The most important impression made on me was the certainty that war was not far off. Blockhouses were being built everywhere and soldiers, lorries, horses et al milled around. Even I, at 16, knew that the outbreak of war cold not be far distant. In any case, thought I, would not war be preferable to this perpetual standing on the brink? War was indeed declared later that year to my great relief as I had been increasingly depressed and scared by the thought of it.
Actually having war was much better and I decided that I'd join as soon as I was 18 but there was quite a time to go. I continued at school while my great friend Brundrett joined up but was fairly rapidly thrown out when his real age was discovered. Evacuees descended on Ashford as, ostensibly, it was in central Kent and, therefore, a ‘safe’ area. It did not, of course, occur to anyone in or out of authority that there might be a defeat in the west and that the Germans would, therefore, be as close as 21 miles to the county in under a year. These evacuees were accepted as being 'proper' and, by and large, not treated too badly; there was a large measure of contempt for those evacuees and their parents who did a bunk to 'sitting on the fence' USA and Canada.
I took my exams in December 1939 and could, from then on, only think of leaving school. I'd done nearly two terms in the 6th Form when the defeat in the west was a fact and the Evacuation of Dunkirk was upon us. We used to see the trains coming through from Dover full of soldiers, and there was an air of elation rather than gloom as it seemed that things could have been much more desperate. But Churchill soon reminded us that wars were 'not won by evacuations'! I managed to get hold of a .5-inch Boyes' anti-tank rifle round from a soldier on a train. To make it `safe' I removed the bullet and extracted the cordite – so far so good. A little knowledge was, indeed, dangerous as I decided to make the percussion cap safe. Standing the now empty cartridge case on its open end, I held a large nail on the cap – a smart tap on the nail with a hammer should do the trick. It nearly did as the cap exploded and the nail was whipped out of my fingers and past my head. It was a singularly stupid thing to do and I was very lucky to be alive or, at least, not blinded or badly hurt.
At about this time, Anthony Eden broadcast on the wireless and asked for volunteers to defend the shores to be known as 'Local Defence Volunteers' (LDV); anybody male, between 16 and 60 or thereabouts. So I joined the next day and, in due course, got an LDV armband and a defunct rifle from the Cadets. It had no firing pin and certainly no ammunition. It really was a farce but nothing else could be done at this dire time. The use the modern jargon, it was a 'public relations exercise.' We did guards at the then Ashford Town Halt (it still stands as a sort of 'island' but is now all shops) and at the water reservoir near to the Maidstone Road at Potter's Corner, two miles north-west of Ashford.
The `old soldiers' chose the first or last stint and left the middle one, with interrupted sleep, to boys like me who did not know the 'form.' Eventually we were issued with uniforms; they were, in fact, denim battledress overalls and were meant to fit over the proper serge battledress, so the look and fit of them can, perhaps, be imagined. Any German would have died – of laughing. We had no cap badges so I wore that of The Buffs, the local county regiment to which our Cadets were affiliated.
I soon felt that the LDV was a waste of time, except for possible morale-boosting, and when it changed its name to 'Home Guard' I still thought that it was a waste of time. I never changed my opinion; many of the 'volunteers' were really trying for a way of avoiding real military service with little loss of face. There was one other snag: my absences caused much annoyance and jealousy to The Duke. She had discovered about my lust for Audrey and could not, or would not, believe that my nights on guard were other than fornicatorial interludes and this caused me much distress – especially as I had never laid anything on that beauty.
It was the period of post-'funny war' in London and air activity was starting up in Kent. So that, at weekends, I saw the beginning of the Battle of Britain, ie some air fighting, some bombing and parachutes and aeroplanes coming down. I'm afraid that, so far as the latter were concerned, I saw more British than German. I visited some of the bomb craters as, at that time, they were a novelty.
On weekdays, things, so far as the war was concerned, were quiet. Work was certainly not difficult: my very first job at William Jacks was handing out clean towels in exchange for dirty one to everyone including bosses, typists, messengers and the tea woman. I wondered what part of my studies for Matriculation had qualified me for this brain-taxing job. However, the hours were fairly long, as I have mentioned, and frequently beyond the official closing of 1800 hours. But none of my job really required any formal education at all. Saturday mornings' work stopped after 7th September on which day there was the first large-scale air-raid on London.
I arrived back from a weekend in Ashford, where the air Battle of Britain was going strong and, as we arrived in London, I could see that there had been heavy bombing. Effects of bombing have been described often enough not to have to be repeated here, except perhaps a few specific instances which affected me. Over the nights, the City was frequently hit but Winchester House was lucky and survived. One of the staff was killed while out to lunch – a coping stone, loosened in the raids, fell on him. For the first few nights we all stayed in our rooms at Mark One (I was on the 2nd floor) but as the bombing got worse and its results more obvious, we all agreed that that, was foolish and that we had better sleep in the sitting room on the ground floor, and this we did. It meant, of course, that we had no beds, only mattresses, but we also did not have the ‘naked' feeling we had higher up.
One night in particular there was a most dreadful clattering noise which we could not understand. We recognised the noise of shells going up and the 'crack' of the guns which had sent them; we recognised easily the ‘crump' of exploding bombs or mines. But this noise was like a lot of exploding fireworks, which it nearly literally was. About 20 or 30 incendiary bombs had fallen on Pembridge Gardens – we could see at least that number in the street and gardens, each giving a brilliant light, which sparkled and spluttered. About five or six of us ran out to help extinguish the bombs; we were helped by the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Post which had occupied half our basement. We were more concerned with those bombs which were indoors, as most of those outdoors could blaze away, probably harmlessly.
I'm afraid that over half the members of Toc Mark One did not go out that night, preferring the comparative safety of the building. Peter Marchant and I discovered that there were two bombs in the top floor of number 28 and we managed to deal with both with sandbags we took upstairs. We also tried to put out another in a second house but that had been brought under control by the time we arrived. It was exhilarating as there were many shell fragments raining down, plus bombs of all sorts nearby. I did not feel frightened, but I was concerned lest a shell fragment went through me, and was comforted by my tin hat. The quick action of the various parties prevented every single bomb from starting a conflagration. I don't know, of course, how many others were in houses – all we could see were 'our' bombs and those outside – but there were no burnt-out houses visible in the street next morning.
There were air raids every night, 57 on the trot, I think, and especially heavy ones on fine, moonlit nights. One evening in mid-September, I was in the bath on the second floor when I heard a terrifying whistle and thought that the bomb would crash on the house. In the event, there was a muffled, but loud, thump and our house trembled noticeably. I waited for an explosion, which did not come – a 1000kg bomb had landed in the garden of number 26 and had not exploded. The next day we were evacuated to Toc H Mark 13 in Kennington Road, SE which was a case of 'frying pan into the fire.' This was nearer the East End, where the bombing had always been more severe than to the west. We were there for four weeks before the unexploded bomb was removed and then allowed to return to Pembridge Gardens. Like all other living accommodation, when 'doubled up', we naturally became more cramped and uncomfortable. We admired immensely the Royal Engineers' team who laboured for three weeks in a deep hole to make the bomb 'safe' and deal with its removal.
One night, while still in SE London, and coming back from the City, we were stopped from leaving the tube as the raid then in progress was too heavy. We eventually emerged at 6am the next day, tired out, dirty and dishevelled. I knew then that I would never again spend a night in a tube station or train – but, with locked gates, there was no escape that night. How thousands managed to spend week after week in the tubes to avoid sleeping on the surface is beyond me – they must either have been a deal more scared than I or much less fussy about the smell, sounds and proximity of scruffy humanity.
When we returned to Pembridge Gardens I became an unofficial messenger for the ARP Post and dashed hither and thither, achieving little, but feeling important; many of the messages were not urgent but were given to me to take to keep my interest. That way they had a second string if telephone lines were cut. A thoroughly unpleasant experience was being trapped in the Notting Hill Gate tube lift, with about 50 others, for four hours during an electricity failure in an air-raid. We dared not think too much about what would happen if a bomb caused our cables to part. A few women were driven to apparent madness – so were we, by their screaming.
At weekends I went home to Ashford by train, though the return journey could take four or five hours for a 90 minute trip because of the bombing. There were, of course, no refreshments on the train and the lighting was about 1/10th power for blackout reasons – so reading was quite impossible. But now poor old Kent was the comparatively quiet spot after having borne the brunt for some time. Ashford had suffered some damage, the nearest to our house was in Star Road, about 250 yards away. Ashford had several scares but, by and large, got off pretty lightly, especially as it had one of the largest railway yards in Britain. It may well be that, as London was only perhaps 15 minutes’ flying time away, it continued to be by far the most important and prestigious target – and good for getting ‘gongs’.
I decided that, as I had now reached 18, I would join as soon as I could. I, therefore, tried to enlist in The Buffs, the one to which I felt proper loyalty as I lived in East Kent, but, to my odd relief, they were fully booked and I could not be accepted. Instead I opted for the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. My reason for not being really sorry about not joining The Buffs was that I hoped, eventually, to earn a Commission in that Regiment and, therefore, it was better for me to serve any time in the ranks in another. So, I was really rather pleased that events had decided things for me in the best way. It never occurred to me to join anything but the ‘Infantry of the Line' as, to me, they were the only 'true' soldiers; everyone else, no matter what service or job, was really only part of the backup service for the infantry who were the ‘close-encounter’ soldiers.
I had my medical in Maidstone, Kent on Valentine's Day 1941 and he must have loved me as I passed, to my immense relief, 'A1.' At that time 'if you are warm, you are in' was not always the case. I had, therefore, joined up about 18 months before I would have been conscripted and so avoided the odium of being a 'conscript' in time of war. However, getting into uniform was not so easy and it was exactly three weeks later, on 7th March 1941, that I joined the Training Detachment of the 70th Battalion, Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. I took the Oath of Allegiance and felt a moment of terror when the term 'Infantry of the Line’ in the Oath was mentioned.
After this little 'oath' ceremony, I got my uniform, rifle and 50 rounds of .303-inch ammunition and I was a soldier. The uniform was coarse, itchy and not particularly well-fitting. The hat had to be balanced on the right of one's head so that, for a week or so, I walked with my head well tilted to avoid dropping the cap from my head.
I had read in the Daily Express an article by a fairly newly-joined soldier that among various other things, soldiers did not wear pyjamas and that they did not get undressed. I thought that this meant that even when not in action they kept their uniforms on, even in bed! On the very first night I was allotted a bed space in a hut with a lot of filthy cooks, who were sitting around and spitting on the hot, slow-combustion stove, an intellectual pursuit. Feeling tired, homesick and a bit frightened, I thought I'd go to bed but, to avoid letting the cooks know I was a brand new soldier, I popped into bed in my uniform, rather than in the approved style in my shirt and underpants. Unfortunately, the cooks saw me do so – there were immediate shouts of 'get undressed; you dirty little bugger' and 'we don't want none of yer dirty 'abits ‘ere'. I was crushed and miserable as I had done what I thought right; my start had not been a success. Next morning, I was ordered to clean out the hut and was further ordered to be ready to move to the Depot Barracks of the RWK at Maidstone (10 miles away) for 12 weeks' basic training.
At about 1430 on Saturday, 8th March 1941 I joined my first platoon in Maidstone Barracks, near the prison. Almost all the other 30 members were ex-miners from the Kent coalfields, a rough, but very nice lot. They were the sons of the Scottish miners who had come to Kent when the coalfield was started some years earlier. There was also an Old Marlburian called John Black from Boys' Hall, Willesborough. We all became friends.
Many 'drills' may seem pointless to civilians, but an example of a life-saving drill is this: after guard duties we were lined up to 'ease springs', or to move the bolt to and fro several times to ensure that no round had been accidentally left in the breech. In theory the movement of the bolt, in conjunction with the ejector, should safely throw out any round. Just in case this did not happen, and a round still remained in the magazine, the rifles were held pointing towards the sky at an angle of 45° so that, when the bolt finally closed the breech and the trigger was squeezed on a theoretically empty breech, if it was not empty, the bullet would go harmlessly into the air. Private Woods, standing next to me in the rank, did all he was required to do and squeezed the trigger. There was a loud 'crack' and a bullet sped heavenwards. Had the full drill not been followed, that bullet might welt have been discharged in the barrack room. He was 'on a charge', of course, as there should have been no round in his rifle – but, at least no-one was dead or wounded and he was not on a manslaughter charge. I had a rather deaf ear for a time.
The second half of my basic training was at the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) at Invicta Lines just outside Maidstone, and then it was all over. I was posted to `A' Company, 70th Bn QORWK, stationed at RAF West Malling (near Maidstone), one of the erstwhile Battle of Britain airfields. The whole of the 70th Bn was on airfield defence as we were not allowed to go overseas. The Battalion had four companies – the others being at Biggin Hill, Detling and Shirley Hall, near Tunbridge Wells, white Bn HQ was at 'The Glebe', a house at Penshurst, Kent.
At the airfield, we spent a fortnight on guard duty at the various platoon posts around the perimeter and a week ‘off' at a requisitioned house, Teston Manor, on the left bank of the River Medway, near Teston. While we were on guard, it was two hours on, four off, day in and day out. It was hard going, especially as there was a ‘stand to' at one hour before dawn and at sunset when, whether on or off duty, we all had to turn out taking our machine guns, grenades, etc to take up our fighting positions in the trenches, dugouts and pillboxes in case of enemy parachute landing. When we were on our ‘week off' we spent our time digging or repairing trenches, putting up or mending barbed wire, training, etc. and all for 2/6 (ie 121/2p) per day. Perhaps now, in 1975, that should be multiplied by six, which still makes it only about 80p per day.
However, RAF food was excellent – much better and more plentiful than that of the Army. Quarters for us were Nissen huts without beds or, during the week 'off', sleeping on 6-inch high trestle boards with a straw-filled ‘palliasse' in a barn adjoining the Manor. Needless to say, the RAF were in warm, modern barracks, living a virtually peacetime existence, with no stand-to's, exercises, etc. We hated them far more than the enemy as we felt that we were there to protect a load of wingless wonders who should at least have been men enough to protect themselves. We felt (rightly) envious of their conditions of service, pay and uniforms – we only had battledress, whereas they had a smart Service Dress, and a battledress only for work. Small things, perhaps, but not to young men, for whom they were important.
During one of our 'rest' periods we went swimming in the Medway. It fell to my lot to be handy when a young woman got into serious difficulties and shouted for help. As I was by far the best swimmer, I was able to pull her out and, certainly not before time, as she was only just conscious. After a lot of thumping and pumping she appeared to recover and went on her way. She did not say who she was – probably too shocked – and I was too shy to ask her name.
Airfield defence for me lasted from June to September, when I was sent on a three months' signals course, again at Invicta Lines. I was not very pleased about going on the course but, once I was into it, I enjoyed it. We learned telephone line-laying and its maintenance and to use the wireless, Morse, flags and even heliographs . We all hoped that, when we returned to our units, we would form a signals platoon, but that was not to be.
I qualified on the course and was entitled to wear the regimental signallers' crossed flags symbol on my left sleeve: this I did with pride. I rejoined my Company (A), now with the whole battalion at Old Park Barracks, Dover, in December 1941. The barracks were as good as the RAF's at West Malling and we were only nine to a room, that number being an infantry ‘section’ – the smallest 'command', under a Lance Corporal. But we had no beds and, as at Invicta Lines, slept on the floor.
We went to the ranges on the cliff tops for a day's Bren firing and took turns in firing and in the 'butts', ie at the end where the targets were, in front of a large mound designed to stop the bullets after they had passed through the fabric targets; similar .303-inch ammunition was used for both rifles and Brens. Any bullet which went high over the top of the target sailed harmlessly into the sea beyond the cliff's edge. The holes in the target made by the bullets were repaired between shoots with stickers but, being temporary, wartime ranges, we applied these by climbing onto the butt. In a permanent range, the targets were pulled down with wires and pulleys into pits in front of the butt and below it and repaired there in absolute safety. Despite all the safety precautions on the firing line, some idiot made a mistake and we ten or so soldiers repairing the targets received a burst of about half a dozen rounds of Bren fire. I'll never know, nor did anybody there know, how it was that none of us was killed or wounded as the mean point of impact of the bullets was on the butt, on which we were standing. I don't know what happened to the firer or to those in charge of safety.
An item in our training was to make us realise and appreciate the full worth of our respirators – as we were not to know that gas was not to be used; it had often been used, with hideous effect, during the Great War. So, we were ordered to 'experience DM gas' – DM being the code name for a vicious gas with a 36 hour, but not permanent, effect. We all trooped into the gas chamber with our masks at our side; there was no gas when we entered. We were ordered to put the masks on and then a DM canister was set going; with our masks on we could smell or feel nothing, except that our breathing was laboured, as it always was when wearing a mask, to which we had grown accustomed.
We were then ordered to remove masks and, at once, felt pain in the eyes, throat, nose and chest. We gasped for breath and hawked; our gums ached terribly – we just reeled about and wished we were dead. Then we were let out of the gas chamber and collapsed on the ground, trying to be sick and numbed with pain in our teeth, gums and throats. The after-effects lasted over a day – for a 'harmless' gas I felt that enough 'harm' had been done. But we all respected our 'gas masks' far more after that and, to ensure that we were not put through the gas chamber again during our military service, our service records were endorsed 'Experienced DM Gas Dec 41.' Of course, the density of the dose was much more than someone in the open would receive and we could not move away: but we had learned the lesson – gas was hideous and the mask essential.
It was about this time that the great USA was forced into the war. I was, of course, glad that they were in on our side as, at that time, we could well do with any allies going. In January 1942 the powers that be decided that we should move again. We were not surprised as the average time was about three months to prevent us ‘getting our feet under the table’ and, thereby getting soft. It also stopped us from acquiring too much kit. I was detailed, with 10 others to accompany 2Lt Shields (the platoon commander, for whom I had the greatest respect) on the ‘advanced party’ to RAF Biggin Hill airfield. It was one of the most bitterly cold days that I can remember and driving from Dover to Biggin Hill (about four hours) in an open 15 cwt truck froze us to the point of insensibility. In any case, ‘A’ coy’s interest were looked after by the advanced party and we were ready for their arrival about three days later. But I was only there about a fortnight more as I heard that I was to be promoted to Lance Corporal (the lowest appointment – not even a rank – in the Army; but my first promotion, nevertheless) it maybe that the good result I’d received on the signals’ course helped.
While at RAF Biggin Hill, I was ‘Senior Soldier’ in charge of a guard at one of the posts: it was still midwinter and very cold. There was no fuel of any sort for our ‘Tortoise’ stove and, after two hours of guarding at night, the soldiers were chilled to the bone. The RAF did not do any guards, except by RAF police on the main gate, where they had a proper Guardroom and heating.
There was coal dump a hundred yards away, in the open but encircled by a barbed-wire fence. I told two of my guards that if they could get in, they could help themselves to two bucketful of coal. They were caught in the act by the RAF Police – I was charged as I had authorised the theft and duly appeared before an RAF Flight Lieutenant. He asked how I pleaded and I replied ‘Guilty’. He followed this by asking if there were any ‘mitigating circumstance.’ He fully accepted what I said and said ‘Case dismissed.’ I had had great worries about being found guilty of theft as that would probably have dashed all hopes of going, sometime, to Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU). I silently thanked the RAF officer for his common sense and forbearance: I had not always felt well disposed to that Service; I also had had a warning and lesson in ‘Man Management’ and common sense, which I never forgot.
Apparently about ten or twelve of us from the battalion who were thought to be ‘officer material' were all to be posted as very junior NCOs to 'B' Coy at Redleaf House at Penshurst, Kent. I was made a section leader and had seven or eight soldiers to my name. The whole platoon (three sections) was in one room; bunks were three high; we all slept head to toe as bunks were only 18 inches apart. With our kit, rifles, etc the squash was terrible and I can only liken it to the lack of space to which submariners become accustomed.
The house was bitterly cold and, with about 150 soldiers, grossly overcrowded. All the ablutions were out of doors and shaving in cold water (to which I was well accustomed) was made no easier as there was no light or roof above the tin wash basins.
An order appeared in about February 1942 that 'Drawers, long, woollen' should be handed into the Quartermaster's stores and that 'Drawers, short, cellular' should be taken out in exchange. I did not do so and my crime was discovered on the next kit inspection when all kit was laid out in a uniform way to enable a quick check by the Company Quartermaster-Sergeant (CQMS) to spot deficiencies or crimes like mine. I was put on a charge and duly marched up before the Officer Commanding (OC the Company – a Captain). I was terrified, as such a crime might mean demotion to private and bang would go all chances of going to an OCTU.
However, I pleaded that I had not handed in my pants because it was so cold that I could not do without them; there was no question of wilfully wishing to disobey orders. The OC believed me and I was admonished but kept my single stripe, to the nettling of the CQMS who had charged me. But I did lose my ‘long johns.' I blessed the OC and remembered something for my future (hoped for) officer's service – that commonsense, tempered with kindness, produced loyalty. I also had the feeling that the OC had thought the episode to be pretty petty, which it was.
We trained hard in weapon drills and firing, section and platoon exercises, map reading, some signals, etc and, to my delight, had to learn to drive. As it happened, I had already taken a driving test for cars and light lorries but I was now trained in riding motorcycles and Bren-gun carriers (a tracked vehicle which looked like a turret less and very small tank). I much enjoyed riding and driving both and became proficient.