LATE WAR YEARS
At this time of my transfer to a
different 'ack ack' unit, the continuous night raids in London and cities, together with
rationing on all important commodities and clothing brought the morale of the community to
a low ebb.
At this time of my transfer to a different 'ack ack' unit, the continuous night raids in London and cities, together with rationing on all important commodities and clothing brought the morale of the community to a low ebb.
The public were also aware that our survival was in peril, with the menace of the enemy U-boat packs at sea sinking our convoys. In the first five months of 1943, the Allies lost 365 ships with a total tonnage of 2,001,918. There were over 200 enemy submarines at sea, twice as many as there were the year before. But what gave hope to the country was the victory at El Alamein, where Montgomery proved that Rommel was not invincible. There was also the good news when the Russians captured 24,000 Germans and saved Stalingrad in late November 1942. There was also evidence that RAF planes, fitted with special radar sensing devices, were meeting with such success hunting U-boats that the submarines were afraid to surface for fear of being detected.
I had great difficulty to detect how my transfer fitted in the overall war plan. Still, each pawn on the chess board generally has a strategic role to play, even though in this case it may be difficult to identify.
When I arrived at the 229(M) 'ack ack' battery, I was surplus to their requirements, the radar operators were all now ATS. It took several weeks before I received my posting to an all male battery at York. This was the 377 'ack ack' heavy duty battery, located on the outskirts of York at Tang Hall. To my dismay, we were back to bell tent accommodation, but with a difference, we were sleeping on tent boards.
Again, being a sergeant, I became a member of the mess and made good friends. I, being classified as an OFC operator was treated as a tradesman, so that I was not available to the sergeant major for guard or orderly sergeant's duties. After being introduced to the staff on duty, the orderly sergeant took me to the tent shared by other sergeants. When settled in, I was taken to the radar equipment where I met the OFC's.
The radar set was similar to the one I had been trained on, a GL2 set. The whole of the winter was spent under canvas and it was generally known that the sick parade barely existed, a proof once again that the body adapts itself to the environment. In this case, we had a greater share of the oxygen in the air compared to those who were in normal accommodation.
Once I had sorted out my procedure for the 48 hour leave, I had to settle the first date I could be spared with the duty officer. This done, I had a date to look forward to.
In my radar team, I had two men whose names were Nottingham and Derbyshire. Both these men gave me something to remember them by. Nottingham had a young wife, who he could not satisfy and caused him to have depressions from time to time. He had his own furniture business and told me that he could make use of me after the war. I felt very flattered, since I had only known him a matter of days. Perhaps he should have waited longer before making this offer, for he might have finished doing what Derbyshire did.
Every now and then I would pack up smoking, I did not want to become a habitual smoker. When I stopped I would give all the tobacco on me to someone. In this case, it was Derbyshire, who went missing almost immediately. He was finally picked up at Stockport, where he lived, which was the same home town as my troop officer. This officer gave me a good dressing down for bullying Derbyshire, as this, he alleged, was the cause of his desertion. Perhaps Lieutenant Booth and OFC Derbyshire belonged to the same Lodge! I made certain in the future that any tobacco or cigarettes I have to give away were thrown in the dustbin.
A message was passed around the camp that one of the cooks had had his false teeth removed from the cooks' tent overnight. There was a theory that there was a rat's nest under the cooks' tent board, as this was a convenient place to help themselves to snacks brought out of the cookhouse. There was a plan, requiring troops to surround their tent as the tent boards were raised. To make it easier to catch the rats everything was removed, including the tent. Now with the troops making a complete circle, and armed with sticks, the boards were finally lifted. The rats' habitat had now been fully exposed, including the false teeth. The men had great fun in trying to stop them escaping, as some did.
Tang Hall witnessed a murder just prior to the war and become well-known because of this crime. There was no problem in being directed here when we first arrived. Many people seemed to give a queer grin when you mentioned Tang Hall. One thing was for sure - the gunners who frequented the local pub there in the evenings and returned with more money than they took with them, were full of praise for this area!
This battery, like my previous one, could boast of having an international footballer, Trevor Ford, who played for Wales against other countries. One of our chief pastimes was playing internal matches, officers and sergeants against the rest, but this had to be stopped after a while as the men caused too many casualties to their opponents. Another favourite pastime was playing rugby. I only played once, and in doing so nearly had my head wrenched off by some player who must have applied some kind of half-nelson hold. Without doubt, there was no future in this sport for me and, needless to say, this was the only time I took part in this cruel sport.
Our role in protecting York was a peaceful affair, for no serious air attacks were experienced while we were there, up to late January 1943. All the city's ancient walls and cathedral remained undamaged. So now the army command had decided that we should move to another ancient Roman town, Caerleon, close to Newport, South Wales. The only explanation I could think of for selecting this spot for a gunsite was to provide an outer 'ack ack' shield for Welsh ports such as Cardiff, along the Severn Estuary.
This was conveniently situated for me to go on home leave by catching a train from Newport, via Pontypool to Birmingham and then the local train to Wolverhampton. On the return trip there were hordes of soldiers who would jump the train outside Pontypool, where for some reason it always came to a temporary halt. Soldiers were not averse to avoiding paying the full fair when on short leave, and the train ticket could be circumvented.
My duty at Caerleon came to a temporary halt, when I was sent on the prime radar course at Watchet, Somerset. Now I was worried that I might suffer the same fate as I experienced in the North East, ie returned to unit, having done no basic radar course. Whether or not they did examine my records properly, I was much relieved when I went through the joining up procedure.
This was an all-hutted encampment and, as most were sergeants, we lived in sergeants' mess accommodation. Deep down, not having done the basics, I was dreading not being able to make the grade. It was not only the disgrace of being returned that I feared, it was the fact that one could lose the stripes if the final test marks were below standard. This was, of course a challenge which I took very seriously. The course was both practical and theoretical on all aspects of the GL2 radar set.
We had very comfortable digs, with splendid food, even oranges were on the table. This was the first time I remember seeing them during the war. I do not remember any social life, maybe I had too much on my mind at night to shut off from the day's subject. It was a great comfort to learn that I had made the grade, I was marked as 'BY'. I never did know whether this rating was high or low - perhaps just as well.
However, I was not averse to passing, even if I had crawled through on my belly, as I was told, when I was first trade tested. So now I could return to my unit with my head held high after completing this month's course.
To me, there was a much more important aspect in completing and passing this course. It was knowing that if I set about achieving concentration to master a subject, I could be successful. Awaiting demob, I had plenty of time to think how I might use this knowledge with advantage.
When I returned to my unit on 3rd March, 1944, I learned that we would be transferring to a site near Colchester. I could not help smiling, for here we are again going to another ancient Roman settlement. Perhaps there, preservation was of vital importance to our future culture. Whether or not there was any action in Carleon, I certainly did not take part in it.
The 337 unit now took up station at a site a few miles from Colchester at the beginning of March 1944, amidst orchards. The site was well established, for it was hutted and had a large parade square. Again, to try and reason the purpose of this position seemed difficult to assess. There were rumours going around that Hitler had a flying bomb, which could be launched from mobile platforms along the French coast and as we were now in Essex, it is possible that is why we were sent to defend against these doodle bombs coming in low over the coast.
Being classified as a tradesman, I had little day to day contact with the sergeant major, who looked very much like Mussolini. I seldom had to address him by his full name, only by his title.
I was very careful with my money and only went out once a week on the binge. One night, I went out with a fellow sergeant, called Jock. He had six children and his wife had trained each one to carry out a daily task, all were well disciplined. After we had been out and had a few drinks, we returned to camp full of tricks. Unfortunately, we decided to put some holly in Mussolini's bed or 'cot' as he preferred to call it. Next morning in the mess, he had discovered the villains who played around with his cot. At the table, he looked at me and Jock and said, "You two sergeants report to me at 9 am in the centre of the square." This we did, and word got round that we were in for a telling-off. The troops were now drifting around the square as we approached; him waiting for us, dead centre of the parade square. We stood to attention as he let forth with his voice bellowing and waving his hands up and down. "That is the last time you meddle around with my cot, I do not expect sergeants to act like schoolboys. Do you understand what I say?"
We both replied simultaneously, "Yes Sergeant Major."
He smartly retorted loudly, "Dismissed" so that all around could now ask what we had been up to. Well, boys will be boys I suppose. I think it is a case of being more careful who you play with.
Sadly, at home my father had become dangerously ill and I returned home on compassionate leave. When I arrived, he barely recognised me, he was in a semi-coma arising from bronchitis attributed to mustard gas during the first world war. I was unable to stay for he continued to fight for survival for many days. He finally passed away in March.
Only a handful of people attended the funeral and I was very touched to learn that one was the charlady from his warehouse at the Queen's Hotel, Wolverhampton. My mother received a very nice letter from Mr Watts, the owner of the warehouse for which my father had worked since his teenage days, amounting to almost 50 years' service. My mother was now totally dependant on Gladys looking after her. She did so until after the war ended.
I returned to the Colchester gun site. A short time after that, on the 6th June, the invasion of Europe was launched from many bases on the south coast, attacking the Cherbourg coast line. All our thoughts were for the brave allied forces taking part.
On the 12th June, the first V1 flying bomb had been launched and landed in England. This is what the 'ack ack' command had been expecting and had plans to create a diver belt from East Grinstead to Maidstone. This was put into operation and involved 370 heavy guns and 576 - 40 mm equipment. The flying bomb carried a ton of explosive in its warhead, flew over 200 miles an hour at a height between 1,000 and 2,000 feet, with a range to reach most towns and cities in the south of England. It could also be launched from another aircraft. Nowhere was free from the threat of this weapon. Now, the diabolical aspect of this weapon was that when the engine switched off according to the setting, it would go quiet for a few seconds, and then you would have the explosion. The thing would come down whether you hit it or not.
I am told that the flying bomb that had hit the Guards' chapel had been deflected by a gun fired at it. It was important that the 'ack ack' should not fire at these flying bombs in built up areas. It seemed that Colchester was being spared from these attacks.
If we ever had a warning and had to man the equipment, we always said to the sergeant major to leave the doors open, so that the missile could enter one door and go out the other. On this day, the warning was for real. This doodle bomb had gone out of control and was going round in circles. The difficulty generally in firing at these bombs was that the height was too low for the heavy guns to fire at it and the light guns could not reach them. In this case, the flying bomb was so low, the radar set could not pick it up. I remember it coming over the hedge. It was so very low, you could feel the vibration of the jet engine. There was nothing we could do, and I suppose we thought it would be better if it cleared off somewhere else, which it did. When we returned to the hut, the sergeant major was trying to clean himself up. When he heard this doodle bomb coming, he threw himself down on some muddy ground, so he told us.
Here we were, insulated by apple trees all around us, against the horrors of war elsewhere. As the apple harvesting season was approaching, our attention was taken on how best this could be done. Ad hoc scrumping raids were out. It was agreed that each night, at dusk, a leader would take a party of volunteers without hats to harvest the fruit. To enhance the project, a load of packing cases from an adjacent American airfield were delivered to us. These were made of hardboard and proved ideal for making boxes to carry the produce to take home to my wife on short leave. To complete the scheme, it was necessary to have management involved, that meant of course, the sergeant major and other officers. It was thought that the best way to do this was to hand them a box of goodies as they went off on their leave. All this was done, although the implication of some of the management proved difficult.
Now some defaulter, who did not abide by the rules, took an army cap. This, as you may well imagine, got left behind. The next day the police arrived and demanded to search the camp. This the duty officer refused to allow until they produced a search warrant. Meanwhile on the radar set, carrying out maintenance, the OFC's received by 'phone that the police were here.
There was a mass exodus from the set to return to the huts where boxes could be seen everywhere. The hut floorboards were raised and it looked in no time, that there had never been any boxes anywhere. The police eventually arrived again and the search proceeded with no charges being made. Now, when you have a box made up to take with you, you must take it. The trip home was successful. When the culprit was located who took his hat with him, a private court martial was carried out on him.
Early September, we were given a sharp reminder that elsewhere battles were being fought in other parts of the war. In the sky, huge formations of planes were towing gliders on their way to the continent. We later learned that they were part of an airborne assault force to take Arnhem. This was Montgomery's gamble to help speed the advancing Allied force, now fighting on German soil, to take Berlin before the Russians. Unfortunately, the advancing troops were unable to reach the airborne forces before they were killed or taken prisoner. This failure was mainly due to an armoured German division being refitted out in and around Arnhem. This lost battle became legendary, known as the 'Bridge Too Far.'
My special sergeant friend, Jock, told me that we were going to an 'Isle of Dogs' and wanted me to put a wager on that this was not true. Quite frankly, I was not aware that there was such a place as the 'Isle of Dogs' until someone in the mess told me. This being in the Dockland of the River Thames suggested that at last we were to play an active role in the defence of London. This move took place in September 1944, at the start of the arrival of the V2 rockets. These missiles could reach a height of 30,000 feet with a range of 140,000 yards.
Having now arrived at this new site, close to the City of London, it was assumed that we would be playing a more active 'ack ack' role. This was not the case for being in a congested area of East London and having the City close to our rear, we were forbidden to fire at the flying bomb. On the south side of the Thames, it was possible to go through a tunnel and visit the Greenwich Museum and Observatory. Whilst standing to, we saw several V1's fly over our heads towards the City, being chased by fighters.
Gladys bravely came to stay the night in this city under continuous attacks from both V1's and V2's, during my short leave period. More V1's came over during the night. When I heard the familiar sound, its jet engine, I became really scared. It is strange how defenceless one can feel, after normally having guns with you when an enemy target is approaching. I told Gladys to dive under the bed, and she replied, "You coward." The jet engine noise, sounding like a 2-stroke petrol engine suddenly cut out. I yelled, "Get under the bed!" Before Gladys had done this, we heard the loud explosion. It had missed us - that was all that mattered to us. Since then, I have always regarded Gladys as a much braver person than myself, and sadly this was to be shown in later years before she passed away. Another instance of her toughness was shown when having teeth filled without injections.
On one occasion, when standing to during an air raid warning, a lot of debris fell around. It was alleged that a V2 rocket had burned itself out in flight.
Again, our stay was of a short duration, perhaps after all we should be employed in the diver belt. No, this was not to be the case, for we were scheduled to be stationed at Walthamstow, North East London. This was a well-established hutted encampment, again in a built-up area. This was early 1945, when Germany was being beaten in all theatres of war, including on the Russian front, where fighting was taking place on Germany's borders.
At our new site, when I was operating the radar GL2 set, a mighty big blimp was being picked up on the time base. This blimp was moving very fast towards our site, ie the range was reducing. Now, it is said that the bomb that hits you, you never have time to hear. If this blimp had continued to reduce its range, I would not be typing my memoirs now. This was a V2 rocket with a shallow trajectory instead of the normal steep one. It came within about 3,000 yards when the crossing point had been reached and the range increased until we heard the explosion some distance away. This was a very important V2 rocket radar detection, for the scientists had yet to find the answer to this weapon. This was one of the few radar pick-ups of the V2. The radar equipment now was regarded as experimental, being used for trial purposes as well as operational.
Soon, on the 8th May 1945, at one minute past midnight, the end of World War II against Germany was officially declared. Hitler had committed suicide with his mistress earlier on the 30th April. There was much rejoicing, but this was restrained for there was still fighting in the Far East against Japan. Italy had surrendered way back on the 7th September, 1943. This, then, was the end of the 'ack ack' role and we were to receive separate marching orders for pre- demobilisation stations, for which mine was transfer to the 459 'ack ack' battery, Dorney Common, Eton Wick, Windsor.
Nature has a way of replacing itself. In losing my father in 1944, I was presented with a son on the 9th April, 1945. Of course, it did not happen on its own, I helped in some way, as did the midwife. I was in New Cross Hospital when Gladys was in labour and I am told she was on the slab when I heard the midwife's loud voice, "Concentrate on what you are about!" Glad I'm not a woman.
Thankfully there were no complications preventing Gladys and baby Harry's return after the normal stay after birth, being one or two weeks. We had Edna, Gladys' sister, to thank in looking after my mother during this period. She was now a member of the ATS in the 'ack ack'.
The most hated war restriction was the blackout. It is said that at one period more people lost their lives due to accidents in the blackouts than there were victims caused by the air raids. The blackout was the first restriction to go, and the most popular decision. Food, clothing, petrol, all were restricted quite some time after the cessation of hostilities and it was not until the last one to go, sugar, during September 1953, that rationing came to an end.
I doubt if there could have been a better setting for a demobilisation station than this one at Dorney Common. This 'ack ack' site, situated to the rear of Eton College was nestled amongst the lush green common of Dorney and the banks of the River Thames. Here, the quietness allowed you to think about the past, but more importantly - the future. We were, of course, some of the lucky ones, to have survived the perils of this war which was still continuing against Japan in the Far East. On the first morning, the officer in charge made it quite clear that there would be no marching drill on the square. All those who could find work locally would be given help with transport. Those left over would take part in recreational activities, combined with giving help on the farms locally. It was my brief to take charge of these men and have organised sports activities. I was able to have the use of a cricket pitch at Home Park, Windsor. I was able to arrange fixtures with local cricket clubs; there was plenty of talent available in the non-working squad.
I contacted all the local market gardeners and farmers, to enquire whether they could use army personnel. In theory, any money earned should be paid directly odd case where nothing was going to be paid, I kind of withdrew the offer of labour. I felt I was a Workers' Union official.
I started up a swimming party, using the local indoor baths or the River Thames, if the weather was suitable enough. It was essential that those like me, waiting for their demob to come up, be kept as active as possible. Killing time is not generally a favourite pastime, there is a danger that idleness can give way to mischief.
My officer in command, on sending for me, passed a letter from army southern command. This letter was inviting our 459 'ack ack' unit to take part in an army athletic meeting, to be held at Southampton Sports Centre, at the end of August. There was a good response to the notice asking for names to be submitted. This
was always subject to their demob notice not arriving before this event.
On the 6th August the first atom bomb was used, laying waste to Hiroshima, Japan. On the 15th August, Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
This camp was very remote from the horrors of war, indeed, not until after the war were the British public given details of the extent of the network of concentration camps across Europe. These camps had satellite camps of slave labour, of which 15 main camps near main cities controlled more than 900 in 1945. Big firms, such as Krupps and IG Farben negotiated with the SS, paying some small fee for each slave. This fee was returned after the slave was of no further use. When this happened, the slave was usually cremated. From a research carried out, it has been estimated that out of 8 million slaves, only half a million survived at the end of the war with Germany. So here we are, with our minds dwelling on what was around, that is, when not thinking of our ticket to civvy street.
Each day we would see an occasional Eton boy, dressed in their traditional black jacket and tails and stiff white collar, with head bowed, obviously deeply in thought. Our presence did not seem to make an impact on them, as they would wend their way passed the camp towards the river, returning to their college via Windsor. In a good many cases, I suppose, they are doing what their fathers had done before them and what had been taking place for generations in their family. It is a traditional requirement in some wealthy families and among the aristocracy, that places are reserved at Eton before the child is born. This is, of course, preserving our class system by making the child dress in a superior outfit.
In August, I took the athletic team to Southampton Sports Centre. Many had been training hard for this event. I was particularly interested in the facilities that this centre offered. There were different levels for various activities, apart from the running tracks. Above all, here was a sports centre that the people of Southampton had, through their city council, provided to enhance their sporting talents. When I returned to Dorney Common, I produced a report and signed myself as 'Nomad'.
Apart from going on short leave, as frequently as possible, time was now dragging as Christmas approached. This is when I lay on my bed trying to make sense of my life. The war and the army had given me self-confidence that was lacking at the start. Having completed an advanced radar course, I felt that I could get down to some serious studies. I was of the opinion that an engineering qualification was worth attaining, for I felt I had a calling in this direction. I had torpedoed my production controller's post with the Ever Ready firm, and although I knew they had an obligation to take me back, I was prepared to start a fresh career. My mind was fairly made up as to what I would say when the time came for me to seek re-employment with them.
An unknown factor I had to bear in mind, concerned Gladys' situation at home. With Harry of the age to be weaned, together with looking after mother's need, would she be able to cope, especially as I could be out all day, when attending evening college? I had a card up my sleeve, for I had saved £500 from my war service. Should I have to move from home, I had enough capital to put down a deposit for our own home.
The trial of major war criminals at Nuremberg commenced on the 20th November, 1945. This trial went on with the likes of Göring and his mob for many months, and received maximum publicity.
On the 25th November, I had reached the grown-up age of 30. I felt that the best part of my life would be over. Now, of course, I realised I would be facing the future in civvy street, not alone, but with a wife and child to support.
This section terminates with World War II coming to a close, with millions giving their lives and health, so that we who remain may enjoy the freedom which has been won for us. We can never repay them, all we can do is devote our lives in the service of others.
For me, who served with the BEF in
France, I have my Maker to thank for steering me to freedom without ever experiencing the
horrors of war, or indeed, ever seeing one casualty, as so many civilians and servicemen did
for long periods.
did for long periods.
Now that the Good Lord has brought me safely through so far, he is looking down on me to see how many times he has come to my rescue in Civvy Street.
© Alan Rayment 1998
Last revised: January 14, 2001