Nancy Clayton: Auxiliary worker who supported the Army in Burma


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Nancy Clayton was one of the magnificent band of women who sustained Lieutenant General (later Field Marshal Viscount) William Slim's Fourteenth Army from front-line mobile canteens during the Second World War campaign against the Japanese in Burma.

Grateful soldiers wrote poems about the 250 "WAS(B)s" – Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) – who in their green uniforms, or sometimes in make-up and pretty frocks, served gallons of tea and offered sausage rolls, bacon sandwiches, tinned peaches and pears and condensed-milk fudge on airfields, on potholed roads, and in jungle clearings. One ditty ran: "The WAS(B)s left in Rangoon/make the natives occasionally swoon/in haste they decide to marry/and not for a moment to tarry".

"It was difficult sleeping in the open when there was a bright moon," Clayton, always known as Bubbles, said. "I found the roads terrifying. They were never wide enough." The WAS(B)s' adapted Army lorries had to be taken across Burma's huge fast-flowing rivers on rafts because the bridges had been blown up. While this was being done "we held on by the bars of the canteen and everything rattled," she recalled. The mobile canteens, with Army drivers, were for fighting troops, but the women, led by Chief Commandant Nin Taylor, also ran "static" canteens for base troops and HQ personnel.

On one occasion, Bubbles helped to bury some dead Japanese. There were, she said, "an awful lot of rats". One rat broke through a hole in her mosquito net and ate an orange she had put by her pillow. The women were issued with revolvers, and she kept hers by her as she slept, but found more use for an anti-mosquito spray-gun.

Bubbles served tea and danced with soldiers all the way from an Assam tea estate, via Shillong and Meiktila to Rangoon – where she found a collection of Mozart gramophone records – as the Fourteenth Army in 1944 won Burma back from its two-year occupation by the Japanese.

Flying to her first posting in a Dakota plane with holes in the floor, she saw the tree-top wreckage of gliders from Brigadier Orde Wingate's second Chindit "long-range penetration" expedition that had not made it to the landing sites behind enemy lines.

At the end of the campaign, at Mingaladon, near Rangoon, she met General Slim, who stood on a table in her canteen among the hissing tea urns and addressed returning prisoners of war. "He was a tremendous chap," she said, "a good 'un". The ex-POWs included many Dutch, and some of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who had distinguished themselves in the forlorn battle for Malaya in 1942 and who, despite their long imprisonment, were still wearing their battle-scarred kilts.

The book Chinthe Women (2001), by Commandant Taylor's daughter Sally Jaffe and granddaughter Lucy Jaffe, recounts how the WAS(B)s began in 1942 as cipher clerks; but, as the British Far East Empire crumbled and armies retreated, they stepped in to bolster morale with "char and a wad". The Chinthe was a Burmese mythical beast, the same symbol as that used by Wingate's brigade, though Bubbles recalled that she had a tiger on her uniform flashes.

In December 1944, as British fortunes improved, the exiled Governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, wrote to Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese about the women: "Your remark that the WAS(B) is the biggest single factor affecting the morale of the forward troops is indeed high praise... apart from a couple of mentions in The Times, I have not heard that the WAS(B) have had any publicity at all."

Clayton joined the WAS(B) after meeting Nin Taylor's No 2, Lois St John, in the Bombay Yacht Club in August 1943. The 25-year-old graduate of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford sought escape from dull jobs in a Bombay bank and the censor's office, and was interested in Burma because her mother's eldest brother had been in the civil service there. She had returned to India from Britain on the outbreak of war with her parents, retired Bombay Municipal Commissioner Sir Hugh Clayton, and her mother, Annie Blanch Clayton, née Nepean, both of whom were later decorated for volunteer work.

The WAS(B)s' canteens were supplied by air-drops, and Nancy wrote to her uncle, the "Toc H" founder, the Reverend Philip "Tubby" Clayton, about a Christmas turkey that ran away in the jungle with its parachute still attached.

She was to suffer prickly heat, ringworm and diphtheria before the end of her tour, once returning to recuperate at the Indian hill station of Nainital before flying back to Meiktila. As the war ended she travelled via Penang to Singapore, and finally to Surabaya in Java, leaving the service in 1946.

Nancy Clayton was born in England and went to India at the age of one on her father's appointment to Bombay. After a happy early childhood in a house with verandahs and many marble steps, she was sent back home at the age of seven to board at St Swithun's, Winchester. She was the first woman in her family to go to university, studying history at Lady Margaret Hall.

Several WAS(B)s married during their service – one earning a reprimand from Nin Taylor for doing so without asking – but Bubbles, though friendly with many young men met in unusual conditions, including a "musical naval officer", remained single. One close friend she might have married was killed.

After the war she was secretary to "Tubby" Clayton, then became a social worker in Stoke Newington, London, before returning to Winchester where, having an income and property, she undertook charitable work. Her later travels included a demanding railway tour of India. Her brother Tom survives her; her other brother, Philip, died of polio at the age of 24.

Anne Keleny

Nancy Stuart Byard Clayton, WAS(B) and social worker: born London 14 February 1918; died Winchester, Hampshire 9 May 2012.