University of Oxford
14 files

Eleanor Miles in WRNS & Robert Miles in Burma

online resource
posted on 2024-06-05, 19:09 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

Eleanor Miles (nee Ward) was born in 1925 in South Shields to a family of 13. She was 14 when the war started. She was evacuated to Arnside in 1939 with her two brothers, they refused to be separated so ended up in a lodging house. Half the day Eleanor would be at school and then: "but when I came in at night, all these dishes and I would have them all to wash and I just felt like I wasn't happy there."

Her younger brother Freddy complained of a sore leg, Eleanor contacted the doctor and an ambulance was called. Freddy had septicaemia (blood poisoning) and they would have to operate or he would lose his leg. They operated on Freddy but the operation was not successful. A neighbour called Mrs Cole who had a telephone relayed the news to the waiting family that Freddy had died. "So we came home for the funeral and there was no way I was going back."

Eleanor and the family moved into a local doctor's house (Dr Lowe) in Westoe Road, South Shields so Eleanor could help with the surgery. It was here that she started courting her future husband Robert Miles. She then volunteered for the WRNS. "I volunteered because I was going to be called up anyway, I was 17 and a half and I knew that I would be called up. So I thought, if you volunteer, you can go in, you can pick where you want to go. So I volunteered six months before my call-up papers came in and so I went into the Wrens".

After basic training, she moved to London and the head of the WRNS Dame Vera Laughton Mathews held a cocktail party for the officers and "top brass" of the Royal Navy. Eleanor was mortified that she had missed the entrance of an Admiral to the party. "How on earth did miss all that gold braid!". She was very disappointed when her Petty Officer pointed out the Admiral as "A little fat old man in a grey suit. I was so disappointed".

One of the places was sent to was Chatham Barracks with a fellow Wren:
"We had no idea where we had to go. Well, they told us, just straight up there all the way and turned left or whatever. So we've got our cases, and we were walking up the pavement and walking and walking, and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was yelling and shouting, whistles blowing. And we're looking, what on earth happening. Suddenly two sailors on duty ran up to us and they yelled and shouted at us and said, "Pavements For Officers Only, Pavements For Officers Only, get on the road". I mean, it was absolute mayhem. I thought World War II had broken out again. So we had to get off the pavement and walk up the road.

Eleanor witnessed two German ships surrendering at the end of the war at Felixstowe: "But I was among with three other Wrens were standing on top of the Officer of the Watch's hut where the surrender papers were going to be signed. So we had a good view of everything and of course, we were right on top of where everything was happening."

An Admiral oversaw the surrender:
"They went out with the Admiral and they brought in the two ships and brought them into the Felixstowe Harbour.", "So it was really quite exciting.".

The German Officers were taken to a hotel and the men were sent to a camp. After they had to march past the Admiral though he does not seem to have approved of women, in his speech he said:
"Never in my naval career have I met such a smart body of men and hmm, hmm, hmm, women.", "Of course, everybody roared with laughter."

Eleanor witnessed the end of the war parties at Felixstowe and London.
"Of course, when the war finished, all the MTB boats were ashore and there were parties in every one of them and we were hopping from one boat to the next and then we went into London on the night, on the very night that war was finished, oh, it was fantastic, I mean, you just couldn't move. Everybody was singing, everybody was dancing, everybody was hugging and kissing everybody and it was just mad. And we went into London and we were just joining in with all the fun in the crowd and it was about three o'clock in the morning and we thought where are we going to sleep? So we ended up sleeping in a lady's toilet until the first train back to where I was stationed."

Eleanor's future husband Robert Miles was posted to Burma, a campaign sometimes referred to as "The Forgotten War". Robert was a "second stripe sergeant". He was in Burma for four years and was never able to return home, the conditions were appalling, they were on half rations, there was torrential rain, and the Japanese were regularly bombing their positions. They were so close to the Japanese positions that:
"They were so near that they could hear noises on each side of the camp. And on the Japanese side, they must've been picking up names, listening, picking up names from the British and they would shout over "How's Jack from South Shields" or whatever, a name and where they lived. And it frightened them to death to know that the Japanese knew of that person that was there and where he lived!"

Eleanor said that because there were so many soldiers to return home it took a long time for them to be returned to the UK. Robert was so thin on his return: "He was seven stone in weight and before they came home they took them to a camp to fatten them up."

When Robert did return to South Shields: "When he was on the Newcastle train at about three o'clock in the morning when he got into South Shields, he thought well I can't knock anybody up at this time of night. So there was a train in the sidings and he got into one of the carriages and he slept in the carriage until morning and then he went home."

Audio and transcription are attached.


Item list and details

Photos: - Notes of Eleanor Miles at a WRNS cocktail party - Notes of Robert Miles life including Burma x7 pages

Person the story/items relate to

Eleanor Miles and Robert Miles

Person who shared the story/items

Eleanor Miles

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

Herself and husband

Type of submission

Shared at Ocean Road Community Centre, Tyne and Wear on 18 November 2023. The event was organised by South Shields Local History Group.

Record ID

98128 | SSH028