Photograph of Bill in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MR3/20/56
(L to R) 1939-45 Star; France and Germany Star; 1939-45 Defence Medal; 1939-45 War Medal; General Service Medal 1918-62 with clasp 'Malaya'; Efficiency Medal; Medaille de la Fidélité de la Fédération Nationale des Vétérans du Roi Albert I/ Medaille van Loyaliteit van de Nationaal Verbond der Veteranen van Koning Albert I; Dunkirk Medal
William, or Bill as he was known, was born on the 5th February 1916 in Rhode Island in the United States of America. His mother had arrived there in 1912 after leaving Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire. Bill was brought to the UK soon after he was born. His parents left him with his grandparents in Ashton and returned to the United States. They would have 8 other children, but we don't know any of their names.
Bill attended St Ann's School on Burlington Street in Ashton. After leaving school he began to work as a pipe insulator. He joined the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment in 1934. This was a unit of the Territorial Army (TA) based in Ashton. Bill will have trained as a soldier during evenings and weekends, as well as an annual training camp lasting around 2 weeks. He kept his civilian job and home. Bill's service number was 3527561.
The 9th Battalion became a mechanised machine gun battalion later that decade. This job involved supporting infantry battalions by providing extra firepower with their Vickers Machine Guns and 4.2" Mortars. It required specialist training. The battalion also had access to more vehicles than a normal battalion, which meant that soldiers needed to be trained as drivers and mechanics.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 the 9th Battalion was called into service. After training in the UK they were sent to France in April 1940 to defend against an expected German invasion. This period was known as the 'Phoney War' due to the large armies, and the lack of fighting.
The Germans invaded France and Belgium on the 10th May 1940. Despite the best efforts of British and French forces they were quickly overwhelmed and forced back to the Channel coast. Bill and his comrades used their machine guns to try and hold the Germans back as the British retreated. Between the 27th May and the 4th June most of the British forces were evacuated from the town of Dunkirk. Bill spent 3 days on the beaches at Dunkirk, 'either floating in the water or taking cover in any available little hole on the ground to avoid artillery shells and bombs from enemy aircraft'. He eventually returned to the UK aboard a small fishing boat called the Ben and Lucy.
After Dunkirk the British Army quickly reorganised itself. The 9th Battalion reformed in Lancaster then took part in the defence of the UK against an expected invasion. On the 12th August Bill was transferred to the 5th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. This unit became the 87th Anti Tank Regiment of the Royal Artillery in November 1941.
Bill returned to the Manchester Regiment at some point during 1942. The 6th Battalion had been renamed the 1st Battalion, and Bill joined it. Like the 9th Battalion, this was also a machine gun unit. They began training and preparing to take part in the invasion of Europe. The battalion landed in Normandy on the 26th July 1944 and was soon in action.
As a machine gun unit the battalion spent most of the war split up and assigned to support other units. Bill had fought through France and into Belgium by early September. He then took part in fighting around Nijmegen in the Netherlands. In December the Germans launched an attack known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 1st Battalion helped to defeat it and then advanced into Germany. It fought in the Reichswald forest during a cold and wet winter and then advanced eastwards into Germany.
When the Germans surrendered on the 7th May 1945 Bill was in Hamburg with the rest of the 1st Battalion. We don't know what rank he held at the end of the war, or what jobs he had had within the 1st Battalion. They were stationed in Germany until 1947. Bill was one of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers demobilised now that the war was over. He left the Army on the 8th February 1946.
Back in Ashton, Bill married Clara Aston between October and December 1946. They had at least 2 children; Brian was born between April and June 1947 in Ashton. We don't know where or when Susan was born.
Bill's obituary records that 'he did not find civilian life very congenial'. After 9 months he reenlisted into the Regular Army and rejoined the 1st Battalion in November. This was now an infantry battalion, not a machine gun unit.
In July 1948 the battalion returned to what was now West Germany. They were stationed in Wuppertal near Dusseldorf. Bill held the rank of Sergeant. He was a member of B Company for a time, but he had left it by mid 1949. In April 1950 the battalion moved to Berlin. The German capital was surrounded by the Soviet controlled East Germany, and divided into West and East sectors itself. After a year the battalion returned to the UK, but this was only a short visit. On the 30th May 1951 they set sail for Malaya.
A Communist insurgency had been raging in the British colony of Malaya since 1948. The 1st Battalion was to join a large number of British soldiers in attempting to bring it under control. They took part in patrols of the jungle and guarded the civilian population in an attempt to restrict the supplies and the freedom of movement available to the insurgents.
In November 1951 Bill was Platoon Sergeant of the Assault Pioneer Platoon. This was a specialist unit that gave the 1st Battalion the ability to construct or demolish small obstacles such as bridges, minefields and defensive positions without help from other units. For a time Bill commanded the Platoon, as they did not have an officer assigned to them.
Bill also served as a Platoon Sergeant in S Company, which was made up of infantry platoons. Many of the soldiers in the 1st Battalion were in their late teens or early twenties, so as one officer remembered 'the sixteen years age gap between him and the rest of us in the Assault Pioneer Platoon...made him almost literally a father figure'.
The 1st Battalion left Malaya in May 1954 and returned to Formby in Lancashire. Three months later they returned to Berlin. Bill was promoted to Colour Sergeant in mid 1955 and moved from the Pioneer Platoon to B Company. He became Company Quartermaster Sergeant (CQMS), responsible for keeping the soldiers in his Company supplied and equipped.
As well as looking after the soldiers under his command Bill looked after the other Sergeants in the battalion. He arranged a number of events for them and their families, including a boat trip around the rivers and lakes of Berlin during the summer. '99% of the Mess attended and a glorious day was had by all'.
During 1956 the Battalion left Berlin and returned to West Germany. They were stationed in Minden. By this time more and more of the Sergeants were buying cars, but Bill stuck with his bicycle! Towards the end of the year he organised another boat trip for the Mess, this time on the River Weser. Just like the earlier trip this was 'really enjoyable, thanks again Bill...your efforts were not in vain'.
On the 20th April 1957 Bill left the 1st Battalion and became Provost Sergeant at the Headquarters of Hannover District. This administered the British units based in this part of West Germany. As Provost Sergeant Bill was in charge of maintaining discipline and good order amongst the soldiers at the headquarters.
On the 1st August 1958 the Manchester Regiment was amalgamated with the King's Regiment (Liverpool) to form the King's Regiment (Manchester and Liverpool).
In 1959 Bill returned to Ashton. He was appointed a Permanent Staff Instructor to the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment (it had not been amalgamated). As the most senior Regular soldier in C Company Bill organised training for the Territorials and helped to run the unit whilst they were at their civilian jobs.
After 2 years Bill was sent to the Army School of Civil Defence in Millom, Cumbria. This taught soldiers how to deal with natural disasters or the effects of nuclear bombs, but it closed in October 1962.
By 1963 Bill had left the Regular Army and rejoined the 9th Battalion as a Territorial. We don't know where his family lived or what civilian job he held. During 1964 he worked as the Sergeant's Mess caterer. The next year he became Company Sergeant Major of B Company. This job brought with it a promotion to Colour Sergeant. Bill held this job until the TA was reorganised in 1967. The 9th Battalion merged with the 8th Battalion based in Ardwick to become The Manchester Regiment (Ardwick and Ashton) Volunteers.
Although he was a civilian now, Bill did not cut his links with the Army. He spent some time working for the Royal Army Pay Corps at their office in Ashton, but by 1971 he was back at the 9th Battalion working as caretaker at their Drill Hall on Old Street. He was also a familiar sight at Regimental reunions and events.
In 1972 one of Bill's sisters was able to trace him, and he travelled to America 'to be reunited with his mother after 56 years'. Seven years later he finally became a British citizen, giving up his dual nationality. This cost him £70!
Bill and Clara continued to live in Ashton for the rest of their lives. Bill was proud to see the Museum of the Manchester Regiment move into the Town Hall in 1987, and he attended the opening on the 14th April. He took part in an Old Comrade's Association visit to the 1st Battalion of the King's Regiment in Berlin during August 1989, and another during July 1992. This was a shorter journey; the battalion was now in Hounslow, west London.
Clara died in July 2001 aged 76. Bill began to suffer from 'failing health' over the next few years, but he 'remained to the bitter end the cheerful, outgoing character that he had always been'. He was 'a very independent man who loved life, his family and his Regiment, always greeting people with a smile and a friendly word'. He died at the age of 92 on the 22nd July 2008.
Bill wanted his medals to go to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment, and they were donated on Remembrance Day, the 11th November 2008.