Wally was born in Urmston in 1921, and attended the local Church of England school, St. Clements. He remembers that his reports at school generally went along the lines of ‘could do better if he tried harder’. He then went to Flixton Senior school until he was 13 ½, whereupon he left with the permission of the local authority by arrangement from his father. This was to allow him to join the Archie and His Juvenile Band, as he had shown high musical ability, particularly with the piano and drums, in his music lessons. From the years of 1935 to 1938 he toured the UK and Ireland as a drummer in the band, of which his brother was also a member. At this point the band was disbanded, and Wally returned to Manchester and got a job in the bake house in Moston, learning the trade as he worked.
Wally was called up to serve in the war in May 1941. Because of his experience as a Miller, he volunteered to become a cook during his 6-week initial training period, and was assigned to the Army Catering Corps (ACC), part of the Royal Army Service Corps dedicated to cooking and providing food to keep the rest of the Army going. He remembers the training as being thoroughly professional, with the army cooks teaching him everything he needed to know as a ‘crash course’.
The Normandy Campaign
The army assigned Wally to move over to Normandy on the 30th July(D+54), and the whole thing proved to be quite a harrowing experience. The area surrounding Normandy was still very busy, with troops streaming over every day:
“Nobody could get in the South East at all. The whole south was troops, troops, troops, troops and we were in a field with thousands of more soldiers, thousands of them”
Wally was told to get into one of the trucks with only a vague idea that it was heading towards the coast. They got off at Portsmouth and were shepherded to their designated transport over the channel. Wally was told to get on a tank landing craft, and recalls that he “wasn’t very ‘appy about that” for reasons he explained later. They were ushered through a hatch-like door of the craft, and had to find a place to sit amongst numerous tanks before the door was sealed in a submarine-like fashion. Wally didn’t like this at all:
“Well when they shut that it was the only time I wanted to go ‘ome. I was absolutely terrified – being fast in. But we were all in the same boat so off goes the boat and we don’t know where the ‘ell we’re going”
The ship’s passengers had a well-received stop at the Isle of Wight before carrying on. Wally recalls that the sea was rough and he was still very nervous about the crossing, as no-one had even asked him if he could swim! For him, the expectation and anticipation was probably the worst part of the whole experience, as shown by the rest of his crossing of the channel and his first steps on French soil:
“Having the horrible feeling of being fastened in a tank landing craft and not being able to get out. If that tank landing craft had gone we’d have all gone with it. That was the most worrying moment to my life, that, but when we got to Normandy they opened the door and let us down. I was like a pigeon being let out of a cage – a breeze of fresh air. I thought; ‘God, it’s not so bad after all’. Then I had the trauma of walking for must have been, oh I don’t know how far, I walked in the pouring rain to get to advantage point where we were all put together like sheep. [We were] herded like sheep and were actually guarded and had a compound kept round us so that we couldn’t get away or do anything else like ‘op it. That was another terrible experience. We put up with that because there was a lot of laughter, not necessarily tears, a lot of sadness because of the fact we were all encircled by barbed wire. We didn’t know where we were, but we knew inevitably we were going to go up to the front line with the remainder of the soldiers but we didn’t know exactly where. The expectation, the worry of that really got on my nerves because I was terrified what was going to happen next now that we’d landed in France. Where were we going to go from here? When they opened the cage and I was posted to another regiment then I begin to feel I’d been let out of the cage. Now whatever happened to the other people left in the cage, I hate to suggest what happened – they could have been moved into a forward area and half of them not come back.”
Wally was posted from the beach at Aramanches to another unit to become their cook. He was responsible for finding his way through the huge number of troops in the area to the transport that would take him to the unit. However, he never stayed with one unit for a particularly long period of time, seemingly always being told. “Right MacKenzie, report to the Royal Army Service Corps at such and such a place”. This made it difficult for him, as it meant he was constantly being moved around and so could not build up the level of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers that they had with each other. After several such moves, he found himself with a tank transport company in the middle of Germany, one of 2 cooks for about 30 men. This saw him have the rare opportunity to cook in a real kitchen at a barracks, a luxury compared to the resources he normally had to make do with:
“You had a piece of meat about the size of an Oxo cube, so when you put it in a tin about this big, dehydrated meat, dehydrated cabbage, dehydrated potatoes, everything dehydrated!”
Still, he did the best he could with what he had available, and started to become accustomed to the war; “Sometimes it got a bit naughty when the shelling were going on but you just took it in your stride”.
Wally’s war ended in 1946, when he was near Hamburg. Once he arrived back in England and had his privilege leave, he returned to work in a local bakery shop, putting all his savings in to buy the shop itself in 1947. During this time he re-ignited his passion with music, joining a local 4-piece band as a drummer and working evenings during the week. This led to him joining a music hall at Belle Vue as a drummer. He worked his way from playing in one of the suites, to the main hall, to running his own 6-man band, and finally becoming the musical director for the whole building for 6 years. When Belle Vue closed down he toured locally with his own band, and still played with his band until his 90s..
Wally is incredibly humble about his experiences in the war. He is thankful that he got to do the job that he did, and is always complimentary about the soldiers he worked with in France, Brussels, Belgium and Holland. He admires those who had to do some horrible jobs – he talks about those responsible for locating and transporting the bodies of dead soldiers for identification and says, “my job was chicken feed compared with what they had to do”. His only regret was that he left his appendix behind in Brussels due to a bout of appendicitis! His own words best describe the quiet determination with which he faced his experiences;
“I just got on the boat with other people, afraid of what I was going to be confronted with, not knowing where I was going”.