Making History, Tony Kemmery’s Story Continued
Interview by Carole Rowe
Last month’s account narrated Tony’s experiences as a D-Day veteran. Demobilisation began a month after Germany’s surrender in May 1945; hoping his war was over, Tony looked forward to returning to Civvy Street. This was not to be. Instead, still a member of the RAMC, he was deployed to the British Mandate of Palestine, placing him yet again into the front line. By 1945, British rule in Palestine was becoming critically unstable. The Jewish goal of establishing a nation state was being pursued with ever-increasing militancy and violence.
At first based at Netanya (Camp 21), an Arab farming village, he was soon transferred to work in the dispensary of the 16th General Hospital in Jerusalem – ‘a wonderful position’ (his description) near the Mount of Olives. After a year, his senior manager was demobbed and Tony was the intended replacement, but he needed to obtain the Army Dispensary Qualification. Acquiring this involved a “searching” interview – with questions that conveniently avoided anything he didn’t know – and a formally invigilated written examination, which he completed in only 30 minutes! Needless to say, he passed and went on to manage the dispensary, promoted to staff sergeant, for the next 18 months.
During disturbances, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel, July 1946, which he witnessed from a dispensary window, he was confined to barracks. In more peaceful periods, the Army became a tour operator, organising sight-seeing trips for military personnel. Tony visited Nazareth, swam in the Dead Sea, explored a Crusader castle. He spent Christmas in Bethlehem and had two weeks leave in Beirut. He was left with many impressions, recalled with both affection and sadness. Smiling, he described seeing village houses built out of empty British petrol cans; recounting his arrival in Gaza, he paused in our conversation to remark, quietly, “Then it was a small Arabic town; now it is at the centre of things.”
At last, his demob date came through – March ’47. The Army wished to retain him as dispensary manager and offered promotion to warrant officer, if he agreed to sign on for a year. Tony, feeling this would be too long, refused and left for home.
The return trip proved quite eventful. Due to sail from Port Said, he learned that his troop ship had broken down, leaving him stranded, with very little local money. Finally, he sailed for Britain, which was enduring the savage winter of ’46-’47. Approaching Liverpool, he was shocked to see the north Wales coast white with snow and regretted turning down the offer of buying his Army greatcoat for a pound – but, as he said, ‘a pound was a pound.’ Officially demobbed at York, he took the night train to Bristol, which became marooned in snowdrifts in the Midlands, without light and bitterly cold, for six hours!
Tony had clearly experienced much during his military career. He had enjoyed seeing so much of the world (especially the Middle East) and valued the companionship he found – up to 20 years ago there were regular reunions of his comrades. Tending to the wounded was inevitably harrowing, but he said, ‘You get used to it.’ Sometimes, seeming tragedy was averted: during the Rhine landings (1944) a glider carrying soldiers from the Anti-Tank Regiment landed off-target and careered through a narrow village street, its wooden wings torn off by the impact. Tony feared finding dead or seriously-wounded casualties in the fuselage, but its occupants were completely unscathed!
Sadly, some events took a darker, unexpected turn. In 1945, while unloading a jeep and trailer from their glider, Tony and his companion, a corporal, came under fire from the German Home Guard. The corporal was wounded, although not apparently seriously. He was stretchered, with Tony’s help, to a casualty clearing station. Two months later, with sadness, Tony learned that his comrade had died in hospital.
In total, over 6 million British men and women served in the Armed Forces between 1939 and the establishment of Israel in 1948. Each of their accounts is unique; as such, it is a privilege to have had the opportunity to record Tony Kemmery’s story.