“We burned secret files the enemy could use”

George “Bob” Howes recalls his time as shorthand writer to Lt General Charles Allfrey, V Corps in the British Army.

Although I’ve just turned 100, I remember my time in the Armed Forces like it was yesterday. Before the war, I was working as a civil servant in the Post Office. When I was called up in 1939, I became a clerk at V Corps headquarters near Salisbury.

I was chosen to learn shorthand because I’d been a teleprinter operator as a civilian, so I was already a pretty good touch-typist. We were taught everything that the officers might say, including the language and abbreviations they would use, and it was a wonderful education.

V Corps was actually operational at this time because it was responsible for the defence of Hampshire and Dorset, but the Americans came and took over from us and we were sent to North Africa.

Arriving in Algiers

I remember arriving in Algiers. We were marching along and I was completely overloaded because I had one haversack on my back, another at the front, a water bottle and gas mask, the Bren gun, two loads of bullets for it and ammunition for my rifle.

I was struggling along when this Captain saw me, and he made a young Lieutenant carry some of my stuff!

George “Bob” Howes holds his cake for his 100th birthday.

George “Bob” Howes holds his cake for his 100th birthday.

I worked with another shorthand writer and we were both sworn to secrecy. The Corps Commander (General Allfrey) had his mobile office in one lorry, and he had another lorry which was his sleeping quarters. We would go on alternate mornings to his sleeping lorry and he’d dictate to us for his private diary. We typed it up and put it in a locked box, before burning our shorthand notes.

“We were given the task of burning every single bit of paper.”

Two of us were kept behind in Algiers when the others went to Italy because there were so many secret papers that might be of use to the enemy. They were locked up in a big concrete container with no windows and a heavy door.

We were given the task of burning every single bit of paper and it took us about a fortnight to do the lot of them.

Seeing action in Italy

After Algiers, we advanced pretty quickly through southern Italy. Then we got to very mountainous terrain with deep rivers. When it rained the rivers would swell rapidly.

I think the scariest occasion was when we were crossing the River Sangro on floating rafts. A few troops had gone across to establish a Brigade HQ on the far side, but then, out of season, the rains poured down. The river rose to an absolute torrent and communications across it became impossible.

The medals and stripes that he received next to a photo of himself at the time.

We got in touch with the Navy which brought a destroyer up the coast to the mouth of the river. They were able to establish communications with the HQ and get supplies to them. Eventually we got the rest of the troops across the Sangro.

Most of the time we didn’t see much action as we were behind the troops, but as the war progressed we were in the front more.

“The General would be in a tank with the gun taken off, I’d be in a jeep with a driver and a signaller.”

The Corps Commander would get to a position, if he could, where he could see the actual battle going on. On those occasions he would have a shorthand writer and a signal man with him to tap back what he wanted to tell the headquarters.

The General would be in a tank with the gun taken off, I’d be in a jeep with a driver and a signaller. It was tremendously interesting work. Your typing had to be absolutely perfect.

The operation orders were all numbered and then dispatched to the troops under command. They had to acknowledge them, because if one wasn’t received, it could spell disaster.

“We’d formed a concert party and we put on a show… my act was that I used to do my silly monologues.”

When it rained in Italy and we couldn’t move the tanks, we’d sit tight in a village for a while. I remember one where we put up a stage in an enormous barn, and got some blankets up and made some curtains.

George "Bob" Howes wearing his medals.

We’d formed a concert party and we put on a show with little acts; there was Tommy Padmore (he was the map sergeant) who had his band, and there’d be singing, and a violinist and a very good conjurer.

My act was that I used to do my silly monologues. They seemed to go down pretty well but I don’t know if the Italian villagers understood the jokes!

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