John's Black Watch memories seven decades on

IT'S been almost 70 years since John Neville began his life of adventure as part of the Black Watch regiment.

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John Neville, 88, at his home in Baillieston with his medals and memorabilia,
John Neville, 88, at his home in Baillieston with his medals and memorabilia,

Seven decades and John has never forgotten the characters he met in his time in India.

John, who is now 88, has written about his army stories in a series of typed reminiscences.

He was born in Glasgow in 1925.

As a young boy he remembers unemployed men standing on the street corner, laughing and arguing with each other.

Most of them were veterans of the Great War, which had ended just seven years before John was born.

They had fought in the notorious battlefields of that war - Ypres, the Somme, the Dardanelles.

He was just 13 when the Second World War broke out in September 1939.

He and his younger brother George were evacuated, out of harm's way, to Aboyne, in Aberdeenshire.

They were there for almost nine months before the boys got homesick and returned to Glasgow.

He got a job in an ironworks in Possilpark, helping to make assault craft for the army, and aircraft hangers for the RAF. "Doing a man's job," is how he puts it now.

At 15 he joined the Home Guard - the Local Defence Volunteers, as it was originally known.

The men would be expected to fend off a German invasion, should one happen.

In February 1945, when the war was swinging in favour of the Allies, John finally got his chance to join up. He had just turned 19.

After 16 weeks of basic training he was supplied with tropical kit and put onto a troopship that left Shieldhall docks, bound for India.

The recruits were divided into groups of 20, which were then allocated to different regiments.

John found himself part of the 2nd battalion, the Black Watch, alongside battle-hardened veterans who had taken part in the North Africa campaign and had also fought the Japanese.

"I remember we were all awestruck among these old campaigners," he says.

"They were tough guys, but none of them ever bullied me, or shoved me around. I had worked in that ironworks until I was 18 and was just as fit as them."

But the oppressive heat of India made life difficult for all of them.

There was one early manoeuvre when John's platoon, in full dress-kit, with each pair of men carrying three three-inch mortar bombs in cardboard containers, set off on an exhausting march across the Plains of India that lasted all of four days.

"From a distance the plains look as flat and smooth as a billiard table but in reality they were full of dry riverbeds, ancient camel tracks and small gullies," says John. "They were a nightmare."

The heat was unbelievable. Some of the men began to drop with heat exhaustion. A number removed their socks and shoes, revealing bloodied feet.

John suffered from heat exhaustion but a Welsh mate, an older soldier called Taffy Pritchard, persuaded him roughly to get back on his feet and continue the march.

One time, John and several others were instructed to dig a large hole - six feet wide and 10 feet deep - in which unwanted food, empty tins and refuse from the cookhouse could be stored.

The holes were made by the men exploding hand grenades with 11-second fuses in the earth, before starting to dig.

"I remember one so-called wee hardman from Govan named Russel who was slacking in the hole," says John.

"He foolishly muttered that the sergeant's stripes saved him from having to join in.

"Sergeant McKenzie was 40 and had been in the Black Watch man and boy.

"He ordered three of us out of the hole and climbed down the ladder, and told us to go for a walk for 10 minutes.

"When we got back, we found Russel lying moaning on the ground.

"The sergeant said he had fractured a couple of ribs by falling off the ladder and that he also needed treatment for a couple of cuts to his face.

"What the wee man didn't know was that the sergeant had once been an army boxing champion. It was a pity no-one had told him."

After a while John was transferred to the 14th Air Landing Brigade of the 2nd Indian Division.

He had learned to take care of himself, as a Yorkshireman in his tent began to taunt him about his religion.

When John made a tart reply, the man hurled a hobnailed boot at him. The boot was flung with great force but didn't draw blood.

The man made to pick up his second boot to throw it but John, in a blind rage, picked up and his bayonet and walked towards him.

"I don't know, even after all this time, what I intended to do with it," admits John now, "but in any event he took off like a bat out of hell."

Eventually, the Yorkshireman, shamefaced, returned, and the episode was never mentioned again.

John eventually became a regimental signalman.

His unpublished memoirs are full of entertaining detail about his time in India.

After the war John had a long career at the Post Office. He and his wife Kathleen have six children - John, Peter, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine and Anne.

At their home on Glasgow Road, he has an impressive collection of army memorabilia, from medals to photographs, and even his Black Watch hackle.

"It was interesting to write the stories," he says, nodding to a blue plastic folder containing the sheets of paper.

"It's hard to believe it started nearly 70 years ago."

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