After I left school in 1936, I spent a year working in an office in Brussels. The object was to brush up my French. I had done well in languages at school, and spoke good French, German and Spanish. I received little pay, but lived with the office manager and his wife. They spoke French, but whenever there was anything to discuss which they thought I should not hear, they spoke in Flemish. I was surprised to find that I very quickly became proficient in that language, a fact which I kept strictly to myself!
On my return home, I found a job as Junior Clerk in the overseas office of a City of London insurance company. On the strength of my knowledge of languages, I was offered the magnificent starting salary of £ 75 p.a. — instead of the normal £ 60.
Soon afterwards, in the summer of 1937, we had a visit from a cousin of my father’s, a senior officer in the Indian Army. He was horrified to hear of my slaving away in the City at such a meagre salary. He suggested that I should apply for a job in the Indian Civil Service. I could do this at India House in London, and he would be happy to act as referee. He thought that, with my facility of picking up languages, I would easily earn language bonuses by passing exams in Urdu, Gujerati, etc.
He asked me whether I could ride a horse — this would be necessary, as much of the work in the ICS involved riding to outposts in the country. I could not. The only riding school near us was run by two sisters, for girls. He suggested that I should find a horsed Territorial Army regiment, join up, and when I had mastered riding, resign and come to India House. I knew of a drill hall near my office, and went there one evening after work, to enquire where the nearest horsed unit could be found,
The drill hall belonged to the London Rifle Brigade, and I was told that upstairs I would find the office of the City of London Yeomanry, RHA, which was, indeed, horsed. Here, I was interviewed by someone whom I was soon to come to know as BSM Pemberton. I was told that the Battery had only just returned from Summer Training Camp, and that there were a few vacancies, especially for recruits wishing to learn to ride. Before I knew it, I was being issued with jodhpurs, puttees, boots and spurs, and told to report next week for my first riding lesson!
For the next few weeks I learned to ride at St John’s Wood Barracks on alternate weeks. In between, I was taught how to march, form fours, present arms and other such interesting things. Following this, the bar would open, and we recruits would often be regaled by none other than BSM Pemberton and his rendition of Kipling’s “Snarleyow”.
Progress at St John’s Wood was slow. About eight of us were learning to ride. The first lesson was hilarious. It was amazing to see how many of us managed to end up sitting facing the horse’s rear end, or forgot to take our feet out of the stirrups when dismounting!
Entire lessons were spent mastering the various gaits of the horse — the walk, the trot, the canter and the gallop. All went well until we reached the jump. It was then that I finally came unstuck. My horse had a wry sense of humour. It would approach the jump at speed, and at the last moment dig in its heels (do horses have heels?). I would sail over the jump and look back at the horse, chuckling at me on the far side.
It was then that Providence stepped in on my side. At the next parade at the drill hall, it was announced that further riding lessons were cancelled, as the battery was being mechanised. Any recruit who could drive would be trained on trucks. I had had a few turns around the block in my father’s car, so that included me.
This must have been the spring of 1938. The Battery had hitherto been the third battery of a Horse Artillery Regiment, the two senior batteries of which formed the Honourable Artillery Company. We were now to exchange our 13-pounder RHA guns for Swedish Bofors 2-pounder pom-pom guns, expand to three batteries — 31st, 32nd and 33rd — and become known as the 101st Light AA and Anti-Tank Regiment. I was drafted into 31 Bty.
I forgot all about India and the ICS, and that summer went to the annual training camp at Stiffkey in Norfolk, where we took turns firing our one Bofors gun at a coloured flag towed by an aircraft from a nearby airfield. When we were not firing, we carried on with intricate military movements, which still included sword drill.
A few days before the end of camp, we were told that there was an international crisis, and the Regiment was being mobilised. We remained in camp, and received our mobilisation bounty, a few pounds, which were quickly spent on beer (at 5 old pence a pint!). Our short period of life as “real soldiers” ended when the Prime Minister, Mr Ramsay Macdonald (sic), stepped off a plane at Croydon, waving a piece of paper which was supposed to guarantee Peace In Our Time!
In the months after Camp, the Regiment was developed further. We received more Bofors guns. A fourth battery — 43 — was formed, to which I was transferred. At the time of the 1939 Camp, each battery had at least one Bofors gun, and some even had two.
There was more AA training at Stiffkey in 1939. A highlight of Camp was a visit from a pilot from the airfield that supplied us with targets. We were informed that one of our guns had managed to hit his rudder! Of course, it was “one of the other batteries”!
It was not very long after our return from Camp that I was telephoned at work by one of the serjeants (we still spelt this rank with a “j” in the old way), and told that we were being mobilised again. I was to report as quickly as possible to the Drill Hall in uniform, in full Field Service Marching Order, and with my kitbag packed with everything I should need for an indefinite stay.
I was among the first to arrive, and we early arrivals were delighted when a well-known firm offered to take a few groups on a tour of their nearby brewery. We were taught about brewing, and offered copious samples of their wares! It was a pleasant start to what was to become WW 2. We slept well on lumpy palliasses in the Drill Hall that night. Next morning, a fleet of civilian trucks came to transport us to our various destinations.
43 Battery was taken to Tilbury Docks. Our one Bofors gun had been re-allocated to one of the other batteries. A few days later, we received our four guns. These were not Bofors guns, but redundant naval 2-pounder pom-poms, which had been removed from naval vessels. We were also provided with four trucks with flat wooden beds, to which the guns were to be screwed. Unfortunately, we did not receive the screws until much later. The trucks had to be towed and manhandled into position, as their engines did not work. It was impossible to fire the guns, which would have toppled over at the first shot.
Another reason we could not fire the guns was because the ammunition we had received was for Bofors guns, and would not fit the naval guns. All this would not have been apparent to the daily Lufthansa flight, a civilian Ju52 aircraft that flew directly overhead to Croydon Airport and then back to Germany. It probably had photographs of our positions, and the photographic interpreters would see guns, ammunition and, of course, us. Hopefully they could not see that we were no deterrent to them!
Our officers were billeted in comfortable quarters on board one of the ships laid up in the docks, whereas we ORs were in the classrooms of St Chad’s School nearby.
Some months later, we were re-deployed to the Chingford/Ponders End area of North London. I had in the meantime done a course of signalling, and had mastered the Morse code and Semaphore. On arrival at our new Headquarters, Hawkswood House, Chingford, I was told that I would be the Battery Signaller, under Sjt Ogden.
Hawkswood House had been a girls’ school, prettily set at the end of a long drive, in extensive grounds. During the first few nights of our occupation, some of us were surprised to hear continuous bell ringing. We soon found that some of the rooms, presumably former school dormitories, had bells marked “Ring for Mistress”!
My job as a signaller was to lay field telephone lines from Battery HQ to each of our four guns, as well as to the local Police Station. The latter was about two miles away, on the other side of a wood. The guns were located at various points in a nearby golf course. I was kept busy re-laying these wires, because the local poachers found that the wire could readily be split into finer strands. Snares could be made from these to catch rabbits, to supplement the meat ration! We had no radios in those days, and had to rely on the old field telephones, which had to be cranked up to call an out-station. My life was a leisurely one, mainly spent in patrolling the telephone lines and trying to keep them inaccessible and out of sight of the poachers.
The first winter of the War was spent in Chingford, and the following spring we received our Bofors guns and moved to Dorset. 43 Bty was stationed in Bere Regis. At first, I was billeted on the local vicar, The Rev Herring, but I picked up German Measles from somewhere. The vicar’s wife, who had just discovered that she was pregnant, insisted that I was moved.
After a spell in the military hospital in Blandford Forum, I was returned to Bere Regis, to find that my belongings had been moved to a loft above the local grocers’ shop. There were four of us in this billet, a very comfortable one, and the only chore was that we had to take turns pumping water from a well into the header tank at the top of the house every evening.
Meals were served in the village hall, just by Bty HQ, and the owners of the local watercress beds supplied us generously with their product.
Whilst in Dorset, we went through a period of intensive battle training — gun drill, route marches and manoeuvres, together with the other batteries of the regiment. We had our numbers augmented by a draft of conscripts. We were now part of the 1st Armoured Division — Div Sign, a rhinoceros — and rumours were rife, mainly that our departure for France was imminent.
The day came, in May 1940, when the battery received its orders to proceed to the coast for embarkation, and I and five or six others were summoned to the Commanding Officer’s office. We were told that we were to be left behind as a rear party, the reason being that we all had close relatives in Germany. It was considered that, should we be taken prisoner, these relatives might be made to suffer. As I was the senior soldier of the group, I was given the dubious honour of a local, acting and unpaid stripe!
Our little group watched with heavy hearts as our comrades left for France. Our task was now to clean up the various buildings we had occupied, ready for the next unit to come into the area. This proved to be a Yeomanry unit from the Newcastle area, and as soon as we had handed over to them, we had to report to the RA Barracks in Woolwich.
We very soon had good reason to be glad that we had not gone with our battery to the Continent. We had always thought that German armoured troops were equipped with trucks bearing plywood “mock-ups” of tanks, and that our 2-pounder guns would make short shrift of them. However, our shells had just bounced off the very real tanks with which the German Panzer Divisions overran the north of France. A steady stream of our comrades began to arrive at Woolwich with stories of prisoners taken, wounded and dead members of the Regiment, as well as painful escapes via the beaches around Dunkirk.
I had, on arrival in Woolwich, been informed in no uncertain terms that my stripe must be removed forthwith, as it was only local, and “local” meant Bere Regis only! Demoted to the rank of Gunner, I was now posted to a unit in Sandy, Bedfordshire. This turned out to be 215 ATk Bty, a part of 54 ATk Regt, and of the 52nd (Lowland) Division. This regiment also bore the title of The Queen’s Own Glasgow Yeomanry. I was one of only five “Sassenachs” in a unit mainly from the Gorbals district of Glasgow. I had little time to try to learn the language they spoke, before we were on our way to France. I heard much later that this was a last-ditch effort to stop the German Blitzkrieg. We were brought back to Britain hurriedly only a few days later, whereupon my Army career took on a completely different route.
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