Joe Grout of Dial Post
I was born in 1925 in London’s East End. My father traded on the Billingsgate fish market. It was grandad’s shop first and he took it over for a time.
My grandad had bought some land off Vera’s Walk, which is where the National Trust area now is between Washington and Storrington. We used to come down from London at the weekend to visit until we eventually settled in Washington.
I was a hopeless child. I had hair-lip and cleft palate, so there was no roof in my mouth. My lips were tied up with string. They tried to do something about it when I was born but they didn’t sort it out. When I was growing up in Washington, nobody wanted to know me. I couldn’t read or write properly, so I had no interest in school and the other children just took the Mickey out of me.
My childhood was rough. I had to fight my way through, but I wasn’t strong enough to fight.
The Civil Defence services started the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) in 1938. By then, my dad was working at a butcher’s shop in Storrington, and when he joined the local ARP I followed him. At the age of 13, I was a messenger boy on a bike with no brakes!
But my dad never gave me a day’s credit in his life. It didn’t matter what I did. When I was in Aldershot for the presentation of Colours by King George VI in 1950, he didn’t even want to pay for the taxi.
He had fought in The First World War, and when war broke out again in 1939, he went down to Brighton straight away to sign on. The next thing we all knew, he was on a boat to the Middle East. Early in 1942, we had a telegram saying that my father was missing, believed killed. But a few months later, my grandma received a letter from him! He had been captured in Crete and was a Prisoner of War. He stayed there until 1945.
As soon as I knew the Home Guard would take boys at the age of 16, I signed up. We all did as it was very exciting! We didn’t know what war was. We just knew that, if you joined, you were given a rifle and you could use it.
I would stand guard every Wednesday and Saturday night and we would join the two divisions of Canadian troops who were stationed in Storrington. When they first came here, they didn’t have a clue where they were, so we had to work closely with them.
It was a good experience for me. Being a boy of 16 who didn’t know anything, I thought it was a joke, but we were all like that really. We had a rifle, 50 rounds of ammunition and a bayonet, and it was great fun.
One Saturday night, I was coming off guard when I was attacked. I had two black eyes and a thick lip and I was left on the floor! The others heard me shout and came running out. The Canadian who hit me had tried to break into the YMCA building but went through the wrong door!
The guy that hit me was a massive man, 6’8 and 4’ across, whereas I was two foot nothing. They lined up 25 prisoners, and the Canadian Military Police told me to pick out the one who beat me up. But before the line-up, my Sergeant had said to me ‘don’t pick him out! If you do, he’ll come back next week and wallop the lot of you’. I didn’t really know what he meant. So when it came to picking out the culprit, I said ‘Well, my Sergeant told me not to say. But it’s that guy right there!’
I wanted to join my father’s corps, The Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), which is now the Royal Logistics Corps (RLC) so I volunteered, went to Brighton, and signed up. I was put down for general duties as I was hopeless. I understood what they told me but couldn’t write it down.
All of the ammunition was coming to us at the factory, and we would put it on to the wagon and they would head off to the railways. We kept moving around to avoid detection by the Germans, and this carried on until January 1945.
The War in Europe was coming to an end, but the Japanese War was still going on and they wanted to send another 250,000 troops out to the Far East. Many of us were transferred to infantry and we were posted all over the place. I had become pals with a couple of people and we went along together to the name board to find we had been posted to Ox and Bucks.I thought ‘what the bloody hell is that?’
The Oxford and Buckinghamshire was a light infantry regiment. I said to the Sergeant ‘Sod that! I’m not doing it!’ He said ‘You don’t have to, sign that and you won’t go!’ I didn’t look at the sheet he gave me; I just signed it. I had volunteered for parachute duty...
I went to Hardwick Hall in Chesterfield, and we did two weeks of intense training. If you can get through that you’re a man. I struggled and struggled and struggled, but I just did not give in. We had to climb a 50’ rope, swim across water, jump across a 6’ ditch, and on the last Friday you run ten miles with a 40lb kit on your back.
They sent me to a psychiatrist and asked me some very awkward questions, and I more or less told them to get lost. I thought ‘that’s me finished. I won’t get through’.
Towards the end of training, a lot have packed it in as they can’t take it. After the final day’s training, they read out the names and some failed to make the grade, whilst others passed. Whey they came to me, I nearly fell through the floor. I had passed. I was speechless. It changed me, as I had endured a rough time in the RAOC at times.
We went up north for parachute training, where I was posted to 6th Airborne Division, which had taken part in the invasion at Normandy. But by now, of course, the war had ended. So we were sent on security duty to Palestine, where I stayed for three years.
When I came back home, I was much bigger and had a big red beret and a pair of wings across my shoulder. I had grown up. My father wasn’t impressed, but my mother was the worst one, as people in the village had told her that the parachute regiment was made up of criminals. She believed it.
As I was often handling bombs and ammunition, I’m a little deaf. When I got to Palestine they wanted five volunteers to operate the mortars and I put my hand up straight away. I don’t know why! They are very noisy...
I came back from Palestine and was demobbed in 1948, with 12 weeks leave. I took a job up on the Downs, ploughing the land, but after a fortnight, I said ‘I’m not going to work today!’ My father was shouting at the bottom of the stairs and my mother was ranting ‘you’re going to go to work!’ But I put my suit and regimental tie on, jumped on a bus, went to Horsham, then to Aldershot, and went back to the Parachute Regiment base and said ‘Can I come back?’
I had to go through all of the training again and joined the Battalion. I was out in Germany for a time before we received our first Colours in November 1950. After that, we spent three years in Cyprus, returning in 1956 for operations against EOKA (the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters).
When I would return home, I would talk to Joan, a girl who lived next door to my sister in Dial Post. I used to run from Washington, through Thakeham and all the way to Dial Post to see her. I would write to her once a month if I could, but she never wrote to me when I was abroad! My sister wrote to me one day in 1956 and said ‘Why don’t you come home and marry her?’ I wrote to Joan in November 1956 as we were about to head out to the Suez Canal, and she said ‘yes’.
We married at West Grinstead Church and the whole wedding, with 45 guests, cost us £22.
When things blew up back in the Canal Zone, we were flown to Cyprus, with 25 men in each plane. We were fighting EOKA up in the mountains and driving them out of the big towns. We were like mountain goats. The aim was to take back the Suez Canal, but the regiment had had no proper military training for 18 months. So we were all flown back to Aldershot for more training. In four weeks, we were back!
The first time you jump from a plane, you don’t really know what you are doing. So the second jump is the scariest. During combat, there was also a worry about fire from the ground. But most of the time you’re so happy to be out of the aircraft as you are carrying around so much weight with the ‘chutes.
About 600 of us in the 3rd battalion landed near Port Said and we took El Gamil airfield. We lost only four men. My job was to clear and secure an area for our aircraft to land in. We put the wounded on board a French helicopter. I wasn’t in any danger as I was clearing space for aircraft, and the company were well advanced.
Quickly, the Americans put a stop to the battle through the United Nations. The order was to get the ‘barbaric,
horrible, paratroopers’ out. We had a bad name and we always did.
All in all, I spent 30 years with the Parachute Regiment. I went out to Canada, Australia, Greece, Jordan,
Norway, and every year we went to Kenya for training. I could never reach a rank beyond Corporal, as I had no
education, but I was a Colour Sergeant.
British Guiana (now Guyana) was our last colony and we were there with The Queen for the handover, on ceremonial duty. A couple of little boys had this parrot, and it couldn’t fly. They wanted $25 so my friend and I said ‘we’ll have it!’ Percy’s wings healed and he was able to fly, so I decided to bring him home. He was with me for 30 years!
A medical officer spoke to me and said ‘I want you to go to hospital to sew the hole up in your roof.’ I said ‘nonsense! I’ve got a wife and three children and they’re satisfied with me now’. But I was eventually persuaded to go by our CEO. I was unhappy about that but now I’m pleased that it was done.
The paras made me. It doesn’t matter where I go now, everybody knows me. Once you are in the parachute regiment, you are somebody, as not many people have got the wings on their arm.
Once you put that red beret on, you are two cuts above anybody else. I know that sounds cocky, but we are cocky. Our regiment is cocky. When an emergency breaks out there’s only one brigade you go to, and that’s parachute regiment.
After I retired in 1970, I worked for the water board for a while. Then, a mate who lived in the village worked in the firkin factory in Partridge Green and found me a job there. So I took it, and I worked there until I was 65.
I lost Joan about five years ago, but I have friends and family around. We had three children and I now have two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
I am the Custodial Trustee of the village hall in Dial Post. When it was completed, I presented a stained glass window to the hall as a permanent memorial to the four members of Parachute Regiment who lost their lives in Suez in 1956.
I still go to Arnhem in The Netherlands every year. I wasn’t at Arnhem, but I’m involved with a Dutch family there. Every year there are one or two less of us veterans there. but on Armistice Sunday, every house there puts poppies out as they will never forget what we did for them.