In 1930s Britain, boys could leave school at the age of 14 and start work. Consequently, many working class children found themselves in factories or on building sites.
Being a soldier was seen as a far more glamorous occupation, so when war broke out in 1939 and a desperate recruitment drive was launched, many young boys were quick to enlist – despite officially having to be 18 to do so.
A 2014 Channel 5 documentary, Boy Soldiers of World War 2, explored the stories of four youngsters who fought on the front line of some of the most brutal battlefields. Here, we reveal the stories of two such boys…
Bill Edwardes: “There was me, a 17-year-old boy, cradling these senior officers, men in their late twenties or their thirties. Holding them in my arms…”
Bill Edwardes, a 16-year-old factory worker tired of his job, spent the first four years of the war in Wales as an evacuee. Returning to London in 1943 and looking for some excitement, he decided to join the army.
“I’m 17-and-a-half, sergeant” he told the recruiting officer, who took him at his word. Bill’s mother was horrified, but the youngster wanted to do his bit.
Bill initially trained at Maidstone, where he was teased for being obviously underage. But when he came home in uniform, he felt a tremendous sense of pride. “I walked up Holloway Road thinking I was Jack the Lad,” he said.
Bill was an infantryman with the 1st Batallion of the Worcestershire Regiment. Training hard for D-Day and the long campaign that would follow, Bill was so small he could barely keep up, and was sent to a camp for under-strength recruits.
Turning 17, Bill was still below the legal age to be sent abroad. But as D-Day approached, nobody asked questions. He was tasked with being a stretcher-bearer, responsible for picking up the wounded on the battlefield, and deciding who could be saved and who should be left to die.
Bill’s first battle was the attack on Mouen: “We were just behind the infantry, crouched in a cornfield. We watched, we saw someone go down and went to them. With a group you have to look and make your own judgement. Leave the man with the bullet in his leg, to deal with the man with shrapnel in his back.”
The underage boy found himself saving the lives of his superiors: “There was me, a 17-year-old boy, cradling these senior officers, men in their late twenties or their thirties. Holding them in my arms, looking after them. I’d tell them ‘You’re lucky’… knowing full well that they might not last the day.”
Come July, Bill was at the forefront of two of the most vicious battles of the Normandy campaign – Hill 112 and Mont Pincon. In two months of fighting, he had just three days’ rest.
“It’s surprising how quickly a 17-year-old gets hardened – not indifferent, but detached. You got accustomed to wounds and death…
“You came to the conclusion that how could you possibly survive when so many people were going down around you. In the morning you’d wake up and you’d think to yourself, ‘Maybe it’s today?’”
Later, at the battle of Elst, in September 1944, Bill experienced his most violent and relentless battle yet – but survived. As the death toll mounted, Bill found himself training and overseeing new recruits.
“Was I daft? Yes and no. Consider this, I was something of an urchin. I wasn’t very well educated. I joined the army. I did my primary training and within three months I’d learned to ride a motorbike, drive a Bren carrier, to fire all sorts of weapons – I was happy as Larry. It did me good. It was just the fighting bit that came later that didn’t do me good.
“I was 12 when war broke out, I was 18 when it ended. People say to me, ‘that was your youth gone’. It didn’t go; it was just spent in a different way. I was saving people’s lives.”
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Stan Scott: “Hit the beach. Down went the ramps. Whack! Next thing I hear is someone saying, ‘Get up, Scotty, you’re not hurt’. Got up, ran up the beach…”
Enthused by the Battle of Britain, in 1941 Stan Scott, 15, pretended to be 18 in order to enlist. But halfway through training, his mother found out and he was sent home.
The following year, aged 16, he enlisted for a second time, and found himself guarding aerodromes in Kent. But he was desperate to go overseas, so joined the commandos.
Aged 18, Stan finally saw action on D-Day: “Hit the beach. Down went the ramps. Whack! Next thing I hear is someone saying, ‘Get up, Scotty, you’re not hurt’. Got up, ran up the beach.
“Two men beside me had been hit. Straight into the swamp. There were already bodies lying there – Jerry started hitting us with rockets.”
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During the relentless fighting over the following weeks Stan became battle-hardened, facing death on numerous occasions, but never cracking. “I never thought I would break down – I was too streetwise.”
Weeks later, in the town of Honfleur, Stan was wounded and taken off the battlefield. By the time he recovered, his unit had returned to England.
But in 1945 he returned to the frontline for the final battles of the war – a campaign that took him to the heart of enemy territory, and to the death camp at Bergen-Belsen.
There, he met London-born Len Chester, who had applied for the marines aged just 13…
Boy Soldiers of World War 2 first aired on Channel 5 in 2014.
This article was first published by History Extra in July 2014.