Wednesday, 11 June 2014
60 SECOND INTERVIEW: Les Cuff
DORCHESTER Royal British Legion President Les Cuff has his worries about the future of the Legion in the county town, despite a successful D-Day 70th commemoration in the past week. Les lost both his parents at an early age and, after a brief period with his grandmother, went to live in children’s homes in Salisbury and Weymouth. It was from there that he watched the build-up to D-Day in and around Weymouth and Portland. Eventually, he followed his older brothers into the armed services but was stopped from seeing front-line service, literally at the last minute. He has worked on farms in and around the county, has a passion for tractors and steam engines and has been involved in many aspects of life in the county town – including the now-closed Conservative Club.
WHAT are your memories of your older brothers and their military service?
I remember them coming to see me two days before disembarking. They brought me a black ball and a fire engine which was a real beauty. I was the envy of all the other kids. I don’t suppose at the time I really realised what was happening to them... my elder brother, Harry, who was known as “Bubbles” was captured and spent three or four years as a prisoner of war. He never spoke of it until six months before he died. My other brother, Eddie, was 73 when he died. He spent much of the war in hospital with shrapnel in his head. They never removed all of it because it would have been too dangerous.
AND how much of D-Day do you remember?
I was in a children’s home in Weymouth so we could see the build-up going on. We lined up on Portland Road and the troops marching past us would throw us their money and bars of chocolate. It is something I will never forget.
WAS being in a children’s home tough?
I suppose it would be considered that now – but it was what we were used to. We had gardens to grow our own veg and, of course, we were expected to work. We weren’t treated roughly, nothing like the abuse you hear about in some places, but we had to do what we were told. We had to make our own beds and darn our own socks and, of course, there would be regular inspections to check our nails and make sure we’d washed behind our ears.
AND I suppose you, like almost everyone else, left school at 14?
Yes. The home found me a job in a paper shop in Fordingbridge. I was only there a week, I just couldn’t stick it and the owners got fed up with me moaning and crying. I was then found an apprenticeship with Jack Jolliffe in Weymouth as a painter and decorator where I stayed until my call-up papers came. I wasn’t impressed with the idea but I had to go. They put me in the Medical Corps, probably because I’d been in St John Ambulance in Weymouth.
HOW did you get on?
It wasn’t too bad to begin with but it knocked some of the others back a bit, being told what to do by a snotty Corporal. I was eventually posted to Tidworth Military Hospital but I couldn’t stick working on the wards all the time. Then, one day, they called for volunteers to be parachute medics. I couldn’t say “thank you” quick enough. I went basically to get out of the hospital but I also wanted to see some action.
AND did you?
No, the nearest I got was the Suez Crisis. I got the papers and got to Brize Norton via the train at Salisbury. We were all loaded up in the plane with the engines running all ready to go when the pilot got the call that it was being aborted... my friends all went abroad but I never got out of the country.
HOW did you get involved with the Legion?
I first joined at Stapleford, near Salisbury. My elder brother had always said that if you were in the forces you had to be in the Legion, but it wasn’t until I came to Dorchester to work at Lower Skippet Farm that I really got involved. At time it was in High East Street, in the old brewery building. We had hundreds of members and the building was nowhere near big enough so we moved to Fordington, but that eventually went in the early 1990s and we ended up meeting wherever we could, usually in pub skittle alleys.
AND what state is the Legion in today?
Basically there’s only a handful of us left; many members have died and others drifted away, mainly because we had no “home”. We’ve tried to get younger members but to no avail. We have 40 or 50 members on the books but really there’s only a few of us who take an active part, but I’m going to carry on as long as I can.
WHAT do you make of Dorchester’s recent developments?
I don’t think a lot of it is good for Dorchester. There’s shops and other businesses out of the town centre which should be in the town centre. We need to keep the town centre alive. If they don’t watch it they will ruin Dorchester with all the extra development. The new council offices have taken up too much parking space and the traffic system needs sorting out.
SO where would you live if not in Dorchester?
I’m not likely to leave Dorchester but if I didn’t live here I would like to try New Zealand. It seems a tranquil place and they never seem to have any trouble.
DO you have any hobbies?
I used to do up vintage tractors but I’m a bit too old for that now, although I do collect model tractors. I’ve got one for every tractor I’ve ever worked on.
The only things I don’t like are celery, sweetcorn and salmon – but I’ll eat pretty much anything else!