A Soldier’s Story

John Douglas
John Douglas

John Douglas is proud of his Scottish roots, having been born in Motherwell almost 90 years ago. He now lives in Wales and has written a small book about his life.

He recounts the story of life in a miner’s row, the hardships faced there because of unemployment, his childhood and his experiences as a soldier.

John was born in Motherwell in 1926 and his first recollection of life was as a two-year-old living with his parents and a ‘noisy doll’ which was his brother Allan who still lives in Motherwell.

The house was one of a row of one storey buildings. Each home had a living room, usually known as the kitchen, and a bedroom.

The kitchen was the centre of family life with an iron sink but no water supply; a table in the centre was the place for family meals, for reading and doing school homework.

The light came from a paraffin lamp on the table, and a bed recess and a pulley for drying clothes completed the room.

The gas supply depended on pennies to feed the meter; the water had to be carried from an outside well; and the toilet was shared by several families.

John said: “Even at an early age, I knew this was not a pleasant place to live.”

There was not much work around, and no matter how hard men tried, they were turned away daily from workplaces.

The family gathered all their worldly goods on a hired hauler in 1930 to travel 30 miles to Ayrshire when they heard there were jobs going at Auchinleck. But only a few months later, they were forced to return to Motherwell when the pit cut back on production.

The family settled in a house in Hope Street where, as John said. “We were poor but happy.”

Men had to be versatile in these days. John’s father bought scrap leather and repaired the family’s footwear, and he did any repair work and decoration needed in the house. They had an allotment a mile from their home where they grew potatoes, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables, and mum could prepare good healthy wholesome meals.

It was not uncommon for families to go to the pawnbrokers shop with small brown paper parcels. John recalls being sent into the pawn-broker with his father’s medals; his father was too ashamed to carry out this exercise for himself. It was some years later that John realised that one of the medals was the Distinguished Conducted Medal (DCM) which had been awarded to his father for valour.

Soup was the staple diet for most with a large iron pot continuously heating on the range and topped up with more and more vegetables when available. A special treat was a ‘clootie dumpling’ and this was shared with neighbours.

John played football for two or three of the local amateur clubs and, he freely admits, never got beyond amateur standard. He joined Motherwell Harriers and did quite well in competitions and sports meetings at Powderhall, Fir Park and Ibrox Park.

An attempt to run away and join the Merchant Navy was doomed when he was told to go home and come back in four years. He waited six months and tried to join the RAF, giving a false address and age. He was accepted as a rear gunner but his mother found out and turned up in Edinburgh to take him home.

In 1945 he volunteered for the Cameron Highlanders, again lying about his age. He was accepted on condition that he signed up for 12 years. He told his parents that he had been called-up as the Army were recruiting younger men.

He chose to serve with the Cameron Highlanders 51st Highland Division.

He was transferred to Wantage in preparation for D-Day where he was promoted to the rank of Lance-Corporal. The 51st landed on Sword Beach June 7 one month before his 19th birthday.

The Regiment arrived in Normandy and fought their way forward for seven days, losing a large number of comrades. In September they liberated St Valery and, along with the Seaforth Highlanders, took part in the horrendous attack on Le Havre which was held by the German Army.

John’s story tells of the long trail through Belgium and Holland.

His story recalls many battles, the times being billeted with German families, his assignment to sort out a camp for displaced persons including Russian soldiers who had deserted, Poles, Germans and Jews, and his eventual return to England.

He explained: “I was flown home to England and transferred to a Red Cross train, which was to take me to Epsom. As I lay on the platform, I looked at the broken glass on the station roof, it was raining and I felt miserable. I spent the following two months in a hospital near Epsom and celebrated the end of the war in the Far East, from the hospital.

“I was discharged from the army and returned to civvy street and Lanarkshire with a grand pension of 12 shillings per week.”

John married Margaret in 1947 and they had 57 years together. They had five children - John lives in Hamilton, William who lives in Comrie, Margaret with whom he now lives in Anglesey, Cameron in Aberdeen, and Stuart who lives in Australia. He also has 13 grandchildrem, 17 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.