Degree, and it seemed that a few years of voluntary work would be a way of saying “thank you”.

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