VE DAY 75 - AT HOME WITH RONNIE
A"I couldn't wait to have sausage, eggs and chips again," says Ronnie
I first met Ronnie back in June 2019 at the Somerset home of charismatic British eccentric Liddie Holt. Ronnie is her father in law – I recall being told that he was in his nineties, and was always referred to as "Dad". I remember my surprise and awe when he strode into the house carrying a bag of shopping from M&S, beaming and looking dapper in his waxed jacket and mustard wide-wale cords. I was totally taken aback - this wasn't quite the image I had in mind of a man his age. He was confident, charismatic, handsome and an absolute gentleman, and he remains so today at the grand age of 97.
RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major ) Ronald Ernest Harrison was born in January 1923 in Richmond, London. He was married to June for over 69 years and has two sons, Tony and Simon.
When called up for service , the young Ronnie was first based in York barracks. There, he underwent several weeks’ training, before moving on to Colchester and the Devonshire regiment, where he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
Ronnie served a total of 22 years in the army with medals for good conduct. His military career took him all over the world, to faraway places like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Korea, where he served in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
When he was first called up, Ronnie wasn’t quite sure what to make of the army. "It was a frustrating time as it was all vaccines, inoculations and confinement to barracks," he remembers. One memory that still raises a laugh, though, is being asked to make his own mattress in the York barracks. Yes, that's right, the recruits had to make their own mattresses to sleep on! Unfortunately for Ronnie, he spent most of the first night rolling off it – his over-enthusiastic straw stuffing didn’t have quite the effect he’d imagined, and the result was rock hard. “It was the worst night’s sleep I'd ever had," he says.
As I’m interested in textiles and always find inspiration in vintage army uniforms, I wondered how functional Ronnie’s kit was to work in.
I was expecting to be regaled with stories of sandpaper-rough cotton and chafing wool, but to my surprise, he recalls no such thing. He was issued with “jungle greens”, a khaki uniform for the Far East, which turned out to be as comfortable to wear as his woollen uniform.
I asked Ronnie where he was on VE Day, May 8th, 1945. "I was on board a troop ship en route to Burma in my jungle greens,” he says. “We'd set off from Glen Orchy in Scotland, after I’d said goodbye to my wife June, who was back in Richmond. I didn’t know if I'd ever see her again." But he does remember "having a couple of beers" to celebrate the end of hostilities! He eventually came home in 1949.
After the war, Ronnie lived for a time in the Tower of London, where he trained new army recruits; two of them were the notorious Kray twins from the East End (allegedly, their national service was cut short after only a few days). He has fonder memories of his son Simon in his pram at the Tower, aged four, trying to copy the army drills while brandishing a stick. He also well remembers the Tower’s famous ravens, aptly nicknamed "Regimental Sergeant Major Budgeri-guards".
Being a food lover who’s guilty of overeating during lockdown, I was fascinated by which foods Ronnie missed the most while in service. Turns out it was the fantastically British sausage, eggs and chips, which is also one of my all-time favourite fry ups!
With Ronnie’s long life experience in mind, I was keen to know what he thought about the current Covid-19 pandemic. His philosophical response? "It's just another war, but this time you can't see the enemy.”
Ronnie has always been an avid dog lover and still beats us all at Scrabble.
Many thanks to @Liddieholt for all her generous assistance in helping to bring about this amazing story of Ronald Ernest Harrison, now aged 97 and truly the most inspiring man I've ever met.
VE Day 75 at home written by Lilly Shahravesh
Photography by @Liddieholt