Arnold Ridley’s REAL WARS
Few people realised that the actor Arnold Ridley, who portrayed the gentle pascifist Private Godfrey, had actually been a toughened combat soldier, serving on the battlefields of France in not just one, but two World Wars. Because Arnold was never too keen on discussing his real wartime experiences, much of the detail has been lost over the years. After much research I have tried to piece together at least some of his extraordinary wartime experiences.
When World War One broke out, Arnold was on the verge of becoming a school teacher, and he was also a small time actor. He had trained at Bristol University, where he’d proven to not only be a good scholar but also a fine sportsman. He played high-grade cricket and rugby for Bath. Being patriotic, Arnold naturally volunteered to join the army at the outbreak of hostilities, becoming a private the Somerset Light Infantry Regiment, at the age of 18.
The Somerset Light Infantry embarked for France with the first British Expeditionary Force in 1914, as part of the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division, III Corps, under the command of Major General W.P. Pultney. Soon he was fighting in the bloody trenches that cut their way through the once lush French countryside, and by the time he had turned 19, Arnold had been promoted to Lance Corporal.
When the first battle of The Somme erupted in July 1916, Arnold was there. Like most who fought on The Somme, he encountered many strange and terrifying experiences, such that he would never hope to remember, and probably never could forget. However there was one event that he did choose to recall, in such detail that he even remembered that it took place on September 15th, 1916, at half-past six in the morning. “We saw these strange objects moving out of the woods under heavy bombardment. We hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were.” Everybody on the battlefield had watched the site of these mechancial monsters in astonishment. Arnold later learned that he had witnessed the advent of tank warfare, they had been the first British tanks, creeping their way towards the enemy.
He was wounded twice during The Somme campaign. In one instance he was hit in the head by a German soldier’s rifle butt whilst fighting hand to hand with the enemy. The blow to the head caused substantial long-term damage, and it would cause him black outs and related problems for the rest of his life. Following the Somme campaign, Arnold was moved up to the next assault point, Arras. The Battle of Arras took place during April and May of 1917. Once again he was involved in heavy fighting, and the result was serious bayonet wounds to his left arm and fingers. The wounds were severe and long lasting. The nerves were devestated, and behind the lines army doctors operated on the arm no less than seventeen different times. He lost almost total use of the arm, which saw him being invalided out of the army in 1917. Eventually surgery allowed him to regain the use of his arm.
After a long recouperation, he went back into acting in 1918, with the famous Birmingham Repertory company. But the lingering results of the war wounds forced him to retire from acting in 1922, and he returned to Bath to work in his parent’s boot and shoe shop. In 1921 he decided to have a go at playwrighting. His first play was not a success, but he perservered and in 1925 hit paydirt with his second script, the famous thriller The Ghost Train. He returned to acting in 1927, in The Ghost Train, and continued as a writer, actor and director till 1939. He also began his own film studios, Quality Films, in 1936, but sadly this venture went bankrupt.
With such terrible results from his combat in World War One, not just physical but also mental, causing him nightmares of the trenches for many years to come, one would not be surprised if Arnold had decided against war, like Godfrey. But this was not to be so.
When war again broke out in Europe in 1939, Arnold volunteered for further service in the army, and was accepted for officer training. He was put onto the General List. This list was a pool of commissioned officers and also civilians holding equivalent rank as an officer, who were required for duties not specific to any particular regiments or corps. Therefore, he could have found himself doing any sort of task. It turns out that he was mainly to work in Military Intelligence. This was before the Intelligence Corps itself was formed in July 1940. So as an intelligence officer, with the rank of temporary Major, Arnold headed for France with the British Expeditionary Force.
For almost a year Arnold waited with the rest of free Europe through the ‘Phoney War’. Under the command of Major-General Mason-Macfarlane, the BEF’s director of military intelligence, Arnold was appointed the job of Conducting Officer. His role in this task was dealing with the press reporters who were covering the war for Britain’s newspapers. It was up to Conducting Officers to ensure the press received the information that the army actually wanted them to receive. They also had to see that the media were not going to report anything more than they should say, which might be detrimental to the whole campaign. These Conducting Officers were mostly First World War veterans, and it is said they all had an amazing capacity for drink. Among the Conducting Officers in France, Arnold was in good company with other well-known writers, including General Ian Hay Beith, who had written a famous book about the Great War titled The First Hundred Thousand. Also working with Arnold was Joe Fairley, author of the popular Bulldog Drummond books. Arnold and Joe were to become good friends during this time.
For something special at Christmas in 1939, Arnold decided to put his acting and directing skills to good use, and put on an Ian Hay play for his fellow troops. This was much appreciated by the other men in his unit, anything to break the strain of those long months of stand-off. Arnold described the Phoney War as a remarkably tense and miserable time.
However the reporters, whom Arnold was in control of, found the Phoney War a little dull. The BBC’s Richard Dimbleby decided he was going to leave France for the Middle East, as the prospects for good stories looked better there. Soon he was proven right. Another reporter, Bernard Gray, wrote in 1941 that he had found the Conducting Officers treated all of the reporters as if they were spies. It may seem a harsh accusation, but when one considers that the reporters had access to information from both sides, the reality might seem that an opportunity for spying was present. Indeed it turned out that the reporter for The Times who was covering the campaign was none other than Kim Philby. Philby has gone down in history as one of the world’s most notorious spies, after he assisted the Russians in getting the plans for the nuclear bomb. He had been a KGB operative since 1937. By 1939 Russia had signed a non-agression pact with Germany, and it is likely that Philby passed on vital information to the Germans during the Phoney War and the Battle of France.
In May 1940 the Blitzkrieg began cutting it’s deadly path across Europe, and as the Germans advanced, the British forces withdrew, until they were caught in a trap. The only way out was Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk. Arnold and his unit had made their way to the Port of Boulogne, one of the three ports from which evacuation of the BEF would take place. Boulogne was cut off by the Germans on May 22, 1940, but the Allied troops, consisting of two British Guards battallions, a handful of French Territorials and five naval guns, defended the port for a further 36 hours from attacks on all flanks and from the air. Some time during the fierce fighting, Arnold was again wounded, and suffered from severe shell-shock.
The beseiged soldiers began to slip away into the English Channel in the early hours of May 24th. Arnold finally left the continent in the last rescue boat to escape Boulogne, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Vimiera. This ship made it out of Boulogne at 22:30hrs, just five minutes before Germans opened fire with their heavy shore batteries, which was supported by a Luftwaffe bombing raid over the town. Although the Vimiera had been forced to leave around 200 men on shore, she had rescued around 1,400 soldiers of the BEF and French forces, and some civilians. The only space left clear on her decks were around the guns, and the destroyer was so dangerously overloaded it was considered that had the tide been lower, she would have become stuck on the harbour bottom.
As they zig-zagged across the channel, the Vimiera was dive bombed by the Luftwaffe for 17 hours. But Arnold’s incredible luck held again, and he survived. When finally back in Britain, the army decided due to new and old injuries, Arnold should again be invalided out.
Still not willing to shirk his patriotic responsibilities, Arnold joined ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association), which performed plays and entertainment for the troops. He found one of his major assignments in this organisation was touring Britain directing and acting in his own play, The Ghost Train. It was at this time he met the actress Althea Parker, who was later to become Arnold’s third wife. A young actor who was in the cast of the play, in his first role for ENSA, was Dirk Bogarde, who later went on to become an international star. Although it seems Bogarde never recalled the tour in his many autobiographical books, a biography of the actor states that he considered the tour to be a disaster, stating that Bogarde’s army call-up papers could not come sooner for him. However in 1976 Bogarde recalled this period much more fondly when he spoke on the television tribute to Arnold Ridley This Is Your Life.
So Arnold had once again returned to the theatre. But being away from the battlefields of France did not mean he was safe. Arnold was now living in Caterham, Surrey, as his home base, where he had joined the local Home Guard unit. He recalled “This was before the big bombing raids had begun and somehow the war seemed more real out there than it was in London. On one occasion, I was on my way to the Savage Club when a Dornier machine-gunned the road. I dived into a ditch and stayed there, until it had gone, then continued on my journey, arriving at the Savage, streaked with mud. When I explained, I don’t think they believed me. They just couldn’t imagine German planes getting that close to London in broad daylight.”
A worse tragedy struck Arnold four years later. Just after the D Day landings in June 1944, Hitler released his latest deadly weapons against Britain, the V1 flying bombs. Arnold was in his garden at Caterham one afternoon while one of the first of these terror weapons was approaching. Not knowing what the shrill noise of the pulse jet engine was, he did not take cover. It went off very nearby him, and the shockwave and concussion of the blast caused Arnold very severe injuries. The injuries affected his ability to speak clearly for months, and thus his acting career in ENSA was over. It would not be until 1945 that he was well enough to once again step back onto the stage.
When asked about his wartime memories in comparison to his role in Dad’s Army, Arnold once said “There’s bound to be a certain amount of nostalgia. You look back on things and they never seem quite so bad, but that is because you’re now safe from them; you even forget it was pouring with rain. But as for humour, war has never been a funny thing to me. It has a certain macabre humour in it - that is all. The English soldier would do anything rather than be sentimental. He would portray himself as anything rather than a hero. He sees himself as a poor so-and-so. ‘Roll on when I get my furlough - roll on when I get my pass.’ ”