Ernest William Wilson was born on 3rd November 1920, the ninth of ten siblings and youngest of five brothers. He was brought up in Oriental Road, Silvertown, East London.
Ernest left school at 14 years and went to work as a clerk at ‘Silvers’ in Silvertown. Silvers was formed in 1864 as the India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Works Company. It manufactured Bells patent telephones from 1880 and submarine cables. By 1931 it had been taken over by the British Goodrich Rubber Company and renamed the British Tyre and Rubber Company.
India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Works Company, Silvertown 1923
When it became obvious that war was coming Ernest was advised to join the Territorial Army so that he might chose a Regiment where he could develop his interest in signals. He was interested in radio from a young age and had built amateur crystal radio sets.
Gunner Ernest Wilson, 1939
On 1st May 1939, at the age of 19 years, he was recruited into 368 Battery, 92nd Field Regiment, RA, the precursor to 140 (5th London) Regiment. Along with many in 92nd Regiment, he transferred to 367 Battery, 140th Field Regiment at its formation later in 1939. He started his training with the regiment in Dursley.
Ernest Wilson met Margaret in 1938 when they were both working in ‘Silvers’. By the time he had signed up, their romance had blossomed. He was well thought of by her family and they became engaged in 1939 before war was declared.
Gunner Wilson joined the 140th Regiment on 3rd September 1939. Apparently, straight after the prime minister’s announcement at 11 o’clock he put on his uniform as he had been told to report immediately; his sisters begged him to stay until he had had his Sunday dinner, but he wouldn’t and went to report for duty.
Training was at Bolton Mills, Dursley; along with many of the East Enders in the Regiment, this was probably the furthest he had ever been from his London home.
On 3rd April 1940 (one month before the German invasion of Belgium), Wilson wrote to his fiance Margaret that leave was scheduled to start in five weeks and finish sometime in July. His letter mentioned that he hadn’t had much sleep for three nights as he had had to man the telephone in an observation post (OP). Wilson is mentioned in Lt Baxter’s Diary [see Contents Page] where he features as a Signaller in F Troop, 367 Battery.
Wilson didn’t say much about his war or the battle at Cassel. Once he said that one of his fellow soldiers was wounded badly in the jaw and he gave him his field dressing to cover the wound. During the Breakout from Cassel [see Contents Page] on 29-30th May 1940, he realised his friend had been left behind so he went back to Watou to find him, but was taken prisoner on 30th May 1940.
He was confirmed as a POW on 5th September 1940 in a letter to his father. It stated that he had been taken to Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf on 5th June 1940, POW number 11158.
Wilson’s journey across Germany was by train in cattle trucks; he never elaborated on the horror of it and post-war was very reluctant to talk about his time in captivity apart from a couple of anecdotes. Once, while in a work party involved in building houses he attempted some form of sabotage by blocking chimneys with straw and rubble. Another was that he was hungry a lot of the time and when the POW’s were given a loaf of bread to a hut everyone scrambled for their share and it flew up into the air.
Wilson was assigned to a coal mining work camp. He was involved in an accident with a rock fall when he suffered several blows to the head and this caused him much pain with repeated ear infections. This finally resulted in an operation in the 1950s with the loss of hearing in that ear, which had a lasting impact for the rest of his life.
Although the time in captivity must have been desperate Wilson did try to make distractions, including putting on concerts. He had a lovely singing voice, enjoyed singing and would break into song at any time. At one concert, he was strongly applauded but because his hearing was impaired he didn’t realise they were asking for an encore.
Wilson managed to keep his relationship with Magaret going during the long years in captivity, any letters sent were censored. By this stage of the war, Margaret was in the Land Army. On his 21st birthday, November 1941, he spent most of the day ill in bed.
As to the Long March of 1945, Wilson recalled that it was so cold that to prevent themselves being frozen to death they would seek out a barn overnight with cows in it which would provide some warmth, and as they had so little food they would eat mangel-wurzles (animal food) raw out of the fields as they trudged along.
When Germany surrendered and the marching came to an end, Wilson recalled that the senior officers told them to keep their heads down and keep to the outskirts of the town until it was clear how and when they would be repatriated in case there were any ‘trigger happy Germans‘ around who might be intent on killing any enemy they came across.
Gunner Wilson was repatriated on 14th May 1945.
Ernest and Margaret Wilson, September 1945
Ernest married Margaret in September 1945 and they had three children. He retired at age 60 years, to ‘make up for the five years he lost as a young man’.
Gunner Ernest Wilson RA died in June 2003 at the age of 82 years.
[with thanks to his daughter Janet Crowder]