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”.