Second World War veteran of the Burma campaign, keen wartime photographer, and, later a beneficiary of SSAFA.

Not for use on social media.

Second World War veteran Dennis served for four years in India, Burma and Malaya. A keen amateur photographer, he was one of the few British soldiers to bring home personal pictures from the war in Asia. At 98, with help from SSAFA, he remained living in his own home and looked back on his wartime experiences with us.

Dennis has since passed away. This story is shared, with thanks to his family, in memoriam of him.

Before he joined the Army in 1943, Dennis was already playing his part in the war effort as a bicycle messenger boy.

“When the air raid sirens went, I had to report to the warden's post,” he remembers. “As a standby, in case normal communications were broken.”

At 18, he was called up. “They gave me a psychological test and said I could join any corps I wanted to. So, I volunteered for the Royal Corps of Signals,” he says. “First, I went to Prestatyn in North Wales, where we learnt about the Army. Our sergeant was called Sergeant Gentle, which he was not!”

Next, Dennis went to the Signals Training Centre in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield, where Dennis met his future wife Joan, at a Saturday night dance on the base.

“We knocked about together and when I joined up, she worked in the railway offices,” he says. “Then, much to the disgust of her boss, she also joined up. He told her she mustn't, but she did. She joined the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) and that was it!”

Soon, Dennis was sent to a reinforcement camp in Norfolk. Then, before dawn one icy February morning, the new recruits were marched to a lonely rail halt.

“We were put on a train and went through the night,” Dennis recalls. “We stopped in tunnels on the way because of air raids, so the Luftwaffe wouldn’t see the engine, and finished up at Liverpool.”

We thought we were going to America!

At Liverpool docks, they boarded a pre-war cruise liner called the SS Orontes and sailed to Glasgow, where they joined one of the first convoys to go through the Mediterranean after the Allies recaptured North Africa, headed for the Far East.

“We thought we were going to America at first!” he says. “Instead, we hit Africa halfway down, came up the coast and crept through Gibraltar. We went that way that way to dodge the German submarines lying in wait in the Bay of Biscay.

“We went through the Suez Canal. The ship was so big its keel scraped the bottom! Then we had to dodge the Japanese submarines at the other end of the Suez. As many as one in three ships had been lost there. We had some air raid scares, but we arrived in Bombay and went to a place called Mhow where we learnt all about the Indian way of life and acclimatised to the heat.

“Then I went to Northern Burma (now Myanmar), the war zone where the Japanese had just launched their offensive to invade India via Imphal and Kohima. In Assam, where the tea plantations are.

“The Japanese were up in Imphal, and they were coming down to try and capture Dimapur, which was a supply depot, because all their stuff had to come up from Rangoon through Burma. They wanted to shorten their supply line, so they thought, 'We'll just pass Kohima. That won't be anything.'"

It was the big battle of Kohima.

“But they never got past there. It was the big battle of Kohima. The British beat them and pushed them up to Imphal. We were not front line trained, so we didn’t join the relief column and were left holding the base at Dimapur.

“Soon after Imphal was cleared, we had to set up a signal centre to take the information out of Burma and send it round the world.

“Supplies to the forces at the front had to be transported along a treacherous road cut into the sides of the mountain. When the monsoon broke, rocks came down in the rains and took this road away, so they had to dig another road round the back to get past it. Quite a few of these Indian drivers, you know, went over the edge. It was almost a daily occurrence and there was little chance of survival.

“I was attached to an artillery regiment, and I was the Commander’s own personal wireless operator. We used to ride in the back of a jeep and had to go out spotting for the artillery, 'Up 200 yards,' that sort of thing.

Dennis once found himself stranded in no-man’s land overnight.

You shouldn't be there, it's no-man's land!

“The second-in-command, he was mad. He used to take us all over the place. We were at this little camp, and we went out to visit other units in the regiment,” Dennis says. “We were out nearly all day and radioed from this place, and they said, 'Oh, you shouldn't be there, it's in no-man's land now!' So, we had to bunker down for the night and keep quiet, and in the morning, we just dashed back again!”

“Then they flew me right into the middle of Burma, a place called Meiktila,” says Dennis.

“At that time, a lot of Japanese Indian Forces had been captured. These were Indians that had joined the Japanese to fight against the British. We had to fly them down to the coast to take them into custody in POW camps in India.

‘We had a plane full of these Indians to guard, 30 of them, just me and a Scottish fellow, Jock Nicol, with our .303 rifles in a Dakota! But luckily, they were all scared of flying, so they were no problem!”

While he was in Burma, Dennis regularly wrote to his sweetheart Joan, who was by then serving with the WAAF and stationed at RAF Pocklington, Yorkshire.

She waited for me.

“I didn’t see her for two years. But I was lucky. There was a lottery for leave. We had a raffle, and I got a chance to came home for a month,” he recalls. “She waited for me, which was something. I mean, she was in with the parachutists, all the glamour boys!

As Japanese forces were pushed down into Burma, British flying columns (small, highly mobile military units) were sent to cut the road south of Mandalay and ambush Japanese escaping the city.

“We formed up and dashed down towards Rangoon,” Dennis recalls. “If we came into any opposition, we went round them and let the infantry sort them out. We went right down, until we got down to a town called Phyu.”

As they pushed south, they found Japanese troops dug in, in strongly defended villages.

“They had block houses made of tree trunks with just a slit in it. Ordinary fire wouldn't do it, so we used artillery pieces to blow them up."

Ambushed and shelled and strafed.

“We were ambushed and shelled and strafed by aircraft,” says Dennis. “But our main trouble was snipers, all the time, in the trees. They fired at our camp. They killed our quartermaster sergeant. He was digging a trench and, 'Bang,' they got him. We used to send the Gurkhas out to catch them, they were good at that. They were good lads, the Gurkhas.

“I remember once coming down the road and there was a big hill and a plain. They thought, 'This is an ambush here,' so we went right round. But we didn't go far enough, and they started shelling us. Luckily, there was a ditch, so we all dived in to get out of the way, quick. We fired back and again they sent the Gurkhas round, and they cleared them out.

“We suffered several casualties from shell fire. One shell came over and burst open, and I remember an officer went up and saw how it was made. I always remember him doing that. There was a cockney lad from London, he got killed there.

“A number were killed or injured when we were strafed by a lone Zero fighter that caught us unawares coming in so low you could see the expression on his face.”

When they reached the city of Pegu, the monsoon broke, along with the news that the war in Europe was over.

You weren't supposed to have a camera!

A keen amateur photographer as a boy, Dennis had smuggled his camera to war with him.

“You weren't supposed to have them, so I kept it out of the way!” he says. “It took 20 pictures, and I sent the films home to a photographer friend. He printed them out and sent them back to me.

“I don't know if I've got a favourite photo. Maybe it's those girls. They were Karen, Christian Karen...”

In Rangoon, recently abandoned by occupying Japanese forces, Dennis befriended a family from the Karen ethnic community. When Burma won its independence in 1948, Karens were persecuted by the military government.

“I think they were all killed after the war,” he reflects. “After independence, I heard they were massacred for being Christians.”

As Dennis and comrades drove down from the North, their health deteriorated as rations ran low.

We were half-starved.

“We could only be supplied by air drops,” he explains. “They told us the priority was petrol and ammunition, so we had to live off the land. Well, there wasn't anything! Only the peanuts that grew in the ground. So, when we got to the bottom of Burma, we were half-starved. They pulled us out of there because we were all suffering from malnutrition, they had to feed us up again. Took our unit out of service and back to India for a week or two.”

After Burma, Dennis went to India, where he briefly made Sergeant before being demoted for an act of kindness while guarding a fellow British soldier.

“I was sergeant in charge of the guard, and you had to exercise the prisoners. So, I took him for a walk. There was a mobile film unit at the side of the road, which used to go round visiting places. We went up past it and sat down and watched a bit of the movie.

I got busted!

“When I came back, I was put on a charge for letting him do that. I got busted! They said, 'You haven't got the right attitude for these prisoners.'

While in India, Dennis and his camera captured pictures of a unique Indian spectacle.

“It's a Maharaja's palace. He had what they call a Durbar, which was dancers, and camels and elephants. Our Lieutenant was friendly with someone in the palace, and he got us an invite to go and see it,” Dennis explains.

“There was a big, long table, there was gold things all on the table, and lovely porcelain plates, a real posh do! The place was in darkness as he came out to sit on the throne. And as soon as he sat down, the whole thing lit up!”

In 1945, Dennis was among British forces preparing to end the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

“We were sent down to Madras to get ready to invade,” he says. “So, we did manoeuvres and practising and waterproofing all the equipment.

“I was on one of the 30 or 40 landing craft in the invasion fleet that arrived at Morib Beach near the town of Kelang. I was due to land five minutes after the first troops went into spot for artillery, which worried me a bit.

“Just as we got there, they had dropped the atom bomb and the Japanese had surrendered everywhere. But they hadn't heard from this Admiral, who was the commanding officer in Malaya. They hadn't announced a surrender.

We were all scared.

“So, we went in not knowing whether they were going to fight or not. I thought, 'Five minutes, I'm going to be in trouble here!’ We were all scared. We wondered what sort of reception we were going to get.

“But when we got there, and the front of the landing craft dropped down. We found the Japanese lined up on the beach, kowtowing. They didn't have any guns or anything. They'd packed in. We learned later the Japanese had been waiting with speedboats packed with explosives to ram our troop ships!

“After a couple of weeks, we went to Kuala Lumpur, where we had two deaths in our section. One from severe dysentery and another fellow shot himself playing Russian Roulette. I helped carry to the coffins to the cemetery. It was sad that they should die at the end of hostilities.”

At the start of 1947, Dennis was in Bombay, waiting to sail home.

“You had a number. Mine was 37, and they gradually came down,” says Dennis. “It took about a month or so. But when we left, all the Indians were cheering because they knew independence was coming, and they were glad to see the back of us!”

After returning to a freezing cold Liverpool with a raging fever, Dennis was sent home on leave before being posted to the School of Signals at Catterick in Yorkshire, where he worked in the stores for several months.

I want to leave and get married.

“They said, 'If you stay, you can make quartermaster Sergeant,' and I said, 'No, I want to leave and get married,' so I did!” Dennis remembers.

After four years and four months in uniform, Dennis left the Army to marry Joan in 1947.

Their wedding was in Almondbury, in Huddersfield. “She borrowed a friend's wedding dress, and I wore my demob suit,” he remembers. “We had our reception in a café. Joan's sister organised that. Then we went down to Brighton for our honeymoon.”

After the war, Dennis built a career as a factory manager. He and Joan had two children, a boy and a girl, and were married for 71 years. In his later years, he was invited to royal receptions at Buckingham Palace with the Burma Star Association.

Recently, Dennis’ family reached out to SSAFA as the cost-of-living crisis began to affect him.

His caseworker Sue explained: “What made them very concerned was his fuel bill, which was absolutely extortionate. They were worried that, in the long term, Dennis would not be able to pay the bill.

“We've been able to help in a variety of ways. And one of the ways is to get help with his fuel bills. Dennis loves his newspaper and watching sports programmes on the TV, and we were able to help him with finances, which allows him to continue to do those things and remain in his own home and have care in his own home. That is the best outcome for Dennis.

“I've really enjoyed working with Dennis and his family. He's very bright and lively, has lots of hobbies and has been an absolute pleasure to work with!”