From Burma with love - Basil and Madge's story

From bums in Burma to opera in Durban, two veterans reminisce on how the Second World War brought them together.

Basil and Madge grew up 80 miles away from each other, but it took a 5,000 mile trip to the Far East during the Second World War for them to meet.

“We would never have met if we hadn’t gone out there.” Madge

They’ve been married for nearly 68 years now, and are full of wonderful stories of the adventures they’ve been on.

Madge grew up in Dover with two younger sisters. During the Second World War she became a Nurse at Stoke Mandeville Nursing Hospital.

When Lord Mountbatten called for international nurses, Madge volunteered. At first she was rejected because she wasn’t 21. But then Madge received a notice calling her up for Service in India. She telephoned them and said: “There’s been some mistake, I’m not 21 yet”. They replied: “You will be by the time you get out there”.

So Madge had her 21st birthday while travelling across the Bay of Biscay, en route to India.

“I don’t recognise bums” Madge

When she arrived in Chittagong, one of her duties as a nurse was to administer penicillin injections for the Indian soldiers who had contracted venereal disease. She wasn’t allowed into the ward for this, so had to stand by the door with her medical equipment and inject each bottom that was presented.

However, Madge ran out of injections before she ran out of bottoms. Some of the soldiers had rejoined at the back of the line as they thought that more medicine meant they’d be cured quicker. When Madge told the Matron, she got a telling off for letting the soldiers get away with this trick. But, as she protested at the time, she couldn’t recognise a man by his bum.

Basil grew up in Woking, the fourth of six children. When the Second World War broke out Basil and his younger brother Brian decided that they wouldn’t wait for conscription, they’d volunteer.

At the recruiting station Basil was accepted but Brian was told he was too young, being sixteen months younger than Basil. So they went to a different recruiting station, and Basil’s brother gave his age as a year older. This made him only four months younger than Basil but the War Office didn’t pick up on the impossibility of two brothers so close in age.

It wasn’t until they were given commissions in the Indian Army that it was figured out, but by then Brian was old enough.

The memory of travelling out to Burma is still clear in Basil’s memory, particularly when they arrived in Durban.

As they sailed into the port there was an operatic singer standing on the jetty in white, singing Land of Hope and Glory and other patriotic songs through a megaphone. 

“It was amazing. It was wonderful, it really was.”

As Basil tells this story his voice breaks slightly, the memory is still as vivid and affecting for him as when it happened 73 years ago.

The singer was Perla Siedle Gibson, who became famous as the Lady in White, singing every Allied ship in and out of Durban from 1940. By the end of the war she had sung to over 1,300 ships, including those carrying her husband and her son.

Basil and Madge first met in Chittagong in 1944. He didn’t make the best first impression. She wanted to write home and needed some stamps. Her friend Mack had some in his room so they went to get them.

“I go down to Mack’s room, and there’s this man sitting there with his feet up on a stool, reading. He glances up, puts his feet down so I can get through and then he carries on reading.

“When I got outside I said to Mack: ‘Who does he think he is?’.”

Madge definitely made a good impression on Basil though. The next day he sent her a message saying ‘I’ll pick you up at eight o'clock'.

“I liked Madge from the moment I first saw her, and the following evening I fell in love with her.”

“She had then, and still has, a lovely attractive personality with a charming manner and smile. She has always found it easy to mix and converse in any gathering."

For their first date they went to a small cinema in Chittagong. From then until Basil left a few months later, they only saw each other occasionally  perhaps a couple of times a month.

The distance between their two camps was only 400 yards, but the only access was along a narrow path through the jungle. They used to steal away for an hour or two to see each other, meeting at a small hillock along the path.

Communication was difficult once Basil left for Rangoon, and one day he asked his friends in signals if they could arrange a way to speak to Madge on the phone. They said 'leave it with us', and with their knowledge Basil was able to get through to Chittagong. This was no mean feat considering they had to send the call via Imphal over 1,000 miles of military signals. They only got to speak for a minute or so, but it’s a treasured memory for both of them.

At the end of the war, Basil was deployed to Saigon as part of the Allied troops managing the port. He didn’t return to England until 1947.

When asked to name the most romantic thing Basil has ever done for her, Madge replies: “Well, he came home. He came home and we were able to meet again.”

Basil has a different opinion, remembering one weekend when Madge came to stay with him and his family. She was staying in a small guest room, reading before bed, when he knocked on the door.

He came in and took out a small black bag with three diamonds in it and said: “Would you do me the honour of marrying me?" and without hesitating Madge replied yes.

He’d got the diamonds from Hatton Garden, and the reason he hadn’t had them made into a ring was because he wanted to get it done in the style that Madge wanted.

They were married in 1948, and Madge presented Basil with two lovely daughters, Carolyn in 1951 and Angela in 1953. Carolyn would go on to become a freelance hairdresser, whilst Angela became a restaurateur with her husband. Family has always been important to them both, as can be seen in the pride Basil shows when he talks about his two daughters.

After the Second World War Madge was approached by the NHS to help with the immunisation program in schools just as polio reared its ugly head.

Basil joined a newspaper company in Fleet Street where he remained until he took early retirement in 1985. He then joined joined an anti-fraud company until his final retirement.

Basil is a passionate rugby fan, and in 1988 he was invited by the Harlequin rugby club to change their manual administration records into a wholly computerised system. Something he achieved with the help of Madge and his daughter Angela.

In all this time the flame of their love has kept burning bright.

As Basil says: “Although we were devoted to each other problems arose, as with most families, and had to be discussed and put right. In all this time Madge has put the children and me first, never thinking about herself – a wonderful wife and mother”.

“We have now become nonagenarians and are looking forward to our 68th wedding anniversary this coming October.”

A special dance for Remembrance Sunday

Basil and Madge were invited onto Strictly Come Dancing for their tribute to Remembrance Sunday. Professional dancers  AJ Pritchard and Chloe Hewitt were the lead dancers, showing how Basil and Madge met and how they were re-united after the Second World War. Their heart-warming story touched the viewers, and Basil and Madge were given a warm reception.

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