Thursday, 26 April 2012

Mule Drivers from Rawalpindi in Llanfrothen and Nantmor

Seventy years ago, in the first week of April 1942, three trains arrived in Porthmadog from Y Fenni (Abergavenny), carrying almost a thousand men and officers and a thousand mules and horses. They were the three companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps mule transport. The muleteers were Muslims from Rawalpindi in India (now Pakistan), with a few English and Indian officers. They had come up through France in WW2 with the British Expeditionary Force and were known as the ‘Rice Corps’ – their motto ‘Heaven’s Light Our Guide’. 

At the start of the war the British Army realised they needed animal transport and India sent four companies by boat to Marseilles at short notice. Company 22 was captured by the Germans, companies 25, 29 and 32 were evacuated at Dunkirk and had to leave their animals behind.  First they were in Cornwall, then in Y Fenni and for three months in 1942 they were in Llanfrothen and Nantmor doing mountain warfare training. Company 32 was camped on the Gwernydd in Llanfrothen and companies 25 and 29 around Dolfriog in Nantmor. New mules were imported from the USA and horses for the officers were collected from here and there. From north Wales they went on to Scotland and in 1944 they were repatriated and went on to fight in Burma.

Edgar Parry Williams from Croesor, aged ten at the time, remembers them well. ‘We had never seen a coloured face before and we were very interested in these strange men in turbans. They didn’t speak much English and neither did we. They seemed very gentle and civilised and rather sad. They would come past, along the Roman Road, with strings of mules three abreast, taking an hour and a half to pass.’

William Morris Roberts and Annie Roberts of Ty Capel
Nantmor in the garden of Castle Cottage Penrhyndeudraeth
Dilys Rees’s (nee Jones) father farmed Dolfriog for Mr Priestley.  She remembers the Indians’ camp and the mules lined up, looking over a wall.  Her mother used to trade eggs for sultanas with the Indians, who also gave sultanas out to the children. Dilys remembers walking through the camp, quite unafraid, with a rice pudding her mother had made for a Mrs Wade who lived in the ‘Stablau’ at Dolfriog. The camp took up so much land that there was no land left to farm and Dilys’s family had to move to another farm. She remembers the 6am ‘call to prayer’ and the big prayer tent. A bugle was blown several times a day when the animals had to be fed and watered. The late Jos Williams of Gardd Llygad y Dydd in Nantmor who was 25 years old in 1942, remembered the beautiful horses the English officers rode. One of the Indians taught him how to ‘cold’ shoe a horse which he did like that for ever after.  Several people remember Malik Mohamed Khan, a highly intelligent man, an Indian officer (maybe a vet) who rode a white horse at the head of the troop.

‘Standings’ were built for the animals by local farmers before K Force (as the company was called) arrived.  The manure was carted away by the farmers whose land they were on and the food swill from the camps went to feed pigs in Tremadog. Every Sunday sheep were killed for the camps at the supply depot at Trawsfynydd. Local people remembered the ‘chapattis’ the Indians cooked. Marian Roberts, whose father was a baker in Penrhyndeudraeth, remembers her parents were friendly with some of the men and would invite them in. One day her parents were at the cinema and Marian, aged ten, and her aunt, aged twenty one, invited two of the men in for tea and gave them an egg each (eggs were scarce!). ‘There was a massive row when my parents got back from the cinema!’ said Marion ‘for inviting them in!’

 Indian vet paints child's throat! 
She also remembers once coming out of the cinema when it was pouring with rain. She and her friend walked home under the capes of two Indians (who always walked in single file) holding on to their waists! She still has the autograph of one of them ‘NOWAB KHAN 180697’, carefully printed and then written in his own Indian script. He was 19 years old. The men had been taught to write their name and number in case they were captured by the Germans. Nowab Khan said to Marian one day ‘You come India – I buy you silks’! Marian said children got on very well with the Indians, neither group could speak much English and that seemed to make a rapport between them.

John Griffith, Penrhyndeudraeth, who lived opposite the present garden centre in Tremadog in 1942, remembers going for walks with his mother and sister when he was about three and the Indians coming along the road with their mules pulling carts. The family had to get over a wall to be safe from the carts which had no brakes. Elspeth Parry, Penrhyndeudraeth, still has a photo of her grandparents William Morris Roberts and wife Annie (with dog) of Castle Cottage, Penrhyndeudraeth with one of the Indians.

Betty Evans, daughter of Hugh and Sarah Griffiths of Penrhyndeudraeth, said she suffered a lot as a child from tonsilitis – she remembers one of the Indian vets painting her throat to treat it! 

For the local children the Indians were of constant interest but not so for the local farmers. The mules and horses would ride through growing crops and hayfields and the mules would batter down walls. When the farmers complained they were told ‘There is a war on’. It is true that they did get compensation later on but had to build up the boundary walls again. Then over a couple of days in the middle of July 1942, after only three and a half months, the Indians were gone.  Edgar Parry Williams says ‘The valley seemed suddenly very quiet’. But the memories remain for many people.

Many thanks to everyone who told me their stories of the Indians. Giovanna Bloor, Cae Glas, Croesor. March 2012.

Paddy Ashdown's father, John, was an Indian Army officer in the 14th Punjab Regiment and the Indian Army Service Corps. During the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, John Ashdown ignored an order to abandon the Indian troops under his command, instead leading them to the port and on to one of the last ships to leave, without losing a single man. Although court martialled for disobeying orders, he was exonerated, and by the end of the War had risen to the rank of colonel. I think this story will be part of the new Channel 5 series War Hero in My Family - Paddy Ashdown is in episode 3 (15th May). 

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