Francis Carl Willmott in the role of The Duke of Ayr and Stirling in Terence Rattigan's While the Sun Shines
A special welcome to members of the Air Formation Signal Regiments' Association, in the hope that they will find interest and entertainment in my father's account of his WW2 career in the Signals ...
NB: This is a very long document!
THE WARTIME MEMORIES
Francis Carl Willmott
as explained to his Grandchildren.
In the spring of 1996 my daughter, Frances, came home from school with a history homework task. She was to ask an older member of her family for a few memories of the Second World War. Her Grandfather was telephoned and was happy to oblige. The episode that he wrote so intrigued the children that they asked for more. Over the next year, few weeks passed without a substantial portion of wartime autobiography being enclosed with the weekly letter of family news.
I have now gathered these accounts together and present them in sequence.
Considering that Dad typed these memories with very limited eyesight, episodically, and with no opportunity to check names, places and dates; the amount of editing required has been slight. I have corrected some typing errors and have deleted one or two sentences that repeat information supplied in a previous section. There are some references to photographs, programmes and books that were originally enclosed with the letters. These were subsequently returned to West Witton, but in every case Dad explains their significance in such detail that their absence is not critical.
One or two editorial additions, enclosed in square brackets [ ], have been added following telephone conversations with Dad over the past few weeks. They clarify or expand certain passages. Sections in italics are abstracted from the regular weekly correspondence that accompanied the memoirs. To avoid any risk of giving offence, however slight, a few personal names have been deleted.
Principally for the benefit of non-family members, I have added some explanatory notes. These also provide occasional extra information.
Nicholas Willmott. December 2000
***Sunday May 23 1996
School in the Summer of 1939 was far from normal. Air-raid shelters were dug and built in the playing field to be followed by regular air-raid drill. Gas masks were issued and regularly tested.
Teachers were exempted from military service and given training in emergency measures that would come into force at the outbreak of War. We were given official badges and authority to visit all houses to make a register of all spare accommodation that could be used to house evacuees. We were called Enumerators and had the authority of the Police to back us. I also enrolled as an Air-raid warden and started training. For this I had to ride a bike and Grandma (note 1) had to teach me to ride. We used to get up in the early hours and go up and down the road when no-one else was up and about. Everybody in Cambridge rode a bike and they were hard to get at that critical time. I could only get a ladys model, but this was easier to mount and fall off. A wardens post was built on a road island not far from our house, but I had to use the bike to go round and rouse others in case of emergency. My bike had a most peculiar sound in motion, so when War eventually came, Grandma always knew when there was an emergency. That was in the future, for the moment there was other training to be done, such as going through various gas chambers and recognising the gases, together with applying first aid.
When war finally came in September, we teachers all became Billeting Officers. By this time I had four different identity cards. As enumerators we had recorded householders preferences as to sex and age of prospective evacuees. In the event these were useless; in our part of Cambridge we only had Polish mothers with babies in arms and huge boys from a North London Technical College, who had to share our School building for lessons. On that first day of War I walked the streets with a six-foot pupil whom nobody wanted. At 10 p.m. I returned with him to the billeting office where no-one remained except the young infants teacher who was to lock up. My tall foot-sore boy was in tears. I would have taken him back home but Rod was only three weeks old, and we already had two evacuated teachers staying with us. The young teacher took our rejected evacuee back to her own flat. That was the beginning of a story that must be kept for a later edition.
July 7 1996
I had intended to go through the years of the Second World War telling stories in the order that they occurred. However your interest in the unwelcome evacuee prompts me to complete his story as far as I know it.
THE UNWELCOME EVACUEE
You may remember that I spent the first day of war in 1939 taking evacuees to their Cambridge hosts. You will also recall that I had one very large London schoolboy who no-one wanted. He walked with me round the Cambridge streets and was finally taken in by a young lady teacher who took him home to her small flat. In the days that followed there were air-raid alarms in Cambridge, but none in London. Quite a lot of young children and mothers went back, believing that they were better off in London. Our own Coleridge School was being shared by the North-West London Technical College, who did not go back as the School buildings were so good.
Nearly every day I saw the young man who had walked so many streets with me. In the early morning he could be seen with the teacher who gave him shelter. He appeared very happy as he carried her books to the Blinco Grove School, where Lorna later became a pupil. There were wagging tongues from neighbours, but they couldnt say much, as they had been unwilling to take the boy themselves.
As time went on the progress of War gave us other things to think about. I was in the Royal Signals for five years, until peace was signed at Lüneburg, and I was transferred there as an Education Officer. There was no more fighting to be done, but the British Army was responsible for keeping the peace and occasionally I had to sit up all night as duty officer. In the office below was a soldier also on duty as a clerk, keeping records and answering the telephone.
One night when I was on duty, the clerk came up and asked me whether I would like a cup of tea. He offered to bring it up, but I liked company and I said I would go down and join him.
As he poured out the tea he said, You dont remember me do you Captain Willmott?
I didnt recognise him, so he added, I am the boy who walked the streets of Cambridge with you on the first day of the War.
We stayed talking for the rest of our nights duty. I cannot go into all the details, but this young man was drafted into the Army not long after leaving School. He had been wounded in the Rhine (note 2) crossing and was back on light duties.
Sadly, he had to tell me that all the rest of his family had been killed in an air raid. Being wounded, the only home to which he could go on sick leave was the lady teachers flat in Cambridge. Tears came again to his eyes when he said that the teacher was the only one he had left in the world.
I wish I could tell you the end of this story, but we left Cambridge before this young man was discharged from the Army. I have a feeling that he married the teacher. He was in his early twenties and she was not then thirty, so the age difference was not great. We hope they lived happily together for a very long time.
The first weeks of the War were quite dull. This is going to be rather boring after the boys story that I told you last time. Everybody expected air-raids that never came and many of the evacuees went back to London. Coleridge Boys School, Cambridge, was new in 1937 and so the N.W. London Technical was quite glad to be there. The workshops and science rooms were better than theirs back home. They got on quite well with our boys, although they were older. At that time our boys entered at age eleven and left at fifteen; the Londoners were aged thirteen to eighteen.
We thought that we should only be working half days, but it didnt work out like that. We would start at nine in the morning and use the classrooms until 1 p.m., when we had our school dinner. The London boys had their dinners at noon and classes from one until five p.m. In the morning they had the use of the Hall, the Gymnasium and the Playing Field. We used these spaces in the afternoon. From this you may work out that our school day was eight hours long; in peace time it had been just five hours. This was not all.
In the evenings the London teachers arranged clubs and other things at school so that the boys would not be a nuisance to their hosts and hostesses. Our workshops were used to make things useful for the War effort. Not many people know about this. The Pye Radio works had gone over to the making of Radar equipment for the armed forces. With our up-to-date metal lathes and shaping machines we were able to help. Your Daddy will be able to tell you more about Asdic detectors. They were used by the Navy to detect German submarines. Submarines were used not only to sink our War vessels but, more particularly, to starve us out by sinking the merchant ships bringing us food. In our workshops we were able to make the condenser plates that were vital parts of these Asdic detectors. The older boys from our two Schools did this work in the evenings. This was not the only way in which school children were able to help. I remember that we made collections of things like silver paper wrappings that were used for salvage. In the First World War, when I was in Infants School, we were asked to collect horse chestnuts (conkers) and take them to school. These were sent to factories and used in the making of explosives. In the Second World War, as I have already said, the Germans again tried to stop food getting to us. There were no bananas and very few oranges. To take their place school-children were asked to collect rose-hips. When I went back to Cambridge after the War, Chivers jam factory was still collecting rose-hips brought in by the Schools, and from these they manufactured rose-hip syrup for feeding to babies in place of orange juice. I think that it is still being sold today as a source of vitamin C.
I am sorry Frances, but all these memories are about boys and I havent mentioned the girls at all. I must point out that ours was a boys school. The girls were in an adjoining building, but they could not have been more separate. Miss Howlett, the Head, thought it was her duty to keep her girls safe from the dreadful boys next door. This defence was made even more necessary by the invasion of huge louts from London. With a double school population working from nine in the morning till nine at night, we had no time to think about young ladies for whom the evacuation had made no difference of time-table.
For my own part, I also had my air-raid warden duties, with occasional nights to be spent at the telephone in the nearby Wardens Post. Although there were no raids we occasionally had a red alert which meant that Grandma would hear my cranky bike as I cycled round to wake the other wardens. We also had training sessions when we were taken into various gas chambers, so that we should know what the experience was like. We also did practice with stirrup pumps with which every household was supplied for fire-fighting purposes. I cannot remember whether Lorna was supplied with a Mickey Mouse gas-mask, which were issued to young children who might be frightened by the ordinary type. Certainly Rod had a babys gas-protector, into which the whole body was comfortably placed.
At the time there was plenty to do and think about, but the War still seemed far away and an uneasy peace loomed over all.
Then came the awful reality. In late May, 1940, the Germans swept through Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg, and the French were conquered. The remaining Allied Armies were driven to the Channel ports and, miraculously, most of them were rescued from Dunkirk. Hundreds of boats of all kinds were used and most got away in spite of continuous shelling and bombing. Many of the soldiers came from the coast by direct train to Cambridge. They were billeted for a short time in the houses from which the evacuees had gone back to London. We had three soldiers at 1, Perne Road. They were tired, unwashed and hungry. For three days they did little but eat and sleep, after a good bath.
A new chapter in the War was opening. Schoolmasters of my age would shortly be called to arms, so I volunteered while there was still some choice in the matter. I was medically examined and passed A.1. This meant that I was too fit for the Army Education Corps. I was told that I would be suitable for training in the Royal Signals. In September 1940 I was sent a rail warrant and instructed to report to the Signals Training Depot at Tilehurst Road, Reading. For the time being my civilian days were over.
August 4 1996
Dear Frances and Michael,
... As you are now so grown up, I think I ought to point out that my true stories about the War may give you a wrong impression. Some of my adventures were quite funny, but I had an easy time. I never had to fire a shot and was never bombed or shot at.
... I didnt want you to get a wrong impression of life in the Forces during War. We have other friends who spent so much dreadful time in Japanese P.O.W. camps. I was very lucky.
Almost exactly a year after walking the streets of Cambridge with evacuees, I was in Army uniform. One of my fellow teachers agreed to drive Grandma, Lorna and Rod to your great-grandparents at Old Street Farm in Gloucestershire. This was a happy place for them to be. Our house at 1, Perne Road, Cambridge was sub-let, furnished.
It must have been a very early special train in which I left Cambridge on my way to Reading. It may have been a special, as all the passengers were either in uniform, or on their way to it. Air raids were raging over London and people were sleeping in all the underground stations as we crossed from Kings Cross to Paddington. We were told that the nights raids had been light and that our train to Reading and beyond would leave as planned.
When I arrived at Ticehurst it was still early and it was to be a busy day. In no time at all I took off my civilian clothes and was kitted out with uniform and all accessories.
I ceased to be Mr. F.C. Willmott, Nat. Reg. No. T.A.B. 145, and became Signalman Willmott, F.C. No.2595790. I had a few days to qualify as a tradesman. As a schoolmaster I was in the communication business. I was merely transferring to another branch of the same business. There were lots of other schoolmasters engaged in the same skills adjustment.
Most trades in the Royal Corps of Signals required a lot of training and skill. I couldnt see how we should be able to do this training in a few days. However, we learned that we were to be trained for an A.A. unit (note 3), where the requirement was for switchboard and telephone operators - listed as Grade D in the list of payment rates. It was more difficult than you might imagine. In the days before automatic dialling you lifted the telephone receiver and called the switchboard operator who then had to call the number you required and made the connection. At that time all Army connections relied on this use of a switchboard operator. There might be as many as a hundred lines connected to such a board. You wore head-phones and sat down in front of a hundred plugs, or jacks as they were called. Above these was a board with a hundred plug holes with light bulbs underneath. When a bulb lit up it meant that number was calling, so you had to plug into the hole above and answer according to an established procedure. Using another plug you then had to call the number required by inserting it in the right hole and ringing by turning a handle in front of your switchboard. If you had a satisfactory answer then you used the plugs to connect the two subscribers. This may sound simple, but at busy times several callers would be calling at the same time. You also had to make certain that the call was proceeding satisfactorily, and break it down when finished. High-ranking officers and urgent calls had to be given priority. Failure to observe priorities could lead to all sorts of trouble.
Learning all this, and more, took up most of the time during those few days, but we had to pretend to be soldiers as well.
Our training as fighting men will be found overleaf. Turn with care!
At the end of my first day as a soldier I was surprised to find that I was listed for guard duty on the very first night.
We were not exactly in the front line, but we had to keep up appearances. Our armament was not heavy. The Home Guard had to drill with broom-sticks, but we had a real Ross Rifle, (Mark 2), carefully preserved from the Boer Wars (note 4). I was shown how to use it, in theory. We only had one bullet, which we signed for on taking up duty. We kept this in our pocket in case of emergency.
I shall not forget that first night of duty. There was a heavy raid over London, only twenty-odd miles away. It was a tremendous sight, with search-lights, A.A. fire and air dog-fights lighting up the sky; there was a constant glow as the fires of London came from below. Every now and again a ping on the top of my tin-hat made me think that shrapnel was falling all around. I thought I could see German parachutists coming down above the trees. The light of the following morning revealed that the falling armaments were over-ripe conkers falling from trees in the drive.
So ended my first day of active service.
You will remember that the second year of the War opened with Grandma, Lorna and Rod off to Old Street Farm in West Gloucestershire. Meanwhile I had gone South and expected to remain in the London area after training.
By this time the German air-raids had extended to other parts of the country, particularly the south coast towns.
My job was to be in Anti-Aircraft Gun Operation Rooms. For me this meant Bristol, Gloucester and Cardiff for most of the next two years. At each place it was fairly easy for me to get to Old Street Farm, so I still managed to see quite a bit of the family.
You will remember that I was trained as a switch-board operator. Although we all served turns on our very big and busy board, it only occupied one man at a time. Our main duties were in the G.O.R. itself. These rooms varied in lay-out and size, but the main features were the same. In the centre was a very large table marked out as an ordnance survey map of the south of England. We all stood round wearing head-phones through which we had information about air-raids and we plotted these on the map. If I remember rightly German planes were indicated by swastikas and the British by red, white and blue circles. In a circle above us on a platform sat the officers, also wearing headphones and a breast microphone to speak to the gun-sites. We, who mapped what was going on, listened to information that came from R.A.F. stations, Search-light batteries, Barrage-balloon controls, air raid wardens, Fire services, the Police and, especially, Observer Corps posts. The officers above relayed the information to gun positions where the final decisions about firing had to be made.
When the figures of German planes brought down are studied, it can be seen that a very small proportion were brought down by A.A. fire. In those days there were no ground-to-air rockets or missiles of that accuracy. The guns fired shells to explode at the estimated height, and so the targeting was not accurate. They were not allowed to fire when our own planes were in the area and they had to be aware of barrage balloons and the effects of fall-out. In fact the guns more frequently put up a barrage to keep the enemy out, rather than bringing them down.
Although we had lived for such a large proportion of our lives in Bristol, I cannot remember much of my posting there. I cannot even recall where the G.O.R. was situated. It soon became apparent that the situation there was too vulnerable and it was decided to move to Gloucester.
In contrast to Bristol, I remember this site very well. We were in Princes Hall, a dancing salon in pre-war days. It was right in the centre of Gloucester, with the front doors opening on to a main street and back door straight on to the cattle market. Our beds occupied the whole of the ballroom floor, while downstairs were toilets, a kitchen, refreshment room, and a spacious conference room, ideally suited to be a G.O.R. As we worked mainly at night, the noise from the street and the market was not conducive to sleep, but we became accustomed to this. Even when not on official leave I could get a lift to Old Street Farm and family when on rest for 24 hours. I had some strange lifts; once on a hearse and once in a load of stinking cattle skins from the abattoir in the market.
This was a fairly happy state of affairs that was too good to last. Intelligence reports suggested that the Nazi planes were likely to extend the target area to include Gloucester and Cheltenham. Our central G.O.R., also very near to the Railway Station, was much too vulnerable. We were moved to Badgeworth Court, an empty country house halfway between the two large towns, and well away from even a village. This was very comfortable, but not so convenient to hitch-hike home.
At this time I was recommended for officer training and had to attend a War Officer Selection Board. There were lots of interviews and some quite hard tests. In one of these you had to lie face down on the Gym floor with a paper and pencil and an exercise book. In this position you had to work out arithmetic problems while N.C.O.s kicked footballs over our heads. Surprisingly, I passed and was promoted to the rank of Lance-Corporal (acting-unpaid).
Life was so safe and easy at Badgeworth that it was decided to replace us all by women of the A.T.S. (note5).
As I was destined for officer cadet training, I was not posted away with the rest of the men. The Sergeant in charge also had a temporary reprieve and together we had to introduce the girls to their duties. They had been well trained and were probably better at this work than were the men. In any case local air activity had lessened very considerably. Supervision of Bristol had been transferred to Cardiff, together with that for the whole of Wales and the border area. There it was still a mans job. Consequently I was sent to Cardiff to work until posting to O.C.T.U. (note 6).
That was the move that took me to Pen-y-lan Court (note 7). Is it still there?
From my point of view war-time Cardiff was very different from Bristol, Gloucester and Badgeworth. In those places we were a very small detachment of about thirty under one sergeant. We never saw an officer, except in the G.O.R.
At Pen-y-lan Court the corridors were crowded with military personnel. In the streets there were many soldiers, sailors, airmen and merchant seamen. There were also quite a lot of women in uniform - including the civilian W.V.S. (note 8).
It seemed as if Cardiff had been long preparing for this influx of services. They must have been saving up in the hill-sides and valleys. Every main street had a Forces canteen with home-made Welsh cakes. Every chapel was crowded on Sunday evening and refreshments were served afterwards by an army of willing ladies. The singing was very good and a long sermon could be borne with the prospect of joys to follow. There was no silver in the collection, but dishes of very heavy copper.
I cannot remember whether I did any operation room duty at Cardiff. The fact is that there were so many of us waiting to be posted that there were many bodies to spare. I did, however, train to be a cipher clerk.
The highest grade for signalman was that of morse operator. To pass for this rating a very high speed of reading and operating was required and the tradesman usually took down the messages in short-hand. Such operators also knew secret codes and they were entrusted with highly confidential secret messages. By 1941 increasing use was being made of the teleprinter. I had to learn how to operate one of these. The most difficult thing was to learn a mathematical formula which had to be learnt without being written down; because it was so highly secret. According to this formula the letters had to be arranged to make up the code for the day in question. Having qualified, I used to go on night duty taking practice messages and being ready for real traffic. It meant sitting up in front of a screen, exactly like the one that now shows the football results coming through on Saturday television. Not all the messages would be for me, but I had to keep awake and there was no means for asking questions. The practice messages were never checked and had to be destroyed before going off duty. There were some routine messages that were identified by a prefix and they were delivered the following morning. It was very rare to have a real secret message, identified by having no prefix.
I can only remember having one such real secret signal.
I cannot remember exactly the text of the signal, but it was something like:-
Cpl. Evans, HT is available to play at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday (date).
It was addressed to Capt. J. Peterson (note 10).
Capt. Jack Peterson was a formidable national figure. At that time he was Heavyweight Boxing Champion of Britain, and many other spheres. The prospect of waking him up in the middle of the night was not attractive.
There was a despatch rider on hand to take despatches when required, but it didnt require a motor-cyclist to reach an officer who was sleeping in the same building. He occupied a suite of rooms as officer in charge of Combined Services Recreation.
Using all my authority as a Lance-Corporal (acting unpaid), I woke Jack Petersons batman and directed him to wake his officer and deliver the signal.
With a torrent of Celtic curses ringing in my ears I dashed back to my teleprinter screen and awaited the wrath to come. Strangely enough it didnt. The next day I hurried past Jack Peterson in the corridor and he actually smiled. Perhaps the message was really important. After all, the Germans didnt invade Wales. Or perhaps it underlined the truth that, to a Welshman, Cardiff Arms Park is a more important battlefield than Normandy, Waterloo, or even the playing fields of Eton.
From Cardiff it wasnt very easy to hitch-hike to Old Street Farm, but I had regular 48 hour passes. Showing these at Cardiff railway station I could get very cheap railway warrants to Lydney Junction. As I worked mainly at night, my passes went from evening to evening. Consequently I used to arrive at Lydney very late and had a long walk in the black-out to Old Street Farm. I had one or two frightening experiences and twice fell into a very wet ditch. I was always relieved when I saw the outline of the farm house on the night sky-line. Old Bob, the dog, would usually be on guard and would bark on my approach. However, he always recognised my voice and met me wagging his tail. It was this lovely dog that helped Uncle Rod to walk. Rod would put his arms round the dogs neck as it walked slowly round.
During the day I was able to get a train back from Awre Junction, a small station much nearer to Blakeney. Passing an isolated cottage, I was surprised to see an official warning on the gate:- Danger - Unexploded Bomb. As I approached the house, a man came running out to ask me when I was going to remove this xxxx thing. As I was in uniform, he thought I must be one of the bomb disposal squad who had made the weapon safe and had promised to come back and remove it. His chief worry was that it had ruined his onion bed. It seemed of little concern that he, his family and the house had narrowly escaped complete destruction.
When I got back to Cardiff I found that this bomb had been carefully mapped, following a raid only four nights earlier. A stick of five had been dropped; two in the river, two on open ground where they had exploded harmlessly, and the one in the garden that had not exploded. It was the deep digging in the onion bed that had saved the house and all who lived there. These were percussion fused bombs that only exploded when the nose-cap met a solid resistance. In this case the projectile had penetrated some thirty feet into the soft earth until it had no more momentum
Although the bombers had navigational aids, they still flew with guidance from what could be seen below. The Thames and the Severn were great pathfinders, especially on moonlit nights. When frustrated in their raids they would fly back along the same route, unloading their bombs along the banks of the river.
My days at Cardiff were numbered, and so came the posting to O.C.T.U.
The next year was to be the most strenuous of my Army career. I dont think I have ever had to work so hard, both physically and mentally.
ON THE ROAD
When I joined the Army in 1940, The German invasion was expected and all our preparations were for defence. When I left Cardiff the air battle was being won and the War Department was preparing for attack in different parts of the world. Defences were being manned by older age groups and the Home Guard. Similarly, women had taken over many essential roles.
I went to a pre-O.C.T.U. at Wrotham in Kent. Here we were put on a production line and subjected to a factory-like routine. At the age of thirty plus, I was one of the oldest pieces of raw material. There were hundreds of us and we were housed on a newly constructed purpose-built site. We were rigorously organised with no time or space wasted. The first parade was at 7 a.m., and there was a full programme until Lights Out at 10 p.m. We were housed in great long barrack rooms where we slept in bunk beds. Feeding was in a very long Mess Room of the same basic design, as was also the lavatory room with seats along each wall. I cannot remember a lecture hall and I think that all instruction was out of doors. There was a long ablution, or washing room, where we elbowed one another to wash in the morning. There were showers all down the other side.
Since my first night, at Reading, I had not handled a rifle. Now I was issued with a new Lee-Enfield as my constant companion. I marched with it, I drilled with it, I named all its parts, I cleaned it every day and I slept with it. But I did not fire it. We had one case of dummy bullets that we used for practice loading.
Your daddy may have copies of two poems by Henry Reed (note 11) that tell exactly what some of our training was like. They are called Naming of Parts and Judging Distances.
Every morning, besides a roll call and parade, we had to stand by our beds for a kit inspection. For this there was a set arrangement of every item and the rifle was inspected by a sergeant squinting down the barrel. To prepare for this we had to use a long pull-through, - an oiled scrap of flannel attached to a long draw string. I remember one fellow cadet who had failed to do this one day when a moth took refuge in the barrel overnight. He was in serious trouble.
When I was allocated my bunk, I noticed that the man above me was called Tanner (note12); he was one before me on the alphabetical list. It was some three days later that I learned that his first name was Haydn and that he was the famous Welsh international rugby player. He was a national hero in the Cardiff I had just left. He was to be my closest Army companion for the next eighteen months. He called me Willie Bach, which became Bill or Billie to others later.
We were only at Wrotham for some four weeks or so, but it seemed much longer. The purpose was to give us a crash course in all the essential officer duties that would be common to all Regiments and specialist units. These included Drill, military law, first aid, digging latrines, judging distances, map-reading, and conducting funerals. The list is much longer and all the details are in a Field Service Pocket Book (note 13) somewhere in our library. Oh dear! Ive left out setting up a field kitchen, one of the most important duties.
Beyond all this training enshrined in the Field Service Pocket Book, the most important feature of our cadet training was the driving and care of Service Transport. We had one week on four wheels and one on two. At the end of each week was a driving and maintenance test that had to be passed.
It may surprise you to know that there was no man in my squad of thirty that had ever driven a car. There must have been some in the other squads who had driven private cars, but military transport was more difficult to handle. We did all our driving practice in 15 cwt. and 3 ton trucks. They were heavy to handle and all gear changing had to be done by double de-clutching. There were no trafficators (note 14) and all signals had to be given by hand. The wind-screen wipers had to be operated by hand and the self-starters operated only occasionally. In the early morning we always had to start by using a vicious starting handle. Often the engine kicked back and dealt a savage blow through the handle. Most of the vehicles were open and any covers could be easily removed. There was no system of locking, so every vehicle had to be immobilised on leaving unattended. The usual method was to remove the rotor arm. We also had to learn to do daily maintenance and to conduct an officers inspection. This meant donning overalls and crawling underneath the vehicle. I passed all these tests without much difficulty.
The same could not be said of the motor-cycle course which came in the following week. Again we were trained on very heavy models, which were more powerful than I was. I did reasonably well on the road where we always moved at a modest rate in convoy. But the final test was on a battle course with shell holes and bomb craters and fire crackers thrown over our heads.
I emerged from this ordeal covered with bruises. We had to ride in and out of a bomb crater. Three times I tried this and each time I finished at the bottom of the crater under the machine. On the last occasion I wheeled my bike out and re-mounted. Apparently this desperate move was my salvation and I was deemed to have passed ...
Sadly I was a modest smoker at that time and my cigarette case was squashed and flattened into one piece of metal.
So ended our pre-OCTU, and we moved to greater terrors at Catterick.
Oct. 11 1996
Dear Frances and Michael,
... As I have now had a letter from, and a talk with, Haydn Tanner, I thought I would tell you a little more about him in this weeks story.
At the Signals O.C.T.U. we had to work very hard and we were expected to play hard. As I remember, parades started at 7 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. The evenings were free and there were entertainments and canteens. However, it was something like school; there was no homework, but there were exams to be prepared for and rules to be learned, as well as rifle cleaning, boot and button polishing and other personal tasks. For example, we had a sewing kit, called a Housewife, and we were expected to do all our darning and button sewing.
In the evenings we also did games training, play rehearsals and band practices etc.
I had not played rugby for more than eight years, but we all had to play some game on Saturday afternoons and rugby had to be my choice. Most football players played soccer so we had barely enough rugger players to make up a team. However, we did have this International star, Haydn Tanner, who won most of our games single-handed. He subjected us to rigorous practice in the evenings. My ears were nearly screwed off as I was subjected to scrum practice in the second row. That is the position where you have to insert your head between two boney backsides, while being pushed and held by a sharp shoulder in the rear. In the gym we had a scrummage machine to push against. I became inured to this form of torture and I learnt to get by with minimum suffering. But worse was to follow. On the eve of our needle match against the Artillery, our full-back, another Welshman, suffered an injury and could not play. As I was a friend of Haydn at the time and, consequently, ready to hand, I was designated Lord High Substitute. In the half darkness I was taken out to practise catching the ball and kicking to touch. I knew the position in theory but had never played there before. Every moment that could be spared before the match, Haydn was at my side feeding me with technical advice. Finally he assured me that he would always try to get behind me to sweep up. On the great day I think I did quite well. At half-time Haydn was kind enough to say so.
Not long before the final whistle came disaster. We were winning by a narrow margin when the opposing forwards, with the ball at their feet, came rushing towards our line. I knew exactly what to do; I had to dive and fall on the ball. Instinctively I threw myself at the enemy feet but I failed to cover my head. Consequently I suffered multiple injuries, including a broken nose. I have never played again since that day, but I did prevent a score and our team won. I was escorted to the hospital in some triumph.
There was a choice of team games for Saturday afternoon, but no such variety for Wednesdays. For that afternoon it was always a cross-country run. I cannot remember the exact distance, but it was certainly more than ten miles. By common consent none of us made it into a race, but our times were clocked in and we all had to make it within a time limit. Although capable of outstanding performances, Haydn always chose to jog along with me in the middle of the group. We were a very big field as all the courses in the O.C.T.U. ran together in this weekly test of endurance.
Haydn Tanner was a humble man, never trading on his physical prowess. He could, however, show righteous anger when roused by injustice of any kind. In one of the other courses was a group of five Canadians who constantly gave Haydn cause for annoyance. They were continuously making wisecracks at our expense. Rugby football was not one of their interests so they had no respect for Haydns prowess in this field. Neither they nor even the members of our own course knew of Haydns other qualifications. Prior to Officer training he had been a Sergeant-Instructor for P.T. at the Guards Training School at Caterham. I often heard him muttering under his breath at the comparative inexpertise betrayed by some of our own instructors for P.T. One of these usually led us on our cross-country, shouting disparaging remarks by way of encouragement. However, on one memorable day our P.T. Instructor announced that, as we knew the route so well, he was leaving us to find our own way round. When we were well on our way all the shouting was taken over by our Canadian allies. Coming to a side turning they announced that they were going to take a short cut and dared us bums to follow their example. We said not a word but plodded on in British silence.
Towards the end of our circuit the Canadians were waiting in mocking derision. Haydn immediately took charge and threw two of the Canadians into a very muddy ditch. The other three offered no resistance and they all obeyed Haydns command to follow him. He led them off to complete the route in the opposite direction. We gave them a rousing cheer and trotted back to camp. Haydn and the discomfitted, bedraggled Canadians ran in some fifty minutes later.
Haydn brought them home with an apology,
Sorry to be late Sarge, but these benighted colonials couldnt find the way, so I had to go to their rescue.
They dared not speak the truth. Thereafter they treated the Brits with more respect.
There was one P.T.I., who instructed us in unarmed combat, who treated us gentlemen with profound contempt. He delighted in picking on individuals and making them objects of ridicule. He would demonstrate his skill by inviting attack and then throw his victim to the ground. One day the object was to creep up behind him and grasp him with a strangle-hold round his neck. The attacker would do his best, only to be thrown violently over the instructors head to land on the mat that had been mercifully placed. Two victims were thus humiliated, when the Instructor asked whether anyone else would like a go.
Yes, I would like to try, Corporal. said Haydn.
The challenge had to be accepted and the Corporal smiled in grim anticipation. Haydns fourteen stone went flying over his head, BUT he landed on his feet with his hand still holding the corporals collar. With this purchase he piloted the hapless instructor through the air to land helpless on the gym floor, well beyond the mat. Haydn was not a violent man, for he picked up the limp body and took him to be revived in the First Aid room.
No injuries were sustained and from that day the N.C.O. treated our course with profound respect.
Life at Catterick was as hard as at Wrotham, but was more bearable. The pre-OCTU at Wrotham was purpose built and I doubt whether any trace of it remains. Catterick was the centre of Signals training and had been a camp since the days of the Romans. I can go through it today and recognise most of the buildings that we used during the War. I can even recognise the room where I slept for the whole nine months that I was there.
Today Catterick Camp is bigger than any of the towns around here. In the War it was even larger. There were well-built barracks with large dormitories where the floors were polished every day - by us! There were huge kitchens and dining rooms and N.A.A.F.I. canteens. There was a large hospital, cinema and theatre. In our Signals camp there were science labs, gymnasia, football fields, firing ranges, lecture rooms, parade grounds and vehicle workshops. In addition the Artillery, the R.A.F. and various other units had similar buildings.
Haydn Tanner was still my friend and his bed was next to mine. We had a lot of tests to pass, both written and practical. Some of these we had to do in pairs and Haydn was always my partner and, as a Cardiff science graduate, helped me to understand some rather obscure physics.
We had to pass all the trade tests for the different branches of signals work. Although we had passed in trucks and motor-cycles, we had to do a despatch riders and cable-layers exercise. We had to learn morse code and wireless signalling. We had to erect telegraph poles and climb them. We had to lay and join cables both overhead and underground. I have some photographs of us doing these things, I wonder whether you will be able to recognise me?
I think that you might have quite liked some of the more interesting things. For instance, in our practical tests we had to make a wireless set. In those days there were no transistors. We had to make what was known as a two-valve set. The power came from electricity or mains and the valves looked just like electric bulbs on top of the set. We had to use a diagram and get the necessary parts from the store. If the bulbs glowed, you could be certain that you had worked successfully, but the greatest thrill was to hear music coming through the head-phones.
We also had to make a morse transmitter and receiver. I think I still have the key somewhere. The night before the theory examination in magnetism and electricity Haydn took me through a two-hour session of question and answer. When the results were published, I was two places above him on the pass list. It just shows what a good teacher he was.
I think that Id better keep the rest of my Catterick stories for another week. Theres still quite a lot to say.
November 2nd 1996
In my war-time stories to you I am spending a long time in Catterick. This is because we now live in that area and have continual reminders.
MORE CATTERICK CAMEOS
First of all, one or two Army words that you may not know. A mess is a place for eating. So we have the Officers Mess, the Sergeants Mess and the Other Ranks Mess. We all had two mess tins from which we normally ate together with an enamel mug and a canteen of knife, fork and two spoons. From this it follows that we all did our own washing-up: there was a swill bin in which went all our uneaten food, and two tubs of hot water in which we dipped our mess tins and cutlery before wiping them with cloths that were part of our equipment and which we had to launder.
Another word with a specialised meaning is fatigue, which applied to all those unpleasant extra jobs that had to be done from day to day.
The daily unfailing fatigues were those associated with the cookhouse, and were called by that name. In those days the most boring of these was spud-bashing, - peeling potatoes and preparing vegetables. There were no machines to help with these things. From what I have written above you will gather that washing-up was simplified, but there were still all the cooking pots and pans to do.
I managed to get out of a lot of these fatigues as I had been recruited into the entertainments squad by one Captain. K.D. Anderson who was a science master at Clifton College (note 15). He had seen me perform at the Bristol Little Theatre and the theatre manager at Catterick had been stage manager in Bristol at the same time. We used to rehearse during fatigue periods and I still have Captain Andersons book of the sketches that we did. These two officers, knowing my interest in the subject, also arranged for me to go with a load of old gas-masks to the storage dump then housed in the theatre at Richmond (note16). I can show you pictures of the place as it then was.
There are pictures of some of the tests we did at Catterick before we passed out as officers. There is also a picture of our passing-out parade.
There is one of three of us scaling a wall. The man who is being pulled up would stand with his back to the wall with his hands cupped. One at a time the other two would jump, and the man with his back to the wall would cup his hands under one foot of the jumper to give him a leg up. He, the jumper, would clutch at the top of the wall and pull himself up. When his two mates were thus secured at the top of the wall, they would pull the third man up. All this needed lots of practice. I mustnt waste space describing other obstacles.
The supreme test of this nature was when we were all issued with individual rations and sent to do a battle course at Ullswater (note 17) in the Lake District. We had to wash in the Lake and rivers, from which we also obtained our drinking water. We cooked our own meals, when the mess tins were also used for cooking. The month was February and there was snow all around.
The most severe test of all was climbing Helvellyn (note 18), carrying a rifle and all our equipment. It was little comfort to see the ambulances following on the road below to rescue fallers and other casualties.
Back at Catterick we were taken out in lorries and dumped individually in the black darkness and ordered to find our way back to camp. We had the assistance of a compass with a luminous pointer. [Dad recalls that he was the first to make it back. He managed to flag down a car occupied by two ladies who, understandably, were initially alarmed at being waylaid by a stranger in full battle-dress. However, they kindly delivered him to the camp gates. He confessed the assistance he had received to the Sergeant on duty, and was half expecting to be sent out again. Happily he was instead praised for his enterprise.
For many years Dad has wondered why two lady civilians should have been motoring across a remote Yorkshire moor at 3 oclock in the morning.]
We also did quite a lot of rifle practice. Some of us were not very good and a few sheep became war casualties. These sheep did their war service in the Camp Cookhouse.
All the time we were serving as ordinary soldiers, except for my first night, we never handled a rifle. As Officer Cadets we carried one every day. As Officers we were issued with revolvers for which we had no training. We were issued with four spare bullets and told to practice at home! I went into the orchard at Old Street Farm and aimed at a lone tree. I missed with all four shots.
All our section passed out successfully. Some of us had broken noses and broken limbs, but all refused to stay in hospital. We all knew that on release from hospital we would be returned to another section and this was a reduction in status that none could face. The interdependence and companionship was so very strong.
After Catterick, Army life was certain to be something of an anti-climax. I have a picture of the passing-out parade. The Band of the Royal Signals was playing and marching in front, while the Princess Royal, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Signals, was taking the salute. The regimental march was Begone Dull Care, a jolly tune which Nick will probably be able to play for you.
We all went home on leave, wearing our brand new officers uniform and being saluted on all sides. For our dress uniforms we had been given a cash allowance and a supply of clothing coupons.
Looking back on things now, it seems that this was a big waste at a time when the Country could not afford it. These dress uniforms were not used until the fighting was all over and they took up a lot of room in the baggage that was more necessary. Four tailors shops were entirely devoted to this tailoring in Richmond, where there is now only one small gents clothing shop.
Haydn Tanner and I were posted to 12th Air Formation Signals. We were told that we should have to provide all the land communications for the 2nd Tactical Air Force [T.A.F.] that was formed to cover the invasion of N.W. Europe. We were assembled, or mustered, at a small place called Kirkburton, near Huddersfield. Of all periods in my Army life, this is the one about which I remember least.
In all there were sixteen hundred men in our total formation. We were divided into three companies for construction, maintenance and operational purposes. Haydn and I were to be in charge of 137 Line Section of No. 1, the Line Construction Company. We commanded sixty-five men. These included two sergeants, one corporal in charge of the Section Office, a vehicle mechanic, seven drivers, two officers batmen, a cook, and all the rest were linesmen. We were all Royal Signals, except the cook who was a member of the Catering Corps and did not parade with us on the rare occasions when this was called for. Our task was to build the short lines from the end of routes to the individual telephones and switchboards. We also had to lend men to the heavy construction sections when circumstances demanded. In operations it meant that I spent most of my time later at R.A.F. headquarters.
At Kirkburton men assembled from many different places. The Junior Officers nearly all came from the course at Catterick. The Senior Field Officers were older territorial reservists who occupied responsible positions in the Post Office. At that time there was no British Telecom and all telephone engineering was done by the Post Office. It was natural that, not only officers, but most other ranks came to us straight from the Post Office. Similarly some came from the electricity companies as the skills of line building are similar. We had to give them some rough guidance about Army drills and signal equipment.
Now comes the only story that you are likely to appreciate in this weeks history lesson.
As well as men, equipment was also coming to us in regular deliveries. One day we were informed that motor-cycles for our despatch riders had been sent to Huddersfield railway station. So far we had no trained despatch riders, but an all-providing War Office had arranged that 25 professional riders would be coming to us straight form civvy street.
I cannot remember exactly how the Unit orders were phrased, but there was information that motor vehicle equipment was awaiting collection at Huddersfield railway station. On the following day two three-ton lorries would proceed to collect the stores and sign for same. The Officer in Charge would be 2nd/Lieut. F.C. Willmott. He would also be responsible for collecting 26 motor-cycles and meeting the new recruit motor-cyclists who had been directed to the station on that day. They would ride in ordered convoy to the camp at Kirkburton. The operation would be commanded by the Officer in Charge for whom an additional motor-cycle had been ordered.
I regarded the prospect of this military operation with much trepidation. You may remember that my motor-cycling had not been the brightest spot in my training. I still bear the scars.
When we reached the station the motor-cyclists, still in civilian clothes, had already selected their machines and were ready to start. The remaining machine was obviously the outcast of the batch. Wisely, I decided to copy The Duke of Plaza-Toro (note 19) and lead my regiment from behind. I lined the riders in double file and they revved up, raring to go. When I kick-started my machine there was no response. Helped by one of the professionals the engine coughed into action and we poured forth into the unsuspecting traffic of Huddersfield. My bike also had a faulty exhaust and kept up a continuous rattle of imitation machine-gun fire. At every road end and turning the convoy waited for me, moving off again before my engine stalled. These men were very good sports and saw my problems sympathetically. On arrival at the camp they separated files, allowing me to pass through to head the column with all exhaust guns blazing. From that day I have never again ridden a motor-cycle.
The only other memory I have of this stay at Kirkburton concerned Haydn Tanner. At that time Keighley had a good Rugby League side, with miners exempt from military service. They also had their scouts looking to snap up any military personnel in the area who might also play professional rugby. Their scouts found Haydn, who was invited to meet the directors at their next home match. Haydn asked me to go along with him. He had no intention of signing, but said we should get a jolly good meal with vintage wine. We sat in the Directors Box to watch the game against Featherstone Rovers, and the refreshment was lavish. They offered Haydn a cash advance on the spot, but he said he would let them know.
They also said that they would be glad to see me as well, but I wasnt offered any money.
UNDER STARTERS ORDERS
Thirsk has a splendid race-course. Today the small town is also well known as the place where James Herriot had his vets surgery. Less well known is the small cricket museum at the house where Thomas Lord lived before taking his Yorkshire turf to make a world famous cricket pitch in St. Johns Wood in London.
In 1943 there was no cricket at Lords, James Herriot, not yet a writer, was in the Air Force and there was no horse racing at Thirsk.
Our 12th Air Formation Signals moved into the ample accommodation usually occupied by horses. We made up half the wartime population of the town. At Kirkburton we had been cramped and were not able to unload and test the supplies that had been delivered, or exercise the sixteen hundred men that had been assembled. In addition to my official command of 137 Line Section, I had been listed as Unit Entertainments Officer. To offset the mens boredom I was kept very busy, and we were lucky that there were a number of amateur concert parties in the area very willing to visit us. We also formed our own party that I directed. Fortunately we had one Signalman Marshall, a brilliant pianist, who could play anything with, or without, sheet music. I never saw him do any routine work, and I never saw him in need of buying a drink.
The situation changed completely when we moved to Thirsk: for one thing it was summer time and there was plenty of room to do the work and training that we needed. The teleprinters, switchboards, telephone poles and cables came out of their packing to be tested, adjusted and used. All the vehicles needed attention and we had to learn how to waterproof the engines so that the vehicles could be driven off the landing barges on the French beaches later on.
There was plenty of room for other exercise and activities that bordered on training. As far as petrol rationing would allow the motor-cyclists did trick riding and racing round the circuit that usually saw horses. There were tugs-of-war between our various sections and team races carrying telegraph poles. The public address system and all the race-course telephone lines were renewed and extended. We did all the grass cutting and serviced the buildings we were using. This was all in our interest as we were very comfortably housed. I lived in a stable usually occupied by horses overnight during the racing season. The local people were all very hospitable and invited us to their houses. We were rather spoilt as we were the only service unit in the area. Families and girl friends came up for weekends. Grandma came up with Lorna and Rod to stay for the night at a Mrs. Lane-Foxs.
During this period our commanding officer and two of our three company commanders were replaced. We dont know why they were sacked, but the replacements were much more dynamic and seemed to have been trained for the task ahead. Probably their predecessors had been recruited for home service and had completed the routine job that they had to do.
So far this has been poor factual stuff, but now comes the only interesting story from this period.
Our new Commanding Officer, Lt.-- Col. Tom Norrish, was very good at public relations. He had the great idea that we should do something to repay the hospitality of local people.
As Entertainments Officer I was expected to do something about this. Obviously we were in a good position to provide an outdoor entertainment if a suitable programme could be devised. The race-course stands could provide ample seating accommodation for the whole civilian population. We could build a stage in the race-course arena and we had already perfected the sound amplification equipment. However, I doubted whether we had the resources to provide suitable musical entertainment. We were quite good in the canteen or the pub smoking room, but hardly fit to fill the needs of a vast outdoor auditorium. We had the inspiration to appeal for help from the Royal Signals Band.
We were pleased to find that they were very willing and well-equipped to feature on such an occasion. They had a programme for a marching band, a concert section, and a dance band, with popular vocalists. We only had to hire a well-tuned piano in addition to the staging we had already planned.
There only remained the problem of a suitable date and transport. The Band, with its load of valuable instruments, usually travelled by rail. Fortunately we were very near to Thirsk station so this should make things easy. The only snag was that very few trains stopped there, though there was plenty of traffic between York and places further North. We were able to find a date when the Band were playing in York on the previous evening. They could be ready for a Concert at Thirsk at 2.30pm on the following day.
At that time Thirsk railway station was manned by a very elderly station-master, assisted by a lady porter and a young girl booking-clerk. They were all very good friends. They assured me that they could arrange for any train to stop at their station; particularly when meeting military requirements.
Under this arrangement the Band would be ready to start after a speech by the Colonel and an exhibition of skills by some of our linesmen and despatch riders. These were the very professionals whom I met at Huddersfield. I missed their turn as I was waiting at the station. I understand that their display of acrobatic riding was superb.
Right on time the bandsmen arrived at Thirsk and we waved to them; only to see them go right through the station at speed. All the arrangements had been made, but nobody told the driver. However, all was not lost. Phone calls were made down the line and the Band got off at Northallerton. They were put on the next train coming back to York. This time the engine braked and appeared to be stopping; but no. Everybody waved and shouted, but the train didnt stop until the driver got the message - some way beyond the station. He reversed and all was well; nearly! The driver started off again before the larger instruments had been unloaded from the Guards van. Another reverse, and eventually we reached the race-course nearly an hour late. Nobody grumbled and, finally, a programme that started at 2.00pm ended at 5.30pm.
December 1st 1996
... My story has been extra long this week, and even so Ive left out some bits. Grandma says that the family stayed more than one night in Thirsk. Rod distinguished himself in the bathroom by pulling a forbidden chain and causing an endless flow of water, only stemmed by one of my skilled soldiers ...
The Royal Signals badge is a figure of Mercury, messenger of the Gods. As members of the 12th Air Formation Signals we also wore blue shoulder flashes featuring R.A.F. wings. Up to the time of leaving Thirsk we had no contact with the Air Force. When we moved south to take up pre-invasion positions this situation was to change completely.
The Headquarters of the 2nd Tactical Air Force was by Uxbridge and the Rear Headquarters was at Bracknell. These were quite separate from Bomber and Fighter Commands. Their line communications were all permanently constructed long before our arrival, but we took over the lines and equipment with the task of maintenance and building extensions. We worked at the two sites, but we were accommodated at Whetstone in North London. We lived mainly in evacuated households or in similarly empty school buildings. We became acquainted with the R.A.F. staff, but the work load was not heavy. Consequently my spare time work as Entertainments Officer became more important. As in Thirsk we had excellent relations with the locals, but we were discouraged from joining the crowds of central London in the evenings. In any case we were in a part of greater London that was almost untouched by bombing.
During this period we formed a Dance Band as well as our Concert Group. Instead of amateur entertainers visiting us, we served the local bodies by providing their shows and dance music. These were the circumstances that led to this weeks story.
In the road where I was billeted lived a local businessman who gave me an open invitation to his house and was very kind to me. His name was Mr. J. Foley and he was a high executive in the management of the Gas Company. I cant remember what it was called in those days. Everything in his house operated on gas and there was no electricity. Even his radio and gramophone worked on gas. You may wonder how this could be possible, but your Dad and Mum will be able to explain to you how one form of energy can be converted to another. For example, some electricity is manufactured by using windmills. In the case of the radio it was gas that heated chemicals that charged a battery providing the power for the radio. All his gas lights operated by using an ordinary wall switch.
Mr. Foley was also a local Councillor and Chairman of the local War Savings Committee. Again your parents will explain what this meant. You must remember that the War cost a lot of lives, and a lot of money.
Mr. Foley had a lot of contacts in the entertainment world and he was quite a fan of our Dance Band, and also of the Dance Group of girls from the near-by gun-site. So it came about that we organised a Concert, of which I have been able to find the programme.
[Programme for Friern Barnet Salute the Soldier Concert, British Restaurant, March 25th]
I see that I am listed as Stage Manager, but this was combined with one or two stage appearances. Our group devised and performed the various sketches in the programme.
Just one or two words of explanation. You may wonder what was a British Restaurant? In most towns these were opened in public halls and mid-day meals were sold at a very reasonable rate. They were not lavish, but were very welcome when most people were working and everything edible was rationed. It was hoped that these social eating centres would continue well after the War, but they did not survive long after rationing was ended. When we moved to Leeds one of these restaurants still survived in the basement of the Town Hall, but I doubt whether your Dad can remember it. The one at Friern Barnet was large and had a good stage, but all the curtains had been removed for the greater convenience of the restaurant.
You will see from the programme that there were some star performers whose names are in heavy type. There were two performers at the piano famous as Flotsam and Jetsam. One of them lived in the locality and is billed as Mr. Jetsam. His real name was Malcolm McEachern (note 20).
Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler (note 21) were appearing in Londons West End at the time. Because of the danger of air-raids all the London theatres opened and closed very early in the evening. The two star artistes came on to us after their West End performance. To our delight and surprise they came with all their stage clothes and sang their current numbers.
I did not foresee that I might be involved in their Act.
My batman-driver, Norman Reed, was a Londoner by birth and business. He volunteered to fetch our star artistes from the theatre. He had been a London taxi-driver and held a cabbys licence. He was able to borrow a cab from one of his friends and duly waited at the Stage Door in Town. As soon as the curtain was down on the show the stars emerged resplendent in their costumes. Anne Zieglers dress had a long train that was borne to the cab by a stage hand and carefully draped inside. At the Hall she would not get out of the cab until someone could come and carry her train. That was the point at which I came into the Act.
I was dressed as smartly as possible in Army dress uniform with my Sam Browne belt. Webster Booth was arrayed in a much more colourful military dress, with rows of medals and high cocked hat. We went into the Hall through an entrance to the suite of rooms behind the stage. My batman led the way and I brought up the rear holding the ladys train well off the ground, in obedience to her instructions. Although a star, she was obviously in awe of the wardrobe mistress who had objected to the costumes going out of the theatre. So I followed Miss Ziegler everywhere, even to the ladies toilets, standing uncomfortably outside the cubicle door, waiting to be handed the train.
When the Booths made their entrance from the door at the back of the stage there was a tremendous ovation, to be followed by laughter and a cheer when I followed meekly as train-bearer. Webster Booth gave me his white gloves and dismissed me with an imperious gesture.
At the end of the Act I had to come on again, so I handed back the gloves with a bow. In the meantime I had borrowed Reeds huge gauntlet gloves and concealed them in my capacious pockets. I produced these and put them on before delicately picking up the fringe of Anne Zieglers train with the tips of the fingers. Rolling my hips in imitation of Miss Ziegler we all made a triumphant exit.
A STAR TO STEER HER BY
The big concert recorded in my last story was our last event before we set off for Normandy.
I cant remember whether I told you that Haydn Tanner was sent back to Catterick as an instructor during this period and was replaced by young Dickie Claydon, an energetic performer on the motor-cycle. I got on with him very well, but never as closely as I did with Haydn. He was, however, very suited to the roving commission to which he was assigned in operations.
Once D-Day arrived we had to be ready to set out at an hours notice. It was about twenty days before that order came.
Now comes a boring bit. From the days of the Romans and the Normans armies had crossed the Channel in landing craft and waded ashore on the other side. These soldiers, like the Angles and Saxons, carried their weapons with them. In 1944 there were also tanks and armoured vehicles that had been built to plough through water and obstacles while shielded from enemy fire. We had a lot of heavy vehicles full of expensive telephone equipment that depended on temporary water-proofing. We relied on optimum conditions of tide, weather and defensive cover to get across safely. At this time there was also the factor that the German second line of defence was holding well, so there was a heavy build-up of allied troops in the Normandy bridge-head. Encamped under canvas along the sea-shore these soldiers also faced the problem of boredom. This is where my story has its place.
As we received our final orders for embarkation I was sent for by our commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Tom Norrish. He had been informed that there was a desperate need for entertainment on the other side of the Channel. Resources could not be spared to send ENSA (note 22) parties over, but individual artists could be smuggled over if Entertainment Officers were prepared to take the risk. It was emphasised that I could not be ordered to do this, but that it would be credited as a praiseworthy contribution to the War Effort. How could I refuse?
I was sworn to secrecy and was not told the name of the entertainer who would travel with me in my jeep. I just had to make room for him and his baggage. Should I recognise him, I must keep the identity to myself as his identity might breach security. I was given a map reference in Hampshire where my passenger would await me in uniform and under escort.
The next day we were on our way and, although we were behind schedule, there was obvious activity at the appointed place. In fact there was quite a crowd and the identity of our pick-up was no longer secret. It was George Formby.
If you look at his picture you can see that his features are quite remarkable. What surprised and worried me was that his wife, Beryl, was also with him and similarly uniformed and equipped for active service. There was no time for discussion as we were travelling in a big convoy and the identity of our passengers was quickly spreading all along the line. Somehow George and Beryl were bundled in and we set off for our point of embarkation.
When we arrived somewhere near the coast our convoy was in procession behind others, all lining up to board our vehicle landing craft. Of course it was all very secret and we were not supposed to know where we were, but our bet was that we were in a back street of Southampton. We were told to get what sleep we could as we should be sailing just before morning light.
Uncomfortable inside our jeep, George got out and, scarcely incognito, he brought out his ukelele (note 23) and entertained all and sundry. He was, literally, leaning on a lamp-post at the corner of the street. The problem of George and Beryls overnight accommodation was more than readily solved by willing householders alongside.
We embarked very early and in the early morning light got ready to drive ashore at Arromanches. The scenery looked familiar and, ready for anything, we found we were back in Southampton: for some reason we had been turned back in mid-channel. So we and the citizens of Southampton had a second night of entertainment. Eventually we reached the French coast and we were grateful that our water-proofing stood up to the test. We set foot on the beach without getting our boots wet. I handed over the Formbys to an escort of military police amid mutual thanks.
Thats the end of this little story. However there are other points of mutual interest.
When I was in Bristol on holiday as a small boy, I was taken on my first theatre visit: a Music Hall. Top of the bill was George Formby, father of the one about whom I have been writing.
When I began teaching, Jim Harvey and I went into lodgings at Mrs. Keyes, near Redland Station (note 24). Her daughter, Lillian, was a well known singer and did the female vocals for young George Formbys film, Boots (note 25). I remember how proud her father and mother were. This was the time that George had emerged as a pop star as famous as Gracie Fields.
Grandmas brother, Uncle Bill, became a great fan. When he stayed with us in Frome we sent him as a responsible teenager to see an early evening showing of a George Formby film. When he had not returned by 10.00pm we became quite worried and set out in search. We met him on his way back, still laughing after seeing the programme through twice.
It was after we came to West Witton that I discovered that the young George Formby had been a stable boy at Middleham, having been apprenticed as a jockey. Several locals whom I met when lecturing on the Music Hall had their own personal memories. He often visited the farm house that you pass on your way up Penhill and did his early entertaining in the local Inns here. Dr. Anderson, who was for many years Chairman of the local Tournament of Song, told me that George competed both in 1913 and 1914.
So much for the unrecorded facts of history. More important is that George Formby was the first ENSA recruit to take part in the Normandy invasion. I thought that Beryl Formby might have been the first woman to go over, but there were some nursing Sisters who went over very early on.
George and Beryl Formby with F.-M. Montgomery
After we had handed over the Formbys to the military police at Arromanches we were given our instructions by the Beach Marshall. He gave us a summary of recent developments in the area and a caution that there were still pockets of enemy resistance. We were warned particularly about the intrusion of individual snipers who had inflicted casualties before getting well away into a countryside with which they had made themselves very familiar, and where there were a few French collaborators.
My Section was directed to encamp at a farm near Vaubadon (note 26). I have never tried to find the place on the map, but it must be somewhere near Bayeux. We put up the bell tents in a large ploughed field, but I had the seclusion of a pleasant orchard for my individual canvas top. We had been in our vehicles for three days and nights, so the comfort of a camp bed was a real luxury.
I was awakened from a deep sleep by the sounds of heavy breathing and of somebody moving round my tent. I slipped quietly into my battledress and loaded my revolver. Holding this at the ready I crawled out and round the tent. I was met by two large staring eyes and a snort before a cow galloped away into the darkness, dragging away my tent having tangled her hoof in the guy-ropes. I couldnt show a light so it was impossible to rebuild the tent. I slept the rest of the night wrapped in my martial cloak (note 27) - and canvas.
In that congested countryside the days that followed were not very exciting. Although generally welcomed by the locals, I sometimes wondered whether we were a greater burden to them than the Germans had been. Occasional road incidents prompted such reflections. There was the occasion when one of our drivers came to me in great anxiety. He had had an accident involving a small boy from a neighbouring farm. Our men had done their best to meet the family and had assured themselves that no serious bodily harm had been suffered. However, the family had been most belligerent and one of the men had offered physical violence.
We had been given strict instructions on dealing with native populations and I realised that I had a duty to do something about this. I had studied my French phrase book and set out with driver Reed to make our overtures.
The family were still in hostile mood, but softened when I spoke my first words of well-rehearsed French. Ah, vous parlez Français? I was immediately invited inside and did my best to continue without speaking a word of English. Sadly, at this time I was a smoker; but not an addict. I handed over my accumulated cigarette ration, an incomparable luxury in that region at that time. Out came the coffee and an unknown poison called calvados (note 28). This was served in very small glasses and I observed that the men drank the contents in one draught before an immediate refill.
I did the same; and thought that I should explode. Conversation became very lively and I drew upon wells of A-level French that had languished long in the subconscious. When I walked out my feet were not aware of any floor. Fortunately Reed, entertaining the ladies and the children in the kitchen, had remained very sober, but had parted with all his sweet and chocolate ration. By way of compensation he had an odorous supply of Camembert cheese. The success of my mediation gained me a reputation that made me official interpreter in both France and Belgium.
These stories were but two of the day-to-day happenings of a very boring period. More important events were to follow, but I am certain that the events here recorded are not in any official history. They are set down on paper here for the very first time.
News came that the blockade had been broken and that, operationally, we should soon be on the move. Accordingly our line-laying equipment and linesmen were deployed in the probable direction of advance and my section camp was deserted. My fellow officer, Dickie Claydon, stayed out with the men and I returned to my lonely tent to await instructions.
I was about to retire to my camp bed when there was an imperious ring on the field telephone. It was Colonel Norrish; he was in a state. Field-Marshall Montgomery was in a rage. He had just discovered that he could only speak to the R.A.F. commander, Air Vice Marshall Coningham, by going through our switchboard. He ordered that a one-to-one line be laid immediately. I was the only company linesman within call: with the assistance of my own and Dickie Claydons batmen, I had to lay the line.
The operation was familiar to me from Catterick days, but our batmen had no such training. Norman Reed was a most efficient practical man, but Claydons batman, XXXX, was an affable but verbose Welshman, very willing but accident prone. Roused from his bed, he couldnt find his false teeth, so he was mercifully silent on this occasion.
By daylight such a task would have presented few difficulties. The apparatus was simpler than a walkie-talkie. All we had to do was install two telephones and connect them with about two miles of cable.
The field telephone was operated by internal batteries. There was also a dynamo which worked the bell and charged the batteries. There were two external terminals; one was connected to an iron rod driven into the ground and the other to the connecting cable. The cable to be laid was known as D8 (Don Eight). It consisted of one strand of copper wire and seven of steel. These were contained in an insulated covering of vulcanised rubber. This was almost indestructible; tanks rolled over it without damage. I had special cutters for severing the cable, and a jointing kit.
I installed a phone in the Air Marshalls tent (note 29) and left his junior Adjutant in charge. He also supplied me with a secret password and a document authorising my entry into the Field-Marshalls Headquarters.
So we set out into the night. I directed the route, Reed paid out the cable, and XXXX pushed the drum barrow containing the cable. Of course we all pushed or pulled when necessary.
All went surprisingly well and we were astonished to see the command site so well illuminated. Officially they had a black-out, but each marquee and tent had so much interior light that they appeared to be huge incandescent mushrooms. We soon put a stop to that; XXXX hitched his foot in a light cable and disappeared, with his barrow, into a huge ditch. How glad I was that we had a password. We were surrounded by sentries with cocked rifles and were near casualties. However, from that moment all was plain sailing. XXXX did not drown and the drum barrow was pulled out. I actually entered Montys caravan and installed the telephone. I called through to the R.A.F. Adjutant, and it worked.
We were given cups of tea and walked back in the morning light.
You may remember the night I invaded Montys caravan. I doubt whether he ever used the line that was so painfully taken there. The breach in the German lines had been made and we were all on the move. We recovered the cable and tried to keep up with the Field-Marshall with a direct line to his new location.
This was but a sideshow to the main arteries of communication. Our men were working days and nights and slept in their trucks.
My Section Sergeant was Sergeant Cameron, a regular soldier with more than twenty years service. Sergeant Bolton was his understudy, a very experienced power linesman who directed all the longer routes with my fellow officer, Dickie Claydon.
Too exhausted to mount a guard, Sergeant Bolton was sound asleep in his cab when he was awakened by a tap at his window. Opening the door he was greeted by a grey clad figure saying, Me German.
There was no panic as the man was unarmed and in a very poor physical state. This was no typical Nazi. He could speak a little English, some French, and a wealth of gesture that was scarcely Teutonic. Our standing orders were to take all prisoners to the nearest P.O.W. compound. We were very busy and nowhere near any such set-up. It soon became clear that this pathetic relic would not run away or fight his own war. We found out that he had been a ladies hairdresser in Berlin, where he had built up his assortment of languages. [He had been living solely on a diet of apples, and graphically described the effect this had had on his digestion.] Cleaned up and fed he immediately declared his allegiance to Britain and her Allies, declaring his desire to work for his rations. Furnished with comb and scissors he gave us all beautiful haircuts; very necessary as there had been no opportunity for us to visit the barber for weeks. We must have been the most elegantly coiffured unit in the Allied Forces. He also cleaned all our boots and laid his hands to all the hard work he could find.
French by-standers cast curious looks in our direction when they saw this grey-uniformed man working and travelling with our men. I cant remember his name, but he answered to the label of Fritz. Naively he became so attached to us that he thought he would be able to stay with us and come to England. He even talked of repaying my kindness by coming to Cambridge and setting up a salon for students hairdressing. (Presumably at cut prices???!!!)
This fantasy had to be short-lived. We were getting near to a P.O.W. camp and Fritz would have to be handed over. He escaped, but he had nowhere to go, so he was soon back tired and hungry. When it came time for the handover he went down on his knees and begged to be allowed to stay. He was scared of the treatment that he would receive from his fellow German prisoners. It was obvious that he was a deserter who had thrown away his rifle and equipment. I explained the case to the Camp Commandant and he promised to protect Fritz from the more extreme Nazis. It was a pathetic figure that looked back at us from the other side of the barbed wire.
On reflection I am forced to the conclusion that our sympathy was probably misplaced. He was probably more than servile to all his customers, including the Nazis. Particularly for a hairdresser, the customer always had to be right.
We had no sooner disposed of one German prisoner when we stumbled across three more. This was quite literally the case and, again, no great effort was involved.
I had better explain the background. We had very clear Army rules about the treatment of the host inhabitants and about the holding of prisoners. In your history books you will find that prisoners are to be treated according to the laws of the Geneva Convention. As regards the inhabitants of the occupied country, one of the most important rules is that regarding looting. This is very difficult to define. We know what looting is when it is just like stealing but, particularly under war conditions, quite a lot of things are discarded and found. Sometimes too, articles have been handed over in an exchange; particularly for food.
We had plenty of food and a very good cook who set up his field kitchen and fed all of our section when we were on the move, as we were at this time. However, most of our rations were iron; that is they came in tins. There was corned bully beef, condensed milk, sardines, tinned soup, dried egg powder and tinned tomatoes etc. Yet we always had fresh fried eggs and bacon for breakfast and fresh milk for our porridge. How was this done?
A lot of houses on our route had been deserted for as long as there was fighting in the area. Chickens would often be left to fend for themselves in the fields and yards, laying eggs in the hedges or in boxes where, but for us, the eggs would not have been collected. Was this looting? I wonder. Where we could, we exchanged our iron rations for farm produce. In one place four cows had been left and were hand-milked by three of our men who were experienced in that line.
One day, two of our adventurers looking around a deserted farm property decided to investigate the cellar. Opening the door, they stumbled over three rifles, correctly piled. Before they had time to discuss their next move they were prompted by heavy snoring coming from their left. Under a covering of sacks were three German soldiers in a drunken stupor after looting the cellar of good wine. Being in a commanding situation our two men used their wits and arrested all three. Our camp was close at hand so there was no great difficulty in bringing them in. To be exact they brought two of them in; the third was so drunk that he couldnt stand on his feet. He had to be fetched and carried.
Unlike the case of Fritz, we took no liking to these three and sought out some of our troops in a nearby town. Some French freedom-fighters were anxious to get hold of our prisoners, but we were merciful and handed them over to the British Camp Commandant; in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. He accepted them with correctness, but no enthusiasm.
VERY FREE FRENCH
My last stories concerned German prisoners unusually obtained. This week I am concerned with troublesome allies.
My memories of this period are very mixed as events were moving very fast and we did not stay very long in any one place. T.A.F. Headquarters remained in Normandy, but the lines of communication were extended daily. My section assisted the main construction sections, but we were also busy setting up temporary links.
Sometimes we were lucky enough to be accommodated in empty houses and halls, but there were problems arising from the fact that local French government was usually in transit or chaos.
I remember one small town where the local Mayor had disappeared and the Free French were very much in control. They gave us a warm welcome and insisted that we should take over the local school, or Lycée, for our accommodation. As these premises were very much in occupation by French fighting men I hesitated to accept the invitation, but they assured me that only the guard would be on duty at night when all the rest would be at their own homes. The large playground would be secure parking for all our vehicles, so I agreed to the arrangement; with some trepidation.
As we approached there was no reduction in the noise level and there were sounds of shooting in the yard and, occasionally, in the school corridor. At great personal risk I ventured out and remonstrated. Apologies were profuse. They explained that their only weapons were those captured from the Germans and they were trying to find out how they worked. They vowed, and kept, immediate silence.
This was maintained until early morning when all hell seemed to break loose. It seemed that the whole population of the town had gathered in the playground. It took some time to weigh up the situation. It became apparent that some sort of kangaroo court had been set up and about ten women were bound with their hands behind their backs and were being sentenced. I was surprised to see that a Roman Catholic curé was standing there, apparently giving his authority to the occasion. He came across to me and explained, as best he could, that these women had been living with Germans as their lovers. He said that, in some cases, they had betrayed Free French agents who had been executed or sent to concentration camps. The priest excused himself by saying that his presence put some restraint on the proceedings.
He was probably right, as the spirit of revenge was obviously violent. The crowd had the roles of accuser, judge, jury and executioner. In this last capacity they were represented by two local barbers who cut off all the womens hair and shaved their heads with an open razor. I discovered later that this punishment was common to all the towns through which we passed. I was surprised that the shorn women did not cover their heads with scarves or hats. I was told that these coverings would be torn off by townsfolk. In fact we never saw one of these women out alone. They went around in pairs, arms linked. Whether this was in fear or defiance I never discovered.
I am afraid that was a most unpleasant story. It illustrates the fact that we had to tread a very difficult path when dealing with our allies. You will understand that I was very keen to move from this last billet. The French were most anxious that we should stay for a few more nights. With the huge crowd in the playground we had great difficulty in moving our vehicles.
At least I can remember the name of the next town that sticks in my memory. That was Amiens (note 30).
There again we were pleased to occupy the race-course and we were glad to stay there as long as possible. Once again I was comfortable in a horse-box.
Sadly this stay also had its dark side.
Our men were always glad to deal kindly with the children that came to greet us. At Amiens some of the children were in very poor circumstances, badly fed and clothed. I think that they were given all our sweet rations, and some goodies from the cook-house. They were round us all day and, to be honest, they did their best to help us as well as playing football and other games. It came as a shock when we discovered that many of our gifts found their way to the local Black Market. Some of this had been stolen from our stores.
Sadly, the children had to be banned from the race-course and we had to mount a permanent guard.
Eventually we discovered that we were no longer going to follow the Army thrust, but that we were destined to take up a more permanent posting in Brussels.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I well remember the day we entered Brussels. It was, of course, bigger than the French towns through which we had passed, and where we sometimes stayed for a few nights. They had all shown signs of warfare and there was some uncertainty as to the state of control and government. In every case I had to make my own arrangements with the persons that seemed to be in control.
In Brussels everything had been pre-arranged. It was obvious that the Headquarters of 2nd T.A.F. would be there for some time. The Camp Commandant had made all the arrangements. We were to occupy the Palais Residence (note 31), a former royal palace, and the R.A.F. would take over Sabena Airport, from which the final air assault on Germany would be made. Previously most of the raids had come from England. Although there must have been some of our troops there before, we were privileged to make the official entry into Brussels, well-organised in advance and with cheering crowds all along the route. The main thrust of the armies was elsewhere, including Paris.
[Later I was to participate in the Brussels Victory Parade. This was the occasion when I tripped up; right in front of a news-reel camera.]
The living accommodation was even better than on the race-courses. The Germans had obviously left in a great hurry. The room I had still had the Germans family photographs at the bed-side and on the desk, as well as private and personal correspondence. All this was collected by security and intelligence personnel. I was told that the private correspondence and family mementoes would be forwarded to the International Red Cross. The pictures on the walls were also taken and restored to the houses from which they had been stolen.
Our work in Brussels was also quite different. The railway was quite close to our Headquarters and it had not been bombed at all. The telegraph lines ran alongside the railway and had been taken by the Germans into the building that we now occupied. This meant that my section spent most of its time patrolling the railway lines and making such repairs as were necessary and providing extra lines to rooms in the building.
As we were static for the time being, I resumed my task of organising entertainment. There were not yet any N.A.A.F.I. canteens in the city, and we were advised not to let the troops out to seek their own amusement. You are used to seeing public notices in Welsh and English, but in Brussels the distinctions between Belgian French and Flemish were much more marked. There was quite a lot of racial tension and it was said that many of the Flemish-speaking Walloons had cooperated with the Germans. Our Camp Commandant was engaged in a public relations exercise and he did all the invitations to the T.A.F. Headquarters. We were told that we should only visit Belgians who had first been invited to us.
These activities and restrictions determined the course of our social and entertainment activities. For the Belgian guests Corporal Marshall and his small dance band were in great demand. There were no women yet in our establishment, so the only partners were those women among the guests. Only officers attended these evenings and we spent most of the time as wallflowers. For other ranks the most popular diversion was the almost nightly smoking concert where communal singing was the main attraction. I coaxed some individual artists and did some sketches, of which I include two pictures. You will also see the music lovers who made their contribution by transporting the piano. There is also a picture of me with my fellow-officer, Dickie Claydon, and Peter Coombs, a supernumery who came to us direct from University and is with me in the pictures of the sketches.
As yet there was no Forces Theatre in Brussels and the French-speaking Belgian Theatre had poor performers and unattractive material. During the German occupation they only allowed material and performers that supported their propaganda and culture. Consequently there were no experienced performers to fill the gap.
We prepared for a really big show for Christmas Day, 1944, but the programme did not go exactly as arranged. From the account in the book that I sent you will know something of this story. The details there may differ from what follows here, but I am relying on a rather distant memory. I think that published accounts dismiss the less creditable failures on the Allied side. I know that there are some pictures of a Christmas meal in the book, but possibly not the one that I have included with this letter.
You probably know that it is the custom in the British Army for officers to act as waiters to the other ranks for Christmas dinner. Internationally it has also been customary for shooting and other acts of warfare to stop on that day. You may have read stories of the First World War when German and English soldiers came out of their trenches to exchange greetings and small gifts. At Christmas, 1944 there was no-one on active duty on Brussels and, in any case, it was thought that the Germans were so far reduced in strength that they could not possibly mount an attack.
While we were eating our Christmas dinner we heard the sounds of a raid and looked out to see clouds of smoke blackening the sky. There was no longer phone communication with the Sabena Airfield so I went there with a detachment to see what could be done. It was a scene of utter disaster. Every plane on the tarmac was in flames.
It had been a very clever low-level attack with each plane targeted individually. They calculated that there would be no A.A. or Fighter opposition. We found that all the telephone lines were in order, but had been cut at the junction box. This must have been done by someone from the Belgian population and this illustrated the case for being selective in our dealings with the local people. There were no casualties, but a tremendous loss of fighting planes. There were many shamed faces on the British side, but I have never heard the result of any enquiries. We proceeded with our evening entertainment, but our hearts were not in it.
[On reflection Dad recalls that in fact this raid took place during New Years Day celebrations. It appears to have been one of the simultaneous attacks, dubbed the Hangover Raids, timed to catch the Allies in a state of unpreparedness. The raids were mounted in support of the German Ardennes Offensive (note 32) (The Battle of the Bulge) which was currently in progress. While the Allies did lose many aircraft, some 465 were destroyed or damaged, such was the wealth of material available that the losses were made good within very few days. Very few casualties were sustained During the raid the Germans apparently also lost over 400 aircraft, and as many experienced pilots, many falling to their own anti-aircraft fire on returning to their bases. The raid turned out to be the Luftwaffes last major attack of the war.]
STARS, STRIPES AND LUCKY STRIKES
As an Army Officer I often had the rare distinction of being the only man in khaki at the R.A.F. Officers Mess. In early 1945 I had the even rarer privilege of being the only English Officer with the American Air Force.
Soon after the destruction of our planes at Sabena Airfield I was permitted a glimpse of the future plan of campaign. The support of British ground forces by 2nd T.A.F. would be directed from Brussels, but plans were in hand for the future occupation of Germany. A site had been chosen for R.A.F. Headquarters, but this was in area designated for the Americans advance and later occupation. In these circumstances it was vital that there should be a direct telephone link between the two Air Forces. This was the reason for my mission.
I went into Holland with half of our Section, while Dickie Claydon remained in Brussels to look after that end of the line and to deal with day-to-day line maintenance.
I am sorry that I cannot remember the name of the place in Holland to which we went, but I know that we went through Eindhoven and that our line was routed through the exchange there. I remember visiting the deserted Phillips factory and picking up some long-playing records there. A couple of these are still in my possession.
The life-style of the Americans was lavish. In wartime civilians were worst off for rations, while we in the forces did much better. Sometimes our food was badly cooked and served, but there was very often a N.A.A.F.I. or other canteen where tea, coffee and food could be bought. There was also a free N.A.A.F.I. weekly ration of cigarettes and chocolate.
With the Americans these extras were known as P.K. rations and we British qualified for them as long as worked with them. The tobacco ration included Lucky Strike, Camel and several other cigarette brands that were very strong and bad for our health. The chocolate ration was also large and there was lots of chewing gum. At breakfast we became accustomed to pure maple syrup on our eggs and bacon, and half a chicken for the meat course. By some means they also managed to serve fresh sweetcorn.
After a couple of weeks in such luxury we returned to Brussels and the new line was put to immediate use. We learned that American troops were advancing fast and that they were by-passing the two areas that would be occupied by the R.A.F. as their German Headquarters. The main site would be at the small spa town of Bad Eilsen, with a reserve station at Bückeburg. We were told that the Germans had retreated well beyond these places and so, with caution, it should be possible for the British to take over.
So it was that the Camp Commandant of the 2nd T.A.F., with a platoon of the R.A.F. Regiment, set out to take over Bad Eilsen (note 33). I went along with my Section Sergeant and batman to take charge of the telephone exchange. We had a German-speaking Polish Officer to act as interpreter.
The R.A.F. Regiment had been issued with a new but primitive-looking machine-gun as a personal weapon, the Sten gun. It was made entirely of metal and was an ungainly looking piece of ironmongery. My Section Sergeant, Cameron and my Driver/Batman, Read also took delivery of these unwelcome firearms. Sergeant Cameron had even had the chance of going to the range and learning to fire one. Accustomed to the elegant Lee-Enfield rifle he was contemptuous of this implement, but it took up much less room in our jeep.
The first part of our journey through Holland was over familiar territory and was completely without incident. The countryside in Germany was equally peaceful and we enjoyed the journey through the Pied-Piper country of Hamelin.
As we went on through hunting territory it wasnt surprising to see farmers with deerstalker hats and rifles; until we saw they were wearing swastika arm-bands: these were Hitlers Dads Army.
As we looked back we could see that these men had gathered together in the road behind us. We carried on until we were well out of their sight and then we halted for a conference.
At this point our Polish Flight-Lieutenant, by common consent, really took command. Stens were cocked at the ready. Our jeep brought up the rear with Sergeant Cameron leaning over the back to cover the road in our rear. The order was that there was to be no firing, except in response. In the event of being confronted we would put on speed and drive straight at the opposition. Our Polish colleague said that we should keep up this strategy right up to the point of entry to the Bad Eilsen Headquarters of the Focke-Wulf aircraft company.
This was the planning centre of the Luftwaffe source of supply. They had chosen this site because they thought it would be safe from Allied bombing. In this they were quite right; the R.A.F. had decided that they would preserve this site as an ideal centre for their own purposes.
As we approached the gates at great speed two guards in German grey uniform wandered into the road, but had no time to challenge and quickly jumped out of danger. They were disarmed by our first jeep-load and all their colleagues were similarly overwhelmed. I rushed out with the other two officers and entered the building unchallenged. At the top of a short flight of stairs we entered a large conference room where a board meeting was in progress. The Chairman stood up and came to meet us saying, in perfect English,
Good afternoon, Gentlemen. We have been expecting you for some time.
Before our Group Captain could respond our Polish interpreter took charge. The Chairman and all his board members were made to stand with their faces to the wall and their hands above their heads. By this time some of the R.A.F. platoon had entered and stood guard over the Germans. At a signal from our Polish friend, Sergeant Cameron and I went off in search of the Telephone Exchange. We had been given to understand that this was in the basement and we only had to go straight down another flight of steps.
This was indeed a large installation. There were some four or five men in charge. Unlike the soldiers outside they were dressed in magnificent blue uniforms with red facings and many shining buttons. The foreman, or officer, had a high peaked cap with a badge consisting of the German eagle and a swastika.
Amidst the sound of relays clicking and other mechanical noises our entry was not at first noticed. As soon as we were spotted the leader barked out an order and the others started running to the rear of the room where axes, sledge hammers and other destructive tools were stacked. We had been warned to expect this move, so both Sergeant Cameron and I barked out an impressive, Halt!
By itself this command might not have been decisive, but the Sergeants Sten was cocked ready, and the action of aiming, stamping and shouting discharged a burst of machine-gun fire. Sergeant Cameron swears that he never pressed the trigger (note 34) but, as a practised old soldier, he had aimed his warning fire just over the head of the German leader. This accidental shot was completely effective and they all stopped and put up their hands in surrender. By a remarkable chance the beautiful peaked cap had been knocked off and a bullet had gone right through the badge.
The sound of shots had brought some of the R.A.F. soldiers down the stairs, so the prisoners were quickly secured. Later the German Chairman was brought to the switch-board and made to broadcast a message to all sub-stations forbidding the destruction of equipment and ordering obedience to the Allied Forces. The Polish Officer also spoke over all lines and there was complete obedience. They must have realised that they had no choice.
This realisation had not come to the German Home Guard that we had passed on our way. During the night there was a terrific explosion and we learned that the bridge over the Weser had been blown up.
We were able to use our newly acquired telephone lines to contact Command Headquarters who sent a detachment of Royal Engineers. They repaired the bridge within 24 hours and mounted a guard there. We learned that tidal movements in the river had moved the explosives so that the damage had not been complete. Within days reinforcements for our own personnel were with us in Bad Eilsen.
Our Polish Officer made all the townsfolk assemble every evening and made them look at pictures of German atrocities in prison camps that were in process of being freed. I saw him knock down one man who had uttered words of disbelief.
Some time later the Polish Officer was awarded the British D.S.O. for playing the main part in this take-over. Sergeant Cameron, who had completed more than twenty years of loyal regular service, was awarded the D.C.M. The Camp Commandant and I were mentioned in despatches for being there and sent little oak leaves to wear on the campaign medal. We were awarded honorary ranks of Group Captain and Captain for the rest of our lives.
PROSPECTS AND PROBLEMS OF PEACE
Our pioneering expedition to Bad Eilsen was quickly followed by full occupation. Convoys of personnel from T.A.F. Headquarters arrived daily. The Polish interpreter passed on to other duties and the Camp Commandant really took over.
He was very efficient. He designated the village of Steinbergen for occupation by 12 Air Formation Signals and the whole of our unit was brought over. As we numbered 1,600 the population of the village was more than doubled. My Section was housed in a large hotel. The German proprietor, a widow, was allowed to have the basement for her own use but was barred from the rest of the building. I assume that she must have had some financial recompense. In Bad Eilsen itself, most of the spa hotels were taken over.
For the first time on this campaign Womens Royal Air Force personnel were flown over from England. They soon took over all secretarial duties and switchboard operations. They also did all the driving of Staff Cars. Socially they found themselves much in demand. They had their own officers, and some safety in numbers.
I must not bore you with technical matters, but the takeover of telephone lines and the working exchange at Bad Eilsen brought a change of work. Our Line Construction Companies had no more building to do, but our mechanics had to take over from the Germans and learn some differences in working practices. The same applied to operators and line maintenance personnel.
The Germans had done their work well and most of the construction was sound. However, they had run out of copper and many of their lines had aluminium conductors. These could not be soldered and were very difficult to join, so our men had to go the Germans for assistance. This endangered the secrecy of our communications.
In these matters my own Section was only partly concerned, but we did have the problem of providing connections for all the additional R.A.F. Staff that required their own telephones. However, my own role once more went to the direction of entertainment.
The pictures and enclosed programme illustrate this period. At the Headquarters taken over by 2nd T.A.F. there was a marvellous theatre and concert hall. They appointed a full-time R.A.F. Entertainments Officer to make full use of these and other amenities. He cooperated fully with our Army needs.
Our Headquarters were at the village school in Steinbergen where there was a Hall. We were provided with a screen and a weekly programme of films. I think I saw more films at that period than at any time of my life. At our location it was impossible to get E.N.S.A. parties, so the cinema unit was a reasonable alternative. At the same time we produced our own shows for presentation at Bad Eilsen.
Here follows the story of a remarkable coincidence. We did a variety concert as a part of our celebrations for V.E. Day. I had forgotten that I had a picture of myself singing on that occasion until I was looking out things to send with this letter. Two years ago I went with the Cairngorms (note 35) to entertain the patients at the St. Theresa Hospice in Darlington. As it was quite near the date of the 50th Anniversary of V.E. Day I chose to sing the songs that I had performed on that occasion in Bad Eilsen. One lady patient in a wheel-chair became quite animated and joined heartily in all the choruses. At the end she beckoned and I went over to have a word with her.
She said she had been present at that original concert when she was in the W.R.A.F. and was chauffeuse to Air Vice Marshall Coningham. Sadly, she was in the Hospice dying of cancer and was not expected to survive much longer. Ruefully she commented that her condition was due to cigarette addiction, a habit that she picked up as a very young woman in the W.R.A.F. As there was no cure for her the nurses were allowing her two cigarettes a day to be smoked in a private room reserved for that purpose.
At Bad Eilsen there were all the opportunities for serious play production. Together with the R.A.F. Entertainments Officer we planned a programme. Our major effort was the Priestley play for which I include a programme. You will see that the W.R.A.F. provided the ladies, as we had none of our own. We all worked very hard as the actors were very inexperienced. As you see, I played the main part and did all the direction. I have pictures of myself doing all the stage make-up. Everyone was very keen and there was plenty of back-stage help.
All this recreational work was most enjoyable, but the technical demands of our communication needs were becoming overwhelming. As soon as the Peace came our Post Office and other line staff were given priority release to set about the task of setting things back to normal in the Home Country. They were replaced by National Servicemen with less technical training than my own.
Under these circumstances I was delighted to respond to an appeal for Officers who were professional school teachers. They were required for secondment to the Army Education Corps. I applied and was immediately accepted. I was sorry to leave my companions, but most of them had already gone in any case.
I have so far omitted two stories of events in Steinbergen. They are very serious stories and I must leave them for a separate letter.
FRIEND OR FOE?
This is going to be quite serious. There are no pictures and no lighter moments. The first story does have a fortunate ending, but the second is pure tragedy.
You may remember that 12 Air Formation Signals was stationed at Steinbergen. My Section occupied a large hotel of four storeys with the owner, a widow, living in the basement. There was a strict rule that there was to be no fraternisation with the Germans, but we had to have some sort of understanding with the owner living on the premises. Our Sergeant XXXXXX was in charge of the ground floor, which included the kitchen and the mess, or dining room. It was natural that he had most of our dealings with the German lady, and it must be admitted that the relations went a little beyond the scope of duty! However, he was very discreet and no suspicions were aroused outside the hotel.
As the fighting came to an end there were so many soldiers with little to do. At the end of a fairly boring day Sergeant XXXXXX rushed up to my room in great agitation. Our German landlady had just received a distress call from her brother, a farmer just outside the village, whose house was being invaded by rampaging Americans. You will recall that we were stationed in the American sector. Could we do something?
It would have been an impossible business to get in touch with the American command, and our own Colonel would have been unsympathetic in view of Sergeant XXXXXXs intimacy with the German landlady about which he had no knowledge. Whatever we did, Sergeant XXXXXXs role would have to be discreet. As always the old campaigner, Sergeant Cameron, was master of the situation. He surmised that the Americans could not possibly be armed. Bearing the Sten gun that had served us so well on a previous occasion, he proposed coming with me and driver Reed to confront the intruders at the farmhouse. I wore my pistol, purely for decoration, and Reed also had a Sten that he had never been taught to use. We had to take our landlady to show us the way. We were there within twenty minutes of the phone warning, which had been given before the wires had been cut.
Sergeant Cameron and I rushed through the open door and found the farmer and his son tied up in chairs in the kitchen. The Americans were taken by surprise as they stood round drinking wine for which they had raided the pantry and cellar. Sergeant Cameron was quite right, they had no arms of any kind. In any case they were completely off-guard. They cleared out without saying a word and boarded their vehicle, covered by Reed with his unloaded Sten.
On being released the two Germans went upstairs to release wife and sister who had been tied to two of the beds. We were assured that, apart from the tying up, no other assault had taken place. We were offered all sorts of gifts by the Germans, but we thought it wise to refuse. In the days to come a bottle of Schnapps found its way to our table, and we did not enquire about its origin.
We also thought it prudent not to make any report of the incident to higher authority. The news of the exploit must have got round the village as the formerly correct behaviour became almost obsequious. Passers-by would salute or bow in the village street.
Now comes the tragic story.
As the War in Europe neared its end Brussels, once a centre of operations, became a recreation and leave centre for allied troops.
Some of my Section were given a 48-hour pass and accommodation for a weekend in Brussels. For this purpose they were allowed the use of three-ton lorries for transport. I had the advantage of being offered a flight in one of the Dakotas that we used for sending despatches and private mail. There were no seats in the body of the plane, so there was only improvised comfort. My office N.C.O., Corporal Horne (note 36), was also offered the privilege of a flight, but said he wouldnt feel safe and would prefer to go by road.
I cannot remember anything about the entertainment in Brussels, except that I visited a family that I had met when we were there on duty. My journey was uncomfortable, but quick.
I had been back in Steinbergen for some hours when I had an urgent message that men of my Section had been involved in an accident on the autobahn. I was given instructions to go immediately to a hospital where the casualties had been taken.
When I arrived I was told that Corporal Horne had been killed. He had been sitting by the driver when the vehicle had plunged over the unprotected edge of the autobahn. The driver had been saved by hanging on to the steering-wheel. He and seven others had broken limbs, but none of these injuries were life-threatening.
I had the task of taking back the body of Corporal Horne in a body-bag. I also had the task of conducting the funeral service at Steinbergen, and of writing to the widow. The villagers of Steinbergen surprised us by attending the funeral and providing, at their own expense, a beautiful coffin. Our Corporal was laid to rest alongside the graves of two English airmen who had been shot down in the area. The graves had been beautifully tended by the village school-children.
BACK TO BASICS
This is going to be rather boring. Peace in Europe had come at Lüneburg and with it a change of occupation.
As you study history you will discover that peaceful periods are, sadly, less interesting than war. For my own part the death of Corporal Horne had brought great sadness. In any case the task of 12 Air Formation Signals was at an end and the men were going back to rebuild the telephone system at home.
Army Orders were posted appealing for Officers to apply for transfer to the Army Education Corps. I applied, was interviewed and accepted. I was posted to be Education Officer to the 214 Infantry Brigade, stationed at Lüneburg. I exercised my option of retaining my rank and badges as a Royal Signals Officer. In other words I was seconded to Army Education.
I was appointed one day and moved the next. There was no time for farewells. It was a dramatic change. I had been accustomed to working with my own section, but supplying the needs of the R.A.F. In Lüneburg I was at Army Headquarters. Our Brigadier Goodwin was, in fact, the military governor of the area. We lived in a large official residence in some state of elegance. There were stables attached and every day the Brigadier rode round the area with an escort of officers and dignitaries. I had no riding experience so I excused myself from any part in these formalities.
In any case my days were very full. We had no individual batmen or drivers, but a large team worked in this capacity. Instead of my own jeep, an estate car and driver were at my command. Every day the Brigadier presided over a meeting of his Staff Officers. As there were no battle plans to be discussed, my reports on education were always top of the agenda. A newcomer to the Staff, I quickly became a seasoned performer.
Major-General Lloyd, formerly and again later the Director of the City and Guilds Institute, was the architect of our scheme. I was glad to make his acquaintance. Some years later he accepted my invitation to come and open Sarah Robinson School (note 37) in Crawley.
Most of the education courses were in progress before I arrived. The most important were in the nature of trade training. Because of the needs in England, the most important skills were in the building trades. The basic tasks were very quickly taught. It was odd to see walls, and even small houses, being built in a week and then pulled down so that a fresh set of students could have the materials to start again the following Monday. Besides building, we tried to cover all branches of engineering. Lots of damaged and abandoned motor vehicles were rebuilt and restored to useful service.
You may be surprised to learn that we found a large number of men who could neither read nor write, so we had special basic learning classes.
The Education Programme in Germany included many more things beside trade training and basic literacy. There were lots of schoolmasters in the regiments who had taught many different subjects in school and they too wanted to get back into practice. Throughout the War the Army Bureau for Current Affairs (ABCA) had provided material for information and regular discussions. With the coming of peace they published a large hardcover book, The British Way and Purpose, full of excellent teaching material. I still have my copy, but it is packed away somewhere among my little used material. There too are some of the other texts that were published especially for this Army Education scheme. These include French from Scratch and similar book for German and Spanish. For those learning to read there were adult comics
In Lüneburg we had a Forces Education Centre, where I had an Education Corps N.C.O. in charge. He was Sergeant Brooks, a master from Hereford Cathedral School and bass soloist in the Choir. The Centre had a Library with a Careers Advice section. There were also Art and Music studios. Sergeant Brooks ran a choir and other communal activities.
As Brigadier Goodwin was, in effect, the military governor of the area, our Officers Mess was the centre of activity in Lüneburg. Diplomats and United Nations Officers were visitors, and there were others who stayed for longer periods. These included the lawyers engaged on the Belsen War Crimes Trial, British civil servants, and the stars appearing at our local Garrison Theatre. I was particularly concerned with a Mr. Evans from Cardiff who was a Chief Inspector from the Ministry of Education. He and I interviewed applicants for entry into the teaching profession. Those with suitable qualifications and experience were accepted for entry to Emergency Colleges for one-year special training. In later years, when I became a Headmaster, more than half of our staff had been trained under this scheme. They were some of the best teachers that I ever met.
In my very first story I think I told you of my meeting at this time with a soldier that I had tried to place as an evacuee on the very first day of the War. I told you that I had occasional night duty. There were other routine jobs, such as escorting distinguished visitors who wanted to visit the field where the German surrender had been signed. On such occasions I felt something of a fraud as I had not been one of the officers on duty at the time. Among my books there is the full story of the part played by the 214 Infantry Brigade on the way to victory. I was presented with a copy, though I had no part in the operations.
At this time I also met Lt. General (Sir) Brian Horrocks, Commander of the Army Corps of which 214 Infantry Brigade was a part. He was very enthusiastic about the Education scheme and was anxious to take part. After the War, in civilian life, he became a very successful television artist. In Lüneburg we saw something of his talents and technique in this direction.
He had been concerned with the conduct of the War at the very top level, and had been present at the post-war conferences of Prime Ministers and Presidents. He was most anxious that the British Forces should know all the facts about what went on behind the scenes. He had been able to learn that the German Forces had been entirely misled by propaganda, and very few knew about the horrors of concentration camps and such crimes against humanity. General Horrocks proposed to give a talk at the Lüneburg Garrison Theatre, open to all British Forces, when he would give his own personal account of the meetings he had attended.
I know that Brigadier Goodwin was not very keen on this idea and thought that few would attend, unless it was made a compulsory parade. As the Theatre was devoted to entertainment every evening, the talk would have to be given in the afternoon when most of the soldiers would be on duty or attending classes. General Horrocks argued that the accommodation at the Theatre was limited and he wanted attendance to be quite voluntary. The Brigadier asked me to work behind the scenes to get instructors to cooperate and ensure a full attendance. In the event the Theatre was crowded and the audience was entertained by anecdotes, as well as illuminating details about the way the conferences were conducted.
This lecture was such a success that it set a pattern as a part of our Education Programme. None of the subsequent speakers could match the standard of General Horrocks, but they all had journalistic and media experience that qualified them for this kind of popular lecture. I remember that a young Michael Foot did very well.
The climax of this exercise in popular education came when General Horrocks arranged for the B.B.C. to stage a live broadcast of the Popular Brains Trust from Lüneburg.
This was transmitted from the Hamburg Station on the Overseas Network and the Home Service of the B.B.C. Professor Joad was not with the programme at this time, but Commander Campbell was there, and the journalist Vernon Bartlett of the News Chronicle. The third member, whose name I cannot recall, failed to appear on account of transport difficulties.
Lionel Gamlin, who should have been Chairman, was pressed into service as a panellist and I deputised as Chairman. My name was not announced and it was assumed that the Hamburg Station Announcer had officiated. Lionel Gamlin had been compere at our Salute the Soldier concert in Friern Barnet. When I was headmaster at Stowmarket some years later, Lionel Gamlin repaid this debt of gratitude by appearing without fee at a Stowmarket Girls Choir concert in the Corn Exchange.
Meanwhile Sergeant Brooks was busy with his Choir at the Forces Centre. To celebrate Christmas 1945 he decided to perform Handels Messiah in the Lüneburg Lutheran Church. We only had two copies of the score, but most of our choristers knew the popular choruses by heart. We had 200 men in the chorus, some of whom had to sing alto. All the servicewomen we could muster had to sing soprano. Sergeant Brooks conducted and sang the bass solos. We had an excellent trumpeter and a professional church organist. By special arrangement Germans were allowed to fill the spare seats, for which they queued for at least an hour. It was a huge success.
My last three months in the Army were filled with drama.
In real-life Lüneburg the Belsen (note 38) show trial came to an end. It was intended to bring home to the Germans the truth that lay behind the Nazi period. Although Belsen was very near, there were still many of the local population who maintained that they did not know about the atrocities that were being committed. The trial was meant to reveal the truth and to demonstrate the nature of British justice.
The defendants were the governor of the prison and his staff. If I remember rightly, the Prison Commandants name was Kramer and his chief female jailer was Irma Grise. It was surprising to find that those accused included some Polish women jailers among the Germans. Originally they had been inmates, but had been recruited by their German captors. They were all dressed in basic grey prison uniform and their hair was closely cropped. Every day they were manacled together and driven to the Lüneburg Court in open lorries. This was intended to impress the German local population, but the daily routine scarcely raised a glance or turned a head. Similarly, seats were reserved in the court for Germans only, but they were rarely occupied, and then sparsely.
I cannot remember how many days I went to the trial, but I was certainly there on the final day when the verdicts were announced and death sentences were passed. I remember one or more of the women screaming abuse and being carried to the cells.
The carrying out of the executions caused more public relations problems. Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman, had to be brought over with his staff from England. No branch of the British forces was willing to give them temporary accommodation. More houses had to be requisitioned from the local population, and this did not make a favourable impression. It cannot be said that this public relations exercise did much for British propaganda. At some time in the future you will probably read about the horrors of Belsen and other concentration camps, and there may be a book about the trial in Lüneburg; but now to lighter drama.
Before I was posted to Lüneburg as Education Officer, Captain Harrison was 214 Brigade Entertainments Officer. He continued to do all the E.N.S.A. bookings for our Garrison Theatre. These covered all the weekday evenings, while I helped, with Sergeant Brooks, with home-made entertainment for Sundays. I have already mentioned the Christmas rendering of Handels Messiah. Regimental bands were regular features, and some regimental concert parties were quite good.
My fellow officers at Brigade H.Q. were very keen to do a play and Terence Rattigans While the Sun Shines was decided upon. I was designated Director and we had a good male cast of experienced actors. Sadly we lacked female officers. The only ladies in our Mess were members of the W.V.S. Their senior officer was Miss Wavell, sister of the Field-Marshall of that name. She was very keen, but rather too old for either of the two female roles. It left us with Dorothy XXXXXX and Pat XXXXXX. They were both enthusiastic. Dorothy was a bit slow on the uptake but she learnt her lines and her naivety suited the part. Pat, who was a constant companion to Brigadier Goodwin, was a great exhibitionist, but just would not learn her lines.
On the Wednesday before the performance she was still carrying her book and didnt know a single speech. Understandably I had to do something, and I lost my temper. I sacked her from the cast and ordered her out of the rehearsal.
The other cast members also realised that something had to be done, but thought that there would be a stern reaction from the Brigadier, who did daily rides with Pat.
On the following morning there was a note on my breakfast-plate summoning me to a meeting with the Brigadier. After breakfast I duly reported and stood to attention before the Commanders desk. To my surprise he called me Bill and invited me to take a seat.
Then he shook my hand and thanked me for the action I had taken. He explained that Pat was his niece and God-daughter. She had been a very spoilt girl and had really done no work with the W.V.S., spending most of her time riding. She had taken advantage of her relationship to his embarrassment. Someone had to put her in her place, and I had done it for him.
Captain Harrison had discovered that there was an E.N.S.A. production of the Rattigan play at present on the continent, and the Brigadier had booked a call to Basil Dean (note 39) at Drury Lane asking that we might borrow the leading lady for one night. (E.N.S.A. rarely played on Sundays.)
Pat XXXXXX came to me and apologised. At the request of the Brigadier she took charge of programmes and front-of-house.
I cannot remember the name of our E.N.S.A. recruit, but she was picked up on Sunday morning. I gave her the movement plan before lunch and we did the dress rehearsal in the afternoon.
The evening performance was a roaring success.
Dear Frances and Michael,
This week I come to the end of my wartime stories ...
I was at the end of my Army career. In fact I agreed to postpone my release for a week in order to perform While the Sun Shines (see picture in left-hand column).
It was a comfort that this production turned out to be a success. There were quite a lot of VIPs in the audience, including the old Music Hall Star, Nellie Wallace (note 40). I had already taken her on a tour of the area. She wanted to see the spot where the armistice was signed on Lüneburg Heath. Her company, Stars in Battledress, was due to open at the Theatre on the night after our performance. All her colleagues were in front for our play and were flattering in their plaudits.
At the reception that followed, Nellie Wallace came to me with a most extraordinary proposal.
I must explain that Nellie Wallace was in her late seventies at the time. In spite of the title of her show, she was the only Star still in it, and her reputation was very much in the past. With the coming of peace, theatres were re-opening and new post-war shows were in production. Stars were being released from E.N.S.A. to audition and start rehearsals. Their places were being taken by students straight from Drama, Music and Dance academies. Young men were able to do their military or National Service in this way.
The only other established artist with Nellie Wallace was Charles Heslop, a revue star of the 1930s. He had been invited to London for an audition and Nellie Wallace asked whether I would deputise for him that week in Lüneburg. I was astonished and could not see how I could possibly perform the very next night in a show I had never seen. I was persuaded that the scripts could be adjusted to accommodate me.
I had not sung since leaving Air Formation Signals, but I had my music with me and it was well known to the members of the E.N.S.A. small orchestra. It was obvious that the show was mainly carried by the energies of the young singers and dancers, and my role would be to act as feed and stooge for Nellie Wallace. For two of the sketches I would be a Recruiting Officer seated at a desk and my lines would be printed on the documents. In the stand-up routines I had to feed some key lines, and the rest was improvised. In the dance sequences I just took Miss Wallaces hand and tried to follow her steps. My picture remained outside the Garrison Theatre and I wore the same Colonels uniform as for While the Sun Shines. I was quite well known to many in the audience and they were very kind to me.
I was invited to continue with the company for the rest of their tour, but I was due to take my delayed release from the Army at the end of the week.
By the following Sunday I was back home (note 41). They must have given me a good send-off from Lüneburg, for I woke up to find myself with my kit on the train to Hanover!
1. For the benefit of non-family readers, here is a simplified family tree showing the relationship between those mentioned above:
2. Rhine crossing: March 1944.
3. A.A. unit: Anti-Aircraft unit.
4. Boer Wars: 1880-81 and 1899-1902.
5. A.T.S.: Auxiliary Territorial Service, later became the Womens Royal Army Corps.
6. O.C.T.U.: Officer Cadets Training Unit.
7. Pen-y-lan Court: This would appear to be the site now occupied by Ty Gwyn Special School.
8. W.V.S.: Womens Voluntary Service.
10. Jack Peterson: (1911-1990) After a distinguished career as an amateur boxer, Jack Peterson turned professional in 1931. The next year he won the British Heavy-weight Championship and Lonsdale Belt. Nowadays the British Boxing Board of Control is based at Jack Peterson House in London.
11. Henry Reed: Poet and radio dramatist. The poems Dad mentions can be found in the collection A Map of Verona ... 1946.
12. Haydn Tanner: Born in 1917, Haydn Tanner played rugby for Wales as a celebrated scrum half between 1935 and 1949, gaining 25 caps.
13. Field Service Pocket Book: The War Office produced numerous pamphlets on every aspect of military life: organisation, weapons, tactics, fieldcraft, security, abbreviations, communications etc. They were issued with punched holes so that an appropriate selection could be bound up for ready use as a Field Service Pocket Book. Amendments and additions could easily be made.
14. trafficators: Fondly remembered predecessor of traffic indicator lights. These were small arms that sprang from the side of the vehicle, usually with a satisfying noise, to give notice of the drivers turning intentions.
15. Clifton College: Distinguished Bristol Public School.
16. Theatre at Richmond: Originally built in 1788, the Georgian Theatre in Richmond fell into disuse in 1848. For the next century it was used for a variety of mundane purposes, including that of a wartime storage depot. Its historic importance as a building was recognised after the war and a programme of restoration was put in hand. The theatre re-opened in 1963 and has been extremely successful as an intimate venue presenting, drama, music and other activities.
17. Ullswater: Situated between Thirlmere and Haweswater, the Northernmost end of this Lake is just South of Penrith.
18. Helvellyn: 3033ft. peak to the North of Grasmere.
19. The Duke of Plaza-Toro: Character in Gilbert & Sullivans The Gondoliers ... 1889.
In enterprise of martial kind,
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind-
He found it less exciting.
20. Malcolm McEachern: Born in Australia in 1883, Malcolm McEachern enjoyed a distinguished career as a classical bass solo singer. His voice was of remarkable power and richness; and was said to have destroyed several microphones. He teamed up with B.C. Hilliam, a pianist with a contrasting reedy tenor voice, and together they performed as Flotsam and Jetsam. Their amusing 1927 song of a girl besotted with a radio announcers voice (Little Betty Bouncer, loves an announcer, down at the BBC) is still occasionally heard. Malcolm McEachern died in 1945.
21. Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler: A married couple who were a durable singing partnership (I remember them performing at Grange Arts Centre, Oldham when I was House Manager there in the late 70s). Their careers started in the 1920s and they were at the height of their popularity during the war.
22. ENSA: Under the direction of Basil Dean, ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) existed to employ professional performers in providing good quality entertainment to the services. Occasional lapses in the standard of entertainment gave rise to the canard that the initials stood for Every Night Something Awful.
23. George Formbys ukulele: Collectors of trivia may wish to know that the Ludwig banjo ukulele that George Formby took to Normandy is now in the possession of sometime Beatle, George Harrison.
24. Redland Station: Bristol
25. Boots: Boots! Boots!, made in 1934, was George Formbys first film. It was a great success..
26. Vaubadon: Vaubadon is a small village, current population 339, about seven miles south-west of Bayeux, on the road to St. Lô. It had been the site of fierce fighting around the 10th June 1944.
27. martial cloak
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.
Charles Wolfe: The Burial of Sir John Moore
28. calvados: potent spirit distilled from apples and named after the region.
29. Air Marshalls tent: Air Marshall Arthur Mary Coningham, commander of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, had moved his headquarters to Le Tronquay on the 5th August 1944. Le Tronquay is about six miles from Bayeaux, just north of the Bayeux - St. Lô road. At this time the relationship between Coningham and Montgomery was not cordial. Montgomery pointedly avoided attending meetings at Le Tronquay. Since 23rd June Montgomery had been operating his headquarters from Blay, which is indeed about two miles north of Le Tronquay.
Details of Coninghams chequered life can be found in Vincent Oranges biography, Coningham ... 1990
30. Amiens: Coninghams headquarters moved to a school in Amiens on 5th September.
31. Palais Residence: On the 14th September Coningham installed his headquarters in the Palais Residence, Rue de la Loi, Brussels. It was a lavish building that had hurriedly been evacuated by the Luftwaffe. Sir John Colville, Churchills Private Secretary, while admiring Coninghams energy, expressed some dismay at the somewhat ostentatious grandeur of his headquarters in Brussels. Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst, Coninghams senior administrative officer, recalled the mass of papers, the portraits of Hitler and the latest Parisian hats that had been abandoned by their owners.
Coningham had a reputation for living as comfortably as possible when on campaign. The end of his career was clouded by rumours that he may have misappropriated artworks and similar spoils of war. Dad can add to these rumours in that he remembers one occasion when, there being no R.A.F. drivers available at the time, Coningham had him deliver a personal package to the local airport, a parcel that could well have been an expertly packed picture.
32. Ardennes Offensive: On the 16th December 1944, taking advantage of weather that largely nullified Allied air superiority, the Germans launched a powerful and unexpected attack through the Ardennes. The offensive was intended to threaten Brussels and Antwerp.
After 24th December major air operations were again possible and the German advance ground to a halt. The Hangover Raids had the objective of limiting Allied air intervention over the strategically vital town of Bastogne where American forces were resisting bitter German assaults.
33. Bad Eilsen: Vincent Orange (op.cit.) describes this episode thus:
Coningham sent forward a reconnaissance party, protected by a detachment of the R.A.F. Regiment, to occupy and prepare the permanent location of his headquarters in one of Germanys most beautiful places: Bad Eilsen, near Bückeburg, in the province of Schaumberg-Lippe. It lay in an area allotted to Bradleys Army Group, but the Americans permitted Coninghams men to capture it, together with the design staff, drawing-office and a large quantity of valuable documents belonging to the Focke-Wulf aircraft firm which had been evacuated to Bad Eilsen from Bremen in 1942.
Bad Eilsen is situated about a mile south-east of Bückeburg. Steimbergen is another three miles in the same direction on the road to Hameln.
34. The Small Arms Training Pamphlet No.22 (1942), devoted to the Sten Machine Carbine as it was officially known, includes the following advice:
If the working parts are forward [i.e. the weapon is cocked, ready to fire] with a full or partially full magazine in the magazine housing, a smart jerk may cause a round to be fired.
35. Cairngorms: Wensleydale concert party with which Dad performs.
36. Corporal Horne: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records that Corporal Eric Arthur Horne, who came from Reading, was killed on Monday, 25th June 1945, aged 25. He is now buried in Hanover War Cemetery.
37. Sarah Robinson School: Large Secondary Modern School in Crawley New Town, of which Dad was Headmaster.
38. Belsen: Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp was located about 10 miles north-west of Celle. It was liberated by British forces in April 1945. Notable inmates included Anne Frank. It is a measure of the appalling conditions prevailing at the camp that 13,000 survivors died as a result of their incarceration in the six weeks after liberation.
The Belsen Trial lasted from Monday, 17th September to Saturday, 17th November 1945. It was held at 30, Lindenstrasse, Lüneburg. There were 44 defendants facing charges in respect of their employment at Belsen: 16 were members of the SS, 16 were female members of the SS, and the remaining 12 were camp inmates who had been recruited as Kapos. Of these 12, 7 men and 5 women, 6 were Polish.
Guilty verdicts were passed on 30 of the defendants. 19 were sentenced to terms of imprisonment while the remainder, 8 men and 3 women, were sentenced to death. These, including Kramer and Grese, were hanged by Albert Pierrepoint and his assistants on 13th December 1945 at Hameln Jail.
It is curious to note that, in retirement, Pierrepoint became an opponent of capital punishment. He also became the landlord of a public house called The Last Drop.
39. Basil Dean: 1888-1978. See note on ENSA above.
40. Nellie Wallace: Music Hall performer. The first chapter of Alec Guinnesss autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, gives a vivid account of her stage performance before the war, when she was in her prime.
41. home: Between his landing in Normandy and his demobilisation Dad had only one period of leave in England, spent at Old Street Farm.