John le Mesurier’s REAL WAR
By Dave Homewood
On the 3rd of September 1939, the day that Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war, John Le Mesurier was in the process of shifting house. Having just married his first wife, director June Melville, he was moving from his bachelor quarters at Ebury Street, Belgravia, to their new marital home in Smith Street, Chelsea. John was working as an actor in London, appearing regularly at the Brixton Theatre which was co-owned by June’s father, Fred Melville, and his brother Walter.
Shortly after the outbreak of conflict he signed on as an ARP Warden at Dolphin Square. In his autobiography ‘A Jobbing Actor’, John described his first night as a warden. An air raid siren earlier in the evening had proven to be a false alarm, but John wrote, “Later that night I awoke to a second siren. I threw on some clothes, not forgetting my new tin hat, and made my way to the wardens’ post in Dolphin Square. In the blackout this was difficult enough but my progress was delayed by several friendly inquiries from people who wanted to know if everything was all right. Instead of responding honestly (How should I know, madam?) I put on a tight lipped expression, and urged everyone to ‘Keep calm and leave it to me’. The response was commendably disciplined except from an elderly resident who appeared in the street in his pyjamas shouting ‘The hooter, the hooter, the hooter!’ I hurried on, trying to keep my tin hat balanced on my head (it was only now that I realised that its strap was missing) and my gas mask clasped to my side. When I at last reported for duty nothing, of course, was happening. We hung around for a time practising our bandages. I was not good at this but John Bailey, a close friend, covered for me.”
At the end of 1939 John grabbed a chance to go on a tour in the play French Without Tears. Once the tour had completed its run of Northern provincial theatres, John returned to London where he was summoned for his Army medical. He wrote “It was a chastening experience. I thought of myself as still young (only 28, after all!) and fit, but near naked and in a line-up of muscular teenagers, I felt as if I possessed every physical defect known to humanity, from slope shoulders to knobbly knees. The hard, critical gaze of the medical orderly confirmed my worst fears.”
Contrary to these fears, the military did pass him as fit for service. Despite the knowledge that his acting career may be interrupted at any moment by his call-up, he put such thoughts aside and returned to the stage in Brixton. He decided to live for the moment and forget what was coming in the near future.
By now it was 1940, and German bombers had begun their massive destruction of London. Even when the bombs started falling around them, he held to the clear conviction that somehow his little world was exempt from destruction. Often the air raid warning would go while he and the other actors were on stage. The Front Of House Manager would appear on stage and tell the audience that an air raid was in the offing. Some would stay on to continue watching the play, while others would go to their shelters. But mostly they stayed. When they did R. C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, about the First World War, the exploding bombs in the distance outside the theatre added a greater realism to the sound effects than their stage management could ever have provided.
One afternoon after a rehearsal at Brixton, John and June were returning home in a taxi when a raid began. He wrote “There were people hurrying about, many in uniform; police or ARP wardens. I saw an engine moving slowly, evidently at the tail end of an emergency call. And there was a growing fear, transmitted between June and me in a tight hand clasp and acknowledged by our silence and a blank stare ahead, that we were about to be part of the war, whether we liked it or not.” Their home at 20 Smith Street had been completely destroyed by a land-mine. That same night the Brixton Theatre was also put out of action by an incendiary bomb, which had been dropped only minutes after they had left. After buying a toothbrush, downing champagne cocktails at The Antelope near Sloane Square and a meal at the restaurant Moulin D’Or, the Le Mesuriers made their way to June’s parents’ house in Highgate and moved in.
Several days later it dawned on John that, along with all his other possessions, his army call-up papers had also been destroyed by the Luftwaffe. He had it in his mind that he was to report to a Royal Armoured Corp base at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain. However, for the life of him, he could not remember which date he was supposed to go there. His enquiries at various recruitment offices were met by blank stares, so John decided he would join the army when it suited him.
Once he had tied up his affairs and said his goodbyes to friends and family, he made off to Tidworth at his leisure. He arrived unannounced and unexpectedly in the back of a taxi, carrying his golf clubs. When he stepped out of the taxi he was met by a sergeant. John told Walter Clapham in a 1976 interview “The sergeant didn’t seem to think my golf clubs entirely necessary. He said: ‘What you fink you’re `ere for, then? A long bloody weekend?’.”
He began service life in December 1940 as a trooper, service number 7918208, in the mechanised cavalry. But after about six weeks the troop sergeant said to him “Well, I don’t know quite what we’re going to do with you. Obviously you’d be useless as a corporal or a sergeant. We’ll probably have to try and make an officer of you.” And that is what happened. His motivation for agreeing to become an officer was he would get more comfortable clothing to wear and more money for doing so. However in the meantime till an officer course came up, he was to remain Private Le Mesurier.
John surprised even himself when he volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, which was being formed at the time. His unit paraded, and those who had volunteered for the Paras had to step forward two paces to be inspected. The inspecting officer, Lieutenant Fulke Walwyn, who was to assess their suitability, told John to step back into line. He was turned down at the first hurdle, but admittedly he was very relieved.
He went on to learn how to drive tanks and bren gun carriers. He grew to love the latter vehicle, despite always having difficulty with the trigger mechanism of the bren gun itself. He began to enjoy army life, and even army food, but he found it hard to adjust to the sweet tea they were made to drink. June would come down to the area and stay in a local hotel, which helped to keep him sane during his leisure hours.
When asked for a comparison in 1976, John admitted to Walter Clapham that he and his character in Dad’s Army were not dissimilar, “I wasn’t aware of it when we started trying to do this thing eight years ago, but gradually I’ve come to think that in the Army I was a little like Sergeant Wilson. I was always in a bit of a muddle about it all. I mean, the mechanical aspect of the thing I was in defeated me completely. It’s so typical of life that someone so unmechanical should be shoved into the most mechanical arm of the service.”
“I remember when I was a trooper at Tidworth. One night we were on guard duty, I forgot - God knows how - to put the bolt in my rifle. We had to go out on guard at the perimeter and the orderly officer came out with a sergeant to inspect the guard in the usual way. And, of course, we had to go through the routine of shoving the bolt of the rifle up and down for it to be inspected. And it was then I realised it: God! I haven’t even got a bolt. And so I mimed it, just using my hand. Well, the officer didn’t see it, but the sergeant did. Confined to barracks - that was me.”
Eventually a position on an officer training course became available, so he departed Tidworth to become an officer. The venue of the O.C.T.U. course was called Blackdown, and John hated every moment he spent there. He almost convinced himself that life would be happier back in the ranks, but the threat from the instructors of RTU, or return to unit, had a psychological effect which made him determined to finish the course. To relieve the stress of O.C.T.U., he decided to organise some entertainment, and at the suggestion of colleague Frank Harvey, a film writer, they performed French Without Tears. He had an ulterior motive for putting on the play too, he thought that by showing the regular soldiers, who ran the place, that he was able to stand on stage, remember his lines and even get some laughs, it might compensate for his lack of knowledge and interest in all things mechanical.
The play went well, and as the course progressed he began to prove his worth in the military exercises. He did find however that he had great difficulty in learning how to ride a motorcycle. He wrote “I have never got on with motor bikes. I view them with suspicion. I was never very adept at an ordinary pedal cycle, come to think of it, but the mechanised, two wheeled monsters were a nightmare to me. I damaged one quite badly when I was riding round the parade ground. The thing got out of control and started heading for a brick wall. I managed to slide out of the saddle in the nick of time, not really wanting anything more to do with it.” In the Dad’s Army episode ‘The Honourable Man’, Wilson also had trouble learning how to ride the platoon motor bike. Perhaps John Le Mesurier told Jimmy Perry and David Croft of his real experiences on bikes and inspired the storyline for that memorable episode
Finally his course came to an end and he emerged from Blackdown as a 2nd Lieutenant. After the passing out parade he went to the car park to collect his Ford V8 and make his way home. However he found it to have a flat tyre, and there was no jack. The ignition was also on the blink. Despite now being an engineering officer in the Royal Armoured Corps, he was still not able to fix the problem, and the base mechanics were all out on the town. He decided to phone June and ask her to cancel the table she’d booked at the Cafe de Paris as he could not make it there. This turned out to be a wise move, as that night the Cafe de Paris was hit by two hundred-pound bombs. Thirty-three people were killed.
After a week on leave, John was then posted to the 54th Training Regiment at Perham Down. He was given a batman, whom he described as “a rather sullen character whose Newcastle accent all but removed any prospect of communication between us. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”
John was put in charge of the ARP duty, which involved regular checks to see that the fire buckets and alarms were in working order. He also ran a weekly theoretical gas attack exercise where everyone had to don respirators and deal with mock casualties. Sounds like a regular Warden Hodges.
During 48-hour leave in London, John met June at the restaurant Moulin D’Or. During their meal a huge explosion rocked the area. A landmine had been dropped and destroyed the nearby original Shaftesbury Theatre and adjoining buildings. John joined others in sorting through the debris for survivors, which he found to be a most sickening experience. 130 people died in the attack.
Soon he was again on the move when his regiment shifted to Deerbolt Camp at Barnard Castle in Yorkshire. John organised another play for the troops, I Have Been Here Before by J.B. Priestley. He played the part of Walter Ormund. The play ran for a week and was well received.
John was then sent to do some army courses. The first was on cookery, in Scarborough. The catering corps were attempting to train him how to cook a meal for 150 soldiers. Although he tried hard, he found it difficult to concentrate on the training, and regretted having let his mind wander when on the final day he had to prepare something edible, and eat it himself. He made a soup and a stew, both of which he was unable to eat. He was given a ‘Pass’ for the course, on the strict understanding his culinary skills would only be used in an emergency.
The second course, which took place in York, involved army pay. The instructor, an army pay sergeant, had a speech impediment which made it difficult for the students, including John, to grasp what he was on about. However they had no concerns because the night before the final exam the instructor gave them all the questions and answers to be in the test. John’s actor’s ability to learn lines ensured he passed the course.
After the courses, John was posted overseas. He spent his last week in London with June, before an emotional farewell at St Pancras Station, and made his way by train to Rosyth in Scotland, where he embarked on a troopship to India. He arrived in Bombay, and then moved onto the transit camp at Poona. After a few days there, he was told to report to the training establishment at Ahmadnagar. This camp consisted of nothing more than a few nissen huts and a dusty parade ground, plus an officer’s mess, but it was to be John’s home for the next two years. He describes the surrounding area around the camp as “a flat, lunar terrain, pockmarked by small craters and dry river beds.” Perhaps the greatest, if only, claim to fame that Ahmadnagar could boast is it was the birthplace of ‘Spike’ Milligan. His duties at this establishment included anything from planning military exercises to teaching the English language to the Indians. He had little contact with the other officers, most of whom “talked incessantly of things mechanical.”
He was assigned a bearer named Dohdiram, whom he described as his guardian angel. “Dohdiram had style, elegance and enormous charm. He followed me everywhere, even when I would rather he had stayed at home” John wrote. When on leave in Bombay, Dohdiram stayed on the mat outside John’s hotel door the whole time, even sleeping there.
While based at Ahmadnagar, John was sent on an aerial photography course at Peshawar. The object of the course was to determine objects on the ground in reconnaissance photos taken from high altitude. He passed this course without much problem.
When VE Day came along in 1945, and hostilities ended in Europe, John began to think more positively towards his impending demob. He’d had a relatively peaceful war till then, he hadn’t been involved in any combat and he’d heard few shots which were actually fired in anger. However the war with the Japanese in Asia and the Pacific was continuing unabated. He was sent to the North-West Frontier of India to take charge of a troop of light tanks which were part of an Indian mechanised cavalry regiment. He didn’t last long in the area though. He says he “got into a terrible muddle trying to organise the business of patrolling the frontier overlooking Afghanistan. The terrain was dreadful, my map reading was rather poor in my own country let alone this one, and it was also terribly hot during the day and freezing cold at night. There were a number of Pathans thereabouts who actually fired at us every now and then. But I think it was mostly in fun. My final downfall came when I got two of these tanks trapped against a barrier of rock and impenetrable undergrowth. Help had to be sent from HQ. The CO was none too pleased and rather curtly invited me to leave as soon as possible. I was only too delighted to oblige.”
After an emotional farewell from Bearer Dohdiram and his large family, John left Ahmadnagar. This was the beginning of the long trip home to Britain. First stop was a week in a transit camp at Deolali. He wrote “So mind-numbingly tedious was the sojourn in this wasteland of bunks and battledresses that previous inmates had popularised the term ‘a touch of the doolallys’. In an effort to retain my sanity I kept a tight grip on the bar and resisted all attempts to persuade me to attend the all-male variety entertainment”. What a pity, this entertainment was provided by the Royal Artillery Concert Party, run by one Sergeant Jimmy Perry, who later created Dad’s Army. The story of the concert party was later made into the hit comedy It Ain’t Half Hot Mum by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Although the stories in this show may not have been based on actual events, the setting was real, the Sergeant Major was real, the officers were real, the Indians were real...in fact Jimmy says it is the closest thing to fact he’s ever made.
Eventually John boarded a troopship for home, and arrived back in Southampton safe and sound. No-one was there to meet him at the dock. He was demobbed, given a brown suit and some money, and he set off for London. Captain John Le Mesurier’s war was over. He was once again Mr John Le Mesurier, jobbing actor. It is ironic that a man who had so much trouble being a real soldier will now always be remembered for his outstanding portrayal of a TV soldier, the wonderful Sergeant Wilson.
Did You Know that some of the Dad’s Army wives appeared as guests in episodes?
They include: Joan Cooper (Arthur Lowe’s wife, in five episodes, including three as Dolly Godfrey), Gilda Perry (Jimmy Perry’s wife, in three episodes) Anthea Ridley (Arnold Ridley’s wife, as extra in Never Too Old), Suzanne Kerchiss (Ian Lavender’s then wife, as Ivy in My British Buddy) and Marion Pertwee (Bill Pertwee’s wife, as extra in Never Too Old). Most of the wives also appeared in the 1970 Christmas Night With The Stars episode The Choir Practise, as the ladies that Hodges brought along.