Photograph of Benny by kind permission of Mrs M. McGauley
General Service Medal 1918-62 with clasp 'Palestine'
Benny, as he was always known, was born on the 7th February 1922. He was named after his father and his mother was called Maria Gallaghan. His children remember 2 older siblings, Frances and Billy, and one younger, called Mary. The family were Roman Catholics.
Benny grew up in Mossley, Lancashire. He had a happy childhood living there with his father for a number of years. He was a 'bright young boy and was offered a place at a prestigious Catholic grammar school...however, unfortunately due to circumstances he was unable to take this opportunity'.
Benny decided to join the Army at a young age whilst he was living at 3 Craddock Street in Mossley. His parents had split up at this time and his mother Maria was living in a caravan at Convent Garden on Blandford Street in Ashton-under-Lyne. She would later move to 4 Bramhall Street in Ashton.
Benny joined the Manchester Regiment on the 9th April 1937. At this time the Army recruited boys from the age of 14 to serve as drummers, buglers and trumpeters. He was given the service number 3529334. He would be classed as a 'Boy' until his 18th birthday.
During this time Benny would have had music lessons and a more general education, as well as military training. He was kept under stricter supervision than adult soldiers. After training at the Regimental Depot in Ladysmith Barracks, Ashton-under-Lyne, Benny was posted to Moascar in Egypt, where he joined the 1st Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. He will not have been there for very long before he saw active service for the first time.
A rebellion had broken out amongst several of the Arab tribes living in neighbouring Palestine, and the British needed more soldiers to bring it under control. Benny and the 1st Battalion were moved into Palestine on the 14th January 1938.
They were based in the area around the city of Acre. Their roles were to search for gangs of rebels, to patrol the countryside and to guard important areas against attack.
After serving in Palestine the 1st Battalion moved to Singapore on the 23rd September 1938. They began to build defences and train to resist an invasion. The battalion was a mechanised machine gun battalion, which used the Vickers Machine Gun to support infantry units. Their main role was to man pillboxes on the beaches of the island to defend against an enemy landing.
Now he had reached the age of 18 Benny was no longer a Boy, but he remained a Bandsman. They had a secondary role as medical personnel and stretcher bearers. In late 1941 Benny was one of the 4 Bandsmen who made up C Company's medical section.
The Japanese invaded Malaya on the 8th December 1941, and by the 27th January 1942 the British had been forced back onto the island of Singapore. The island was constantly bombed, and as the Japanese closed in their position became hopeless. The British garrison surrendered on the 15th February and Benny became a Prisoner of War (POW).
The 1st Battalion was originally held in Changi Prison in eastern Singapore along with tens of thousands of other Allied POWs. After a while the Japanese began to move groups to Thailand, Burma, Taiwan and Japan to serve as labourers on railways and mines.
Benny left Singapore on the 4th November 1943. He was moved to Chungkai camp in Thailand. Here he was put to work constructing the Burma railway for the Japanese. At Chungkai the POWs were required to build an embankment for the railway through bamboo thickets. Chungkai was considered by the prisoners to be 'the best camp in Thailand' as far as the conditions were concerned. They were still unsanitary, and the prisoners were forced to work hard, whilst short of food and medical supplies.
On the 16th May 1944 Benny was moved to Nakhon Pathom camp. This was a hospital camp around 50 miles from Bangkok. It had been built to take seriously ill prisoners. We don't know whether he was ill, or whether he was transferred because of his medical training.
Although Nakhon Pathom was well built, the drainage was inadequate. This meant the camp could end up under a foot of water when it rained, turning it into a swamp. In contrast, during dry weather there was a shortage of water.
After a few months, the healthiest prisoners here were ordered to begin working. They were used to load and unload barges and repair damage to roads and bridges caused by Allied bombing. Other prisoners were forced to build the Wampo Road through the jungle. There were no medical supplies available for these workers, and many of them soon fell ill. We don't know whether Benny was well enough to work.
Benny was sent to Nakhon Nayok camp on the 29th June 1945. Officers and non officers were separated at around this time. This was the final camp Benny was held in. The Japanese surrendered in mid August.
Allied forces soon reached the prisoners and began to move them out of the camps. By September Benny was in Rangoon, the capital of Burma. Most POWs were returned to the UK during October and November.
Like many POWs, Benny rarely spoke about what he had been through. He made an exception to explain a telegram Maria had received stating that Benny was 'missing presumed dead'. Benny told her that he had been shot at by a Japanese soldier and left for dead. In fact Benny had fallen to the ground and fooled the soldier into thinking he had been shot. He had 'waited until it was safe and then moved upland to re-join his fellow POWs'.
Almost all POWs needed medical treatment. His family remember that Benny had 'malaria, bronchial problems, he also had septic blood'. He was so unwell that he had to be sent to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine for observation.
On the 9th January 1946 Benny married Margery Brown in Ashton. They had first met at Convent Garden, like Benny's mother Margery had also lived in a caravan there. They had 9 children between 1946 and 1964; Patricia, Josephine, Marjorie, John, Michael, Annie, Billy, Edward and Amanda.
Benny stayed in the Army until the 29th June 1949. His family remember that he served in Germany and Malta during this time. This indicates that he served with the 5th Battalion in England and Malta until their disbandment in 1946. The residue of the battalion joined the 1st Battalion and later moved to Wuppertal in West Germany.
After he left the Army Benny struggled to hold down a job. This was partly because of his health, and partly because he had been a soldier all his adult life and struggled to adapt to the civilian world. He would travel the country, 'unable to settle'. He often went to London, 'sending a postcard to home saying "gone walkies"'.
He was 'a good father to his children', but Margery divorced him in 1972. In later life they met regularly and 'their relationship was amicable'.
In the mid 1960s, around 1963 or 1964, Benny rejoined the Army. He was given the service number 23968932. He served until 1965 when he was discharged in York. We don't know which unit he joined or what he did.
Benny was 'a very charismatic person; he had jet black hair and was very handsome'. He had a scar on his right cheek bone, which his family believe was from a Japanese bayonet. Although he rarely spoke about his experiences, he had not forgotten, and would be 'very emotional' on Armistice Day.
Throughout his life Benny enjoyed music. He played the trumpet and the trombone. He was also 'a keen gardener and very good cook'. He was also 'an avid reader and very articulate'.
Towards the end of his life Benny lived in Mottram-in-Longendale, near Ashton. He died on the 1st December 1987 at Donnybrook House Health Centre in Hyde, aged 65.
Benny's medal was donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in May 1950. He is likely to have also received the 1939-45 Star, the Pacific Star, the 1939-45 Defence Medal and the 1939-45 War Medal for his Army service. 'It is with sadness' his family said, 'that the medals he received are unable to be displayed together in the Museum'.