FIRST PERSON: Party leader of the Welsh Independent Group. Gary Witcombe, 76, from Monmouth, talks to Kath Skellon about growing up in the Valleys, life on the railways and active service in Malaya.
6:02pm Wednesday 23rd October 2013 in News
HE HAS seen active service in The Far East, fired the Queen's engine and is the party leader of the Welsh Independent Group. Gary Witcombe, 76, talks to KATH SKELLON about growing up in the Valleys and life on the railways.
"I’ve always said if you can survive two years in the Malayan jungle as a soldier you can get through anything.
I was there for more than two years as a 17-year-old soldier serving with the 24th Regiment The South Wales Borderers. It was terrifying. We faced foot rot, slept in hammocks over the swamps and trained in jungle warfare.
I’d had 12 weeks training at the barracks in Brecon to Dering Lines before sailing to Malaya from Plymouth on the Dilwara in 1955. It took us four weeks to get to Singapore, stopping along the way to pick up and drop soldiers off.
It was such a big ship, carrying 3,000 people and equipment. All the Welsh regiments were sent there between 1946 and 1961.
I remember travelling up the Suez canal was a nightmare. We had to go very slowly and be guided through. We docked in Singapore and soon after arriving at our barracks the 3” Mortar platoon was put through jungle warfare training in Nisoon. It took us five weeks to acclimatise in the heat and we did not have the luxury of suncream back then.You were only allowed to take your jacket off once a day for half an hour.
Our first time in the jungle took us through the rubber plantation, where no one had been before us. The sound of the creatures at night was terrifying. We slept on groundsheets on the floor but had to contend with red ants and fireflies.
We were not only fighting communists but the jungle creatures.
After six days I looked at my foot and as I pulled my toes apart I could see all red, skin hanging off them. I had foot rot and had to use foot powder and wear flip flops for a week.
People did not realise where we were getting our from. We would fill up our water bottles with swamp water and put two tablets in that kill everything and would be in the jungle for up to eight days at a time.
We always had a 24 hour ration pack and after that the signaller would signal for more supplies to be dropped from a helicopter.
From Nisoon on the border we went to Kluang where we patrolled the rubber plantations. When we came back we would be guarding gates to the village.
The Malays were marvellous people.
We slept eight to a tent and spent around ten months there.
It was here that a group of communists surrendered to us.
We moved to Segmat with the Gurkha regiment-a place well into Malaya where a lot of the action and then to Seralang Barracks, Singapore where I stayed for the rest of our tour of duty.
We were in the jungle walking through the swamps with 20ft water snakes and mosquitoes. We used the hammocks in the swamps which I didn’t like as you couldn’t get to sleep because you thought you would fall out of it and into the swamp.
I remember sinking up to my shoulders. I lifted my machine gun up and the others lifted me out. A mate of mine, a rugby player was in front of me and got caught in a nest of red ants. You were not allowed to make a noise for fear the enemy would hear you so I covered his mouth whilst we were killing the ants. A helicopter was sent for and he was taken to hospital where he spent a few weeks recovering.
I was later put on the demonstration section, demonstrating new weapons for the boys coming over.
You had a job to do and you just did it. I enjoyed every minute of it there.
I was pretty shy when I joined the army but came out at 20 as a man.
I was one of eight children and born at Cherry Tree Cottage in Lower Stoney Road, Garndiffaith to my mother Elsie and father Harry who was a miner.
We were a big family and in 1966 my cousin Hazil Gulliford wrote to a national newspaper, claiming my grandmother~Bertha Gulliford of Victoria Village had the record with eleven children, 60 grandchildren, 128 great grandchildren and two great grandchildren amounting to 201in the family.
I was born just before the war started when times were hard. We had no electric, just paraffin lamps and an outside toilet. We lived in two rooms in a cottage that were transformed into five big bedrooms.
When I was two we moved into a new council house in Six Hill Rise, Victoria Village which was bigger and had electric and a bathroom.
It was there that in 1941 the Germans dropped the first and only bomb on Abersychan about half a mile away. I was four at the time and remember the whole place shuddering and my mother picking me up.
When I was old enough I had a paper round that earned me six shillings and six pence a week. I started worked on the farms nearby whilst going to Victoria Village School and later Abersychan Modern Secondary. At Cordy’s Farm, Cwmavon I would be milking cows at 6am in the morning before school and sometimes going back afterwards, earning about ten shillings a week which was a lot of money. I would be given fresh eggs, cheese and milk, and bacon and ham from the pigs.
On the weekends I did various jobs throughout the day but everyone had to do their share as it was such a big family.
I was eight when the war finished but had a very happy childhood. We were never in the house, even when it was raining.
When I was 12 I worked in a bakery on Viaduct Road and got to take home any spare bread I wanted at the end of the day, whilst still doing the paper round.
I finished school at 15 and decided to work on the British Railway at Pontypool Road cleaning the engines. This was where I was taught to be a steam engine fireman.
I had the chance to work in London at Old Oak Common for ten months and lived in a hostel whilst working for the railway. There was no such thing as an eight-hour day, we worked 12 hours as a fireman on the steam engine.
My job was to fire the engine, using a shovel and coal and the money was good.
I would be on King’s, Castle’s and Britannia Class taking empty coaches from Willesden to Paddington and on one occasion fired the Queen’s engine. I had to pull a big brass bell in the front and everyone at Paddington came rushing to see the engine.
I came back to Pontypool and sadly lost my father which was very hard for us all.
I was back at Pontypool Road and I enjoyed my teenage years. I remember I wore a Teddy Boy suit and bought my first motorbike. I loved American Rock n Roll and would go to dances in Blaenavon, Varteg and St Alban’s.
At seventeen I decided to join the army and thoroughly enjoyed it despite having to do 12-mile road runs in shorts and a vest in the winter in Brecon. Discipline was no stranger to me because we got disciplined by our parents. After my training I was on the coal wagon delivering coal to the married quarters in Dering Lines and when the battalion came home I was allocated to 3”the Mortar Platoon and was then sent to Malaya in 1955.
When my tour came to an end I returned home. My mother had by then moved to Trevethin.
I went to work as a fire man on the railway again but could not get used to it and ten months later was back in the army in 1959. I met wife Rosemary in Monmouth whilst visiting a friend who I was stationed in Malaya with and we married at Pontypool Registry on June 15 in 1959, a week before I was posted to Germany where I stayed for almost three years and patrolled The Berlin Wall and became acting orderly sergeant getting 120 soldiers on parade and handing them over to the sergeant.
I left the army and held several jobs including as a welder, heavy goods driver and self-employed painter and decorator.
I have been branch secretary of the Transport and General Worker’s Union and was shop steward of National Union Of Public Employees.
I sat on various committees with Monmouthshire Housing Association and am the leader of the Welsh Independent Party and chief executive of the Welsh electors community group, was branch chairman for UKIP for Monmouthshire and Torfaen.
I moved to Monmouth in 1961 and was Town councillor for eight years between 1999 and 2007, representing Wyesham.
I really enjoyed my role as councillor and have always been interested in politics. I’ve had a busy and great life, having had four children, 12 grandchildren and six great grandchildren."
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