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"COMRADES IN ARMS": The war of George William Craxford and Lewis Osborn Blackwell

By Alan D Craxford, Brenda K. Eldridge and Margaret Lodge

George Craxford in uniform
The badge of The Royal Artillery
Lew Blackwell in uniform

Left: George Craxford; Centre: The Royal Artillery badge; Right: Lewis Blackwell

Introduction

Part of George Craxford's diary for 1941

George's diary

Box Brownie 3 camera

Brownie camera

(ADC,BKE) After our father George died in February 2001 we found amongst his possessions a rather battered cardboard container little bigger than a shoe box in which were kept his memorabilia of service during the second world war. Over the preceding years we had been well aware of him carrying one or several small pocket books with him wherever he went from which he would regail anyone who would listen with extracts. These were his war diaries and they maintained a more or less complete account of his activities from the time of his enlistment in 1940 until his demobilisation in 1945. He also took with him a Box Brownie No.3. camera.

In this article we will recount two extracts from these diaries in North Africa in October and December 1941. We have also reproduced a number of photographs taken by George and Lew during their travels. This article is the companion to George's account of the battle of El-Alamein which has been published separately.

(ML) Lewis Osborn Blackwell, was born December 12, 1914, the youngest child of seven. His soldier's Service Pay Book has him listed as an 'Engineer's Clerk by trade, 6ft and 3/4", 141 lbs, chest 37", complexion pale, eyes grey and hair dark brown'. With his good looks and mustache, I always saw him as a cross between Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks and David Niven.

Hilda Craxford

Hilda

Ida Blackwell

Ida

Dad was a singer, a beautiful, clear tenor voice. Ida was a pianist. They developed their friendship and eventually love, with the help of music over the years. In fact Mum often used to say that that was how he managed to wheedle his way into her life, by claiming he needed someone to play for his solos.

(ADC,BKE) George Craxford was born in Leicester in 1914 and served his apprenticeship as a clerk in a clothing store. It was there that he met our mother, Hilda Cook, and they were married in May 1940.

Almost immediately afterwards he was called up and sent on active service. He was to be away from his wife for nearly six years. She endorsed the back of photograph shown above: "I have got an enlargement of this one. It's great. 'General' Craxford!!"


Friendships formed by the war

(ML) My father was called up and he chose the Army. On July 29th 1940 a German memorandum was issued which stated that an invasion of Great Britain would not be possible before the second half of September 1940 and the prospects for such an invasion seemed doubtful.

Also on July 29th 1940 troops from the Leicester area were gathering for the train to Derby and their official enlistment. Lew was there with his wife Ida, along with many young couples saying sad farewells.

Bomb damaged building

The shell of Freeman, Hardy and Willis

My parents met George and Hilda Craxford for the first time on that Monday in July 1940 at the Midland Railway Station on London Road as both men were leaving for Derby. Both couples were newly-weds. Ida and Lew were married on March 23 that year, and George and Hilda a few months later in May. My mother Ida recalls, "Hilda and George and Lew and myself seemed to gel on the spot. After the train had left, Hilda just stood there and clung to me." This was the start of a long friendship that lasted over 60 years.

Lew and George were stationed in Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Dad's training was on HAA (Heavy Anti-Aircraft) guns, and would become part of the 200th Battalion, 8th Army. Ida recalls, "Lew came home on leave November 19, 1940, to have a rest. Being on HAA guns he'd been on active service night and day guarding the Rolls Royce factory in Derby. The first night home, Leicester was bombed! Then again the next night. This was very scary. There was glass all over our bed. Poor Lew didn't get much of a rest. His next leave was for a few days at Christmas."

"One day, before Lew and George went abroad, Hilda and I joined them in Derby for the weekend. On the main road crowds were gathering, and what a surprise, King George and Queen Elizabeth came by. We knew nothing about it."


North Africa

(ADC,BKE) George joined the Royal Artillery as a gunner and was initially part of the 68th (North Midlands) Heavy AA Regiment. After training they were posted to Egypt. Their first attempt at leaving England in February 1941 was delayed due to German torpedo action. They moved up to Glasgow and embarked again. Transport there was by convoy and George's early diaries recount the long, often tedious, sometimes dangerous progression on a packed troopship. The journey took them across the Atlantic almost to the shores of America and then south around the Cape of South Africa and up the Suez Canal to Egypt. They were at sea for eleven weeks.


George at Ismailia
Lew 1941
George tries at hookah at Abu Sueir

Left: Leave in Ismailia; Centre: Lew relaxes - 1941; Right: George ('Sooner smoke a fag'!) at Abu Sueir


Initial accounts would suggest that the early months of their sojourn in Egypt was not unduly irksome. There was some time for leisure activities and site-seeing as well as attending to basic military requirements. George noted seeing the Valley of the Kings, the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Visits to Abu Sueir (site of an RAF flying station) and Ismailia were recorded in August 1941.

Pay was drawn in the local currency. The Egyptian Pound was split into 100 piastres and £1 was worth about 97.5 pt. When in Cairo they ate at the "Splendid Bar and Restaurant", one of many establishments found in the larger towns and cities which catered for the 'home' tastes and refreshments of allied servicemen. It is fascinating to see the range of fayre and drink offered in that hot and foreign climate all those years ago.


Group photo in Cairo:
Fun in the pool
A pin up to adorn the tent

Left: Cairo group - Lew (centre); George (seated left); Centre: Pool fun; Right: Pin up



On leave in  Cairo: George (centre), Lew (right)

Cairo leave

Lew on a camel

Desert transport

(ML) The war years were full of letters between Mum and Dad. Small aerograms, written in Dad's perfect script, already small to ensure he could get as much on as possible, and then reduced down to fit on a sheet. He didn't keep a diary, and only made vague mention in letters as to certain activities.

One activity he did mention was a concert that was to have been put on to entertain the troops. He could sing. His voice was needed. He was to sing a solo, and a visiting airman offered Dad his music for 'The Holy City'. Unfortunately the air crew were called away, the concert cancelled, but Dad still had the sheet of music. He had no way of finding the airman. The music made it through the war, and we still have it. 'The Holy City' became one of Dad's special pieces. It was perfect for his voice.

I recall his absolute dislike for and disgust at the mention of corned beef. Having had the canned 'bully beef' sitting in the desert heat for hours, days, the jelly would have melted and beef poured out. He would never touch it again. I, however, have always enjoyed corned beef, maybe because our local Co-op butcher, Butcher Bill, would sneak a thick slice to me every time we shopped, even though meat was still on ration.

Ida recalls, "Rations during the war were always hard for us in England, but even harder, for those away. Sometimes they only had one cup of water per day, and had to decide whether to drink it or wash with it. One Christmas day, when they were travelling on the back of a lorry (truck), Lew's only snack of the day fell over the edge. Fortunately he had some good friends. Also he was TT (tea total), so the men were always glad to befriend him when the drink rations were allocated."



Continued in column 2...



Please contact us

emailIf you have any questions or comments about the information on this site in general, or you have further information regarding this article, please get in touch with us by email: Alan. We look forward to hearing from you.

Diary Extracts - 1941

We believe that these accounts relate to George's posting to the camp near Mersa Matruh 240 km west of Alexandria. He was assigned to the 200th HAA (heavy anti-aircraft) battery. It was after the Battle of Gazala and the capture of Tobruk by the German Panzers in June 1942 that the British 8th Army retreated from Mersa to the area around El-Alamein. Life in Mersa appears to have been both tedious and hard.

OCTOBER / NOVEMBER
Sunday 26th
Reveille 05:30. Drew 200 Craven 'A'. Messed about am. Loaded lorry and showers. AN went to NAAFI pm and drank them out. Got back 21:30.

Monday 27th
Reveille 05:15. Left camp in packed lorry 08:30. Road quite crowded. Nothing but desert. Made camp 18:15 118 miles. Had stew and biscuits for dinner. Passed salt lakes.

Tuesday 28th
Reveille 05:00. On cookhouse. Still had sausage for breakfast. Left camp 06:15 and arrived near Mersa at 14:15. Got guns etc down and lined up and slept in bivouac with Ted (79 miles) .

Wednesday 29th
Dawn and dusk manning 515. On Pred and general work on site. Found black scorpion in blankets. Ground here very stony. Good sleep, no lights. Went to bed 19:00.

Thursday 30th
'B' Section got up 06:30. Sausage for breakfast - food here good so far. REs started to blast new position. On twelve hour guard - third shift 20:00 - 22:00 Big dust storm blew up and very cold. .

Friday 31st
Cleaned up Pred and digging on new pits all day. Damned hard going. Fired seven shots at ME110. AN in bed 18:45. 3 R/As. Didn't turn out. .

Saturday 1st
Sausage again for breakfast. On spotter all day. Reccy plane over again. Didn't fire. Card to H (No.15) Washed pair of socks in soupy water, this water problem not so good.

DECEMBER
Sunday 7th
Went on fatigue to D R'head. Three Jerrys dropped bombs and m�gunned while digging pits. Japan declared was on America 20:00 hours. Had S/T at 04:10 until Reveille. B's on R. 32R

Monday 8th
Very cold this morning. Big barrage at Rec. I'll bet it shook him up. 34 rds. Heard more details of Japan's attack. 'A world gone mad'. Read "The Cautious Amorist" AN on spotter late shift.

Tuesday 9th
No raid last evening. Feeling properly 'browned off' over this war business. How long now I wonder before I see my home town again and you my darling. On guard pm 22:00 - 02:00. Cloudy, no raids.
News: HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales sunk

Wednesday 10th
On Fred from 06:00 - 16:30 clearing football pitch. Morning dust storms and driving rain. AN blankets got wet and covered with sand, unable to get down for wash today. Patience sorely tried.

Thursday 11th
Mr Carr: Officer Commanding
Went to D R'head. Driver got lost for over one hour. On Pred on return. Had two S/Ts during the night from 04:00 - 06:00. Two flares over R'head and load of B on D

Friday 12th
New order today, not to wear scarves, balaclavas etc. Denims must be worn and wash and shave before 09:30. Dug C.F. rest pit. On guard at 06:00 Received early Xmas parcel. Handed in rest of RD clothing.

Saturday 13th
On fatigue at D R'head times two and finished it off. JV88 over - didn't drop anything. More bullshit orders by Mr C. Glad when Mr G back. No raid pm. Started a bit of a sore throat and cold today. Anxiously awaiting news from home. Little time to write these last few days. Didn't even get a wash today.

In the October of 1942, they were stationed near Alexandria and in the second half of the month were moved with their battery close to the front line at what was to be the second battle of El-Alamein.

The girls they left behind

Hilda and Ida at Oadby

Hilda and Ida relax at Oadby 1943

(ML) Ida and Hilda's friendship grew during the war years. During those years when Lew and George were away, Mum would be invited to visit Hilda's Uncle who lived at Stoughton Road, in Oadby. ("A rich seam of family history") As Ida recalls, "I was asked to play the piano for him. I later found out, that the piano had been closed since his wife's death, and he wouldn't allow anyone to touch it. Hilda was amazed by all this. She had told him I was a music teacher and pianist, so I was frequently invited over to play. I was quite honoured."

"Hilda came with me to Matlock in Derbyshire, for short breaks at my sister's home. We even went to an occassional dance, and had to walk from Matlock to Cromford (both ways). Not sure how many miles we had to walk, but we enjoyed the dances. The men were mostly Americans, they always had nylons, and chocolates and things that we couldn't get, but we always turned down any offers other than a friendly dance."


After the war

(ADC,BKE) After El-Alamein, George joined the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). As the invasion of Sicily got under way and the subsequent battle for Italy proceeded he was stationed firstly in Taranto at the southernmost part of the peninsula and then in Naples. He gained a lance corporal stripe and became a driver assigned to supplies and NAAFI duties. His journals recount hours spent on canteen book-keeping, a duty probably bestowed because of his pre-war occupation.

As far as we are aware he did not see any further action. He did make a number of local acquaintances that he talked of with some affection upon his return home and one, Oscar, maintained a long dialogue by mail

1939-45 Star
The Africa star with 8th Army Clasp
The Italy star
The War Medal
Victory letter

Left to right: 1939-45 Star; The Africa Star; The Italy Star, The War Medal, The Victory Letter

May 1945 duly arrived and with it Victory in Europe. In honour of their participation all servicemen who had fought in the Mediterranean campaign received a "Thank You" letter from their Commander in Chief, Field-Marshal Alexander. They were also awarded four War service medals (full descriptions and details of the requirements for each medal can be seen on the Forces War Records (3) website. Upon their return home they were issued with a suit of clothes, a suitcase and a small amount of money. They were then free to return to their wives and home.

(ML)After five years and seven months away, Dad returned safely to England and home. He disembarked on July 13th 1945. After that, Friday the 13th was always looked upon as a luck day for my parents. He was demobbed on February 27th 1946.

Lew and George 1990

Lew and George 1990

After the war, both couples set up home in Leicester, and continued the friendships they had each made thousands of miles apart. Now it was as a four-some. It still worked well. George and Hilda's children were born either side of me. We would often get together for parties, especially when we were young. I married my husband Bruce Lodge in 1966, and moved to Wisconsin, USA, then emigrated to Canada in 1967. I still kept in touch each Christmas with Hilda and George. Mum and Dad continued their friendship.

Hilda and George moved north to Newcastle, and in 1988, Mum and Dad moved to Canada. They still kept in touch. Now they would get regular letters, including a typed section by George, just for Dad, starting with, "Lew, remember this ....." and he'd list the activities of a day or a week during the war years, close to the day he was writing. Those war diaries that George had kept! Even to me, who had been born after the war, the stories always enthralled me. Ida recalls, "Every letter that came would have something relating to a particular day, not just one year but maybe for 3 or 4 years. Not sure how he managed to keep such diaries. Lew was in charge of the anti-aircraft guns most of the time, so was kept too busy."

In 1990, both couples got together, twice, during their 50th wedding anniversary year. Mum and Dad made their first visit back to England in the spring, and visited them in Newcastle for a few days, and then later that year, Hilda and George made the trip to Canada (we believe that the diaries went too! - ADC), and the two couples went to the honeymoon capital of the world, "Niagara". This was the last time they would meet, but the letters still kept on coming.

Sadly, George and Hilda died a few years ago. George always maintained a fondness for his memories of Egypt, Italy and the Mediterranean although he would never return. Lew died October 31, 2005 in his 91st year. He and Ida had celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary last March (2005). Ida is still alive, and tries to be as active as she can, though suffering with severe sciatica. She will be 91, August 2006.

In 1941, Lew and George nearly reached the North American coast. Fifty years later, their last meeting was on that continent. Lew's family: Ida, Margaret and Bruce, grandson Matthew and Rachel, live in Canada. Granddaughter Sarah and Carsten live in Germany. From what I've heard, George's son thinks he's a Floridian, and would love to live there. Connections across the water that once separated! One day, maybe we the offspring will get together again.

Alan Craxford

ADC

Margaret Blackwell

ML

Brenda Eldridge

BKE

Acknowledgement

George Craxford's War Diaries and other memorabilia were donated after his death to the Imperial War Museum. We are most grateful to Dr Simon Robbins, Archivist, for providing copies of the manuscripts used in the preparation of this article (4)

References

1. A Box Brownie No.3. camera: Camera de Collection
2. The shell of Freeman Hardy and Willis premises in Rutland Street on November 19th 1940: "Images of Leicester" - The Leicester Mercury; Breedon Books 1995
3. Campaign Medals: Forces War Records
4. IWM Collections: The Imperial War Museum

Added June 9th 2006
Updated March 13th 2012

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