John Davies of Horsham
Published on 5th December 2016
I was born in Barry, Glamorgan in 1922. My father’s work was associated with the railways, but he died with illness when I was only 12. I had two younger brothers, Michael and Philip, who have pre-deceased me.
I attended The Royal Masonic School, an independent school for boys in Bushey, Hertfordshire. Schools were strict in those days, but I enjoyed my time there as I was reasonably bright and enjoyed sport.
After my father died, my mother took on a hotel called The Marcina in Worthing and I would stay there during the school holidays. I carried out various duties and my first choice of career was to go into the hotel business. My mother closed it due to ill health and the site has long since been converted for apartments.
When I left school, I became a trainee at the Trocadero with the intention of eventually becoming a hotel manager. At the time, they called it ‘le premier restaurant du monde’ which was pushing their luck a little bit! As I had learnt French at school, which was spoken widely in the restaurant, I was making good progress. After two years of training, the war started and the bombs started falling on London, so the Trocadero was closed.
I took a clerical job instead and studied to become a chartered secretary. I found that I enjoyed the work as it was a lot less time-consuming than hotel work and gave me time to relax. I had taken an intermediate exam before joining the Army in 1942, when I was posted to the Derbyshire Yeomanry, a reconnaissance regiment. My knowledge of the French language from my hotel experience meant that I was useful as an interpreter as much as anything else.
We landed in North Africa in late 1942 and were involved in the battle of Tunis. We didn’t know quite what we were getting into really, as nobody seemed to be certain where the Germans were. They had formed a ring around the city of Tunis and it was some time before we advanced.
My squadron was reputedly the first into Tunis. That was the last stand of the Germans in Africa and from there they capitulated.
We re-grouped in Algeria and crossed the Mediterranean Sea towards Italy. We landed at Naples in 1944. I saw my first action of the war at the Battle of Monte Cassino, which was an important step towards the Allied forces breaking through to Rome. That was certainly the most dangerous part of my war as it involved a cavalry charge, in which we lost quite a lot of men.
We were located on the flank, but needed to advance to try and draw fire away from the main attack at Cassino, where we were suffering heavy losses. We could see the monastery on the hill, where the main attack was taking place. The Germans were truly entrenched, so we launched a cavalry charge from the flanks.
I was inside a tank on signals as we headed over the German trenches. The tank commander was just above me, leaning out of the tank firing his Tommy gun. He was then shot in the head by a German soldier, and I had to lower him down inside the tank. At that point, we had to pull out of the charge of course. They are terrible moments even to talk about now, because we were all friends.
After we won the Battle of Monte Cassino, we advanced through Italy and by the following Christmas we were in Florence. The advancement stopped there, at least as far as tanks was concerned, so we were involved in infantry work in the hills around Castello during the winter with more recreational time. The following spring, we moved from Pesaro as part of the push into Austria during the final stages of the war, and for a time I was involved in various patrols there.
As we were a reconnaissance Regiment for the 6th Armoured Division we were lighter than other regiments, which were hit harder than us. Our job was to get in, find out what was happening and get out quickly to report. We had some losses in North Africa but our biggest losses were at Monte Cassino. After the war, I was posted to Qassasin in Egypt, moving on to Libya and travelling home from Tripoli in 1946.
I rejoined the Territorial Army, commissioned to the Westminster Dragoons, which is now part of The Royal Yeomanry. I served with the Dragoons until the 1960s and remain Vice President of the Regiment Association.
After the war, I decided not to pursue a career in the hotel industry. When I was working at the Trocadero, I would work from 10am - 10pm with two hours off in the afternoon. You’re committing to that every day. I had gained some qualifications as a chartered secretary, so I went back to the firm that I had been working for before my service.
Once I was fully qualified, I joined a company which operated a group of rubber and tea businesses in the Far East and Australasia. Through my contacts I helped my brother Michael - who had served with the Royal Sussex Regiment in Burma during the war - become a rubber planter in Malaya.
I became secretary of Idris Limited, a soft drinks company, working in Camden Town until it was taken over by Beecham Products. From there, I was appointed secretary of Babcock International, which was then called Babcock & Wilcox Ltd. The chairman of the company was John King, who cut his teeth with us before becoming chairman of British Airways. I particularly enjoyed my last five years of work prior to retirement, when I was working in Crawley. The job involved a fair amount of travelling overseas for contractual and board meetings.
I served with the Territorial Army until 1963 and had some good times. I was with the TA right through the Cold War so we are always training. When I joined the Westminster Dragoons, we were a perfectly ordinary tank regiment. In time, we evolved to have more of a reconnaissance role. Long after I left, the squadron became the first NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical Defence) unit in the British Army. I left with a Territorial Decoration medal, awarded for loyal service.
During the Suez Crisis of 1956, things looked bit dicey and I thought I might be called up for active service again. Thankfully, that died down. My penultimate camp with the Dragoons was in Northern Ireland. We took over the vehicles of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, a regiment of the British Army, and for a fortnight were based in Omagh, County Tyrone. The Territorial Army has a great social side and we would travel all over the country. At the same time, you are always preparing for the unexpected and there’s more chance of you being called up for commissioned service.
I met my wife Pamela at a party in South Kensington. I think a friend of mine had tried to fix me up with somebody else, but Pam and I met instead! We were married in the October of Coronation year and recently celebrated our 63rd anniversary. We have two sons; Mark is a chartered surveyor and lives in Horsham, whilst Paul is a senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In 1998, I became chairman of Horsham District Arts Council, which ran three art exhibitions as well as events for young people. In 1995, this evolved into the Horsham Arts Fanfare, formed under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Checkland, formerly Director General of the BBC. We brought some fantastic acts to the town, including Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Now different people are trying to revive a local arts festival, which is good to see.
I have always enjoyed painting, although since retirement I have had much more time for it. I joined Horsham Painting Group and the Association of Sussex Artists (ASA) of which I am now President. I’m still painting now, although everything takes a bit longer when you’re 94-years-old. I like to paint landscapes of my favourite places, including the hills of Corsica and Venice.
I’m a big fan of John Piper’s artwork. He is an artist I have always admired and I try to emulate some of his work. I have attempted to be more abstract on occasion and enjoy going out of my comfort zone.
I like living in Horsham. We came to live here before they built the by-pass and from the moment it was built the town started filling in and the traffic worsened. It may be overdeveloped but still it’s a nice town.
Through a friend I was introduced to the Sussex Association for Spina Bifida and was asked to create a Christmas card for the charity. It turned out to be very popular and I’ve been doing it ever since. My cards depict snowy scenes of Horsham, and they are sold at the Horsham Museum Christmas Card shop. I don’t make any money out of the cards of course, but it’s nice to be associated with it.
I still attend memorial services, although there aren’t many that I served with who are still alive. A group from my old regiment meet at the Cavalry Club once a year. I was at the Field of Remembrance in London for the service attended by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.
I think it was an absolute disgrace that the England and Scotland teams were not given permission to wear the poppy (during their recent World Cup qualifying match on Armistice Day). In no way is the poppy a political symbol. Both teams wore them anyway and I couldn’t agree with them more.
REPORT: BEN MORRIS
PICTURES: TOBY PHILLIPS