Louis Grossman's Army Service
Louis Signs Up for the Royal Army Medical Corps
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In June 1937 I was about nineteen. I remember walking up Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham, and passing a recruitment centre for the British Army. I thought that’s it - join the Army and see the world. I walked in and said, “I want to join the Guards.” I don’t know why I wanted to join the Guards. I was quite tall. I was five feet eleven so I was tall enough. I wanted to be in the Coldstream Guards. I would have finished up in the Guards which meant I would have been dead long ago, because I wouldn’t have survived the war. But I was very lucky because when they tested me they said "I’m sorry - but you see your right eye is only 6.36. Your left eye is perfect but not your right eye. Sorry.” (Unfortunately guns and rifles are made for people to shoot with the right eye.)
But of course being recruiting sergeants they said “But, you can join another arm of the service. You can join any one of the four arms of the service. For example you can join the Royal Army Ordinance Corps”I said, “What's that got to do with?”
They said, “Guns and ammunition and so on.” I didn't want that.
“Or the Royal Army Service Corps.” This was to do with vehicles, cars and servicing.
I said, “No, I’m not a mechanic.”
“Or the Royal Army Pay Corps.” This meant dealing with money, pay and the bank. Now I'm very good at figures, but it sounded dull.
“And then there’s the Medical Corps.”
I said to myself, “Hello, that’s different, that's interesting, that’s something where I can meet intelligent people”.
So I said right, “I'll join the Medical Corps,” and signed up immediately.
I returned home and said, “I’ve joined the Army.”
My parents were astonished. It was June 1937. There was no war on, even though Hitler at that time was threatening war at any moment, and there was a lot of trouble in the Midlands with Oswald Moseley and his black shirts.
They asked, “What happens now?”
I said, “I’ve got to go in three weeks.”
About two weeks later two stout men from the Special Branch people knocked on the door. When signing up I had reported that my parents were Jewish and had come from Russia. This was 1937 and they had to make sure I wasn’t a spy. I might have been a Communist. After half an hour’s discussion they left satisfied that I wasn’t a Communist spy planted in the British Army.
I had signed up for three years. You could serve for longer but I thought that three years was enough for me. I was sent to Crookham Camp near Aldershot for a six month training course.
(The barracks at Church Crookham in Hampshire were built in 1938 as a training depot for the Royal Army Medical Corps. The camp with its wooden huts could accommodate 2,500 soldiers, who trained for six months before proceeding to specialist training.)
Besides the marching up and down, left, right, left, right, there was all the medical stuff to learn. In the end I knew more than most about the body, about biology and the blood stream. It certainly enhanced my knowledge about human anatomy. It’s not interesting perhaps, but it’s basic training and good for people.
I applied to become a clerk rather than an orderly which didn’t interest me at all. I had leave of course, and I went home dressed in uniform. You had to wear a uniform if you went out. Everyone is proud of a uniform. When you put it on the first time, you look in the mirror and say, “Marvelous! I want to do well.”
Unfortunately I broke my left wrist which added three months to my basic training. Then in April 1938 I was transferred to Millbank Hospital, right by the Tate Gallery on the banks of the River Thames. Once you move to a big hospital of that nature, you have a certain amount of freedom. You had to wear uniform whilst on duty, but not whilst off duty. So I and my friends would go to the parks, visit Petticoat Lane, and meet girls, dressed in civilian clothes.
Louis is assigned to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS)
Then in September 1938 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and it looked like war was going to break out. Obviously we had to prepare ourselves, so I suddenly found myself back in the depot in Aldershot, part of a force ready to go out to Czechoslovakia. Then Chamberlain went over to Munich and brought a bit of paper back saying “No, it’s ok, we are not going to war”, so those of us who had come from Millbank returned there.
In October/November 1938, I was again transferred back to the Aldershot Depot and told “Right, you are going over to Palestine with the CSS”. The CCS was a Casualty Clearing Station.
(A Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) was a military medical facility behind the front lines that was used to treat wounded soldiers. A CCS was usually located just beyond the range of enemy artillery and often near transportation facilities (e.g. a railway). The CCS received battlefield casualties from regimental aid posts located in the combat zone. Casualties that could not be adequately treated in the CCS were stabilized there before being transported to a field hospital or a military hospital.)
At that time Britain was battling to hold onto Palestine, and the Arabs and the Jews were at loggerheads, and we simply had to get in there with forces and control the situation. The animosity between the Arabs and the Jews had been developing for a long time but it had got worse.
Before leaving for Palestine in November I was given leave to visit my family in Birmingham. I remember staying with them in Pershore Road. Of course all the family knew that I was going to Palestine - my grandfather, Isaac Jacob Rose, with his long beard, my grandmother, and my uncles and aunts. They had all escaped from Russia, yet not one member of this big religious family had ever been to Palestine. And there was I, dressed in uniform, about to go there. So there was a great deal of interest in the fact that Louis was going to Palestine, that one member of all that great big family was finishing up, at this stage, in the land of their fathers.
When I landed in Palestine by boat in September 1938, we went straight to Jerusalem to the Casualty Clearing Station. There I was in Jerusalem in a place called Talpiot. It’s about a few miles away from Jerusalem, south of the city. We used to go down to Jerusalem and have dinner there in the evening - quite cheap of course - then walk back.
The Sergeant Major was anti-Semitic and I was a clerk. He put me on night guard duty for about three months. Naturally I used to get hungry. The camp where we slept was about two miles away from the actual hospital where we worked. To get there I had to walk across two miles of open land where Arabs were killing people. All I had was a bit of a truncheon. Don’t forget it was the medical corps - no arms, no guns, and no rifles. First I had to ring the people who were guarding the hospital, who were on the roof with machine guns, and say, “I am now starting to come over. I might be an hour.” Of course I shouldn’t really have gone over there, but it was the only way I could get any food. I used to go twice a night, first at about 1.00 in the morning, and then again at about 6.00 in the morning.
By now I was accepted and used to go and play table tennis with my pals in the University of Jerusalem. I had friends with whom I could exchange poetry, English literature, and talk about Shaw, Washington Irving and of course Shakespeare.
While taking leave of my family, a relative from Israel, Palestine it was called at that time, was staying in Birmingham. When he was told I was going to Palestine he said, “I can give you some friends’ addresses.” I wasn’t a relative, and if I was then a very distant one. However I went to see him and met him, and during the twelve months I spent in Jerusalem, I followed up one or two recommendations he had given me. It isn’t easy whilst you are in the Army with the transport etc. but I got the bus. One thing I didn’t really follow up and that was a week’s holiday- all arranged – at my relatives in Tel Aviv. Instead I stayed with a family called Miller in Tel Aviv. We played chess and I was taken around the commercial area.
By June 1939 it was obvious that a war was coming, and the War Office was making plans to assign units to all the hospitals. We were transferred to the Haifa General Hospital where I became a Quarter Master’s assistant. Fortunately the anti-Semitic Sergeant Major went elsewhere.
And then of course the war broke out on September 3rd. I remember listening to the radio. I knew that Chamberlain was going to make a speech that morning so I wanted to hear it. Very few of the others seem to bother about it. There were only about three or four of us there. As I listened to the words, “and now we are at war with Germany”, I realized that, having already served two and a half years out of the three that I had signed up for, now it looked as though I’d never get out of the army. I was furious. The funny thing is I was really frustrated because I was only a Corporal. People were coming over from England, who had only just joined the forces, and were already Sergeants and Sergeant Majors, whereas I was only an assistant to a Quarter Master and an anti-Semitic one at that.
For a while we remained in Haifa, working in the General Hospital. I was trying to make plans to be transferred from the hospital. All sorts of things were going on, all over the world in fact, so it was a matter of sitting and waiting, dealing with casualties whatever came in.
I was very lucky to be earmarked by the next Quarter Master to replace his clerk. A Quarter Master is an officer (a Sergeant Major) who had come up from the ranks. This Quarter Master was responsible for supplying the needs of a large hospital of six hundred beds, the staff of which included medical, nursing and military staff, all of whom were billeted in tents. It was a kind of promotion because it gave me tremendous freedom throughout the whole of the unit as the QM’s right hand man. It stood me in good stead throughout my Army career until I was ready for remission.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939 it was obvious that our unit was scheduled to stay in the Middle East. We were transferred to Nazareth prior to entering Iraq and Persia. The reason for this was that Germans were attacking Russia from the west, and we were supplying everything to Russia through Iraq and Persia.
Nazareth was a new world for me with its mixture of Jews and Arabs and my own colleagues. I may have been there for something like twelve months.
Unfortunately Louis’s story ends here.
Based on a personal memoir
Iraq and Persia
Although Louis’ memoir finishes in Nazareth, other sources indicate that he did go on to serve both in Iraq and Persia, possibly as the same Quarter Master’s assistant.
Louis’ sister, Minnie Klein, tells us that Louis wrote an article that was published in the Basra Times. In his memoirs Louis wrote, “from the age of 22 (1940), whilst in the Army I had acquired a portable typewriter which was part of my equipment so therefore I needed no typist.” It is possible that, if he did write an article, he did so on this same typewriter.
In addition Louis often made quips about the places he visited during the war:
When the Kuwait war started (the First Gulf War in 1991), I remember Dad saying he visited Basra and all around there.
During the war he had to be careful not to step on scorpions etc. For the rest of his life when getting out of bed in the morning he never put his bare feet on the floor. He always put his socks on first. The troops gambled sometimes by putting two scorpions in a tin to fight to the death! The winner takes all!
Daddy often talked about being in the desert and that it was sometimes over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade - very, very hot. If you had a sandwich, you'd have to swipe it with your hand to clear it of flies before taking a bite. Seconds later the sandwich would again be covered with flies.
Once he saw a camel run off into the distance in the middle of the desert but he never knew why. He just thought it had gone mad.
Also, he mentioned he’d been to Persia, mentioning odd memories now and again as though that country impacted on him. Sweetmeats on trays etc., flies etc., and how he once looked in the mirror in Persia wearing an Arab hat - a band and cloth (keffiyeh or kufiya), and said with a laugh that he looked like an Arab, adding, “If you live with the people long enough, you begin to look like them!!!”
Control of Iraq and Persia was essential to the Allies, to ensure their petroleum supplies and to protect their supply lines to the USSR that was fighting Axis forces on the Eastern Front.
Basra is an important Iraqi port city located on the banks of a river called the Shatt al-Arab, formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris and emptying out into the Persian Gulf. In 1914 the city was conquered from the Ottoman Turks by the British who modernised the port. The Basra Times was established by the British on 29 November 1914, serving as a government paper throughout WWI until it was commercialized in 1921.
Iraq was officially granted independence in 1932. However the British retained two important military bases at Basra and at Habbaniya, north east of Baghdad. In early 1941, a pro-Axis Iraqi prime minister ordered the British to withdraw from these bases. This resulted in the Anglo–Iraqi War (2–31 May 1941).
On 4 May 1941, Churchill ordered General Wavell to dispatch a force from Palestine, which possibly explains how Louis came to be in Basra. This force relieved the sorely-pressed base at Habbaniya, while Basra was occupied by brigades of the Indian Army. By the end of May 1941 the Anglo–Iraqi War was over, with Iraq in Allied hands. From then on the port of Basra was used by the Allies to deliver equipment and supplies to Russia.
After the conquest of Iraq the Allies turned their attention to Persia or Iran as it is called today. The Anglo-Soviet invasion of 25 August till 17 September 1941 also attained its objective which was to secure the Iranian oil fields and Allied supply lines to the USSR.
In the 1945 Service Register Louis was still registered as a member of the armed forces. In 1946 he was demobilized, nine years after signing up for a three-year period of duty!