Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.
The moral rights of the author and editors have been asserted.
In the early months of 1944 I received my calling-up papers to join the Services. Until then I had been in a so-called Reserved Occupation, meaning that I was engaged in work related to the war effort that was regarded as more important at that time than being in the Forces. During the late summer and early autumn of 1939, several of us at Widnes Lab had been interested in joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The nearest RNVR unit was based on the Naval Ship HMS Eaglet in Salthouse Dock, Liverpool, and volunteers were required to attend for drills and training on one or more evenings per week as far as I can remember. They were also given some experience at sea. However, laboratory assistants were not accepted owing to the ruling about Reserved Occupations but one of my friends (John Massey) who worked at the laboratory as a glassblower was accepted and went for training on a regular basis. When the War broke out on the 3rd of September 1939, he was called up for service and posted to the armoured merchant cruiser “Rawalpindi”. Unfortunately, while on a northern patrol near Iceland, she encountered a German “Pocket” Battleship and was sunk on the 23rd of November 1939 after a gallant but hopeless defence. My friend was fortunately one of the survivors.
When my own call-up papers came I was preparing to take my Final London University External BSc. Examinations in July 1944, so I applied for a deferment of call-up until after this time. This was not an easy task. I had to get a certificate signed by Mr. Ibeson, the Principal of Widnes Technical College where I was attending practical classes in chemistry and physics on two nights a week. I was studying the theoretical aspects of these and other subjects by correspondence courses. I also had regular Home Guard duties. Ibeson was not helpful and said he was too busy to sign it and I must come back the next day for the certificate to be signed. This meant that I had a totally unnecessary bus trip into Widnes on the Saturday morning.
After some time, I was required to attend the Appeal Board in George Street, Chester, where I was interviewed by three men sitting behind a table in an office and asked about my daily work and my reason for applying for deferment of call-up. From the start it was obvious that none of them had the remotest idea of what I was talking about and what was involved in working for an external degree while engaged in laboratory work, or even what was meant by an external degree BSc examination, and of course, my application for deferment was rejected.
I received instructions to report to the Central Hall in Renshaw Street, Liverpool for a medical examination and was examined by an unsympathetic doctor who passed rude remarks about my physique and was outraged when I told him that I wasn't involved in any sporting activities. As a result of this examination I was classed as B2. I was relieved not to be considered as a “Bevan Boy” for work in the coal mines but when I suggested that I would prefer to join the Royal Navy this suggestion was not well received.
In due course, I received a travel warrant and was required to report to a Basic Infantry Training Unit at Brancepeth, near Durham on the 20th of April 1944. Margaret, now my wife, accompanied me to Lime Street station at Liverpool from where I took an overnight train to Durham. It was a weary journey in a crowded compartment with feeble war-time lighting due to the blackout regulations. The train stopped for long periods on several occasions for no apparent reason, and dawn was breaking when it reached the station at Durham.
As I had been in the Home Guard I had to travel in my battledress uniform while the other recruits were mostly in “civvies”. From the station we were picked up by a truck and taken to Brancepeth Castle where there was a large Army camp that was a base for the Durham Light Infantry (the “Dirty Durhams”) as well as a Basic Training Unit. I was sent with others to make up a squad in a wooden hutment under the control of a corporal.
After various inspections we were issued with kit at the Stores and during the next few days were subjected to a number of tests of fitness, agility and ability: these included running between two points moving objects as quickly as possible, and some simple aptitude tests designed to find out whether we had any mechanical abilities or other special skills. One of these tests was to re-assemble the components of a bicycle pump from all its parts. Military training also started, consisting of drill (“Square-bashing”), PT, route marches of a few miles, and instruction in the handling of the rifle, bayonet and Bren gun. This weapon training involved a trip to some coastal firing ranges for live firing and being shown a number of training films about infantry tactics and other topics.
When we paraded for meals in the Canteen we collected our food from a servery and sat at long tables each holding about twenty men. On each table was a plate holding a slab of butter and as men arrived at the table they scooped up a quantity on a knife; it was quite usual for the last arrivals to find that the plate was scraped clean and they had to do without butter: this caused a lot of angry words as you might expect. After meals, we were meant to wash our cutlery in large tanks of cold water outside the mess-room but having seen the thick film of grease on the water surface I took mine to the washroom and cleaned them there despite this being strictly forbidden.
We had been issued with a pint mug (I still have mine) and at the morning and afternoon tea breaks were able to go to the NAAFI for refreshments. The NAAFI was open in the evenings and this was almost the only place where one could relax in a chair, have some refreshments, and write letters. After a few days at this camp I was sitting in the NAAFI writing a letter when someone stole my cap that I had put down by the side of my chair. Losing Army equipment was a heinous crime in military eyes and I had to suffer the consequences. One of the worst features of these was the need to wear a steel helmet about the camp until I could be issued with a new cap. Failing to wear headgear was against all regulations and was very much frowned upon as you were considered to be “improperly dressed”.
After a few days of this I was hauled up before an officer where I was charged under Section 24 of Military Law with “Acts prejudicial to good order and military discipline, namely, losing by neglect one cap F.S.”. I was sentenced to three day's C.B. that meant I was confined to camp for three days during which time I would be required to spend my off duty time in menial tasks - potato peeling, picking up litter and similar tedious work. Fortunately, as I had just had some T.A.B. & anti-tetanus injections I was only given light tasks and required to stay in camp for three days. Incidentally, while we were lined up for these injections a few of the platoon fainted and fell on the floor. The only sympathy they got from the corporal was the remark that they would have to get used to having a bullet through the arm rather than a needle.
My three day's C.B. was no hardship now that I had got a new cap and badge. Any charges were recorded on A.B.F. 122, the Field Conduct Sheet, which followed a soldier throughout his career in the Army and we had been told of the importance of keeping this record clean. I never suffered any after effects of this blot on my Army records! The side cap with which we were issued had to be perched on one side of the head and I found it a real nuisance. The cap-badges we were issued with were made of brown plastic and this relieved us of the labour of cleaning them, but we still had to polish the brass buttons on greatcoats and other equipment. I made the acquaintance of the button-stick and Blanco for the first but not the last time. The word “Blanco” was a misnomer as the substance we had to make into a paste with water and spread over our webbing equipment was a greenish khaki in colour.
Naturally, as it was a Basic Training Camp, discipline was strict and every effort was made by the N.C.O.s to bawl us out for minor faults in performance. Fortunately, the N.C.O.s lived in their own quarters away from the men and we only saw our corporal during parades during the day as a rule. There was also a Sergeant who appeared at times when we were drilling and marching and played a minor role in training us. His name was Sergeant Colenutt and he spoke with a peculiar southern, rural accent and it was only much later that I found out that his name was possibly of Anglo-Saxon origin, being probably derived from Coelnoth, the name of an Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 9th Century. He was a rather austere individual. When he was drilling us he would say “Urp Ay! Urp Ay!” which translated as “Left Right! Left Right!”
I discovered an Information Room in one of the hutments. This had a bookcase filled with books with facts about various countries and military matters that were not particularly interesting but the room was always deserted so if I wanted a bit of peace and quiet I could sit at a table and read or write letters. As a result of the different food and regular exercise I soon became very fit and put on some weight although I can't say I enjoyed the life. The washing facilities were very basic and we could only get a shower from time to time so I was very glad to take advantage of an offer by John Smart (“Archie”) from Central Lab to visit his mother at his home in the village of Meadowfield, at walking distance from Brancepeth, and here I was able to have the luxury of a proper bath! It was coal-mining area and the local people were very friendly and supportive of each other. Mrs Smart seemed often to have neighbours and friends dropping in for a chat and there was a very pleasant friendly atmosphere.
Our squad was made up of a wide range of men from different backgrounds and abilities, one young man being from a rural part of Wiltshire and although a pleasant and friendly chap he was not very bright and came in for some teasing. There was another by the name of Adams who came from the London area and on parades the last three digits of our Army numbers distinguished us in the usual Service manner.
Our instruction in the use of the rifle and Bren gun was on the lines amusingly described in the poem “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, and we had to learn the correct nomenclature for the various parts of their mechanisms and the various drills for their correct use. More especially in connection with the Bren gun there were those to deal with firing stoppages and the methods of clearing them. If the gun stopped firing we had to work through a series of actions to remedy the problem. A Number 1 stoppage was caused by an empty magazine and was simply cleared by replacing it with a full one. A Number 2 stoppage was caused by a misfire which needed a manual re-cocking of the gun to eject the faulty cartridge while a Number 3 stoppage was caused by the failure of the gun to re-cock on firing. The re-cocking action was produced by a portion of the explosion gases feeding back through a small hole in the barrel known as a gas port. With much use this hole became blocked and it was necessary to rotate the gas port to a fresh position (there were four positions).
On one memorable occasion I was chosen by the Corporal to demonstrate these drills before the squad, and as I lay flat on the ground behind the gun, my mind went completely blank and I couldn't think what I should do, much to the Corporal's disgust. We put into practice what we had learnt, when we travelled in a truck to a coastal firing range to fire these weapons. Afier firing there was a ritual of cleaning rifle barrels by pouring boiling water through the barrels followed by drying and oiling with the traditional “4x2” piece of flannel using a pullthrough. It was impressed on us that the only way to clean the firing pin and its surroundings was by using a graphite pencil. We also had lessons in bayonet fighting, unarmed combat and other infantry activities and were shown some training films about fieldcraft. Much of this was familiar to me from my Home Guard days.
By this time during the War, the possibility of gas warfare was probably non-existent but we still had training in anti-gas measures and practised wearing respirators during rifle firing drills. One of the lessons involved being taken into a room filled with a lachrymatory gas. We entered wearing gas masks and did some drill exercises to show us the effectiveness of the masks. To further impress this upon us, we then had to remove our masks to experience the effect of the lachrymatory vapours. Another demonstration in connection with gas warfare involved a dab of mustard gas (dichloro diethyl sulphide) on the back of our hands. Then we had to quickly decontaminate this patch with a bleaching powder paste. We were told that anyone who didn't do this properly would get an inflamed red patch and would be liable to be put on a charge. I wonder if the “mustard gas” liquid was a less poisonous vesicant. No one seemed to suffer any ill effects.
There are many strange stories about life in the Army which have passed into folklore but I can certify that some of them are true. Along the front of our barrack hut was a stretch of grass a few yards wide and on one occasion we were required to cut it - on our hands and knees - using our dinner knives! The story about the whitewashing of coal heaps is also true and I came across it in several camps. There was a very good reason for this as it showed immediately if any scrounging of coal had taken place, the ration for barrack room stoves being strictly controlled.
A good description of such early days under training in the Army is given by Fitzroy Maclean in his book “Eastern Approaches” (1949):
Recruits:- “There was the difficulty, the ever-recurring difficulty, of remembering at short notice which was your left foot and which was your right; of saying, offhand, what you did with your Bren gun after it had jammed for the second time; of putting a name, when suddenly confronted with it, to this or that apparently insignificant but doubtless vital part of the same gun; of explaining the presence of that unaccountable but altogether shameful speck of dirt on your rifle; of finding things that had got lost; of being constantly in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. We were sadly afflicted by what has been called the total depravity of inanimate things.”
Mentality:- “You and me”, our Sergeant instructor would observe philosophically from time to time, “are nothing but f...ing cogs in this gigantic f...ing organisation”
Learning:- “We discovered that there were ways out of every difficulty. We discovered the value of contacts in the Cookhouse, in the Armoury, in the Company Office, in the QM Stores. We found there were other ways out of the barracks than past the guard at the main gate. We discovered a hundred and one more or less ingenious methods of avoiding unnecessary exertion, of avoiding detention, of acquiring merit, of escaping punishment. We ceased to be recruits and became trained soldiers.”
On completion of our primary training we were posted to what were regarded as the units where we would be most useful, at least according to Army thinking, and I was given a posting to the RASC Driver's Training Unit at Hadrian's Camp, Carlisle. This was a bit of a surprise as I had no knowledge of motor vehicles and had only ever been in a car on a few occasions as a passenger. I had been hoping to be sent to a Signals unit. However, I was given no choice and was posted to a Driver Training Unit (R.A.S.C.) at Hadrian's Camp which lay about two and a half miles to the east of Carlisle city.
No. 1 Driver's Training Unit R.A.S.C. Carlisle was situated at Hadrian's Camp about two and a half miles from Carlisle on the north side of the B6264 road to Brampton and Newcastle. The present day Motorway M6 goes under this road just to the east of the old Army camp-site. The barracks at the camp were wooden huts built in the plan of the letter H, the cross-link between the two long barrack rooms containing the “Ablutions” portion. On account of this shape the buildings were known as “Spiders”. The wooden floors had been treated with oil to reduce dust and minimise the spread of infection and had to be brushed daily, each man being responsible for his bed space and surrounding area. The single beds lined the walls, and every morning our kit had to be laid out in a standard pattern on the bed for daily inspection.
Shortly after arrival we were submitted to the usual FFI (Freedom From Infection) inspection. This took place in the Gymnasium and it was rather amusing to see lines of naked men parading before the MOs to be inspected. We were issued with RASC cap badges, moulded in a brown plastic material with a metal clip attachment. This was a boon as it meant less brass polishing every day. A few of the new intake were not content with this and went into Carlisle to buy brass cap-badges that they ground down with valve-grinding abrasive to simulate the wear of long Army service!
Our squad of about twenty or so men were among other intakes at that time. As we were to be trained as Drivers IC, we had to have the regulation iron studs extracted from our boots, the resultant holes being plugged with match-sticks. This was to give us better control of the foot pedals in the vehicles. Heavy Army boots do not allow much delicacy of control anyway.
When I had taken my medical examination at Liverpool before recruitment, I had been classified as B2, but after a short time at Carlisle, l received an order to “Report Sick” and be examined by a doctor who re-classified me as A1. I had put on a bit of weight by this time - it shows what plenty of activity in the fresh air and good rations could do. Army regulations laid down that when anyone “Reported Sick” they had to take all their kit, mattress and blankets to the Quartermaster's Stores, presumably in the event that they had to remain in the sick quarters for any length of time. I found that, even as fit as I was, this was a very strenuous and tiring operation and wondered how anyone who was ill could cope with this.
We had a certain amount of the usual Army training with Drill and Weapon-Training, but most of our time was spent in indoor classes being taught the elements of vehicle mechanics and maintenance, map-reading and R.A.S.C. organisation, as well as regular PT exercise. We also had practical driving lessons, either in mornings or afternoons, a truck with three or four learners being taken out by a Lance Corporal instructor into the surrounding countryside. We were each given a turn in driving while the rest had an uncomfortable ride in the back. The trucks were 30 cwt and 3 ton lorries but there were also heavier vehicles such as a Studebaker lorry with about 7 gears and a tank-transporter that I never got a chance to try. All the gearboxes were non-synchromesh which meant that we had to learn the art of double-declutching when gear changing. Our heavy boots were not conducive to delicate pedal control and “Kangeroo petrol” was in generous supply from the start. (When I got the chance to drive a Humber staff-car on one occasion, I was amazed how easy it was to change gear with a synchromesh gearbox).
The instructors were very skilful in judging the right time to return to the camp for meals as they tended to stick to regular well-known routes. Usually this was towards Brampton as a start, but going father away from the camp as we became more proficient and were able to drive faster. We learned and practised reversing and the truck equipment included a spade in case of any damage to field gates, although I do not recall any need for this in my experience.
One method of reversing, which was remarkably effective, was to guide the driver by a man standing some distance before the truck and extending his arms to control the direction of reversing. As long as he held out his left arm, the driver continued to turn the steering wheel clockwise and the opposite with his right arm. I have seen a 3-ton truck reversed into a quite narrow place using this technique. On one occasion, while I was a passenger in the back of a truck, we were passing through a village and on turning a sharp corner, were met by a number of sheep on the road. Our learner driver, taking evasive action, ran into a stone wall on our left. It caused very little damage to the truck due to the low speed he was travelling and substantial bumpers but, unfortunately, a bicycle had been left leaning against the wall by a man working nearby and this took the full force of the impact which did it no good. The man was not amused but the corporal pacified him and helped him to fill in a damage claim form after which we took him and his wrecked bicycle home. I was glad that I hadn't been driving at the time as there were some harsh words.
The large barrack square at Hadrian's Camp, which was used as a vehicle park as well as for parades and drills, extended towards to the B6264 road on the south and lay across the line of Hadrian's Wall that was entirely destroyed in that part of the country. The site of the former Milecastle 64 was in the south-east corner of the camp. (This aroused my interest to see some of the actual remaining structures of the Wall when I could get the chance!)
Apart from our driving lessons we had regular classes, as I have mentioned, with practical advice on convoy discipline, un-ditching and similar topics. I was interested to find out that a truck could be extracted from a ditch by engaging reverse gear (with the engine off) and winding on the starting handle! We were also introduced to the Army Task System for routine maintenance of Army Vehicles (Wheeled). This involved continuous cycles of 16 days of checks covering the whole of the vehicle. There was a body of opinion among the instructors that continual application of spanners to the engine would give rise to over-tightening and damage to threads.
One of our training classes was held in a barrack building with an old motor-car (I think it was a Morris saloon) and the Corporal-Instructor dealt with a particular part of the mechanism in each session. During the course he dealt with every part of the car and the ultimate lesson was a demonstration of starting the engine using the starting handle to show how everything worked. The Corporal-Instructor was very good, even if he was rather sarcastic, and we all learned a lot in his classes.
We followed the usual Army routine of daily cleaning of brass buttons and buckles on our webbing equipment using metal polish, a brush and a button-stick, and applying khaki Blanco to webbing belts, straps and gaiters. Several times during our six-week's driver training we were introduced to the evening pastime of “Spud-bashing”, spending our time peeling small mountains of potatoes for next day, using our dinner knives. As these were not sharp, you can imagine the amount of waste during this process. There was a machine for mechanical peeling but it had seen so much service that the abrasive surfaces in it were worn quite smooth and it was quite useless.
On one memorable occasion we were taken as a squad to a patch of woodland just to the east of the Camp where we were shown how and had to cook our dinner for the day. We made fires with some dead wood and used them to cook a stew and a rice pudding with the ingredients provided. Before doing this we had to coat the outsides of our mess-tins with clay to protect their surfaces from the fire, making it much easier to polish them for inspection next morning. It was suggested that we put some chips of freshly cut wood in each tin to prevent the food tasting of wood-smoke; I don't recall that this was very effective in my case.
In my free time from after the midday meal on Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons I often walked into Carlisle and looked round the shops, the Tullie House museum and the Cathedral. There was a good stationer's shop where I was able to buy a copy of the OS 1/2 inch map of the Carlisle area which gave me an appetite to explore Hadrian's Wall. One very special treat was the weekend that Margaret came to Carlisle, staying with her uncle and aunt, George and Nancy Reece at the Methodist Manse in the west of the city. I was delayed on the Saturday as I was detailed to help set up equipment on the sports field at the camp, but we had a lovely few days together in the town. We called in a large store (Binn's) and had our photos taken in a kiosk where we got a variety of poses - 48 pictures each! These happy days passed all too quickly and it was quite a wrench to return to Army life.
On Sunday mornings there were church parades at Hadrian's Camp and we were separated into our respective groups for this. Church of England, Roman Catholics, and Non-Conformists; services for the Non-Conformists were conducted by a very good Methodist minister from Carlisle, probably one of the best that I have ever listened to. According to George Reece his name was A.J. McKay. One Sunday evening I walked into town to attend his evening service but the chapel was packed to capacity and an overflow crowd stood outside the open door, so I didn't wait.
Sgt Stagg, the Provost Sergeant in the guardroom, had to deal with some rough customers as the Unit contained a wide assortment of men. He was said to be sadistic. The story was that a prisoner in his care was required to polish a galvanised bucket until it shone like a mirror: then it was put on the guardroom stove until it was tarnished and given back to for re-polishing. He had to deal with returned deserters and the like. There were posters in the camp reading:- “You can't spell VICTORY with an ABSENT-TEE”.
After some weeks of training we went on a joint exercise with other squads through the Lake District, driving in a long convoy and spending a night away from camp. It was very interesting to notice that although the leading vehicles of the convoy travelled at perhaps 20 to 25 mph, the tail vehicles seemed always to be either stopped or driving at high speeds in order to catch up. The effect was very noticeable when we were on the A6 to Penrith. From there, we travelled along the north side of Lake Ullswater and over the steep Kirkstone pass which involved much stalling of engines and hill starts with inexperienced learner drivers. From the top of the pass we took a short cut to Ambleside along a narrow road with many steep descents which further tested our driving skills. We then drove to an old slate quarry to the north of Coniston where we spent the night, sleeping in the backs of our trucks. Next day we returned to Carlisle along the same roads, this time with rather better distance control after all the practice we had had.
On completing the driving course our abilities were tested, each of us having to drive over a test route under supervision. Part of my test route was through the city of Carlisle on a day when it was very busy with a sheep market, some streets being congested with flocks being driven to and from the market pens. This driving was quite a strain and involved much gear-changing and quick reactions. After the test I was relieved to find that I had passed the test and was given an Army driving licence. This was the conclusion of our driving training: we were now classed as Drivers I.C. and awaited the next move with interest. I was informed that I was to stay at Hadrian's Camp for the time being, without being given any more details while for the remainder of the course the members of the squad were dispersed, most of them being posted to serving units of the R.A.S.C. (some in Europe at this time as replacement drivers due to casualties in the advance to the east).
I was called to see the C.O. one day and was interviewed by him about a possible commission in the Royal Corps of Signals. This was probably the result of some aptitude report from my primary training. He tested my observation by leaning back in his chair and asking me what insignia were on his shoulders: I knew that he was a Lieutenant Colonel so told him they were a crown and a pip which I had already noticed anyway. I was told to wait for interview at a W.O.S.B. (War Office Selection Board) which would meet in a few months time, and until then would take a motor-cycle course and then, some other duties.
The motor-cycling course took two weeks and started with lectures on bikes, their controls and maintenance, followed by “Gentling” which involved starting and stopping and riding round a nearby field in bottom gear. We later learnt gear changing and next day, went in a group for a long ride on the roads towards Penrith on the A6 and then to Lazonby Fell and back. Fortunately, in wartime there was very little traffic on the roads as we had frequent breakdowns but soon learned the methods of dealing with oiled-up spark plugs and loose connections. During the next weeks of the course, we covered the same ground spending much time rough-riding over the moorland of Lazonby Fell with its steep valleys, streams and banks and we became used to riding through knee-high bracken as well as descending steep slopes of loose material (in bottom gear!). We were shown, and practised, the method of riding through streams; one of the instructors got over-keen and showed us how to ride along one stream - very impressive until he went into a pothole and we had to rescue and dry out his bike. I had a slight mishap one day when we were taking turns to ride up a very high steep bank; it was necessary to keep up the bike speed in bottom gear and as I crested the bank and before I could reduce engine speed, I ran into the back of an earlier learner who had stopped too near the summit. We were both rather shaken but little damage was done.
At the end of the course we were tested and all of us considered to have passed as M/C Riders - a rather optimistic verdict. As I had to wait for the W.O.S.B interview I had to be found something to do, so was made an Acting Lance Corporal (unpaid) and had to act as a driving instructor to new recruits. I was given responsibility for a 30 cwt lorry and had to take out groups of three learners at a time each morning and afternoon and teach them starting and stopping and gear changing, as well as driving along the routes that I had been along as a learner myself only a few weeks before! I found this quite interesting but a bit of a strain, especially when I was required to submit my lorry for an inspection at the barrack workshops at one time. I spent several hours with it one weekend, preparing it and cleaning the engine with a paraffin rag lying underneath it to clean where it was required - not enjoyable at all.
I found myself sharing a hut with a handful of other potential cadets, all of whom were destined for R.A.S.C. O.C.T.U. training and waiting like myself for posting. There were some rather snooty people among them, obviously very conscious of their own importance as “officer material”. The time came for the W.O.S.B. and I went to Edinburgh by train to join a group of would-be cadets for assessment. We were lodged at the Dreghom Barracks the HQ of the Royal Scots Regiment and spent several days in interviews, psychiatric and practical examinations. Apart from some written work we were given several tasks to carry out as a team, each of us in turn taking on the role of leader. Our task was to move a massive boulder across an imaginary narrow chasm in the ground, and we were supplied with some rope and wooden planks. As I recall, none of us were very successful with this exercise.
Another ordeal that we faced with was to crawl through an underground passage (a trench roofed with corrugated iron and buried in the ground), and find our way out to the exit (the only one of two that was passable) in the dark. A rather amusing description of this test is given by Peter Ustinov in his book “Dear Me”. Fortunately for us there had been much heavy rain and the trench was flooded so we were glad to be excused this particular trial. There was also a test of aggressiveness and we were matched in pairs to have boxing matches of one round. I was matched with a rather smaller Scottish young man but he was considerably more aggressive and wiry than me and so I didn't do very well. At our first briefing we were told to expect posting to an Infantry O.C.T.U. and there was little chance of getting into other services, so I lost interest and took things easy during the tests as I would rather have stayed with the R.A.S.C. than be an infantry officer.
We were dressed in everyday-work denim uniform and just after one test, two of us were sent across Edinburgh by bus to be interviewed at an Army Headquarters in single story hutments where we were questioned about aspects of our civilian life and Army careers. We travelled back to Carlisle and resumed our duties while we awaited results. I resumed driving instruction while my companion returned to his section.
One afternoon I was one of a small group who went on a reconnaissance for a planned overnight exercise near Chollerford, north of Hexham. We travelled in a roomy Humber staff car driven by a sergeant, the rest of the group being corporals, and I was able to see some of Hadrian's Wall along the crags to the north of the B6318. At Chollerford we turned north on the B6320, and while driving along this road at about 50 mph, one of the large “balloon” tyres on the car burst. After a few exciting moments while the Sergeant struggled with the steering, he managed to keep control and bring us to a safe stop. We then walked to a nearby pub and were able to telephone the Camp for assistance. A rescue car came eventually to deal with the problem and take us back. That was as far as we got with this recce!
Obviously, some later explorations were made, as before long I was involved in a long convoy of learner drivers to this area on an overnight exercise. We followed the same route as before, but before reaching Chollerford, we turned to the north along a narrow lane, which led us to Simonburn where we spent the night, sleeping in the lorries. A handy pub supplied refreshment in the evening but after a guard was set, I decided to take a walk back to the road by the Wall. The narrow lane passed through a gap in the Wall so I climbed into a field and walked for some distance westwards towards Limestone Corner. The Wall here was rather overgrown but I was able to touch it for the first time, and examine its construction. If I had known at the time, I would have sooner have walked to the east where I would have seen my first Wall Turret. The next morning we returned to Camp.
Eventually, I received my posting to the Pre-O.C.T.U. Training Camp at Wrotham in Kent and left Carlisle late on a Friday evening with another cadet from the Camp whom I had already met in Edinburgh. I was given a joint travel warrant, and after some discussion, we decided to get off at Crewe and split up for the weekend, meeting again on the Sunday evening at Crewe to continue our journey. My friend lived near Stoke-on-Trent so this move was very convenient for both of us. I got a train to Chester, but didn't get to Frodsham until the early hours so I had to wait for the first train early on Saturday morning as I had all my kit with me. I arrived home very early at Holly Bank and we had a good few days. When I reached Crewe again on the Sunday evening there was no sign of my friend at the planned meeting time. I wandered round the station for a long time and was rather worried. I couldn't ask at the R.T.O. office as I would be difficult to explain the break in our journey and there were some Military Police wandering about looking for suspicious characters.
As it was getting late I was obliged to board a London train on my own. I had charge of the travel warrant so hoped I would meet my friend at Euston. The train was packed and I travelled in the corridor with my kit. When I reached Euston in the early morning, I hung about on the platforms and met all the incoming trains until I was very relieved to meet my friend on one. He seemed to have mistaken our rendezvous and had finally got on the train with a platform ticket so all was well. We crossed London to Waterloo on foot and got the train to Wrotham. We got transport from here to the Pre-OCTU camp, which was a group of Nissen huts and concrete built, ablution blocks, tactically scattered throughout the woodland along the edge of the North Downs escarpment.
148 Pre-OCTU Training Unit at Wrotham was based on a site on the top of the North Downs looking over the escarpment edge to the Weald which stretched to the south. Along the foot of the escarpment ran the Pilgrim's Way to Canterbury. The top of the escarpment was covered with light woodland and the camp site had been carefully chosen so that the buildings were scattered among this tree cover. We lived in corrugated-steel Nissen huts while instruction took place in wooden huts, and the ablutions were concrete structures. The area is now the Trottiscliffe Country Park (pronounced “Trosely”) and on a visit to the site in 1984 the only signs of the old military site were some overgrown concrete bases of huts. At one of these I found a fragment of the wired glass from a window of an ablution hut but there were no obvious signs of other hutments.
There were some fields on the flat land behind the camp site, and they sloped down towards some rough ground where there was the remains of a crashed glider of the type that was used in the Arnhem campaign. One of our first training jobs was the digging of slit trenches on the upper slopes of a field as training in field-craft. This was the first time I had come across chalk rocks, the upper layers being clay with flints, the large nodules of which were troublesome to dig out. As one of my long time interests was the Old Stone Age, I was always on the look-out for any examples of stone implements wherever I went in Kent, but without success however. There was also a cleared area in the trees where we were tested on our motor bike abilities and I was found to need more practice having only had a short course at Carlisle. My driving skills were considered satisfactory so I needed no further instruction.
The motor cycling training consisted entirely of road work. This involved a daily ride round many miles of Kent, from Wrotham Camp to Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and sometimes another route to Gravesend, Rochester and Maidstone. We would stop at wayside transport cafes for mugs of tea as a break from riding. The remainders of the days were spent in the huts studying map-reading, Army organisation and such matters. We were also given some instruction in clearing minefields as well as dealing with booby traps both on mines and in other situations. We were shown how to operate timed detonators, both the acid-wire, and the lead strip under tension types. Eventually we spent one evening in clearing a small minefield (inert mines - I'm glad to say) and dealing with any booby traps on them, while live tracer ammunition was fired over our heads by Bren guns on fixed mounts to add a little excitement to the exercise.
All this was simply preparation for my posting for 6 months to the Royal Corps of Signals Officer Training Unit at Catterick between March and August 1945. Although I still had my Home Guard battle-dress uniform issued in 1940, on arrival at the O.C.T.U. it was thought that I should have one showing less signs of wear. It was supplied from the Quartermaster's Stores, where as a new uniform from store it had been treated with some insect repellent and had a strong chemical smell, (possibly tetrachloroethane), and was full of crystals. As I didn't think it was fit to wear I took it to a dry-cleaners at Catterick and it was returned fit for purpose. I wore it for a photograph in the garden in March 1985 and again indoors in April l995. In this instance I had some trouble removing the belt as it seemed to have “shrunk”. The last time I wore it was in November 2003 when I could not fasten the buttons of the tunic so had to pose with arms folded to hold it properly!
No further written recollections have been left of this OCTU experience but the text below has been compiled from a published Royal Corps of Signals information booklet issued to 150 OCTU officer cadets, found in his papers.
150 Officer Cadet Training Unit, Royal Corps of Signals was based in Catterick in North Yorkshire. Its purpose was described as to train officer-cadets of many types and varied experience in soldiering, leadership and administration and “to understand the relationship that should exist between officer and man”. Specialist training in Signals subjects was of course provided but particular attention was paid to the physical aspects of training “because the fitter the cadet is, the more readily does he absorb technical instruction, and the greater is his self-confidence”. Consequently there was an emphasis on infantry tactics in the field, practical leadership exercises with every cadet in turn assuming a position of authority over his peers, outdoor map-reading “in a programme that calls for stamina as well as a knowledge of the subject”, and physical activities such as obstacle courses, drills and cross-country runs. Such training was supplemented by three-day and four-day practical exercises and battle-camps and participation in formal sports events. And in addition to all this, there was the laying-down of officer social skills - mess etiquette, ceremonial parades, current affairs discussion groups, and the welt and weft of living in a varied yet close-knit community.
Although Jack surprisingly left no written record of these experiences, they have been well summed up by a fellow cadet (A.J. Kennedy) who wrote in the 150 OCTU information booklet:
“The cryptic simplicity of the initials 150 OCTU disguises a kingdom as different and as complex as the Orient is to the Western traveller. Here for some six months, a thousand factors permitting, one lived, buffetted by a Yorkshire climate and an RSM with a voice that conquered two Humber engines and a 3-tonner...Here in this entanglement of huts and wires, football pitches and cabbage patches, we ploughed on...
Mornings were always somewhat frenetic. Rudely aroused souls fell from warm blankets at early hours to tear an overnight growth from the cheek with water at 3 degrees below...They threw down porridge and bacon in 3 minutes flat with the ease of practice and sped swiftly out to wrest order from physical equipment and to present to Authority's discerning eye a display of kit that would have given a Selfridge window-dresser a contract for life...
Thence on to lectures on oscillators and field regiments, on allowances and ration scales; lectures on oil filters and courts of enquiry and mustard gas; all to be gathered and stored in the filing system of a cadet mind...the understanding and assimilation of facts in the face of the needs of the all-devouring blanco...We were confronted with this immense pudding possessing a thousand ingredients; it was ours to digest...And yet somehow the pudding was digested...
Physically we were not neglected. A considerable understatement this. Drenched from a water-swing where there was enough water but negligible swing; torn about by the wire our aching limbs had failed to clear, and with head hard-jammed on the shoulders by an unfortunate power-dive of the rope-bridge; thus afflicted we staggered around many a mile of the Lake District - where Wordsworth had the audacity to admire the daffodils...
Outside and beyond these affairs of the timetable was an atmosphere designed to seep through the pores and produce twenty men a week capable of discarding white flashes (the mark of cadet rank) and passing to officer grade overnight...
There was enough incident to form the substance for a hundred books; enough humour to set the most sombre-minded chuckling for a century...and if in many events of a brief cadet career we failed then to find the humour of the situation, at least we were being educated in the greatest of schools - the School of Experience”.
And so successfully graduating from that “School of Experience”, Lieutenant Jack Adams progressed to his post-war army service, as described in Part II of Journeys and Resting Places: Soldiering On in Southern India.