My grandfather taught army recruits bayonet fighting in the First World War, so perhaps it was only natural that my father and his two brothers would volunteer to join the Territorial Army Queen’s Westminsters – later to be amalgamated in 1937 with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, my father – much to his chagrin – was deemed too old at 38 for combat, and was given a desk job as a Captain with the Royal Army Pay Corps. Not so for his younger brother George who ultimately saw warfare throughout Egypt, Italy and Greece and who compiled the diaries and journals that were to comprise the book I put together: A Stretcher Bearer from El Alamein to Greece. The Diary of George Hopper, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 1940-45.
George had no desire for responsibility and managed to stay a mere Rifleman somehow – no mean feat considering his seniority during six years of wartime service. For more than 50 years, the journals that he wrote and illustrated describing these momentous times remained with my younger brother Jim – George’s godson. It took two years to put together the journals, which included his more than 50 drawings. The further I progressed with the project, the more convinced I became that the journals and accompanying illustrations were indeed an exceptional historic account that should be published.
George writes of daily life as a Rifleman during the war years and of the horrendous battle at El Alamein; the grim warfare in Italy at the Battle of Monte Cassino; and the brutal civil war in Greece. His many keen observations of life on the troopships as well as in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Israel, and of the suffering of civilian populations make for fascinating reading. These historic recollections record the tumultuous times and the vast destruction inflicted on humanity which still linger.
Here is the story of one man thrown into the turmoil of a world at war and of the suffering that went with it. Finally, after four years overseas, George recounts the joy of seeing again the White Cliffs of England. Given a suit, shirt, shoes and a rail ticket, a week later he is back behind the counter as a teller in the Midland Bank.
Unfortunately for him and for so many like him, the memories didn’t end. George lived with our family for many years but could never forget the horrors of his experiences as a Stretcher Bearer and the frequent nightmares that accompanied it. But, throughout the journals, one always feels the kindness and the sense of humor that never left him. George was indeed a member of “The Greatest Generation”.
‘In his khaki shirt and shorts and with his curly blonde hair, he looked so much like a little boy. One leg was blown off at the knee leaving a ragged brown stump. He was lying on his stomach, his head resting in his arms and it was just as if in his agony and his loneliness he had just turned over and died.’ Excerpt … El Alamein, 26 October, 1942.
George Hopper, ex-bank clerk and now Rifleman with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, begins his superbly illustrated diary in May 1940 by telling of the early frustrations of military life. Eventually deployed to Egypt, George vividly recounts the horrendous conditions in the troopships and of Montgomery’s epic 8th Army battle with Rommel at El Alamein. As a stretcher bearer in the midst of the most violent warfare, his terrible and gruesome experiences resulted in the nightmares that were to stay with him for the remainder of his life.
After journeying though Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel the regiment finally departed from Alexandria in Egypt to take part in the invasion of Italy. Here he recounts the bitter fighting that took place in the cold and mountainous areas around the infamous Monastery at Cassino, as the Nazis with backs against the wall made their last stand. Victory finally came, but at an appalling cost in Allied lives.
Ultimately deployed to the Military Mission to Greece, George experienced and wrote of the intense and treacherous civil warfare that took place after the Nazis departed as the Communists tried to take over Greece from the British supported Nationalists. This was the beginning of the lengthy and disastrous Greek Civil War and led to what eventually became known as the ‘Cold War’ with Russia.
Masterfully written and illustrated, this is an epic story of one man thrown into the battlefields of Egypt, Italy and Greece. From the Battle of Britain to El Alamein, to the invasion of Italy and the Greek Civil War, this is a historic account, both gripping and compassionate, of a world at war.