For many years, Rhosneigr had been a quiet, conservative Welsh sea-side village, attractive and enticing to a select band of summer visitors, but during the Second World War, it was invaded and housed the Army at the very centre of its life. A camp appeared near the Clock-tower, at the heart of the community and no doubt, its life was changed. In 1943–44, having served in Cornwall at Bodmin, a somewhat grim place at the time, on the edge of the bleak moor, then chosen for Army Intelligence, I was posted as an officer-cadet to Rhosneigr. It was a welcome return to Wales and to an area where my father rejoiced in his memories as a young curate in the not-too-distant parish of Llanfair-Mathafarn-Eithaf. I recall the thrill of arriving in Anglesey via Bangor en route to Holyhead, a novel experience for me and thereafter the story unfolds.
It was deemed necessary that all Intelligence men should receive a thorough infantry training initially—as someone put it, the “real cake” before the “cream icing”, whatever that meant!. I thus joined a training battalion of the Irish Inneskellen Fusiliers, a tough regular Army battalion, and was allocated to B platoon. I was very fortunate with my fellow-cadets, to be accommodated in a former private house, Bryn Maelog, on the fringe of the village at that time, (it still stands recognisably the same as a guest-house), with a room of my own on the upper floor—truly a luxury in the Army: the mess and battalion centre were in the village, about ¼ mile away. There was a plot of ground (still there) around Bryn Maelog, where we mustered each morning for a march to the mess and the beginning of the day's programme.
Reveille sounded at 6.30 am, and so it all began: drill, weapon training: physical training, exercises and lectures. The food was variable but the exercise and bracing sea-air were no doubt, salutary and never failed to whet the appetite. We were physically very fit and few of us ever “reported sick”. No wonder that the Camp Medical Officer, an odd, bemused fellow and the butt of much battalion banter, was reckoned to have a glass in his hand far more often than a stethoscope! The Company Commander (who appeared from time to time at daily inspections at Bryn Maelog) was a cocky, upstart captain who pranced around with a walking stick. It was clear to all of us that he had an acute inferiority-complex (reflected in his appalling diction) and he had little time for university students.
The sergeant of the platoon, Sergeant Connolly, was an impressive figure, young, lithe as a racing snake, and completely dedicated with a strong attractive Irish brogue which we all enjoyed and imitated! He was set upon two objectives—to convert the “intellectual rabble” in his platoon into some semblance of soldiers, and to ensure that his platoon was the best in the battalion in terms of discipline, fitness and achievement. With a few casualties, it is true that he achieved both objectives, with much long-suffereing on his part and much agony on ours. It was a mixed platoon, mostly English. I was one of two Welshmen and there were two Scots. There was genuine comradeship among us which contributed to its success. Discipline was tough and it is not too much to say that the sergeant was a “commando” type, who gave us the works! His favorite pastimes were taking us out on the “assault-course” in the foulest of weather, set up near the beach and rocks below the village, with the most incredible obstacles to trap us, but his “pièce de resistance” was to get us to jump, fully equipped, with fixed bayonets, off the break-water (from a lane off the High Street) into the icy sea! He was determined to make us or break us but we had the highest respect for him. My good friend Gerald Rooke (with whom I happily correspond in Devon) and I used to make a point of jumping first and getting out of the way of the “crew” that followed!
The centre of the village, taking the prominent clock-tower as the pivot, down the High Street westwards, has changed relatively little: so many of the old houses and land-marks are there which we used to pass several times daily. The road leading to the beach (Beach Road) with Beach Terrace at the end at right angles, was very much the same as it is today (without contemporary tourist facilities). However the road from the centre towards the village Church (the scene of many Church parades) and eventually leading to the railway station, has changed a great deal. The Bay Hotel was one of the great land-marks but now the whole area has been overwhelmed with development in bungalows and houses. I remember the road well—if only for the incident that after a long route-march, our devoted sergeant insisted that we return through the village “on the double” (at running pace). The strain was too much for Carmarthen Jones (our comrade from Carmarthen, hence his name for identification), and for some incredible reason, his battle-dress trousers fell down. No words of mine could express the sergeant's sentiments, but Jones contributed generously to the services of the battalion cook-house for at least seven days afterwards!
The core of Rhosneigr has survived: it is the area around the centre which has expanded and developed almost beyond recognition. The dunes between Rhosneigr and Llanfaelog were favorite exercise areas and the dreaded “night manoeuvres” while the ranges for arms practice and live firing were further inland. It was during one such practice that the inevitable Jones (whose file of incompetence was increasing in bulk by the minute) nearly disposed of a number of us by throwing a live grenade straight up into the air instead of at the target. It was only an incredible panther-like leap to cover which saved us. If I remember correctly, that was the swan song of “Carmarthen Jones” and he was seen no more by the platoon. No questions were asked but we all took the message. He had told me once that he was a Presbyterian ordinand, and I believe that he actually delivered a sermon one Sunday in the chapel in Rhosneigr. I have often wondered what happened to him in later years.
Life in such a camp is coloured with personalities. The Irish sergeant, Connolly was outstanding. He drove us hard but he was extremely fair and when we left Rhosneigr at the end of the arduous course, (myself for Guards training and the Far East), we organised a presentation for him. Such things are not usual in the Army and he was deeply moved. I recall that I was “chosen” to make a brief speech, which I hoped was worthy of him. We admired him as a soldier and we had come to respect him as a man. I can also remember a lieutenant in the Buffs (the East Kent Regiment), a survivor of Dunkirk, a gentleman indeed who treated each one of us as gentlemen both in speech and behaviour. We were all pleased to have him with us not only on parades but also in the ordinary exercises across the island. Our admiration and respect for him were unbounded.
Among our colleagues, mention must be made of two remarkable characters, Waddell and Cohen. Waddell was a delightful Scot, a student at Glasgow University, ebullient and friendly but the Army was not his metier. Highly intelligent, his mind was set on other more profitable things. He used every moment available from platoon activities to organise a net-work of buying all kinds of equipment—from farm produce to tea-chests, boxes of all kinds and even pieces of furniture. He collected them locally and dispatched them to an “uncle” in Glasgow by rail. He was an outstanding entrepreneur in the making, always possessing a wallet of notes (when Army pay was relatively meagre). He would buy anything and he was assisted by his side-kick, Cohen, who added his own expertise. They flourished for some time but on one occasion, Waddell over-stepped the mark. Having unwittingly “borrowed” what turned out to be the Sergeant-Major's bicycle for one of his trips inland, he was discovered and charged. The whole commercial enterprise came to light. Waddell and Cohen were seen no more. It was also rumored that a protest to the Commanding Officer, Western Command about conditions in the camp—traced to Waddell and Cohen, did not do them any good.
The local people of Rhosneigr were delightful—warm and welcoming, despite all the difficulties and demands of war-time. I had a certain advantage in being Welsh-speaking, even though it was South Walian! They were often amused by some of my sayings. Notably, they sympathised with the rigours of our training. A canteen, served by the W. V. S. near the clock-tower, provided tea, buns and warmth after exercises or route-marches, and time-off in the evenings. At the week-ends, there were opportunities to visit the bright lights of Holyhead and Bangor. A walk to Rhosneigr station was the avenue to this; an alternative was a trip to the “Brylcreem Boys” in the R. A. F. station in Valley. They had a camp cinema and were pleased to advertise it. Many of our evenings were remarkably subdued. We spent time in reading and discussion, not novelettes but “high-brow” material by Army standards. I read a good deal of French and some German, convinced that I was destined for Europe. However in due course, I found myself Japanese-speaking in the Far East. My friend, Gerald Rooke made it to Singapore. To ring the changes, there was the occasional “village hop” with an antiquated gramophone.
Among local people whom I must mention, there was the Revd Hugh Lewis, Methodist Minister and his wife, who befriended me as a result of a contact in the canteen mentioned earlier, where Mrs Lewis worked devotedly for the servicemen. I was invited to their home and I enjoyed their hospitality (a hot bath and supper—sheer bliss!) each week for the whole of my stay in Rhosneigr. Their home was in Beech Road and it was a haven of warmth and care. They were wonderful people and I have never forgotten their kindness. In a most unexpected way, I have subsequently met their son, Hugh in St. Asaph,—whom I remember so well as a young lad in Rhosneigr over 50 years ago, admiring the insignia on my uniform! It was a joy to see him again and have the opportunity to express my gratitude once again for the “Rhosneigr days”.
The vicar of Llanfaelog, the Revd Jack Wright, his wife and family were also extraordinarily kind to me. After walking across the Maelog, I spent every Sunday night with them. After evensong in Llanfaelog Parish Church, there was supper in their splendid manor-house Vicarage nearby. Mr Wright was a College friend of my father's in Lampeter, and both he and his family became great friends to me. Their warmth and affection were outstanding. I remember so well that they had a charming and very bright twelve-year old (or thereabouts) daughter, Valerie whom I used to tease by saying that my main interest was “metaphysics” (she had asked me something about my student days)—a word which seemed to amuse her greatly and she always greated me with it! I think that she found it a little baffling in a soldier-cadet! It is remarkable that later in India, I met Valerie's brother Tony, a Haileybury boy who was serving in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I recall getting permission for him to come out to dinner with me at a cracking Chinese Restaurant, a favourite eating-house for the “I–types” in Nasik. It was a far cry for both of us from Llanfaelog. As a member of the Parish Church congregation, I met Mr Crudson [Crewdson], whose parents had kindly provided “lodgings” in Benllech, some thirty years before for my father as the unmarried curate of Llanfair Mathafarn Eithaf. He was the youngest of the family and known affectionately as “y cyw bach” (the young chick). It was a striking moment when we met and he was so excited when I told him my name. He remembered my father so well and again there was a wonderful welcome. My social activities in Rhosneigr became the envy of my colleagues.
When I was stationed in Rhosneigr, I came to know Anglesey well, from off-duty visits, exercises across the island and generally getting around the country-side. It kindled a great affection which has never left me and it has increased over the years. I am deeply grateful to Môn. To return is always a joy and I am delighted that my recent researches into the life and work of the distinguished Bishop Watkin Williams of Bangor (with so many Anglesey connections) have given me the opportunity and pleasure to do so. A great delight has been to see the wonderful orchids in the church-yard of Llanfair Mathafarn Eithaf in early summer, a church of medieval antiquity, and perhaps I may be allowed to share something of the feeling of one of Wales' greatest poets—Goronwy Owen (of Llanfair Mathafarn Eithaf)—
“Henffych well, Fôn dirion dir,
Hyfrydwch pob rhyw frodir.”