1940 - 1943
Receiving that cup of tea was such
an English custom to me - a symbol, 'Welcome back to England.' It would be remiss not to mention the
hospitality that had been given by the Plymouth citizens to the 70,000 French troops who
had escaped at Dunkirk. They had
been given food, hot baths, and accommodation before re-embarking for France. At that time, it was not realised that
France would capitulate.
Receiving that cup of tea was such an English custom to me - a symbol, 'Welcome back to England.' It would be remiss not to mention the hospitality that had been given by the Plymouth citizens to the 70,000 French troops who had escaped at Dunkirk. They had been given food, hot baths, and accommodation before re-embarking for France. At that time, it was not realised that France would capitulate.
The Lord Mayor's Welfare Fund, with the help of volunteers, distributed 100,000 cigarettes, buns and biscuits were ordered daily in 5,000 lots, 3,000 oranges and apples were given away daily plus much more. This had taken place, mainly, before our arrival. Yet that cup of tea, to me, was all I needed to lift my spirits. Well done, the people of the Hoe.
In contrast, during all our time in France, apart from the officer in the French 155mm artillery battery, there had been no hospitality or any form of friendship from the French people. Perhaps they had too many war concerns to make us welcome. As it was, we could have been aliens from another planet.
Now for me to have my feet on any part of this island will be a very precious privilege. When the military transport officer at Plymouth had sorted out the various army personnel who had made it, we, the 209 component, were put on the train for Devizes army barracks. It was a most comfortable journey, having only our own personal kit to take with us.
Inwardly, we knew we were the lucky ones and had every reason to be thankful and relax. We had time, also to give our thoughts to those at home, who must be wondering what fate had befallen us. What was causing concern to the families of our unit was that certain personnel attached to our HQ had already returned home, we were to learn later.
At Devizes, we were greeted by the barracks duty officer as we alighted from the military transport which had met our train at Devizes Station. We were shown our quarters and where we could obtain food and refreshments; equally important we were shown where we could have a shower to clean our bodies of sweat and grime.
He told us that there would be an inspection parade next morning and it was expected that we would be given 48 hours leave. We were very tired and hungry, our only food on the ship had been the usual dog biscuits and bully beef. Normally, I would have 'phoned Gladys, but very few of us had English money. Tomorrow hopefully, we would have news about when we might expect to arrive home. In the meantime, like the others, a shower was top priority.
I remember that my beard was quite soft and not bristly. I was given a separate room to sleep in. I looked at the bed and, after laying on it, I found that I could not get accustomed to the softness of the springs. That night, I made my bed on the floor! It is surprising how the body adjusts to its environment, in this case the rough ground of France.
The commanding officer of the army training barracks addressed the parade the following day and gave us a list of don'ts, he did not want us to set a bad example to his recruits. This went down badly with the lads and I have always remembered his discourtesy. Once I had been dismissed, it was a matter of seeing the paymaster and obtaining my travel warrant. I attempted to 'phone Gladys but she had, I presumed, already left to go to work at the Efandam, a battery firm which was part of the Ever Ready Co., where she was employed as a wages clerk. By coincidence, when I arrived at Wolverhampton, I caught the number 9 trolleybus. When this reached Park Village, Gladys, with others leaving work, boarded this bus.
The bus was full, with people standing, so that she had not seen me. I noticed that her face showed signs of stress, which was not surprising in view of her lack of news regarding our unit. I now regretted not attempting to 'phone her the night before and dreaded revealing myself, lest the shock would be too much for her. I decided that I would try and hide myself and get off at the next bus stop after she had alighted to go to our house at Old Fallings Lane. At the stop where I got off, there was a fish and chip shop, so I was able to take this favourite take- away food home as a welcoming present! But I would not have been in such a happy state if Gladys had been larking about on the bus, not caring a hoot about my absence. Gladys was living at Old Fallings Lane and keeping father company, for mother was still evacuated to Wales.
When I knocked on the door, my father opened it. We both gave a smile. "Where have you come from, we had almost thought the worst had happened.", said my father who, I thought, had aged, loosing most of his hair during the last year. I replied, "I have come all the way from Epernay, the Champagne country - starting on May 10th. Sorry I wasn't able to send you a postcard." As I entered the hall, I noticed Gladys in the kitchen, holding her hands to her face, with her fingers slightly apart over her eyes. I called out, "I can see you, look I have brought you a present of fish and chips to celebrate the prodigal son's return." As she took her hands off her face, the tears could be seen pouring down her cheeks.
This was a very emotional moment for all of us. Dad retired to his front room, where I took him a tray with his fish and chips. It was a relief to see Gladys quickly recovering from the surprise of my return. There was much to catch up with, as well as meeting her family around the corner. This would have to wait until the morrow, not forgetting that I was on a 48 hour leave.
We spent an hour with my father and listened to the evening news on the wireless. Churchill's famous speech to the House of Commons on the 18th June was again repeated, to rally the people. "I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say - this was their finest hour." There can be no doubt, Churchill's pugnacious attack on Hitler and the Nazi movement, with his famous speeches and stirring voice lifted the morale of the British people as no other leader could have done.
My leave came to an end too quickly, again there is the sadness in the parting of one's other half, particularly when there is no knowledge of when or where one shall finally be posted. On returning to Devizes barracks after our short leave, the 209 lads read on the order board that their unit would be transferred to Aberporth the following day after inspection at 9.30 am, using military transport.
Laurie, standing by me as we read this order said, "The commanding officer here cannot get rid of us quick enough for fear of corrupting his recruits."
"They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. As far as Colin Elwell's unit is concerned, this must be true." I responded.
All that could be gleaned about this army station is that it was a firing range, used for testing rockets, in an isolated part of South Wales, eight miles from Cardigan. We arrived to find to our dismay that we were to be housed in bell tents. The command post team occupied the same tent, enabling us to hold our war council from time to time. Apart from a canteen and ablutions plus toilets, we had no access to any other permanent buildings. Many buildings were marked 'Special permit holders only'. It was agreed by the war council that we had been dumped out of harm's way. The unit had no equipment and I suppose this exercise was being repeated over the whole country, having to dispose of 400,000 troops who escaped back to England during and after Dunkirk.
Our troop officer could tell us little about this move. He made it quite clear that there would be no marching drill and that the unit was to be considered as 'resting'. Now the army council decided to hold a meeting. Laurie started things off by saying, "Did you know that this was an experimental station for firing 3 inch unrotating projectiles (UP) and that one of their staff has had their head blown off? Maybe we are rocket fodder; perhaps they will be calling for volunteers soon."
Eric said, "What do you think of our set-up here, Alan?"
"Well, as far as I am concerned, I shall explore the coastline for a sandy beach and maybe get a swim." I replied.
While we were billeted here, I discovered that the projectors from which the rockets are fired have 2 pairs of guide rails, which allows them to be fired singly or in pairs. This type of projector, known as No. 2 Mark is operated by a gunner on the left side, to the rear of the rails, who is responsible for bearing, whilst the other gunner, on the right side is responsible for elevation. Both use cross wires to aim onto the target and when the fire officer gives the order to fire, both press down their firing lever, which completes an electrical circuit to the terminals of the rocket.
Later that evening, I made up a four at bridge with rocket technical staff in the canteen. They gave me a background to the development of this, until now unknown British rocket. Work started on the rocket in 1934 at Woolwich Arsenal by a physicist, Dr Crow. It was, at first a 2 inch rocket and then later, a 3 inch version was designed to match the warhead of the 3.7 shell, in weight. It was hoped to introduce rocket batteries to supplement the 'ack ack' defences by 1940. These were to be known as Z batteries. This information was to become very helpful in the not-too-distant future.
Our morale was very low, knowing that we were to be put out to pasture. Why could they not have sent us home until they had decided what to do with us. I found a spot close by the range, where I could swim with my underpants on, having no swim suit with me. This became a routine for the few days we were here. It was at the end of June, we were to hear that we were to be on the move again. This time we were drafted to this beautiful coastline of South Wales. It represented our third move in as many weeks. Could it be at the war office that we were known as the 'Nomad tribe'? The only logic that we could see was that we were moving closer to the base where our future would be decided. In less than a week we had arrived and then said goodbye to Blackpool, finally taking residence at Catterick transit camp. At Blackpool, I had now readjusted to sleeping in a normal bed.
We were at a strict military base and inspections and route marches became the order of the day. On 16th July, my troop officer, Colin Elwell sent a message that I was required to visit the troop office after inspection parade. He held a piece of paper in his hand and after a conversation of a personal nature, he said, "We are about to part company."
He then read from the letter. "Lance Bombardier A C Rayment will form part of a cadre in the formation of 106 Z battery, based at Marske-by-the-Sea, Cleveland, England." At first I did not take in what would be the effect of this transfer. Why me, I thought, so I asked him, "Are there any others of the 209 unit also being transferred?"
He replied, "I only have this instruction from the 'Ack ack' Army Drafting Centre." In shaking hands and smiling, "I hope you have a successful move and that you are not asked to take part in too many Christmas tree raiding parties."
I learned later that the 209 unit served in Egypt during 1942 and in the invasion of Sicily. The unit also served in Italy, both in the 'ack ack' role and in the field. It is sad that I have not had the opportunity to meet former members of my Wolverhampton TA unit, particularly as, a few years ago, a small number of them revisited Paul Roger's shooting lodge at Plivot in France.
It was a weird feeling I had as I arrived at a deserted hutted encampment at Marske-by-the-Sea. Apart from one other soldier, with three stripes on his arm, an officer sat at a desk in the only visible occupied hut in this ghostly camp. This officer greeted us, saying, "I am the adjutant of this newly formed Z battery and we are now to witness the build up of this unit." I spoke to this sergeant, who informed me that his name was Crawthorn and had served in the 1st World War. The adjutant took us to a local army training centre, where we were to use their canteen. Our hut encampment was part of this establishment and was only occasionally used, when they had a large intake.
I did not sleep a great deal in this isolated compound. I was feeling the absence of a closely-knitted unit, which the Bedouin style of living had brought. One such group was the command post team, with its frequent army council discussions. There was Greg, who sang Gracie Fields songs and the flamboyant Colin Elwell, who always had a smile for everyone.
When arriving at this camp, the route took me through Redcar and along the coast. At first I thought I was witnessing a scene from a First World War film of the Western Front. The whole length of the coastline had invasion defences, consisting of staked coiled barbed wire and shore metal obstacles. Land mines had also been planted in the sand dunes. There was no mistaking that Hitler's threat to invade us in his famous 'Directive No. 16 Operation Sea Lion' on the 16th July was being taken seriously.
It is interesting to note that Hitler tried a peace offering on the 19th July and stated that he thought no useful purpose could be obtained by continuing the conflict. He did not get any takers for his olive branch. He now set plans to invade us on the 25th August, using 41 divisions, six armoured, three motorised, seven parachute divisions and two airborne divisions. There was a problem outstanding apart from the Channel - mastery of the air, which had yet to be achieved.
After a week, the 106 Z battery was reaching its full compliment. From the nearby training centre, RA unit a squad of roughly one hundred men were handed over. It was claimed that they were to form a 25-pounder gun battery and be sent to Singapore. Perhaps the powers that be had an idea that this part of our Empire would fall to the Japs later on. And to my surprise, another member of the 209 unit arrived - Bombardier Warrington, who joined us at Newport before going to France. He was one of the Militia boys. We had a mixed bag of officers. One, Lieutenant Little, had been in charge of a team of elephant handlers in the Burma jungle. Another was off the reserved list and was a practising solicitor, whilst Captain Smith must have been in charge of some local authority cleansing department. When our Major Fernough finally arrived, we knew this was not to be an ordinary unit. He had been in the war office, having a smart appearance, a tooth brush moustache and seemed to have a sense of purpose.
Our new unit had the loan of a drill sergeant, Harvey, from the training centre, who drilled us on the square. He was an artist in his calling, who put his stamp on this unit. He stood perfectly upright with his drill stick tucked under his arm and the other arm folded behind his back. His movements were like clockwork, and you just had to copy him. Our time at Marske had now nearly come to an end, as our complement was almost completed. Unfortunately there were no signs of rocket projectors appearing, nor was there anyone who had knowledge or experience of these weapons. I did not reveal at this stage that I had some background knowledge since I had been at the rocket experimental unit at Aberporth. The equipment could change from the last time I saw it.
Before leaving Marske with the 106 unit, I was promoted to acting bombardier, going up in the world. We were honoured to have General Sir Frederick Pile, COC Ack Ack Command, to inspect this newly formed 106 Z battery. He addressed the parade after the inspection and told them that each gunner was of officer potential and wished them a successful army career. Now the sting in the tail, following his inspection was a directive issued by army command, stating all 'ack ack' gunners were required elsewhere in the army. Lower grade men down to C3 would be posted in. This took place before we left the camp. Major Fernough was not pleased to see his new unit downgraded so soon. To me, the formation of the 106 Z unit was premature, having no projectors to train with. Each section now had to keep its men occupied.
Our new posting was just a mile or two up the coast to Redcar. We had no army living quarters and so were billeted in private houses. Our parades took place outside the houses we were staying in. Sergeant Crawthorn had so many C3 men that he formed what was later to be known as the 'Disney Squad'. He at first gave instructions to any one who had a man marching out of step in front of him to tread on his heels. After a few days there were so many complaining of heel injuries that he had to withdraw this instruction. The local residents were now referring to this 'Disney' leader as the 'Cruel Sergeant'.
There were two in this squad who could only march with their arms out of phase with their legs. In the end they were always asked to fall out and make their own way to the destination where the men were going to march to. Amongst those C3 men were some who could not read or write, with others who had some minor physical disability. Those who were fit took part in long-distance marches, over the moors in the border country of Cleveland and North Yorkshire.
One of the chief benefits of being semi-permanently based at Redcar was that 48 hours leave was granted once a fortnight to allow us to go home regularly. This removed a great stress from Gladys not having a place of her own - although there had been no family disagreement. Remember, we have had no honeymoon since our marriage on 4th September 1939. My troop officer, Lieutenant Little, was very much out of touch with army routine, and in our ad hoc accommodation there was not much opportunity to be regimental.
On the 29th October 1940, I was granted war substantive rank of bombardier, which meant that after war was over, I could lose this rank. I did not think I would lose much sleep over this aspect of the award.
Shortly afterwards, I was informed that I would be in charge of a section within the grounds of Dorman and Long iron and steel manufacturers, sited between the Tees and Redcar. With no firing practice, I would be responsible for training the section consisting of one lance bombardier and 10 men in firing 3-inch UP rockets from Projector No. 2 Mark 1, and also in firing a Lewis gun. We were to be sited on the vital point VP as we would have to be an 'ack ack' defence against dive bombers.
A Nissen hut was being erected to house us and a shelter for the rocket ammunition was also in preparation. The projectors were to be mounted on steel plates, bolted to the ground. I had been handed firing instruction books, both for the projectors and the Lewis gun. The equipment was expected to be delivered in two weeks' time. The troop HO was at Eston recreational ground, a distance of roughly 4 miles further up the Tees. It is here we familiarised ourselves with the equipment from the handbooks supplied. The equipment was simplicity itself. Two men operated the weapon. Each operator was responsible for placing a rocket on the guide rails, pulling the rockets onto the rear contact knife edges of the projector. The operator on the left inserted an electrical battery, making the weapon live.
This operator was now responsible for aiming the projector in bearing, using crosswire sights, whilst the operator on the right took responsibility for laying on in elevation. When the firing officer, in this case me, gave the order, "Plane!", pointing in the direction of the target and shouting, "Fire!", the operators pressed their firing levers as soon as they had their target in their crosswires. For the Lewis gun training, I had the weapon and ammunition to carry out the instructions. I remember that I had the squad squatted on the floor in a circle. I was demonstrating the loading procedure with live ammunition, having no dummy rounds. I inadvertently released the trigger, but it failed to fire. This was a lesson to last me for the rest of my army service - never use live ammunition for demonstration purposes.
There was a continuing downgrading of men. It was no secret that all footballers, musicians and cooks were indispensable. Amongst the footballers, we had was an international player from Sheffield Wednesday, Jackie Robinson. He had played at Berlin against Germany, when Hitler watched and they gave the Nazi salute. Also, another professional footballer was Cliff Whitelum from Sunderland FC. Each Saturday afternoon, the battery turned out a team against local clubs, the police fixtures were the most popular and were well supported by the locals.
It was early November when we became operational at our vital point in the centre of Dorman and Long. I gave my lance bombardier responsibility for organising the manning rota for spotting and Lewis gun operation. I also had a rota for projector and ammunition maintenance. These rotas were always a problem when dealing with small numbers. A very important piece of information given to us was that flying by the RAF was not permitted in our zone, so that any plane flying in this area was to be regarded as hostile. The Civil Aviation Authority was also notified of this flying restriction.
Amongst the recent intake was an all-in wrestler named Oakes. He and an ex- Irish guardsman had formed a gang within the battery. They were known to have caused trouble in local pubs, breaking beer bottles and putting them close to people's faces. It came to my attention that Oakes had been put under arrest and that he had been given seven days confined to barracks on our site. I had a discussion with my lance bombardier that if this was true, I would put him on a charge for the least offence. His arrival with the orderly sergeant came as no surprise. Having told me that Oakes was to be regarded as a member of my manning team and that he was confined to camp for seven days, this sergeant then said, "This is your baby from now on." I did not reply, if I had expressed my thoughts, I too would have been on a charge.
I had not met Oakes, only heard of his reputation. It seems both his troop sergeant and officer were scared of him. He was around 5ft 8 inch in height, broad shoulders and had a crooked nose. I showed him where his bed was and told him that he would have to do manning duties like the rest of the men. I told him that after he had sorted himself out, he would be required for equipment maintenance duties. I set him on cleaning the rocket terminals. As was expected, he put a cigarette in his mouth. Immediately I remonstrated and said to him, "If you light that cigarette, you will be on a charge for endangering life." There was a reply of some sort, it could have been, "Sod off." Oakes then lit up and I told him to stop what he was doing and consider what he was being charged with. I at once contacted my troop officer that I wanted an escort to take Oakes back to troop HQ to answer the charge placed on him. When charged, he was given a further 7 days CB and returned to my unit. I was enraged that the officer should again wash his hands of him by returning him to me.
When Oakes returned, he was in a threatening mood. I reminded him that he was on look-out duty at 5 pm and returned to my bed. Oakes then took out of his pocket a broken bottle. There were several gunners in the hut, including the lance bombardier. It was very tense as he slowly approached me, uttering something about what he would do to me if the money that he sent home to his mother was stopped. I felt that one wrong movement or word, and I could be seriously hurt. Just as he was almost touching my face with the broken bottle, he caught sight of McKenzie, the lance bombardier, staring at what was taking place. He then withdrew from me and set about what he would do to him, if he acted as witness, should he come to blows with me. Somehow, no violence occurred and Oakes was reminded of his spotting duties.
As was to be expected, Oakes was nowhere to be seen during his stint on the Lewis gun and look-out duties. Again, I got through to troop HQ and demanded an escort to pick Oakes up and take him back to HQ. This was done and Oakes was finally picked up at some place of low repute. I think it was a miracle that we got away without damage: it was a very irresponsible decision by the troop officer to send Oakes here in the first place, ours being an isolated unit.
While serving at this site, many Dorman and Long employees would ask us what were the secret weapons we were equipped with. Many thought we fired springs in the air to wrap around the planes' propellers. During the whole of the time we were at this VP, we were not found wanting simply because there had been no attacks. This was in contrast to what had been taking place in the South of England, where the Battle of Britain had been taking place. By October, the Luftwaffe had lost 1,733 fighters and bombers to the RAF's 1,379 fighters, but the RAF had only lost 414 pilots.
The battle of the air had been won and this meant that the Sea Lion, the plan for the invasion of Britain was now cancelled until the spring of the following year. Hitler had now resorted to the night bombing of London and the main towns and ports. This was the terror bombing that had been expected at the start of the war, and which was now being applied in earnest.
The role of firing at a dive bomber from the 'vital point' was abandoned in 1941. More 3-inch UP projectors 2 mark 1 had become available and now I took charge of 8 at Eston Recreation Ground. A through road from Redcar to Middlesborough separated this ground from the Dorman and Long steel works, which span along the upper reaches of the Tees. Less than one hundred yards away, the steel works' tallest and latest chimney stack stood upright overlooking our site.
There were a number of comments, generally to the effect that this could be the first target to be hit. The projectors formed a right angle to two 4's. One 4 faced this road towards the steel works whilst the other four faced Eston council offices with a 4 feet high wall in between. By each weapon, a slit trench had been dug to give protection for the manning teams. Now, whenever the sirens went off, the steel workers came out to watch us, even the smallsteam engine drivers would pull up along the road, getting a better view of our site. Again, they believed that these secret weapons sent up springs to foil the enemy's propellers.
After a few weeks here at this hutted encampment, we heard from a long distance radar station that a daylight raider was flying in our direction. Soon the sirens went off and the usual spectators appeared across the road as we took up stations in the stand-by state. This always involved the rockets being loaded on to the guide rails in a horizontal position. As stated before, this was a prohibited flying zone both for civilians and the RAF. Any plane appearing must be regarded as hostile. Suddenly, from out of the clouds this daylight raider, flying about 2,000 feet from the Redcar direction, appeared, coming in our direction. I gave the order, "Plane!", pointing in the direction of the target, followed by "Fire!" For a few moments it was like a firework display for the bright flashes behind the rockets can be quite lethal if standing directly rear of the rocket as it fired. It took a few minutes to appreciate the effects of this rocket salvo. The spectators across the road had all disappeared and, to my horror, this tall chimney overlooking our rocket site had been hit and now had a 6ft hole in it, half way up. The plane had not been hit, but we did receive news that a machine gun had been dropped by this raider. There was now to be an inquest carried out and the rocket crew to be identified with their account of the shoot causing this damage.
It appears the misfire drill had not been carried out in the first instance, when the rocket failed to take off after the fire levers had been depressed. The projector was later inspected by REME, who discovered that there was a fault in the wiring, causing a slight short in the circuit. It was claimed that these weapons cost no more than £5 and sixpence, certainly all the wiring was exposed to the weather effects. I believe that this rocket shoot was one of the first to take place in anger.
I was technically confined to barracks until the officer commanding received an official report from the REME. Next day, we again had an air raid warning. The steeplejack building his ladder upwards towards the gap decided that this was not a healthy place to be and in an instant had slid down the ladder. There were now no spectators to be seen across the road, no engine drivers shunted along the road to watch us. I was also told that a crane operator in the factory boasted that he was not coming down for the air raid alarm. He had now changed his mind.
There was a yet more serious misfire incident which occurred on an air raid standby alert a week later. As the loader on No. 1 projector facing the Eston council offices placed the rocket on to the guide rails and pulled it back on to the knife contacts of the projector, the rocket took off. The gunner received the full force of the rocket blast at the rear of the missile and was blown into a slit trench, badly burned. The rocket fin touched the top of the 4 feet dividing wall, as it was in the horizontal standby position at the time of its take off. The effect of the fin touching the wall caused it to deflect into a blast wall protecting an assembly room full of people.
Again, I had difficulty coming to terms with a possible major disaster. Immediately, I sent for an ambulance to take the badly burned gunner to hospital. I took up courage to investigate the damage done on the other side of the wall. First, I was relieved not to seen anyone carried away on a stretcher. One could see from the outside that the blast wall had taken the full impact of the rocket, and had, no doubt, saved many lives of those present. The follow-up to this accident proved that the loader had inserted the battery before placing the rocket on the guide rails. The loading procedure required that the battery be inserted after the rocket had been loaded, to avoid being at the back with the projected charged. For the contacts to be live without both firing levers being depressed proved that there were serious defects in the wiring circuit. REME immediately placed the projectors out of bounds until a thorough examination of the electrical system had taken place. These weapons had come off the maker's assembly lines without a proper trial period for both men and equipment. I, for one, received no firing instructions from any experienced person in this rocket field.
Those of us in the services and in civilian life based in the North of Britain, had much to be thankful for. Night terror raids had continued increasingly since the air Battle of Britain from September 1940. Here were the British air raid casualty figures for April 1941 - 6,065 killed, 6,926 injured during raids on Bristol, Coventry, Birmingham, Belfast, London and Portsmouth. Many of the civilians did a full day's work and then reported to the ARP, fire service or maybe home guard to do a full night's stint during these raids. I always maintained that I had been preserved in the services, compared to civilians having additionally no ration books to manipulate.
On the 10th May, 1941, London suffered a massive air raid, damaging Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons and the Mint. During these raids, 1,436 people were killed. On this day, one of Hitler's henchmen, Rudolf Hess, parachuted into Scotland. Soon afterwards, in early June, Germany attacked Russia. This was the first real hope that we would survive, for Hitler was now fighting on two fronts.
During the late part of 1941, there were plans to deploy projectors en masse at night to fire 64 weapons at enemy bombers using radar information by the fire control officer to direct the barrage. Control during the day by rocket batteries was as basic as Indians firing arrows. Gun batteries used projectors to give future positions for guns to fire at. No such devices existed for rocket units. Major Duncan Sandys had now developed a plotting table, using information from local radar equipment, now being supplied to 'ack ack' units. This was known as gun laying equipment GL2. The plotting table operators traced the course of a target being tracked by the GL2 operators. To do this, the slant range from the GL2 was converted to ground range, using a predicted height. A separate arm, located on the stylus mounting enabled the fire control officer to predict the future position for the predictors to aim at. This information ensured a much more accurate firing to be obtained.
I was required to accompany Lieutenant Hall on a visit to this experimental rocket site near Cardiff. The purpose of the visit was for me on return to reproduce this plotting table. My officer, the former solicitor from Oldham, I found to be very shrewd and seemed to pick up the gist of the information on the plotting table on our visit. There were no drawings for me to take back of this plotter, for it had been developed from trial and error. Lieutenant Hall revealed that the future use of our equipment would be in the en masse mode. This is why this visit was laid on, so that we could have fairly accurate fire control information, rather than the firing officer just pointing in the direction where he can hear the plane.
To make my plotting table, I used a projector circular base plate and with the help of a chippy, built legs under this plate. This enabled two operators to sit under the table, one to set ground range (converted from the radar slant range, using a forecast height), the other to set the bearing. A stylus on the carriage responded to the ground range set. The arm upon which the carriage sat rotated about the centre of the table. This arm then moved to the radar bearing set by the operator. A future link device pivoted about the stylus provided by the fire officer, with fire direction data to predict a future position.
There was general acceptance of this prototype plotting table by Lieutenant Hall, who in turn said he would notify the commanding officer. There was some urgency in equipping our HQ at Brambles Farm, Middlesborough, for firing in the barrage mode, since we now had our own radar GL set operational at Don site, a short distance away from HQ. This plotting table, if successful, would be of immense value to the firing officer. Several senior officers, including a brigadier were given demonstrations. On the 27th May, 1941, I was promoted to lance sergeant and on 9th September 1941, I was made acting sergeant. Rapid promotion indeed!
This promotion saw a change in my role, having taken over a troop with 4 sections under Lieutenant Roderick, based at Brambles Farm. This took place in the Autumn of 1941. I had now become a member of the august body of men who met in the sergeants' mess. The chairman of this mess, like all the others, was the reigning sergeant major, who was a member of the London Bus Transport. He was a cockney, small and thin and like all officers and men who had late posting in this battery, could have served in the last war. Apart from the troop which had replaced my unit at Eston, the rest of the men were now concentrated at Brambles Farm, where their weapons would be employed in the en masse role.
I now had duties of orderly sergeant. This was of particular interest when on duty with Captain Smith. He would have a team of gunners following him when inspecting the gun site. Any cigarette end, or match or any other litter he spotted, he would point to with his stick, which one of the trailing men would be expected to pick up. The cook house staff feared his visits, nothing was left without inspection. The pots and pans all shone and I doubt if there was another army cook house up to the cleanliness standard of this one.
My move to Middlesborough provided an opportunity for Gladys to move there into digs. She found accommodation fairly centrally place in the town. This turned out to be ideal, for I was welcomed when not on duty. There were a few other boarders, such as Mr Simpson, who became very fond of Gladys! The landlady, Mrs Blackburn, was a good tennis player and having a tennis court alongside the house, I was to have tennis games with her, when she generally beat me!
Her husband had been a TT racer at the Isle of Man motorcycle races. He was called up in the RAF as a mechanic and formed part of the team servicing a Lancaster plane piloted by Jeff Bond, who worked formerly in the efficiency department of Ever Ready at Wolverhampton. Small world!
I need hardly remind the reader that this was the first time that Gladys and I were able to be together frequently since we were married on the second day of war, this was something of a delayed honeymoon. This was to last into 1943. She was able to find a wages clerk post at Richards, a local wire rope firm. This was a change in her way of life, she was invited to a weekly social evening at our sergeants' mess. This was when each member had to do a party piece, mine was from Rudyard Kipling's poem, 'If'. I must admit they got a different version each time I recited it.
Whilst acting as sergeant major, a very serious crime had been committed by members of the Oakes gang, now based at Eston. It had already been rumoured that this gang had taken over their troop. All the men in the Nissen hut did as Oakes commanded, such as 'light my cigar', 'fetch me my tea', etc. In the case of this crime, the gang chased their troop bombardier through Grange Town, which was observed by a local policeman. When the bombardier managed to escape and return to his Nissen hut, they again went for him and caused serious head wounds. There was an indentation in the side of the Nissen hut, where his head had hit it. The military police were called in, and all but Oakes were put under close arrest. Apparently he was not there when the injury took place. When all those charged where allowed, under escort, to exercise in the gun park, Oakes was seen to be giving them advice. Eventually the military police were informed by the policeman who had seen them chasing the bombardier in Grange Town, that Oakes had been with them. Oakes was now charged and joined the rest of the gang in clink.
It was several weeks before the trial could take place. The injuries were so bad that the bombardier was almost too scared to give evidence. I was to learn a lot from King's Regulations in dealing with procedures involved with men being charged. All the men were sentenced to serve several months in the glass house, this being the army prison where everything is carried out at the double. The battery were wrong in the first instance to send this troop to Eston, knowing that the gang had existed from the time I had my experience with Oakes in Dorman and Long works. I think that it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. As it was, the military police regarded this case as one of the most serious they had had to handle in the North East.
There was another crime committed just before Christmas. Someone had taken home the sergeants' mess' turkey. The sergeant major was not pleased!
During 1942, the 'ack ack' command was being drained of all its fit men and their replacement was now to be ATS and Home Guard. It was when I had my first squad of home guard, I was sent for by my troop officer, Roderick, and told I was to take charge of Don Site, where the radar equipment and operators were stationed. This was formerly a golf club, where the clubhouse was used as a canteen with members of the WRVS helping to serve the men. The unit was responsible for the financial running of the canteen. I put Bombardier Sweeney in charge of this task.
The men who operated the radar GL2 set and electrical generator were supposed to be of a higher IQ than the norm and all had to be trade tested. I was not involved with their day to day operational duties. My role was purely administrative and discipline. However, being the person I am, I could not resist watching in the cabin how the equipment was operated. I learned the drill and was able to get some technical background from the GL2 handbook supplied. The visiting radar officer agreed to trade test me as an operator fire control, OFC. When this was done, he then said, "You have just passed on your belly." This was not to be the last time this comment would be made to me, which by passing altered the course of my career.
In this case, I was now classified as a tradesman and could not be used by the sergeant major for general duties such as guard duties or as orderly sergeant. What I had not realised, being a different animal from the rest of the unit, I was to be deployed according to the needs of the radar services as regards manning demands. The most positive benefit was that I received 5 shillings a day extra pay.
I was required to call on the duty officer at Brambles Farm. When I arrived, he informed me that I was to attend an OFC radar course the following week. I said to him, "My wife will not like this, if it means that I have to be resident at the radar training centre near Newcastle."
He replied, "I am afraid that it is residential, your travel warrant and joining instructions will be sent to you at Don Site." Well, as expected, Gladys was not pleased, but it was only for two weeks, and no doubt that I should be able to get the weekend off to go back to Middlesborough.
When I arrived at this radar training unit and the duty sergeant examined my papers, he could not find any reference to my having done a preliminary radar course. He told me that I could not attend. He then referred to ATS attending this course and said they could not allow a male sergeant to fail the course should the ATS pass. When I returned to report to the office, giving details of why I had been rejected, there was sudden silence. The duty officer asked me to stand outside his office, while he spoke to the sergeant major privately. When I was called in again, I was charged with working my immediate return, to be back with my wife.
It was now war between HQ office and myself, for they refused to accept what I had told them, even though I asked them to verify what I had said with the training centre.
The first effect from this declaration of war, was that the battery band would not be allowed to play at the social evening to be held at the weekend in the golf clubhouse canteen, on Don Site. This action was followed by a series of checks late at night, to see whether those who had received leave passes for the following morning had left the night before, as was the unofficial custom. There were frequent inspections of the site by the sergeant major. I was kept on my toes.
Finally, I was caught out on the canteen finances. Bombardier Sweeney had failed to balance the books, and this was a breach of army regulations. This was further compounded by the fact that it was the duty of an officer to oversee the accounts. Up to a few weeks previously, there had been no resident officer on site. But the unit's designated major had been billeted at this site with no duties. Being the only officer on site, he should have vetted the books.
While my fate on this matter was in the balance, the reigning major and the designated major took a trip out somewhere, its purpose was thought to be how they could resolve this matter without being implicated themselves. No further action was taken in this matter. As regards this major who was resident on Don Site, it was the continuing process of replacing fit personnel with older and less fit men.
Shortly, it was anticipated that the 106 Z unit would be classified as a Home Guard manned battery; also the radar team would be manned by ATS. As part of this manning process, it came as no surprise that I received my marching orders to join the 229 M 'ack ack' battery on the 2nd June 1943.
Before my transfer took place, I had several weeks to hand over Don Site radar duties to the ATS, who had been given separate hut accommodation on Don Site. The only duty that they were physically incapable to handle was the manual starting of the power generator for the GL2 radar set.
I was now beginning to realise that Gladys would not be able to come with me until I had established a new base. Sadly, our honeymoon was coming to an end, hopefully only for the time being. Compared to my first 9 months in the army, this present tour of duty had lasted almost 3 years, and could be classed as a cushy number. No tents, no real enemy action and a honeymoon as icing on the cake.
But fate can be cruel and kind. Take Alf Nixon, he lived and worked in Middlesborough. He joined the army and trained in the same area. He then joined the 106 Z unit, also in the same area. He became sergeant major of this unit after I left, where he served the rest of the war in the same area. For most of us in the army, when we joined it was 'goodbye, hope to see you soon.'
At home, mother had returned from Dyserth, North Wales, where she was evacuated at the start of the war. It so happened that this area in North Wales was used to light decoy fires to divert German planes from bombing Liverpool. One night, this turned out to be a most frightening experience for her, as bombs were being dropped close by her residence. Gladys' move back home turned out to be a bonus for mother.
© Alan Rayment 1998
Last revised: January 14, 2001