General mobilisation was announced on the radio in the evening of September 1st 1939. All members of the Territorial Army were told to report to their Headquarters on Saturday, 2nd September. I made my way down to the Hythe Quay Drill Hall, which had been a warehouse used by the British Oil Cake Mills.*
At the rear was a large yard overlooked by gasometers belonging to the Colchester Gas Company. The yard consisted almost entirely of infilled spent coke. Our first task was to construct Air Raid shelters, by digging trenches in the yard. Apart from the unsuitability of the site because of the proximity of the gasometers, it proved almost impossible to construct any sort of trench as the sides were constantly collapsing. That night I returned home utterly exhausted.
[*The British Oil Cake Mills/Owen Parry’s Mills site, on Hythe Quay, Colchester, was purchased by the company ‘Frank Pertwee and Sons Ltd’. The 1954 aerial photo, below, shows the Pertwee site and the gasometers but it would be as Felix and his fellow Essex Yeomen would have known it. HAJ].
We all returned for duty again next morning and, just before 11 a.m., we were ordered to parade in order to hear Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, broadcast his fateful message that we were at war with Germany. As I recall, at the time, I was more concerned with the swarm of wasps which were buzzing all round us. It was rather an anti-climax, in some ways a relief, as we had been expecting this outcome for some months. At last we, who had not fully comprehended the horrors of the previous war (having been born during, or just after it) were able to get down to dealing with the menace that had long hung over Europe.
We had no real conception of what we were up against, nor did we realise how we had been let down by our own government in the matter of preparation. We were innocents, behaving in the same way as our fathers had done a generation before, completely oblivious of what lay ahead. With hindsight, I cannot help thinking that my mother must have been sick at heart – knowing what had happened a generation earlier – but she did not show her feelings in my presence.
On the first night of war I was detailed to sleep at the Drill Hall in an Eastern National bus parked in the forecourt. A large number of vehicles had been requisitioned from local businesses for use of the fledgling 413 Battery, as we had very little military equipment at the time. At about 2 a.m. the sirens sounded in the town and everyone got up quickly and sought some sort of cover, expecting bombs to fall at any moment. A plane was heard in the distance, but I very much doubt that it was an enemy plane. However, the danger passed and it transpired later that there had been a general alert over a large part of the South of England. So began the ‘phoney war’ when, apart from losses at sea and the movement of the greater part of our regular army to France, very little happened on either side.
Meanwhile we began training in earnest. We had received most of our Army issue of clothing, except for our greatcoats. It was getting cold, especially at night on guard duty, so the Quarter-master requisitioned sufficient mackintoshes from a manufacturer to enable every man to have one. They were not khaki so looked rather odd, particularly as we were required to wear our civilian gas-masks in their cardboard boxes slung over our shoulder (when we had no top-coat they had to be buttoned to our breast pocket). Nevertheless, they helped to stave off the cold.
By this time the Battery had been allocated four 4.5″ guns (sufficient for one troop), complete with ammunition limbers – which each troop took out in turn on to Hythe Hill for gun drill. Sometimes they were towed behind four requisitioned lorries to Wivenhoe Park so that it was possible to practise bringing the troop into action. The Battery Commander used his car as a target for anti-tank practice, and it all seemed like one enormous game.
Our armoury of small arms consisted of four 1st World War Lee Enfield rifles, used by the guard on duty, and four muzzle-loading muskets borrowed from a museum, which were brought into use for the guard changing ceremony. This was, at times, hilarious as it took place on the Quay and, on more than one occasion, a train loaded with coke for the Gas or Electricity Works passed between the two guards during the changeover.
Gun drill was interspersed with long route marches and, on Sundays, church parades to St. Leonard’s church on Hythe Hill. Although I was still billeted at home, numerous night duties kept me at the Hythe where we slept on paillasses filled with straw, on the concrete floor of the warehouse. I was quickly being toughened up.
As a child I had never been vaccinated against small-pox. My parents, for some unknown reason, were opposed to it. Without exception, everyone was vaccinated against Small-pox and inoculated against Typhoid and Tetanus. Those who, like me, had never been vaccinated were badly affected and I was ill for almost a fortnight. In spite of this, I was ordered to report to the Military Hospital for a check-up (in the depth of winter), whilst I had a high temperature – which delayed my recovery somewhat. And so life continued through Christmas 1939 and into the new year.
We were gradually being transformed into soldiers, though hardly a fighting force. We had still not fired a shot, in anger or in practice. The officers spent their time on T.E.W.T.’s (training exercises without troops) which consisted of canvas laid over a wire base, painted to look like a section of the countryside, all raised three or four feet above the floor. The officer would give his orders and the fall of the shells would be indicated by puffs of cigarette smoke being blown through the canvas by men squatting underneath.
I continued in my role as loader of ‘B’ Troop’s No. 1 gun until February 1940, when the problem of terrorism in London (both Nazi and I.R.A.) became significant and troops were required to guard vulnerable points, known to us as V.P.’s. I, together with many of the men in 413 Battery, took part in this operation and I shall not easily forget the day we left our Drill Hall on Hythe Quay. I set off at 4.50 a.m. on Saturday, 10th February in the back of an open lorry – bound for Hendon Aerodrome.
It was bitterly cold and we sat huddled together for warmth. Fortunately, the weather was fine as there was no protection whatever. Some of the more experienced, which did not include me, had brought hip flasks along with them containing ‘Fire-water’. After a halt for a brew-up and breakfast, we finally arrived at our destination at 10.30 a.m. and some men were immediately posted on guard duty.
Our task was to provide protection against a possible terrorist attack on the airfield and, for this purpose, guards were mounted on the hangars and ammunition dumps situated round the perimeter of the airfield. As the points to be guarded were spread out it took a considerable time for men to be posted and relieved. I particularly recall an incident which happened to me one night. I was guarding an ammunition dump, behind which ran the main L.M.S. railway line from Euston to the North. I heard a commotion behind the dump in the direction of the railway line and decided to investigate.
However, in the darkness, I overlooked the fact that the dump was surrounded by an apron of barbed wire. I tripped over the corner stake pinning the wire to the ground and fell headlong into the apron. Dressed as I was in my greatcoat, balaclava helmet, woollen scarf and woollen gloves, I became trapped on the wire like a fly on a spider’s web, dropping my rifle into the bargain. Fortunately my cries for help were heard by Bill Hart (the guard on the next dump, a couple of hundred yards away) who came across to me. Needless to say, I never discovered what had caused the disturbance.
Our duties consisted of 2hrs on duty and four hours off (for 24 hours), followed by 24 hours on stand-by duty when we were not allowed to leave the camp – followed by 24 hours leave. As we were in London, this gave us the opportunity to visit West End theatres and cinemas. The ‘phoney war’ was still continuing. The British Expeditionary Force was stationed in France, between the North East coast and the northern extremity of the Maginot Line. There appeared to be stalemate, with no movement on either side. The only activity was at sea, where German U-Boats were causing problems for our shipping.
On February 23rd we were relieved of our duties by a battalion of a Guards Regiment and we had to admit, in spite of our keenness, we couldn’t match their precision at the guard change. A week after returning to Colchester we left for Newmarket, where I was stationed in Heath House. This was the former home of Fred Archer, the famous 19th century jockey who had, at one time, been on very friendly terms with my Great Aunt Elizabeth.
I hardly had time to settle down when, on March 7th, I was off once more to my second V.P. which was at Hackney Junction. We were billeted in a school in Dalston and our principle duty was to protect the railway bridges and yards at the junction. It was a very depressing part of London and the only redeeming feature, as far as I was concerned, was its proximity to the Hackney Empire which put on some first class shows. My tour of duty finished on 23rd March, when I returned home on leave.
On April 10th, I set off on my third tour of duty, this time at Kings Cross. We were responsible for guarding the northern end of the tunnel outside Kings Cross station, and the viaduct which carried the east/west line over the main L.N.E.R. railway line to Scotland.
The weather was still cold and we kept warm courtesy of the train drivers who, while they waited with their trains for permission to enter the station, plied us with coal from their bunkers for use on our brazier. The viaduct supporting the over-head line consisted of massive brick pillars which were hollow and one of our duties was to carry out an internal inspection of these pillars. Entry was by way of a manhole in the overhead track and I remember once, when making my exit, lifting up the manhole cover to be confronted by a train only 100 yards away. I quickly lowered the cover….
My billet at the time was a rat-infested church hall in Camden Town, which was some way from the V.P. Parcels of cakes sent from home, was at a time before rationing had begun to bite, were always eagerly awaited. At this particular location, however, they were usually devoured by vermin.
Meals were taken at the Newmarket Inn, Kings Cross which was then owned by Barclay, Perkin & Co. and, in view of our Battery Commander’s connection with this firm, we ought not to have been surprised to see a photograph of him presenting a cup to a local worthy for his sporting prowess. Lasting memories I have of this location are of the glue factory we passed on our daily march to and from the V.P., with the great pile of horses’ legs stacked outside, and the steaming hot baths we were pleased to get into in the Caledonian Road.
On May 1st 1940 I left Kings Cross, travelling across London by coach to my fourth V.P. duty at Croydon, where I was to spend the next ten days on security duties at the aerodrome. This was not a particularly eventful job so far as I was concerned, but one or two men from the from the Battery became involved at an incident at a political meeting when there was trouble between Communists and Fascists.
On May 10th we returned to Hendon for a few days and then, on May 13th, left for V.P. No. 5 at the Exhibition buildings at Wembley. Our job there was to guard the old Palace of Engineering building, which was being used as a store by the Royal Air Force. We were required to man dug-outs placed at strategic points around the building. This took place at the time of the evacuation of Dunkirk and the populace generally well disposed towards the Army. In consequence, we were showered with all sorts of goodies, which I was a bit self-conscience of about accepting because we had not suffered in the way our compatriots had at the evacuation of Dunkirk.
On June 2nd, I finally completed my tour of duty at the V.P.’s and returned to Newmarket. Looking back on the four months I spent on guard duty at the V.P.’s, it was an experience I shall never forget – particularly as it was the first time I had done any real soldiering. However, when I see the skill displayed by our troops in Northern Ireland I hesitate to think what would have happened if we had encountered any major incident as I, and those who joined the T.A. with me in 1939, had had very little training in the use of small arms. I’m not sure I had fired a rifle at that time but, if I had, it certainly was no more than once. However, we survived to return to our role as gunners in the Essex Yeomanry.
At about this time there were rumours that the regiment was to be dispatched to Scandinavia as Horse Artillery, because we were still designated to R.H.A. Fortunately for us, the capitulation of Finland to Russia, & Norway to Germany brought about a change of plan. I say fortunately, because 90% of us had never ridden a horse and wouldn’t have any idea how to deal with one.
Shortly after this, the Regiment was re-designated Field Artillery and became R.A. At about the same time, it was re-organised and an additional Battery was added to the Regiment (No. 511), each Battery containing two troops of four guns, replacing Batteries of three troops of four guns. One memorable event occurred during my stay in Newmarket. The Regiment carried out an exercise at a place called Barton Mills, during which the 4.5″ Howitzers were fired for the first time using live ammunition. I still held the post of loader on 1B1 Troop’s No. 1 gun. There was a great deal of apprehension in the Troop as we were to fire the same guns that had been marked, until very recently, with the words ‘For Drill Purposes Only’. Fortunately the exercise passed off without incident. I have no idea how far our shots landed from their target … This was to be not only my first but also my last time to fire a gun.
On June 22nd we left Newmarket to make our temporary home in Hoxne, Norfolk. Conditions were very spartan indeed. We were under canvas in the grounds of Oakley Park, the mansion having been removed and re-built in America a year or two earlier. There were no facilities what-so-ever. Our personal cleanliness revolved around the River Waveney. We washed, shaved and bathed in it. I have a vivid picture in my mind of the Battery cook, George Hamilton, wrestling with an Aldershot oven, constructed of clay covering a curved sheet of corrugated iron – he was covered from head to foot by soot. It was at this location that our Battery Commander, Major Turner, made his celebrated speech to the Unit – telling us to beware of idle gossip about possible invasion by the Germans, which he said was all ’poppycock’. On July 8th we gladly departed from Hoxne for a tented camp in the grounds of Wetheringsett Manor, Suffolk. Major Turner became 2nd in Command of the Regiment and his place a Battery Commander was taken by our troop commander, who was promoted to Major.
At this time the storeman in the Battery Quartermaster’s Store, John Howchin, was recalled to his civilian job as an engineering draughtsman in Paxman’s (a Colchester factory making weapons) and I was transferred to the stores in his place.
After the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, Britain’s defences were in a parlous state. While over 300,000 men had been brought back to England, no weapons came with them so there was virtually nothing left, apart from the relics of the First World War, with which to put up any sort of resistance ~ in the event of an invasion by German forces. Winston Churchill had taken over from the discredited Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940 and he set about galvanising industry into action, in order to produce as many weapons of war as possible in the short time he felt we had left before an invasion attempt would be made.
Because of this imminent threat of invasion the newly formed 511 Battery, still armed only with 4.5” Howitzers, was ordered to the coast at Felixstowe, while 431 Battery was deployed further north along the Suffolk coast. 413 Battery remained in reserve at Wetheringsett, Occold and Mendlesham. B.Q.M.S. Goodall was in charge of the stores at this time and I was given the job of looking after what meagre stock of supplies was available.
The B.Q.M.S. indented for the food rations for the 200 men in the Battery, which he drew from the Regimental Quartermaster each day. He was also responsible for requisitioning clothing and every piece of equipment required by the Battery except ammunition, which was the responsibility of the Battery Captain and Battery Sergeant Major. Fuel reserves were kept in the Quartemaster’s Store, in two gallon cans, and these had to be checked every day. The collection and distribution of laundry was one of the duties carried out by the Q.M.’s staff. While in Wetheringsett this work was undertaken by a laundry in Stowmarket.
Whilst stationed in Wetheringsett, it was sometimes possible to get into Ipswich for the evening and even home to Colchester on occasions. Public transport was almost non-existent and hitch-hiking became the order of the day. Private cars were rare and I can well remember travelling to Ipswich astride a petrol tanker on one occasion and among a load of empty biscuit tins on the roof of a lorry on another.
The war in the air was hotting up and German planes were ranging all over Eastern and Southern Britain. Hurricanes and Spitfires were coming off the production lines in increasing numbers under the guidance of Lord Beaverbrook, who had been appointed Minister of Aircraft Production by Winston Churchill – and many enemy planes were brought down in East Anglia. The first I saw of this was when a German bomber and an English fighter came down in Newmarket on June 18th. Another bomber came down close to our camp in Wetheringsett, and I learned later that this was the same plane as had destroyed the laundry at Colchester Maternity Home earlier that day and had sprayed the centre of the town with bullets.
During that summer at Wetheringsett, the stores were housed in a barn and my quarters, which I shared with another member of the stores staff, were in a bell tent in a thicket behind the barn. There was another barn in the farmyard which was used as cookhouse and mess-room. On the far side of this barn was a field in which cows were usually grazing. The farmer kept a bull, which we named Ferdinand, in the field adjoining the thicket where I slept. One night I was awakened by a tremendous racket and almost immediately half the guy ropes supporting the tent were wrenched from the ground as the bull charged through the thicket, across the farmyard and through the hedge into the field where the cows were waiting – with only one thought in mind. I think I was lucky not to have been trampled to death by the bull as I learnt, a few months later, that the farmer had been killed by that same bull.
Early in September, the B.Q.M.S. left the Battery and I was promoted to Lance-Bombardier and given a probationary period in charge of the Stores. Following my probation I was again promoted, to the rank of Bombardier (2 stripes). Although not yet given the rank of B.Q.M.S. I was, from the autumn of 1940, carrying out all the duties attached to this post. As the Regiment was together in one place and under canvas, they were not perhaps as onerous as they became later in my career.
The Battery messed separately, so it was necessary to obtain rations from R.H.Q.; clothing was still in short supply and very carefully checked before being replaced. Quarters were of course no problem, and other supplies such as small arms were strictly limited. I felt happy that I had at last found a satisfying job in the Army.
In September the daylight raids by the Germans reached their climax and many hundreds of planes on both sides were destroyed. This period became known as the “Battle of Britain” and the danger of invasion was imminent – we had heard that the German army was massing in Belgium, with barges being prepared for the prime targets. The Regiment was on full alert for a large part of this month, and it was touch and go as to whether the country’s resources of planes and trained airmen could hold out. Fortunately, Hitler decided to call off his offensive when things were at their blackest – from Britain’s point of view.
As autumn arrived and the temperature dropped the Regiment moved out of its positions under canvas. Regimental Headquarters moved into billets at Eye; ‘B’ Troop moved to Occold; ‘C’ Troop moved to Mendlesham; and B.H.Q. moved to billets in the village of Wetheringsett. I was billeted with the vicar, the Rev. Cox, and his wife.
I had my great friend Jimmy Mehigan as a roommate. He had worked with me in the Borough Treasurer’s Department before enlisting and was posted with me to the same gun crew in the Yeomanry. The Battery Commander had asked me who I thought would make a good Stores Clerk, as the previous incumbent had left at the end of September, and I had no hesitation in recommending him.
It was quite a comfortable billet but, apart from the fact that we were expected to pump sufficient water for the vicarage from the well below the kitchen up into the loft each day, the only little difficulty arose because the access to our room was by means of a corridor which had been formed by fixing a flimsy screen along one side of another bedroom – occupied by the Battery Captain. (This made things very awkward, particularly if we had visited the local inn).
There was little to do in the village when not on duty except to visit one of the local hostelries, or the canteen in the village hall provided by the Women’s Voluntary Service. Whichever we used, it was often necessary to relieve ourselves during the night. The only way this could be done without causing too much commotion was to use our tin hats. I look back with nostalgia to my stay in Wetheringsett, and renewed my acquaintance with the Rev. and Mrs. Cox after the war.
On December 19th 1940 the Regiment left Suffolk and were stationed for a short while in Norwich, pending taking up a coastal defence role in North Norfolk. Christmas was spent in the city. It was my first visit and I was very impressed by it. A fortnight later we moved to Cromer, where I set up my Stores at 45, Cabbell Road; B.H.Q. was in Macdonald Road; ‘B’ Troop took over Tuckers Hotel in the town centre; and ‘ C’ Troop moved into the Cliftonville Hotel on the seafront. Regimental Headquarters was at Holt and the other Batteries were farther west along the coast at West Runton and Sheringham. Although we had the occasional alert, especially the night when bombs fell on houses (occupied by another unit) across the road from the Cliftonville Hotel, killing several soldiers, our stay was uneventful.
The north-east coast of Norfolk was named ‘E’ boat alley as this was where these fast German motor-torpedo boats operated against convoys of British merchant ships very successfully. Many British ships were lost in this stretch of water, and we heard occasional battles taking place at night. These were generally followed by a mass of flotsam being washed up on shore over the next few days. 1941 was the year when the British, and its Commonwealth, stood alone against Germany and Italy.
The war was going badly for us. After a famous advance across North Africa under General Wavell, in which the 104th (Essex Yeomanry) Regt. R.A. took part, and in which a very large number of Italians were taken prisoner, the tide had turned against us when the German Army entered the fray and the British and Commonwealth forces were pushed back – almost to Cairo.
There were also enormous losses to German ’U’ boats, and it seemed certain to our leaders that the war would have been lost if President Roosevelt had not agreed to ‘Lend-lease’. This was the agreement under which Britain secured the use of a large number of ‘moth-balled’ American Navy destroyers, which were then able to be used on escort convoys across the Atlantic.
As Regimental H.Q. was at Holt, I had quite a journey to make each day to obtain and distribute rations throughout the Battery. However, it proved an excellent time for me to learn to drive. I had obtained a learner’s licence a month before war broke out with the intention of learning to drive but had had only a couple of lessons before being embodied into the Army. Thus I finished my training in a 3-ton Bedford lorry, which proved very useful later on in my service.
Night raids on London and the big cities reached a crescendo in May, when the city became one huge fire-ball. However, under the inspired leadership of Winston Churchill, the British people showed no sign of capitulation. In spite of great hardship the spirit of the masses did not waiver.
To return to my own position, on 3rd June 1941 the 413 Battery was moved from its winter quarters in Cromer to a new venue. ‘B’ Troop went to the village of Aylmerton while B.H.Q. and ‘C’ Troop took up quarters in Mundesley Holiday Camp.
We lived in chalets normally occupied by holiday-makers. While our fellow Essex Yeomen were besieged in Tobruk we were enjoying life in Mundesley. We were still very much under-equipped. Our guns were First World War 18 pounders, for which we had 8 rounds of live ammo per gun, although we had large reserves of French 75m.m. ammunition which could not be used. When I enquired what we should do with this in the event of an invasion I was told that we should hurl it at the enemy from the cliff top as they landed on the beach. Ask a silly question ………..!
The summer of 1941 was idyllic, as were our surroundings. We were able to use the beach below the cliffs at Mundesley for swimming and, with the use of camouflage nets, we were able to catch sufficient fish (mainly plaice and lemon sole) to provide fish and chip suppers most evenings. The company in the local hostelry, “The Ship”, was invariably convivial and there was a good canteen in the village when needed.
BHQ, 413 Bty., 147 Essex Yeomanry Field Reg., R.A. Mundesley Holiday Camp photograph : Left to right:
5th/Back Row: Batterham; Passfield; Mason; Page; Loxton; Rawlings; Goose; Martin.
4th Row: Thompson; Dickson; Cole; Griffiths; Briginshaw; Warner; Peck; Howlett; Ware; Brooks; Armitage.
3rd Row: Baker; Welch; Wilson; Smith (Lt.); Mills; J. P. Mehigan; Dalton; Maryon; Degg; Robertson; Roberts.
2nd Row: Jones; Tatum; Bassham; Hill; Garrard; Rouse; Gold (Lt.); Johnson; Bentley; Whybrow; Lambert; Simpson.
1st/Front: Dabbs; Pudney; Foot; Baxter; Moy; Bearman; Ellis; Stewart; Madden; Gally; Hamer.
[N.B. Lt. Rodney Wyman Gold, Captain, Royal Artillery, 65 Field Regt. Died 24.2.1944.Buried: Beach Head War Cemetery, Anzio. HAJ]
B Troop, 413 Battery, 147th Essex Yeomanry Army Field Regiment, R.A.
[N.B. Felix wrote names on the back and further ID has been added in [..] HAJ].
Back row downwards, left to right:
[W.] Peck; Dobson; Foster; -; -; -; -; Crane [C.H., Gunner]; Clough; R.J. Youngs; Rippingale [R.A., Gunner 914863]; Frost; Eggleton [L.F., Bombardier 977537]; Paterson [F.R., L/Bdr. 977715]; Cook [G., Gunner].
Denney; -; Theobald; Duffett; Bolam [J.F., Bombardier]; -; -; -; Bushel; Embury; -; Stokes [G.A., Sergeant]; Collinson [J.H.]; -; -; -.
-; Barton [P.J., Bombardier]; Gladwell; Kearton [A.H., Sergeant ?977707?]; Bunting(?) [Dick]; Eastall [Ken]; -; Rodney Gold [Lt.]; Richardson; Crawford(?); Marshall [Larry]; Tatum [R.B., Sergeant 918070]; -; -; Brown(?) [R. or Jack? Gunner]; Holland [.V., L/Sgt. “Dutchy”].
Fairweather; -; -; -; Joy(?); -; Spray(?); -; Avis; -; Davies”?” [L.G., Private 897044]; -; -; -; Hill [S.G., Gunner).
(N.B. Where there is a -, Felix wrote a dash (either not knowing or recalling a man’s name; where there is a “?”, Felix wrote a question-mark against the name (being uncertain); and where there is a (?), it denotes we are not 100% sure about the name because of Felix’s writing. HAJ)
All good things come to an end… on 21st October we finally left our defensive positions on the coast and journeyed to Nottingham, where we remained for a while in Arboretum Street. The city contained factories making weapons and other war materials so, for protection, drums containing old sump and diesel oil were placed all around the area which, in the event of an air raid warning, were set alight so that the black smoke emitted blotted out likely targets. The stench, at times, was over-powering. While in this city, the Regiment was re-equipped with the new 25 pounder guns.
We were not sorry when, just before Christmas, the Regiment moved north to Thirsk, in Yorkshire. I was billeted in Castlegate and set up my store in the disused Town Hall. My first contact with Yorkshire folk occurred the very next Sunday when I attended church at Sowerby Methodist Chapel. After the service W. H. Page (Bunny), a fellow Methodist, and I were invited to spend Christmas Day at the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. Rooke, who were farmers* living in Topcliffe Road. [*Cod Beck Farm?] They were very hospitable people and I returned there many times, visiting them with my family after the cessation of hostilities. There I was introduced to the Yorkshire custom of eating cheese with Xmas Cake.
Whilst at Thirsk, Col. R.A. Phayre was appointed to take over from Col. Laurie as Commanding Officer of the Regiment – as Col. Laurie had reached the age when he was no longer available for service overseas. He was very keen on physical fitness and issued an order that everyone in the Regiment must complete one circuit of Thirsk race-course in less than ten minutes. Any man who failed to do this would be required to attend at the course at 6.30 a.m. each day to repeat the run – until he succeeded. I had had no physical training since becoming B.Q.M.S. a year earlier so felt doubtful that I could do it. However, I could see no way out of taking part but, fortunately, managed to get round in 9 mins. 40 secs., to my great relief.
By now the regiment had been integrated into the newly formed 42nd Armoured Division and numerous exercises took place in 1942, most of which required quite a bit of map reading, at which I became reasonably proficient, and which proved to be extremely important later in the war. It should be remembered that all road signs in Britain had been removed when invasion was expected so even in England one could easily get lost.
Ever since being stationed in Thirsk, I have had a soft spot in my heart for the place. It is a small market town which has not changed a great deal over the years and I have returned several times since my service days. The winter was hard in 1942 and, at times, snow blocked the road at Sutton Bank, a hill with a gradient of 1 in 4, and it fell to the Regiment to keep the road open. There was, of course, very little other than military traffic on the roads as petrol coupons were necessary to obtain fuel, and these were only issued for essential purposes.
On one occasion I was detailed to take two lorries to Catterick to pick up stores. It had been snowing but the roads were not too bad and we arrived safely at Catterick. However, on the return journey we ran into a blizzard on the A1, which at that time was a single-carriage road. Windscreen wipers could not cope with the snow and I had to manually wipe the snow off the screen so that the driver could see his way ahead. As a result, I failed to notice that the second vehicle was not following. I decided we had better retrace our steps to try and find out what had happened to it. As we came over a hump-backed bridge, I could see a stationary lorry on the other side of the road about 200 yards ahead. I told the driver to pull up about 100 yards beyond the bridge so that, if anything came over it, there would be plenty of room for it to pass between the vehicles safely.
I went across the road to speak to the driver of the other vehicle, which was a civilian lorry, and while I was asking him if he had seen a stranded Array vehicle on the road, a large 60′ vehicle and trailer (loaded with cylinders of gas, most likely for use with barrage balloons) came over the bridge. It pulled up short of my vehicle, not being able to pass easily between the two stationary vehicles. Shortly afterwards a second similar vehicle came over the bridge.
The driver jammed on his brakes and skidded in the snow, whereupon the trailer jack-knifed into a telegraph pole which snapped in two, and the cargo of cylinders was shed into a ditch. A few seconds later a third R.A.F. vehicle and trailer appeared on the bridge and the driver immediately slammed his foot down on the brake with the result that the whole vehicle slewed round and jammed itself between the parapets of the bridge – causing the road to become completely blocked. R.A.F. men were running about all over the place, so I decided the only sensible thing to do was to beat a hasty retreat. I found, when I got back to camp, that the second vehicle I had taken with me had made its own way home without incident.
Life in Thirsk was pleasant; there was a good canteen in the village and I was able to arrange a weekly bath at the house adjoining the Stores. All good things must come to an end and, on 29th May, the Battery moved to Kirby Moorside which, as its name implies, is a small town on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors. The billet was not too good but it was summer time so it wasn’t important. Exercises on the moor were the rule and I had my usual job of collecting rations from R.H.Q., now in Nawton, each day.
A month later the Battery moved to an isolated spot a short distance from Helmsley, called Carlton Highwood. We were billeted in Nissen huts in the wood and, as soon as we were settled, we noticed the very large ants (about ½” long) that began to invade the huts. Fortunately, they were not the biting kind. We found out later that they had been imported from Borneo before the war to feed the pheasants but, as war progressed, the pheasants disappeared and the ants thrived. There were ant-hills some 6’ tall in, and for a half-mile round, the wood and we spent much of our time setting fire to these ant-hills as there was nothing else to do. Unfortunately, the officers’ mess kitchen was destroyed in the process.
We were not sorry to leave on June 23rd, when we moved to Gilling East, in the grounds of Gilling Castle which was, and still is, a Catholic Public School. There was another hutted camp in a pleasant little village and, once a week, we were able to take a truck into York where there was plenty of entertainment.
All this time we were exercising with 42nd Division, either on the moors or in the Pennines, gradually improving the skills of all ranks. By this time, we had become used to the new 25 pounder field gun which was a very fine and flexible weapon. As the end of the year approached the greater part of the Battery, including most of B.H.Q., moved for a few weeks to Scarborough where the troops were able to get in some tank firing practice. Just before Christmas, I had to return to Gilling to prepare for another major change which took place December 20th 1942.
ROMANCE: At this point, I will digress from my wartime experiences to mention another very important event in my life.
In October 1939, just after the outbreak of war and while I was still living in Colchester, the Colchester Branch of NALGO (at that time the local government officers’ union) held a sausage and mash supper in Nuttall’s Oak Hall, which was at the rear of a shop immediately opposite the Town Hall. As a member I was invited to attend, as were the staff of the Maternity Home which, at that time, was run by the Council. A recently arrived midwife (a member of its staff) attended as the guest of Miss P. Lowndes, the senior administrative assistant at the Home. Her name was Frances Elizabeth Barnett. I found myself sitting next to her at the supper. Being naturally clumsy, I knocked the bread roll on her side plate on to the floor as I sat down. This caused me great embarrassment and I offered her my roll. We seemed to get on quite well and had one or two dances together during the evening.
A month or so later, NALGO held another social function to which I invited Miss Barnett and my friendship with her began to deepen thereafter. While I had escorted the occasional young lady to a dance, I had had only one mildly serious relationship with a woman before the war which I realised, after a few months, was not going to last. This new relationship with Frances was different.
Once I had left Colchester, official leave was infrequent. There was a period in 1940 when I was unable to return for almost six months. This was at the time when the crisis in the country was at its worst, when invasion was threatened. Whenever I could get home we spent her off-duty time together. I remember being in town one day with Frances when we had to take shelter during an air-raid in the Castle dungeons…
By the end of 1940, although we had had a comparatively short time together, I knew that Frances was the woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. In the following May, I asked her to be my wife. I was accepted and a year later we were married by the Rev. W. Jacobs, at Culver Street Methodist Church, Colchester. My office and army colleague, James (Jimmy) P. Mehigan, was my best man.
Frances did not wear white as, at that time, it was impossible to get material for such a dress. All clothing was rationed and I, of course, was wearing my uniform. I remember, at the time, going into a men’s outfitters shop in Thirsk to buy a pair of pyjamas to take with me on the honeymoon. The shop-keeper asked me for my coupons which, being in the Army, I was unable to supply. However, he was sympathetic and in the circumstances agreed to let me have them without coupons – for which I was extremely grateful. Before leaving for home for the wedding, and to my great surprise and delight, I was presented with a Westminster chiming clock as a wedding present from the officers and men of 413 Battery Headquarters.
After a reception in the Culver Street Church parlour, we left for our honeymoon at the Royal Hotel in Norwich. And so our married life began. In spite of the fact that the sun did not shine on that day, I can only say that I have been blissfully happy for over fifty years.
TO RETURN TO THE CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER OF EVENTS:
The December 20th 1942 saw the end of my service in the Essex Yeomanry. The powers that be in the Army decided that they needed more artillery regiments and, as a result, most of 413 Battery personnel were hived off (with a similar number of men from the Hertfordshire Yeomanry) to form a new Field Regiment. This was to be known as the 191st (Herts. and Essex Yeomanry) Field Regt., R.A., and from that day I became B.Q.M.S. of the 532 Battery in that Regiment.
Still under the command of the 42nd Armoured Division, we moved to a new location in Yorkshire. Regimental H.Q. was at Hovingham together with 533 and 534 Battery, to the latter of which my great friend and former stores clerk, Jim Mehigan, was transferred and promoted B.Q.M.S. Apart from the 120 men transferred from each of the two Yeomanry regiments, the balance of about 450 men needed to bring the regiment up to strength were either recruits just completing their six weeks basic training or came from disbanded infantry regiments.
A great deal of hard work was therefore necessary to turn the Regiment into a fighting unit. Lt. Col. J.R. Cochrane, the Commanding Officer, had been second in command of the Essex Yeomanry. He was a regular soldier with very good organising ability and it was not long before training had progressed sufficiently for full scale exercises to be undertaken. Shoots took place on Spaunton Moor and at Fylingdales, where anti-tank training was held. During this period 532 Battery was stationed at Slingsby, most men being quartered in Nissen huts surrounding the ruins of a castle.
My Store was in a very old Tudor cottage in the village. The entrance door and the ceiling beams were about 5’9″ from the floor and I could only stand up between the beams. Needless to say I was constantly banging my head. During my stay in Slingsby, Bdr. H. (Bert) Ireland, a man of the utmost integrity, became my stores clerk. After losing contact with him for almost 50 years, I am glad to say that we have recently regained contact. In general, the villagers in Slingsby were very friendly and we were invited to take part in their weekly whist drives – which I thoroughly enjoyed.
A very necessary part of my job was to be able to find locations, so there were a number of map-reading exercises. On one such occasion, I was given co-ordinates which led me to a clearing in Sherwood Forest, some fifty miles from my starting point, where I was to pick up fuel for the Battery’s vehicles. On arrival I could find no Royal Army Service Corps vehicles present, but I felt sure that I had read the map correctly. I decided to wait and, about 30 minutes later, the supply vehicles arrived.
In March 1943 the 42nd Armoured Division moved south and, on the 30th of that month, the Regiment moved to Trowbridge, Wiltshire. The journey down was plagued with mishaps, but two days later we arrived at our destination in the barracks at Trowbridge. The barracks consisted of old 19th century quarters in which R.H.Q. were housed, plus a number of wooden structures. These were known as spiders because they consisted of a number of barrack rooms connected to a central messroom, together with a smaller room in which the senior N.C.O.’s were housed, giving the over-all appearance of a large wooden spider. Each of these spiders housed a Battery. My Q.M. Stores consisted of a wooden shed situated close to the 532 Battery spider. It held most of the equipment for which I was responsible but, about 300 yards away in the old barracks, I was allocated a room in which bedding and other large items were stored.
This was not an arrangement conducive to good control. Bert Ireland, my stores clerk, had been transferred and was now a gun-layer and Harry Glaister had replaced him. I had also been allocated two storemen who had recently joined the Army, both over 40. Gnr. Jesse Brook, originally from Leeds, had been working in the tailoring trade and was always smartly turned out. He was obviously the right man to look after the clothing stock, except that he was rather too fussy about the fit of uniforms when kitting out men. Gnr. Williams, the other man allocated to me for stores duty, was a disgruntled former Welsh policeman who resented being in the Army and was, in every way, a misfit. On one occasion he was sent to fill a paillasse for a new recruit. An hour later he had not returned from the bedding store and, on investigation, I found him asleep in the straw used to fill the paillasses. He was transferred shortly afterwards to the Military Police where, perhaps, he found things more to his liking.
During the Regiment’s stay in Trowbridge, it was involved in a number of exercises including one at Sennybridge in Wales and several on Salisbury Plains, which were not far from Trowbridge.
At the beginning of September, after the break-up of the 42nd Armoured Division, 532 Battery was sent to Angle in Pembrokeshire, at the south-west tip of Wales, to support 27th Armoured Brigade, which was an experimental Brigade. We were to see all sorts of weird and wonderful vehicles in action, some of which played a crucial role in the fighting which was to come later in the war. There were flail tanks, used for exploding land mines ahead of the vehicle; tanks loaded high with what looked like rolls of chestnut fencing, which would be used to lay a track ahead of themselves to avoid becoming bogged down in mud; and other machines there for testing in battle conditions.
A month later, on October 2nd, the Battery returned to Trowbridge and, one week later, we left Wiltshire en route for Ramillies Barracks at Aldershot. The Regiment had been transferred to the 2nd (Canadian) Army Group, R.A. We were to be fully mobilised and ready for action by October 31st. For the next month we were subjected to all sorts of humiliating trials, receiving injections against various diseases and having to pass through gas chambers, with and without gas-masks, and submitting to health and dental checks, all in preparation for an imminent move overseas.
Having overcome these ordeals we moved, on November 12th, to Sutton in Surrey, where I was billeted in a house in Mulgrave Road. My sojourn in Sutton was very pleasant. B.S.M. Wynne Griffith and I made friends with a family named Cox, who lived in Robin Hood Lane, and we spent many happy evenings with them in their home. There was also a very good inn at Sutton called “The Cock”, which was much frequented by servicemen. We were also not too far from London so we were able to visit the West End occasionally. Time was spent waterproofing vehicles so that they could be driven through water safely, and a large pond near Epsom Downs was used to try these out.
Italy had, by this time, been conquered and there was a feeling of expectancy in the air, waiting for the final onslaught to finish the war, and this mood continued right up to the time when the last move was made to Essex – just prior to D-Day. There was however, a break in our stay in Sutton when we were ordered to trek north to Redesdale in Northumberland, for a firing camp. There was very little improvement in this inhospitable place since my previous visit, when many men finished up in sick bay. This time there was no snow but plenty of wind, which caused one hilarious incident. Pay parade, supervised by the Battery Captain, was in progress in the open-air beside a belt of trees when a strong gust of wind blew the stack of bank-notes high into the air. There was a wild rush to retrieve them, and I doubt whether the pay-roll agreed on that occasion.