John Alfred West Neale was the eldest son and second child of Joseph and Susannah Neale. He was my father’s brother and lovingly referred to him as ‘Mog’. A Langley Mill man all of his life, he was called up in 1940 and served in the Northamptonshire regiment. He was killed in Sicily near the town of Catania on the western side of the island in 1943 during the allies push north through what was euphemistically called the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ – in the event nothing could have been further from the truth. He served as a private in the regiment’s ‘B’ Company, and his platoon was caught in a German ambush at a place called Preola Woods. Despite medical attention he died of his wounds and is buried in the Allied War Cemetery at Syracuse. His name appears on the war memorial in Heanor Memorial Park, on the family grave in Marlpool cemetery, and on the roll of honour at the Imperial War Museum
I was born on October 1952, and so never knew him. All those members of my family who did are now dead. Dad – Maurice Neale - was the last in May 2005 and all that I have are stories related to me over the years by him and my three aunts Sally, Doris and Ivy. When dad passed away certain things were handed down to me. The family bible, which was bought for my Dada Neale on his 20th birthday contains details of all births, marriages and deaths and covers over one hundred years of our family history up to and including the children of my niece, Kay and this makes me a great uncle – and at 65 I am not sure how this makes me feel.
Along with this tome, which is complete with the Old and New Testaments, came photographs of all those members of the Neale family mentioned in it. What I had not anticipated were sheaves of letters, Alf’s letters in his own handwriting covering the period from 1940 when he was undergoing basic army training up to July 1943 – just prior to his death on active service. They are full of humdrum matters, a treasury of ordinariness surrounding matters which I cannot begin to understand. Some of the names he mentions are recognisable, but only because they intersected with Dad’s life and the stories which he told to me.
I know that he sent regular amounts home because his letters from around the world contained references to transfers of funds from his army pay, but this didn’t prevent him from saving regularly. Documents passed on to me show that he left an estate valued at around £195, and using Average Earnings as an index over the period from 1943 when he died, to 2005 (the last year for which revaluation can presently be done), this would convert to an amount of just over £18,000. I found this astonishing as that would represent three quarters of today’s average gross pay. He was 31 when he died, and that would have given him a working life of thirteen years (discounting four years army service) and an equivalent annual saving of around £1,400. Another, more poignant package was a small cardboard box measuring about 4” x 3” containing his campaign medals, posthumously awarded and sent to his home address in Langley Mill with a document explaining their significance.
This then is all that remains of the life of a Langley Mill bachelor who died along with countless others, serving his country and the free world, at the age of thirty-one. I cannot say that I miss him as I never knew him, but I carry the man’s name within my own, and a part of me feels tied to him in some way that I cannot explain. I know that there was a striking resemblance between my Dad and him as the family photographs clearly show, but this likeness does not extend to me. Having seen early images of Dada Neale I was struck by how closely I resembled him at the same age, and when I took to wearing contact lenses in my mid thirties, I caused Aunty Doris to step back in fright from the front door one Sunday morning. She thought that she had seen a ghost.
Alf, and it puzzles me why he chose not to use his first name of John, was very much a product of his time and upbringing. Born in the early part of the twentieth century into a Langley Mill family of modest means, he seemed to have taken life very much as it came. There were neither the same kinds of entertainment as exist now, nor was there surplus money to throw around. According to what I have learned over the years, Dada Neale was not a well man in his late middle age and this prevented him from earning a regular living, and like most families of that time, everyone pulled together and they got by. Alf’s conscription into the army at the outbreak of World War II must have come as a bit of a blow to household finances.
Alf’s leisure activities seemed to revolve largely around touring Derbyshire with friends on their bikes, and his was a Golden Arrow. This was a rather heavy machine which stood for many years in the back kitchen of our house at Aldercar after Alf had died. Presumably he had wanted dad to have it, but it was never used by my father whilst I knew him, although from Alf’s letters home he encouraged Dad to keep it in good repair and told him where the library of road maps were kept if he ever felt inclined to ride the thing. In any case, it was always to big and heavy for me. It was a racing bike with Derailleur gears, dropped handle bars and a dynamo driven front light, and Alf and his mates went all over the county. Their trips took them as far afield as the Derwent Valley up near Ashopton and the village of Derwent itself. Both of these places are now under the waters of the Derwent and Lady Bower Reservoirs, and in the 1930s only the Howden Dam existed. As with Alf himself, there are now only photographs of these places to indicate what they really looked like.
In addition, it would not be unusual for them to travel to the east coast and the 90 mile trip must have taken them all day, thus necessitating a stop over at one of the holiday resorts. They must have been very fit, but again in those days motorised travel was a rarity for the man in the street. Running repairs to the bikes must have been a problem, but I remember Dad telling me of the ingenuity which they used to keep themselves mobile. They all carried puncture repair outfits, but in the event that a rubber gland on the tyre value disintegrated they would use whatever was to hand. Favourite amongst nature’s tools was the Dandelion, whose stalk could be trimmed to fit as a temporary measure until a proper one could be obtained. Clever cyclists would keep a stock of these for the journey as they had a limited lifespan.
There was a slightly dark side to the man’s humour as revealed by one of the letters sent home from basic training camp in Norfolk early in 1940. A German plane had crash landed close to their camp and there had been no survivors. Alf and his fellow recruits had been ordered to secure the site and his note back to the family told of body parts strewn across the area. I can only imagine the glint in his eye as he asked his mother if there was a meat shortage back home, as he knew where a supply could be obtained.
So, this was uncle Alf. An ordinary man from an ordinary background in an ordinary town, carrying out an extraordinary task in extraordinary times. I suppose none of them could have imagined that they wouldn’t be returning home at the end of hostilities, and I know from what Dad told me that Dada Neale took the news of Alf’s death very hard. He was 63 when the news came from the war office. His favourite was song was “Just A’ Wearyin’ For You” sung by the American bass/baritone Paul Robeson and it became some sort of solace for him in his final years.