Saturday, July 17, 2010

World War Two, Malta, and my Ilfracombe Supposition

The internet is certainly a wonderful thing! If one wants to know about paymasters in the Royal Army Pay Corps during the Second World War, just tweak the search terms, and continue to do so, until the information bubbles up to the top!

Here's another memoir from the BBC's archive, "WW2 People's War," this one written by Leonard Francis Cuthbert Knight (1912 — 1991, pictured, left), who began in the Pay Corps on 5 November 1940 at the age of 27, less than a month after George Mills had returned to the service as a paymaster himself.

Enough of me telling the story, however! Here are L. F. C. Knight's own words:

"I had reached the age of 27 when hostilities commenced, a clerk at the Birmingham Electric Supply Department. The future in the expanding business looked good but prospects were denied over the war period, which lasted until demobilisation in 1946, at my age of 33. A fresh start had to be made.
Many of our staff were members of the Territorial Army. These were immediately posted to the Forces. Although a no volunteering rule was imposed several left for the R.A.F. Official requests for R.A.O.C personnel resulted in several departing for that branch of the forces. With myself working on civilian pay duties the R.A.P.C. (Royal Army Pay Corps) became my destination.
From the 5th Nov 1940 for over five years I was a member of the Armed Forces. Shrewsbury was the first depot, where a detachment of the R.A.P.C. was stationed. It was real November weather, bleak and dreary, with the town almost surrounded by floods from the swollen River Severn. In keeping with the weather it was personally a dreary time with several inoculations and vaccinations which did not help. We were billeted with civilian families, myself with a household near to the Abbey Church, containing husband, wife and young children. His trade was that of a farm wagon maker. The skill of his craft was displayed by an example on his premises. Farm wagons have ever since gone up in my estimation for I learnt of the skill which went into their construction.

For a while acclimatization to the new conditions became the main concern. I remember our first assembly in civilian clothes, a motley crowd with cardboard boxes containing our gas masks. We sat at long tables for our first meal, the majority wearing spectacles, one humorist remarking that we looked more like an opticians re-union than an Army intake. Those responsible seemed to be at a loss to know what to do with us and found all sorts of odds and ends to occupy our time. We went around clearing up litter and marched around suburbs to fill in time. Visits to stores were made, where civilian clothes were replaced by Army Uniform. Little did we know this was to be our everyday wear for many years. Very little Pay Office work was done in those first weeks. Lectures and so on were attended. After duty we had opportunity to get to know Shrewsbury, a fascinating small provincial town. After about six weeks we were considered fit and attuned for more serious and useful duties. We were then dispersed to those Pay Offices rapidly expanding and needing more personnel."

From this, we can gather that the closer one was assigned to Leicester, the more difficult the initial training and workload. Yesterday, we learned that an unnamed recruit in Leicester worked 9 am to 7 pm every day except Sunday [when the office closed at 4] in 1939.

We don't know where Mills was assigned for his initial RAPC training, but perhaps Knight's experiences can be instructive. Here is an excerpt about how he spent his time after a transfer to Ilfracombe:

"Wives could live with their husbands and several including myself enjoyed this occasion. Our honeymoon, the 17th Jan 1941 was at Ilfracombe whilst a member of the Pay Corps. We travelled down from Birmingham in complete pitch dark conditions by rail and on arriving at Ilfracombe were greeted by the sight of the monster fires from enemy air raids across the Bristol channel in South Wales. I was at first billeted with about fifteen others in a terraced house off High Street which in peace time was a smaller type of guest house. Newcomers were always allocated to the front bedroom down. I thought this excellent until I found it was an arrangement to answer the front door to let in others any time up to well after midnight…

As better weather conditions approached on off duty occasions we enjoyed a Spring time in Devon, walking many miles in the surrounding valleys and exploring the sea coast, together with my wife who had joined me in Ilfracombe lodgings. "

In the text, Knight mentions family members visiting, taking taxis from Exeter to Ilfracombe. George Mills certainly had Acland kin in Devon, both in Exmoor and southern Devon, near Broad Clyst, as it was primarily Acland land.

We also found out that a telephone listing for a "Mrs G Mills" does crop up in the "Portsmouth / Southampton / Bournemouth / Exeter / Plymouth / Taunton / Bristol / Gloucester / South Wales (East) / Swansea" telephone directory in February 1941, bearing a number in the Credition exchange [Crediton 112]. Crediton is seemingly a stone's throw from Broad Clyst, and just about 35 miles south of Ilfracombe.

Had George Mills been originally stationed in south Devon and transferred to Ilfracombe [as Knight had been transferred from Shrewsbury], Vera would likely have followed him north to the sea, near Exmoor, since accommodations for men with wives were clearly being made available.

A quick check of Google Maps shows Ilfracombe being slightly west of the lands of Exmoor—and Exmoor is the location of the death of George's wife, Vera Mills, in January 1942. We don't know any of the circumstances of her passing. She may have been ill. She may have been injured and passed away in a hospital later. She may have been pronounced dead at the scene of her death. Nonetheless, it must have been somewhere in that vicinity: Today's maps show Ilfracombe being located just 5 km from what is now the western tip of Exmoor National Forest.

Knight stayed at Ilfracombe until he was transferred to Reading in 1941. Presumably, Mills would have stayed in Devon since Vera Mills was still at the very least near Exmoor in January of 1942.

What happened to George afterwards and where it would have happened would be purely speculation, just as it would be as to the cause of Vera's death. Although Ilfracombe was not completely isolated from the war [pictured, left, is a Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photograph of the area, labeled "Zum Verbrauch! Mitnahme von Ausschnitten des Bildteiles zum Feindflug gestattet" ("To be used! You are allowed to take these photographs with you on raids")], the memoir of a child of that time reads:

"My father was a Baptist minister and in about 1944 my father took a church in Ilfracombe. They had virtually never heard of the war there: they had rationing of course, but no bombs. One of the mines blew up in the harbour and that was all they had of bombs."

Does she mean for the entire war, or from 1944 on? Either way, I can find no records of bombing or attacks any closer to Ilfracombe than South Wales, across the waters near the mouth of the Severn, or in Braunton [a good 10 miles to the south].

Vera's death, whether war-related or not, certainly seems to pin George Mills to the Ilfracombe area, working in the RAPC offices at the Ilfracombe Hotel and St Petroc's.

The next gap in the record of George Mills occurs between Vera's passing on 5 January 1942 and 3 November 1943, when he relinquished his commission and assumed the honorary rank of lieutenant. The bestowal of the 'honorary rank' would seem to imply that whatever circumstances of his health that caused George to leave his post during a global conflict during which England was fighting for her life, they must have been deemed sympathetic and acceptable to the brass.

What occurred in the life and career of George Mills during that 22-month span is uncertain. We do know that a young friend from Kensington, Terence Hadow, aged 21, had been killed in action during the Burma campaign against the Japanese on 18 March 1943. It's likely that a fellow as sensitive as Mills felt another metaphorical shell burst against his hull, although not nearly as devastating an impact as Vera's passing must have had on him.

L. F. C. Knight eventually embarked for the RAPC installation in Malta with a contingent of other RAPC men for the duration of the war [a photograph from his stay is pictured, right]. We know that, at some point, there were enough females to "man" RAPC offices in the British Isles, and that from 1941-1942 most males were then shipped overseas. George Mills would have been an officer, not an enlisted man, and an aging one at that, approaching 46. It's difficult to know if Mills would have been shipped abroad.

Was George Mills among those RAPC men who ended up on Malta? I can't say, but I do know that he had a cousin, Mordaunt Mills, son of George's uncle, Dudley Mills. Mordaunt, apparently a woodworking artisan who eventually opened a factory in London that produced wooden-handled cutlery, never married and apparently retired to Malta. Why Malta? Is it possible he'd heard his elder cousin's stories about the beauty of the Mediterranean on Malta, situated between the southernmost tip of Sicily and Tunisia on the North African coast? Is it possible he'd later vacationed there and decided to stay?

Is most of this evidence circumstantial? Certainly. Could much of it be dismissed as mere coincidence? Absolutely!

On the other hand, until I see possibilities that offer far more certainty, I'm disposed to pencil much of this in on my "George Mills Time Line." Well, maybe not the Malta part, but I'm sticking with the Ilfracombe supposition right now!

Do you agree or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and speculation! And for more chronological information and wonderful images of the life and adventures of L. F. C. Knight of the R.A.P.C. during the Second World War, please visit the family's website at

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