My father survived the horrors of the First World War where he served in the Royal Garrison Artillery and he returned home from France in 1919 which was very fortunate for me because I was born in 1920.
My early years were spent in a troubled world that was still reeling from the shock of the recent conflict. The people of Britain were desperate to forget the miseries of the war years whilst they struggled to cope with the problems of a changing way of life. These were the days of silly fashions and exaggerated gestures when it was considered smart to dance the Charleston and for women to smoke cigarettes in long holders. Motor cars were now a common sight on the streets and almost every city had tramcars and motor buses, which made travel a great deal easier than it had ever been. Although people still worked long hours, holidays beside the sea were becoming popular during the summer months, but in spite of such changes there was still a great deal of poverty and unemployment as the country was going through a period of depression and dole queues were a common sight. Some people were desperately poor and had to subsist with the aid of food tickets issued to the needy by the Board of Guardians, a committee of wealthy and influential men who had no experience and little knowledge of dire poverty.
The large majority of homes were without electricity and although many houses had gas lighting some still had to make do with paraffin lamps or candles as a means of illumination. Radio and television were things for the future and for me, as for many other children of my age; a visit to the cinema to watch a black and white film was a rare treat. I do not recall having many toys, they were things to dream about, but to compensate I did have the vital element of freedom which enabled me to wander the countryside around our home without any fear of molestation.
My formal education commenced when I was five years of age, but for me school was not a very happy place largely because my temperament was not at all suited to the conditions imposed by mass education. It would be surprising if any of my teachers remembered me with any degree of warmth because I was far from being the ideal pupil. It was not that I was cheeky or disobedient, my upbringing made such behaviour unthinkable. At all times I was very polite and I really did try hard to please my teachers, but alas, with little success. They said that I had a good brain but was far too lazy to use it to any advantage. The teachers always complained I was too easily distracted and spent far too much time daydreaming. The latter was certainly true.
The truth of the matter was that I was bored to distraction for most of the time. There was too much 'chalk and talk' and little opportunity to use one's own initiative, hardly any visual aids to the teaching and no individual attention whatsoever. Everything was served up in huge chunks of knowledge which were delivered in long, tedious oral lessons which droned on and on and on and I would quietly slip away from it all becoming lost in my own thoughts. Often, at the end of a lesson, a furious and frustrated teacher would discover that I hadn't heard a word that had been said. I must have been a very trying pupil!
In spite of my uncooperative attitude and lack of industry I quickly learned to read. This was one of the greatest blessings of my life and my everlasting thanks go out to those underpaid spinsters who gave me this skill. Reading opened the door to a whole new world and I took full advantage of this wonderful gift reading almost everything that came to hand. I loved reading and consumed books with an insatiable appetite.
In many ways I had a good home and compared with many of my schoolfellows I was showered with the good things of life. Always an abundance of wholesome food, all my physical needs were well catered for and there were books that fed my imagination with a host of fascinating ideas that found an outlet in my play. Tales of Robin Hood, Coral Island, Treasure Island, tales of the Great War, stories from history, sea yarns, tales of the outback or the prairies, Cowboys and Indians; these were the stuff of which dreams were made. The heroes were always men of courage and integrity, there was no dallying with half measures, no making of excuses for those of evil intent and cowards were not to be tolerated under any consideration. Things were black or they were white, men were either goodies or they were baddies and the goodies always won or they died with their faces towards the enemy, steadfast to the end.
I often feel sorry for the children of today surrounded as they are by expensive toys, radios, televisions, computers, electrical robots of various kinds and numerous plastic articles that carry the name 'toys' but are really just useless lumps of synthetic material. It is sad to see healthy children, bursting with energy, trapped in stuffy, overheated rooms. They have their eyes glued to television screens whilst outside the sun shines on empty woods and fields and birds fly unheard and unseen by a generation of children who have lost the freedom that we enjoyed so much when I was young.
During those early years I spent some of my happiest hours with my two older brothers in a hut which father had built for us in the garden. It was constructed from sheets of corrugated iron, which were nailed to a framework of timbers. In the hut was a slow combustion stove that stood on a stone slab and there was a long stovepipe chimney that went up through the roof. This hut was the focal point of all our games of fantasy. Sometimes it was a dugout on the Western Front from which we would sally forth with bayonets fixed to charge the German enemy across the mud of Flanders. On other days, with smoke pouring from the chimney, it became the engine room, or the bridge, or both, of a Destroyer battling against the stormy winds of the North Atlantic. On cold, winter days it was often a trapper's hut or an outpost of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the frozen Yukon. In summer it could easily become a covered wagon from which we fought off hordes of savage, painted, screaming Red Indians.
It was in this way that I played my way through my boyhood days. I was brought up to know where my duties lay. First to serve God by trying to be good. Then to be fiercely patriotic and to serve the King by being brave. I was to emulate the spotless knight, the unsullied hero, the faithful comrade and the soldier who went unfalteringly into battle. All this was rather a tall order for a thin and rather timid little boy who was afraid of the dark and who wouldn't have dared say 'Boo' to a goose.
Most of our games were involved with fighting and killing. The influence of the Great War was still very strong and death in battle was an accepted part of our play. We would throw up our arms and crash to the ground feigning death from machine gun bullets, shrapnel or shell splinters. When I became a soldier many years later, no one had to teach me rifle drill, I had become familiar with that long before I was ten years old. I shall never know how many years of my childhood I spent marching up and down our garden path with an air rifle on my shoulder. Being the youngest brother meant that I was always the most junior rank in whatever game we were playing. George and Rupert, my two elder brothers, could be captains or colonels, even generals if they so wished, but I was always the poor old private soldier flogging it up and down the garden path on sentry go. A fitting augury for what was to follow!
During my teenage years my brother Rupert was transferred to another branch of the company which employed him and this meant that he had to leave home and go to live in Northampton. I well recall the great sense of loss I felt when he went away and the eagerness with which I greeted his return each weekend. Almost every weekend for three or four years he came home on Saturday evening in order to spend Sunday with us and in all that time I don't think I ever missed being at the Midland Station in Nottingham to meet his train which arrived at eleven o'clock.
How well I remember the excitement of waiting on the old station platform with the powerful engines wheezing and puffing as the trains came and went in a flurry of noise and smoke and steam. There was something very special about a railway station in the days of the steam locomotives; it had its own exciting sounds and smells and a uniquely exciting magic that made it very special. This glamour was to disappear along with the magnificent, fire eating locomotives that hauled the trains and dominated the whole scene with their majestic presence. I used to love standing there amid all the smoke and bustle watching the minutes tick by on the old station clock as I waited for the train to arrive. We became quite good friends that clock and I. Forty years later when the Midland Station was refurbished an enthusiast who lived in the village of Thurgarton purchased this same clock and he had it mounted at the side of his house overlooking the road. Nowadays, whenever I pass that way I always give my old friend an affectionate wave and I am sure it nods to me in return as it keeps ticking on and keeping perfect time.
Towards the end of 1937 my eldest brother, George married Barbara Collins in St, Mary's Church in Arnold and it was a very happy occasion. I don't think George had ever had another girl friend and I am pretty certain that he was the only boy she had ever considered and so their marriage seemed to be as natural as the sunrise. They went to live in a house called 'Meadowside' which was situated on Spring Lane. Fortunately it was only about half an hour's walk across the fields from home. I say 'fortunately' because George and I as well as being brothers were also close friends and we spent a considerable amount of time in each other's company. Barbara and I were also on close terms and I was always sure of a warm welcome whenever I visited them. That was a good thing because I seem to remember that hardly a day passed without us making some form of contact.
In common with most young men I was attracted towards the opposite sex and I became infatuated with a very pretty girl named Sylvia. I managed to make her acquaintance, but I was far too shy to make my feelings known to her. However it chanced that we used the same bus into town and so we became travelling companions and as time passed we became close friends. She was a very attractive young lady, very sweet and kind and with a delightful sense of humour. There were several other girl friends of course, but Sylvia was the special girl of my teenage years. Later on, during the war, she wrote to me regularly for almost three years and her letters brightened many an unhappy day for me
A continual backdrop of international tension accompanied the years of my transition from boyhood to manhood. The growing strength of Germany under the Nazis was causing grave concern in some quarters and there was anxiety about the Italian Fascists under their bombastic leader Mussolini. It was during this period that I became accustomed to seeing pictures of hordes of fanatical Nazis waving banners of swastikas and screaming 'Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil' as Adolph Hitler passed by in his open car giving the Nazi salute. The face of Benito Mussolini was a familiar sight and the names of Ribbentrop, Count Ciano and Anthony Eden constantly claimed the headlines as more and more countries were invaded and annexed. There were sinister tales of things called concentration camps where Jews and political prisoners were said to be kept in appalling conditions often being tortured and put to death. The Rome/Berlin Axis loomed threateningly over Europe and it cast its shadow over all our lives.
With all this going on it gradually became apparent that we were heading towards another war. Not in this case a war to expand our Empire or to further the political ambitions of a king or leader, but a war to protect our country and our way of life from something that was fundamentally evil. New words were added to our vocabulary, words like Dictator, Totalitarian, Blitzkrieg, Panzer, Fuehrer, il Duce, and...........AirRaid !
The thought of another war approaching must have filled my parents' generation with despair. They had already experienced the horrors of the Great War with its awesome casualties, and now, so soon afterwards another conflagration could be seen rolling inexorably towards them. To make matters worse the disarmament lobby had been holding sway to such an extent in the intervening years that all our defences had been cut to the bone. It became apparent to everybody that we were ill prepared for any sort of conflict and at the same time it was realised that the Axis Powers had formidable strength and were poised to strike against us. The Spanish Civil War had opened everyone's eyes to the horror of aerial bombardment on large centres of population and there was the dreadful realisation of what could happen if planes dropped bombs of poison gas as well as high explosives.
The political background to all this can of course be read elsewhere. The Polish Corridor, Neville Chamberlain's visit to Munich, Hitler's false promises, Stalin and his war against Finland and his treaty with Hitler. All these political moves and countermoves were to affect the course of history and cost millions of lives, but my purpose here is merely to relate how they affected my own humble life at that time and how I reacted to the situation as I saw it.
It was in nineteen thirty eight that we all began to waken to the idea that the country was in danger and every young man worth his salt wanted to play some part in its defence. It was a period when everyone seemed to be joining some organisation. There was the Auxiliary Fire Service and Air Raid Precautions (known as A.F.S and A.R.P.), some people became Air Raid Wardens and others joined some branch of the Armed Forces. I first considered joining the Royal Navy, and then I had ideas about the Fleet Air Arm. I also toyed with the idea of going into the Royal Air Force and looked at lots of brochures and recruitment advertisements, but it was the Army that was always at the back of my mind when war was discussed. I could not see myself as anything but a soldier and so, without consulting anyone, I joined the Territorial Army.
It must be confessed that my knowledge of the British Army at that time was scant. I was very impressed with all the Guards Regiments, but I was more familiar with our local Infantry regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, and it was with the full intention of joining their ranks that I set off for the Drill Hall in Nottingham on one fine evening in 1938. How strange it is that the very simplest of things can have far reaching effects upon our lives. Although I was not aware of it at the time the whole course of my life was to hinge on a decision I was to make that evening. It was a decision that I was to make very carelessly and nothing more than a simple notice board influenced my thinking.
This notice board was the first thing to catch my eye on my arrival at the Drill Hall. It was a colourful sign that read: 'SOUTH NOTTS. HUSSARS'. The truth was that I had never ever thought of myself as anything but an infantry soldier, but now, suddenly, a new possibility had emerged. I could be a Hussar! It sounded very glamorous and I could see myself on horseback, wearing a colourful uniform and wielding a sabre as I charged into battle. The fact that I did not know how to ride a horse did not immediately occur to me. It did not seem to concern them very much at the Drill Hall either for when I went inside and asked if I could join their ranks they raised no objections at all!
After giving some details to a sergeant I was taken, in company with another young fellow, to meet an officer in front of whom I swore an oath of allegiance to King George V1 and promised to protect him against all his enemies (rather a tall order I thought). The officer who was conducting this ceremony winked at me whilst I was repeating the oath and thinking that he was making light of the whole affair, I winked back. It was only later that I discovered that this officer had a nervous twitch that caused him to wink from time to time. I have no recollection of any medical examination and so this must have taken place at some later stage. All I remember is putting my signature on a couple of documents and discovering that I had become a Hussar. I was now a soldier in the Territorial Army and I was eighteen years of age.
It soon became apparent why my lack of equestrian skill had not troubled anybody; there were no horses to ride. The modern army was mechanised, they said. It was explained to me that the Regiment was proud to keep its name even though it was no longer a horsed cavalry unit. It was now part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and was equipped with two batteries of guns. The full title was 107th Regiment, South Notts. Hussars Yeomanry, Royal Horse Artillery. The Regimental badge was a silver acorn with four oak leaves, signifying our proximity to Sherwood Forest, and the Regimental colours were red, yellow and blue. The two batteries were numbered 425 and 426 and I found myself in 425 Battery which was equipped with eighteen pounder guns. The other battery had 4.5 howitzers
That evening I was introduced to the eighteen-pounder gun by a sergeant who reeled off the names of all its component parts with bewildering rapidity, and I forgot them again with the same turn of speed. Then it was time to start with my first gun drill. The other recruit who had joined with me was trying hard to be smart and soldierly, just as I was, and we both tried a bit too hard and finished up stamping on each other's feet. That was the start of a long friendship that only ended when he was killed by shellfire in the Western Desert south of Tobruk. His name was Fred Lamb and when the session finished that evening we made our way to a nearby pub to drink our first pint together. It was to be the first of many. Fred was an exceedingly nice fellow, always quiet and reliable and he was to prove himself to be a true friend.
When I arrived home that evening and announced that I had joined the 'Gunners' there was some consternation in the family. They were worried and said that I was both stupid and headstrong to go rushing in without a moment's thought to join a combatant unit that could place me in the gravest personal danger in the event of war. How right they were, as I was discover to my cost in the years that followed, but at the time I was full of the glamour and excitement of being a soldier.
My memories of those final months of peace seem to contain little else than the preparation for war that was going on all around me. There was a sort of war fever that infected almost everybody, no-one had any doubt that it was coming and it was almost as if people were hoping that it would start in order to get rid of the anxiety which accompanied the waiting.
A thing called an Anderson Shelter had been invented; it was a contraption made from corrugated steel that was erected just below ground level, and into which a family could rush for safety in the event of an air raid. Men could be seen digging large holes in their gardens in which to erect these shelters. Gas masks were issued to the civilian population, as it was widely believed that gas would be used extensively and even babies were provided with special masks. Air Raid Wardens were appointed and every billboard carried advertisements calling for volunteers either for the services or for some other form of national service.
I became involved with my duties as a soldier in the Territorial Army attending drills in the evenings and also, very often, at the weekends. I was issued with a uniform that comprised a service dress tunic with ball buttons, riding breeches and spurs, leather belt, peaked cap and a white lanyard that commemorated some battle honour they said. It was all very exciting; I was brim full of patriotism and regimental pride and found every possible excuse to wear my uniform. Work became a boring necessity and in the evenings I could hardly wait to get up to the Drill Hall to practice gun drill, hauling on drag ropes and loading dummy shells into the clanging breech of an eighteen-pounder gun.
By this time my brother Rupert was working in the city of Sheffield. He had also joined the Territorial Army and was in a Sheffield unit of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. This only left George, my eldest brother and of course he was married and therefore had greater responsibilities than Rupert and myself, but he also wanted to share in the excitement of the times. Everybody prevailed upon him to use discretion; they urged him to find some other form of national service or at least to select a non-combatant unit in which to serve. With such advice burning in his ears George set off for the Drill Hall with every intention of becoming a non-combatant soldier, but on the way to enlist the thought occurred to him that such a course of action would place him in an inferior position to myself.
He was to tell me many times in the years that followed how he had imagined me, his youngest brother fighting in the front line whilst he skulked in the rear in a comparatively safe job along the lines of communication and supply. This he could not bear to imagine and so he followed me and joined the South Notts. Hussars. Dear old George, how many times was he to say;
“It's your fault we are in this bloody mess. You and your bloody Hussars!”
This was not really true because I played no active part in this decision of my brother to join the Hussars. Ideas of inferiority and superiority were in his mind alone and did not emanate from anything that I had said or done. True, I was proud of my
Regiment, but that was as far as it went, and as for fighting battles I had not the foggiest notion of what it was like to take part in a battle. I still thought that all soldiers were fearless and that war was a glorious adventure, which was not surprising because I had been playing at soldiers all my life.
Apart from the feverish preparations for war everything else carried on as normal. I still spent some of my leisure time with my girl friends, but more often I was with George during the evenings and weekends. We were the closest of friends as well as brothers, and we were now in the same Regiment, the same Battery and even the same Troop and consequently we spent a considerable amount of time together.
During June of 1939 we went to firing camp at Redesdale, where there was an army gunnery range in the middle of the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland, just south of the border. My first sight of these hills was very daunting for it was about five o'clock on a cool, wet morning after a virtually sleepless night. The previous evening had been spent drinking with friends before reporting to the drill hall at ten o'clock. After assembling we had marched to the Victoria Station to climb aboard a specially chartered train that left just before midnight. We were all carrying bottles of beer in our packs.
And so the drinking continued for several hours until we all fell into a restless sleep only to be awakened on our arrival at five o'clock in the morning. Staggering from the train desperately tired and with a fair sized hangover we had to climb onto open lorries for the journey from the station to the camp where we arrived cold and wet and thoroughly miserable. My only thought was for sleep. I looked forward to a good, hot breakfast before climbing between my blankets for much needed rest and warmth.
Breakfast was neither good nor hot; it was a piece of stale pork pie with oily tea from a dixie that had been in store for a year and still bore traces of the thick grease with which it had been coated. We then had to make a start erecting bell tents in the pouring rain on a muddy field and by this time all our personal equipment was soaking wet. My head was throbbing as one by one the tents were erected and how I looked forward to the moment when they would be allocated. I fondly imagined rolling myself in a blanket and closing my weary eyes in sleep. It was eight o'clock before we finished and I found myself standing on parade listening to the orders of the day and then I realised to my horror that there was to be no sleep. The day was only just beginning and we were faced with hours of hard work; gun cleaning, marching and rifle drill and gun drill. I think that was the longest day of my life up to that period and it was just a taster of things that were to come.
At the end of the first week we were to be granted a day's holiday and coaches were provided to take us either to Whitley Bay or to Newcastle according to choice. I was really looking forward to this outing, but needless to say, I was detailed for guard duty on the Saturday evening. So, whilst my friends were all clambering light-heartedly aboard the coaches, I was sitting rather dejectedly in my tent, polishing my equipment in preparation for the guard mounting ceremony. It seemed that being on sentry duty had dogged me all my life, but I made the best of a bad job and turned out on parade with everything spick and span. I was chosen as first relief, which meant that I went on duty straight away and for the first time in my life I was a real sentry and I was carrying a real rifle on my shoulder.
I swear that no guardsman ever had a straighter back and my drill was impeccable as I paraded up and down the beat, stamping my feet and with my rifle swinging in precise arcs as I came down from the slope to the order arms position. A very proud soldier indeed. I noticed with pleasure that the Regimental Sergeant Major was standing at the side of the Orderly Room watching me. He was a regular soldier with years of experience behind him and I could see that he was duly impressed. After a short time he marched smartly over until he was standing directly in front of me and I waited to hear his words of praise. He drew a deep breath and bellowed:
“Straighten yourself up boy; you're a disgrace to the Regiment. Do you know what you look like?”
“No sir”, I quavered
“Then I had better enlighten you, you horrible little man. You don't look like a soldier at all. You look like a bag of shit tied up ugly ! “
With these ungrammatical but colourful and well-chosen words he made his way towards the Sergeants' Mess leaving behind a sadder and a wiser young soldier.
In spite of these little incidents I thoroughly enjoyed my first brush with army life. I loved the comradeship and the fun and the nights in the Redesdale Arms when we drank foaming pints of beer and walked back to camp singing our newly acquired repertoire of army songs. It was exciting to be out on the moors with a gun and a limber full of ammunition bouncing behind the gun tower, and then there was the thrill of firing real shells and watching them explode on a distant hillside. It was a completely different world and a refreshing change from the humdrum of daily life, so much so that I have to admit that I looked forward to the coming war with growing excitement.
The fact that I was anticipating the outbreak of war with eagerness does not mean that I was of a warlike disposition, it merely reflects my innocence and ignorance at that time of the true horror of war. I find it strange to reflect that I had grown up amidst the aftermath of what had been the greatest carnage in the history of mankind and yet I still did not appreciate the devastation, the suffering, the misery and the disillusionment that followed in its wake. I never consciously thought of killing anybody, or for that matter, of anybody killing me, that part was all shrouded in a sort of mental mist; I knew it was there but I never brought it to the front of my mind. It was of course the adventure aspect that was the great appeal, a promised escape from the boredom, the monotony and the unrewarding grind of everyday life. I was not alone in this eagerness to throw off the restraints of civilian life, there must have been thousands of young men who thought the same, and the sad thing was that we were merely jumping out of the frying pan into a very hot fire.
As the days wore on I began to feel a growing awareness of the gravity of the situation. Together with my brother George I attended lectures concerned with aspects of modern warfare that had come to light as a result of the Spanish Civil War. Many of these lectures dealt at length with the loss of life and the devastation that resulted from the aerial bombardment of open cities. We were also brought to realise that there was every likelihood of poison gas being used in such attacks. The thought of our loved ones being subject to heavy bombardment, or of them being blinded or choked to death in a cloud of poison gas, caused us to take a fresh look at the situation. We began to realise that our country was under real threat from a powerful enemy and we wondered if we would be strong enough to survive. Our conversations became more serious as for the first time we contemplated the possibility of defeat. We drank our pints of beer together but we were often in a sober frame of mind as we found ourselves imagining what life would be like for our families under the Nazi Yoke. We contemplated the possibility of German Storm Troopers swaggering through our towns and cities if the Gestapo and the SS took over the running of our country
Events moved inexorably towards the inevitable; Danzig, the Polish Corridor, Hitler, Chamberlain, threats and counter threats. There seemed to be no way of stopping this headlong rush into war. The newspapers were full of reports, the BBC was issuing hourly bulletins on the general situation and we knew that it was only a matter of time before somebody declared war. It was little surprise to me therefore when one afternoon I was called to the phone to hear my mother telling me that my call-up papers had arrived; the Territorial Army was being mobilised and I was to report for duty immediately. I said goodbye to my colleagues at work and left, never to return.
At home, when I arrived there, I found my mother in tears and my father in a state of real agitation; a situation no doubt that was being duplicated all over the country. I climbed into my uniform, kissed them goodbye and went off to join my Regiment. I was walking away, not only from home and parents, but also from a way of life that was gone forever. I was leaving behind my youth and entering a world that was different from anything I had ever previously known.
Considering the fact that we had been expecting and preparing for war for such a long time it is difficult to understand why there was such an absurd lack of organisation when we were finally mobilised. One would have thought that all the finer details would have been worked out and rehearsed in advance and that we, as part of the armed forces and partially trained, would have known exactly what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. Nothing could have been farther from the truth!
Having collected my uniform and small kit from home I made my way to the Drill Hall in Nottingham to find everything in a state of confusion. After milling about for some time in a welter of bodies and equipment, I discovered that Battery Headquarters had been established in a nearby factory known as Hollin's Mills. Here it was the same story of utter confusion and disorder, but I did manage to acquire two blankets, a ground sheet, a rifle and sundry other articles. Unfortunately there were no kit bags available so I made a pile of my equipment by the side of a wall and waited in vain for something positive to happen. Eventually a small group of us decided that the best thing we could do under the circumstances was to go in search of refreshment. So, together with Harry Day, Bob Foulds, Bob Paulson and Patrick Bland, I found myself in a pub called 'The Peacock' and here we spent the remainder of the evening in good fellowship.
When we returned to Hollin's Mills at about eleven o'clock there was a complete transformation; everything was quiet and still. Bob Paulson and I were both in 'B' Troop, but 'B' Troop had disappeared and no one knew where they had gone. All that we could discover was that they had marched off in the direction of Lenton Boulevard. We both gathered our kit into our arms and then, with all our worldly belongings clutched before us; we set off into the night to find some place to sleep. As we lurched along the road a squad of marching men overtook us. We did not recognise any of them, but we realised that they were from our own Regiment. With a feeling of relief we marched behind them until they stopped near a small chapel and filed inside. We followed to see them spreading their blankets on the floor and settling down for the night and it was only a matter of minutes before we too were rolled in our blankets and fast asleep.
Our rest was to be short lived and I remember being awakened by a heavy boot against my backside. It was a sergeant major who informed us that this billet was for a troop in 426 Battery. We pointed out that we were all in the same regiment and we were all about to serve in the same war, but he was not impressed. As far as he was concerned, being in 425 Battery was akin to being a Panzer Grenadier and he kicked us out into the street. I cannot remember how we came to find our own billet, but I do have a strong memory of dragging about the streets for hours before we eventually found our way into the Western Tennis Club on Derby Road, not far from Wollaton Park Gates. The Troop was there, all sound asleep and every bed space on the floor was occupied. Bob and I found a room containing a billiard table and on this very hard but welcome surface we rolled ourselves fully clothed into our blankets and once again fell fast asleep.
We remained in Nottingham for a few weeks and it was possible to return home frequently, but we did not properly appreciate this privilege because it seemed a very natural thing to do. We were all very inexperienced in army life and there were several incidents that occurred during this period that reflected our lack of proper military training.
I was on sentry duty one morning outside the main entrance to the Drill Hall when a Major from the Regular Army alighted from a staff car and entered the building. As he passed I smartly saluted with a 'butt salute' and he stopped dead in his tracks.
“That was an incorrect salute sentry,” he snapped. “An officer of my rank is entitled to a Present Arms.”
“No Sir,” I corrected him, “You are only entitled to a Butt Salute----Sorry.”
He slowly turned a brilliant shade of purple, snorted in anguished despair and made his way into the Drill Hall, shaking his head as he went.
Whilst still on this same guard duty I had to escort a prisoner who was under close arrest from the cell where he was held to a nearby toilet. On the way it was necessary for me to unlock a door and I had trouble in finding the correct key. Turning to the prisoner, I handed him my rifle saying, “Here, hold this a minute whilst I sort out the keys.”
“Sure mate,” he replied and he waited until I had opened the door before handing the rifle back to me. I never did find out what crime he had committed but it must have been something serious for him to be held under close arrest.
On occasions we were marched into Wollaton Park where an officer would shout “Gas Alert!” or “Take Cover!” when we would quickly don our gas masks or dive into the nearest ditch. It was noticeable that the officer himself never did any diving into wet ditches full of nettles and brambles. Also during this period we went on several long route marches wearing full kit and, of course, army boots, to which we were not accustomed. On these marches we were always led by an officer who wore comfortable shoes and carried no equipment at all. Every few miles we would be met by a car carrying a different officer and after an exchange of pleasantries they changed places. This exchanging of officers would go on until we arrived back exhausted and with sore, chafed and aching feet. They told us that this was necessary to toughen us up for future active service. It occurred to me as rather strange at the time that the officers were not apparently in need of any such toughening up, but as yet I was not experienced in the ways of the British Army.
During the evenings after duty we used to go across the road to a pub called the 'Rose and Crown' and there I became friendly with a girl. One evening when I was on guard duty she came across to keep me company at my solitary post beside the entrance to the billet. There was, and still is I believe, a fairly wide stream at that place and a bridge over which the road passed to gain entrance to the tennis club where we were billeted. My post was on the bridge itself. After a while we decided that it might be a good idea to find a quiet little corner underneath the bridge and so we crept down the bank together in the gathering darkness and passed the time most delightfully.
Unfortunately, the Orderly Officer, when making his rounds, discovered that there was no sentry on duty and after searching around for a while he shouted, “Sentry, where are you?”
“I'm here sir,” I replied, scrambling back up the bank with the girl in tow.
He shone his torch over me and then queried, “I say sentry, where is your rifle?” By this time I was searching feverishly along the wall of the bridge for the damned thing but could not find it
“ I don't know sir, I put it down here somewhere,” I replied, still scrambling around in the dark.
Fortunately the officer was just as lacking in experience as I was myself and so he merely said, “I say sentry, I don't think it is a good thing to lose your rifle whilst you are on guard duty.” This must have been the understatement of the year! He left me to continue my vigil; the girl had disappeared and I don't think I ever saw her again.
I mention these incidents because, though trivial within themselves, they do reflect in a very simple way the state of unreadiness of the country as a whole at the time when the political manoeuvring came to an end and war was finally declared. On the same evening of the declaration of war the air raid sirens were sounded and we all dashed outside and started digging trenches, but it was only a practice.
The short period that we remained in Nottingham was something like a holiday. Almost every evening I was able to return home and strut about in uniform with buttons and badges shining, winged riding breeches and puttees and gleaming spurs which clinked and jangled as I walked proudly around the town. I was a real homespun hero who had never fired a shot in anger but I enjoyed every minute of it. Sadly it did not last very long. After ten days, volunteers were required to form an advance party as the Regiment was under orders to move.
Still being young and very keen I volunteered and we set off early one morning in a motley collection of vehicles. There were private cars and commercial vehicles that still bore the names of the firms from which they had been commandeered; there were also some very antiquated lorries that had been in store since the previous war. I travelled in one of the latter and it was quite an experience. The driver was protected from the weather by a canvas screen and I seem to recollect that the wheels had hard tyres. At the back there was no protection at all and we had a very bumpy and windy journey to our destination that turned out to be the village of Rillington in Yorkshire, not far from Malton.
The advance party was billeted in a little chapel opposite the village pub and it was in these two buildings that I seemed to spend most of my time either drinking or reading the 'Quatrains of Omar Khayam. One rainy morning we went into the pub at ten o'clock and remained there drinking steadily until ten o'clock in the evening, the longest drinking session of my life, but it was not as sensational as it sounds. We were only drinking half pints of low gravity beer and these very, very slowly, as we couldn't afford to be extravagant. Apart from this I have no recollections of this short period. I suppose we must have done some work in preparation for the arrival of the Regiment, but I can't remember what it was.
The Regiment marched through the city of Nottingham before leaving by train from the Victoria Station. The streets were lined with people and the band was playing as they made their way through the city. It must have been a stirring sight but I had no part in this farewell parade because I was already in Yorkshire. I was pleased to see all my friends again when they arrived at the little station in Rillington. Our troop moved immediately to a place near the hamlet of West Knapton. Here was a stately Hall in which the officers were billeted and behind the main building there was a collection of buildings around a courtyard, stables, shed and barns. It was here in a loft above the cowsheds that we were to be housed and we quickly set about making ourselves as comfortable as possible.
The weather was dry and warm during our stay in Yorkshire and this was fortunate for when it did rain the barn proved to have a leaky roof. The living conditions were really disgraceful; the whole troop was packed into this barn loft and when we laid our straw palliasses down there was not an inch of floor space uncovered. The entrance to the loft was by a ladder and though a trap door. Had there been a fire it would have been disastrous as it took quite a long time for us all to go down the ladder one at a time. The whole building was built of wood and there were bales of straw stacked beneath us. I still shudder to recall how we all lay on our straw palliasses smoking cigarettes.
There were no proper facilities for washing and the sanitary arrangements were less than basic. Each morning the toilets were cleaned by loading them onto a handcart and wheeling them deep into an adjoining wood where they were just emptied under the trees. To be pitched into such conditions within a few days of leaving our comfortable homes was a shock for us all, but we accepted it without complaint believing that this was a necessary part of wartime soldiering. We were not experienced enough to realise that it was all completely unnecessary.
The filthy conditions under which we were living quickly began to take their toll and several men developed impetigo, which is a contagious pustuler disease of the skin. It is a most unpleasant thing to catch because the face becomes covered in a mass of horrible, scabby, running sores. In our situation it was made worse because apart from the pain and the discomfort, the unfortunate sufferers had to bear the obvious revulsion of their friends who were compelled to live and sleep in close proximity to them.
The large majority of the young men who at this time filled the ranks of the South Notts. Hussars had joined just prior to the war. They had done so in a spirit of patriotism, eager to serve their country in its hour of need. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and many of them were well spoken and extremely polite and obviously came from good homes. It was to be proved in the days that were to follow that they were also men of the highest calibre and I am still proud to have been one of their number. As is typical with British soldiers we tackled all our adversities with good humour and laughed our way through all our discomforts. There was a spin off from these early days of bad conditions and hard living. It was in overcoming these hardships together that we began to forge the true steel of comradeship that was to see us through when the real test came.
We were now a part of the 1st Cavalry Division and also involved in something known as A.D.G.B. that stood for Active Defence of Great Britain. How we were supposed to defend Great Britain I have no idea for we were equipped with only a large covered van bearing the name 'Weaver to Wearer' and 'B' Troop had but one ancient 18 pounder gun with a wooden bung in the muzzle. This gun bore on its shield in red paint the sign, FOR DRILL PURPOSES ONLY. NOT TO BE FIRED.
With this equipment we careered about the Yorkshire countryside pretending to come into action with four guns but in fact three of the gun crews would just be standing in the space where their gun would normally have been sited.
The Regiment did have more than one old gun. To the best of my belief we had four eighteen-pounder field guns and four howitzers. These guns had wooden wheels and were of the type used by the British Army during the final years of the First World War. The four guns of 425 Battery were kept at Rillington and were used only for gun drill purposes. We could not use them for field exercises because we had no proper gun towing vehicles and whenever the guns were moved they had to be manhandled with drag ropes. We did quite a lot of gun drill during this period and by this time I had passed my Gun Laying Test and was entitled to wear the letter 'L' surrounded by laurel leaves on my left sleeve. The gun layer is the member of the gun team, who sets the sights, adjusts the angle and elevation of the piece and actually fires the gun. Everyone else is concerned with ammunition; loading and dragging the gun round to point in the position indicated by the layer.
We were ordered to mount a guard under the archway that led into our little courtyard but by this time our rifles had been withdrawn, as there was obviously a shortage of weapons. Instead of rifles we each carried a piece of stick and we had to go through a ridiculous ceremony of mounting guard with sticks instead of rifles. It was even sillier than my boyhood days of playing 'sentry go' outside the shed in our garden. In those days I did at least carry an air rifle to challenge any marauding enemy, now, we had to mount a twenty four hour guard outside a lonely cow shed whilst carrying nothing more than a piece of stick.
They were long, lonely vigils that served no useful purpose and one day whilst I was on guard we were visited by a General who came to our little billet in company with the usual retinue that included our own Colonel and Second in Command. The General inspected the guard and as I happened to be on sentry duty at the time, he selected me as his target. To my horror he tapped me on the shoulder with his cane and said, “Now, sentry, what exactly are you guarding?” I had never felt so foolish in my life as I did at that moment for I had no idea what I was supposed to be guarding. There was nothing to guard and I had to admit that I didn't know. He turned to the Sergeant of the Guard who was very red in the face as he also failed to find a suitable reply. The Orderly Officer was the next to meet the General's quizzical eye and with the same result. The situation was saved by the Regimental Sergeant Major, who stepped smartly forward to say,
“It is a tradition of the Regiment, Sir, always to mount a guard over the guns. Sir.”
The General turned his glance in the direction of our pitiful old, non-firing eighteen pounder. He nodded in half approval before saying to the Colonel in a friendly and understanding voice,
“It may not be a good thing to have these men standing about unnecessarily Colonel.” The Colonel nodded in agreement but we still carried on with our guards, after the General had left; nothing changed.
The one good thing for me about these boring spells of sentry duty was the fact that one moonlit night I was privileged to see a fully-grown dog fox at close quarters. I spotted him coming down the track towards me during the early hours and I stood stock-still and held my breath as he passed right in front of me and disappeared into the shadows of the courtyard. After a short period he reappeared and again trotted almost over my feet to lose himself in the night. I have never been able to understand why he did not get my scent; maybe the smell from the farmyard was too strong.
Considering the fact that the war had only just begun and as yet there was no rationing of food, our feeding arrangements were nothing short of appalling. There was no shortage; the weakness lay in the cooking and the general organisation. Our food was badly cooked in the first place, but to make matters worse, the cookhouse was several miles away in Rillington. There were no special storage containers or hot boxes in which to transfer the food and it came to us in open dixies on the back of a fifteen-hundredweight truck. The result may be imagined; it was always cold and congealed and it was usually covered with dust. Moreover the diet hardly ever varied; porridge, bacon and beans for breakfast, bully beef sandwiches at mid-day and greasy stew at night. Bully Beef was the soldiers' sobriquet for Corned Beef. It originated during the 1st World War when the main British food supply dump in France was in the town of Bouille. Had we been in action or in difficult circumstances, such conditions would have been understandable, but we were in what was virtually peacetime Britain and there was no excuse for the neglect which sprang from the attitude that anything was good enough for the common soldier.
My brother shared all these experiences because we were both in the same troop and this led to a series of incidents that marked a subtle change in our relationship. George was my eldest brother and six years my senior and for the whole of my life up to that point he had held a sort of sway over my actions. In our boyhood games he had always been the senior officer whilst I had always been the lowly soldier. Later, he had been the man and I the boy. He had always been the strong and clever elder brother and I the weak and not so clever younger brother. Now it was all changed. As I had joined the Regiment before him this made me the senior soldier and it put me in a position at times of giving him orders which he had to obey. I thought that it was absolutely marvellous to suddenly find myself in this superior position and, quite naturally, he hated it.
One Sunday morning there was a voluntary church parade and as there were no N.C.O's anxious to go to church, the sergeant major put me in charge of the small squad of men who wished to attend the service. Delighted with my new-found authority and full of bombast, I shouted my orders and marched my men off in the direction of the village church. George was furious and deliberately ignored my commands and instead of marching with the group he sauntered along in the rear whilst I referred to him as Gunner Ellis and ordered him to smarten himself up. As a result of all this brotherly rivalry we were late and when we arrived at the church the service had already begun. We stood for a few moments in the porch and then, as I was opening the door into the nave, I told George to remove his respirator haversack. This was the last straw for George and he shouted 'Bollocks' at the top of his voice. We then entered the church very sheepishly under the startled gaze of the vicar and the congregation and George's face was red with anger and embarrassment.
Of course this was disgraceful conduct on my part and it would be less than honest to pretend otherwise, but George understood it perfectly because it was typical of our special relationship and there were many times when he treated me in exactly the same fashion. We loved to score points off each other, but that did not in any way diminish our mutual affection. We were always quarrelling and yet always the best of friends, it was the type of relationship that is only possible between brothers and it went on in this fashion until we were parted by his death.
Sometimes of an evening we would walk into Rillington for a pint at the Red Lion. This was a round trip of several miles but we were fit and always went in a group, usually singing and marching along in step. It was a long way to walk for a pint of beer but there was nothing else to do and we enjoyed each other's company on the way. On Saturday afternoon, which was usually free, we sometimes went into Malton and one Saturday we caught a bus into Scarborough. It was a windy day and the sea was extremely boisterous with waves coming right over the sea wall and splashing down onto the promenade. Whilst watching this display we were caught in an extra large swirl of water that completely drenched us and soon afterwards our buttons turned to a dark shade of green. By this time it was getting dark so that it did not matter very much, but the darkness did pose a problem for Bob Paulson and myself. We met two girls and because the town was completely blacked out as part of the air raid precautions we could not see each other properly. After chatting for some minutes we considered going to a cinema together but one of the girls pointed out that she did not know what we looked like. So, by mutual consent and a lot of giggling on the part of the girls, we struck matches and revealed our faces to each other. Apparently everybody was satisfied by what they saw and we all proceeded to the local cinema.
At the beginning of November I was granted seven days leave and I was happy to pack my kit and get away from the leaking barn that had been my home for the previous five or six weeks. One of the difficulties we all had to overcome during those first days of the war was homesickness. No-one ever admitted to such a thing, it would have been considered as weak and unmanly to do so and because of this it was something that everybody had to face in private. There was a popular song at that time which finished with the words: 'Ma, I miss your apple pie, but most of all I'm missing you.' We used to sing the words light heartedly but there was a ring of truth in them that found its mark with us all.
I was certainly missing my mother and her apple pies. I was also missing my clean, comfortable bed, the table laid with a crisp, white cloth, the leaping fire in the grate, clean underwear, well cooked, wholesome food and a clean bathroom and toilet. In fact all the comforts of home that I had previously taken for granted. The train could not carry me quickly enough in the direction of Nottingham, but in spite of my eagerness to return home, I did feel a tinge of regret about leaving my pals. Whilst I might have been loath to admit it at the time, I did actually enjoy being a soldier and living a corporate life in the company of men whom I had come to respect.
Soon I was wallowing in comfort, being spoilt by my mother, eating the tastiest food imaginable and having a wonderful leave. I had girl friends that were not loath to be seen on the arm of a soldier. Sylvia was my favourite whenever I could persuade her to meet me. There were nods of respect from the neighbours and serious man-to-man type of conversations with men of my father's age who had served in the Great War. I loved waking in the morning in a warm, comfortable bed to find my mother standing there with a tray laden with bacon and eggs and sausage and toast and a steaming cup of coffee. Breakfast in bed, propped up by soft, white pillows was a far cry from greasy beans in a barn festooned with cobwebs. I made a feast of it all and thoroughly enjoyed myself as the leaking barn and the filthy conditions slipped from my mind as if they had never been.
Unfortunately times like this pass all too quickly and the days slipped away with incredible speed. I was brought back to reality with a sudden shock when a letter arrived ordering me to return to my unit. It said that the Regiment had moved and I was to report immediately to the town of Wragby in Lincolnshire. Having now sampled some aspects of army life, it was in a more sober frame of mind that I packed my kit on this occasion. It was much more of a tug to leave home than it had been in those heady days of late August when leaving had seemed like the start of a great adventure. Now it was with a rather heavy heart that I said my good-byes and made my way to the station to go in search of the town of Wragby.
It was a bright, crisp morning in early November when I made my way to the Midland Station in Nottingham where my old friend, the station clock, gave me a friendly wave as I boarded the train for Lincoln. It was an old fashioned type of carriage with lots of small, unconnected compartments, one of which I had to myself. I was not in the happiest of moods as I watched the familiar old platform glide away. My two months of service had toughened me up a little, but I was still far from being a hardened soldier and I was dreadfully homesick sitting there all alone in the moving train thinking of the warmth and comfort I was leaving behind.
At Lincoln station I had to change trains and soon found myself behind a fussy little engine that rattled along the line at a fine old pace. I can clearly remember that there was a section of the line between Lincoln and Wragby where the track made a sweeping curve and it was possible to see the engine from the carriage where I was sitting. It was puffing out smoke and steam and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying itself, which was more than I could say for myself. I was just praying that there would not be another leaking barn at the end of the journey.
Wragby station was deserted and so I shouldered my pack and strode out in the direction of the village where I quickly found members of the Regiment going about their various tasks. I was informed that 'B' Troop was not stationed in Wragby but in a small hamlet rejoicing in the name of Holton cum Beckering. There was no transport available but I was directed to follow a narrow road that led in the direction of Market Rasen and following these instructions I was soon deep into the Lincolnshire countryside. This narrow country road seemed to go on for ever, there were no houses and no traffic and not a soul did I meet and the endless trudge along this lonely road did little to revive my flagging spirits. At last I arrived in Holton cum Beckering to find that it comprised nothing more than a church, a vicarage and a couple of farms with attendant cottages and it was surrounded by agricultural land that seemed to stretch into the mists in every direction.
There was no sign of anyone or of anything remotely connected with things military and so I ventured into one of the farmyards to enquire into the whereabouts of the missing 'B' Troop. The farmer paused from his work long enough to point across a yard piled high with squelchy, stinking manure, to a barn door on the opposite side. He informed me that if I went into the barn and climbed some steps I would pass through a trapdoor and into a loft where the soldiers were billeted.
Thanking him for his trouble I gingerly tiptoed around the edge of this noisome midden to enter the barn and climb the steps into the loft. Here I could see each man's kit laid out on the wooden floor and I knew that I had arrived. There was very little light in the loft other than that which filtered up from the barn. I was soon able to find my own equipment which one of my colleagues had kindly laid out for me and so I sat down on my blankets to survey our new abode. It was a typical barn with wooden beams and bare brick walls festooned with cobwebs. The air was filled with the smell of rotting manure and apart from occasional animal noises emanating from the farm below there was absolute silence.